Marc Cary‘s Focus Trio is well-named. The pyrotechnic, perennially soulful pianist and his longtime drummer Sameer Gupta share a close cameraderie – Gupta’s reliance on toms where other drummers would use cymbals underscores Cary’s relentlessly rhythmic drive and gravitas. Yet for all Cary’s hard-hitting, magisterial intensity, he has an unexpectedly wry wit. Wednesday night at the Jazz Standard he juxtaposed that good-natured humor with the spine-tingling power he’s best known for. Despite the gloomy skies overhead, it was strange to see that the club wasn’t sold out, although there were plenty of A-listers who’d come out to enjoy the ride, Joe Locke and Renee Rosnes among them.
It didn’t take Cary long to go deep into the music and get completely lost in it, to the extent of forgetting song titles and losing track of time. At the end of the early set, realizing he’d gone past curfew, he did a closing number anyway, a characteristic blend of grit and blues-infused lyricism in 10/4 which he said was inspired by repeated visits to the Chappaquiddick Indian reservation in Massachusetts: “Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!”
Getting to that point was a rich and stormy experience. Most of the trio’s material drew on the group’s new Four Directions album, bassist Rashaan Carter sometimes locking with Cary’s piledriver lefthand, other times – especially when Carter switched to Fender bass – coloring the material with a dancing, trebly timbre. Cary’s fiery volleys of block chords alternated with spacious passages where the pianist would back off a bit and then add a little texture or a gentle phrase from the synth he’d perched on top of the piano. And most of the time the effect, whether a wash of strings or a hint of organ, enhanced the intensity rather than adding a comedic effect – although there were a few moments like that, one where Carter took the idea and flew with it on the Fender through a long series of woozy, tremoloing chords.
Cary prefaced a Jackie McLean tune with an anecdote about eavesdropping on McLean and Arthur Taylor grousing about how to get their new-jack supporting cast to take their game to the next level. He brought up rising star alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin to guest on a raga, a touch assignment since she was limited to jamming out on a single mode, but she signaled in on Gupta’s elegantly flurrying tabla and added a jaunty, crystalline-toned flair. They turbocharged He Who Hops Around – which nicks the bassline from Dizzy Gillespie’s Manteca – juxtaposing lickety-split swing with leaping piano and bass motives and then an unexpected clave groove from Gupta, and also ramped up the energy on Betty’s Waltz, a stirring, bittersweetly assertive Betty Carter homage from the new album. Cary’s steely chordal assault anchoring an expanding melody that was as plaintive as it was powerful. It is never safe to say that any one player is the best on any particular instrument, but this show left the undeniable feeling that there is no other pianist who employs virtuoso chops to deliver emotional impact more effectively than Marc Cary. One final thought: have he and Kenny Garrett ever shared a stage? That could be really electrifying.
Thursday night at the Miller Theatre, chamber ensemble Either/Or delivered a rapt, riveting performance of recent works by hauntingly individualistic Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir as part of Miller director Melissa Smey’s eclectically fascinating Composer Portrait series. To characterize Thorvaldsdottir’s work as stillness punctuated by agitation is overly reductionistic, but that’s part of the picture. Her austere, earth-toned vistas often evoke the work of both Gerard Grisey and Henryk Gorecki, but with an even more stripped-down focus. The ensemble opened the concert with a site-specific work, the American premiere of the new 2013 piece Into – Second Self with kettledrums to the right and rear of the audience as well as onstage with twin trombones, a smaller drum kit perched on the left balcony, horns in back. It was tremendous fun, in the best way a surround-sound piece can be, but grounded in Thorvaldsdottir’s signature juxtaposition of quiet and disquiet. Close harmonies from the trombones hovered and lingered, the drums’ simple rhythmic motives leaping from one unexpected corner to the next, sometimes abruptly, sometimes with a droll touch, sometimes menacingly.
One, from 2008, a duo piece for piano and percussionist, worked an Art of Noise spy movie minimalism, pianist David Shively alternating feverishly between the keyboard and the inside of the piano, long resonant tones giving way to a walk or two, harplike versus sustained timbres steady and then reaching a calmer plateau. In this story, the spy slips away.
Ro (“serenity” in both Icelandic and Chinese) seemed sarcastic early on as the strings and low winds bustled apprehensively before it reached a similarly calm plateau and remained there, lush and enveloping. Tactillity, for percussionist and harp, featured Zeena Parkins snapping menacing, spaciously placed low notes that anchored ambient washes from bowed crotales, developing to a pointillistic series of what seemed to be loops, stately and steadily rippling from Parkins’ custom-made electric harp. The concert concluded with the full twenty-piece chamber orchestra playing Hrim (Icelandic for the transformation of ice crystals, or, in British English, hoarfrost), from Thorvaldsdottir’s debut US collection, Rhizoma, from last year. It was the most animated piece on the program, swirls of glissandos from the reeds and gusts from the brass interchanging with an insistent, occasionally menacingly percussive drive that alternated jarringly with the calm atmospherics.
Following the intermission, conductor Richard Carrick led an enlightening Q&A with the composer. Trained as a cellist, she embraced composition fulltime when she realized that she “could not live without writing music.” As cellists tend to, she finds comfort in the lower registers, a trait that resonates throughout her work. Her compositions do not specifically depict nature but are influenced by it and its patterns. The process of composing for her involves a lot of pre-composition, “dreaming on the music,” as she put it. While she notates her scores, she only does so when a piece is ready to go. She doesn’t compose on an instrument: the music is all in her head until it hits the staves. There’s also an aleatoric component to her work, no surprise considering how much extended technique is required to play it. The Composer Portrait series at the Miller continues next February 22 at 8 PM with Ensemble Signal spotlighting the works of Roger Reynolds.
Four brilliant and individualistic musicians brought a riveting confluence of very disparate traditions to the cutting edge of 21st century Middle Eastern music Saturday night at the Asia Society. The world premiere of Sound: The Encounter featured Iranian bagpiper/reedman Saeid Shanbehzadeh played wry extrovert to Syrian saxophonist Basel Rajoub‘s unwavering intensity while percussionist Nagib Shanbehzadeh (son of Saeid) served as linchpin for the project, supplying grooves that were alternately slinky, stately and downright funky. Eclectic Philadelphia-based oud virtuoso Kenan Adnawi also made intricately ornamented and sometimes haunting contributions throughout the show. The material was a fascinating and esoteric mix of traditional vamps, pulsing original jazz and a lively, intoxicatingly swirling blend of the two.
The backstory is that Rajoub and the elder Shanbehzadeh first encountered each other at the 2011 Shanghai World Music Festival, where each checked out the other’s show and realized that they should collaborate. Another random encounter on a Paris street jumpstarted a series of rehearsals, which followed over Skype. In developing their material, the bandleaders found considerable common ground, especially that each of their styles has a Bedouin influence, although that nomadic people’s music is sung in Farsi in Iran and in Arabic in Syria.
The players’ individuality rapidly emerged: Shanbehzadeh senior danced, cavorted, whirled and played his bagpipe (which looked like a headless, inflated sheep) on his head, Hendrix style. Rajoub’s steely focus and steady gravitas matched with the sometimes somberly booming, sometimes hypnotically undulating, sometimes rapidfire percussion. Rajoub spent much of the show in the moody low registers of his tenor sax, playing what were essentially baritone lines with a spare, sober clarity while his reedman partner switched from bagpipe, to double-reed flute, to goat’s horn on the last number in the set with a shivery, trilling microtonal approach that brough to mind Moroccan jajouka music. His instruments supplied the lion’s share of the microtones that typically define Middle Eastern music; Rajoub’s attack was typically limited to the occasional bluesy, jazzy melisma.
The Shanbehzadehs hail from the port city of Bushehr in southern Iran, so it made sense that they’d open with a traditional fisherman’s song, which they turned into a subdued go-go groove with the bagpipe keening over it. Rajoub brought an absolutely noir slink to a brooding Rumi love poem; a bit later, they juxtaposed cool tenor sax against ecstatic flutework for an even more stark contrast, to illustrate another Rumi poem that could loosely be translated as “drunk on god/drunk on love.” Rajoub and Adnawi teamed up for an intricate, lively, conversational duo improvisation for soprano sax and oud. After inspiring plenty of spontaneous clapping and singing along, the trio encored with a rather radically reanimated but no less swinging take on the opening number, encompassing what were doubtlessly centuries of music while adding their own devious wit and energy.
Drummer Alex Cline‘s recent release of his 2011 large-ensemble concert reworking of Roscoe Mitchell’s 1969 cult classic improvisational suite For People in Sorrow begs the question, why bother? Maybe because the original left such a mark on Cline. For the concert, he assembled an all-star, mostly West Coast group: Oliver Lake on reeds, Vinny Golia on woodwinds, Dan Clucas on cornet and flute, Jeff Gauthier on violin, Maggie Parkins on cello, Zeena Parkins on harp, Myra Melford on piano and harmonium, G.E. Stinson on electric guitar, Mark Dresser on bass, Dwight Trible and Sister Dang Nghiem on vocals. This crew does it less as a theme and variations than a long, dynamically and sometimes radically shifting tone poem. Those expecting a close approximation of the original won’t find that here, although the ensemble’s commitment and attention to the overall mood is very similar. Much of the piece is up at youtube.
There’s a lot of pairing, conversations and outright duels here: bass and percussion, piano and cornet, vocals and gongs, guitar and bongos, sax and bass drum and a whole lot more, Cline perhaps by necessity as bandleader being up to his elbows in most of the sparring. High/low contrasts maintain a sense of tension, agitated flutes or harp against nebulous, Braxton-esque washes of sound. Cline engages with the entirety of the sonic spectrum, from the whisperiest of temple bell tones, to Hendrixian guitar wails and bunker-buster gong hits. Vocals, other than Nghiem’s – who sings religious invocations in Vietnamese – are mostly wordless but no less vivid.
Fullscale solos here, other than a trio of absolutely frantic ones from Lake, are few and far between. Brief spotlights on harp, cello and harmonium are slashingly effective, and arguably the high points of the performance. The long, all-enveloping series of crescendos at the end prefigure Wadada Leo Smith‘s more rambunctious orchestral works.The hippie-dippie poem that serves as the intro – added for this performance – adds nothing. The cd (out from Cryptogramophone) also comes with a dvd of the concert whose sound quality impressively matches that of the cd. What does it mean, that this turbulent Vietnam War-era reflection still resonates as strongly as it does? Is it testament to the universality of Mitchell’s vision, and this group’s sense of it…or that people are just as barbaric, yet just as much in need of a respite from that barbarity, as they’ve always been?
Like a punk Joni Mitchell, singer/multi-instrumentalist Morgan Heringer’s latest project, Fayaway, evokes a late 70s/early 80s no wave jazz assault, with references to the noisiest side of early indie bands like Sonic Youth, plus some heavily reverbed-out paisley underground guitar thrown in for extra menace. Heringer’s arresting voice swoops and dives unpredictably from a high falsetto to a brooding alto as she delivers the moody/angry/depressed stream-of-consciousness lyrics that characterize much of her solo work as well as her previous duo project, Rayvon Browne, with fellow chanteuse Cal Folger Day. Ben Seretan’s alternately nuanced, atmospheric and deliciously bludgeoning guitar joins and spars with Ethan Meyer’s similarly dynamic drumming. The whole thing is streaming at their Bandcamp page.
“Don’t tell me what I can’t say!” is the chorus on the opening track, The Fix, a barely two-minute punk jazz number, veering from rubato to spastic to a waltz. “That’s what I like about you, you’re not like the dumb ones,” Heringer muses on the similarly sardonic Good Credit, follows the same kind of roller-coaster dynamics, lingering guitar and piano contrasting with flailing, agitated rhythms.
Likewise, I Could Live Without You alternates drones and crashes, tumbling piano and reverb guitar riffage, Heringer running an exasperated verse until she’s literally out of breath. Joylock builds from a sarcastically gentle glockenspiel-and-vocal ballad to a noise-glam anthem and then falls back again, defeated. I Need a BF, a soul-jazz ballad in heavy disguise, sees Heringer insisting that “Everything’s constantly turning to shit, and I wanna be ready if I’m gonna get hit,” as the din subsides to wary and tenative before returning with a pounding, reverb-fueled vengeance…and then decaying to a slow-burning, lo-fi ambience. To say that it ends the album on a high note might be misleading, but sonically speaking, it’s a noisy treat. As is much of the rest of this angry, haphazardly captivating album.
While Marc Cary is one of the most distinctive pianists in jazz, he’s also one of the more eclectic. His new album Four Directions with his Focus Trio features longtime drummer Sameer Gupta, with the bass chair being shared, sometimes jointly, by Burniss Earl Travis and Rashaan Carter. Some of this is Cary at his steely, darkly majestic best, in the same vein as his richly vivid solo Abbey Lincoln homage, For the Love of Abbey, which came out earlier this year. But Cary is also a funkmeister, and there are slightly more lighthearted moments here too. But even the most off-the-cuff track, Todi Blues – which is basically a one-chord jam with layers of various electronic keys and twin basses – has a distant, nocturnally glimmering unease.
Waltz Betty Waltz, a Betty Carter tribute, is characteristically purist, broodingly magisterial Cary, a syncopated bounce that sets biting chromatics against Ellingtonian blues. Open Baby brings an Angelo Badalementi-esque apprehension to a disarmingly simple Rhodes tune. He Who Hops Around might just as well be called He Who Hops Around Forever, working gingerly wary allusions against a droll pogo-stick octave riff.
Terreon Gully’s Tanktified captures both the sternness and propulsiveness of gospel music, with a wry Bill Withers quote. Boom, one of the best tracks here, lets Cary hold the center much of the time with his hard-hitting block chords underpinning a slasher righthand attack, further spiced by polyrhythmic bass/drums conversations and a surprisingly calm outro. Ready or Not makes a good segue, the bass finally succeeding in pulling Cary out of the murk and getting him to bounce around, up to some wry rhythmic jousting.
John McLaughlin’s Spectrum gets remade as a pretty straight-up swing tune, albeit with Cary on Rhodes, and it works surprisingly well. They pick up the raging energy again with the swaying, hypnotically rhythmic Indigenous and close with Outside My Window, a sense of menace gradually and vividly emerging from the one extended passage where Cary indulges his well-known fondness for Indian classical music. It’s deep, it’s enigmatic and it’s everything you would expect from this lyrical powerhouse and his sympatico supporting cast.
How adorable is Zeena Parkins‘ album The Adorables? Not particularly. But it is very trippy, and often very creepy, and a lot of fun. In addition to her gig as Bjork’s harpist, Parkins has been a denizen of the downtown scene for a long time, beginning well before the Knitting Factory and then moving on to Tonic and the Stone. This album – with Shayna Dunkelman on vibes and percussion, Danny Blume on guitar, Deep Singh and Dave Sharma on percussion and Preshish Moments on electronics, sounds like a live recording from the Stone and is best appreciated as a whole.
A syncopated trip-hop beat with echoey Rhodes, skronky guitar and electronic blips and bleeps sets the scene, creepy and tinkling. Parkins eventually emerges along with what sounds like a mellotron. Signaled by a jaunty percussion break, the ensemble rises to a hypnotically dreamy, twinkling groove. That’s the first number. The second builds along similar lines as textures grow more dense, Parkins’ insistent crashes against woozy synth; the third builds from sardonic vocals to a rattling interlude (is that a cimbalom?!?), to loopy anthemics.
An unease sets in at that point and pretty much never leaves, beginning with Parkins’ tritones conversing with weird, robotic effects (talking with a robot would make anyone uneasy, right?). From there the band takes it into whooshing Bernard Herrmann atmospherics, to skronk, and then back with a mechanical shuffle, Dunkelman’s distantly menacing vibes solo looming in from the great beyond. Parkins’ spiky, noir melody against the lingering resonance of the vibes and the jungle of effects is arguably the album’s high point.
From there, wry early 80s-style synth fuels a Halloweenish take on P-Funk in 6/8. Twinkles and booms rise to an uneasy, dancing doublespeed that eventually loops with a West African rhythm. And then it’s over. The album is out from Cryptogramophone; Parkins’ next New York gig is an especially intriguing one, on Dec 5 at 8 PM at the Miller Theatre, where she joins a chamber ensemble playing percussively hypnotic works by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir.
Doug Webb‘s new album Another Scene ranks among the best from Posi-Tone, including Jared Gold’s organ albums, the Captain Black Big Band album and Ralph Bowen’s awesome Power Play from a couple of years ago. This one puts the LA tenor saxophonist out in front of a New York rhythm section with energy to match – you want intensity? You got it. Bill Frisell keeps Rudy Royston in his band because he is what he is, but this unit gives Royston the chance to cut loose in the studio like he does onstage in JD Allen‘s trio. He makes bassist Dwayne Burno‘s job easy. Pianist Peter Zak also gets plenty of opportunities to raise the voltage.
The opening track, Mr. Milo, is a briskly biting, syncopated Miles homage, Webb burning through the whole-tone scale, Zak hitting a similarly highwire intensity as he charges downward. One for Art – a homage to Webb’s late bassist bandmate Art Davis – is a launching pad for a long, absolutely blistering run by Webb, Zak’s solo over impatient drums that turn loose explosively- and then the band goes back to swing as if nothing happened. OK…for a little while, anyway.
Kenny Wheeler’s Smatter gets a clenched-teeth, scurrying swing and more Royston being Royston – it calms, or at least focuses, from midway on. They do Dave Brubeck’s Southern Scene as a warmly cantabile ballad, Zak rippling over almost wry Royston cymbals, keeping it lush, Webb’s warm solo echoing a Paul Desmond dry martini elegance. Another Step sets Webb and Zak’s energetic hard-bop moves over a disarmingly simple swing; Jobim’s Double Rainbow works the tension between Webb’s balminess and the raw intensity of the rhythm section for all it’s worth. Royston’s cascading waves in tandem with Zak’s solo are absolutely luscious.
Eulogy takes awhile to get going, but springboards an absolutely haunted, wrenching tenor solo from the bandleader, contrasting with the lickety-split romp Rhythm with Rudy. The version of What Is There to Say here is a predictably long feature for Webb, while Verdi Variations playfully pilfers the opera book, both Webb and Zak attacking the themes with more agitation and fire than you would expect. They follow that with a sly, bouncy excursion through Thad Jones’ Bird Song and conclude with a warmly steady take of Benny Carter’s Trust Your Heart. Webb has come a long way since his days voicing tv characters.
Leif Arntzen’s latest abum Continuous Break takes a page out of the vintage Miles Davis book: throw the band a few riffs and have them create songs on the spot. That all this sounds as good as it does, and as thoroughly composed as it does, is credit both to the band’s chemistry and the hooks that Arntzen tossed into the brew. One of the most individualistic and consistently original trumpeters to emerge from the New York scene over the past 25 years or so, Arntzen may be best known for his his scarily evocative Chet Baker project, Channeling Chet, but he’s also an extremely eclectic, first-rate composer. Recorded live in the studio, this mix of purist, in-the-tradition renditions of standards and out-of-the-box originals is the best album Arntzen’s made to date, and a strong contender for best jazz album of 2013. Arntzen is joined here by regular band since 2010: guitarist Ryan Blotnick, keyboardist Landon Knoblock, bassist Michael Bates and drummer Jeff Davis. The whole thing is streaming at Bandcamp.
The opening track, Beautiful Mind starts as a tone poem and becomes a deviously mysterious, nebulously bluesy, atmospheric game of hide-and-seek, Blotnick’s resonance and bubbles eventually taking centerstage as the rhythm congeals into something of a funky shuffle. Then Arntzen comes in and takes it in a mid-60s Miles direction. Psykodelic Divide is a bustling misterioso urban nocturne a la Taxi Driver, trumpet and Wurlitzer neon-lighting a bass groove.
The picturesque Pretending I’m a Bird works long, floating, dreamy passages gently ornamented by the bass and guitar. The best and most haunting track here might be Tired, inspired by a riff Arntzen picked up from his son Miles (drummer for Antibalas and leader of the similarly edgy Afrobeat jamband Emefe). Dark gospel trumpet rises over a haunting psychedelic rock groove over a killer Bates bassline, the band shifting in a pastoral direction before Arntzen goes machinegunning his way out. Likewise, Arntzen’s laser-surgical precision, rising over the bubbly Wurly on Vain Insane, will give you goosebumps.
The first of the standards, My Ideal, juxtaposes Davis’ edgy brushwork against Arntzen’s trademark lyricism. The most animated and intricate number is The Call, replete with conversations, good cop/bad cop dynamics and a simmering tension as Bates holds the center. Street Dog sets a wryly blazing Blotnick slide solo over slinky funk as Bates references Albert King…and then Arntzen turns it into a beautiful ballad. Their closing take of Bye Bye Blackbird blends Blotnick’s resonantly enigmatic, judicious lines with Arntzen’s balminess, Bates once again holding it all together.
Great tunesmiths never have to look far to find good musicians. Wednesday night’s late set by the Maria Schneider Orchestra at the Jazz Standard may have been a clinic in cutting-edge writing for large ensemble, but it was also a summit meeting of some of New York’s edgiest jazz talent. Schneider and this awe-inspiring cast are here through Sunday at 7:30 and 9:30, an annual Thanksgiving week tradition that, if you haven’t already joined the cult, is waiting for you to discover and be hooked by it forever.
The most unforgettable solo of the night was when pianist Frank Kimbrough segued from the slinky, suspenseful soul groove Night Watchman into the more sweepingly lush Sailing, adding a menacingly glittering noir coda packed with chromatics and macabre major-on-minor riffs before the bright, buoyant atmospherics set in. Or, it might have been tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s droll, mischievous portrayal of hijinks out on a Minnesota lake, Schneider looking back on hanging with friends during her formative years. There was also a slowly unfolding, enigmatic but warmly chordal solo from guitarist Lage Lund, an even more ambient and plaintive one from accordionist Gary Versace. an allusively microtonal Steve Wilson alto sax solo; a thoughtfully considered, spiraling trombone solo by Marshall Gilkes and a more spacious yet also more rhythmically adventurous one later on from Ryan Keberle – and there were others. Ironically, this big band relies less on soloing than any other. It’s Schneider’s compositions that people come out for: contributions from the rest of the personalities are the icing on the cake.
A couple of the set’s early tunes were the bluesiest and most in-the-tradition, but also less of a showcase for the sweeping colors and epic majesty that characterizes so much of Schneider’s more recent work: it was as she was saying, “So you think I was good then? You should hear me now.” A new one, dedicated to the late Brazilian percussionist Paolo Mora, was inspired by the time he took Schneider out to see a performance of one of his massive student ensembles: “It was like being shot out of a cannon,” Schneider explained, being surrounded on all sides by all the percussive firepower. And this piece, with its swirling, hypnotic midsection, had the same effect, bolstered by her signature melody and sweep. But there were just as many hushed, rapt moments, as in the closing number, a bittersweet, pre-dawn Great Plains tableau (from Schneider’s recent Dawn Upshaw collaboration, Morning Walks), or when bassist Jay Anderson built elegant, plaintive pointillisms with guitar voicings as swells subsided to whispers.
It also happened to be Schneider’s birthday, and she was overcome both by the band’s affection – not to mention their blend of meticulousness and titanic, Gil Evans-inspired power – and by her memories of the late trumpeter Laurie Frink, an important part of this ensemble for several years. It wasn’t much of a surprise that Schneider would wear her heart on her sleeve, considering how emotionally direct her music is. If you’re in town this weekend, go see her.
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