Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #701:
Parliament – Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome
Big record labels always wanted to eliminate musicians from the equation. By 1978, as disco gained traction, they were doing it with drum loops and primitive samples, and musicians were worried sick. Into the battle stepped George Clinton with this ferocious, deliriously danceable broadside aimed at the music industry and clueless listeners, personified by Sir Nose d’Voidoffunk (i.e. “devoid of funk”). Among other things, this clueless idiot can’t dance, despite the presence of some of the era’s best funk musicians – Clinton, Bernie Worrell, Eddie Hazel and Bootsy Collins. The album’s two big hits, Bop Gun and Flash Light, with its ridiculously catchy Bernie Worrell synth bass hook, have been sampled in a gazillion hip-hop songs. There’s also the caustic, sarcastic Wizard of Finance, the anti-consumerist cautionary tale Placebo Syndrome and the mesmerizing ten-minute title track. Thirty years later, the winner of this battle couldn’t be more clear. Here’s a random torrent.
Funny, true story: trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis asks Gunther Schuller to write the liner notes for his brand-new octet arrangement of Duke Ellington’s Sweet Thunder. Schuller writes back and basically says, “This album is a mistake.” He’s a little more tactful than that, but there’s no mistaking how he feels about it (you can read the whole thing in its entirety in the cd booklet). In case you don’t know who Gunther Schuller is, he’s a composer – an interesting, entertaining one – and has been a pioneer in jazz education for decades (he established the first conservatory degree program in jazz studies, at New England Conservatory in the 1960s). He also sees himself as keeper of the Ellington flame, so in addition to being possessive, he’s on the side of the angels. What also comes out in his response to Marsalis is that he’s a bigger fan of the early Ellington than the post-1950 works including all the suites. No disrespect to Dr. Schuller, but those suites are transcendent, possibly Ellington’s greatest achievements. One critic has already singled out Marsalis’ new arrangements here as being better than the original, which is a matter of taste. Whatever yours might be, it’s inarguable that this new album is just as good as the original. Which makes it pretty amazing: this majestic, Shakespearean-themed tour de force is one of the most exhilarating pieces of music ever written. For anyone who might wonder, why on earth would anyone want (or dare) to remake this, here’s the answer: if you could play this, and you had the chance, wouldn’t you?
Delfeayo Marsalis created his charts using the original Ellington scores in the Library of Congress. As Schuller was very quick to point out, the sound is brighter and the new score noticeable more terse (as you’d expect from an octet doing the work of the whole Ellington Orchestra). And yet, the towering, epic grandeur is still here in full force, whether on the title track that opens the suite, the bustling Sonnet to Hank Cinq or the slyly tiptoeing, bluesy swing of Up & Down, Up & Down. As befits a composition inspired by Othello, there are Moorish interludes and these are the choicest among the literally dozens of potent solo spots here. Bass clarinetist Jason Marshall brings a somber gravitas to Sonnet for Sister Kate; Branford Marsalis swirls with chilly exhilaration on soprano sax on Half the Fun and Sonnet for Caesar; and Victor Goines brings the intensity to uneasy heights on sopranino sax on Madness in Great Ones. Pianist Victor “Red” Atkins’ rippling, slashing depiction of the murder scene in Sonnet for Caesar, as reminiscent of Liszt or Schumann as the blues, might be the single most adrenalizing moment of them all. And Delfeayo Marsalis’ considered, jeweled lines, with or without a mute, are plainly and simply deep: he gets this music. The rest of the band elevates to that same level: there may be more complicated composers than Ellington, but none more emotionally impactful. Mark Gross on alto sax, Tiger Okoshi on trumpet, Mulgrew Miller on piano, Reginald Veal, Charnett Moffett and David Pulphus on bass, Winard Harper and Jason Marsalis on drums join in singlemindedly, alternately triumphant and wisely restrained.
It’s also worth mentioning that this album, stylistically if not thematically, bears some resemblance to the Live at Jazz Standard album issued last year by the Mingus Big Band. In reviewing that one, we hedged that allowing it for consideration as a candidate for best album of the year was absurdly unfair, the equivalent of allowing the ghost of Babe Ruth to compete in a home run hitting contest. The same could be said for this one. In case you haven’ t heard, the Mingus Big Band album ended up winning a Grammy – so here’s predicting that this one will win one too. The night of the awards, don’t forget that we said it first.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #702:
Steve Nieve – Playboy
This is a hard one to find. Originally issued on vinyl in 1987 and out of print since not much later, Elvis Costello’s keyboardist’s second solo album is a characteristically droll, witty, sometimes hypnotic series of miniatures. Nieve likes to improvise silent film scores, and his originals here, including Pictures From A Confiscated Camera, A Walk In Monet’s Back Garden, the 9.4 Rag and Once Upon A Time In South America share a cinematic feel. He quotes liberally from Debussy, Morricone, Satie, Chopin and probably dozens of others, then covers the Specials’ Ghost Town with the same matter-of-fact, deadpan intensity as his genuinely moving version of Bowie’s Life on Mars. He finds the plaintiveness inside George Michael’s Careless Whisper and turns White Girl by X (dedicated to Exene’s dead sister Mirielle Cervenka) into a downcast mood piece. An extensive search didn’t turn up any torrents: we’d upload our own except that ours is the vinyl version. If we find a digital one, we’ll give you a link.
Good Cop: Wow, they gave us a new assignment! We must have done a good job with that last review, no thanks to you…
Bad Cop: Just doing my job. Can you pass me that bottle please.
Good Cop: I didn’t hear that. Pass it yourself. I’m on duty.
Bad Cop [pours himself a huge glass of wine]: Today’s album is…how do you pronounce this…
Good Cop: Until the Sun Comes Up.
Bad Cop: No, the organist…
Good Cop: That’s Atsuko Hashimoto. Her new album is just out on Capri Records and it’s a throwback to the days of B3 jazz organ lounges in the 60s. When jazz was the people’s music, that everybody danced to and kept the bars open until closing time. Which explains the title…
Bad Cop: God, what a generic track listing. You’d think they could come up with something more interesting. Henry Mancini, Satchmo, You Are My Sunshine. Wake me up when this is over.
Good Cop: C’mon, let’s give it a spin. The opening track is All or Nothing at All – this makes me edgy, I can’t sit still. OK, give me a splash of that wine, I need to calm down here.
Bad Cop: Wow, this is fast. Did you just hear that nasty bluesy phrase she just ran for a couple of bars? This is juke joint jazz! I’m down with this!
Good Cop: You’re breaking character. Listen up, stay in character or risk the consequences.
Bad Cop: Such as?
Good Cop: Me turning bad. You don’t want to risk it.
Bad Cop: OK. The next track is Soul Station. Swing tune. Hank Mobley. Everybody’s done it. This sounds like Jimmy Smith – nothing wrong with that I guess. Who’s the guitarist?
Good Cop: Graham Dechter.
Bad Cop: Monster player. Listen to that tremolo picking, it’s like he’s lighting a match in the wind. I can’t understand why he’s not famous.
Good Cop: He’s not in New York. Colorado guy, from what I can figure.
Bad Cop: Come to New York, dude, plenty of work, even in a depression. And people will know who you are.
Good Cop: That’s Jeff Hamilton on drums.
Bad Cop: Noooooo…not the guy whose album we totally disrespected about a year ago….
Good Cop: Yup. Jeff, it’s about time we made it up to you. You wail.
Bad Cop: The organist won’t understand that…
Good Cop: Don’t assume that. That doesn’t make you look very openminded.
Bad Cop: OK. What I mean specifically by that is that I’m digging those shuffle beats and the fact that he’s not phoning it in, that you can just focus in on the drums and really enjoy being surprised…and the next track is So In Love. I don’t know this one. Curtis Mayfield did a great song with this title back in the 70s but this is new to me…whew…this is fast, I need another drink, pass me the bottle please…
Good Cop [passes the bottle]: OK. Now you know why every jazz bar had this kind of music back in the day…
Bad Cop: Amen [burp]. Wow. Joe Pass filigree runs, sixteenth notes, the crowd is on their feet…
Good Cop:…and a lush suspenseful passage when you least expected it. She knows how to work a crowd…
Bad Cop: The next song is Moon River, reinvented as a swing tune. Can I tell you a story? I saw REM – you know, the rock band – play this one before they got really famous and it was really cool. And this is kinda the same, it barely resembles the original and that’s why it’s great…
Good Cop: C’mon, say something bad, you’re out of character.
Bad Cop: REM sucks now.
Good Cop: I love this version, it’s such a river. What can I say. It blows away the original. Moon River – fluid, unstoppable, she nails it.
Bad Cop: OK, next track, What a Wonderful World. What a boring choice.
Good Cop: What a sweet rippling solo about three quarters of the way through….
Bad Cop: OK, next track. Blues for Naka. Club owner somewhere in Japan. Rescued and then consigned to obscurity with this song. But it’s good – swing blues with a balmy guitar solo, something you don’t expect from a requiem. Hey, I’m going upstairs, can you hang with this album for awhile?
Good Cop [quizzically]: No problem.
[ten minutes later] Good Cop: I have just been informed that Bad Cop has been overwhelmed by America’s favorite Chilean wine and will not be reappearing this evening. So to recap the album, I think it’s something that the new generation of kids, who like something fun and retro to dance to, will be into. Obviously, the indie crowd won’t dare to like this because the concept of fun doesn’t exist in the indie world. You know, if you express emotion, that might not be pre-approved for your peer group, and in that case you have to face the consequences. So I guess that means me facing the consequences! I like the delicious, unexpecting phrasing in You Are My Sunshine. I love how, in Cherry, the guitar solo goes intense when least expected. The way the guitar and organ, and then the drums, have fun playing back and forth with each other on You’re in My Heart Alone is just plain fun – I love that guitar solo – and I like how the last track combines a sort of Stevie Wonder feel with…wait a minute…whoah! This is California Sun! Did whoever wrote the Beach Boys’ California Sun steal it from a gospel song? Wouldn’t surprise me! Listen to this and decide for yourself. It’s out now on Capri Records.
“Don’t think of this as a moral lesson, just the oldest story in the book, the latest in the series of New York murders…collect them all,” sneers writer/narrator Jack Womack’s character Ted, in the radio play version of Elliott Sharp’s musical drama Binibon, recently released on Henceforth. It’s more of an attempt to capture the surreal and seedy atmosphere of downtown New York in the 80s rather than an actual crime story. The July 18, 1981 murder of waiter Richard Adan by convicted-murderer-turned-author Jack Henry Abbott outside the lower Second Avenue restaurant from which the album takes its title consumes less than five minutes out of a total of fifty-six. Instead, the story focuses on a cast of authentically bizarre characters who may or may not have been regular customers.
Womack’s Ted is a washed-up, know-it-all, alcoholic jazz drummer with a bizarre southern twang who serves as sort of a Greek chorus here. His beatnik affectations and interminable listmaking underscore his bitterness about spending most of his life on the sidelines. Jedadiah Schultz does Abbott (a Norman Mailer protege whose brief literary ascent outside prison walls ended with this murder) with a breathy, stagy intensity, while Queen Esther portrays waitress Susie with a down-to-earth authority and perfect outer-borough accent. Ryan Quinn doubles admirably in the roles of equivocating junkie Johnny and coked-up transvestite Fabuluscious, with supporting roles played by Sonja Perryman as Contessa, a woman with a lot of anger and not a lot of ways of expressing it and Cy Fore as the evanescent murder victim Richie.
Sharp, who plays not only guitar but also bass, drums, saxophones, clarinets and various electronic components here, turns in the performance of a lifetime: it’s arguably his most diverse effort to date. Ever wonder if Sharp could pull off a spot-on imitation of early 80s style Midnight Starr or Herbie Hancock electro-disco? The answer’s here, and it’s yes. He also does ominously multi-layered, Bomb Squad-style noise; dirtily incisive Jeff Beck-ish guitar; Karsh Kale style South Asian drones; a decent facsimile of the Bad Brains in slow mode; late 50s minimalist noir jazz; and the inimitable squall for which he’s best known.
Womack effectively evokes the downtown New York era when watching one’s back was a survival tool rather just a common phrase in rap music, best exemplified by Susie as she catalogs the implements in her purse that could serve as weapons in a pinch. The major characters are all tragic in a classical sense: Abbott’s narcissism, Johnny’s self-deception, and Susie’s willingness to stay in one place til she “dies from the feet up, like a tree with pissed-on roots” will all clearly get them in the end. The minor characters – the practically incoherent Contessa, the tranny, and poor Richie, who doesn’t seem to have a clue even as he steps outside, trying to reason with the guy who will kill him seconds later – are less interesting. But the milieu is spot-on. Ted references downtown characters from crazed killer Daniel Rakowitz (who dismembered his girlfriend, boiled her and then fed her to the homeless in Tompkins Square Park), to Jean-Michel Basquiat, to scores of others mostly forgotten now. What’s perhaps most appealing, and most bittersweet, is that these characters are all oldschool New Yorkers. All but two of them (the killer and the narrator) were clearly born and bred here, and despite their flaws share a wry gallows humor that still exists in pockets in this city, and which is the antithesis of the “esthetic” – if you could call it that – of the pampered, effete, affluent white children who’ve flooded New York in the last ten years. For that alone, this is worth owning and savoring: the score makes it worth returning to many times over.
Good Cop: It’s good to be back blogging again. When’s the last time we reviewed something here?
Bad Cop: December 09 I think, Jeff Hamilton’s trio album.
Good Cop: That poor guy deserved better than us. No wonder they put us in mothballs after that one.
Bad Cop: Yeah, I really love that album actually. Sorry, Jeff, it’s just my nature. I don’t know how to be good.
Good Cop: Did you ever review a concert before?
Bad Cop: Hell yeah! Foghat at Westbury Music Fair! [sings] “Fool fo the sitteh!”
Good Cop: Shhhhh! People will think you’re a crackhead or something.
Bad Cop: That’s the point, isn’t it?
Good Cop [ignores him]: So today we’re going to Barbes in Brooklyn to see Songs for Unusual Creatures. This quirky instrumental project is a creation of multi-instrumentalist composer Michael Hearst, who before this did Songs for Ice Cream Trucks.
Bad Cop: That was fun. I don’t like his main band though.
Good Cop: Would you please open your mind? You have no idea what this sounds like.
Bad Cop: OK, ok. Here we are. You want a drink? I want a drink.
Good Cop: No drinks for me. I’m on duty.
Bad Cop (looks around): Ewwwwww! Yuppie children! We gotta get out of here!
Good Cop: Don’t worry, they don’t look contagious, none of them are sniveling. Besides, what makes you assume they’re yuppies?
Bad Cop: They’re sitting still. Normal kids fidget during concerts.
Good Cop: Don’t stress. They won’t ruin the show for you.
Bad Cop: They’re sick, I just know it. Their brains are so fried by Prozac and Ritalin they don’t have the sense not to put their fingers in their eyes after using a public toilet.
Good Cop: Don’t forget, we’re on a mission. We have to turn in some copy here. Be a good sport, huh?
Bad Cop: Uhhh….ok, this band has a tuba, keyboards, trumpet, a guy with a claviola and a jazz drummer.
Good Cop: How do you know he’s a jazz drummer?
Bad Cop: He’s older than the rest of them, and he sits like a jazz drummer. Like he wants to play with brushes or something.
Good Cop: What’s a claviola?
Bad Cop: It’s a melodica with a fancy body. You blow into that tube and play the notes with the keys. Just like a melodica except probably more expensive.
Good Cop: OK, here we go. I like this first instrumental about a horned puffin. It sounds like klezmer but done with swirly space organ like a Ventures sci-fi tune.
Bad Cop: Good tune but tell me what the Ventures have to do with puffins. Or klezmer.
Good Cop: I dunno. It’s music. There are no rules.
Bad Cop: OK, ok. I like that creepy keyboard setting. This next song has the same kind of klezmer minor key thing going on except that it’s a bolero in disguise. And I like how it doesn’t just go verse-chorus over and over.
Good Cop: We’re not supposed to agree on things. This could get ugly.
Bad Cop: Oh, you know it will. Now this song is from the Music for Ice Cream Trucks record. It’s about that parking lot past the Gowanus Canal where they keep all the Mister Softee trucks, and it’s bouncy and fun. I just don’t understand how it relates to that slide projected up there on the screen behind the band, the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck.
Good Cop: If you hadn’t distracted me I could give you an answer, I think the guy driving the truck is a bassoonist, and wrote it, or played on it, or something. I wish I could have had children’s music like this when I was a kid…
Bad Cop [does a doubletake, looks around, raises his eyebrows]: Oh my god, you just dragged me to a children’s music show. That explains the…
Good Cop: I know, isn’t it awesome? A children’s band that doesn’t treat their audience patronizingly. Mummenschanz, eat my ass!
Bad Cop: That’s supposed to be my line!
Good Cop: Too good to resist. Besides, you broke character earlier. You have to admit, this music is really good, isn’t it?
Bad Cop: It is, it is. I’m tapping my feet, I like how these songs are fun and clever, how you can be a kid or an adult and enjoy them for different if equally valid reasons. And especially how dark some of them are. This particular number they’re playing right now about a dugong sounds like a requiem for the poor things. But they’re not from Australia like the guy said. They’re from the Persian Gulf, they’ve been decimated starting with the first Gulf War…
Good Cop: Now the band’s front line have all switched to melodicas. If you were paying attention you would have discovered that this song was written for and recorded by the Kronos Quartet…
Bad Cop: They suck! Did you know that they play to a cd? Eighty percent of what you hear at a Kronos Quartet show is prerecorded, makes an ELO concert look pretty good by comparison…
Good Cop: That’s funny. Did you hear? The tuba player just asked the claviola guy if the Kronos Quartet recorded the songs in his bedroom?
Bad Cop: I don’t see what’s so funny about that. Besides, I don’t like the tuba player.
Good Cop: Why not? He’s funny!
Bad Cop: Tuba players are funny by definition. Besides, this guy dissed a friend of mine.
Good Cop: And your friend couldn’t stick up for himself?
Bad Cop: She’s a girl. A pretty girl.
Good Cop: And your pretty girl…um…acquaintance couldn’t stick up for herself?
Bad Cop: It’s a guy thing, you wouldn’t understand. Chivalry.
Good Cop: OK. Let’s get out of here before your chivalry gets your butt kicked.
Bad Cop: Yeah, that kid just stuck his finger up his nose. Is there a liquor store around here?
Good Cop: I shouldn’t tell you. Follow your intuition.
Bad Cop [exiting]: Ghetto. Or what’s left of it. Fifth Avenue, downhill. Past the mattress store and the pizza place as I recall…
Adventurous Canadian trio Toca Loca’s cryptically titled new album Shed is a strangely captivating, grippingly energetic, strikingly rhythmic collection of new and older avant garde music. Pianist/conductor Gregory Oh, pianist Simon Docking and percussionist Aiyun Huang muscle up on a demanding quartet of numbers made for headphones: you can get lost in this stuff. It’s a wonder they don’t too.
The first piece, Half-Remembered City by Dai Fujikura, is a samurai piano duo for four hands. Oh and Docking have injured each other while playing it. Much of it involves passages where one holds down the keys silently while the other hammers away so as to evince overtones out of the dampened strings. There are a lot of pregnant pauses, along with a little leapfrogging and some furtive scurrying and flying cascades amid the slambang staccato. The album liner notes make no mention of whether the pianists injured themselves this time around, or how (or whether) they avoid making mistakes, or if improvisation is part of the process. Either way, it’s impossible to tell.
Huang premiered Heinz Holliger’s Ma’Mounia in 2002 in Geneva. If anything she does here was overdubbed during recording, that’s understandable: she has her hands full, with seemingly an entire orchestra’s percussion instruments to run the gauntlet with in seconds flat. With vibraphone, gong, timpani and what sounds like bowed bells, she scurries uneasily with accompaniment from guests Max Christie on clarinet, Mary-Katherine Finch on cello, Gabriel Radford on French horn and Stephen Tam on flute. A section with what appears to be simulated applause, a series of long, bustling passages and then a lot of Messienesque birdsong against that bustle eventually winds down and bows out with a squeak. The group’s first commission, Andrew Staniland’s Adventuremusic: Love Her Madly is not a Doors cover but rather a hypnotic, low overtone-driven soundscape colored with rapidfire piano cascades, an Asian theme played on bells and a trancey woodblock solo. The album concludes with Frederic Rzewski’s Bring Them Home, one of his protest songs from the early 70s, this one based on a minor-key Irish folk song. In typical Rzewski fashion, the variations go pretty far afield of the original, with a boogie about a quarter of the way in and a hint of a military march about two-thirds through it. It’s unusually imagistic: Huang gets the motif de resistance, a woodblock solo that snidely mimics an earlier, martial snare drum passage. With wars still going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s nice to see this piece getting aired out as vigorously as Toca Loca do it here. It’s out now on Henceforth.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #703:
Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue/An American in Paris: Leonard Bernstein
Today we turn from the obscene and juvenile to one of the most urbane and sophisticated albums on this list. It might come as a surprise to some that for several generations of New Yorkers, these pieces were a rite of passage, as much a staple of frathouses as concert halls. This is George Gershwin at the peak of his powers as one of the first, and best, white bluesmen. And who more appropriate to deliver the jaunty ragtime suite Rhapsody in Blue along with its companion An American in Paris – one of the most unselfconsciously romantic pieces of music ever written – than Leonard Bernstein? The first he does with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (assembled by the label) and the second with the NY Philharmonic. This late 80s reissue makes a diptych of both epically sweeping mid-50s mono recordings. Strangely, a little sleuthing didn’t turn up a single link for the album, although you can download them separately: Rhapsody in Blue here and An American in Paris here.
To call cutting-edge string quartet Brooklyn Rider’s new album Brooklyn Rider Plays Philip Glass a “cohesive performance” doesn’t remotely do it justice. Other than solo passages, which are relatively few, it is for all intents and purposes impossible to tell the individual players apart. More often than not, the overall sound is like a giant, animated accordion. The players – violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen – don’t take their phrasing lightly. Each one digs in with an intensity and a group vision that borders on the telepathic. It’s absolutely impossible to think of an ensemble better suited to these attractive, often absolutely beautiful pieces (Glass himself serves as co-executive producer here, which pretty much says it all).
Like a lot of other composers, Glass has no shyness about recycling his favorite ideas and riffs – and if they’re as memorable as the ones here, why not? As is their custom, the group put them in historical context, opening with the premiere recording of Glass’ Suite from “Bent” for String Quartet, an endless series of permutations on warmly consonant broken chords: it’s like an extended rock suite for string quartet, and it’s a hit. Then they take it back in time for Glass’ String Quartet No. 3 (a homage to Yukio Mishima), which uses a similar broken-chord device, and then his String Quartet No. 1 which is more of a tone poem, an exercise in effectively hypnotic atmospherics. The second cd here includes three more string quartets. No. 4 works an endless, almost imperceptibly crescendoing series of eighth-note passages, a real workout for the musicians, but their stamina never cracks. No. 2 is more hypnotic, a dizzying series of echo effects that sometimes hover, sometimes make a fugue with the warmth of the underlying atmospherics. No. 5, which concludes this massive recording project, trades off repetitive, circular themes that sometimes evoke the group’s landmark 2008 collaboration with Kayhan Kalhor, Silent City: it closes the album on an aptly pensive note. To have this much beauty in one place is a treat in itself. To hear it played as seamlessly and spiritedly as Brooklyn Rider have done here is even more of one. They’re at Alice Tully Hall, with Kalhor, on March 9 playing and premiering some of this, a concert not to be missed if you’re a fan.
This is one of those rare albums that will appeal to casual listeners just as much as headphone wearers seeking something more cerebral or emotionally impactful. In a lot of ways, it’s a good-to-be-alive album. A couple of years ago, no one knew whether or not iconic pianist Fred Hersch would be around to make this, considering how few people have survived a two-month coma, much less returned to their old selves afterward. But that’s what Hersch did, even after having had to relearn his instrument. His new album, Alone at the Vanguard is oldschool, being the entire final set of the final night, December 5, 2010 of his solo stand at that jazz mecca. Surprisingly, it was Hersch, not Ellington or McCoy Tyner or even Brad Mehldau who was the first pianist to get a solo weeklong gig there. Hersch brags that he was “in the zone” for this set, which is an understatement, and after all he’s been through, he deserves to blow his own horn a little. Hersch can do many things well: here he features a richly chordal, third-stream attack, late Romantic emotional intelligence through the randomizing prism of jazz.
In the Wee Small Hours of Morning, which opens the album, ripples with that chordal attack and a long, fascinating series of lefthand/righthand tradeoffs, starlit ambience shifting to a relaxed, wee-hours vibe. The jaunty Down Home, dedicated to Bill Frisell, has a sly Donald Fagen feel and includes a devious Wizard of Oz quote (no, it’s not Somewhere over the Rainbow). The most memorable track here, Echoes, builds from a hypnotic kaleidoscope of noirisms to expressive cascades and a vividly vigorous overture of sorts: of all the songs here (and they are songs in the purest sense of the word), this is the most solidly upbeat, less defiant than simply enjoying the moment. Likewise, Pastorale (a Schumann homage) crescendos with an almost baroque, fugal architecture – the conversation goes back and forth between the hands and never gets tiresome.
Lee’s Dream has a surprisingly sprightly, ragtime-ish elegance, something of a surprise for a song dedicated to Lee Konitz, legend of cool jazz. Jacob de Bandolim’s Doce de Coco slowly and fascinatingly evinces a bossa bounce and hints of the blues from the Brazilian composer’s matter-of-factly fluid lines. Eubie Blake’s Memories of You gets a steely, often clenched-teeth intensity that winds down with a bitter grace; Hersch closes on a balmy, bluesy note with Sonny Rollins’ Doxy (to appreciate the warmth of this take on it, you ought to hear Jon Irabagon’s relentlessly assaultive version on his Foxy album). Fred Hersch will be at the Jazz Standard March 2-6 with a typically first-class cast of characters including guitarist Julian Lage and tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger,who’s rightfully riding a big wave of buzz at the moment.