The arrangements on jazz pianist/composer Falkner Evans’ new album The Point of the Moon sound bigger than they are. This little band – a quartet, mostly – often delivers the anthemic grandeur of a group twice their size or even larger. That’s an especially impressive achievement for Evans, considering that much of his recent work has been in a trio setting. In addition to a rhythm section including Belden Bullock on bass and the ubiquitously counterintuitive Matt Wilson on drums, there’s the horn section of Greg Tardy on tenor sax and Ron Horton on trumpet, with Gary Versace joining the mix on the final two tracks.
The brightness and accessibility of the tunes often masks their depth and complexity: this is hummable stuff, but it’s also not shallow. The album gets off to something of a false start: if the undeniably pretty opening cut, Altered Soul, has you thinking “lounge-ola,” hang in there, they’re not phoning it in, they’re just warming up. The second track, Drawing In, is a gently and deftly syncopated wee hours ballad. An elusive Tardy line gives way to what’s as close to a lush chart for two voices as you can possibly imagine, then hands it off to both sax and trumpet in turn, with a playfully pointillistic bass solo, Horton spinning and dipping gracefully out of it.
Dorsoduro manages to swing blithely without being cloying, Tardy taking his time and exploring both the upper and lower registers, Evans maintaining the nocturnal congeniality. The most energetic track here, Cheer Up briskly scurries out of a tricky intro with a high-flying Tardy bop solo. The fun is contagious, and the whole band gets into it, especially Wilson. By contrast, Jobim’s O Grande Amor gets a welcome dose of gravitas, the whole rhythm section leaving it to another one of those juicy horn charts, Horton going long and blues-infused, Evans keeping it terse, playing it close to his vest, a little wounded.
Slightest Movement follows practically as a segue, reverting to the saloon-jazz warmth of the earlier part of the album. The standard While We’re Young is done as a Mad Men era jazz waltz. Off the Top, a swing tune, has the feel of a standard, something you can’t quite put your finger on and that’s because it’s an original. With Versace’s lush organ work, it’s like a 50s/60s Ellington combo and Procol Harum hanging out all together at the hotel bar after the show. The album closes on a potent note with the gorgeously plaintive, tango-infused title cut, lowlit by Versace’s accordion and another one of those big/little horn charts. As a whole, it’s a very successful blend of catchy tunesmithing, inspired writing and playing.
Don’t let the endorsement fool you: Kenny Burrell is a fan of jazz guitarist Brent Canter, whose latest album Urgency of Now is out on Posi-Tone. And the elder statesman is on to something. As with virtually every jazz guitarist, it’s no secret that Canter has listened to Burrell – but he doesn’t ape him. Burrell is right in saying that this is a good album, frequently a great one, but most impressively, it’s an original one. No bass here; instead, a B3 organ, but there’s not a single funky shuffle in sight. Instead, a midtempo, frequently pensive groove.
You wouldn’t think that the generically circling Afrobeat-tinged riff that opens the first track would be the springboard for as catchy a tune as the one that morphs out of it…and the tasty Seamus Blake tenor sax solo that follows…and the big High Romantic chord-punching that Canter segues into, either. But it happens. They go brooding and Brazilian-tinged with the ballad Meet Me Halfway, with a blippy, slightly Burrellesque solo that follows a predictable but rewarding trajectory. A slightly phantasmagorical Pat Bianchi organ solo picks up the pace.
Settle Down, an expansive yet pensive early 60s style organ-and-guitar mood piece a la Grant Green is followed by A Long Way from Home. Weather Report might have sounded like this if they’d had a Hammond instead of Jaco: Canter takes it up with a long, acerbic, fat-toned solo and then passes to Blake for the basket, organist Adam Klipple warping from 4 AM to high noon in a split second. Transitions, another ballad, very subtly mines a lazy indie rock riff, Klipple moving in majestically and then carnivalesque, for psychedelic ambience. With Eyes Closed is as funky as they get here, Klipple going more for a straightforward, incisive feel, drummer Jordan Perlson prowling playfully in the underbrush.
If Marina Del Rey is meant to evoke a casual, breezy Cali milieu, it’s accurate, with spiraling organ and a surprisingly upbeat solo from Canter. They close the album with the title track, Canter taking on bit of a sun-blistered tone, organ flailing a little, and then down and out they go with an insistent, triumphant series of guitar riffs. This album is more than solid – it’s one of the better ones to come over the transom here this year.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #539:
Either/Orchestra – The Calculus of Pleasure
Before Ethiopiques, before Either/Orchestra became Mulatu Astatke’s North American backing unit, they were a very clever, original, often noirish big band. When they weren’t doing cinematic, genre-defying instrumentals that bridge the gap between rock and jazz, that is. Literally everything saxophonist/composer Russ Gershon’s long-running Boston outfit has released is worth hearing; this 1992 release gets the nod because it’s probably their darkest and most cohesive. The real stunner here is a sad, elegaic ballad aptly titled Grey. There’s also the bracing, uneasy swing of Whisper Not; Bennie Moten’s Weird Nightmare, with its tongue-in-cheek Mingus echoes; the cinematic, suspenseful Consenting Adults; Ecaroh, which alternates between creepy bossa nova and swinging contentment; Unnatural Pastime, which begins as an animated jump blues but gets dark fast; and the epics Miles Away and The Hard Blues. Most of this is streaming at myspace (and surprisingly, this playlist isn’t interrupted by ads); here’s a random torrent via Six By Six.
At their sold-out performance Friday night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, the New York Arabic Orchestra reaffirmed their place as one of this era’s most vital New York ensembles. Leader Bassam Saba had played several of the pieces on the program with a small five-piece group a week earlier in Brooklyn. Fleshed out with full string section, ouds, flutes, bass and percussion, the songs took on a lush, epic sweep that was nothing short of transcendent. Saba toured with his countryman Marcel Khalife for two decades: the two composers share a broad, pan-levantine eclecticism and an ability to deliver an emotionally charged wallop. This show did that, but it also played up all kinds of subtleties and unexpected, entertaining flourishes. With the orchestra behind him, multi-instrumentalist Saba could play an entire song on a single one instead of shifting from oud, to flute, to saz and back again like he did at Prospect Park the previous week, giving him the chance to take his time and expand on his often plaintive, poignant themes.
Characteristically, the bill included several Saba compositions as well as vintage Middle Eastern material. Wonderful Land, the title track from his excellent new album, opened with Saba playing a hypnotic solo taqsim (improvisation) on the rustic, clanky Turkish saz lute. Then the orchestra took it aloft on a magic carpet of strings, with a stately call-and-response between the saz and the ensemble, and a graceful solo for the percussion section. Diverse, debonair Lebanese-American singer Naji Youssef joined the group along with a choir for a vocal tune, the baritone crooner’s elegant microtonal inflections contrasting with joyously romping flutes. Then it was back to the instrumentals with two increasingly tricky, polyrhythmic variations on Lebanese folk themes, Saba’s flute front and center. Midway through, a spontaneous clapalong emerged in the crowd.
There were three more vocal numbers (a couple by paradigm-shifting Lebanese songwriters the Rahbani Brothers), one lushly swaying, a couple of them more lighthearted. While in most Middle Eastern dance-pop, the orchestras have been replaced by synthesizers and drum machines, it was heartwarming to hear the roots of those melodies as they were originally written to be played. Saba’s Nirvana, a lavishly memorable suite, featured an arrangement that cleverly shifted voicings among orchestra members, with a biting oud solo against pillowy strings. They closed with a classic Egyptian piece, packed with trick endings, a bracing solo from the first violinist and an even more intense one from Saba, once again on flute. As before, the crowd became an auxiliary percussion section as the piece wound out, and they didn’t miss a beat, all the way through to its playful, cold ending.
The New York Arabic Orchestra are the New York Alliance Française’s artists-in-residence for 2011, with a gala fundraiser coming up in November with Marcel Khalife. The ensemble’s next performance is on September 11 at 7 PM at Merkin Concert Hall, as part of Musicians for Harmony’s 10th Anniversary Concert for Peace.