If anybody at the Rockwood Tuesday night had any hope of seeing a sedate, relaxing show, that hope was dashed by the time Gypsophilia launched into third number. Because of the French connection, gypsy jazz is big in Canada and not just in Quebec. Gypsophilia hail from the impressively eclectic musical hotbed of Halifax and played an exhilarating set that transcended the limitations of the genre: it wasn’t anything closely resembling by-the-book Django covers. Their first jauntily shuffling couple of tunes only hinted at the wildness to come, trumpeter Matt Myer, violinist Gina Burgess – who is this band’s not-so-secret weapon – and fast, fluid electric guitarist Alec Frith trading tastefully edgy solos. Then they switched it up with a song introduced by guitarist Ross Burns as “Jewish party music,” and that it was, stately and suspenseful like a hora until it took flight on the wings of Burgess’ soaring chromatics, Burns leaping from the stage and breakdancing in front of the audience as the band turned it into ska. They followed that with a plaintive, wistful minor-key ballad by Burns set at the corner of Agricola and Sarah Streets in Halifax (north and just down the hill from the Halifax Common – there’s a pizza place there that’s reputedly excellent) on a snowy evening, two lovers deciding whether to part or go off together. Frith took the opportunity to reach back for some extra poignancy as Burns and second rhythm guitarist Nick Wilkinson held the sadness in check, then handing it over elegantly to the trumpet.
They got the crowd clapping along for the rest of the night with suspenseful, rubato interludes fueled by Adam Fine’s bass bowing, hi-de-ho gypsy taqsims, endless handoffs between soloists as the energy went higher and higher. “The violin just kicked the trumpet’s ass,” laughed the doorman: maybe he didn’t realize that was intentional, simply one step closer to pure ecstasy. An unexpectedly funky tune by Fine inspired by hearing a Kool & the Gang song blasting from a passing van featured a sweet trumpet solo and Burns playing along, tongue-in-cheek, on triangle. He switched to a hand drum that he rubbed for an amazingly melodic solo on a Super Bowl song that went on and on, biting minor keys alternated with unabashed buffoonery. They closed with a rugby song based on a hymn, reinvented as gypsy jazz. They’ve got chops to rival their imagination and are currently on US tour: if gypsy jazz is your thing and they’re coming to your town, don’t miss them.
Over the last year or so, drummer Carlo Costa has carved out a niche for himself as a first-rate improviser and bandleader with a penchant for suspenseful, frequently haunting soundscapes. His latest project, titled Natura Morta, is a fascinatingly ghostly four-part improvisation featuring violist Frantz Loriot and bassist Sean Ali. Seldom do any of the instruments serve their usual purposes: other than some ominous, hesitantly rumbling motifs by Costa on a couple of occasions, it’s hard to tell who’s doing what. Loriot hangs around the low midrange while Ali bows high harmonics much of the time, when the two aren’t supplying the occasional, seemingly random series of pizzicato accents, sometimes flitting in and out of the mix, sometimes scurrying furtively. What they’re doing isn’t melodic in any conventional sense – when Ali finally moves up a half-step from the root he’s been hammering, off and on, toward the end of the fourth track, it’s the first and really only time a real tune insinuates itself into the equation. Otherwise, if this is death, it’s an entertaining if disquieting place, something akin to the Chinese proverb about the luck of being born in interesting times.
The opening track, Entropy, is far less entropic than its title suggests: following a series of cues, the trio scurry and rattle against a drone. For awhile, everything is muted: mournful bell-like tones, distant footfalls and white noise, then Loriot introduces an element of scrapy, unvarnished horror. Harmonics oscillate up with a groan as it goes quietly into the night. The second track, Hive, has an unexpected humor, all three musicians rustling singlemindedly as if trying to get a grip on something that keeps slipping away. Drones – the rubbing of a drum head, maybe? – circulate through the mix and establish a circular, hypnotic rhythmic quality which the viola then sends packing, Costa moving from tentative to deliberate as he navigates his way gingerly down into the abyss. Track three, Marrow, is basically a drum solo in a catacomb atmosphere – is that a gamelan gong doing those almost subsonic booms? An echoing polyrhythmic effect disappears amid a series of quickly disintegrating scrapes and swoops, Costa eventually shifting to a matter-of-fact bustle against Loriot’s screeching overtones. The final track, Glimmer, spaces sepulchral single notes – a muted cymbal, a fragment of a bass figure, a hint of sustained viola – within a glacial tempo punctuated mostly by silence: the first minute or so is barely perceptible, it’s so quiet. Only the drums have any resonance, and only for a second at a time, low and booming and fading completely in what seems less than a second. In its own extremely well-conceived, twisted and defiantly perverse way, it’s a tremendously compelling listen and makes a terrific companion piece for Costa’s Crepuscular Activity album, a duo set of nocturnes with bass flutist Yukari that made the Top Jazz Albums of 2011 here.
Bassist bandleader Paul Beaudry and his quartet Pathways – tenor saxophonist Tim Armacost, pianist Bennett Paster and drummer Tony Jefferson – have a joyous new album, Americas, recently out from Soundkeeper Recordings. A Pan-American jazz festival, the album eclectically and soulfully explores a vast range of traditional sounds from across the Americas, including tunes from Trinidad, Haiti, Surinam, Cuba, Nicaragua, Honduras, Argentina and Brazil. Inspired by music they heard during their 2010 State Department-sponsored South American tour, Beaudry and his ensemble lend rhythm, virtuosity and pure fun to a mix of alternately lively and moody new arrangements of folk melodies and some intriguingly obscure compositions.
Armacost adds a soulfully direct, Paul Desmond-inflected touch to the opening track, Lieve Hugo’s Maria, as it pulses along on a myserioso Surinamese kaseko groove – its eclectic blend of Pan-American and Caribbean styles is responsible for jumpstarting the adventure that would become this album. With its rippling allusions to a harplike, Colombian-flavored theme, the epic, luxuriant Paster composition Harmonia Mundi (World Peace) – the album’s lone original – evokes how rich the cross-pollination became throughout this group’s travels and features Armacost at his most carefree and lyrical. Jefferson’s suspenseful drums propel Lidia Handal’s blissful Honduran calypso romp El Bananero (The Banana Vendor), echoed by some unexpected ragtime riffage from Paster.
The lush ballad O Que É Amar, by Brazilian composer Johnny Alf – perhaps the father of bossa nova – gives Armacost a launching pad for a poignant, tender solo on soprano sax . The group goes all the way back to the 1800s to Cuban classical composer Manuel Saumell Robredo – one of the first who might be considered “third stream” – for the elegant El Pañuelo De Pepa, featuring a wry staccato Beaudry solo and a precise, almost courtly dance rhythm. D’leau, from the Haitian catalog of Nemours Jean-Baptiste, puts a nimble, bouncy new spin on an early compas hit, while the enigmatic Trinidadian mambo Every Time Ah Pass – in an arrangement by the band’s friend, Trini pianist Clive “Zanda” Alexander – adds a dark undercurrent beneath its lithe bustle. The dizzyingly polyrhythmic northern Argentinian dance Zamba Alegre dates from 1919, the band cooking up another smoldering bluesy undertone that ends on a potently pensive note. The album ends with Carlos Mejía Godoy’s Nicaragua Nicaraguita – an iconic song which is in Nicaragua what This Land Is Your Land is in the U.S. – featuring Armacost sailing over Paster’s vivid, pointillistic chords and a characteristically tuneful, nimble Beaudry solo. It’s accessible and lively enough to win over the Spyro Gyra crowd, while the richly inspired playing will likely keep purist jazz fans reaching for the repeat button on several tracks. Count this among this year’s most original and enjoyable jazz releases.
It’s hard to imagine why anyone would go to some random club just to hear a ten-year-old album playing over the PA when they could do the same thing at home without any of the stress. Last night at the delightfully laid-back new Ludlow Street new-music venue New Spectrum (lots of “news” there), Starkland Records’ Thomas Steenland and his dedicated engineering crew staged a special kind of listening party for the label’s well-loved Immersion DVD compilation – a release from 2000 that’s one of the avant garde’s alltime greatest hits – along with Phil Kline’s fascinating, landmark 2009 DVD Around the World in a Daze. The drawing card? Both recordings were played in surround sound, revealing the complete, trippy mix that most stereo systems, let alone DVD players, can’t come close to replicating. Steenland explained beforehand how he’d been intrigued by the idea of recording a high-definition surround-sound DVD, and marveled at how many composers had responded to his offer of commissions considering that when he began reaching out to them for the project, the technology to make it didn’t yet exist. Given how few times these recordings have been publicly staged – Kline’s was screened once at the old Tonic a few blocks east about ten years ago, Immersion maybe never – this was a rare opportunity to witness some deliciously clever early 21st century works exactly as their composers intended them to be heard. It was like seeing a series of black-and-white images in color for the first and maybe only time.
Hearing Pamela Z mess with the fundamental premise of the recording – via her composition Work/Live, which she said she hadn’t heard in so long that she could barely remember it – was surreal and amusing to the extreme, her tongue-in-cheek operatics not just panning between right and left but from behind, then right-center, then straight ahead. Bruce Odland’s Tank, a swaying, thinly veiled trip-hop percussion piece with washes of microtonal Ron Miles trumpet, also took on playfully unpredictable new dimensions. The effect repeated itself ad infinitum, with varying degrees of surprise, humor and intensity. Another composer in attendance, Lukas Ligeti, explained how his contribution, Propeller Island, took its title from the Jules Verne cautionary tale and its source tonalities from samples of homemade Caribbean-style steel pans. Ligeti’s signature stylistic trait is polyrhythms, which in their original context here turned out to multiply from all angles to the point where the center completely disappears, adding a welcome undercurrent of unease to this bright and attractive work. Paul Dresher’s Steel, a similarly pointillistic work, was transformed much in the same way into a bustling, cheery factory floor.
2000 White Turbulence, by Maggi Payne, was the most ominously enveloping of the bunch with its echoing cumulonimbus sonics. The most downright comedic piece, Twilight’s Dance by Paul Dolden has a punchline whose straightforwardness was made even more amusing by how un-quadrophonic it was, while Ingram Marshall’s Signs and Murmurs: A SeaSong offered more subtle revelations: that moody neoromantic piano isn’t at the seashore at all, it’s on the opposite side! The final track from the DVD was Meredith Monk’s Eclipse Variations: hearing this in its original form was something akin to being in the 21st century church where Thomas Tallis suddenly found himself teleported from his medieval sanctuary and was inspired to come up with a work to celebrate it. A Carl Stone composition was the only one that grew tiresome: its 33-RPM-at-78 conceit was fun for thirty seconds but got old quickly.
Having a primitive homemade stereo recording from the listening party for reference later on turned out to be useful, to a point, but there’s no substitute for the real thing. It would undoubtedly have been just as much fun to stick around for the entirety of the Kline DVD. Where should these works be staged next? At the Hayden Planetarium. Move over, Pink Floyd.
2012 being the 25th anniversary of the Bang on a Can avant garde music marathon, it makes sense that this year’s marathon yesterday at the World Financial Center would be a more oldschool one than in years past, with more emphasis on familiar faces and American composers than the wide-ranging internationalist vibe of recent years. Judging from the first forty percent of the show, not to mention the tantalizing bill that loomed ahead for the evening, this year’s was one of the best in recent memory. Unlike the last few years, where BOAC would cleverly seem to work the occasional obvious bathroom break or even a dinner break into the programming, from noon to about half past five there wasn’t a single tune-out: not everything on the bill was transcendent, but a lot was.
Lois V Vierk was one of the composers on the program along with Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich and Martin Bresnick at the first marathon in 1988; this time out she was represented by her galloping, hypnotically enveloping, Reich-esque Go Guitars, performed by the Dither guitar quartet – Taylor Levine, James Linaburg, Josh Lopes and James Moore. Cellist Ashley Bathgate followed, solo, with Daniel Wohl’s insistently minimalist, echoing, rhythmic Saint Arc, a good segue with its bracing atmospherics. The crowd’s focus shifted to the rear of the atrium for trombone quartet Guidonian Hand playing Jeremy Howard Beck’s Awakening, a pro gay marriage polemic inspired by the chants of protestors as well as Jewish shofar calls. Vividly evocative of uneasy crowd noise, a sense of reason developed, and then a triumphantly sostenuto fanfare with wry echoes of Also Sprach Zarathustra.
BOAC All-Star Vicky Chow played Evan Ziporyn’s In Bounds. Inspired by essay about basketball, Ziporyn explained that he had mixed feelings about asking Chow to tackle such a demanding task as essentially becoming a one-woman piano gamelan with this work – but she was up for it. It’s classic Ziporyn, catchy blues allusions within a rapidfire, characteristically Javanese-influenced framework. Moving from attractive concentric ripples to some tongue-in-cheek Tubular Bells quotes to a welcome spaciousness as the piece wound down, Chow’s perfectly precise, rapidfire music-box attack raised the bar for pretty much everyone who followed.
The NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble conducted by Jonathan Haas negotiated their way through Ruben Naeff’s Bash, its point being an attempt at making a party out of group tensions. Its interlocking intricacies were a workout especially for vibraphonist Matthew Lau, but he didn’t waver, alongside Patti Kilroy on violin, Maya Bennardo on viola, Luis Mercado on cello, Florent Ghys on bass, Charles Furlong on clarinet, Anne Dearth on flute and Jeff Lankov on piano. Steadily and tensely, they illustrated an uneasily bustling party scene that eventually reached for a slightly more lush, relaxed ambience without losing its incessant rhythmic intensity.
Bass clarinetist Michael Lowenstern was then joined by extrovert violin virtuoso Todd Reynolds for an unexpectedly catchy new wave pop melody and then Footprints (not the Wayne Shorter composition), a genially bluesy, upbeat number where the BOAC All-Stars’ Dave Cossin joined them on drums. They’d busked with this one during a European tour and made enough for dinner from it one night in Vienna about twenty years ago. Then Guidonian Hand took the stage for Eve Beglarian’s In and Out of the Game, inspired by her epic Mississippi River trip a couple of years ago: an anthemic, upbeat piece, it was delivered rather uptightly, perhaps since the ensemble was constrained by having to play along with a tape.
Julia Wolfe’s My Lips From Speaking isn’t one of her white-knuckle intense, haunting numbers: it’s a fun extrapolation of the opening riff from Aretha Franklin’s Think (played by Aretha herself on the record). Piano sextet Grand Band – Chow, David Friend, Paul Kerekes, Lisa Moore, Blair McMillen and Isabelle O’Connell had a ball with it, each wearing an ear monitor so as to catch the innumerable, suspenseful series of cues as the gospel licks grew from spacious and minimalist to a joyously hammering choir. Ruby Fulton’s The End, sung by Mellissa Hughes with Dither’s Taylor Levine on uke and M Shanghai String Band’s Philippa Thompson on spoons, made a good segue. Inspired by the Beatles’ The End – as Fulton explained, one of the few places on record where Ringo ever took a bonafide drum solo – its hypnotic, insistent rhythm and Hughes’ otherworldly harmonies in tandem with the drones and then overtones rising from Levine’s repetitive chords built an increasingly complex sense of implied melody, as captivating as it was clever.
The first piece delivered by the BOAC All-Stars – Chow, Bathgate and Cossin on vibraphone and percussion this time plus Robert Black on bass, Mark Stewart on guitars and Ziporyn on clarinets – was Nibiru, by Marcin Stanczyk, one of the composers who’s come up through BOAC’s MassMoCa mentoring program. An apprehensive blend of anxious, intense percussion and ominous outer-space motifs, it pondered the existence of the phantom planet from harmonic-laden drones to surfy staccato guitar to where Bathgate finally took it to the rafters, her cello’s high harmonics keening eerily over Ziporyn’s bass clarinet wash.
The biggest audience hit of the afternoon – big surprise – was Thurston Moore’s Stroking Piece #1. It took a long time to for the All-Stars to build from faux Glenn Branca to critical mass but when they finally got the chance, a minor chord abruptly and rather chillingly making an appearance, Cossin slamming out a four-on-the-floor beat, the band had a great time with it even if it wasn’t particularly challenging. As it wound out, Stewart artfully led them from a crazed noise jam back into quiet, mantra-like atmospherics.
That may have been the peoples’ choice, but the next piece, Gregg August’s A Humble Tribute to Guaguanco, performed by his bass quartet Heavy Hands with Greg Chudzik, Lisa Dowling and Brian Ellingsen, was the most memorable of the afternoon. “Taking advantage of the percussion and the vocal quality that we can get from the bass,” as the bandleader (and four-string guy from sax powerhouse JD Allen’s amazing trio) explained, they made it unexpectedly somber and terse, alternately bowing, picking and tapping out an interlocking beat, eventually adding both microtones and polyrhythms. A dancing pulse gave way to sharp, bowed chromatic riffs, part flamenco, part Julia Wolfe horror tonalities. The second they finished, a little sparrow landed in front of the stage as if to signal its approval.
The following work, Besnick’s Prayers Remain Forever was performed by by TwoSense (Bathgate and Moore). Introducing the composer, Julia Wolfe reminded that he taught all three of the BOAC founders, and that his Yale School of Music ensemble Sheep’s Clothing was the prototype for BOAC. “At a certain point in life existential questions become extremely important,” he explained – the title of the work is from the last line of the Yehuda Amichai poem Gods Come and Go. A plaintively elegaic, part mininalist, part neoromantic work, as it expanded from a simple chromatic motif, a sense of longing became anguish and then descended to a brooding, defeated atmosphere, the cello and piano switching roles back and forth from murky hypnotics to bitterly rising phrases, with a particularly haunting solo passage from Bathgate. Yet what was even more impressive about her playing is how closely she communicates with her bandmates, Moore especially: the duo played as a singleminded voice.
Then things got loud and memorably ugly with “punk classical” ensemble Newspeak, whose late-2010 album Sweet Light Crude is a gem. They played that tune, a savagely sarcastic love song to an addiction that will eventually prove lethal, Hughes’ deadpan, lushly Romantic vocals soaring over cinematics that built from anxiously sweeping to metal grand guignol fueled by Brian Snow’s cello, Levine’s guitar and bandleader/composer David T. Little’s coldly stomping drums. They also rampaged through Oscar Bettison’s B & E (with Aggravated Assault), emphasizing its jagged math-rock rhythms and a pummeling series of chase scenes.
Michael Gordon, one of the original BOAC trio with Wolfe and David Lang, led his band – the BOAC All-Stars’ Stewart, Cossin and Zioporyn plus Reynolds on violin and Caleb Burhans on viola – through his own Thou Shalt/Thou Shalt Not from behind a keyboard. This was a disappointment and didn’t measure up to Gordon’s usual high standard. Juicy textures – creepy funeral organ, staccato twin microtonal violins, foghorn bass clarinet – overshadowed simplistic percussive riffage, which carried on far too long without much focus: if he could cut this down to 3:05, he’d have a hit. Next on the bill was soprano saxophonist Jonas Braasch, who performed his alternately rapt and amusingly echoey Quasi Infinity through a digital effect he’d created to approximate an amazing 45-second natural reverb that Oliveros had reveled in while recording in a Washington State cistern in 1988. That boded well for Oliveros and her Deep Listening Band, who played digeridoo-heavy, warmly enveloping works immediately afterward. And while it’s hubris to walk out on an artist as perennially fresh and compelling as she is, there’s a point where concerts of this length and the demands of having a life don’t coincide. Apologies to Oliveros and her crew for not sticking around for their entire set.
One final issue that ought to be addressed, and not just by BOAC and the World Financial Center landlords, is that there needs to be a no-under-fours rule here. And for that matter, at every serious music event in New York, maybe everywhere in this country. This didn’t used to be an issue, but with the helicopter parenting fad, children having become yuppie bling, national restaurant chains and thousands of other businesses are retaliating. A reasonably bright four-year-old can be taught to sit quietly or at least move around quietly while a concert is in progress; a two-year old can’t. Too bad that there’s no way to ban the yuppies along with their annoying, sniveling, whiny spawn, which would solve the whole problem.
Most club owners who play music usually suck at it. The reason many of them open a venue is to have a place to play since nobody else will give them a gig. But once in awhile, you find a club owner who not only isn’t an atrocity exhibition, but actually has talent. Case in point: pianist Spike Wilner, impresario of Smalls, the well-loved downtown New York jazz institution. Wilner has a vivid, impressionistic third-stream style that draws as deeply on ragtime as it does on classic jazz, and on his latest album La Tendresse – out now from Posi-Tone – there are some genuinely breathtaking moments. He’s got a fast, liquid legato that can keep up with pretty much anybody in either jazz or classical, something he proved beyond reproach on his previous solo album, recorded live at the club. Here, his ragtime roots are in equally full effect: he covers Solace, and while he doesn’t try to put an original stamp on Scott Joplin, he also doesn’t embarrass himself. And the album gets even better from there.
He opens the title track, one of three original compositions here, with a rather stern passage featuring a lot of block chords that slowly develop outward into shuffling ripples that grow unexpectedly chilly and chromatic: if this is tenderness, then tenderness is scary. The second original, Silver Cord, also works a neoromantic vibe, slowly unwinding from tensely rhythmic to more cantabile, with a bit of wry Donald Fagen in the chords toward the end. Wilner reinvents Leonard Cohen’s – woops, Irving Berlin’s Always as a jazz waltz, building intensity with a delightfully vivid, ringing series of raga-like chords. He puts his own mark on Lullaby of the Leaves slowly and methodically, solo, from an expansive rubato intro, to a casual ragtime-fueled stroll and a playful classic rock quote at the end. Then he, bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Joey Saylor – who stay within themselves as supporting players throughout the album – scurry their way through a lickety-split take of After You’ve Gone, a showcase for sizzling, precise chops.
A couple of other tracks are far more pensive, notably purist takes on Ellington’s Le Sucrier Velours and Monk’s Crepuscule with Nellie, along with a nocturnally bluesy, wee-hours version of Richard Rodgers’ Little Girl Blue. I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together gets a skeletal, practically minimalist interpretation that’s over all too soon in well under three minutes. There are a couple of short tracks here that could have been left on the cutting room floor and the album wouldn’t be any worse for it, especially a song from the Wizard of Oz, that – it’s awfully hard to resist a bad pun here – if they’d only had a clue, would have given up trying to redeem as ragtime. Speaking of the Wiz, there are several other quotes here from that soundtrack that are as mystifying as the inclusion of that particular cut. Otherwise, this is something that ought to bring together fans of ragtime, jazz and the Romantic repertoire, who will probably unanimously enjoy a collection by a musician who probably doesn’t need any more fans (club owners always draw hugely at their gigs, if only because the artists they book make sure to come out and be seen there) but deserves them anyway.
Yesterday afternoon at Metrotech Park in downtown Brooklyn, the question was how well the Arturo O’Farrill Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra would hold up in daylight. The big band’s Sunday night residency at Birdland is legendary, but musicians are nocturnal creatures, and major problems with the sound here delayed the summer series’ opening concert by over an hour last week. As it turned out, the band played like it was midnight in Manhattan. Getting the sound right for a seventeen-piece monstrosity like these guys is hard work, and ironically, the only member who wasn’t always audible was O’Farrill himself, maybe because he was playing electric piano this time out: he’s a hard hitter, a tremendously interesting player, and other than on a couple of mysterioso intros, it was hard to hear him, especially when the band was cooking.
O’Farrill is also a very bright guy. Between songs, he mused out loud about how lucky he was to grow up the son of the great composer and arranger Chico O’Farrill. Introducing a 1972 triptych written by his father for the Clark Terry Big Band, who premiered it at Montreux before Dizzy Gillespie got his hands on it, he marveled at how “impressive” he thought it was at the time, as a child – and how impressive it still is. Shifting from a swaying, catchy, minor-key proto-lowrider groove, to a lushly intense, tightly clustering, bluesy anthem, to slinky clave with dizzying counterpoint between the horns and then back to a variation on the opening theme, it’s a showstopper, and the whole band reveled in it, especially the trumpets. O’Farrill’s vocal mic was fading in and out, so it was hard to keep track of who was playing what, even though he took care to introduce pretty much everybody who took a solo. To his credit, the best song of the afternoon was his own, a shout-out to Sonia Sotomayor – one of the few voices of reason on the Supreme Court – titled A Wise Latina. Shifting from brightly incisive, pulsingly optimistic brass charts to a more somber yet equally majestic theme that took on a tricky polyrhythic edge as it picked up steam, it was the most modern piece on the bill. The band showcased their excellent conguero and bongo player on an unexpectedly moody, even skeletal version of Caravan; after a couple of more traditional salsa jazz vamps, they closed in a blaze of brass fury with an irresistibly swinging version of Obsesion. O’Farrill and the orchestra’s next NYC gig is on July 21 at 9:30 at Prospect Park Bandshell, and it’s free.
The bandleader saved his most important message for the end of the show. As he explained briefly but eloquently, this Sunday starting at noon along Central Park North, there’s a protest against the New York Police Department’s increasingly embattled stop-and-frisk tactics. The controversial and blatantly racist program – whose targets are 90% young black and latino men – is as unpopular within the NYPD as it is throughout the neighborhoods whose residents are subjected to it (and then virtually always released afterward: fewer than ten percent of stop-and-frisks result in arrests, and even in those cases hardly ever anything more menacing than weed possession). However, the policy gives cops on duty an easy way to reach the illegal quotas of arrests forced on them by police brass and implicitly endorsed by the Bloomberg adminstration. The more citizens who show up to speak out and represent against this reprehensible program – and many of the protestors will be cops themselves – the more the corporate media will take notice, the more elected officials will do the same, and the closer we’ll get to abolishing it forever.
There are plenty of second acts in jazz – trombonist/composer Michael Treni is one of them. A college bandmate of Pat Metheny and a rising star in the New York scene in the late 70s, he left jazz and went into wireless audio and language interpretation systems, a field in which he owns patents and carved out a career that allowed him to make a comeback in the past decade. His latest album Boys Night Out, his fourth with his Big Band, is an enjoyably trad, high-energy effort. It’s the kind of record that might take you a bottle of wine to understand, and then the message is clear: this is a bunch of guys, most of them dating from the 70s, having a GREAT time with some blazing charts and a richly tuneful mix of Treni originals and covers. Pretty much everybody in the band gets at least a cameo; it’s a chance to hear a bunch of New York personalities at the top of their game.
The opening track, Leonard Bernstein’s Something’s Coming (from West Side Story) sounds like a latin version of the Mission Impossible theme, which may be intentional – longtime Horace Silver trumpeter Vinnie Cutro takes the first solo, wry and spiraling and finally bringing it up intensely, followed by a similar one from Jerry Bergonzi on soprano sax. The title track, a late 70s Treni composition, reaches for a brightly cosmopolitan Thad Jones/Mel Lewis swing vibe, giving soprano saxophonist Sal Spicola a launching pad for a gorgeously purist, glissando-drenched, bluesy solo echoed vividly by trombonist Philip Jones and then trumpeter Chris Persad. Lullaby of Birdland gets a brisk, lush and unexpectedly lurid, noir intepretation, tenor saxophonist Frank Elmo kicking in with more bluesiness that trombonist Matt Bilyk is obviously glad to take to the next level. Clare Fischer’s insightful, rather brooding Strayhorn amps the pensive, thoughtful factor with apt solos from Spicola on alto and Bergonzi on tenor.
In My Quiet Time is the real blockbuster here, a lushly orchestrated, suspenseful bolero-jazz stunner by Treni that never quite lets up through a tiptoeing bass solo by Takashi Atsuka and some spot-on, moody work by Ken Hitchcock on alto flute. What Is the World Coming To reverts to oldschool bluesy mode, with a succession of energetic solo spots from Craig Yaremko on alto, Hitchcock on tenor, Bob Ferrel on trombone and Cutro to wind things up on a somewhat tense note as the rhythm section goes in a funkier direction. Strayhorn’s UMMG gives pianist Charles Blenzig a chance to cut loose, judiciously; the album closes with Here’s That Rainy Day, featuring Blenzig and the bandleader along with the rest of the band, completely unleashed, then restrained and urbane: it’s a clever and smart way to end this soulful update on the classy style of a previous era.
While jazz is a worldwide phenomenon, artists from outside the United States so often bring unexpectedly welcome ideas with them. Maybe it’s that organist Kerong Chok is from Singapore, maybe not, but his new album Good Company isn’t your typical B3 groove record. There are a couple of pretty standard, brisk 8th-note shuffles here, but the rest of this collection of original compositions reveals a distinctive voice, a strong sense of melody and inspired playing from a first-rate band: Lucas Pino on tenor and soprano sax, and flute; Michael Valeanu on guitar; Jake Goldbas on drums and Matt Holman supplying trumpet on a couple of cuts. Goldbas is one of the principal reasons why this is such an enjoyable album, constantly on the prowl, swiping and scrambling for offbeats: he’s an extrovert and a hard hitter, which keeps the energy level consistently high.
The best composition here is the title track, taking what’s essentially a nocturnal soul ballad and making a jazz waltz out of it, much in the same vein as up-and-coming trombonist David Gibson’s best work. With rich harmonies between Chok and Pino, lushly atmospheric, crescendoing drums and a remarkably direct guitar solo that goes straight to the essence of the song, it packs a punch. Likewise, the cut which follows it, Incessant, which makes a deliciously radical shift from straight-up, catchy funk to some rivetingly moody modal interplay between Pino and Holman over Valeanu’s casually ominous chordal work. The way Chok goes spiraling beneath the hook as another brightly funky track, Free and Easy, winds out, is also a characteristically unpredictable, powerful moment.
Rather than being a dirge, The First Day of School is rhythmically tricky and allusively bluesy. Samba Number 1 follows a richly counterintuitive light-to-dark trajectory, on the wings of Chok’s rippling, bittersweet solo, while the languid, this-close-to-morose For Kenny gives Pino a long launching pad for a memorable, expansively pensive excursion on tenor. There’s also a slinky latin groove that has Goldbas hinting at reggae, and the wickedly catchy opening track, Black Ice, a swinging B3 take on Miles Davis-style modalities that gives Valeanu a platform for giving it depth and gravitas, eventually echoed by the whole band. This is something that ought to appeal not only to fans of jazz organ but to anyone looking for a solid and consistently interesting album of jazz songs – and they’re songs in the purest sense of the word.
If you’re a Henry Threadgill fan, you’ve probably already got his new sextet album Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp on Pi Recordings with his long-running band Zooid. Threadgill’s been at the forefront of improvised music for so long that we take him for granted, and we shouldn’t: 68 years old, still constantly questioning, searching, reflecting, pushing the envelope. For fans of collective improvisation, the question isn’t whether this is a good album, it’s where it fits in the Threadgill oeuvre, and the answer is close to the top. How sunny does the future look here? Is today all rain and gloom? Hardly. This is an upbeat, optimistic, richly energetic album.
The revelry is between the players: along with Threadgill on alto sax and flutes, there’s Jose Davila on trombone and tuba, Liberty Ellman on acoustic guitar, Christopher Hoffman on cello, Stomu Takeishi on acoustic bass guitar and Elliot Humberto Kavee on drums. Nuts-and-boltswise, what Threadgill is doing is assigning specific intervals to each instrument as a basis for improvisation, creating seemingly endless permutations of the intricate counterpoint that’s been a signature device of his for decades. It does for rhythm what Miles Davis’ modal approach did for melody. Threadgill has long been praised by his fellow musicians as a composer who writes specifically to his players’ strengths, and that’s especially apparent here.
The opening track, A Day Off, is basically a fractured swing tune. A bass/cello pulse loosens as Ellman wanders and Hoffman fills in the spaces with a carefully interweave. Then Takeishi joins the spiral as Ellman dips low, Threadgill joins the party and the rest of the group can’t help but take the casually jaunty energy up a notch. The title track begins as artfully camouflaged clave and a rhythmic thicket lit up on one end by prowling tuba and on the other by Ellman’s atonal chords, Threadgill’s blithe flute handing off to the cello which takes it in a darker direction while Kavee slowly switches to a shuffle. The relatively brief So Pleased, No Clue slows the pace and distances the instruments from each other: spacious pizzicato cello and guitar echoing each other, tectonic shifts between the low instruments and if you listen closely, you realize they’re playing a rondo!
The centerpiece here is See the Blackbird Now. It’s the most overtly melodic and by far the darkest track here: Threadgill’s long, moodily bluesy bass flute solo following Hoffman’s apprehensive staccato is arguably the album’s high point. Ellman follows it gingerly as the band meanders murkily behind him, the trombone pulling everybody back above ground. Hoffman’s agile staccato lines evoke Stephane Grappelli as the band pulses and shuffles on the neatly entwining Ambient Pressure Thereby, Threadgill’s enigmatic alto sax bobbing and weaving as the rhythm coalesces apprehensively and then relaxes for a playful joust between guitar and tuba. Davila’s trombone gets to build spaciously joyous suspense for the rest of the band to explore and gently sway toward a resolution on the concluding cut: Hoffman gets to take his time relishing in bringing it around. For fans of improvised music, it doesn’t get much better than this.