Tin Hat’s new album The Rain Is a Handsome Animal isn’t what you might expect: it goes in much more of a jazz direction than their earlier material, most famously their haunting contributions to the Everything Is Illuminated soundtrack. This one’s similar to the Hot Club of Detroit’s work with Cyrille Aimee but with a wider sonic palette – if that’s possible. Some of the tracks – a mix of instrumentals and vocal numbers sung by violinist Carla Kihlstedt – are airy and bouncy. Some of them have considerably more weight and gravitas. Minor key melodies dance and leap to a mix of beats, some of them tropical, with upper-register ambience from Kihlstedt, animatedly swirling interplay between accordionist Rob Reich and clarinetist Ben Goldberg providing a shimmery backdrop for guitarist Mark Orton’s spiky melody lines and gypsy-tinged pulse. It’s lively but bittersweet, measured but energetic.
A word about the lyrics: these are all settings of e.e. cummings poems (resisting the temptation to capitalize that name here is not easy). Those aren’t as whimsical as you might expect, but they’re still pretty obvious – although the genuineness and occasional unselfconscious urgency of Kihlstedt’s vocals gives them an unexpected dignity. One can only wonder what she could do with more substantial lyrical material. A couple of tracks wouldn’t be out of place in the more carefree section of the Rachelle Garniez songbook. The first, If Up’s the Word, works its way down from intertwining, reedy harmonies to a suspenseful interlude that underscores the lyrics’ urgent carpe-diem message. The second, Yes Is a Pleasant Country takes what’s essentially a blithely bluesy torch song and almost imperceptibly moves it into more pensive terrain on the wings of Kihlstedt’s increasingly biting lines.
The album’s opening track begins as a samba of sorts and builds from there, Kihlstedt’s vocals mining a coy breathiness. The instrumental title track blends gleefully brisk, swooping violin, gypsy guitar picking and a neat solo from Goldberg that rises from low and soulful to a joyous spin capped by Kihlstedt’s stratospherics. Sweet Spring, a love song, begins suspensefully and hushed before moving into uneasily dreamy territory fueled by contrasting piano-versus-violin textures.
Open His Head and the aptly citrusy Grapefruit both develop tango melodies out of acidic atmospherics, as does Unchanging, shifting from a fugue of sorts, to a rich mix of upper-register tonalities over the twin pulse of the bass clarinet and guitar bassline. A western gothic song that reminds of John Cale, Buffalo Bill shifts from a vivid brass to a drony atmospheric outro. The tour de force here is The Enormous Room, an epic that moves from quietly mysterious atonalities to pulsing wariness driven by the bass clarinet, a rather slashing Kihlstedt solo and then a warmer, anthemic guitar melody.
The most overtly jazzy track here is the brief So Shy Shy Shy; the most easygoing is the cheery, bucolic 2 Little Who’s. Human Rind has an uncharacteristically dark lyric matched by a bracing, intense interlude that circles out with a troubled insistence, while Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town reaches for a big rock anthem feel, with mixed results.
There are three more tracks here – the folks over at New Amsterdam don’t shortchange you! Diminutive works a sad rainy day tableau with fluttery violin front and center; the album wraps up with Little I, a hypnotic yet incisive tone poem, and Now (More Near Ourselves Than We), a torchy ballad that quickly goes in a more uneasy direction. Seventeen songs, many shades of grey, many shades of understated brilliance. Whoever would have thought that an e.e. cummings album would turn out like this?
The way to approach the Charlie Parker Festival in its early years was to show up early, not only because Tompkins Square Park would be packed. If you were lucky, this being the pre-internet era, you’d find a flyer that would give you an idea of whether to spend the afternoon in the park or at Lakeside Lounge around the corner. Often the bill would be so good that the bar wouldn’t even be a consideration until after the show was over. Then the festival became a two-day thing that started uptown at Marcus Garvey Park, winding up the next day downtown, which was twice as cool – a whole weekend full of mostly top-level, big-name jazz, for free. But recent years have not been so kind. Last year’s initial slate was cancelled by Bloombergian edict in anticipation of a hurricane that mysteriously never arrived; the substitute lineup that the promoters cobbled together a few days later for a single Harlem show slipped under most everyone’s radar. This year’s festival continued a downward slide, mirrored by the size of the crowds. Although all the seats uptown were taken by mid-afternoon, downtown seemed to be more poorly attended than ever, no great surprise considering what the bill had to offer in terms of star power and otherwise. If Lakeside was still open, Sunday would have been about about 80% Lakeside and 20% festival.
But over the course of the weekend, there were plenty of memorable moments. Saturday’s bill began with drummer Jamire Williams’ quartet Erimaj. The only thing in their set that alluded to a past prior to about 1967 was a sample from Charlie Parker – who sounded long past his prime whenever the snippet happened to be recorded, Kris Bowers stepping on him with a beautifully lingering series of lyrical piano phrases as he’d continue to do alongside Williams, Vicente Archer on bass guitar, guitarist Matt Stevens on Les Paul and Jason Moran guesting on Rhodes on a funk number. The opening number, aptly titled Unrest, saw Williams rising from tense, portentous In a Silent Way atmospherics to an increasingly agitated state, pushed further in that direction by Bowers’ elegantly biting phrases and Stevens’ crying single-note accents. From there they segued into a radically reinvented, basically rubato take on Ain’t Misbehaving, with fractured lyrics delivered haphazardly by the bandleader as he created a snowy swirl with his hardware, Bowers moving to Rhodes for a bubbly two-chord vamp out. Moran then came up to take over the Rhodes on a steadily paced funk number that evoked the Jazz Crusaders right before they dropped the “jazz.” Stevens’ Choosing Sides set a potently crescendoing, anthemic rock tune to a trickier tempo, then the guitarist went off on a long, meandering tangent, playing endless permutations off a single string in the same vein as 90s indie rock stoners like Thinking Fellers Union. Sometimes rock and jazz are like the sheep and the wolf that you’re trying to ferry across the river along with the lettuce. This was one of those case where the boat wouldn’t hold all three, with predictable results. They went back to the pretty straight-up, echoey Rhodes funk to close it out with an amiably energetic groove.
After a set of standards and soul hits by chanteuse Rene Marie and her trio, a well-liked local attraction, 87-year-old drummer Roy Haynes practically skipped to the front of the stage. Playing with the vigor of a man half his age and working the crowd for all it was worth, he took his time getting going, choosing his spots, leaving all kinds of suspenseful spaces for the Fountain of Youth Band: Jaleel Shaw on alto sax, Martin Bejerano on piano and a bassist who took considerably fewer chances than his bandmates. It didn’t take long for Haynes and Bejerano to engage in clenched-teeth polyrhythms, the pianist quoting Brubeck’s Camptown Races and then Monk, Shaw – who rose gracefully to the impossible task of filling Charlie Parker’s shoes alongside Bird’s old drummer – weaving his way expertly into a climactic series of trills.
Haynes is the prototype for guys like Tyshawn Sorey, who rather than banging a beat out of the kit, let the sound rise from within: his big, boomy sonics bely the fact that he’s actually not wailing all that hard. That became key to a long, stunningly energetic solo that Haynes eventually used for comic relief as he spun in his seat, dashing from tom to tom, telling the crowd that, no, it wasn’t over yet and he’d let them know when it was. They did a couple of pretty ballads, the second, Springtime in New York rising to a brisk latin pulse, Shaw finally cutting loose with a raw shriek after playing steady, thoughtfully bright bop lines all afternoon, Bejerano taking it back down into darker modal territory before a brief duel with Shaw and a clever series of false endings. All that made their blithe, carefree, casually allusive take on Ornithology seem almost like an afterthought.
Opening Sunday’s festivities with a trio set featuring bassist Philip Kuehn and drummer Kassa Overall, Sullivan Fortner made no attempt to bond with the crowd; he let them come to him. And they did, throughout an enigmatic, introverted, quietly fascinating set. From the still, meditative solo introduction to Thelonious Monk’s I Need You So, the pianist – best known at this point for his work with Roy Hargrove – reinvented it as a tone poem, taking his time building it with stately clusters and big banks of block chords. As he would do throughout the show, Fortner turned the tune over to Kuehn early on, who responded simply and effectively, a potently melodic foil to Fortner’s nebulous sostenuto. An original, Purple Circles built from a similar atmospheric backdrop to hints of a jazz waltz and then samba, once again putting the bass front and center for a long, incisive solo. They took the old standard Star Eyes from rubato expansiveness to a casual bounce, up and then down again. From there they picked up the pace and swung, took a memorable diversion into a beautiful ballad (anybody know what that one was?) and closed with a original that pretty much summed up the set, Overall’s animated swing and Kuehn’s sometimes incisive, sometimes hypnotic pulse walking a tightrope between contrast and seamlessness with Fortner’s opaquely lit chromatics.
And that was pretty much it for Sunday. There was poetry – really, really bad poetry, which no jazz could redeem. There was one of those selfconsciously fussy, arty bands, there was a crooner, and also Patience Higgins and the Sugar Hill Quartet, who excel at what they do – but where they excel the most is on their home turf, after the sun goes down, where it’s a lot easier to get close to the stage and feed off their oldschool energy. At times like this Lakeside becomes even more sorely missed.
This from the GVO, one of NYC’s edgiest orchestras. “About the orchestra: The Greenwich Village Orchestra was founded by downtown musicians in 1986. During the 2012/2013 season, the orchestra will put on 4 concerts between October 2012 and May 2013. Concerts are Sunday afternoons and are typically preceded by 5-7 rehearsals on Tuesday evenings, plus a dress rehearsal the Saturday morning before the concert. Members are not asked to pay dues to play with the orchestra.
Who: YOU! The GVO currently has full-membership positions open for all string players and French Horn, and substitute positions for other winds and brass.
What: Annual Auditions!
Where: Old Stuyvesant Campus
345 East 15th Street (between 1st and 2nd Avenues)
When: Tuesday, September 4, 2012
To get on the audition list, email email@example.com (include your name and instrument). We will contact you with the exact time of your audition. For details on audition requirements, visit http://www.gvo.org/auditions/“
Bassist Michael Feinberg found the inspiration for his new album The Elvin Jones Project somewhat by coincidence. While exploring the work of some of his favorite influences, among them Jimmy Garrison, Gene Perla and Dave Holland, he discovered that pretty much all of them had one connection or another with the iconic, extrovert jazz drummer. And the album does justice to Jones: like him, it’s counterintuitive. Along with the high-voltage material – propelled with a constant sense of the unexpected by the Cookers’ Billy Hart, an old friend of Jones and a similarly exuberant player – there’s a mix of quieter pieces, a couple of rarities and a single, somewhat skeletal, New Orleans-flavored Feinberg original. With all this in mind, it becomes less surprising that a relatively new jack like Feinberg could pull together such a formidable lineup for the project: Hart, plus George Garzone on tenor sax, Tim Hagans on trumpet, Leo Genovese (of Esperanza Spalding’s band) on piano and Rhodes, and Alex Wintz guesting on guitar on three tracks.
They bookend the album with two tracks from the 1982 album Earth Jones: the somewhat eerily twinkling In a Silent Way-flavored title track, hypnotically vamping with the echoey Rhodes and the occasional sudden, agitated crescendo; and Three Card Molly, Hart swinging it with clenched-teeth intensity punctuated by Hagans’ fiery, wailing attack and Genovese’s dynamically-charged spirals and atmospherics. The interlude toward the end of that last track, Genovese’s noir chords enhanced by Hart’s mysterioso cymbal splashes, is one of the album’s many high points.
Rather than trying to out-glissando Coltrane, Garzone brings a meticulously nuanced, understatedly spectacular, breathy rapidfire attack to Trane’s Miles Mode, Hart’s rumbling accents matched by Genovese’s hard-hitting piano, Feinberg evoking Christian McBride throughout a spacious, punchy solo. A more obscure swing number, Steve Grossman’s 1970 composition Taurus People, also benefits from aggressive teamwork from the rhythm section throughout Feinberg’s new arrangement, Hart having a grand old time throwing offbeats and cymbals into the fray, Garzone taking it down and out with an unexpectedly wary judiciousness.
They bring a triumphant, rather hypnotic early 70s intensity to Frank Foster’s The Unknighted Nations, Mintz’ offcenter guitar taking it further outside over Hart’s rollercoaster snare work, then bringing it all back to the hook with a single whiplash phrase. And Feinberg gives a clinic in lyrical solo bass on a version of Nancy with the Laughing Face, inspired by the 1962 Coltrane quartet version. The album is due out from Sunnyside on September 11; Feinberg leads pretty much the entire cast here at the cd release show at Birdland on September 13 at 6 PM, with $20 seats still available as of this writing.
In linguistics they call it code-switching: Me gusto this crazy band. Alto saxophonist David Bixler does this all the time throughout his new album The Nearest Exit May Be Inside Your Head. The language inside his head, as becomes clear right from the opening track, is hard bop. Over and over, he defiantly resists any kind of resolution to a consonant major or minor scale. And yet, his harmonies in tandem with trumpeter Scott Wendholdt are meticulous, and often exquisitely attractive. There’s also a definite harmonic language to what Bixler is playing: it just happens to be his own. The tension between the two idioms pretty much defines what he does here, along with the rest of the band: guitarist John Hart, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Andy Watson.
Those vibrant horn harmonies fuel the lively opening track, Perfected Surfaces. They follow more pensively on Vanishing Point, Okegwo’s terse, bouncing lines trading with Bixler and Wendholdt before it morphs into a jazz waltz with an unexpected crescendo. The briskly swinging Vida Blue – a homage to the legendary bon vivant baseball pitcher – looks back twenty years prior to Blue’s 70s heyday for its purist, blues-infused hooks, pulled off with considerable exuberance by Wendholdt and Bixler. Like he does several of the tracks here, Hart absolutely owns the thoughtful Three Dog Years – his matter-of-factly crescendoing solo weaves back and forth from oldschool blues and soul, always swinging back to grab hold solidly when it threatens to fly off into never-neverland. Latin allusions, gritty staccato guitar and animated yet pensive trumpet dominate throughout the title track, while Okegwo’s tense solo bass hands off to yet more soulful guitar, and then a potently misty Bixler solo on the next cut, Arise.
Arturo O’Farrill – a frequent Bixler collaborator, who provides extremely detailed and insightful liner notes that are hard to resist nicking verbatim – describes Thinking Cap as “quirky swing with great independence between the voices,” which is spot-on: Bixler’s acerbic, Charlie Rouse-flavored lines into Wendholt’s seamless trumpet make for one of the album’s high points. Another high point is Hart’s alternately spiraling and chordally-charged solo on The Darkness Is My Closest Friend, which actually is far less moody than the title would indicate. The final, funky cut, Goat Check – ostensibly a study in orneriness – once again showcases Hart’s irrepressible melodicism against Wendholt’s jauntiness and Bixler’s more opaque lines. Who is the audience for this? The hard bop crowd, to be sure, not to mention fans of guitar jazz, who will devour this thing. It’s out on O’Farrill’s Zoho label.
The release of the posthumous 301 album by genre-defying Swedish cult favorites the Esbjorn Svensson Trio (better known as EST), via the German ACT label, was worth the wait. Recorded in 2007 in Australia, less than a year before the tragic death of pianist Esbjorn Svensson in a scuba diving accident, it’s been tweaked and fine-tuned by the surviving band members, bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Ostrom, along with their longtime live sound engineer Ake Linton. This session captures the band at the peak of their powers, and will only add to the Svensson legend – it’s a characteristically rich, shapeshifting mix of third stream piano, cinematic themes, more straightforward American jazz, and a crushingly powerful centerpiece that characteristically resists categorization.
That work is a practically 21-minute diptych titled Three Falling Free. The introduction, with Svensson scattering neoromantic imagery that draws just as much on Brubeck as it does on Chopin, offers not the slightest hint of the mayhem that will ensue when Ostrom propels the thirteen-minute second part with a feral series of cascades. To call this tribal would not do it justice: the effect is something akin to the Grateful Dead doing Pink Floyd, with their entire percussion battery fully charged, but more intense than that. That Ostrom could vary his phrasing as subtly as he does, let alone get through it unscathed, is something else entirely. Berglund’s overdriven bass roars with distortion and eventually begins to throw off overtones that eventually linger as Ostrom chooses his spots, echoing the theme’s elegant central hook. Svensson, meanwhile, colors it with alternately minimalist and bluesy phrasing. It’s one of the most adrenalizing songs in any style released this year.
The rest of the album is less intense and more melodic. The opening nocturne, Behind the Stars, evokes Angelo Badalamenti’s most noirish work, Svensson’s spacious glimmers contrasting with Ostrom’s boomy minimalism as it slowly crescendos. The closing cut, The Childhood Dream, is similar, moving further toward a melodically bluesy ambience that reminds of Frank Foster at his most lyrical. A Monk-influenced, moody modal piece, The Left Lane develops a creepy ambience as Ostrom and Berglund embellish it against Svensson’s resonant whole-note chords, rising and falling with dark, glittery piano phrases that finally climb as the beat coalesces out of counterrythms. There’s also the hypnotically mysterious, almost imperceptibly crescendoing Inner City Lights, the band slowly developing a wary, blues-infused theme against some of the more prominent electronic touches that flicker, mostly in the background, throughout the album.
It’s not known if this most recent release is the final installment of the EST archive, or if there is more to come. Whatever the case, this is a rich addition to the band’s legacy, one that came to an end far too soon.
Prime movers in the gypsy jazz resurgence, the Hot Club of Detroit’s new album, Junction, features a somewhat revamped lineup since bassist Andrew Kratzat suffered a near-fatal car accident last year. But there’s good news on all fronts: Kratzat and his fiancee continue on their road to recovery, and the band found a capable replacement in Shawn Conley. Otherwise, the original core of accordionist Julien Labro and guitarists Evan Perri and Paul Brady is back, joined this time out by reedmen Jon Irabagon and Andrew Bishop plus chanteuse Cyrille Aimee, with whom they’ve toured extensively. Irabagon’s wit and supersonic chops, Bishop’s eclecticism and ironclad sense of melody and Aimee’s purist charm each contribute to the diversity of the songs here. In the spirit of the band’s previous efforts, this album imaginatively blends jaunty grooves with ideas from all over the musical spectrum, continuing to push beyond traditional gypsy jazz.
That’s apparent right off the bat with a funky Irabagon composition, Goodbye Mr. Anderson (a Matrix reference, in case you might be wondering). It’s basically a two-chord jam with a catchy turnaround: spiraling solos from Labro’s accordion and Perri’s electric guitar set up an even more blistering, adrenalizing one from the composer himself.
They follow that with Song for Gabriel, the first of several Perri/Labro co-writes, bouncy and lyrical with some rich alto sax/accordion harmonies. Aimee sings La Foule over tricky, syncopated gypsy jazz: it’s a mouthful, and rather than trying to outdo Piaf, Aimee takes it in a much more understated direction, Perri adding an aptly wistful, expansive acoustic guitar solo.
An upbeat tune simply titled Hey! makes a launching pad for a wildfire cutting contest between Irabagon and Bishop: after a roller-coaster ride of doublestops, trills, unexpected hesitations and gritty microtones, they take it down to a cool accordion/bass/guitar pulse. Chutzpah, a John Zorn homage, kicks off with a tongue-in-cheek improvisational intro and then adds a subtle klezmer tinge, Irabagon springboarding off it with microtonal alto sax pyrotechnics. Then they resurrect a rare Django mass (which Reinhardt left unfinished), Messe Gitane, accordion taking the rather morose role of the church organ, Perri’s guitar eventually taking it into warmer terrain and then handing off to Bishop’s crystalline clarinet.
Django Mort, a setting of a Jean Cocteau poem is delivered very low-key by Aimee over a slow, stately sway. The cinematic, pensively swaying title track, with its folk-rock tinges and plaintive accordion, reminds of Montreal eclecticists Sagapool. The most memorable of all the tracks here, Midnight in Detroit is over too soon in just over a couple of minutes, Labro’s Balkan swirls lighting up the guitars’ nocturnal backdrop.
There’s also a George Shearing homage done as an offcenter, pensive ballad; the deliciously original Puck Bunny, a wry mix of country blues,gypsy swing and jump blues that evokes the Microscopic Septet’s take on Thelonious Monk; a vocal take on Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman that far surpasses a similar version by [who???] which was a rock radio hit in the 70s; and a Phish cover which transcends the original simply by not being an embarrassment. It’s out now on Mack Avenue.
At this point in time, pianist Amina Figarova’s enduring masterpiece is her September Suite, a harrowing reflection written in the wake of 9/11 that remains one of the most haunting albums of the last couple of decades. Her new album Twelve is her best, most focused and most impactful release since then – intentionally or not, it’s interesting how the number twelve would follow 9/11 in terms of the high points of her prolific career. This album is considerably quieter and more pensive than her previous one, Sketches, a bustling, colorful, loosely thematic series of travelogues. Figarova’s always had a knack for translucent horn arrangements, and the ones here are among her richest. Although throughout her career she has been generous in giving herself and her band plenty of room for soloing, this album is remarkable for its absence of wasted notes and dedication to purpose. The chemistry in her longtime band – husband and multi-flutist Bart Platteau, trumpeter Ernie Hammes, saxophonist Mark Mommaas, bassist Jeroen Vierdag and drummer Chris “Buckshot” Strik – is comfortably familiar. The compositions are as cinematic as she’s ever written. Maybe trading her old Rotterdam haunts for a new life in New York is part of the deal – whatever the case, let’s hope she stays.
It’s interesting how New York State would inspire her to evoke Brazil on the opening track, NYCST, dancing syncopation from Platteau and Mommaas sandwiching Figarova’s precise pointillisms. The second track, Another Side of the Ocean is classic Figarova, pensive and acerbic and then growing more lush, Hammes’ gentle swirls adding brightness, Platteau’s flute dancing cautiously over its elegantly shifting pulse. The most gripping track here might be Sneaky Seagulls, which juxtaposes an abrasive sax/trumpet interlude that’s more Hitchcockian than beachy against Keystone Kops swing, and then a potently aching alto solo from Mommaas. Likewise, tense harmonies between sax and flute lead into an eerily fluttering Figarova solo on a quieter seaside scene, Shut Eyes, Sea Waves: the uneasy, atmospheric backdrop behind Figarova’s spacious, unsettled solo out has a gently resolute vividness worthy of Gil Evans.
By contrast, On the Go is another one of Figarova’s travelogues, a latin theme as Joe Jackson might do it, lit up by a cleverly wry trumpet solo, Platteau then taking it back to brisk, matter-of-fact insistence. The most vividly lyrical of all the songs here is Isabelle, a portrait of Vierdag’s girlfriend, who comes across as stunningly perceptive, beautiful and easily wounded – and on guard against that. Then the band goes back to brisk, just-short-of-breathless swing with the Midtown Manhattan-flavored Make It Happen. The title track – in 12/8 meter, just to hammer home the numerological concept – develops a pensive neoromantic piano theme backed by a gorgeously burnished horn chart, expansively explored by flute and then piano.
The samba-flavored New Birth has yet another richly harmonized horn arrangement, casually steady postbop incisions from Mommaas and a lively Figarova solo. Then they get quiet again with Morning Pace and its allusions to blues and spirituals – Vierdag’s bass mingling with and then peering up through Figarova’s solo is another especially choice moment here. A portrait of a favorite grandmother who comes across as more impish than stern, Leila is full of latin tinges and eventually a wry approximation of a conga break. The album ends on a potently uneasy note with Maria’s Request – Figarova will go to great lengths to make her fans happy, and this is a classic example. Platteau’s soulful, balmy bass flute leads it up over Figarova’s nocturnal phrasing, the chords of the bass taking it out with a bracing absence of resolution. All these diversely picturesque pieces come together with an effortlessness that soft-pedals the fact that this is simply one of the most consistently enjoyable and attractive jazz albums of 2012. It’s out on the German In + Out label.
Memo to jazz bloggers: if somebody sends you a great album and you sit on it, you might just get scooped by the New York Times. Well, not that often – but it could happen, just as it did when the folks at Resonance sent over a copy of pianist Donald Vega’s new album, Spiritual Nature. Not that it needs the Times’ imprimatur (although he deserves the press): the album stands on its own merits as one of 2012’s most memorable. The Nicaraguan-born, California-educated Vega, a protege of John Clayton and Ron Carter, has listened deeply and absorbed much of the best postbop from the 60s forward along with plenty of salsa jazz and classical, influences he blends with equal parts power and subtlety, gravitas and grace. He has a veteran’s touch and a bag of licks to match, so it’s hard to think of another player of his generation that he resembles. One comparison from an earlier era, who continues to blend melodicism and improvisational latin-flavored bite as a member of the Cookers, is George Cables.
Vega is also a strong composer, as evidenced right off the bat with the album’s hard-hitting opening cut, Scorpion, from its no-nonsense horn hook (Bob Sheppard on alto sax, Gilbert Castellanos on trumpet and Bob McChesney on trombone) to Christian McBride’s tersely walking pulse, Lewis Nash’s counterintuitive drum attack and Vega’s lyrical, richly blues-tinged solos. Just the presence of that rhythm section signals how purist and auspicious this session became. The second cut, Ron Carter’s First Trip, interchanges balletesque syncopation and oldschool swing; they follow that with a balmy take on Monty Alexander’s River, featuring gossamer violin from Christian Howes, McBride anchoring Vega’s delicate blend of neoromanticism and the blues firmly in the earth. A second Alexander composition, Accompong, gets a considerably brighter, more bouncy interpretation, crescendoing with Anthony Wilson’s bubbly guitar work trading with Vega’s more spiky phrasing.
With its alternately light and dark modal dichotomy, swaying clave pulse and relentlessly crescendoing intensity from Vega, the title track – another Vega composition – is a standout here. Vega amps up the ambuiguity and suspense on a Neils Henning-Orsted Pedersen jazz waltz, Future Child, before taking it in a more genial yet restrained direction, as he does a little later with his ballad Contemplation, moving from spare and wary and then relaxing as an artfully arranged series of distinct horn voices emerges. Makato Ozone’s You Never Tell Me Anything gets a straight-up jump blues treatment: Vega’s exuberant flurries leaping onto the tail end of a bustling Nash drum break are one of the album’s most characteristic examples of the rich, purist interplay here.
Vega’s arrangement of Scriabin’s Etude, Op. 8., No. 2 is both lyrical and great fun, incorporating both Ethiopian melodic tropes and rhythms, a jazz waltz, and an absolutely gorgeous piano solo that Vega sends spiraling downward to darker terrain. A Jobim diptych, Falando de Amor; Tema de Amor gets a similarly third-stream, expansive take, while Vega’s Child’s Play has the feel of a jazzed-up Caribbean folk song, with its carefree violin and Nash’s playful conga-flavored groove. The album ends with Benny Golson’s Clifford Brown homage I Remember Clifford, building slowly and methodically to become more of a fond wee-hours reminiscence than an elegy. As far as both the compositions and the playing here are concerned, this album is head and shoulders above 99% of what’s come out this year. It’s deep stuff. It takes a long time to get to know and all of that is a pleasure.
Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s debut collection, Rhizoma, came out late last year on Innova. This minimalistic yet lush, desolate yet forcefully immediate, dark masterpiece hasn’t yet reached the audience it should. Interpolated between its three orchestral works is a murky five-part suite, Hidden, for solo percussed piano, played with judiciously brooding intensity by Justin DeHart. A series of low rumbles punctuated by the occasional sepulchral brush of the piano strings, with deftly placed single notes or simple phrases, the motifs are spaced apart with considerable distance, to the point of creating a Plutonian pace. The piece compares favorably with Eli Keszler’s recent, stygian work – and is best enjoyed as a cohesive whole, resequenced so its segments play consecutively.
The big orchestral works are showstoppers, to put it mildly. The first, Hrim (the Icelandic term for the growth of ice crystals) is performed by the seventeen-piece chamber orchestra Caput Ensemble conducted by Snorri Sifgus Birgisson. A tense, wary tone poem spiced with sudden, jarring cadenzas from the brass, strings, percussion or piano, it begins with a muffled rumble eventually balanced by a high, keening string drone, building to long, shifting tones, a brief, horror-stricken interlude with the piano grappling against fluttering agitation from the violins and then follows a long trajectory downward to eventual silence. Far more dramatic is the potently cinematic Streaming Arhythmia. Once again, mutedly minimal motifs from a long series of voices over a droning rumble build to a scurrying crescendo where everyone seems to have frantically thrown their windows wide to see what horrific event is about to take place. From there the orchestra builds a big black-sky theme (like a wide-open, expansive blue-sky theme but vastly more menacing), low strings in tandem with the timpani and brass at the bottom of their registers. Autumnal hues eventually ebb and fall over the drones; it ends on an unexpectedly playful note, the horror having gone up in smoke, or back into ocean.
The centerpiece, performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Bjarnason is sardonically titled Dreaming – but it’s a fullscale nightmare. Fading up with suspenseful Art of Noise-style footfalls over an amber glimmer, microtonal sheets of sound rise with a stately swirl and a distant menace. Waves of muted, rumbling percussion introduce an ominous cumulo-nimbus ambience and allusively tense minor-key phrases (from a compositional standpoint, this is a clinic in implied melody), fading elegantly to ghostly knocks, flutters and flurries.
To say that this album engages the listener is quite the understatement: obviously, these works were made first and foremost for live performance. On cd, the vast dynamic range Thorvaldsdottir employs requires constant attention to the volume level. This does not facilitate casual listening: it’s inaudible if you turn it down too low, and it can become extremely jarring if you turn it up. But maybe that’s the point of all this. Minimalism has seldom been so in-your-face. Who is the audience for this? Fans of dark sounds in general, dark cinematic composers like Bernard Herrmann, and also those who gravitate toward the horizontal work of Gerard Grisey or Henryk Gorecki but wish it had more rhythm and dynamics.