There’s nothing doomed or apocalyptic about the Twins of El Dorado‘s album Portend the End. In fact, it’s a lot of fun. Trumpeter Joe Moffett and singer Kristin Slipp play off each other with a wry cameraderie and a sense of thinking outside the box. It’s a casual, low-key album. While Slipp doesn’t hesitate to use the top end of her jaw-dropping four-octave range, Moffett usually plays it pretty chill. In such a seemingly free-form, improvisationally-inclined situation, it’s unusual to hear as much communication and commitment to maintaining a mood as these two have here: they leave the squonking and rasping and extended technique to others.
A few of the songs have lyrics; most of the time, Slipp sings vocalese in her clear, direct, unaffected soprano. The majority of the tracks are on the short side. The opening cut sets the stage, Slipp bobbing and weaving in counterpoint against Moffett: it gets funnier as it goes along. Slipp opens the second number with a giant leap and then loops her part against Moffett’s nonchalant stroll, then they switch roles. The next three tunes employ a surreal, comedically tinged spoken word element.
Moffett then moves into nonchalant exploratory mode out of divergent harmonies, followed by an improvisation with an irrepressibly droll game of hide-and-seek. A marching miniature, an airy study in stratospheric vocals and the single piece here that veers toward performance art wind up the album. Prom Night Records gets credit for sending this intriguing and surprisingly entertaining collection out into the world.
The debut release from Hush Point is a casually jaunty, low-key summery album. Trumpeter John McNeil and alto saxophonist Jeremy Udden front this pianoless dual horn band. Aryeh Kobrinsky plays bass and contributes the album’s concluding, understatedly celebratory, New Orleans-flavored track; Vinnie Sperazza, whose elbow-dodging shuffles are one of the best things about the recent Ben Holmes Quartet album, does much the same here on drums. With a somewhat muted, dancing rhythm, the quartet sets a mood and maintains it – no wasted notes, good energy, interesting repartee. The groove bounces unpredictably enough to keep everyone on their toes – unostentatious, purposeful, focused.
There are two Jimmy Giuffre compositions here. The first, Iranic, is done as an airy shuffle, with skeletal drum interludes punctuated by similarly skeletal flourishes from the horns. The second, a punchy, amiable McNeil arrangement of The Train & the River has the sax cleverly shadowing the trumpet, Udden eventually reaching for as boisterous a crescendo as there is here.
There’s considerable similarity between the remaining tracks, by both McNeil and Udden. The former contributes Peachful, an easygoing, balmy, summery bounce; Finely Done, an allusive retro 60s number that reaches for and finally hits a shuffling swing; and the warmly upbeat, blues-infused Get Out. Udden’s are somewhat more pensive and grounded in tunesmithing rather than improvisation. B. Remembered offers a lively, swinging variation on the first McNeil track. Bar Talk (yup, that’s a pun) features intricate, baroque-tinged three-way counterpoint between the bass and the horns and forms a diptych with the ballad Fathers and Sons, which finally loosens and gives Sperazza a chance to expand. New Bolero, the darkest and strongest track here, cleverly shifts to doubletime and back, working its way to an unexpectedly moody slink before the band cuts loose and swings it.
If you could see the Kronos Quartet two nights in a row – for free – wouldn’t you? That’s part of the premise of this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival. It was no surprise that the seats filled up early last night for an exhilarating string-driven cross-continental journey that began in Syria and ended in Greece, with flights to Palestine and India in between.
The group opened with a deliciously intense, hauntingly pulsing number by Syrian star Omar Souleyman titled I’ll Prevent the Hunters from Hunting You, a particularly apt choice considering the ongoing revolutionary struggles there. Violinist John Sherba’s nonchalantly sizzling swoops and dives soared against the beat of violist Hank Dutt, who was playing goblet drum, amped up in the mix for a ba-BOOM swing that put to shame any drum machine ever devised. They followed with a gorgeously ambered, austere old Yachiel Karniol cantorial tone poem of sorts, Sim Shalom (Let There Be Peace), a feature for the group’s new cellist Sunny Yang to air out the whispery, occasionally wailling ghosts in her instrument.
An electrocoustic take on Palestinian group Ramallah Underground‘s gritty, metaphorically charged Tashweesh (Distortion) was next, the ensemble adhering tightly to a backing track for a hypnotic, menacingly Lynchian ambience. Avant garde Vietnamese-American zither player Van-Anh Vo then joined the ensemble on the traditional, spiky dan tranh and vocals (and later played keening, sinister glissandos on a loudly amplified dan bao) for a lush pastorale possibly titled Green Delta. Violinist David Harrington led them through Vo’s Christmas Storm to a wild chamber-metal crescendo out; Dutt switched to a screechy wood flute for a third Vo work, before returning to his usual axe as the piece morphed into a lithe dance. After a long, rapt Ljova arrangement of the anxiously dreamy alap section of a Ram Narayan raga, Harrington switching to the resonant sarangi, the ensemble brought up Magda Giannikou, frontwoman of the disarmingly charming French lounge-pop group Banda Magda, to play a new, custom-made lanterna with its deep, rippling, pinging tones. The world premiere of her new work Strope in Antistrophe mingled biting yet playful cadenzas and tricky back-and-forth polyrhythms within a warmly tuneful, enveloping atmosphere.
Aptly named Irish chamber-folk quartet the Gloaming opened the evening with a series of resonantly nocturnal arrangements of ancient songs as well as a couple of new ones that sounded like them, violinist Martin Hayes’ otherworldly, deceptively simple washes of melody rising over Dennis Cahill’s casually meticulous guitar, along with piano and vocals. What’s the likelihood of seeing something this esoteric, and this much fun? In the next couple of weeks, pretty much every day.
The Kronos Quartet are celebrating their fortieth anniversary this year, so it makes sense that the beginning of this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival – one of the best ever – would be centered around that landmark occasion. The world’s most adventurous string quartet have an auspicious new cellist, Sunny Yang (replacing Jeffrey Ziegler) and their usual slate of premieres and new commissions. Even by their paradigm-shifting standards, their world premiere of Ukraine-born Mariana Sadovska’s Chernobyl: The Harvest – with the composer on vocals and harmonium – this past evening at the Damrosch Park bandshell was nothing short of shattering, It’s a suite of old Ukrainian folk songs reinvented to commemorate the horror of the 1986 nuclear disaster, which by conservative standards killed at least a million people around the globe and caused the breakup of the Soviet Union, the world’s second-greatest power at the time.
Singing in Ukrainian, Sadovska began it a-cappella with her signature nuance, a thousands shades of angst, sometimes barely breathing, sometimes at a fullscale wail, occasionally employing foreboding microtones to max out the menace. Violist Hank Dutt got the plum assignment of leading the ensemble to join her, Yang’s foreboding drone underpinning a series of up-and-down, Julia Wolfe-esque motives. Quavering, anxious Iranian-tinged flutters from the cello along with violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, astringently atmospheric harmonics and a big, uneasy crescendo, the harmonium going full steam, built to a savagely sarcastic faux circus motif and then a diabolical dance. That was the harvest, a brutal portrayal whose ultimate toll is still unknown. Through a plaintive theme and variations, Sadovska’s voice rose methodically from stunned horror to indignance and wrath: again, the triptych’s final theme, Heaven, appeared to be sarcastic to the extreme, Sadovska determined not to let the calamity slip from memory. Nuclear time forgives much more slowly than time as we experience it: 26 years after the catastrophe, wild mushrooms in Germany – thousands of miles from the disaster scene – remain inedible, contaminated with deadly nuclear toxins.
In a counterintuitive stroke of booking, luminous singer Shara Worden’s kinetic art-rock octet, My Brightest Diamond headlined. They’re like the Eurythmics except with good vocals and good songs – hmmm, that doesn’t leave much, does it? Or like ELO during their momentary lapse into disco, but better. Sh-sh-sh-sh-Shara can get away with referencing herself in a song because she does it with tongue planted firmly in cheek, and because she’s as funny as she can be haunting. She loves props and costumes – a big cardboard moustache and a fez among them, this time out – and draws on a wide-ranging musical drama background. But she saves the drama for when she really needs to take a song over the edge, belting at gale force in contrast to a fat, droll synth bass pulse late in the show. Her lively arrangements rippled through the ensemble of Hideaki Aomori on alto sax, Lisa Raschiatore on clarinet and bass clarinet, CJ Cameriere on trumpet, Michael Davis on trombone and Alex Sopp on flutes, like the early/middle-period Moody Blues as orchestrated by Carl Nielsen. Sopp’s triumphant cadenzas capped off several big crescendos, as did Aomori on the second number, a circus rock song with dixieland flourishes. Worden brought the energy down to pensive for a bit, crooning with a low, ripe, Serena Jost-like intensity and playing Rhodes piano on a hypnotic trip-hop number. Worden switched to minimal but assured electric guitar on a slow, pensive tune and then a warm, gently arpeggiated love song, then to mbira on a similarly hypnotic but bouncier Afro-funk song. “A girl from the country had a dream, and the best place she could think of was here,” Worden beamed to the packed arena as she wound up the night. “We’re living the dream.”
Emily Wells was lost in limbo between the two. The smoky patterns on the kaleidoscopic light show projected behind her on the back of the stage offered more than a hint of the milieu she’s best suited to. It was a cruel if probably unintentional stroke of fate that stuck Wells, a competent singer, between two brilliant ones. Her music is quirky, playful and trippy to the extreme. Wells can be very entertaining to watch, when she’s building songs out of loops, adding layers of vocals, keys and violin, switching between instruments and her mixing board with split-second verve. But as her set – the longest one of the night – went on, it became painfully obvious that she wasn’t doing much more than karaoke. She sang her dubwise, trippy hip-hop/trip-hop/soul mashups in what became a monotonously hazy soul-influenced drawl without any sense of dynamics. Where Sadovska sang of nuclear apocalypse and Worden tersely explored existential themes, the best Wells could do was a Missy Elliott-ish trip-hop paean to Los Angeles. And when she addressed the crowd, Wells seemed lost, veering between a southern drawl and something like an Irish brogue. But the audience LOVED her, and gave her the most applause of anyone on the bill.
Lincoln Center Out of Doors is phenomenal this year: the Kronos Quartet will be there tomorrow and then Sunday night. The full calendar is here.
You’ve got your clear-as-a-bell, mystically deep trumpeters: Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Pam Fleming. You’re got your adrenalizing monsters: Peter Evans, Terrell Stafford, Tim Hagans. Then there are the ones who are both on an unpredictably regular basis: Ingrid Jensen and Brian Lynch, for starters. Lynch – who absolutely kills on the recent release by the South Florida Big Band – has an especially enticing show coming up at Iridium this Sunday, July 28 with rising star pianist Emmet Cohen plus the august Peter Washington and wild card Billy Hart on drums. Sets are at 8 and 10 PM.
Lynch has recently made a mark as both resurrector of perhaps unfairly neglected talent, and champion of future stars. Lynch’s blend of exhilarating, hard-charging bop and lyricism, Cohen’s reflective third-stream glimmer and the bass and drums’ rich legacy combine for a potentially transcendent evening.
Pianist Mara Rosenbloom’s latest album Songs from the Ground is elegant and purposefuly crafted, with recurrent, sonata-like thematic variations. But there’s a tension here, intentional or not. Alto saxophonist Darius Jones is a hard bop guy: brevity is not necessarily his thing. Rosenbloom is judicious to a fault and anything but showy: she’s all about the tunes. Sometimes that dichotomy provides contrast; in places, it’s jarring. Bassist Sean Conly and drummer Nick Anderson team up for an understated, dancing bounce. True to the album title, everyone keeps things close to the ground: there’s a lot of space here, and nobody uses it more effectively than Rosenbloom.
She also contributes a couple of solo interludes. The album opens with Relief, which builds to a victoriously stately, chordally-fueled third-stream majesty; later, Rosenbloom improvises an insistently crescendoing miniature. The first ensemble track, Whistle Stop, looks back to 80s jazz-pop but with considerably more rhythmic sophistication. taking on a folk-dance pulse on the wings of Rosenbloom’s leaping chords. Small Finds works a simple, emphatic, looped piano figure in 7/4 against Jones’ balmy, gentle lines and eventually goes swinging. Likewise, Unison casts the sax as a string section against Rosenbloom’s circularity and then a marvelously judicious, spacious solo, Conly’s similarly considered solo kicking off an unexpectedly dusky modal drive out. Common Language cleverly takes a wry blues drag and makes an anthem out of it with an expansive but nimbly orchestrated series of exchanges between the sax and piano.
The album winds up with the title track, a rainy-day pastoral epic that rises slowly out of the mist, shifting tempos from a pretty straight-up jazz waltz to a 6/8 sway, Anderson’s tersely emphatic rolls finally signaling a release from restraint for a soaring Jones, moving up and down from carefully considered to a scampering dance. It’s ridiculously catchy, very accessible and just as smartly assembled and played. Not bad for somebody playing with a surgically reconstructed elbow. If it holds up – and let’s hope it does – maybe someday Mara Rosenbloom and Tommy John will have more in common than they realize.
Saxophonist Uri Gurvich’s BabEl, out earlier this year from Tzadik, blends Middle Eastern influences into jazz with a rich, often majestic power. It’s one of the best albums of 2013..The ensemble here is the core of drummer Francisco Mela’s group, Gurvich out front of Mela, bassist Peter Slavov and pianist Leo Genovese and guest oudist Brahim Frigbane.
They waste no time going deep into a brooding desert mode with a Fribgane taqsim on the intro to the evocative Pyramids, Gurvich’s bitingly bright alto over a dancing rhythm. It’s half a step removed from what could otherwise be a droll Mexican folk melody – but that half step makes all the difference as they ride a long, darkly triumphant vamp out. Dervish Dance works a catchy, Joe Jackson-ish latin tune over a spiraling rhythm, Gurvich’s spiraling chromatics handing off to a dusky piano/bass/drums rumble.
Nedudim – Hebrew for “Journeys” – maintans the modal intensity over dancing rhythm and a terse Genovese piano vamp. After yet another biting Gurvich solo, Genovese – now on organ – takes it into phantasmagorical Ray Manzarek territory. Alfombra Magica follows that and keeps the magic going, a launching pad for subtly dark thematic variations from Gurvich and a coyly terse Slavov solo.
Scalerica de Oro jazzes up a Ladino folk tune and gets more interesting as it goes along, with repeated dynamic shifts and a Genovese organ solo played through a wah for extra surrealism. The Hagiga Suite works its way from apprehensively circling atmospherics to a spine-tingling, spiraling Gurvich solo, Genovese’s nonchalantly hard-hitting solo winding down to a fade. A jazz waltz, Camelao pairs off Genovese’s machinegunning piano with Gurvich’s calming cool. The album ends with the reflective, moody Valley of the Kings, Gurvich running lithe variations on a catchy Middle Eastern pop hook as the band switches up the rhythm underneath. This is only a capsule and really doesn’t do justice to the kind of animated teamwork that Mela and Slavov build together, or to Genovese’s gritty blend of Argentinian and Levantine flavors, both which reveal themselves more and more with repeated listening.
Among largescale improvisational jazz ensembles, the most rhythmic one is Adam Rudolph’s Go! Organic Orchestra. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering that the bandleader is a drummer. They’re more groove-oriented than Karl Berger’s Improvisers Orchestra and the late Butch Morris’ ensembles and utilize faster tempos than Burnt Sugar, at least compared to Greg Tate’s large-scale work with that group. What might come as a surprise is the hypnotic, lullaby aspect to the Rudolph band’s new album, their first studio effort, Sonic Mandala. Though it’s the band’s first album that wasn’t recorded in concert, there’s no question about how live it sounds, the mighty, genuinely orchestral effort of a grand total of 35 musicians. Shamanistic multi-drum interludes punctuate dreamy nocturnal ambience carried on the wings of a ten-piece string section, with departures into Indian and North African-flavored interludes. Flute and bass flute, often in ensemble passages, recure prominently, as do tradeoffs and contrasting pairings between the drum section and higher-register instruments, including winds, flutes and strings.
The suite comprises fourteen linked movements, moving up from a suspenseful rumble to a twinkling, late-night motorway theme, so to speak, plaintive clarinet signaling a shift into nebulosity. A trumpet cadenza announced a shift from calm woodwind ambience into a jungly rhythm that rises with lustrous, Karl Berger-esque colors into Anthony Braxton-style mass glissandos – the effect is among the most breathtaking here. A lively market scene winds down to a quiet bass pulse and then up with tersely dancing strings. Dynamically speaking, this is more of a comfortable ride through the mountains in a vintage Cadillac than a roller coaster.
The brass reaches its greatest heights with a stunningly cantabile resonance – it’s a choir without words – over rhythms that veer from an altered flamenco pulse, to Ethiopian allusions. Another dreamy sequence, rolling percussion and a bright conversation between saxes and violins reach a final, majestic cadenza before the murky but animated drum rumble out. Sleepy? No. Hallucinatory? Absolutely. This is one of the more entertaining and original large ensemble recordings of recent months. The cd comes with a full list of musician credits; core members whose names will resonate with most jazz fans include reedmen Ned Rothenberg and Avram Fefer, flutist Slvain Leroux, cornetist Graham Haynes, guitarist Kenny Wessel, violist Jason Kao Hwang, violinist Skye Steele, cellist Marika Hughes and percussionist Matt Kilmer.
With a nod to Dave Brubeck – album title, song titles and general lyricism included – Time Stands Still is the final album by pianist Satoko Fujii’s Ma-Do quartet. Sadly, bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu didn’t live to see it released, having teamed with the ensemble – also including Natsuki Tamura on trumpet and Akira Horikoshi on drums – to record it in a single session in the summer of 2011. Three months later, he was gone. In the liner notes, Fujii eerily relates a visitation by the bassist in one of her dreams shortly thereafter: he thanked her for the good times and then disappeared.
Like Tamura, his bass work and interplay with the quartet often involves extended technique: scrapy bowing, whispery overtones and glissandos. The two make a double wild card of sorts, whether pairing off or playing against Fujii’s alternately terse and blithely romping lines and Horikoshi’s matter-of-factly spacious, frequently suspenseful presence. Tamura’s phantasmagoria contrasts with Fujii’s precise, briefly bossa-inflected pulse on the opening track, Fortitude. Bouncing, insistent motives give way to a conspiratorial whisper and then a wary, flurrying martial groove on North Wind and Sun; the title track is the smash hit, Fujii’s catchy, staggered hookiness punctuated by circling solos by drums and trumpet.
Rolling Around does anything but – it’s a vehicle for drollery from Tamura and Koreyasu. Set the Clock Back works a vividly austere clockwork theme through cantabile trumpet/piano harmonies down to the spare rhythm section; it wouldn’t be out of place in the Sara Serpa catalog. The quartet revert to a staggered, moody, martial vein on Broken Time, livening it with wry blues allusions and a devious false ending. True to its title, Time Stands Still maxes out the suspense, a sepulchral tone poem building to a gorgeously plaintive, minimalist Fujii solo, ending the album on a particularly dark note.
Intricate, focused interplay is even prominent on Fujii’s latest trio album, Spring Storm, with Todd Nicholson on bass and Takashi Itani on drums A cinematic, forcefully percussive, torrentially Debussyesque rainscape opens the album: even the chaotic breaks are tightly rhythmic. Convection is a study in simple, clear riffage with subtle variations, particularly from Nicholson as he slips from incisive to nebulous. The variations go spiraling into triplets, with a memorably rumbling, polyrhythmic crescendo on the next track, Fuki, followed by Whirlwind, a thinly disguised, unexpectedly jaunty swing tune. The epic Maebure builds achingly from a brooding bass-and-piano moonscape to a punchy, funk-tinged central theme and back; the album ends with Tremble, a gorgeously angst-fueled miniature that ends all too soon. Fans of Fujii’s best small-group work, including her brilliant collaborations with Myra Melford and Carla Kihlstedt, will not be disappointed.
Wadada Leo Smith is Anthony Braxton, Miles Davis and Gil Evans rolled into one on his new album Occupy the World. It picks up where his magnum opus, last year’s Ten Freedom Summers left off. In the liner notes, Smith optimistically quotes Thoreau in envisioning the possibility of a better society than what the Western democracies have achieved thus far. Joining Smith and his longtime bassist John Lindberg for a set of towering new works for large ensemble is the 21-piece Finnish group Tumo, comprised of many of that scene’s most adventurous players. In many respects, this slightly smaller yet similarly lavish double-disc set echoes Ten Freedom Summers’ most lush, sweepingly atmospheric moments.
The opening composition, Queen Hatshepsut, grows methodically out of a somber, slowly syncopated theme followed by a triptych of group improvisations in the same vein as Smith’s old Chicago pal Anthony Braxton. It’s elegant and airy, with plenty of space for similarly judicious (and occasionally raucous) solo features from saxophones, flute and piano, with Smith’s own regal, resonant trumpet solo as its centerpiece.
The Bell 2 expands on Smith’s quartet composition originally released on Braxton’s 1968 album 3 Compositions of New Jazz, beefed up for large ensemble with a new introduction and a more rhythmic focus. Verneri Pohjola’s spacy electronics and Mikko Iinvanainen’s dark, biting electric guitar help carry it forty-five years from its origins as a lustrous proto Space Odyssey theme.
The first cd’s last track, Mount Kilimanjaro was written as a companion piece to Smith’s 2004 piece The Africana World. That one was a feature for violinist Jenifer Choi; this is a vehicle for Lindberg. It opens with an expansively spacious, majestically intense bowed bass solo, collides with cadenzas from the orchestra. epic drums pairing off against the strings’ fluttery angst.
The second cd opens with the Crossing on a Southern Road (A Memorial for Marion Brown), a sweepingly rapt 25-minute-plus homage to the late saxophonist. Dreamy ambience surrounds tersely dancing bass, an agitated pulse giving way to whispery strings, stately shifting shades, a burnished Smith muted trumpet solo and richly sustained, quiet swells that are suddenly and cruelly cut short.
The title track, perhaps ironically true to its inspiration, was completed in haste shortly before its 2011 premiere by the Oxford Improvisers Orchestra. It clocks in at over half an hour and interpolates portions of two previous works, Smith’s Kosmic Music and the string quartet section of In the Diaspora. And it’s counterintuitive: although there is frequent agitation, driven by biting, tumbling strings, it’s more of a methodically crescendoing tribute to resolute defiance. Again, Smith’s sostenuto trumpet serves as a frequent anchor, through a momentarily explosive duet with electric guitar. giving way to shifting sheets of orchestration and finally a gorgeously luminous full-orchestra coda with echoes of Gil Evans at his most majestic.
With tight and inspired playing, the cast also includes trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, trombonist Jari Hongisto, horn player Kalle Hassinen, tuba player Kenneth Ojutkangas, Seppo Kantonen on piano, Iro Haarla on harp, Kalle Kalima on guitar, Veli Kujala on quartertone accordion, Terhi Pylkkanen and Neils Thorkild Levinsen on violins, Barbora Hilpo on viola, Iida-Vilhelmiina Laine on cello, Ulf Krokfors on bass, and Janne Tuomi, Mika Kallio and Stefan Pasborg on drums. Finnish label Tum Records, recently home to Smith’s small-group projects, gets credit for putting this one out in a lavish package with artwork and extensive, insightful liner notes.