The headliner at this year’s Charlie Parker Jazz Festival just keeps putting out great albums. Is there another saxophonist alive who says as much with passing tones as Kenny Garrett? His previous album Seeds from the Underground in many respects was a shout-out to many of the latest generation of jazz players that Garrett has mentored. His new one, Pushing the World Away is less eclectic, mostly a quartet session with piano and lots of latin grooves plus those menacing modal vamps that Garrett loves so much and plays with such an instantly recognizable intensity. The basic lineup alongside Garrett is Benito Gonzalez on piano, Corcoran Holt on bass and Marcus Baylor on drums, although as usual, there are many cameos.
The hard-hitting opening track, A Side Order of Hijiki is neither oceanic nor Asian-flavored but it is a little salty – the title actually references a wry Mulgrew Miller joke about Garrett’s restless style. Hey, Chick, a Corea dedication, works its way up to waltz time over Holt’s offbeat pedal pulse and then alternates between apprehensively fiery and majestic, Baylor kicking up some dust underneath.
Chucho’s Mambo, a shout-out to Chucho Valdes (who shares Garrett’s birthday) has more bite and funk, both lush and lively with guest Ravi Best on trumpet. As one might expect, Lincoln Center is an energetic, sophisticated theme that the band threatens to send whirling off the rails until Garrett finally, matter-of-factly walks his way to another one of those searing modal vamps. J’Ouvert (Homage to Sonnny Rollins) blends carefree tropicalia into a New Orleans shuffle, while That’s It hews suspiciously close to Bobby Hebb’s old soul hit, Sunny, with more of a latin flavor.
With its Cuban piano, I Say a Little Prayer totally nails the latin groove that Burt Bacharach was going for, slinky and suspenseful. The album’s title track, a long, biting soprano feature, sprinkles unexpectedly comedic riffage into the eerie blaze, its hooks alluding to a certain Paul Desmond classic. Homma San builds off a simple Asian-tinged piano riff, then Garrett takes a turn at the piano on Brother Brown, an austere, nuanced clinic in implied melody with a three-piece string section. Alpha Man, with its Lez Zep allusions, is a classic Garrett wailer and maybe the best track here, at least the most intense one. The album winds up on the same aggressive note as it began with Rotation, a blazing, allusively menacing feature for guest pianist Vernell Brown. What else is there to say about this – if adrenaline is yout thing, Garrett never fails to deliver.
The Verve Jazz Ensemble’s album It’s About Time does double duty as merchandise and demo reel. It’s as if to say, this is what we sound like, tight and together in the studio…and this is us playing the second set at your club on a Friday night after a few drinks. To follow this cynical thread to its logical extreme, why play familiar standards, from Miles Davis to Henry Mancini, when you could be playing your own music? Maybe because these guys – Tatum Greenblatt on trumpet and flugelhorn, Jon Blanck on tenor sax, Matt Oestreicher on piano, Chris DeAngelis on bass and Josh Feldstein on drums – have so much fun doing it.
One of the reasons why this is a fun, purist album is Blanck’s arrangements. For example, they do the album’s second track, Softly As in a Morning Sunrise, a little faster than most groups do, as a dark bolero. That’s the “album version,” the first take. There’s also a second take, which trades the band’s intense focus for a far looser but rewardingly reckless approach lit up by a febrile Blanck solo: it more than hints at what this group may have up their collective sleeves.
Another cool arrangement is their take of Big Swing Face, the horns doing a boisterous approximation of the Buddy Rich big band version against Oestreicher’s glistening neon resonance. The album ends with a second take of that one, which is a lot faster and gives Greenblatt a welcome chance to cut loose and go as high as the band does here.
Miles’ Boplicity gets a careful, judicious treatment, but Greenblatt’s second solo is less wee hours than warmly anticipatory, bringing in a vivid early morning ambience. They do
Henry Mancini’s The Days of Wine and Roses as a piano/bass/drums trio, swinging up to a succinct, ringing Oestreicher solo and eventually a clever series of false endings. Duke Jordan’s Jordu gives them a chance to work jaunty syncopation against a tireless bass walk. There are also two versions of Tadd Dameron’s Lady Bird: the first with a lustrous sheen from the horns and a matter-of-fact swing, the second a looser, more relaxed, nocturnal take with a sinuous DeAngelis solo.
Some bassists make their living by tirelessly walking scales. Linda Oh is not one of them. As a supporting player – notably in Dave Douglas’ quintet – she’s a close listener, every bit as much a melodic presence as a rhythmic one. Last night at the Jazz Standard, leading a quartet, it was all about Linda Oh the tunesmith, and she is a brilliant one. The hooks and the melody lept and danced from her four strings, venturing animatedly from that deep well as she and the band celebrated the release of her latest album Sun Pictures. Guitarist Matt Stevens spun his volume knob both ways for subtle, misty chords and insistently kinetic single-note runs as tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens added gentle late-afternoon colors and the occasional flurry of bop over drummer Rudy Royston’s intricate, pointillistic, often wryly scurrying shuffles. Royston and Oh in particular share a deep camaraderie which in this unit frees him to serve as colorist while the bass anchors the music.
Oh knows that hooks are simple; much as there was a lot going on in the band, the music was uncluttered. Her measuredly bounding solo intro set the table for the night’s opening number, Yoda, Stephens following her lead, carefree, Stevens hinting at bossa nova, Royston supplying an incessantly nimble, funky rustle over Oh’s subtle, lithe variations on a three-note chromatic riff. The song title isn’t meant to evoke anything related to Star Wars; it’s a tribute to Oh’s older sister. The night’s second number worked off an even simpler hook, a leaping vamp that worked its way subtly to an understated clave, Oh’s judicious solo over nebulous washes and carefully positioned shades from the guitar. A lot of bassists like to mimic a horn line, but here Oh’s pointedly good-natured incisions had the bite of a piano as Royston rode the traps and the cymbals.
The evening’s third number built intensity with a long suspeneseful intro, Oh’s pulse taut against its harmonic edges, Royston riding the traps again and eventually pushing it upward with a long, flurrying crescendo, Stephens winding it down gracefully at the end. After that, Oh led them through swaying, understatedly funky variations on a four-chord hook that subtly grew even more minimalistic, through a judicious Stevens solo that went from lingering to sparkling, Stephens goodnaturedly fluttering and exploring, Oh bringing everything into focus with her spaciously nuanced staccato attack. She and Royston had great mysterious fun building to doublespeed on Polyphonic HMI (a sardonic reference to the algorithms created to help corporate music execs predict pop hits) from its bright opening hooks, Stevens’ deftly spaced chords holding the center. They wound up their first set with Shutter Images, the groove-driven tone poem that opens the album, Stephens adding a wistful edge over the hypnotically tense throb of the guitar and bass.
Marc Cary is probably the most Ellingtonian pianist out there right now. That may be the highest praise anyone can confer on a pianist, but Cary reaffims that trait over and over on his new album For the Love of Abbey, a collection of highly improvised solo versions of Abbey Lincoln songs. It’s stormy and ferociously articulate, like Lincoln – Cary should know, considering that he was her music director through the end of her career. It’s intense, hard-hitting but elegant to a fault. Without the constraints of having a band behind him, Cary seizes the opporutunity to play the changes rubato, taking his time over low, lingering, frequently explosive lefthand pedal notes. That this simple game plan would work as impactfully as it does throughout most of the songs here testifies to his power as an improviser: there’s not a single cliche on this album. Cary’s fluency in so many different vernaculars never ceases to amaze: irony-infused blues, menacing modalities, third-stream glimmer and gleam.
Cary opens by taking Music Is the Magic to a towering intensity a bluesy scramble and then back. Down Here below begins with a low-register rumble and rises to an epic majesty, from blues to hard-hitting block chords and a chillingly modal ending. One of only three tracks here not written by Lincoln, Ellington’s Melancholia is less melancholy than a rich exploration of Debussyesque colors and nebulously Asian tinges. Cary’s own For Moseka works cleverly out of a circular lefthand riff to a pensive jazz waltz that he sends spiraling.
Who Used to Dance gets a bitterly reflective poignancy; it’s over too soon. Should’ve Been is spaciously moody, but with bite, ending on an elegantly bitter downward run. My Love Is You is a study in suspense: Cary introduces what seem for a second to be familiar phrases, but then takes everything on unexected but purposeful tangents, a litle Asian, a little vaudevillian. Love Evolves makes a good segue from there, hypnotic and brooding, finally livened with a couple of rapidfire righthand flourishes before its final descent into Chopinesque, haunting austerity.
Throw It Away potently pairs chromatically crushing, eerie lefthand against a gospel-tinged, dynamically shifting melody. Another World provides a sense of relief from the severity yet doesn’t leave it completely behind; Cary throws a clock-chime motif into the works, a neat touch. A rapt, saturnine When I’m Called Home brings back hints of Asian melody and an unexpected ragtime-flavored jauntiness, seemingly a segue with Conversations with a Baby, which grows from tender to emphatic: it’s time to talk sense to that kid! Cary closes the album with a brief modal introduction of his own into Down Here Below the Horizon, a summation of sorts with its glittering, anguished waves, from Romantic rigor to a familiar blues trope that he turns utterly chilling. If you love Abbey Lincoln, as Cary very obviously still does, you will find the way he ends this absolutely shattering. It’ll bring tears to your eyes. As solo piano albums go, the only one from this year that remotely compares to this is Bobby Avey‘s murky Be Not So Long to Speak. Look for this high on the best albums of 2013 page here in December if we make it that far.
You might think that the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center would have played the summer concert series at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park at some point in the past 44 years, but it actually never happened until Thursday night. Which, when you think about it, isn’t so surprising. Lincoln Center being their home, the logical destination for them for summer concerts is out back in Damrosch Park. This was like the Mets making a visit to Yankee Stadium. How did they fare off their home turf? It would be nice to say they came to conquer; a more fair assessment would be that they met the situation halfway, through no fault of their own or the organizers of the Naumburg concerts, who do a fantastic job. The sound was amplified and mixed well and many people in the crowd got to take home a free t-shirt. What possibly could have gone wrong?
In the year 2013 it has become more than obvious that outdoor concerts in New York in the summer may soon become a thing of the past: combine budget cuts in every conceivable area with the effects of global warming and then do the math. Cellist David Finckel, violinist Sean Lee, violist Daniel Phillips and flutist Tara Helen O’Connor typically play the comfortable, sonically excellent, air-conditioned Alice Tully Hall when they’re not on the road. This time out, they had nasty humidity and heat to make their job difficult and impact their ability to stay in tune. They opened with Mozart’s Quartet in D for Flute, Violin, Viola and Cello, K285 and then followed with Beethoven’s Serenade in D for Flute, Violin and Viola, Op. 25. Both pieces, the Mozart especially, are the kind of works that composers of their era wrote to pay the bills: if not for the applause between the two, it would have been hard to tell when the former ended and the latter began. Whether the endless volleys of call-and-response, or simply the heat, lent an air of sluggishness, is open to debate: the concert will air in its entirety on WQXR on September 2; you can listen at ciento y cinco punto nueve (105.9 FM used to be the salsa romantica station) or at WQXR.org and be the judge.
But serendipitously, the Beethoven picked up with a lively folk dance just as the sun set and a cool calm settled over Central Park, and suddenly the musicians seemed at home, through the dynamically shifting three final movements, ending on a drolly energetic, teasing note with a series of classic Beethovenesque endings. Then pianist Wu Han joined the full ensemble and they played Dvorak’s Quintet in A Major, B. 155, Op. 81. You probably know this piece even if you don’t think you do: it’s a staple of film scores from the 40s and 50s, especially the sad, slow second movement, and Han went deep into lingering cavatina mode for that. As the piece went on, helicopters circled and circled – you would have thought that Osama Bin Laden and Dick Cheney were canoodling in a nearby gully. Whatever the copters were looking for, they didn’t find, in many, many passes overhead. When the music was audible, it was excellent, particularly Dvorak’s long, expansively cinematic first movement, the robust scherzo of the third and the bittersweet romp out with the fourth. Anyone who thinks that Dvorak is all about lush optimism should hear what this crew did with it. This was it for the Naumburg concerts for 2013. The CMSLC will be back at Alice Tully Hall with all kinds of enticing programs in the weeks ahead.
Pianist Noah Haidu‘s latest Posi-Tone release, Momentum, a trio set with Ariel de la Portilla on bass and McClenty Hunter on drums, is a solid, purist effort. Haidu draws on a deep bag of licks and an immersion in the tradition for a tuneful, steady, swinging performance. Haidu isn’t without a sense of humor, and he and the band vary the moods through a mix of dynamically-charged originals as well as some diverse covers.
The opening track, I Thought About You moves upward into careful, rippling swing with a bluesy ebulience reminiscent of what Christian Sands does on the most recent Christian McBride trio album. The title cut works a dancing, funky series of hard-hitting clusters, Hunter having a field day with them, brief lingering passages punctuating the chase. Rainbow, the Keith Jarrett classic, gets a purposeful but bittersweetly lingering interpretation, Haidu again working methodically from judicious precision through some metric manipulation up to a steady 6/8 swing.
Likewise, the trio takes Haidu’s Juicy from a 7/8 intro to murky chordal clusters, back and forth with an unresolved tension over an altered clave groove. Thad Jones’ A Child Is Born keeps the cached clave going, a swaying, spacious, rather majestic take that pulses along with a wee-hours familiarity. A Donald Fagen-ish vamp kicks off the moody intro to The End of a Love Affair, and its dynamic and tempo shifts. Joe Henderson’s Serenity turns out to be anything but serene, with romping drums and biting modal hooks. They end with a Haidu composition, Cookie Jar, which pretty much sums up the album: a darkly catchy, resolving central riff, animated Hunter coloristics and a coyly out-of-focus solo from de la Portilla to a rather ambiguous outro.
Jody Redhage can frequently be found playing cello with many of New York’s more adventurous chamber ensembles when she’s not on the road with Esperanza Spalding. Redhage also happens to be a compelling and eclectic singer, and a first-rate tunesmith who’s as fluent with catchy pop/rock hooks as she is with elegant chamber pieces. Her 2011 solo album, Of Minutiae and Memory, built a lush atmosphere from overdubs and loops of cello and vocals. Her latest original project is Rose & the Nightingale, the name taken from a Rumi poem on which one of the tracks on the group’s debut album, Spirit of the Garden, is based. As the title implies, the atmosphere here is bright and vernal, a celebration of nature and the outdoors. It’s lively and entertaining, and the three-part vocal harmonies are imaginative and often breathtaking. Redhage is joined by Leala Cyr on vocals and trumpet, Sara Caswell on violin and Laila Biali on piano and vocals, with Ben Wittman on percussion and Redhage’s trombonist husband Alan Ferber guesting on a couple of tracks
The album’s first full-length cut, It’s So Beautiful, takes its inspiration from the water garden at London’s Barbican Center, blending trip-hop and chamber pop with a wickedly catchy chorus and a sinuous Caswell solo. Sky, Mountain, Stream turns a Ella Cvancara poem into a baroque-tinged pastorale with a lushly gorgeous rondo for the vocals. A tersely suspenseful cello intro opens up Butterfly – a setting of a poem by French poet Miquel Decor -which goes soaring and animated with bubbly piano over Redhage’s bassline.
Say I Am You sets the Rumi poem referenced in the album title to a Balkan-tinged choral melody. Where the Fish Are This Big is a brightly catchy, late-Beatlesque piano anthem, Caswell on mandolin, Evan Karp’s lyric inspired by the fish pond at San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers where the ensemble made their live debut last year.
I Write You a Love Poem, with a Maria Brady-Smith lyric, contrasts Redhage’s dancing cello riff against Biali’s brightly spacious, lyrical piano, Caswell’s solo adding a tinge of angst. The group goes back to Abbey Road for Rosa Maria, then vividly evokes a Vermont snowstorm via a Wyn Cooper poem with the slowly crescendoing Dissolve. Biali’s glistening, modally-tinged, bluesy solo is one of the album’s most enjoyable moments.
The Orchid Room, with lyrics by Silvi Alcivar, returns to a dancing, allusive trip-hop groove with another richly catchy but pensive chorus, pondering the transience of all living things. The album winds up with the dreamy lullaby Snow Peace Calms, with another Cvancara lyric, and then a muted, somewhat elegaic take of Mario Laginha’s Despedida (Farewell). The album also has four brief group improvisations, one for each of the seasons, more minimalistically atmospheric than Vivaldiesque. Like the Jason Seed Stringtet‘s album recently covered here, this album ought to resonate just as much with a rock audience as with the classical and avant garde crowds.
While echoes of Django Reinhardt and Astor Piazzolla pervade the Jason Seed Stringtet’s new album In the Gallery, the Milwaukee guitarist’s compositions are even more eclectic than simply a blend of Romany jazz and nuevo tango. He’s put together a formidable string band, playing acoustic alongside Glenn Asch on violin and viola, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s Helen Reich on viola and and Scott Tisdel on cello, and the Chicago Symphony’s Dan Armstrong on bass. Although these players come from classical backgrounds, there’s a lot of improvisation, and the band has a lot of fun with it. Armstrong gets to bow just as much as playing basslines; Seed likes acidic close harmonies, especially with the high strings, making an uneasy counterbalance with his sinuously precise, catchy lead lines.
Seed opens the album with a solo introduction into the Goulash Rag, a biting, dancing theme that runs closer to bolero territory. Swirling high strings hand off to a cello solo over dancing bass; they take it out with a flourish. The subdued, brooding Tangoesque offers an appreciative nod to Bill Frisell’s Strange Meeting, Seed’s guitar elegantly intertwining amid the stark arrangement, with edgy solos for cello, viola and bass and then the first of the album’s many trick endings. Pictures of an Exhibitionist has a bit of a funk edge to go with the tango and the Romany guitar flavor, capped off with a sailing, glissando-fueled violin solo. Ishtar opens with a dark, droning Middle Eastern-flavored low-register taqsim and morphs into a klezmer-esque dance, Seed adding an acerbic flamenco edge, the ensemble taking it out with a shivery intensity. Krakow’s central theme is like Django at his most plaintive, with a darkly searing cello solo, the viola following in the same vein, Seed taking it up anxiously and then gracefully down again.
\Where the Corners Meet features Yang Wei on pipa, a spiky, circular theme growing to a wistful but animated crescendo, Tisdel artfully shadowing the fretted instruments as it builds to anthemic proportions. In the Right Line follows a moody folk-rock trajectory, while Caterpillar Kif is the album’s big showstopper. Agitated strings switch back and forth with a wryly bluesy theme that Seed once again takes in a flamenco direction; it gets funkier, then Tisdel takes it dancing to yet another trick ending.
One in Five might be the album’s most intense track, with a brooding rainy day guitar-and-cello duet into more flamencoesque guitar, Tisdel’s soaring chromatics against Seed’s pensive, spare, rhythmic pulse. The title track closes the album, and it turns out that this is one haunted gallery: Seed’s long, nebulously spacious solo intro hands off to Armstrong, who supplies chilling, stygian sustained lines all the way through to a darkly ironic ending. A lot of people – fans of art-rock, jazz, classical and global sounds – are going to love this album. It’s one of the year’s best, whichever category you might think it fits (and realistically, it doesn’t really fit any, which helps explain why it’s so enjoyable).
Isn’t it great when you luck into finding a concert that perfectly fits the mood of the day? Yesterday evening at Jazz at St. Peter’s, the Owl Trio – bassist Orlando LeFleming, alto saxophonist Will Vinson and guitarist Lage Lund – succinctly captured the overcast milieu, playing the album release show for their debut cd, just out on the Norwegian Losen label. The trio call themselves chamber jazz, having recorded the album in an abandoned Brooklyn church. That experience no doubt prepared them for St. Peter’s cavernous sonics. Lund, when not reading the music, looked up at the grey sky lurking outside the first-floor windows overhead. LeFleming matter-of-factly filled the simultaneous roles of rhythmic center, low-register anchor and third melodic voice, always a challenge in a setting when there’s no drummer. Vinson’s crystalline, reflecting-pool tone echoed through the big room with an often poignant elegance and occasionally something of a trumpet timbre: he felt the space, and then took ownership.
The set comprised material from the album as well as a single, more upbeat tune that the group has yet to record. Duke Ellington’s Morning Glory made for a vivid, gently swinging early morning tableau, Vinson’s gentle but resolute resonance against Lund’s casual swing and LeFleming’s calm pulse. Lund, who gave it a lowlit, sprightly dancing solo, also brightened a quietly dynamite version of Jim Hall’s All Cross the City, Vinson opening this cinematic skyscape with more than a hint of suspense, building to a rewarding wary/bright dichotomy between sax and guitar. This being a church, they went deep into the mystical side of the Coltrane songbook, including an intense version of Dear Lord, LeFleming introducing it with a stately understatement, Vinson’s gently dancing lines retained an earnest, pleading intensity in combination with Lund’s judicious chordal work that did justice to the guy who wrote it. After picking up with an unexpected lilt, they wound up the set with a reflective, rainy-day take of Toninho Horta’s Moonstone. That the big room did nothing to diminish the intimacy of the performance speaks to the tightness and solidity of the arrangements and the players’ dedication to setting a mood and then maintaining it.
Musicologists have long tried to make a connection between music and the terrain where it’s made, with mixed results. Residents of the land of the northern lights are not the only ones who write still, spacious, deep-sky music. But there seems to be a connection. That’s what veteran Finnish pianist and improviser Esa Helasvuo offers on his aptly titled new solo album Stella Nova, his first recording in twenty years. It’s a starry, nocturnal, contemplatively expansive series of introspections that looks back to similar work by Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett from forty-five years ago, along with frequent echoes of Kurt Weill and Erik Satie.
The album begins careful and steady with To Feel You Is to Know You, reaching toward third-stream/art-song balladry, Helasvuo working in some bluesiness as is his custom throughout the album. The expansive, practically ten-minute title track is its darkest and best, vividly evoking the Satie gymnopedies, only offering momentary relief from the incessant darkness before taking it back down into the murk again. Likewise, Intimacy begins on a lingering, judicious tone, Helasvuo working a righthand riff of the utmost simplicity toward a blues-tinged ballad, back and forth. The most traditionally jazz-themed number here is Kisumu, an enigmatic number that switches out the Chopin and Satie for Miles Davis.
Boa Noiti Meu Amor, a remake of a 70s Helasvuo composition, gets impressionistically deconstructed. The following track, Improvise, is far more interesting than the title implies, a return to darker, more pensive territory with its moodily spaced chordal figures. Helasvuo quietly and methodically sinks his fangs into Unto Mononen’s famous Finnish tango Satumaa’s inner creepiness, alternating between brooding improvisation and a mutedly dusky, metrically shapeshifting approach.
Figuring Out the Sky goes from pensive and distant to variations on a long chromatic descending progression, a rather nostalgic song without words that more or less segues into Souvenir, which is essentially Yesterday When I Was Young. The album ends with Blues Addiction, a good-naturedly expansive wee-hours exploration: the bar is closed, the gates are pulled down but he’s got a lullaby left in him. This seems to be more about figuring out the sky than the album’s eighth track. Fun fact: Helasvuo got his start with legendary Finnish instrumentalists the Sounds in 1964, reaffirming the confluence between the worlds of jazz and surf rock! Tum Records gets credit for this one.