Narrowing down the best jazz albums of the year to a couple dozen or so is a cruel task: it’s safe to say that there have been hundred of good ones issued this year. This is an attempt to assemble the creme de la creme of this year’s crop in one easily digestible package: apologies to the many, many artists whose excellent releases aren’t included here.
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society– Brooklyn Babylon
The esteemed big band composer’s latest thematic opus is an important album in New York history, a very uneasy suite of variations illustrating a city in constant flux, often changing for the worse. Cruelly sardonic jackhanmmer rhythms and mechanically industrial circular vamps juxtapose with a resonant angst that peaks at the end. Balkan and circus flourishes, unorthodox instrumentation and quirky, often plaintive miniatures are interspersed amid the relentless pulse. It captures a moment already gone forever, maybe for good.
The Claudia Quintet – September
Drummer/bandleader John Hollenbeck’s attempt to “rework and transform the traumatic residue” of 9/11 resulted in an emotionally charged inner dialogue and a highly improvised, persistently uneasy, enigmatically enveloping series of themes, each assigned a date from that fateful September. The eleventh is not one of them. Nebulous and opaque, it vividly evokes the stunned, bereaved moment that preceded an outpouring of both wrath and goodwill among the city’s citizens. Maybe Hollenbeck can tackle that moment next.
Sexmob – Cinema Circus & Spaghetti (Sexmob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota)
Trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s irrepressible quartet finds the inner noir in Rota’s vintage Fellini film scores and magnifies it with charactistic ambitiousness and eclecticism. Creeping slinky dirges sit side by side with deep dub interludes, carnivalesque, cinematic and occasionally showing the group’s punk jazz roots. A rousing follow-up of sorts to Hal Wilner’s cult favorite 1981 Amarcord Nino Rota album.
Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge – River Runs
This “concerto for jazz guitar and saxophone” portrays some of the wild rivers of the American south and west in all their fearsome glory, an entire ecosystem with its messy, sometimes awe-inspiring, sometimes opaque, frequently frightening detail. Like Darcy James Argue, Owen delights in unorthodox instruments and voicings, terror just lurking beneath the whitecaps on several of these lush, ambitious numbers.
Ibrahim Maalouf – Wind
This homage to Miles Davis’ soundtrack to Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud. follows the architecture of the Miles record, but not sequentially. The Miles record is drenched in reverb, added post-production; trumpeter Maalouf’s production is as airy and sometimes arid as the old French silent film, for which this serves as a score, would seem to suggest. Overall, the effect of both albums is the same, an unrelenting angst foreshadowing imminent doom despite all distractions to the contrary. Together and separately, both are classics of the noir pantheon, this one with frequent latin tinges amid the gloom.
Michel Sajrawy– Arabop
Romany-flavored Middle Eastern jazz from the Palestinian guitarist and his inspired, polyglot Palestinian-Israeli band, a vividly powerful mix of Middle Eastern and Balkan-tinged romps along with a handful of haunting longer-scale numbers. Sajrawy plays microtonally and very artfully on a standard-issue Strat through an envelope pedal for the blippy tone so common in guitar jazz from east of the Danube – pulsing staccato grooves alternate with intense levantine sax interludes.
Pete Rodriguez – Caminando Con Papi
Salsa themes taken to the highest level of jazz. Trumpeter Rodriguez – son of legendary salsa crooner Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez – fires off some of the year’s most spine-tingling and incisive solos with striking terseness and attention to melodic trajectory throughout this surprisingly eclectic collection. Gritty modalities underpin a relentlessly intensity and Rodriguez’ wickedly precise flights and volleys; pianist Luis Perdomo is an equal part of the fireworks.
Bill Frisell – Big Sur
A quintet jazz suite of sorts commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival, it’s the iconic guitarist in high spirits, throughout a mix of Lynchian allusions, some surf rock, a Neil Young homage, strolling C&W and a Britfolk theme, with plenty of characteristic grit and ambiguity beneath its windswept surface.
Wadada Leo Smith – Occupy the World
This double-disc collection of towering epics picks up where the trumpeter’s magnum opus from last year, Ten Freedom Summers, left off. 21-piece Finnish ensemble Tumo get to judiciously explore and revel in Smith’s gusty new large-ensemble pieces, a mix of airily expansive, spacious, and majestically intense themes, with Smith’s signature social awareness.
Leif Arntzen – Continuous Break
It was a good year for trumpeters, wasn’t it? On his latest quintet release, one of New York’s most distinctive voices on that horn takes a page out of the vintage Miles Davis book: throw the band a few riffs and have them create songs on the spot. Tuneful and diverse to the extreme, it’s got standards, a tone poem, a gritty minor-key soul groove (which may be the album’s best track) and hotwired improvisation recorded completely live in the studio.
The Monika Roscher Big Band – Failure in Wonderland
The guitarist and her German ensemble stalk their way surrealistically through carnivalesque themes that often border on the macabre, with elements of noir cabaret, horror film music and psychedelic rock as well as big band jazz. Nothing is off limits to Roscher: vocoder trip-hop, gothic cinematics, savage tremolopicking, Gil Evans-esque swells and colors and fire-and-brimstone art-rock sonics.
Fernando Otero – Romance
Some might call this indie classical or even nuevo tango, but the Argentine-born pianist’s sonata transcends genre. It’s a series of themes and variations split between instruments, interchanging between time signatures, interwoven like a secret code. Inspired by Argentine writer and clarinetist Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch, it invites the listener to decide on a “modular” sequence of tracks, perhaps a wry nod to the reality of how listeners work in the iphone era. Taken in sequence, just for starters, this is a harrowing ride.
Hee Hawk – s/t
The most stunning debut in recent months blends the pastoral with the noir: imagine Bill Frisell scoring a Roman Polanski film. Bandleader/pianist Adam Lipsky’s compositions embrace Americana as well as Romany and film music, often luridly. A torchy stripper blues, hints of the Balkans, Ethiopia, and noir soundtrack atmosphere mix with irrepressible oldtimey swing and a creepy, shivery bolero.
Amir ElSaffar – Alchemy
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter continues to push the envelope with Middle Eastern themes, melodies and technique while also employing western classical architecture. This is a sonata of sorts, two central themes with many variations. ElSaffar’s quintet deftly and fascinatingly allude to (and sometimes leap headfirst) into otherworldly microtonal modes throughout a series of sometimes stately, sometimes exuberant, hard-swinging explorations.
The Mary Halvorson Septet – Illusionary Sea
Lush but biting, the guitarist maintains a lustrous majesty livened with cold mechanical satire and an intricate, incessantly fascinating counterpoint. While Halvorson sometimes bares her fangs with terse, evilly squirrelly cadenzas, she’s not usually centerstage: she leaves that to the constantly shifting, rich interchange of harmonies.
Mostly Other People Do the Killing – Red Hot
The quartet – expanded to a septet with Brandon Seabrook’s banjo, Ron Stabinsky’s piano and David Taylor’s bass trombone – burn through their most caustic yet accessible album to date. With 20s hot jazz trending hard with the one-percenters, it became obvious that the time was right for the Spinal Tap of jazz to give the genre a vigorous twist to put it out of its misery. MOPDtK claim not to be satirical, but this could be their most aggressive, and wildly successful, spoof yet. What will these guys come up with next?
Jussi Reijonen – Un
A still, spacious, slowly unwinding masterpiece from the Finnish oudist/guitarist and his quartet. Original night-sky themes and a classic Coltrane cover feature lithely intertwining levantine grooves, bittersweetly Egyptian-flavored motifs and Utar Artun’s eerily twinkling chromatic piano.
Bobby Avey – Be Not So Long to Speak
The most Lennie Tristano-influenced album in recent months is this crushingly powerful, glimmering solo piano album. It’s a mix of clenched-teeth articulacy and brooding pools of moonlit, swampy menace, setting an unwaveringly creepy tone throughout brooding tone poems with jackhammer pedalpoint, hints of Erik Satie and Louis Andriessen.
Kenny Garrett – Pushing the World Away
Garrett gets back to what he does best on this mostly-quartet session packed with several latin-tinged grooves plus those menacing modal vamps that this era’s preeminent alto saxophonist loves so much and plays with such an instantly recognizable intensity.
Rudresh Mahanthappa – Gamak
The alto saxophonist expands his singular vernacular with this hard-hitting, rhythmic effort. With a stilletto precision, flurries of postbop liven both the bhangra interludes and sunnier, more pastoral pieces here; guitarist Dave Fiuczynski supplies his signature apprehensive, intense microtonal edge, sometimes veering off toward raw metalfunk.
Dave Douglas – Time Travel
This one doesn’t have Aiofe O’Donovan’s vocals, but Douglas’ translucent tunesmithing doesn’t miss them. The fine-tuned chemistry and interplay between trumpeter Douglas and Jon Irabagon on tenor sax, Linda Oh on bass, Rudy Royston on drums and Matt Mitchell on piano showcases one of the most instantly recognizable working bands of recent years, through anthemic arcs, alternately cumulo-nimbus and cirrus ambience, a slide-step stroll and Mad Men-era grooves.
The Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra – Bloom
Luminous, lush and symphonic in a Maria Schneider vein, the colors at play on this subtly rhythmic, constantly shapeshifting album tend to be bright, summery and vibrant. Translucent motifs shift through the arrangements with an unlikely nimble, assured, fleet-footedness for such majestic music. Sara Serpa’s haunting vocalese is the icing on the cake.
Marc Cary – For the Love of Abbey
Cary was Abbey Lincoln’s pianist and music director through the end of her career, and draws on that gig with a loving but also fierce intensity that does her justice. This highly improvised solo collection of Lincoln songs is stormy and ferociously articulate, like the singer herself. It’s cantabile, elegant and regal but also feral, with a shattering final salute.
Fred Hersch and Julian Lage – Free Flying
This tightly choreographed, swinging performance from pianist Hersch and guitarist Lage is so seamless and tightly fluid that it’s often impossible keep track of who’s playing what. A concert recording from the Kitano from earlier this year, it’s a series of Hersch homages to influences from across the spectrum, with a frequent Brazilian flair – and a throwback to Hersch’s indelible duo album with Bill Frisell about thirteen years ago.
Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra – Book of Rhapsodies
Something of a return to noir form for the trumpeter/bandleader, parsing innovative early third-stream compositions, some with a cinematic or cartoonish tinge, from some familiar and more obscure names from the 30s and 40s: Raymond Scott, Charlie Shavers, Louis Singer and Reginald Foresythe.
John Funkhouser – Still
This trio performance from the third-stream pianist/tunesmith alternates moody and rhythmic tunesmithing, murky dirges and lyrical third-stream glimmer. Brooding latinisms, a gloomy version of House of the Rising Sun and a pitch-black raga-inflected title track make this one of the year’s catchiest, hummable yet darkest releases.
Steve Coleman and Five Elements – Functional Arrythmias
On which the alto saxophonist pays homage to iconic drummer/polymath Milford Graves with a characteristically vivid, bouncily naturalistic series of illustrations of anatomical phenomena. Long, circular rhythmic patterns anchor tight counterpoint between the horns, bass and drums. Riffs are simple, direct and memorable as expected; funk beats morph through tricky time signatures, and nobody wastes notes.
And a shout out to Dan Willis & Velvet Gentlemen’s scary Satie Project Volume 2 album, as well as to Bryan & the Aardvarks, for their glimmering, nocturnal debut, Heroes of Make Believe. Both came out last year but missed the 2012 best-of list here. Since either of those albums could easily top this one, it would be remiss not to mention them here.
What’s most immediately striking about Carl Bartlett Jr.‘s album Hopeful is the New York alto saxophonist’s fearsome chops. Quivering but stiletto-precise doublestops, bone-rattling trills and spirals from moody lows to stratospheric highs punctuate the solo piece that Bartlett opens the album with – ostentatious as it may be to show off like that, right off the bat, Bartlett pulls it off. The rest of the album features a brilliant band comprising pianist Sharp Radway, bassist Eric Lemon and drummer Emanuel Harrold, all players on the New York scene who deserves to be far better known. Bartlett’s tunesmithing falls into a solidly traditionalist postbop style, with expansive but tasteful solos and all kinds of electrifying interplay. This is one of those albums that manages to capture the band showing off the vigor and chemistry of a live set rather than a studio rush job. Bartlett and his quartet are at the Kitano on January 2 at 8 and 10 PM; cover is $15 plus a $15 minimum.
The first of the quartet numbers here, Fidgety Season, is a forcefully enigmatic jazz waltz, Bartlett and Radway trading up/down trajectories, the pianist’s artfully subtle permutations over Harrold’s suspenseful rumble giving way to a purposeful attack from the bandleader. The ballad Julie B benefits from a murkily resonant solo piano intro, Bartlett’s slowly unwinding lines handing off to a similarly soulful solo by Lemon; then Radway illuminates Bartlett’s balminess underneath.
Quantum Leaps (and Bounds), with guest Ron Jackson on guitar, takes a Steey Dan-ish theme for a brisk walk with a series of animated tradeoffs with the drums on the way out. Release is a bossa tune, Bartlett holding back resolutely from the resolution implied by the title until midway through, Radway latching onto the song’s inner bluesiness as it winds out with some clever rhythmic jousting. Seven Up works similar blues allusions over a syncopated swing – it’s Adderley Brothers gutbucket spun through funhouse mirror hardbop sophistication.
It Could Happen to You has Charles Bartlett guesting on trumpet and exchanging a series of energetically exploratory and eventually explosive, microtonally-charged solos with the sax over Harrold’s cool, cymbal-driven implied clave. They end the album with a lovingly lickety-split, strikingly straightforward take of the I Love Lucy theme, resisting the urge to indulge in buffoonery.
Vancouver-based guitarist/oudist Gordon Grdina has a deliciously edgy, smartly constructed, tuneful album, No Difference, out recently from Songlines. He’s joined by his longtime drummer Kenton Loewen along with Mark Helias on bass and Tony Malaby on tenor sax.
There are two duo pieces for oud and bass here, both recorded in concert at Shapeshifter Lab this past summer. The first, Hope in Being opens with an incisive, broodingly modal oud taqsim which coalesces into a remarkably catchy, swaying theme that Helias doubles with a similar stately precision and dynamic interaction with Grdina’s spirals and fades. The other, sardonically titled Fast Times, works a spare, spacious but slashing call-and-response, again with a Middle Eastern-flavored modal intensity.
The first of the guitar tracks, Limbo, is an enigmatic distantly ominous guitar/bass duo. Grdina builds to a Frisellian grey-sky theme, punching up the bass response and reverb for a rhythmic, exploratory solo over Helias’ judicious, dynamically rich climbs, eerily resonant chords and dancing motives, mingling with Grdina’s blurry, disquieted chordal ambience. The Throes makes a great segue as it brings up the levels, Grdina’s long, reverbtoned, misterioso intro building to a matter-of-fact swing with bolero and Romany allusions, Malaby’s nebulous alto at first a calming contrast to the biting, incisive drive of the guitar but then joining the melee.
Leisure Park, a trio piece, quickly expands on a snarling, emphatic descending progression. Grdina’s growling, sputtering guitar solo evokes Jim Hall spun through the prism of Marc Ribot, maybe; Helias picks up his bow and fires off one of his own in a similarly biting vein.
The guitar/bass duo Nayeli Joon, a sparkling but moody waltz dedicated to Grdina’s daughter, blends a British folk edge into Grdina’s carefully articulated, almost baroque arpeggiation, Helias taking full advantage of the chance to shift the song into the shadows and then back. Cluster sets a brooding, rather severe theme and improvisation for oud and bass over echoey, increasingly agitated deep-space washes of bowed guitar.
Fierce Point begins as the most free piece here, Loewen driving the morass upward, Grdina chopping furiously at his strings, Malaby and Helias blippy and surreal as Grdina wanders through this wilderness all alone, his creepy oud-flavored lines morphing into a wry early 70s-style metal-jazz vamp. The final number, Visceral Voices, shuffles genially with the most trad postbop flavor here, Grdina spicing it with the occasional menacing, reverberating, lingering riff against Malaby’s nonchalantly burred lines and Helias’ hard-hitting attack. Another triumph of intense, straightforward tunesmithing and agile, inspired interplay from one of this era’s most distinctive voices on the guitar.
Is the Claudia Quintet the most influential band in jazz over the past ten years? They’re unquestionably one of them. With their unorthodox lineup, they didn’t invent pastoral jazz, but they opened up the floodgates for an onslaught of it. Their new album September finds the group – drummer/composer/bandleader John Hollenbeck with bassist Chris Tordini, tenor saxophonist Chris Speed, vibraphonist Matt Moran and accordionist Ted Reichman – trying to “rework and transform the traumatic residue” of 9/11. Being a New Yorker, Hollenbeck was directly affected and obviously scarred by the experience. The result of what was obviously an emotionally charged inner dialogue turns out to be a highly improvised, persistently uneasy, enigmatically enveloping series of themes, each assigned a date from that fateful September. The eleventh is not one of them.
The album opens with the September 20 piece, titled Soterius Lakshmi. It’s hypnotic and insistent, a one-chord jam portraying something incessant or at least repetitive to the extreme. It’s also a lot closer to indie classical than jazz. By contrast, September 9, Wayne Phases (a Shorter shout-out?) is a dynamically rich, shapeshifting piece; Reichman’s rapidfire runs hand off to Moran’s lingering resonance, up to a through-the-looking-glass vibes interlude and then a fullscale onslaught based a fusiony 80s-style hook that has the suspicious ring of sarcasm. A somewhat vexing look back at the days right before 9/11?
Hollenbeck portrays Sepember 25 as a Somber Blanket: it captures the emotionally depleted, horror-stricken atmosphere two weeks after the twin towers were detonated better than most anything written about that time, musically or otherwise. A morose march slowly coalesces out of a whispery shuffle lit with simple, macabre-tinged vibraphone, Reichman warming it and threatening to take it in a swing direction that it resists. The great coming together that this city experienced hadn’t happened yet: we weren’t ready.
September 19 is memorialized with “We Warn You,” a fluttery, loopy tone poem of sorts into which Hollenbeck has cut and pasted a series of quotes from a crushingly sarcastic 1936 Franklin D. Roosevelt speech mocking the era’s Republican response to the New Deal. Historically speaking, it’s stunning that Roosevelt would dare to expect people to get the subtext: to think that any President in recent years would try to make a point with an audience that way, or, sadly, could do that without being misunderstood, is hard to imagine. At the end of the piece, the group picks up the pace to a tense scamper, Speed’s brooding lines against an opaque drum-and-accordion backdrop before the bass goes leaping and they start it all over again.
The September 22 piece, Love Is Its Own Eternity sets simple, bittersweet motives, individual voices paired against the vibraphone, over an almost trip-hop groove. Lemons, the September 18 song, takes the simplest two-note phrase off on kaleidescopic but precisely articulated tangents, sort of an airier take on Philip Glass. A syncopated minor groove develops out of a circular theme; creepy upper-register divergences generate the most free interlude on the album before the bass pulls everything together again. The aptly tiltled Loop Piece – assigned to September 17 – has a coldly mathematical distance, spacious vibraphone phrases joined by and then intermingling with simple, direct sax and accordion…and then that trip-hop vamp starts up again.
9/24 is represented by Interval Dig – an ominous 9/11 reference if there ever was one – yet this is the liveliest number here, Tordini’s leaping, pulsing drive leading to dizzying polyrhythms. Mystic Klang, the 9/16 segment, reminds of Satie’s interminably creepy Vexations, or Messiaen, with washes from accordion and vibes over looplike, prowling drums. The album concludes with Coping Soon, its troubled rainy-day ambience warming as Hollenbeck takes it halfspeed, Reichman adding brighter colors and a hint of Romany jazz as the rhythm loops and then drops out altogether. It ends nebulous and unresolved. And it leaves a lot to digest, not to mention to think back on for anyone who lived through those horrible days. We need music like this, grounded in reality, inescapably political, brilliantly musical: this is one of best albums of the year, right up there with Darcy James Argue’s equally relevant and genre-resistant Brooklyn Babylon. The Claudia Quintet plays Cornelia St. Cafe on Jan 9 at, 8:30 PM and Jan 10 at 9 and 10:30. The following night, Jan 11 at 8:30, Hollenbeck leads a different ensemble there where he’s joined by crooner Theo Bleckmann for some vocal covers from the Songs I Like a Lot covers album from early this year.
Ethiopian themes tend to be simple but often profoundly so, no surprise considering that Ethiopia is the birthplace of humanity and culture. Sketches of Ethiopia, the latest large-ensemble album by Mulatu Astatke, the world’s best-known exponent of Ethio-jazz, is rich with what may be both echoes and foreshadowing of everything from blues, to reggae, to funk and Egyptian music as well. That most of the album’s tracks are original compositions doesn’t change that back-and-forth mirror effect. The compositions often have the dark, dusky minor-key modes and hypnotic clip-clop rhythms typically associated with Ethiopian music, while Astatke puts his signature eclectic stamp on them. The ensemble is also an eclectic bunch, comprising both Astatke’s London-based touring band as well as Ethiopian musicians recorded on their home turf and also in France. Like everything Astatke has done, this is a deep album.
Either/Orchestra bandleader and Ethio-jazz maven Russ Gershon gets the ultimate validation by having his tune, Azmari, kick off Astatke’s album. It’s a delicious mix of eerie modal vamping and American noir, Indris Hassun’s otherworldly trilling massinqo fiddle juxtaposed with rich horn and string swells and a strangely nebulous surprise interlude. The first Astatke tune here, Gamo, opens with a brooding horn riff that sounds straight from an early Burning Spear album – how’s that for coming full circle? Thickets of lutes and percussion underpin lively horn call-and-response throughout this swaying, propulsive anthem.
Hager Fiker, a traditional theme, opens as a moody fanfare, Astatke’s arrangemente moving swiftly from the roots of the blues to absolute noir, driven by Alexander Hawkins’ murky, menacing low lefthand piano contrasting with bright, bluesy horns and Middle Eastern-tinged flute. Gambella develops very subtly from a long, suspenseful intro to a galloping minor-key funk romp. Asossa Derache works a similar dichotomy but more darkly and intensely, its long rustling introduction giving way to a brisk clip-clop theme packed with biting solos and conversations between James Arben’s tenor sax and Byron Wallen’s trumpet, building to a big, noir blues crescendo.
The traditional tune Gumuz is recast as dissociatively anachronistic, low-key mid-70s fusion with a choir overdubbed in the background. Motherland Abay has flickering orchestration that develops almost imperceptibly from a nocturnal tone poem to a slinky sway, muted trumpet in the background providing a distant menace, lit up with oboe, ominously glimmering piano and Astatke’s own uneasily lingering vibraphone. The album winds up with two different versions of Surma, another fusiony track that hints at reggae. To call this one of the best jazz albums of 2013 practically goes without saying. One drawback: the production is on the sterile side, everything in its perfect digital place – it threatens to subsume the raw intensity that’s so front-and-center on Astatke’s earlier recordings.
Trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar‘s paradigm-shifting career blurs the boundaries between jazz and traditions from across the Middle East, both ancient and in the here-and-now. His new quintet album, Alchemy, stays within the jazz idiom while pushing the envelope with Middle Eastern themes, melodies and technique as well as employing western classical architecture. This is a sonata of sorts, two central themes with many variations and plenty of room for thoughtfully crafted individual contributions and solos from Ole Mathisen on saxes, John Escreet on piano, Francois Moutin on bass and Dan Weiss on drums. Echoes of the traditional Iraqi melodies that ElSaffar plays in his Safafir project are plentiful throughout the album, mingling with boisterous postbop improvisation as well as ElSaffar’s signature steely focus and sharp, vivid tunesmithing. And as much as this is cutting-edge to the extreme, ElSaffar being a generally very serious guy, both the playing and compositions here have an unexpected amount of sardonic wit. Whether serious or less so, what’s here has a lot in common with recent work by Vijay Iyer, a frequent ElSaffar collaborator.
The opening track, Ishtarun, introduces a stately, chromatic, flamenco-tinged canon that the ensemble explores through a misterioso piano-and-bass interlude, ElSaffar circling uneasily around the tonic as the band blusters. Nid Qablitum sets the rhythm loose and livens it, a rippling piano solo kicking off a series of jaunty, wryly puddle-jumping variations. The triptych Embubum – Ishtarun – Pitum returns with a Miles Davis-esque gravitas, its purposeful stroll serving as a launchpad for ElSaffar’s unexpectedly bluesy solos and then a return to hypnotic yet biting, chromatically-fueled insistence before a big crescendo and some jousting between trumpet and sax.
12 Cycles builds a series of loops, in more of an indie classical than a jazz vein: ElSaffar’s circling trumpet artfully expands them, Escreet again adding a suspenseful edge along with eerie close harmonies from the horns. Quartal opens with those close harmonies but quickly swings hard with Mathisen’s refusenik sax edging toward microtonality yet without the slightest reference to any Orientalisms, Escreet defiantly echoing it, Moutin intertwining with the piano and then Weiss’ rustling, furtive drumwork. Balad brings back a stately, somber ambience with creepy, neoromantic microtonalisms from pretty much everybody over moody, prowling rhythm – it’s one of the album’s many high points.
5 Phases reworks the circular, Steve Reichian theme while adding a microtonal edge and a more dancing rhythmic drive, soprano sax shadowing the trumpet over a sotto vocce cymbal shuffle that builds to a sardonic faux-martial theme and variations. Athar Kurd brings back the briskly walking hardbop, a feature for more spiraling, stairstepping sax and a deviously scurrying Moutin solo. Miniature #1 hardly qualifies as one: it’s about a four-minute reprise of that dancing, circular riff with a cool boomy/whooshy drum/cymbal dialectic and tensely agitated, quietly chattering horns. Ending Piece is the summation where the themes come together: lively, dancing, looped motives followed by more straight-ahead bluesy riffage; a delightfully messy sax/trumpet conversation; droll hints of funk from the bass and eerie close harmonies from the horns as Escreet chooses his spots. It’s one of the most successfully ambitious albums of recent months, full of disquieting energy and a contender for best of 2013. Pi Records gets a shout-out for yet another important, doubtlessly influential release.
Swingadelic‘s latest album, Toussaintville mines the Allen Toussaint catalog with verve, imagination and some absolutely delicious horn charts. It has most of the expected tunes (but thankfully no Mother in Law) and ends with a homage to the iconic New Orleans tunesmith. The big band’s charts are purist without being deferential, underscoring how vivid and also deceptively counterintuitive Toussaint’s songwriting has been for so long. One would think he’d enjoy this album immensely.
The opening track, Night People, sets the stage; like most of the others here, it’s a horn tune rather than a piano tune, in this case with a funky late 60s vibe, like the Crusaders back when they actually were the Jazz Crusaders. This song’s about a pickup scene, and this version captures that energy, low and cool but slinky all the same (the presence of bandleader Dave Post’s bass rather than bass guitar enhances that).
Toussaint plays Southern Nights Toussaint as a nocturne, and Swingadelic’s version succeeds at ramping up the energy, as you would expect from a large ensemble, while maintaining the original’s balmy atmospherics. The band also stays true to Toussaint by playing What Do You Want the Girl to Do as a stroll, with a neatly crescendoing arrangement and a tasty, opaque-toned Audrey Welber alto solo, and doing Sneaking Sally Through the Alley as a matter-of-fact backbeat swing tune. And Yes We Can Can gets a funky sway, but it doesn’t go over the top; instead, the band works devious tempo shifts and solos from bright alto, bluesy trombone and rather ambiguous soprano sax from Paul Carlon.
The biting On Your Way Down gets a scaled-down treatment to let the edge of the lyrics sink in, with simmering solos for slide guitar and lowdown tenor sax. The soul ballad Ruler of My Heart, sung by Queen Esther, is done more as a seduction than an entreaty. Conversely, they eschew buffoonery for righteous anger in the understatedly funky Get Out of My Life Woman, with its burnished brass and lively riffage making its way around the ensemble.
The band brings a lively go-go bounce to Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky, spicing it up with John Bauers’ roto organ, train-whistle harmonies and jaunty volleys of call-and-response. They do much the same with Fair Child, taking it way up and then way down until Boo Reiners’ slide guitar break brings it back. Arguably, the most interesting yet traditionalist arrangement here is the one on Working in a Coal Mine, which pulses along on drummer Jason Pharr’s syncopated clave: they make it clear that this one’s about a guy who’s all worn out from a tough job!
There are also a couple of ragtime-flavored tunes: Java, with an intricate arrangement that sends pieces of the theme spinning through the ensemble, and Whipped Cream, a shuffling second-line theme capped with an ecstatic Carlon soprano solo. There’s also the pulsing, bucolic waltz Up the Creek, with Bauers’ nostalgic but purposeful ragtime piano plus dixieland-flavored clarinet and trombone that begins very droll and then straightens out. Beyond the fact that Toussaint’s songs can be so ridiculously fun to play, there’s an awful lot to like here: charts that tease the imagination and inspired playing from an eclectic cast of characters including but not limited to Jeff Hackworth on tenor and baritone sax, John DiSanto on baritone sax, Albert Leusink and Carlos Francis on trumpets, Rob Susman, Rob Edwards and Neal Pawley on trombones, Boo Reiners on guitar, and also Jimmy Coleman also on drums.
It’s hard to believe that the Mivos Quartet haven’t made an album until now. For the past few years they’ve been one of the more pioneering new music ensembles in a city full of them, commissioning and premiering material left and right. So it makes sense that the album, titled Reappearances, would be an exciting, ambitious and extremely demanding lineup of works. And the quartet – violinists Olivia De Prato and Joshua Modney, violist Victor Lowrie, and cellist Mariel Roberts – digs in and clearly has great fun with them, even while having to push the limits of their technique. The four pieces here call for mysterious whispers, sepulchral overtones, jarring stccato motives, the quietest washes, microtonal slides and sudden rhythmic leaps, among other demands. Challenging as all this music is, it’s also vividly evocative.
Alex Mincek‘s String Quartet No. 3 probably wasn’t written to evoke a bug machine at night, but it does: a swarm builds and then they all get zapped one by one. That’s overly reductionistic, of course: there’s much more going on. Harsh, almost barking figures enter spaciously; whispery, devillish filigrees, pianissimo ambience spiced with slippery slides and harmonics flit around each other and briefly converse until a theme coalesces about midway through. Individual voices, notably the viola and cello, exchange roles, anchoring the music with a gritty determination. A long crescendo marked by slowly rising washes punctuated by agitated staccato motives builds to a thicket of polyrhythms, then the critters begin disappearing, one by one until there are none.
Wolfgang Rihm‘s Quartettstudie sketches out how to work an idea. Rihm’s signature brooding earthtones engage in a careful, considered call-and-response. An acidic rondo eventually develops with considerably more animation, then the pensive ambience returns. Apropos of the composer, those who enjoy this piece will also like the RIAS Kammerchor‘s recent recording of Rihm’s similarly enigmatic, more ethereal Astralis, recently released by Harmonia Mundi.
David Brynjar Franzson‘s On Repetition and Reappearances is the album’s most entertaining piece, a nonchalantly spooky if often wryly insectile study in suspense and negative space. Brief, flitting fragments of sound loom in from afar…or seemingly afar. Uh oh, GOTCHA. And then right when it seems that the pianissimo ambience afterward has faded to nothingness, they’re back! It reminds of the uneasy repetition of Erik Satie’s Vexations.
Felipe Lara‘s Corde Vocale, the final work here, is a study in wave motion, built from simple, swooping phrases like comets with the tail first. The way the entire ensemble attacks these, as if using a backward-masked effect, is sonically striking, to say the least. Voices converge and then go off into the ether again; shivery trills unwind into calmer, more resonant phrases; at the end, the ensemble hits an unexpectedly snarling moment on the way to a trick ending. It’s as much fun as the rest of the album and considerably louder.
The Mivos Quartet play the album release concert for this one on Dec 19 at 8 PM at the DiMenna Center, 450 W 37th St west of 9th Ave. $20 cover includes a copy of cd and a reception afterward. The program features premieres of works by Mark Barden, Dai Fujikura, and Scott Wollschleger, plus the Lara piece from the album.
It’s always a good sign when a pianist’s best-performed pieces onstage are by Chopin and Rachmaninoff. Last night at the sonically superb auditorium at Temple Emanu-El just off Central Park, Mackenzie Melemed played a diverse program spanning from baroque to modern and excelled at all of it. There are other good eighteen-year-old pianists out there; what distinguishes Melemed from his peers is how attuned he is to emotional content. That, and blazing technique.
Melemed bookended the highly ornamented animation of Bach’s Aria Variata alla Maniera Italiana, BWV 989 with opening and concluding statements that were downright elegaic. After making his way through the alternately elegant and torrentially waltzing initial movements of Beethoven’s Sonata in A Major, Op. 26, Melemed sensed the proto-Chopin in the murky third movement and brought that plaintive foreshadowing into the dirge. And he gave a saturnine, deeply felt reading to Brahms’ Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119. These are late works, in fact the last that the composer wrote for solo piano, a bittersweet over-the-shoulder narrative that finally reaches to a heroic overture, giving Melemed a chance to air out a blazing fortissimo. Obviously, there are dynamics in all but the Bach that suggest specific emotions. But Melemed clearly didn’t just have those works in his fingers (he played from memory); they were in his head.
A brisk, precise take of a Scarlatti sonata was the curtain-lifter. Melemed established a similar upward trajectory after the intermission with a matter-of-factly crescendoing and eventually wrenching, emphatic take on Liszt’s Funerailles, then four Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableaux. These little preludes are brief but extremely challenging: Melemed charged through diabolically difficult, lightning-fast chromatics, a vivid two-handed conversation or two, stygian spaciousness versus twilit glitter and seemed to be having a ball – you would too, if you had the technique to play them. He wound up the concert with similarly acrobatic romps through Avner Dorman’s recent, equally knotty, picturesque Three Etudes. Melemed speed-painted Sundrops Over Windy Water, let the spacious, jazz-tinged block chords of the Funeral March linger and concluded with Snakes and Ladders, a showstopper with its rumbling low lefthand, crazily dancing motives and machinegunning chromatics. Sensing that the need for more fireworks was in order, he encored with a magnificent, express-train coda, Chopin’s famous Winter Wind Etude, Op. 25, No. 11.
The Sunday concert series here features a lot of similar first-rate, up-and-coming talent. The next concert is January 19 at 3 PM with pianist Hannah Sun.
Saxophonist Bobby Watson‘s “I Have a Dream” Project commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s iconic address to the crowd of protesters gathered at the Washington Mall. The band’s album Check Cashing Time pairs many of Watson’s most politically-fueled compositions with incendiary, spot-on, Gil Scott-Heron influenced spoken-word lyrics by Glenn North. The rest of the band includes Hermon Mehari on trumpet, Richard Johnson on piano, Curtis Lundy on bass, Eric Kennedy on drums, Pamela Baskin-Watson on vocals and Horace Washington on flute. Its theme is that it’s payback time for 200-plus years of slavery.
Sweet Dreams, a wickedly catchy, bitingly bluesy, Frank Foster-ish swing tune with concise solos from trumpet, alto and gently ringing piano opens the album. The title track is a variation on that theme and a launching pad for North’s searing commentary, which elegantly connects the dots between the murders of MLK and Trayvon Martin, and doesn’t neglect to address the prison-industrial comples. As North puts it, “The new Jim Crow has enormous wings.”
The lively At the Crossroads follows a more optimistic tangent, steadily pulsing with a purposeful, determined Mohari solo. North juxtaposes a series of alternately celebratory and grisly images over a more-or-less rubato piano-and-cymbal backdrop on Black Is Back. The band follows that with the bristling, modally-charged A Blues of Hope, with its lush horns, dancing piano and a similarly dynamic, rising and falling solo from Watson.
They go back to jazz poetry with 40 Acres & a Mule, a rather petulant new take on a bitter old African-American mantra: the nonchalant defiance of Mohari’s shivery solo is one of the album’s high points. The slow, brooding Dark Days makes a good segue, guest Karita Carter’s ominously looming trombone paired off against bluesy, pensive upper-register piano, North quoting both Dr. King and Bob Marley. Baskin-Watson sings her Seekers of the Sun, a syncopated, blues and gospel-tinted shout-out to keep hope alive, the band maintaining that mood on the briskly swinging Progress, with its stilletto-precise solo by Johnson.
After a brief, Marc Cary-esque solo piano reprise of the fourth track, the band cuts loose on Triad (Martin, Malcom, Ghandi), Watson’s sailing sax holding it together as individual voices diverge: it’s the most ambitious number here. The band works a brisk Taxi Driver-style clave on My Song, a clever update on the dozens: “I was born in the briar patch behind the old woodshed, held a klansmen by the throat until he was dead,” North intones. Lundy’s brief MLK on Jazz – quoting the King speech that opened the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival – and then his pensive ballad Revival (Ovedia) follow. Baskin-Watson ends the album with Ellington’s Come Sunday, vividly underscoring its gospel roots. This album succeeds as food for thought, eloquent expression of righteous anger and just plain good jazz. If Sonny Stitt desesrves to be in a certain jazz hall of fame, so does Bobby Watson.