To pigeonhole the Maria Schneider Orchestra‘s latest magnum opus, The Thompson Fields. as pastoral jazz downplays its genuinely extraordinary beauty and epic sweep. But a musicologist would probably consider how much the vast expanses of the Minnesota prairie where Schneider grew up have influenced her writing. To call Schneider this era’s paradigmatic big band jazz composer would also be just part of a larger picture: among this era’s composers in any style of music, only Kayhan Kalhor and Darcy James Argue reach such ambitious and transcendent peaks. She’s bringing her Orchestra to a stand at Birdland this week, June 2 through 6 with sets at 8:30 and 11 PM.
As is her custom, Schneider’s compositions go far, far beyond mere vehicles for extended solos, although the solos here are exquisite and serve as the high points they ought to be. Scott Robinson’s alto clarinet dipping between heartfelt lows and airily triumphant swells on the opening number, a newly reorchestrated take of the early-morning nocturne Walking by Flashlight – from Schneider’s previous album Winter Morning Walks – sets the stage.
That number is the shortest one here: the rest of the album builds an expansive, dynamically rich Midwestern panorama. All of Schneider’s familiar tropes are in top form: her use of every inch of the sonic spectrum in the spirit of her mentor Gil Evans; endless twists and turns that give way to long, lushly enveloping, slow upward climbs; and her signature, translucent, neoromantically-influenced tunesmithing. Marshall Gilkes’ looming trombone and Greg Gisbert’s achingly vivid flugelhorn illuminate The Monarch and the Milkweed, a pensively summery meditation on the beauty of symmetry and nature. Robinson’s baritone and Donny McCaslin’s tenor sax take to the sky in Arbiters of Evolution, a labyrinthine, pulsing, slowly unwinding portrait of birds in flight (perhaps for their lives – as in much of Schneider’s work, there’s a wary environmentalist point of view in full effect here).
Frank Kimbrough’s piano and Lage Lund’s guitar carry the title track from its gentle, plainspoken intro through an unexpectedly icy interlude to gracefully dancing motives over lush waves of brass. The most pastoral of all the cuts here is Home, graced by Rich Perry’s calm, warmly meditatitve tenor sax. Then the orchestra picks up with a literally breathtaking pulse, inducing g-forces as Nimbus reaches its stormy heights, Steve Wilson’s alto sax swirling as the cinematics unfold. As a portrait of awe-inspiring Midwestern storm power, it’s pretty much unrivalled.
Gary Versace’s plaintive accordion takes centerstage amidst a rich, ominously brooding brass chart in the intense, elegaic A Potter’s Song, dedicated to the late, great trumpeter and longtime Schneider associate Laurie Frink. The album winds up on a joyously Brazilian-flavored note with Lembranca, inspired by a pivotal moment in Schneider’s life, spellbound by a carnival drum orchestra, Ryan Keberle’s trombone and Jay Anderson’s bass adding color and bouncy energy.
The album, a crowdfunded endeavor comprising newly commissioned works, comes in a gorgeously illustrated full-color digipak with extensive and articulate liner notes from the composer. Like a couple other pantheonic artists, Richard Thompson and Olivier Messiaen, Schneider is also a birder, and her commentary on current environmental crises affecting the avian world and her beloved prairie home turf are spot-on. Where does this fall in the Schneider catalog? It’s hard to say: there’s the ambition and scope of, say, Concert in the Garden, but also the saturnine majesty of Winter Morning Walks. It’s a new direction for her, no surprise considering how often she’s reinvented herself. And while it doesn’t seem to be up at the usual spots, i.e. Spotify and such, you can get completely lost in the radio feature at Schneider’s webpage. It’s the best possible advertising this album, and her work as a whole, could possibly have.
If you found one of Roberta Flack’s first half-dozen albums from the 60s or early 70s at a flea market, would you grab it? If so, singer Gillian Margot‘s new album Black Butterfly – streaming at her webpage – is for you. In bringing a jazz sophistication to a diverse mix of pop and soul songs from throughout the years, Margot leads a stellar cast including guitarist Freddie Bryant, saxophonist/clarinetist Roxy Coss, pianist/organist Anthony Wonsey, bassist Richie Goods and drummer Kendrick Scott alongside trumpeter and producer. Jeremy Pelt. Margot’s choice of material spans many decades and just as many styles, a showcase for her breadth of knowledge and ability to channel minute shifts in emotion while working seamlessly across musical boundaries. She’s playing the album release show on May 30 at 8 PM at Subculture; cover is $20.
The album begins with its title track, Margot adding her own lyrics to pianist George Cables’ Ebony Moonbeams. Wonsey’s judiciously resonant Rhodes piano evokes Joe Zawinul in his Miles Davis days as Margot’s nimble alto and tersely multitracked vocal harmonies give life to an animated dream sequence. She goes deeply into the gospel underpinnings of Curtis Mayfield’s The Makings of You, anchoring it in the church even as she brings the song’s universality to life – and it’s a rare and rousingly successful instance of a woman singing in a lower register than the man who originally recorded it.
Likewise, Margot and Bryant – playing acoustic guitar – offer an airily terse, individualistic take of the popular Cuban ballad Delirio, adding a subtle Brazilian ambience. Margot reaches back for a hint of gospel on a richly bittersweet, vintage 70s soul-infused piano-and-vocal take of Jimmy Webb’s breakup ballad Do What You Gotta Do that draws a straight line back to Roberta Flack’s haunting original. By contrast, Margot’s a-cappella version of Joni Mitchell’s Conversation adds new levels of both angst and ironic nuance, with an intuitively lilting Appalachian tinge.
The band recasts It Could Be Sweet – the 1994 Portishead trip-hop ballad – as defly syncopated psychedelic neosoul, lowlit by Scott’s playful shuffle accents, Coss’ soprano sax and Wonsey’s hypnotically echoing Rhodes chords. Inspired by a Phyllis Hyman performance, Bobby Caldwell’s soul ballad What You Won’t Do For Love gives Margot a lowdown Isaac Hayes-style psych-soul launching pad for her affecting, imploring vocals. Then she hits an understatedly sassy, finger snapping blues groove in a spare but hard-hitting duet with Goods’ bass on on her lone original here, Yesterday’s Blues. The album winds up with a brisk, smoky take of Rodgers and Hart’s I Wish I Were In Love Again that’s as gritty as it is cosmopolitan.
What do you do when you’ve suddenly created the fastest-growing classical music scene in New York? You stage a benefit concert for Nepalese earthquake relief. All proceeds from the exciting new Queensboro Symphony Orchestra’s May 31, 7 PM NY Concert for Nepal will go to Catholic Relief Services and Korea Times-led projects to aid the survivors. Maestro Dong-hyun Kim will lead the orchestra in performances of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 3 (featuring Peter DelGrosso) and the Nepali national anthem arranged by Paul Joseph.
When five hundred people turn out on a gloomy, overcast work night in the middle of nowhere in Queens (an exaggeration – the venue is a brief, barely ten minute walk from the Flushing stop at the end of the 7 line), you know something’s up. The buzz at the reception after the orchestra’s richly dynamic, wildly applauded concert last month was that the word is out: musicians really like playing for Kim. A thoughtful, insightful individual with an unassuming gravitas but also an infectious, dry wit, he led the orchestra with meticulous attention to both detail and emotion.
This ensemble is on the young side and doesn’t have a lot of “name” players, at least in the US, but is stocked with talent. Trumpeter Chulho Kim drew more than one spontaneous ovation from the crowd with his seemingly effortless, liquid command of the long solo and several other passages in Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto. The orchestra’s brass section shone brightly throughout a surprisingly nuanced if aptly festive take of Handel’s Royal Fireworks Music. And the conductor made a steady, Teutonic celebration out of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, employing a familiar trope, setting the floor very low so as to max out the headroom on a long upward climb.
But the piece de resistance was the world premiere of Kathryn’s Mirror by Paul Joseph. The colorful impresario – who is also the orchestra’s composer-in-residence, more or less – admitted to the crowd beforehand that he’d been given a mere three weeks to orchestrate the suite, but pulled it off with aplomb. It turned out to be a sweeping neoromantic theme and variations that would make a dynamite film score for a bittersweetly suspenseful World War II-era drama. Watch it on youtube and see for yourself: there’s cinematic John Williams angst and grandeur but also neatly intricate Carl Nielsen-style orchestration and a pensively lush central theme that Antonin Dvorak could easily have written. And the ensemble took care to emphasize the emotional tug-of-war as its aching introductory waltz shifted shape. Soloists were strong: a looming horn figure early on, poignant strings as the first part hit a crescendo, growing in colorful swirls as the mood lifted a bit. A recurrent and brilliantly crystalline clarinet theme, tense dips and epic swells propelled the concluding segments. It predicts good things for this ambitious composer and an ensemble that’s growing by leaps and bounds. The May 31 concert is at 7 PM at Mary’s Nativity Church, 46-02 Parsons Blvd. at Holly Ave. in Flushing. If you felt like it, you could take a bus from Main Street (the bus stops right outside the church), but it’s probably faster and easier just to walk from the train.
The Ghost Train Orchestra differentiate themselves from most of the oldtime swing bands out there in that they don’t play standards. They specialize in rescuing lost treasures from the 20s and 30s, songs that were typically unknown outside of small, regional scenes. Part living archive, part tight, explosive dance band, it’s no wonder that their albums routinely top the jazz charts. They’re playing the cd release show for their latest one Hot Town this May 22 at 10 PM at the Jalopy. Because the venue is expecting a sellout, they’re selling advance tix for $10. Opening the show at 9, GTO clarinetist Dennis Lichtman does double duty and switches to his fiddle and maybe his mandolin out in front of his western swing band Brain Cloud.
The new album is a mix of songs that didn’t make it onto the orchestra’s 2011 breakthrough album Hothouse Stomp, along some even more obscure rediscoveries and a couple that might be slightly better known – go figure! The title track is actually a reinvention rather than a straight-up cover -and it was actually a big hit for Harlem’s Fess Williams and his orchestra in 1929 as a vamping novelty tune. This version has guest bass saxophonist Colin Stetson providing eerie diesel-train overtones before the clickety-clack groove gets underway. A second track originally done by Williams, You Can’t Go Wrong has more of a 19th century plantation-folk feel than the rest of the material here.
This album marks the debut release of Mo’Lasses, the second track, recorded by Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra, also in 1929, but never released. As rapidfire doom blues (is that a genre?) go, it’s got a striking early Ellingtonian sophistication; bandleader Brian Carpenter’s trumpet, Petr Cancura’s clarinet and Curtis Hasselbring’s trombone all get brisk solos.
Hot jazz cult bandleader Charlie Johnson is represented by You Ain’t the One, with its jaunty, staccato brass and low-key but determined Mazz Swift vocals – and Charleston Is the Best Dance After All, which winds up the album. Benny Waters’ Harlem Drag strongly suggests that the Rolling Stones nicked it, hook and all, for Spider & the Fly. There are two numbers from the catalog of late 20s Harlem composer/bandleader Cecil Scott & His Bright Boys: Bright Boy Blues, with its slowly swaying, luminously morose chart, and the more upbeat but similarly indigo-toned Springfield Stomp.
Fats Waller’s Alligator Crawl alternates droll mmm-hmmm backing vocals with spritely dixieland clarinet and vaudevillian muted trombone. Chicago bandleader Tiny Parham – celebrated along with Williams on Hothouse Stomp -has three numbers here. Skag-a-Lag sets a rapidfire series of cameos against an oldtimey levee camp hook; Down Yonder features a call-and-response chart and sudden, klezmer-tinged minor-key detours; the lickety-split stroll Friction calls on Hasselbring’s trombone, Swift’s violin and the rest of the band to be on tiptoe all the way through, and they are.
This one will get both the Gatsby wannabes and the rest of us out on the floor – or at least wishing we could afford to be there. This may be dance music, but it’s also rooted, sometimes front and center, sometimes less distinctly, in the blues, and the blues isn’t exactly happy-go-lucky stuff. Times weren’t easy, before or after the Crash of 1929 and the persistent undercurrent that runs throughout much of this material reflects that. The album’s not out yet, therefore no streaming link, but you can get a sense of the kind of fun this band generates at their Soundcloud page. And they always bring merch to shows.
Tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana leads what you could call two thirds of her Crash Trio with Pablo Menares on bass and Jochen Rueckert taking over the drum chair for Francisco Mela, Friday and Saturday night, May 22-23 at Minton’s uptown with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. As is generally the case here, your best bet is to grab a seat at the bar, considerably cheaper – $25 – than at the tables, which will probably be full anyway since the place is a big weekend hangout. If you’ve followed jazz lately, Aldana has been riding a mighty wave of buzz in the wake of some prominent competition victories. A cynic might argue that’s what you have to do if you’re a woman of Chilean extraction trying to make your mark in a field dominated by American men – notwithstanding that she represents a three-generation legacy of prestigious Chilean saxophonists.
Aldana has smoke in her tone and often pushes the upper limits of her axe’s register, no surprise considering that she began her career as a teenage altoist. Although she can fire off febrile Sonny Rollins-inflected blasts of bop when she’s in the mood, more often than not her music is considered and spacious, and the band follows suit. In a trio setting, Menares gets plenty of room to color the music and solo, something Rueckert will fit in well with here. Her most recent trio album, from last year, is on the contemplative side, a mix of melodic, swinging postbop, a small handful of balmy ballads and a couple of detours into south-of-the-border and Brazilian sounds. However, this gig will no doubt feature a lot of new material from Aldana’s forthcoming second Crash Trio album, due out next month. One suspects she’s going to pick up the pace since this place is earning a reputation as a very high-energy room.
Even in an age when the mainstream is full of all kinds of esoterica, Cristina Pato has a particularly individualistic choice of axe: the Galician bagpipe. Her sound is wild, feral yet virtuosic and breathtakingly fast. She leads a similarly explosive band with accordion and a rhythm section. Fresh off a residency at Harvard, theYo-Yo Ma collaborator and member of the Silk Road Ensemble is bringing her deliriously fun, hard-hitting flamenco and Romany-tinged instrumentals to New York at Subculture tonight, May 17 at 7:30 PM. Cover is $25 and worth it: if you really want to wind up the weekend on a high note, this is how to do it.
Pato has a new album, Latina, a mix of shapeshifting numbers in a vast range of traditional Spanish rhythm, written by her bassist Edward Perez. The opening track, Prueba de Fuego – a fandango – is definitely a trial by fire. Jazz drummer Eric Doob pushes it with a brisk triplet rhythm until Pato goes spiraling into the stratosphere, then Perez takes a dancing solo, accordionist Victor Prieto adding some neat call-and-response lines. Maria Lando, a lando dance, has a slower groove like a staggered clave beat, the accordion adding a lushly wistful edge that Pato picks up with a raw, plaintive tone.
Pato plays precise, tensely suspenseful, hard-hitting, jazz-inflected piano on The High Seas, a dramatic tanguillo number: the mesh of textures between the piano and accordion is downright delicious. Muiñeira de Chantada, a simple, rustic oropo-festejo tune, gives Pato a long launching pad for wailing bends and machinegunning, trilling riffage. Pato goes back to piano for Currulao de Crisis, a vamping number that hints at reggae, then flamenco, then hits nn unexpectedly balmy interlude that’s pure jazz and picks up once again from there. Then she picks up her pipes again and bounces her way through the Spanish counterpart to a tarantella – lots of cross-pollination in that part of the world and on this album.
The lone cover here, Llegará, llegará, llegará, by Emilio Solla (who also has an excellent new album out) is a real epic. Prieto’s tango-tinged pulse anchors Pato’s lustrous upper-register flights over a galloping groove, up to a bustling piano pasage, then a lively, expansive accordion solo that hits a peak when Pato wails on the pipes again. The final cut is the joyously if somewhat acidally shuffling Let’s Festa, the closest thing to Romany jazz here. There’s also a bonus track, a take of the tarantella without Pato’s breathless explanation of how closely interrelated Italian and Spanish folk traditions are. Sanitized yuppie exotica this is not: Gipsy Kings, eat your hearts out.
The album’s jsut out, so it hasn’t hit the usual spots yet, but three of the tracks are up at Sunnyside Records‘ site.
Todd Marcus is not only one of the great individualists in jazz, he’s also a great composer. His axe is the bass clarinet, which he’s worked hard to elevate from mere anchor of the low reeds to a lead instrument, something that requires some pretty heavy lifting. If you have to hang a title on his new album Blues for Tahrir, you could call it big band jazz, which with a powerhouse nine-man cast of characters it assuredly is. But it transcends genre: it’s Middle Eastern, and it’s cinematic, and it has a mighty angst-fueled majesty that under ideal circumstances also ought to reach the rock audience that gravitates toward artsy bands like Radiohead or Pink Floyd. There’ve been some amazing big band jazz albums issued in the past few years, but none as good as this since Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society released their withering anti-gentrification broadside Brooklyn Babylon in 2012. As happened with that album, time may judge Blues for Tahrir to be a classic.
It’s a complex, bittersweet response to the hope and also the disappointments in the wake of the Arab Spring. The band comprises Greg Tardy on tenor sax, Brent Birckhead on alto sax and flute, Russell Kirk on alto sax, Alex Norris on trumpet, Alan Ferber on trombone, Xavier Davis on piano, Jeff Reed on bass, Eric Kennedy on drums, Jon Seligman on percussion and Irene Jalenti on vocals.
Taking its title from Tahrir Square – ground zero for the freedom fighters of the 2011 revolution in Cairo – the album opens with Many Moons, stately horn harmonies joining in an enigmatic march before Marcus introduces the lively, dancing central theme. Brightly assertive voices shift shape throughout the orchestra, setting the stage for the bandleader to pensively weave up to an uneasily sailing crescendo, Davis leading the band into a clearing and a triumphantly cinematic coda.
Adhan, the opening segment of the four-part Blues for Tahrir Suite, foreshadows the revolution with both angst and determination, variations on a fervent muezzin’s call to prayer, a lively and purposeful alto sax interlude at the center. Reflections, a new arrangement of Blues for Tahrir, from Marcus’ previous album, Inheritance, follows a judicious pulse that alternates between optimism and dread, Marcus’s solo channeling the former. Tears on the Square vividly mirrors the horror and loss of the government’s deadly assaults on the revolutionaries there, stark solo bass introducing a funereal theme pairing bass clarinet and wordless vocals with a wounded, distant outrage from the full orchestra. The suite winds up with the bustling, noir-tinged Protest, leaving no doubt that the struggle is far from over.
Wahsouli – Arabic for “my arrival” – mingles a gripping, sternly majestic theme within an intricately orchestrated swing groove and clever tempo shifts, Tardy bobbing and weaving overhead. Bousa – meaning “a kiss” – draws on the emotionally charged balladry of legendary Egyptian crooner Abdel Halim Hafez, a slinky, suspensefully dynamic anthem with subtle Latin tinges. The album’s two selections not written by Marcus are Gary Young’s Alien, a moodily enveloping but kinetic and soul-infused platform for Jalenti’s brooding alto vocals, and a darkly resonant, driving take of Summertime. This album will give you chills. And you can see Marcus and ensemble play it live at Shapeshifter Lab on May 18 with sets at 8:15 and 9:30 PM.
New Orleans trumpeter Christian Scott a.k.a. aTunde Adjuah is playing Minton’s this weekend, May 15-16, with an interesting quintet configuration – flute, alto sax and two drummers – and sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Your best bet is to grab a seat at the bar, which is a lot cheaper – $25 – than the tables, which will probably be full anyway since the venue is a popular upscale neighborhood hangout. This guy has jazz in his bloodlines – his uncle is alto sax powerhouse Donald Harrison – and for a long time was sort of the Concord label’s token edgy act. Scott’s music is very diverse and defies categorization. As a player, he likes to choose his spots – he’d rather develop an idea or explore an emotion than floor you with volleys of postbop, though he can do that too if he’s in the mood.
His catalog runs the gamut of brooding third-stream vamps, cinematic soundscapes as well as more traditional postbop and adventures in the traditions of his native New Orleans – although Scott is hardly a traditionalist, drawing on soul music both old and not so old, and hip-hop as well. Scott also holds the distinction of being the only man to serve as chief of the four Indian tribes of New Orleans and was also ostensibly the inspiration for a character in the tv series Treme. You can hear Freddie Hubbard clarity but also Wadada Leo Smith wide-angle exploration, with Clifford Brown depth in the rearview mirror, in Scott’s lines – a complex guy with some disarminngly catchy tunes.
Last night’s concert at Roulette included what were arguably the most harrowing moments onstage at any New York performance since Sung Jin Hong premiered his rumbling, macabre real-time depiction of the Hiroshima nuclear bombing at a Chelsea show with the One World Symphony a couple of years ago. This one commemorated the centenary of an even more lethal series of events, the holocaust in Armenia, via four works by the riveting, individualistic composer Mary Kouyoumdjian.
For those with gaps in their history, no nation in the past hundred fifty years was depopulated by mass murder to the extent that Armenia was, dating from the 1890s through the Ottomans’ mass extermination campaign of 1915-22 .The exact death toll is not known: if the pogroms of 1894-96 and subsequent mass killings are included, the number is upwards of two milllion men, women and children murdered, confirmed by the fact that barely fifteen percent of the pre-genocide population remained afterward. And if genocide wasn’t bad enough, who then formally annexed Armenia? The Soviet Union.
Kouyoumdjian’s music is rich with history, notably The Bombs of Beirut, her first Kronos Quartet commission, an examination of the effects of the civil war in Lebanon in the early 80s. That ensemble premiered an even more intense new string quartet, Silent Cranes, while adventurous chamber ensemble Hotel Elefant performed an equally gripping trio of works. The music was propulsively and often insistently rhythmic, and texturally rich, with some group members doubling on multiple instruments including accordion, vibraphone and electric piano. Kouyoumdjian worked the entirety of the sonic spectrum, from murky lows to whispery highs, often balancing them for a dramatic, cinematic effect.
A quintet including pianist David Friend, flutist Domenica Fossati, violinist Andie Springer, clarinetist Isabel Kim and cellist Rose Bellini played Dzov Erky Koonyov (Sea of Two Colors), a homage to legendary singer/composer/musicologist Komitas, who was sort of the Alan Lomax of early 20th century Armenia. An acidic, biting diptych blending elements of spectral, microtonal and circular indie classical idioms, it challenged Friend with its long series of pointillistic anvil motives, which he finally and remarkably gracefully handed off to Springer as the rest of the group provided a lush but stark interweave. Komitas spent the last two decades of his life institutionalized, broken by the horrific torture he’d suffered, referenced by Koyoumdjian’s endlessly cycling, aching phrases and distant Middle Eastern allusions.
Baritone Jeffrey Gavett gave an understatedly poignant tone to Royce Vavrek’s lyrics throughout Everlastingness, a trio piece, over the brooding backdrop of Friend’s piano and Gillian Gallagher’s viola. This was a portrait of doomed surrealist artist Arshile Gorky, who survived the holocaust and escaped to America after losing his mother to starvation. The first half of the concert peaked with a full thirteen-piece ensemble, heavy on percussion, playing the eleven-part suite This Should Feel Like Home. Inspired by the composer’s first trip to the land of her ancestors a couple of years ago, it referenced the seizure of national landmarks, forced displacement, longing for home and savagery that rose to a long, horrified, searing crescendo that left Josh Perry’s huge bass drum to roar and resonate and finally fade down. While the previous piece on the bill offered elegant variations on an austere, chromatically-charged piano melody, this was replete with vividly Middle Eastern riffs and cadenzas against constantly shifting atmospherics: as an evocation of mass agony, it was almost unendurable.
The Kronos Quartet were given a more plaintive work, Silent Cranes, sort of a synthesis of the meticulous insistence of the first part of the program and the raw angst that followed. To make things more complicated, they were challenged to keep time with with a similarly vivid series of projections of often grisly archival images as well as snippets of haunting old recordings (including one of Komitas himself) and testimony from survivors. It’s a severely beautiful, dynamically vibrant if unceasingly pained and mournful portait of an injustice that’s far too often overlooked, and ended on an almost mystical note to accompany historian/investigative journalist David Barsamian’s recorded commentary which essentially echoed that if we forget events like these, those things might well happen to us.
On one hand, what Kouyoumdjian has done with this is important historical work, and puts the music in an appropriatingly horrifying context – which the stunned audience eventually rewarded with a standing ovation. On the other hand, it would be also be rewarding to hear that string quartet by itself: it’s certainly strong enough to stand on its own. The best concert of 2015 so far? By far, the most intense.
Pretty much everybody, at least in the jazz world, agreed that Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans, by conductor and Evans scholar Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project, was the best album of 2012. You rarely see that kind of consensus. Even for an ambitious jazz bandleader, it was an enormously labor-intensive achievement. Truesdell also left himself little wiggle room for a sequel: pretty much anything was destined to be anticlimactic. So Truesdell – who has probably spent more time unearthing rare and previously unknown Evans compositions and arrangements than anyone else – flipped the script. Rather than emphasizing the iconic big band composer’s genre-smashing, paradigm-shifting later works, the group’s new live album, Lines of Color features a lot of older material. It’s also on the upbeat side: Evans’ music is Noir 101 core curriculum, and what’s here tends to be more lighthearted than Evans typically is. So there’s another cult audience – the oldtimey swing crowd – that will probably love this if they get to hear it. You can hear this mighty, stormy, dynamically rich, twenty-plus-piece group when they play their annual residency at the Jazz Standard starting this Thursday, May 14 and running through the 17th, with sets at 7:30 and 10 PM. It’s pricy: $30, and $35 on the weekend, but it’s worth it. Remember, the club doesn’t have a drink minimum (although they have a delicious and surprisingly affordable menu if you feel like splurging).
The new album opens with a punchy, sleek take of the noir waltz Time of the Barracudas, from the iconic 1964 album The Individualism of Gil Evans. On the heels of a bouncy Marshall Gilkes trombone solo, tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin takes it up with an aptly marionettish pulse through a series of a playful hints at endings. The band follows by reinventing Bix Beiderbecke’s Davenport Blues as a lustrous slow drag, Mat Jodrell’s trumpet carrying its triumphant New Orleans tune much of the way. This version is notable for being exactly the way Evan originally wrote it before many better-known revisions, right down to the second line-flavored break midway through.
Avalon Town both embodies its dixieland origins and transcends them – those oceanically eerie close harmonies as it opens are a prime example of how Evans could take something utterly generic and make magic out of it. And you thought you knew (or wish you’d forgotten) Greensleeves? Just wait til you hear the mighty outro and warily tasty Marshall Gilkes trombone solo that concludes it.
John Lewis’ Concorde, another track from The Individualism of Gil Evans, has more of a jet-age ebullience and plushness than the uneasily bossa-tinged original – here Lois Martin’s viola plays Lewis’ original righthand figure for piano. Singer Wendy Gilles does a marvelously nuanced job, ranging from fullscale angst to playful cajolery on Can’t We Talk It Over, over a pillowy backdrop with Evans’ signature high reed/low brass dichotomy. Later on, she offers an elegantly cheery take of Sunday Drivin’.
Gypsy Jump, an early work from 1942, reveals that already Evans was doing things like hinting at Tschaikovsky and opening with a figure he’d recycle memorably later on with Miles Davis. It’s lternately neblous and disarmingly oldtimey, McCaslin’s sax enhancing the former and Steve Kenyon’s clarinet the latter. Then the band makes a medley of Easy Living, Everything Happens to Me – centered around Gilles’ heartfeld, angst-driven, tersely bluesy phrasing – and another Johnny Mercer tune, Moon Dreams, which builds to a galactic sweep, dreamy JMW Turner colors over that omnipresent low, murky pulse.
Just One of Those Things is another mashup of vintage swing and lush sophistication, Steve Wilson’s purposefully fluttering yet unresolved soprano sax solo at the center. The album ends with a take of How High the Moon that’s on the slow side – at least for a song that so often gets played lickety-split – with an exchange of barely bar-length solos frou throughout the band, bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Lewis Nash pushing it with what’s practically a shuffle beat. You like epic? You like counterintuitive? You like venues with exquisite sound? The album was recorded in this very same space, most likely in front of a sold-out house, but it’s a big-studio quality production. Some if not all of it is up at Truesdell’s webpage along with tracks from that amazing first album.