It was about midway through jazz quartet 40Twenty’s performance last night at Seeds that bassist Dave Ambrosio took a purposeful, moodily strolling solo. As pianist Jacob Sacks played judiciously plaintive chords and the occasional flyswatter accent, drummer Vinnie Sperrazza got his floor tom crackling almost like a bass cab with a loose cone. Building a series of surrealistically altered press rolls, he was damned if he wasn’t going to max out the mystery, the perfect level of rattle and hum. You, too, would have been transfixed if you’d been there. Moments like that make it all worthwhile, justifying the shlep all the way out to what’s essentially an unairconditioned brownstone building foyer in what used to be deep Brooklyn and has become more and more Notbrooklyn.
40Twenty take their name from the golden-age jazz club tradition of playing a (frequently exhausting) series of sets, forty minutes onstage, twenty minutes off and so forth. But that’s as retro as the quartet gets. All the band members write, including trombonist Jacob Garchik, whose job in this crew is low-key, lyrical frontman. True to their name, their two sets, timed almost down to the second, explored the band’s two contrasting sides. The first was hauntingly resonant, neoromantically-colored themes. The night’s best number was one of those, a wounded, modal, slowly anthemic piece that built to a flurry of a false ending…and then the band took it doublespeed, swung the hell out of it and basically turned it inside out when Garchik and then Ambrosio aired out their variations on it. The other was another slow one, less overtly wounded but just as purposeful, where Garchik took charge of maintaining the overcast mood.
Much as this group looks back to Mad Men-era postbop, they don’t imitate it: the blues for them are more an allusion than any kind of statement one way or the other. The other side of their music involves deconstructing swing, especially in terms of metrics, and it’s here where they can be devastatingly funny. In fact, their jokes are too good to give away. One frequent jape involves beats that seem random but probably aren’t. Another is good old-fashioned jousting. There was one point where one band member (to tell you who it was would be a spoiler: you really should go and see for yourself) egged his bandmate on, the defensive player took his eye off the ball and the aggressor then went in for a slam-dunk that got everybody in the band laughing: especially the guy who’d allowed it. Maybe the funniest moment of all of them involved repetition and how much a band – or an audience – can stand.
This is an overgeneralization, but the upper-register side of the band – Sacks and Sperrazza – tend to be the cutups, and the guys on the low end – Garchik and Ambrosio – the serious ones. Although they all varied their roles, Garchik lightening up at the very end in a blithe swing romp as Sacks showed off some wicked chops with a breathtaking, lickety-split, precise series of cascades. He could play Liszt well, if he wanted to. But he probably finds this kind of music more interesting. And the cameraderie between the guys is familiar, and insightful: even during a more-or-less free interlude during the first number, everybody was listening, and waiting til there was a clear path to the basket to lay their shots in. 40Twenty are two nights into their five-night stand at Seeds, 617 Vanderbilt Ave. between Bergen and St. Mark’s; take the 2 or 3 to Bergen or the B/Q to Seventh Ave. Their shows tonight, July 24 and the next two nights start around 8:30; cover is just ten bucks.
Brian Charette gets a lot of ink here, partly because he’s been so ubiquitous. He’s gone back to his original instrument, the piano for some gigs including a turn with erudite, infectiously charismatic chanteuse Audrey Bernstein, as well as leading his own organ jazz groups. And he keeps putting out albums, all of them infused with his signature wit and penchant for pushing the envelope out of the organ jazz ghetto. If you’re down with the B3 jazz cult, toe-tapping gin lounge grooves are great fun, but like his fellow A-list organists Barbara Dennerlein and Jared Gold, Charette keeps reinventing the genre. His latest release, Alphabet City – most of which is streaming at Posi-Tone Records – is a characteristically eclectic, fun mix. of tunes. He’s doing a two-night album release stand uptown at Smoke on July 15 and 16 with sets at 7 and 9 PM; cover is just $15, which is a real deal at this place. And if the prix-fixe menu doesn’t match your requirements, you can always hang back at the bar where the sound is just as good as it is in the rest of the room.
The album is a trio session with Will Bernard on guitar and Rudy Royston on drums. You probably wouldn’t associate Royston – another increasingly ubiquitous guy – with this kind of music, but his extrovert drive is a good match for the bandleader’s sense of humor. The album kicks off with East Village, a bubbly, bustling shuffle with a subtly carnivalesque undercurrent – which makes sense considering what’s happened to the neighborhood. The band follows that with They Left Fred Out, a catchy, jauntily syncopated soul-jazz strut with characteristic Charette wit. After that, West Village, a suave swing number, has a similarly erudite, nonchalant Bernard solo at the center – and toward the end, Charette throws a few jabs toward the snobs.
Royston proves to be the perfect sparring partner for Charette’s boisterous, googly-eyed ELP riffage in the sardonically titled Not a Purist. Sharpie Moustache, a funky shuffle with a droll Zombies quote and a gorgeous oldschool soul chorus, might be a Jimmy Smith homage – remember how he had that retro facial hair thing going on?
Bernard’s sparkly hammer-ons move front and center as the latin-tinged vamp Disco Nap gets underway. The album’s best and most riveting number is Hungarian Major, a creepy, chromatically fueled, genre-defying piece, Bernard’s bell tones glimmering against Charette’s funereal Balkan syncopation. Is this Eastern European art-rock? Romany jazz? Circus music? How about all of the above?
After the sly, satirically-infused previous two downtown New York numbers, Avenue A has a disarming wistfulness set to a calm clave groove. Damn, back when the LES was Loaisaida, it sure was a lot of fun, wasn’t it? Likewise, Detours, a catchy swing anthem, leaves no doubt that taking the long way this time around was the right move, Bernard’s catchy, looping riffage setting the stage for Royston to rumble.
Charette contrasts murky atmospherics and woozily loopy pedal lines with a deadpan, lackadaisical pop hook throughout Split Black – a psychological term for how borderline personalities go off the deep end. A hazy southern soul-tinged waltz, White Lies brings to mind similar low-key collaborations between Jimmy Smith and Jim Hall. The album winds up with the oldschool 60s-style shuffle The Vague Reply, both Bernard and Royston getting plenty of room to raise the energy level. By now, it’s clear that Charette doesn’t give a damn – he’s going to do what he always does without any regard for limitations. Best case scenario is that he brings some new fans into the organ demimonde while managing to to drag the purists into his camp without any kicking and screaming.
What makes jazz singer Audrey Bernstein so individualistic, and so special? For one, she writes her own songs. And you know how some jazz songbirds sing everything the exact same way? Lovey-dovey boudoir overkill, right? Bernstein sings in character: she’s a great storyteller, she mines new and unexpected content from old standards and she’s practically a different singer from number to number. She can go from misty, to disarmingly clear and direct, to coy and enticing, depending on how the story goes. As much as that takes fearsome vocal technique, what’s most impressive is how she puts those chops to work to deliver an emotional wallop…or just a wink, or a chuckle. She’s put together a tremendously good band: Brian Charette taking a rare turn on piano, plus Sean Harkness on guitar, Daniel Glass on drums, and Steve Doyle on bass for a show on July 12 at 8:30 PM at the third stage at the Rockwood. Cover is $10 plus a $10 drink minimum.
Bernestein’s latest album is Alright, Okay, You Win, streaming at her webpage. One prime example of Bernstein as storyteller is how suspensfully she builds the litany of images in Jobim’s The Waters of March up to an ending that’s just short of ecstatic, bouncing along with some neatly counterinituitive drumming from Geza Carr and Joe Capps’ gently purist guitar. Likewise, her airy, wary approach to Detour Ahead, over Tom Cleary’s similarly judicious, subtly apprehensive piano: that it’s not fullscale Lynchian noir is what draws you in, waiting for something to jump out of the wee-hours shadows. Bernstein and Cleary follow the same trajectory, from overcast to tenderly misty, on Melody Gardot’s Love Is Easy.
Bernstein’s take of Comes Love is both rich with history and a clinic in subtlety: she gives it a matter-of-fact, vintage Molly Picon charm that harks back to the song’s klezmer roots, but without going over the top into vaudeville. Bernstein’s lone original here, Oh the Money, is arguably the album’s best track, a darkly scurrying, bitingly direct blues shuffle.
Bernstein kicks off the album with a jauntily insistent jump-blues take of Too Close for Comfort with scampering trumpet from Ray Vega and piano from Cleary. ‘Deed I Do gets a more dynamically rich interpretation than most oldtimey swing singers give it, Bernstein maxing out her bluesy wiggle-room, alto saxophonist Michael Zsoldos maintaining the vibe. She goes even further, Dinah Washington-style, in that direction on the title track, trumpeter Joey Sommerville pushing a joyously dixieland-inspired horn arrangement.
Bernstein channels raw, undiluted duende on a moody take of You Don’t Know What Love Is, yet with a restraint that makes it all the more poignant, matched by John Rivers’ carefully pulsing bass and Cleary’s lingering, angst-tinged lines. The album’s balmiest number is the steadily swinging You Made Me Love You, lowlit by Sommerville’s sax; and them Bernstein goes unexpectedly chirpy and clever as it winds out. There’s also a bonus track, a nebulously low-key guitar-and-vocal take of I Want a Sunday Kind of Love.
Fun fact: Bernstein’s sense of adventure extends to the kitchen. She’s got a bunch of tempting recipes here.
Conventional wisdom is that if you want to cover a song, you should either completely reinvent it, or improve on the original. Trying to improve on anything from the immense catalog of the late, great jazz poet/hip-hop/psychedelic funk icon Gil Scott-Heron‘s catalog may be an impossible task, but as far as reinventions are concerned, the field’s wide open. Singer Charenee Wade tackles that challenge on her ambitious new album, Offering: The Music of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson. She’s playing the release show at the Jazz Standard on July 8, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM: cover is $25.
For those unfamiliar with his catalog, Scott-Heron, who died in 2011, ranks with Bob Marley, the Clash and Johnny Cash. Scott-Heron may not be quite as well-known, but his searing, fearlessly political music is every bit as powerful as anything those artists ever put out. Many consider him to be the first major hip-hop artist. Over the course of a forty-plus year career, Scott-Heron ripped racists and rightwingers to shreds, called bullshit on his own community and was one of the few American artists to call attention to the apocalyptic danger of nuclear power: his unforgettably ominous cautionary anthem We Almost Lost Detroit predated the Chernobyl disaster by a dozen years, and was the standout track on the otherwise forgettable No Nukes concert compilation album.
Maybe wisely, Wade and her band steer clear of most of Scott-Heron’s major works, instead focusing on more obscure tracks.There are two songs from Scott-Heron’s auspicious 1971 Pieces of a Man album, another two from 1975’s far more mellow The First Minute of a New Day. She and the band kick off the opening number, Offering, from the latter album with a strikingly straightforward delivery that actually manages to one-up the original. The genius of the arrangement is Brandon McCune’s steady piano augmented by Sefon Harris’ vibraphone, plus guitarist Dave Stryker’s brittle but triumphant cadenzas.
Another track from that album, Western Sunrise is a real revelation, bassist Lonnie Plaxico kicking it off with a catchy hook, Wade establishing a tricky tempo that ironically puts her unaffectedly strong vocals front and center, reinforcing Scott-Heron’s sardonic commentary on American exceptionalism. She ends it with a misty scat solo that the composer would no doubt appreciate.
Of the two tracks from Pieces of a Man – Scott-Heron’s first recording with a full band – Wade goes for fullscale reinvention with a scamperingly salsafied take of Home Is Where The Hatred Is, in her hands an even more chilling portrait of ghetto abandonment and alienation spiced with rippling solos from Harris and McCune. When she toys with the song’s haunting. concluding line, the effect is viscerally spine-tingling. Likewise, Wade reimagines the other track from that album, I Think I’ll Call It Morning, as a spirited if rainswept late 60s soul-jazz waltz as Roberta Flack might have done it.
Interestingly, the most epic number here is a shapeshifting take of Song of the Wind, an optimistic Afrocentric peacenik anthem from the 1977 Bridges album: the sparkly piano/vibes arrangement raises the energy of the undulating Fender Rhodes-driven original. A Toast To The People, one of the lesser-known tracks from the iconic 1975 From South Africa to South Carolina album, also gets an expansive treatment, Wade maintaining an enigmatic, misty distance from Scott-Heron’s snide, insistent delivery, Stryker channeling a period-perfect feel with his octaves.
Arguably the most apt choice of songs here is Ain’t No Such Thing As Superman, from the 1974 album The First Minute of a New Day – simply being sung by a woman, let alone with as much conviction as Wade brings this, elevates Scott-Heron’s message of community solidarity. Actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner narrates the historically biting proto hip-hop intro to Essex/Martin, Grant, Byrd & Till, an improvisational tableau with a lively solo from saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin. Likewise, Christian McBride provides a spoken-word intro to a lushly assertive take of the understatedly snide Peace Go With You Brother, from the 1974 album Winter in America. The most obscure track here is The Vulture (Your Soul And Mine), a clave-soul mashup based on a cut from Scott-Heron’s final and forgettable album I’m New Here.
Is That Jazz is the one song that would have been really awesome to hear Wade do here. Can’t you imagine Plaxico playing that bitingly bluesy intro…and then Wade scampering down the scale, or up the scale as that groove kicks in? And wouldn’t that be hilarious when she got to the chorus? Is that jazz? OMG, is that jazz! The album’s not out yet, therefore no streaming link: put out a Google alert for when it hits Spotify, Soundcloud or Bandcamp.
To steal a phrase from his fellow tenor saxophonist JD Allen, Tom Tallitsch plays jukebox jazz: hard-hitting, toe-tapping music enhanced by a shot and a beer. Esteemed by his peers in the New York jazz scene, it’s a crime he’s not better known. In a sense, he’s a throwback to guys like the Adderleys, but with more focus. His latest album is All Together Now, leading a sizzling sextet with Mike DiRubbo on alto, Michael Dease on trombone, B3 monster Brian Charette taking a rare turn on piano, with the hardworking rhythm section of Peter Brendler on bass and Mark Ferber on drums. Tallitsch’s next gig is at 10 PM on July 8 at 55 Bar with a similarly good sextet.
His compositions are full of hooks, and unexpected interludes, and ideas, and trajectories and narratives. The album opens with a characteristically catchy, bustling number, Passages, a harried latin theme with purposefully percolating solos from Dease and the bandleader himself. Hearing Charette, a brilliantly unorthodox organist, on his original instrument, the piano, is a trip, and he acquits himself well as a salsa jazz guy. Who knew!
You might not think that the Band’s The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down would translate to jazz, and apparently Tallitsch doesn’t think so either – this version finds the band reinventing it as brightly festive, summer-night southern soul. And it beats the hell out of the original. Then the band switches back to a wickedly good, original Jimmy Smith/latin jazz mashup with Slippery Rock, Charette’s offcenter chords – is that a DX7, or has he found a way to get that weird, echoey sound out of a Rhodes? – anchored by Tallitsch’s sailing lines, holding it together from way up high.
The aptly titled Big Sky opens with a pastoral theme but shifts in a second into shuffling wee-hours, distantly latin-flavored ambience, Ferber’s deliciously flurrying drums with Tallitsch and DiRubbo maxing out the red-neon flavor. The most epic track here, Border Crossing is classic Tallitsch, an almost viciously swinging, vampy number, the composer’s own lively opening solo contrasting with Charette’s tightly wound, scampering attack, Ferber driving the big, concluding horn chart home with an unexpected ending.
Curmudgeon is a subtly funny shout-out to Dave Brubeck, everybody in the band playing their cards close to the vest. The second cover here is a casually swinging, goodnatured take of Frank Zappa’s Uncle Remus, a launching pad for a long, warmly crescendoing Tallitsch solo. Medicine Man brings back the Brubeck edge and catchiness, with a tightly unwinding horn chart, DiRubbo working in reverse, taking it down gently from Tallitsch’s after-the-grenade smokiness.
Greasy Over Easy is a slow, genial minor swing number, Tallitsch adding a counterintuitive edge by bouncing around rather than going for gravitas, Dease doing the same thing. Dunes, a shapeshifting, vividly uneasy jazz waltz follows; the album winds up with the slowly swaying, boisterously and then very subtly gospel-infused Arches. This isn’t a collection of knock-you-off-your-stool moments – it’s more like keep-you-at-the-bar moments. You don’t want to get up and leave because the band is so good. The album hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet, but you can get a good idea of where Tallitsch is coming from, with lots of audio at Posi-Tone Records and their soundcloud page, as well as Tallitsch’s own page.