On face value, the idea of David Murray tackling the latin side of the Nat Cole songbook is like Gogol Bordello covering Hector Lavoe. But Murray and his ten-piece, all-star Cuban-American band springboarding off this less-than-likely repertoire at Lincoln Center Thursday night turned out to be lightning in a bottle – and that lightning escaped the bottle seconds after the show began. On one hand, it was typical Murray at the top of his explosive game. But what a ride – and with some unexpected flavors. Lincoln Center impresario Jordana Phokompe sat and listened with eyes closed, blissed out – she knew she’d scored a coup staging this, and the sold-out crowd agreed.
Barely a minute into Murray’s opening epic, Black Nat, he was already up to his usual tricks, veering in a split-second between expressive lyricism and wildfire hard bop, a characteristically jaw-dropping display of speed, power and valve-wrenching extended technique. Conducting from behind his tenor sax, he drove the band to a coda with an intricately polyrhythmic. bracingly chattering interweave of voices, a popular trope with his big band, akin to a less nebulous Art Ensemble of Chicago, The group – call them Murray’s Orquesta Pequeña Cubana, maybe? – rose to similarly uneasy, majestic heights several times throughout the evening.
The storefront soul of El Bodeguero began with a rat-a-tat conga solo from Yusnier Sanchez followed by trombonist Darius Jones’ jaunty, punchy feature. You wouldn’t ordinarily expect a trumpeter to take the song into twilit territory, but that’s exactly what Kali Rodriguez-Pena did before bringing the strut back
Quizas Quizas Quizas (it’s Spanglish – say it slowly and you’ll get it) slowly coalesced to a brightly blustery cha-cha, Murray working the dynamics back and forth, Pepe Rivero’s neoromantic piano glimmer underscoring bright trumpet, sax and trombone solos. The irrepressibly witty, Cuban-born, Spanish-based pianist was having a blast all night long, a nonstop festival of polyrhthms, playing against the beat for bar after bar until Jones looked at Murray, who just grinned back,: “That’s his steez!” This time around, left to his own devices, Rivero started out in 1880s Havana and took it all the way to Arverne Avenue in the Bronx a hundred years later.
A steady, bouncing solo from bassist Yunior Terry – who pushed the clave with his woody tone and sinewy purposeful melodicism – opened Cachito, which Murray approached as pretty staright-up salsa-jazz, spiced heavily with his own pyrotechnics and Rodriguez-Pena’s artfully spacious, yet most adrenalizing solo of the night. Then the group made a glittering, tropical river out of the allusively bolero-flavored Tres Palabras. The band – which also included the warmly soulful Roman Filieu on alto sax, Kazemde George on tenor and Keisel Jimenez on drums – closed with a lyrical take of the ballad Piel Canela.
The only thing missing was…well…Nat Cole. Tony Hewitt is a first class singer, and to his credit, without any prompting, copped to not having much command of Spanish, something he shares with Cole. But in a city with millions of native Spanish speakers and a similarly vast talent base, to not have someone up there who could really drive the lyrics home was a real head-scratcher. They couldn’t have put out a call to Austin to fly in Lincoln Center regular Pete Rodriguez – son of El Conde – for a cameo? Or imagine what Marianne Solivan – who really sparkles in front of a big band – could have done with this.
The next jazz show at the Lincoln Center atrium space is tomorrow, Dec 8 at 7:30 PM with Lakecia Benjamin, who’s earned a reputation as a formidable alto saxophonist but is also an impressively eclectic bandleader and composer who’s just as adept with oldschool JB’s style funk as she is at shapeshiftingly psychedelic 70s-style soul grooves. Early arrival is always a good idea here.
Mara Rosenbloom‘s first two albums showcase an elegance and melodicism that compares to Sylvie Courvoisier. Where Courvoisier veers off toward the avant garde, Rosenbloom is more likely to edge toward hard bop, no surprise considering that she has Darius Jones on alto sax as a member of her long-running quartet. But her new trio album, Prairie Burn, with bassist Sean Conly and drummer Chad Taylor – streaming at Spotify – is her quantum leap into greatness. An absoutely feral, largely improvisational suite, it’s essentially about playing with fire, something Rosenbloom turns out to be very, very good at. She and the trio will be setting a few things ablaze at her birthday show on Dec 15 at around 9 at Greenwich House Music School. As a bonus, Conly opens the night at 7:30 with his Re:Action+1 with Michaël Attias and Tony Malaby on saxes, Kris Davis on piano and Gerald Cleaver on drums. Cover is $15/$12 stud/srs.
Controlled burns of pastures and plains are nothing new: take the coastal route to Boston in the fall and you may see one or two in progress. But they’re a lot more dramatic at the edge of the Great Plains where the Wisconsin-born Rosenbloom grew up than they are here…and obviously left a mark on her Recorded in a single four-hour session at Brooklyn’s legendary Systems Two, the album captures both an unbridled ferocity and a remarkable chemistry honed in concert over the course of a year’s worth of gigs.
The result is a fearless, often feral yet extremely intimate and highly improvised performance. What might be most impressive about this is that it’s a true trio effort. Just as JD Allen does with Gregg August and Rudy Royston, Rosenbloom puts her rhythm section on equal footing with her own instrument. Taylor is just as much a colorist, and Conly as much a part of the melody as the rhythm – and Rosenbloom completes that rhythm section as much as she drives the harmonic balance. The opening number, Brush Fire (An Improvised Overture) rises apprehensively with bowed bass in tandem with Taylor’s increasingly tense, spiraling drums, then calms, Conly steady at the center as the band converges and diverges, Rosenbloom’s dynamic attack embodying elements of 70s ECM, dusky 20s blues, percussive Jason Moran-style insistence, spare gospel-tinged chords and glistening melody. Taylor’s bristling, sparely snare-driven pulse indicate that this is a fire that won’t go out anytime soon
The four-part Prairie Burn suite opens with Red-Winged Blackbird, a jaunty, balletesque pastoral jazz theme based on a popular, playfully joshing rhyme from Rosenbloom’s childhood. The trio expands it to a similar percussive intensity with stairstepping crescendos that sometimes allude to and sometimes directly channel the deep blues that Rosenbloom has immersed herself in most recently. Her cleverly vamping interlude gives Taylor a chance to cut loose, and then turn it over to Conly for some solo comic relief
From there the trio segues into the second segment, aptly titled Turbulence, a tightly bustlning opening interlude giving way to harder-hiting pastoral variations. Conly picks up Rosenbloom’s looping triplets as the pianist’s methodical, kinetically chordal drive shifts around the center. After they wind down to a murky, allusively ominous solo piano interlude, the bandleader springboards off it for terse, ruggedly ambered blues, her uneasily looping lefthand anchoring sternly balletesque, Russian-tinged varations.
Part 3, Work! begins with ruggedly cyclical spin on the earlier triplet theme, Taylor giving it a wry clave, descending to a stern, Monk-like solo interlude and then a long, slow upward drive. The suite concludes with its fourth segment, Songs from the Ground, slowly coalescing from a darkly lingering nocturnal solo piano intro to a spare, resonant gospel-tinged 6/8 riff and moves outward from there, Taylor prowling around the border with increased agitation and driving it upward. Conly’s spare, wistfully bowed phrases deliver to Rosenbloom, who ends it on a note of hope and renewal.
The album’s two final tracks are a blues and a standard. The first is Rosenbloom’s epic take of John Lee Hooker’s I Rolled and I Tumbled. Like Hooker, Rosenbloom takes her time, slowly developing a terse lefthand groove, building intensity with her judicious but assertive righthand chordal attack. She concludes the album by reinventing There Will Never Be Another You as a blues-infused, angst-fueled lament. Mirroring her approach to her own suite here, she chooses to end it sweetly. Count this as one of the ten best jazz albums of the year (you can see all of this blog’s picks when they’re published by NPR).
What’s the likelihood of seeing an organ jazz trio with piano and drums? About as common as seeing three jazz wits as great as bandleader and organist Brian Charette with his new trio including Henry Hey on piano and Jochen Rueckert on drums all on the same stage. Their humor wasn’t broad, some of it was very subtle, some of it very “inside.” And it ran the ganut, with rhythmic and harmonic jousting and the occasional elbow flying as they went into the paint. It’s impossible to imagine any band in New York having as much fun onstage as these three guys had Tuesday night at Smalls.
After years of being championed by this blog and its predecessor, Charette is finally getting well-deserved props from the mainstream jazz media. Organ jazz tends to get stereotyped as gutbucket, toe-tapping music, and a lot of it is – and is supposed to be. But Charette is pushing the envelope as far as anyone has with the style, as this unorthodox lineup attests. Rather than using pedals, the bandleader tirelessly walked the bass with his lefthand while conjuring up a continent worth of rivers of sound, some of them turbulent, some of them bubbly and a couple of them deep and menacing, with his right.
Hey, the longtime David Bowie collaborator, distinguished himself with his imaginative, minimalisticaly insistent lefthand attack while augmenting and spiraling off the bandleader’s kaleidoscopic tangents in the upper registers. Rueckert was the evening’s main instigator, playfully nudging or jabbing the shuffles and struts – and a couple of unexpected waltzes – into the fast lane, or off onto a siding at breakneck speed. Charette arranged an artfully dynamic setlist, as if to say, “Let’s get the complicated stuff out of the way and then do the party stuff after the break when everybody’s all liquored up.” Worked like a charm.
They opened with Time Changes, a wry over-the-shoulder shout back to Dave Brubeck. Rueckert gave the song a floating swing that enabled his own sly shenanigans as much as it smoothed the landing for Charette’s tongue-in-cheek metric mess-around. You might not expect to ever hear organ versions of Tad’s Delight, or Bud Powell’s Dance of the Infidels,as organ jazz or an absolutely rapturous and unexpectedly plaintive take of Larry Young’s Paris Eyes, but that’s Charette. The highlight of the first set was his original, Conquistador, which he explained away as a Spanish-Hungarian hybrid, turning up the smoke on his roto speaker for its rather grim Magyar harmonies.
Ironically, the best song of the night – and Charette’s compositions are songs in the purest sense of the word – happened to be the only moment in more than two hours of music where he lost the crowd. At that point, it was almost one in the morning and all the college kids and a smattering of tourists were full of booze and primed for a party anthem or two. So when Charette brought the eerie cascades of Hungarian Major down for thirty seconds or so – you know, suspense, and dynamics – the kids weren’t with it. But he got them back with the lone Jimmy Smith number of the evening, a pouncing, sprightly take of The Cat. There was also a funky, funny homage to Fred Wesley of the JB’s, and a take of the first jazz tune Charette ever wrote, a look back on a time when the Bach he’d begun with was still front and center in his fingers. Which isn’t to say that it ever left, testament to this guy’s originality and fearlessness in mashing up sounds from jazz, classical, funk and even some deep roots reggae. Charette’s next New York gig as a leader is on New Year’s Day, 2017 at half past noon – yikes – at Jules Bistro on St. Mark’s Place. Then on Jan 11 at 7 PM he’s at Smoke uptown leading a killer trio with guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Ari Hoenig.
Singer Dorian Devins occupies a pretty unique place in jazz. She doesn’t just sing standards and the occasional obscurity: she reinvents instrumental numbers from across the years by penning her own pensive, tersely crafted, often subtly amusing lyrics. She sings in a cool, unadorned mezzo-soprano that harks back to golden age songbirds from June Christy to Peggy Lee, and like those singers, works the subtlest corners of her repertoire. For the past few years, she’s led a succession of trios and quartets and the occasional larger ensemble, gigging constantly from the West Village all the way out to deep Queens. Her latest album is titled The Procrastinator, parts of which are up at her webpage and at her youtube channel. Her next gig is out in front of a trio with her longtime pianist Lou Rainone and bassist Paul Gill at the Bar Next Door on Dec 5, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30 PM. Cover is $12.
The album’s opening number, Let’s Get Lost benefits from Devins’ low-key, enigmatic delivery – Karrin Allyson might have remade it this way. It’s about getting really lost, not just half-lost. Devins’ interpretation is a perfect match for the lyrics: “Let’s defrost, in this romantic mist.” Richie Vitale takes an animated, brightly toned trumpet solo followed by a bustling piano solo from Rainone.
A plush, balmy take of Wayne Shorter’s Deluge – retitled as Momentum – is next. Peter Brainin’s wary soprano sax adds welcome acidity, Rainone’s gracefully bluesy rainy-day lines matching the gritty mood. Kenny Dorham’s La Mesha gets an opiated, wary vocal echoed by a long, resonant, judicious Vitale solo, Rainone and the rest of the rhythm section – bassist Karl Kaminski and drummer Steve Johns – taking it into more jaunty territory.
I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry, done here with equal parts steadiness and Rainone’s wee-hours glimmer, is a great choice of cover: Devins loves the surreal, and her deadpan approach to this one fits it to a T. Bob Dorough’s Better Than Anything, a jazz waltz, gets an unexpectedly emphatic treatment, and the ordinarily low-key Devins pulls it off, Brainin’s flute hovering in a Frank Wess vein, Rainone reaching an unexpected crescendo with his volleys of triplets.
The album’s title track, a Lee Morgan tune, gets reinvented with a neat intro where Kaminski shadows Devins’ wry 99-percenter lament, which she picks up with deft flights of chromatics. She invents Kurt Weill’s Speak Low as a nocturnal samba; Vitale’s sunny flugelhorn adds vivid contrast with Rainone’s darkly majestic, chromatically-charged attack. Likewise, Devins does Night Bird as tiptoeing, late-night swing, much more darkly than the famous Anita O’Day version, Vitale adding distant, steady unease. Devins’ devious little curlicue on the final “I still fly by night” is priceless.
Devins takes another Lee Morgan tune, Lament for Stacy, back in a grim St. James Infirmary direction, with a brooding bass solo. The final Lee Morgan number, Soft Touch. gets a surprising amount of oomph from Devins…and then she switches it up from a jazz waltz to flute-infused, latin-tinged swing.
Dreamer, better known as the Jobim tune Vivo Sonhando, has a hazy wistfulness and distant echoes of LA lowrider soul. The album closes with Time Was, best known as a Coltrane tune; Devins’ take gets a fondly nostalgic treatment, her calm delivery in contrast to the rhythm section, who are pretty much jumping out of their shoes.
Since this album came out in 2012, Devins reputedly has another on the way soon – maybe it’s time this blog was rebranded as The Procrastinator. Fun fact: Devins is not only a musician but also co-founder of New York’s Secret Science Club, a popular series that began as a WNYC program and predated the TED Talks by several years, covering all sorts of developments in technology, medicine and many other fields that will impact our lives in the near future.
“”They let you in here?” the leader of Svetlana & the Delancey Five asked the writer, scrunching up her face.
“No, they didn’t,” the writer answered truthfully. “Your trumpet player did.”
“It’s always midnight at the Blue Note,” the irrepressible swing chanteuse grinned as she took the stage yesterday, and the crowd agreed. This time out, she’d brought a big slice of New Orleans in the person of trumpeter/crooner James Williams. There are thousands of oldtimey swing bands with women out front, but what makes this band different is that they aren’t just a backing unit. And they have the advantage of the kind of chemistry that comes from playing together week after week for the better part of four years. Their latest album Night at the Speakeasy explores some of the territory that Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald worked with so much fun, and the addition of Williams gave them the chance to wake everybody up with a little taste of Mardi Gas.
With the summery neoromantic glimmer of Billy Test’s piano, drummer Rob Garcia hit the first of several devious stumbling-caveman riffs and they were off into a scampering take of I’ve Got Rhythm, with rapidfire solos from Test and saxophonist Michael Hashin, Test trading eights with Garcia. When bassist Daniel Foose soloed, he did it with horn voicings, bubbling and sliding upwards: if you absolutely must indulge yourself and solo on the bass, you want to keep the crowd entertained, right?
First joining forces with a swinging take of Someone Just Like You, the singers took a coy formula perfected by Louis and Ella to the next level. Svetlana played the ingenue, teasing Williams, and he responded by pushing further and further and kept the audience in stitches. His bursts and burbles on trumpet matched the sly soul in his growly bass voice: he played as if he had a mute even though he didn’t . It seemed that he was making up half the lyrics on the spot – he’s got the prewar vernacular and the ginmill seduction honed to a fine shine.
To his credit, both Williams and the band managed for the most part to skirt cheesiness on their take of Hello Dolly, the one number closest to the Louis Armstrong catalog, propelled by Garcia’s second-line inspired shuffle. Svetlana and the band reinvented the Beatles’ Because as stern, stark, hauntingly austere, gospel-infused late 1800s rusticity, Garcia’s chart finding new plaintiveness and poignancy in the moody McCartney melody. They followed with a briskly shuffling Lady Be Good, Williams just a little behind the beat for extra sass. Cheek to Cheek was the most ribald number on the bill, and the whole band got into the act, instrumentally at least, leaving the dancefloor pickup scene for the couple at the mic to work out. Likewise, the band eased their way into Baby It’s Cold Outside, drawing plenty of chuckles with a series of riffs from a whole slew of cheesy Xmas hits.
They wound up the set with a piano-and-vocal intro into a slowly swinging Blue Skies – Svetlana took an equally charming and challenging, stairstepping prowl through the first verse, then the group took it swinging doublespeed with lickety-split solos from Hashin and Test to send the crowd out breathless. Svetlana saved her lone swoop up to the towering peak of her register for the last line of the last chorus. She and the group are off to Israel for a little tour, then they return to New York on Dec 5 at 9 PM at their regular backyard-tenement haunt, the Back Room on Norfolk just north of Delancey. Look for the unlocked gate on the east side of the street about eighty feet up the block.
Since Svetlana & the Delancey Five have made their home at the Lower East Side backyard-tenement hideaway the Back Room on Norfolk Street for the the past four years, you might expect their leader to play the role of mob moll in front of a band playing gangster favorites from the Lucky Luciano era. Instead, watching her is more akin to being at the Deux Magots in Paris ten years down the line, when Sartre and Beauvoir were hanging out til closing time. Svetlana has devastating wit, cosmopolitan sophistication and an amazing band behind her who are every bit as important to the music as she is. This isn’t just a bunch of guys chilling behind a charismatic singer: Svetlana will jump on a trumpet or sax or piano phrase, or a drum riff and go sailing through the stars, rising from misty bittersweetness to uninhibited exhilaration, just as the band will do when she throws a phrase their way. Yet as wild as these cats can get, they’re more subtle than most of the other oldtimey swing acts out there. They’re bringing that act to the Blue Note this Sunday, Nov 27 for brunch, with sets at 11:30 AM and also 2 PM for all you normal, i.e. night people. New Orleans powerhouse trumpeter/crooner James Williams is Svetlana’s special guest, meaning that they’ll probably be minding the Satchmo-and-Ella songbook that the band explores on their most recent album.
It takes awhile to get a handle on what she does. The first time this blog caught her act, the band was cooking and so was she. The second time out, a rainy night at the Back Room, was much more melancholy and misterioso: she didn’t allow a hint of vibrato into her vocals until the closing cadenza of the last song of the set. Most recently, she charmed an all-Manhattanite audience, fronting the Seth Weaver Big Band at Zinc Bar earlier this week. Svetlana polled the crowd to see where everybody was from, and was reassured that there are still diehard jazz people on this island. And as vividly as she channeled the deadpan vindictiveness of Ellington’s Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me, and balanced that with an exuberant take of It Had to Be You, it was her original, It’s All Good, that made for the best song of the night. It’s an update on classic 30s swing for the here and now. As she hit the chorus, she suddenly rose from a warmly enveloping calm to an eye-opening leap: “When you hear the BIG NOISE, it’s not thunder or storm.” Then she took the audience groundward again: “It’s just the sound of my heart breaking.” The song ended on a characteristically enigmatic note, a little defeated, a little defiant.
Fun fact: Svetlana is a frequent Wycliffe Gordon collaborator, and makes extensive use of his playful, wit-infused charts for jazz standards. She’ll be his special guest this Friday night, Nov 25 at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center for his 7:30 PM set with his energetic quintet.
Fun fact #2: Svetlana & the Delancey Five often open with the Gerry Mulligan classic Bernie’s Tune. To be fair, they were doing this long before the 2016 Democratic primaries. But it’s still cool.
In a chat with the audience after their sold-out show at Symphony Space last night, clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and cellist Kinan Abou-Afach explained that their great childhood ambition had been to busk in the Istanbul subway, since their Damascus hometown didn’t have one. It was a humbling revelation from two extraordinary musicians whose work defies category – and has still not been been performed in a duo arrangement on an train platform anywhere in Turkey.
Azmeh also revealed that in the wake of the 2011 Syrian revolution, he found himself so overwhelmed that he didn’t write any music for a full year. Since then, the Yo-Yo Ma collaborator has made up for lost time: just in this past year alone, this blog has caught him playing lively Middle Eastern flavored jazz, intricately conversational improvised music and ominous, war-themed soundscapes. This concert was the album release show for his latest cycle, Songs for Days to Come, commissioned by pianist Lenore Davis, impresario of the popular Upper West Side St. Urban concert and literary salon series. She and Azmeh’s fellow Damascus expat, soprano Dima Orsho, filled out the quartet to perform the raptly brooding, sometimes harrowing five-part suite in its entirety. Each song was preceded by the recorded voice of each of the five expat Syrian poets whose original Arabic words Azmeh had set to music.
The news that the last remaining hospital in the beseiged city of Aleppo had been destroyed in a bombing raid may have fueled the musicians’ steely resolve and acute sense of anguish. The poems – by Lukman Derky, Mohammad Abou-Laban, Hazem Al-Azmeh, Liwaa Yazji and Adnan Odeh – speak of abandonment by god (or sheer disbelief), allude to wartime horrors, solitude, alienation and loss. The most gripping of all, by Odeh, was a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, where the narrative itself is blown to bits. It was the one moment during the concert where Azmeh went to the deep well of classical Arabic maqamat for gracefully plaintive Levantine melody.
Beyond that, tensely still, sustained passages rose to angst-fueled codas and then returned groundward. Davis played Azmeh’s artful, elegaic bell-tone, Mompou-esque motives and muted inside-the-piano accents with a wounded, resonant restraint matched by rapidfire, circular lines. Likewise, Orsho moved effortlessly between a muted calm – most vividly during one of the early numbers, evoking a Syrian singer killed by a knife to the throat – and soaring operatics. Azmeh’s clarinet alternated between rippling, uneasy balletesque passages and a mournful sustain while Abou-Afach anchored the music in austere washes of sound. Like the rest of Azmeh’s work, it’s informed by but hardly limited to a Syrian idiom. That there was such an engaged, multicultural audience assembled to witness this concert, at a time in New York when live music is often no more than a meme for grubbing for status, speaks well for the people of this city.
From this perspective, crowds at concerts have been even more sparse than usual since the election. Monday night at the new Steinway Hall just around the corner from the Town Hall, a surprisingly robust turnout for an early weeknight got to witness a thrilling, dynamic performance by the Transatlantic Ensemble: clarinetist Mariam Adam and pianist Evelyn Ulex, joined by a couple of similarly electrifying special guests, Lara St. John on violin and JP Jofre on bandoneon.
The group’s raison d’etre is to expand the range of serious concert music beyond the usual parade of dead white guys. Lots of ensembles are doing this, but few more excitingly than this semi-rotating cast. Adam got to treat the crowd with her joyous, technically challenging leaps and bounds as the group bookended the program with a couple of Paquito D’Rivera pieces, Benny@100 – a tribute to famed jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman – and a pulsing Venezuelan-flavored waltz.
In between, Ulex explored a similar dynamism and nuance. She’s one of the pianists Steinway selected to record for their digital player piano, the Spirio, which not only plays the notes but with a very close approximation of an individual player’s touch and phrasing. With the Spirio, you have your choice of your favorite music along with a variety of interpretations. If there’s no room in your apartment or your budget for such a big piece of equipment, the Steinway label has just put out the Transatlantic Ensemble’s new album Havana Moon – streaming at Spotify – whose release the group was celebrating.
The premise of the album, Adam revealed, was to celebrate the work of some of the group’s favorite composers from their global circle. The night’s biggest thrill ride was a tango by Miguel del Aguila, whom Adam described as “impetuous,” and she wasn’t kidding. Ulex attacked the tune with both graceful precision and unleashed passion as Adam provided cleverly dancing counterpoint, and St. John added her own high-voltage flurries and spirals. The group hit a similar peak later on when joined by Jofre for a rousing performance of his composition Primavera, which came across as more of a wild midsummer festival on the Argentinian pampa.
Del Aguila’s Silence, as Adam averred, was hardly silent: a requiem, it gave her the evening’s lone opportunity to cut loose in an anguished torrent of notes, and she made the most of it. The duo also elegantly parsed the subtleties of D’Rivera’s neoromantically-tinged Habanera, a wistful Roaring 20s Parisian waltz by Villa-Lobos and a surprisingly astringent, modernist lullaby by Jofre.
Pianist Orrin Evans is in the midst of a weekend stand at the Jazz Standard, with shows tonight and tomorrow night, Nov 19 nnd 20 at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $25.. The captain of the epic Captain Black Big Band also has a fantastic new album, Knowing Is Half the Battle, just out and streaming at Spotify. What’s new is that it’s a two-guitar record, Kevin Eubanks and Kurt Rosenwinkel joining Evans,bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr. And what’s most impressive about it is that even though it’s one of the most highly improvisational albums of Evans’ career, nobody gets in anybody’s way. The twin-guitar attack follows much the same bad cop/good cop dichotomy as Marc Ribot’s live album with Mary Halvorson – Eubanks employing a round, sustained tone with frequent EFX, Rosenwinkel with more of a clean tube amp sound that burns with distortion when he wails on his chords. Although Eubanks’ most woozy textures hark back to fusion, this isn’t a fusion record
Don’t let the weird, trippy, techy intro put you off: it’s the setup to the punchilne that ends the album, which is way too good to give away. It opens slowly as Calls coalesces – one of the freest numbers here, it’s a floating platform for carefree exploraion that sets the stage for the guitar dynamic. The way Whitfield just blasts through the stoplight and keeps going is one of the album’s most irresistible moments.
When Jen Came In is a cool modal latin thing, romping along in 6/8 with Evans and Whitfield throwing elbows in the paint, the guitars shadowing each other up to one of those lustrously poignant peaks that has become an Evans trademark. The pensive, expansive jazz waltz Chiara (Italian for “clear”) – gets a purposeful belltone chord intro from Rosenwinkel, Eubanks taking a horn role; then it goes in a similarly impactful, moody direction fueled by Evans’ sunshower lines. These two numbes make a good diptych.
The take of David Bowie’s Kooks rises out of peekaboo piano-drums drollery toward tropicalia, with a soulful vocal by songbird M’Balia, who makes a return on a trip-hop ballad toward the end of the record. The funky, pulsing You Don’t Need a License to Drive gives Rosenwinkel a launching pad for some of the album’s most bristling work, Evans working a more playful tip. Whitfield’s insistent cymbals and prowling attack on the toms fuel Half the Battle, much like he does on most of the other numbers: it’s a classic hard-hitting Evans mood piece brightened with Eubanks’ high-flying, sustained lines.
Heavy Hangs the Head That Wears the Crown, a tone poem awash in keening guitar textures, builds toward uneasy, clustering chaos and then back. The considerably more upbeat Doc’s Holida, opens with guest saxophonist Caleb Wheeler Curtis in unison with the guitars and then goes strolling, one of ghe few instances where the bandleader takes the spotlight, his restlessly crescendoing intensity over Curtis’ leaping, growly bass.
The swinging Slife is a vehicle for some deliciously slippery, slamming guitar from Rosenwinkel and contrastingly tight, jaunty piano from Evans. The final cut is a gently funky lullaby of sorts. It says a lot that what’s probably the most lighthearted album of Evans’ career is anything but lightweight.
Rivers of Sound offers a captivating glimpse into Amir Elsaffar’s artistic journey and contributes a distinct sonic perspective to the body of creative music. Within the piece Elsaffar molds a soundscape out of colorful improvisation, shifting momentum, and inventive orchestration. The score is brought to life by a core ensemble of seventeen improvisers playing an array of instruments that include bass saxophone, mridangam, and ney flute. The music has a sense of spontaneity as Elsaffar assesses the sounds of the moment, cues in solos, and orchestrates new densities on stage. Rather than experiencing a work frozen in time by strict notation, the audience journeys with Elsaffar as he listens and makes intuitive decisions about the music. The result is an unforgettable event where the listener is able to traverse the imagination of this dynamic composer.
Meera Dugal curated the Brooklyn premiere at Pioneer Works in Red Hook on Ocobert 14. Dugal often partners with artists to construct narratives that advance identity and social inquiry though the medium of sound. This esthetic resonated beautifully with the venue’s mission to harbor new and adventurous music. The room’s high ceilings, brick walls, and modular performance space offers composers a blank canvas for collaboration, experimentation, and creative statement. This form of grassroots partnership between curator, venue, and artist is an important aspect of Elsaffar’s creative process.
Elsaffar’s sound emanates from musical experiences that include performing with Cecil Taylor, studying Baghdadi maqam, and playing in the Chicago jazz scene. Yet Elsaffar never gets bogged down with the “burden of representation” that can befall an artist. Rather, he employs the timbres of instruments such as buzuq, vibraphone,and English horn to engineer imaginative orchestrations. Early on in the piece there was a moment where Zafer Tawil’s oud, JD Parran’s bass saxophone and Naseem Al Atrash’s cello sustained a rich harmony. The buzz of the saxophone reed augmented the viscosity of the oud and cello timbres. A sonic color emerged from the texture that contained both a palpable tension and a beautiful dissonance.
At other times, Elsaffar held the audience’s attention through shifting momentums and layers of rhythmic punctuation. Within minutes of the piece’s opening, drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Carlo DeRosa ignited a torrent of energy. Shortly after, Parran’s improvisation erupted, the saxophonist’s dense melodic lines resolving to an almost spectral altissimo melody within the rhythm section’s driving pulse. Following this deluge of sound, the texture evaporated and the audience was left with the ethereal resonance of Elsaffar’s own santur and Naseem Alatrash’s cello. Elsaffar’s improvisation began to imply time as he built an infectious rhythm with the modular sound created by mridangam artist Rajna Swaminthan. Then Tawil and pianist Aruan Ortiz joined the musical conversation with their complementary phrasing. The resulting tension was magnetic, compelling the listener to lean in and move with the beat.
Once the groove was established, Amir led the ensemble with melodically intersecting shapes and angles. Tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen joined oboist Mohammed Saleh and alto saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol in contributing intervallic leaps to the texture; cycling rhythms melted and reformed, continuing for a full ninety minutes. Tempos ranged from the thrill of a blistering free-fall to the slow purposeful weight of ritualistic footsteps. Throughout the work, a pulsing ebb and flow emerged from the creative design of genuine experience.
In addition to being a composer, Elsaffar performs in a number of ensembles as a trumpet player, santur player, and vocalist. While all of Elsaffar’s projects are dynamic, creative, and deserve mention, Rivers of Sound is significant because it embodies his journey and the community he has built over the past 18 years. Each of the ensemble members hails from a unique time in Elsaffar’s life. Oboe and English horn player Mohammad Saleh started playing with Amir eighteen years ago in the West-East Divan Orchestra, led by conductor Daniel Barenboim, when both musicians were undertaking a deep study of western classical technique. During a sequence of collaborative trips to Europe starting in 2013, Amir began to work with Cassol, who was featured with an electrifying solo of descending shapes and lines at the Pioneer Works concert. Elsaffar began playing with Tawil (who is also featured on percussion) and his fellow oudist George Ziadeh in 2001 in New York City.Mridangam player Rajna Swaminathan and guitarist Miles Okazaki have worked with Elsaffar within Swaminathan’s project Rajas. Elsaffar’s multi-instrumentalist sister, Dena Elsaffar co-leads Salaam, an Iraqi maqam ensemble with Amir, in addition to contributing her lyrical viola improvisations to Rivers of Sound. Each artist in the band has an equally unique relationship to Amir’s story.
Rivers of Sound immersed the Pioneer Works audience within visceral rhythmic layers and transcendent melodies. Nearly two decades of Amir Elsaffar’s artistic experiences, diverse collaborations, and creative thoughts join together to add this luminous musical journey to the canon of creative music.