Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Multi-Reedman Scott Robinson Releases a Vividly Trippy Sun Ra Tribute

When booking a jazz group for a European tour, conventional wisdom is the weirder the better. Audiences there have had a voracious appetite for improvised music for decades. On this side of the pond, some of us forget that American crowds also have a history of being open to creative music: back in the 1960s, Charles Lloyd once sold out the immense New York Ethical Culture Society auditorium for an evening of free improvisation. So the Jazz Standard booking Scott Robinson’s sextet the Heliotones, with drummer Matt Wilson, trombonist Frank Lacy and Gary Versace on piano and organ, might actually be less brave than it is plain old good business sense. They’re there tonight playing the release show for their new Sun Ra-inspired album Heliosonic Toneways, Vol. 1, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $25.

Whether you see Sun Ra’s 1965 album Heliocentric Worlds as paradigm-shifting creative jazz or  sixties stoner excess, it’s one psychedelic record. Robinson’s purpose in making the new album was not to replicate it but to use the same unorthodox instrumentation. The result is very entertaining: imagine Esquivel conducting the AACM. It says a lot about this band that they’d have the sense of fun to tackle this at all. The lineup is killer: Sun Ra Arkestra leader Marshall Allen opens it with a ghostly murmur on the original bass marimba his Saturnine bandleader played on the original album. The rest of the band comprises his longtime Sun Ra bandmate Danny Thompson on tenor sax, with Lacy on trombone, Wilson on drums, trumpeter Philip Harper, bassist Pat O’Leary, saxophonist Yosvany Terry, bass trombonist Tim Newman, drummer Matt Wilson and bass clarinetist JD Parran. It’s hard to figure out what Robinson is playing: one of the world’s most sought-after multi-reedmen, the list of what he doesn’t play is probably a lot shorter than the list of what he does. For verisimilitude, he even brought in recording engineer Richard Alderson, who helmed the original Sun Ra session more than a half-century ago,

The music is best appreciated as a suite, with lots of high/low pairings, conversations that range from the droll to the frantic, and slowly massing, microtonal tectonic shifts. Wilson plays timpani for extra grandeur as the reeds chatter and scatter. There’s the rustle of a passing train and oscillations toward the top of the beanstalk, acid Lynchian swing. indignant squalls over subterranean rumble, a coy wolf whistle or two, innumerable echo effects and valves popping every which way. Warpiness exudes from Allen’s EWI (electronic wind instrument), or a vintage Clavioline synth. Dazed Frankenstein piano anchors reeds fluttering like a clothesline in the wind. It helps to understand this stuff – or try to, anyway – if you close your eyes.  And no going out with this in your earbuds unless you have shades on.

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October 31, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Weekend Jazz Gallery Stand and a Killer, Funny New Album by the Dan Weiss Large Ensemble

Drummer-led bands tend to be excellent. And they should be. Good drummers are more in demand than any other musicians: consequently, they tend to have enormous address books. So it was hardly difficult for Dan Weiss to pull together his Large Ensemble, which includes singers Jen Shyu and Judith Berkson, harpist Katie Andrews, bassist Thomas Morgan, alto saxophonist David Binney, tenor saxophonist Ohad Talmor, guitarist Miles Okazaki, pianists Jacob Sacks and Matt Mitchell, trombonists Jacob Garchik and Ben Gerstein,

Their latest album Sixteen: Drummers Suite (due out momentarily from Pi Recordings, hence no streaming link yet) celebrates the work of some of the greatest names in jazz drumming, with original conpositions springboarding off a series of the bandleader’s favorite riffs from across the ages. It’s an awful lot of fun. The band moves between jaunty interplay, frequent droll/serioso contrasts and playful echo phrases, relying heavily on Shyu and Berkson’s ghost-girl vocalese. It’s indie classical with more complex rhythms and what sounds like purposeful improvisation, although it could be completely composed. The AACM’s album with Fontella Bass could be an influence. Weiss and the group are celebrating the album’s release with a weekend stand, sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM on February 12-13 at the Jazz Gallery. Cover is $22

Weiss kicks off the album solo with a terse series of licks that the ensemble will build on later. The compositions’ titles all refer to iconic jazz drummers: Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Tony Williams, Philly Joe Jones and so on. The arrangements very seldom have the full orchestra going all at once, instead relying on momentary handoffs, slowly rising trajectories and frequent pairings or conversations. Those can be downright hilarious. The interlude during Max where it sounds like John Zorn doing P-Funk, Weiss’ abrupt WTF reaction to increasingly cacaphonous sax chatter in Tony and the many, many, many trick endings in Philly Joe are some of the best. There are plenty more.

In their most hectic moments, the band evoke the Claudia Quintet on crank; in their most ornately lustrous, Karl Berger joining forces with Roomful of Teeth. Most of the seven tracks here are partitas, shifting completely from one theme to a seemingly unrelated one. Although the segues are a little off-kilter, the music is consistently interesting. Elvin has jaunty wafts of vocalese from Shyu to Berkson and come-hither fingersnaps. Max features tongue-in-cheek juxtapositions between faux-metal fuzzbox guitar and Berkson’s arioso vocalese…and then takadimi drum language taking over in the drollery department.

For all its hijinks, the creepy piano riffage early on in Tony foreshadows a lot of what’s to come. There are echoes of Missy Mazzoli in a rare carefree mood throughout the vocal swoops and dives in Philly Joe. Klook features an enigmatic, starlit interlude amidst its circling, indie classical-influenced riffage, as does Ed. That passage is a stark, desolate one with acoustic guitar, glockenspiel and tinkly piano, straight out of the Iron Maiden playbook. Even for those who don’t get all the references and insider jokes here, this is still an awfully fun ride.

February 11, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New Threadgill Album: Same Old? Not Really

If you’re a Henry Threadgill fan, you’ve probably already got his new sextet album Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp on Pi Recordings with his long-running band Zooid. Threadgill’s been at the forefront of improvised music for so long that we take him for granted, and we shouldn’t: 68 years old, still constantly questioning, searching, reflecting, pushing the envelope. For fans of collective improvisation, the question isn’t whether this is a good album, it’s where it fits in the Threadgill oeuvre, and the answer is close to the top. How sunny does the future look here? Is today all rain and gloom? Hardly. This is an upbeat, optimistic, richly energetic album.

The revelry is between the players: along with Threadgill on alto sax and flutes, there’s Jose Davila on trombone and tuba, Liberty Ellman on acoustic guitar, Christopher Hoffman on cello, Stomu Takeishi on acoustic bass guitar and Elliot Humberto Kavee on drums. Nuts-and-boltswise, what Threadgill is doing is assigning specific intervals to each instrument as a basis for improvisation, creating seemingly endless permutations of the intricate counterpoint that’s been a signature device of his for decades. It does for rhythm what Miles Davis’ modal approach did for melody. Threadgill has long been praised by his fellow musicians as a composer who writes specifically to his players’ strengths, and that’s especially apparent here.

The opening track, A Day Off, is basically a fractured swing tune. A bass/cello pulse loosens as Ellman wanders and Hoffman fills in the spaces with a carefully interweave. Then Takeishi joins the spiral as Ellman dips low, Threadgill joins the party and the rest of the group can’t help but take the casually jaunty energy up a notch. The title track begins as artfully camouflaged clave and a rhythmic thicket lit up on one end by prowling tuba and on the other by Ellman’s atonal chords, Threadgill’s blithe flute handing off to the cello which takes it in a darker direction while Kavee slowly switches to a shuffle. The relatively brief So Pleased, No Clue slows the pace and distances the instruments from each other: spacious pizzicato cello and guitar echoing each other, tectonic shifts between the low instruments and if you listen closely, you realize they’re playing a rondo!

The centerpiece here is See the Blackbird Now. It’s the most overtly melodic and by far the darkest track here: Threadgill’s long, moodily bluesy bass flute solo following Hoffman’s apprehensive staccato is arguably the album’s high point. Ellman follows it gingerly as the band meanders murkily behind him, the trombone pulling everybody back above ground. Hoffman’s agile staccato lines evoke Stephane Grappelli as the band pulses and shuffles on the neatly entwining Ambient Pressure Thereby, Threadgill’s enigmatic alto sax bobbing and weaving as the rhythm coalesces apprehensively and then relaxes for a playful joust between guitar and tuba. Davila’s trombone gets to build spaciously joyous suspense for the rest of the band to explore and gently sway toward a resolution on the concluding cut: Hoffman gets to take his time relishing in bringing it around. For fans of improvised music, it doesn’t get much better than this.

June 13, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rare 1986 Wadada Leo Smith Show Surfaces

Here’s a really cool one from the vaults: a 1986 duo performance at Brandeis University featuring trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith – an early AACM member – and his drummer friend Ed Blackwell, the longtime Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman sideman. Recorded by the college radio station and just now seeing the light of day almost 25 years later, it’s a brisk, entertaining and warmly melodic romp, quite a change from the intricately, often massively orchestrated stuff Smith has mined lately. Blackwell’s performance here, as Smith has taken care to emphasize, is especially impressive because although his playing is completely improvised, it’s intricately thought out, a series of hypnotic riffs that he runs over and over again for a trance-inducing vibe. Either Blackwell had them up his sleeve all along – several with tinges of hip-hop; a martial New Orleans step, and a couple that sound like loops – or he conjured them up on the spot, which as Smith avers is the more likely story. Either way, it makes this new album, titled The Blue Mountain’s Sun Drummer, a goldmine for rappers on the prowl for catchy samples.

It’s essentially a ten-part suite. Not all of the tracks segue into each other, but many of them do. Smith goes for melody most of the time, a central four-note hook that twists and bends and then comes back toward the end when least expected. His tone is bright, clear, and ebullient except for the couple of occasions when he goes off-mic, with a mute, as Blackwell takes centerstage. It’s fascinating to hear how Blackwell pulls Smith into a series of staccato, insistent, minimalist phrases from time to time: he’s nothing if not a good influence. There are a couple of vocal numbers here too, the of them first building vivid, watery ambience as Smith plinks on a mbira (west African thumb piano) and Blackwell flails on the metal on his kit. The second is something of a meek-shall-inherit-the-earth theme with Rasta overtones (which are present but muted; one brief, lyrical passage here is titled Sellassie-I). Occasionally Blackwell will move out from the center, signaling a small handful of Smith excursions, but those are few and far between. More often, it’s Smith judiciously ornamenting over a trance-inducing groove or five. One cut here features Smith playing pensively expansive flute, contrasting with Blackwell’s most traditional, and most aggressive work here. They close with a number that juxtaposes balmy atmosphere with slinky funk, then the instruments switch roles; the final cut is almost a fugue, blithe trumpet glissandos alternated with those brief, percussive, staccato accents again, in a tribute to Albert Ayler. It’s a lot of fun, especially as it showcases a side that neither musician has ever been particularly known for.

November 21, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment