Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Bittersweeet, Imaginative Large Ensemble Jazz From Johannes Wallmann

Pianist Johannes Wallmann’s new Elegy for an Undiscovered Species – streaming at Bandcamp – is an unusual and strikingly tuneful big band jazz album. For one, the lineup – jazz quintet plus a fourteen-piece string orchestra – is unorthodox, harking back to the days of Charlie Parker With Strings. Yet it also engages the orchestra as much as the rest of the group. It’s also remarkably groove-oriented. Conventional wisdom is unless you’re Ron Carter or Buddy Rich, bass and drums in a big band are a thankless task. Not so here.

Don’t let the album title fool you: it’s about contrasts and shades far more than the darkness it implies. The group open with the epically swaying, eleven-minute title track, the strings rustling, tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen working the bittersweet hook over the clustering groove of bassist Nick Moran and drummer Allison Miller. Stephens takes a pensive solo as the orchestra darken the atmosphere, Jensen pushing outward with her microtones and volleys. Wallmann’s solo delivers spirals and erudite blues phrasing as the orchestra rise behind him, with bracing exchanges amid the strings.

The second number, Two Ears Old is a fond ballad, wafting horns contrasting with uneasily circling piano underneath, Wallmann and then Stephens pushing the clouds away and choosing their spots as they climb. Miller’s whispery thicket of sound and nimbly altered shuffle in tandem with Moran’s tersely dancing lines beneath Jensen’s lyrical ambered solo are masterful. They reprise the theme at the end of the album as a bit of a High Romantic feature for cello and piano.

In Threes has rhythms and unsettled harmonies shifting around a piano pedal note as the band gathers momentum. Wallmann eventually abandons a twinkling righthand solo for warpy, spacy synth: the bizareness of the individual strings answering has to be heard to be believed. Whatever you think of this, you can’t say it’s not original.

A looping, syncopated bass riff anchors Expeditor, bright horns versus hushed, expectant strings, Jensen’s calm, floating solo contrasting with the bandleader’s loose-limbed attack and devious exuberance from Miller afterward. The ending is unexpected and amusing.

Longing, a jazz waltz, is the album’s most lyrical and strongest track, Wallmann in lounge lizard mode as the strings waft and then recede. The strings carry the melody. revealing the moody bolero underneath, Stephens ranging from blippy to balmy.

The strings develop a windswept, cinematic tableau to open The Greater Fool, then the rhythm section bring in a clave for Jensen’s low-key, amiable solo, Wallmann delivering some coy ragtime allusions. Miller’s shamanic solo as the modalities darken could be the high point of the record.

June 26, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Anthemic, Vividly Tuneful Octet Album From Ellen Rowe

The funniest song title on pianist Ellen Rowe‘s latest album Momentum: Portraits of Women in Motion – streaming at Soundcloud – is The First Lady (No, Not Melania). It doesn’t seem to be a portrait of any first lady in recent memory. It’s too gentle for Michelle Obama, and there’s too much bluesy shuffle for Jackie Kennedy, let alone Rosalyn Carter. And none of the others from the past several decades rate. Maybe it’s a look forward to the time when we have a confidently easygoing woman in the Oval Office.

It always makes sense to open your record with a song you can close a show with, and the first number here, Ain’t I a Woman fits that bill perfectly. Rowe’s stern gospel voicings and an increasingly artful lefthand line anchor balmy individual horn voices – that’s saxophonists Tia Fuller, Virginia Mayhew and Lisa Parrott, clarinetist Janelle Reichman and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen coalescing with a steady, swinging march beat. Trombonist Melissa Gardiner takes it further toward New Orleans, Rowe closer to the blues, Fuller bringing it all together, followed by a slinky bass solo. There’s a lot going on here.

Balmy horn harmonies over Allison Miller’s suspenseful drizzle of cymbals kick off RFP (Relentless Forward Progress), lithely blippy bass underneath an increasingly soaring, optimistic theme that quickly hits a chugging latin groove echoed by a spiraling Jensen solo.

A biting, upward chromatic piano interlude opens off The Soul Keepers, a boogie with plush, sailing brass. There’s a bluesy late 40s Gillespie band purism here, Rowe’s gritty incisions ceding the stage to a triumphant alto solo and sagacious trombone.

There’s a wistful, gorgeously pastoral sensibility to Anthem, Reichman’s clarinet at the center over the bandleader’s precise chords, down to another purposeful bass solo. Saxes converse cautiously and broodingly as The Guardians slowly rises toward a pensive quasi-bolero groove: in a quiet way, it’s the album’s most vivid and strongest track. Rowe closes it with the playful but determined Game, Set and Match, a web of New Orleans riffs building to a return to Miller’s second line-inflected swing. At this point it hits you: this is one of the most tuneful jazz albums of recent months, arguably the high point in Rowe’s underrated career.

February 14, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Edgy Focus and Tunefulness From All-Female Jazz Supergroup Lioness

Lioness are the perpetually swinging Posi-Tone Records‘ all-female supergroup. It’s unusual for any of the few remaining record labels, such as they exist at all in 2019, to be championing women, let alone women in jazz. But Posi-Tone has an enviable track record of doing just that, including a bunch of recordings by Alexa Tarantino, Amanda Monaco, Lauren Sevian – all three of them members of Lioness – and several others. The sextet got their start during a Flushing Town Hall residency by Monaco; their debut album Pride and Joy is streaming at their music page. The rest of the group includes tenor saxophonist Jenny Hill, organist Akiko Tsuruga and the increasingly ubiquitous Allison Miller on drums.

Sevian, Tarantino and Jenny Hill team up for some jaunty go-go blues in the album’s catchy opening number, Mad Time, by Miller. Hill’s composition Sunny Day Pal is a balmy cha-cha, its summery sonics enhanced by the organ in tandem with Monaco’s lingering, purposeful guitar. Jelly, written by Monaco and her sister, has Miller swinging leisurely behind its tight stroll and warmly bluesy horns, a neat trick.

Down For the Count. a Sevian tune, is full of surprise tempo and thematic shifts, the composer’s baritone sax bobbing and weaving and then handing off to Tarantino’s blithe alto. The covers here are all written by women as well. Melba Liston’s punchy You Don’t Say, from 1958 is reharmonized for three saxes instead of the original trombones, a carefree shuffle with solos all around. The group’s take of Aretha’s Think is even shorter than the original and makes you think about what it actually is before the group hit the chorus head-on. Ida Lupino, by Carla Bley, has a delectably allusive, sparse interweave of voices over Miller’s steady beat.

The simmering take of Meilana Gillard’s Ethiopian-tinged Identity is the strongest of the covers, a long launching pad for Sevian to take flight. Monaco clusters and spirals around the wistful Mocha Spice, by one of the alltime great postbop guitarists, the late Emily Remler. Tarantino’s briskly shuffling Hurry Up and Wait is the album’s high point, Sevian grittily unveiling the song’s bluesy architecture.

Hill glistens and flutters as Sweety, a syncopated soul number by Monaco, gets underway. Tsuruga is represented here by the album’s final and most epic cut, Funky Girl, a sly Jimmy Smith-style swing tune with more blustery horns than he typically worked with on an album date, along with a gritty Monaco solo. It’s a clinic in tight, thoughtful playing; no wasted notes, something as rare in jazz as all-female supergroups.

Lioness are at 55 Bar tomorrow night, July 27 starting at 6 PM.

July 26, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Counterintuitive Fun with Sexmob, Allison Miller and Fukushi Tainaka

What’s the likelihood of seeing two of the most consistently interesting, individualistic drummers in jazz on a doublebill at a soon-to-be-closed black box bar in Tribeca? It happened Wednesday night at the 92YTribeca at the next-to-last gig there booked by Josh Jackson of WBGO’s The Checkout, Kenny Wollesen propelling Sexmob through a deep, dynamically charged series of reinvented Nino Rota themes from Fellini films, followed by Allison Miller’s high-octane but equally eclectic quartet, Boom Tic Boom. Both drummers could not be more alike yet more dissimilar: mighty swingers with an ever-present sense of humor and a flair for the counterintuitive. Wollesen epitomizes downtown noir cool, slinking through brooding nocturnal interludes before exploding in cascades of raw, aching noise, then switching in a split second to deadpan Bad Brains-style 2/4 hardcore as bandleader Steven Bernstein blew haunted elephantine microtones on his slide trumpet. Miller’s steely focus through an endless series of OMG-we’re-going-off-the-cliff-NOW moments matched a jaw-dropping, athletic precision to her quick intellect, constantly on the prowl for where she could take the music next. Although she is generous in putting her bandmates – pianist Myra Melford, bassist Todd Sickafoose and cornetist Kirk Knuffke – in the spotlight, she likes being centerstage. Wollesen seems not to care whether anyone other than the rest of the band is paying attention to him, even though he knows everyone is.

Sexmob’s new album Cinema Circus & Spaghetti (Sexmob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota) is just out and one of the year’s best; this was an opportunity for them to air out mini-suites from individual films, beginning with a brooding sonata of sorts comprised of themes from Amarcord, going deep into the underlying angst in Juliet of the Spirits and then alternately bleakly atmospheric and furiously agitated passages from La Strada. Bassist Tony Scherr got the more lively, dancing parts, one of them completely solo: by rubatoing them, he stripped off any kitsch factor without losing the hooks. After all, what is noir without hooks to come back and haunt you?

Saxophonist Briggan Krauss began on alto, joining in cagy harmonies with Bernstein, then moving to baritone for some of the set’s darkest moments before switching back again. Bernstein took his time, choosing his spots, contrasting long, mournful sostenuto passages with animated hardbop flurries, often utilizing an echo effect and misty microtones from a second mic that did double duty as a mute, as he enveloped it with the bell of his horn.

Miller’s set featured similar dynamic contrasts, alternating catchy, syncopated funk vamps with spacious, vividly moody neoromantic ballads fueled by Melford’s darkly mjaestic, resonant, often gospel-tinged lines. On the absolutely gorgeous Waiting, Sickafoose followed Melford’s hypnotic lyricism with a long, incisive, stalking solo; Knuffke’s fluttering chromo-bop on the equally hypnotic, funky opening number set the stage for many of the highlights to come.  At one point Miller came out of blistering, pummeling riffage on the toms with a lickety-split, pinpoint-precise circular motif on the cymbals that took the suspense to redline as the band pummeled along with her: was she going to be able to maintain this perfect, Bach-like meticulousness with the storm raging all around? As it turned out, yes.

Other standout numbers included the funky, New Orleans flavored The Itch; a surrealistically moody vocal number sung with an affecting longing by a guest soprano, musing about memories of a childhood home bulldozed for stripmalls and pre-packaged dreams. and the straight-up funk tune Big and Lovely (dedicated to Miller’s pal Toshi Reagon) which gave Melford a platform for some no-nonsense, hard-hitting blues. The set ended counterintuitively with an elegaic tone poem of sorts that had Knuffke channeling what Bernstein had been doing earlier – within seconds, Bernstein, who had been hanging at the merch table, went up front and watched intently.

What’s the likelihood of both of these acts having excellent new albums, both available on delicious vinyl along with the usual digital formats, out from Royal Potato Family? Whatever the case, it’s true. And the concert was simulcast on WBGO and it’s available for streaming here.

And speaking of drummers, it wouldn’t be fair to let the week go by without a mention of Fukushi Tainaka (Lou Donaldson’s longtime man behind the kit) leading his own playful trio at Cleopatra’s Needle the following night. Tainaka, bassist Hide Tanaka and pianist Miki Yamanaka engaged each other in a constant exchange of wry jousts and push-and-pull that breathed new life into tired old standards like All the Things You Are and Girl from Ipanema. They teased the audience as they entertained themselves with false starts for solos, Tainaka deviously hinting and foreshadowing tempo shifts, the bass adding an unexpected somberness late in the set, Yamanaka backing away from lyrical to minimalistic as the bass and drums dove and bobbed through the space she’d elbowed out for them.

May 10, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment