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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Maria Schneider Orchestra Bring a Luminous, Relevant New Album to a Stand at Birdland

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.

May 30, 2015 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project Does It Again Live at the Jazz Standard

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.

May 12, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Gil Evans Project at the Jazz Standard This Week: Major Moment in NYC Music History

Isn’t it a good feeling to be witness to history – and be aware enough to realize in the moment that it’s something you’ll take with you for the rest of your life? Like Wadada Leo Smith’s stand earlier this month in Brooklyn, the Gil Evans Project‘s ongoing weeklong residency at the Jazz Standard is an important moment in New York jazz history. Last night, midway through the big band’s first set, conductor Ryan Truesdell received the Jazz Journalists’ Association’s awards for best album of 2012 and for best big band. Truesdell had known about this for a few days but clearly, the impact hadn’t sunk in. He searched for a place in front of the band that wasn’t covered in scores. “I’m all discombobulated up here,” he groused. If that’s discombobulation, the rest of us are in trouble.

Throughout the week, Truesdell – one of the world’s most passionate and insightful Evans scholars – has been focusing on different parts of the iconic composer/arranger’s life. This evening’s centerpieces were works from the 1964 album The Individualism of Gil Evans. “It changed my life,” Truesdell explained, and no doubt there were others in the crowd who shared that feeling: practically fifty years later, the pull of its dark, burnished colors is no less magnetic. He and the band repeat the program – no doubt with plenty of surprises – tonight, and then revisit Evans’ and Miles Davis’ Porgy and Bess on Sunday to wind up the week with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Needless to say, reservations are recommended.

Rather than playing the whole album all the way through, the ensemble teased the crowd, alternating numbers from it along with some unexpected treats. This set’s highest point of many was a slow, towering, ornate, angst-fueled ballad that Truesdell had just recently discovered among Evans’ papers, a fragment simply titled Blues, which was getting its world premiere. You don’t expect a fragment to turn into fifteen minutes of lingering, resonant intensity, but that’s what this one was. Blues in this case meant pianist Frank Kimbrough’s big block chords leading up to a characteristically rich cloud of sound big enough to block out the sun. Alto saxophonist Dave Pietro made his way carefully and moodily through a modally-fueled solo before trombonist Marshall Gilkes went in a more trad, upbeat direction. When the piece threatened to collapse under its own weight at one point, Kimbrough was there in a split second with an absolutely creepy upper-register riff; and then they were back on track.

They’d opened with a deliciously fluid, resonant take on Nothing Like You, if anything more fully fleshed out than the tiptoeing swing of the album version, Kimbrough scampering and then turning the spotlight over to Tom Christensen’s hard-hitting tenor sax. Truesdell acknowledged that the version of John Lewis’ Concorde on that album is one of the most difficult pieces to play in the entire jazz repertoire, but the group was up for it. “We have the best tuba and bass trombone players in the universe,” Truesdell bragged, and Marcus Rojas and George Flynn held up, digging into the groove as the cha-cha built to a dazzling, fugal exchange of licks percolating through the group as the song reached final altitude. Meaning of the Blues took the Miles Ahead arrangement and expanded on it, a lush, slow forest fire lit up further by another pair of methodical, minutely intuitive Gilkes and Pietro solos, drummer Lewis Nash weaving subtly back and forth between time signatures as the piece shifted from somber to animated and back. They closed the set with an arrangement of Greensleeves – which Evans had originally written for Kenny Burrell in 1965 – taking the world’s most innocuous melody and made noir folk out of it, Kimbrough leading the way this time with a distant menace.

It’s not easy to keep track of everybody in this band, considering that Truesdell had contracted for 34 players for the week. Contributors to this scary/beautiful evening included but were not limited to trumpeters Greg Gisbert, Augie Haas and Laurie Frink; saxophonists Alden Banta; Steve Wilson and Donny McCaslin; french horn players Adam Unsworth and David Peel, Lois Martin on viola and Jay Anderson on bass.

May 18, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

High Voltage from the South Florida Jazz Orchestra

The title of the South Florida Jazz Orchestra’s new album Trumpet Summit is a dead giveaway. Interestingly, for a Miami-based band, this ferocious stuff is less Cuban-influenced than it is cinematic (although they crank up Roberto Quintero’s congas and guest Martin Bejerano‘s tumbling piano on the blazing salsa highway theme Read My Lips). Bassist Chuck Bergeron leads this monstrosity nimbly: when the whole crew is going full steam, the effect is spectacular, but he saves those moments for when they’re needed, often focusing on a soloist backed by just the rhythm section and then working up a crescendo from there.

Their arrangement of Clifford Brown’s Daahoud makes a good, intense opener, with neat dixieland-flavored brass/reeds harmonies and a series of increasingly explosive trumpet solos. It’s not clear who’s doing what, but the cast – which includes Wayne Bergeron, Brian Lynch, Jason Carder,Greg Gisbert, Alex Norris, Cisco Dimas, Augie Haas and Kim Pensyl – has a great time with it.

One of the album’s most interesting numbers is a scorchingly original version of Everything I’ve Got Belongs to You. Guest vocalist Nicole Yarling reminds of Abbey Lincoln with her determined, nonchalant menace over a lushly pulsing arrangement with sudden tempo shifts. Blues for the Terrible Twos – a diptych, which makes sense – begins as a swing blues with more trumpet handoffs, then pianist Brian Murphy brings in a genially shuffling ragtime groove that one of the trumpets eventually takes all the way to the roof.

Peer Pressure, by Lynch has a suspenseful sweep and majesty, ominous low brass teaming with piano on the lows, trumpet and trombones driving the swells, drummer John Yarling adding aggressive, counterintuitive accents. Another Lynch tune, One for Mogie is a bluesy waltz with tv theme-style brightness, spiced with a surreal who-me tenor solo from Ed Calle and an insistent Murphy solo. Bergeron’s Good Addiction takes the album out on a high note with its almost imperceptible crescendos and scampering modalities, Murphy’s hypnotic, intense pedalpoint anchoring the cumulo-nimbus attack overhead. There’s also a richly moody, torchy take of Sophisticated Lady fueled by Murphy’s  third-stream chordal approach and Mike Brignola’s smoky, rustling baritone sax, plus a dynamically-charged version of All the Things You Are. Thumbs up to the rest of the players on this often wild ride: alto saxophonists Gary Keller and Gary Lindsay; tenor saxophonists Ed Maina and Ken Mattis; trombonists Dana Teboe, Dante Luciani, John Kricker and Joanna Sabater; bass trombonist Jennifer Wharton and timbalero Raymer Olalde. It’s out on Summit Records.

February 12, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Gil Evans Centennial Album: A Major Moment in Jazz History

Conductor/arranger Ryan Truesdell launched the Gil Evans Project last year to commemorate the centennial of the most cinematic composer in the history of jazz. To date, Truesdell has staged a series of commemorative big band concerts as well as releasing the album Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans. Given access to the Evans family archive, Truesdell unearthed numerous unrecorded works, ten of which are included here: three compositions and seven arrangements. As history, it’s a fascinating look at the development and crystallization of Evans’ visionary style. As a work of art, it’s classic Gil Evans: deep, rich and relentlessly intense, a titanic achievement and a major moment in jazz history, on par with the discovery of Charles Mingus’ Epitaph. It trivializes any consideration of where this album might stand on a “best albums of the year” list: this is music for eternity.

Evans was the personification of noir. His lush, epic charts refuse to cede defeat even as the shadows creep in – or sweep in, which is more often the case. His influence cannot be understated, although, strange as it may seem, he remains an underrated composer: his best work ranks with Shostakovich, or Ellington, both composers he resembles, often simultaneously. The mammoth orchestra here, totaling 36 musicians, rises to a herculean challenge: some of the playing here is so brilliant as to be career-defining. The high-water marks here are the original works. The first previously unreleased piece, Punjab, was originally intended to be released on the legendary 1964 lp The Individualism of Gil Evans but for some reason never made the cut (maybe because it’s almost fifteen minutes long). The sonics could only be Evans, a spectrum reaching from the darkest depths to the most ethereal highs. The composition hauntingly blends Middle Eastern and Indian themes with energetically jazz and blues-based interludes, a characteristic roller-coaster ride from Dan Weiss’ hypnotic tabla introduction, to screaming woodwind cadenzas, menacing low brass portents and suspensefully whispery washes, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson’s long, allusively modal, spiraling solo accented by Frank Kimbrough’s apprehensively twinkling piano and the devastatingly direct drums of Lewis Nash. As usual, the soloists are interpolated within the framework of the whole: in many cases Evans creates the illusion that there is interplay between the chart, or at least part of the orchestra, and the soloist.

The work that Truesdell – one of the world’s leading Evans scholars – ranks as the composer’s magnum opus is the nineteen-minute-plus triptych Waltz/Variation on the Misery/So Long. Although versions of these pieces were released separately in the 60s, the arrangement for the three pieces together is from an unrecorded 1971 Berlin concert and it is as massive as Evans ever got (which says a lot). Vibraphonist Joe Locke turns in the performance of a lifetime injecting luridly macabre phrases, alternately stealthy and breathtakingly frantic, over ominous cumulo-nimbus backdrops, murderously mysterious climbs from the depths and incessantly terse, shifting voices within the orchestra. Wilson follows with an equally astonishing, memorable solo, riddled with microtones like a bullet-spattered getaway car. The angst is inescapable, notwithstanding Beethovenesque brass luminosity, a warmly soulful Marshall Gilkes trombone solo, Evans’ signature light/dark contrasts everywhere and an ending that is completely the opposite of everything that foreshadows it.

An equally noir if slightly shorter track here, with a previously unreleased arrangement from that 1971 concert, is Kurt Weill’s Barbara Song. Evans recorded this on the Individualism lp with a band only two-thirds the size of the ensemble here and the result is a mighty, surrealistically chilling, absolutely transcendent sweep. Locke again dazzles and ripples in a centerstage role, this time providing illumination over the sometimes distant, sometimes imminent sturm und drang driven by Nash’s succinct insistence and the lurking bass trombone of George Flynn.

Most of us know The Maids of Cadiz from the Miles Ahead album; the version here dates back seven years earlier to 1950 and Evans’ tenure in Claude Thornhill’s big band. It’s a revealing glimpse of Evans at work in a similar context, it’s almost twice as long and seems about fifty times as big. It’s amazing how Evans would go from the exuberantly ornate tango-jazz of this chart to the plushness – not to mention the terseness – of his version for Miles Davis. This one features prominent, portentous bass from Jay Anderson, a vividly nocturnal Kimbrough solo and a warm, absolutely gorgeous solo out by trumpeter Greg Gisbert.

A handful of tracks also portray Evans the working musician and his approach to some of the more pedestrian fare that paid his rent. How About You, a jaunty, dixieland-flavored Thornhill-era track, shows how he was employing alternate voicings throughout the orchestra just as cleverly as he would later in his career, not to mention the demands those charts made on the musicians. The closing cut, Look to the Rainbow – with vocals by Luciana Souza – first comes across as a relatively generic samba-pop song…but wait til the lush, bittersweet crescendo kicks in as the song winds up! And Evans’ own early 50s composition Dancing on a Great Big Rainbow – which somehow evaded making it onto vinyl despite being in the catalog of three of its era’s most popular big bands – seems a prototype for how he’d take a song from its upbeat origins and transform it into something completely different. This one grows wings but does the opposite of taking flight.

There are two other vocal numbers here, both of them absolutely Lynchian. Smoking My Sad Cigarette, sung with equal parts sadness and sass by Kate McGarry, features a pillowy arrangement that finally morphs into a swaying blues. The oldest track here, Beg Your Pardon, dates from 1946; Wendy Gilles sings it and absolutely knocks it out of the park with her coy, split-second, spot-on melismas. And Who’ll Buy My Violets, a ballad from the Thornhill era, is arguably the most Lynchian track here, Kimbrough doing an unexpected Floyd Cramer impersonation as the orchestra swells behind him and imbues what seems on the surface to be an innocuous pop melody with morose gravitas.

The sonic quality of the album is extraordinary: the care and attention to close-miking and minute detail is meticulous. Although nothing beats the vinyl warmth of a vintage Gil Evans record, this is the most sonically gorgeous digital recording of Evans’ work ever made. Kudos to engineer James Farber and the rest of the orchestra: flutists Henrik Heide and Jesse Han; oboeists Jennifer Christen and Sarah Lewis; bassoonists Ben Baron, Michael Rabinowitz and Alden Banta; multi-reedmen Dave Pietro, Donny McCaslin, Scott Robinson, Brian Landrus and Charles Pillow; horn players Adam Unsworth, David Peel and John Craig Hubbard; trumpeters Augie Haas and Laurie Frink; trombonist Ryan Keberle; tuba player Marcus Rojas; guitarists James Chirillo and Romero Lubambo, percussionist Mike Truesdell and tenor violinist Dave Eggar. It would take a book to give due credit for what they’ve accomplished here.

July 17, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment