Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

An Inspired, Dynamic Live Debut Album by the Ulysses Owens Jr. Big Band

Drummer Ulysses Owens Jr.’s debut album with his big band, Soul Conversations – streaming at Spotify – sounds like one of those exuberant field recordings that jazz clubs love to play before shows. They get everybody drinking and they’re full of juicy solos. And it’s all but impossible to hear them ever again. This one you can.

Recorded at Lincoln Center before that venue was weaponized for totalitarian divide-and-conquer and lethal injection schemes, it’s on the trebly, boomy side: it sounds like a monitor mix. The group, comprised largely of up-and-coming New York players, open with a brassy. hard-swinging take of Dizzy Gillespie’s Two Bass Hit. Trumpeter Wyatt Forhan’s wildly spinning solo and baritone saxophonist Andy Gatauskas’s droll break before a similarly devious false ending are the highlights.

The tropically lustrous London Town, by trumpeter Benny Benack III features balmy work from the composer and guest vibraphonist Stefon Harris. Beardom X, a terse Owens swing tune, has a punchy bass solo from Yasushi Nakamura, pianist Takeshi Ohbayashi piercing the lustre before tenor saxophonist Diego Rivera adds bluesy gravitas and shivery intensity.

Red Chair is a wickedly catchy jazz waltz, trombonist Eric Miller choosing his spots up to a fleetingly bright crescendo, Ohbayashi’s bright chords and judicious glimmer fueling the next one. It’s the high point of the album.

Owens propels the group through a briskly shuffling take of Giant Steps, Rivera and fellow tenorist Daniel Dickinson conversing energetically. On alto sax, Alexa Tarantino dances sagely in an immersive, lushly lyrical Language of Flowers.

Human Nature, the cheesy Michael Jackson ballad, is a less than ideal vehicle for this group, even with Harris’ vividly twinkly vibes. But Owens’ decision to make a deadpan 12/8 ballad out of Neal Hefti’s Girl Talk is irresistibly funny and validates anyone who ever suffered through another band’s florid take.

Charles Turner III sings his swing blues Harlem Harlem Harlem, through a long series of intros to a spine-tingling, cascading Erena Terakubo alto solo, soulfully energy from trombonist Michael Dease and a ridiculously comedic cameo from trumpeter Summer Camargo. They close the record with the title track, Tarantino spiraling amid the contentedly New Orleans-flavored nocturnal ambience.

And what about the leader? He often plays with a very oldschool 50s flair here: lots of offbeat shuffles and vaudevillian cymbal flourishes. Close your eyes and this could be Max Roach with a careeningly energetic crew in front of him. It’s become a familiar refrain here, but more artists and particularly large ensembles like this should make live albums. Owens’ gig page doesn’t have any shows listed; among the band members here in New York, Tarantino is playing Ellington and Nat Cole tunes tonight and tomorrow night, May 23 and 24 at Bryant Park at 5:30 PM with members of the American Symphony Orchestra.

May 23, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A State-of-the-Art, Majestic Big Band Suite From the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra

The world is in a very strange place right now, and some of the least likely candidates are doing herculean work just about everywhere you turn. So anyone who might be surprised that some of this era’s most sweeping, majestic big band jazz would be coming out of Manitoba hasn’t heard the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra album Twisting Ways, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s more symphonic than solo-centric, comprising a couple of suites and a lyrical vehicle for tenor sax.

Pianist David Braid and composer Philippe Côté utilize texts by Lee Tsang in the shapeshifting series of themes in the album’s title suite: the group doesn’t linger long on any of them. Singer Sarah Slean traces a spiritually-inspired narrative about a mythical nightingale and an unseen hand (no, not the one that Adam Smith imagined).

Part one, The Hand follows a big, upward symphonic trajectory. “Has darkness transformed my life?” Slean asks over Braid’s uneasy piano glimmer. The nightingale ponders her “need to succeed” as the enveloping resonance rises behind her. Drummer Eric Platz rings his cymbal bells while bass trombonist D’Arcy McLean pushes the rest of the brass to dig in.

A triumphant flourish signals a pensive Braid piano break. Slean’s nightingale ponders defeat and seeks redemption while he textures fill the space from top to bottom, Braid cutting through tersely. A big swell introduces vibraphonist Stefan Bauer’s eerie cascades; the group take it out with a slow, steady lustre.

A suspensefully dramatic drum break kicks off the brief second segment, a series of emphatic, riffmic (how’s that for a new jazzapeak term?) exchanges between piano and the orchestra, building triumphantly through echo effects to a momentary calm. From there, Braid moves from insistence to spacious lyricism in the solo piano interlude Opening Glimmers

A blustery swing ensues in the epic conclusion, Hope Shadow, colorful motives bouncing from one section of the ensemble to the next, Mozart-style. The group reprise the ominous vibes theme from the opening movement, Braid taking over with a glimmer that stretches from a distant menace to find familiar comfort amid towering brass harmonies. Slean’s nightingale lands home triumphantly: “It shines, softly; it shines, oddly,” but – it shines.

Karly Epp takes over the mic the rest of the way through. She soon finds herself “drifting through clear ether” in Lydian Sky, a vast northern plains tableau, the enveloping lustre of the group serving as a launching pad for an unhurried, rising and falling Mike Morley tenor sax solo. The final number is Côté’s Fleur Variation, Epp’s crystalline vocalese serving as a foil to Bauer’s phantasmagorical vibes as the group gather steam, through robust, staggered, brassy counterpoint, a tantalizingly chromatic solo from bassist Karl Kohut up to a misty, oceanic swirl worthy of Debussy.

This is one of the most ambitiously memorable big band albums in recent months, a triumph of inspired playing by a group that also includes saxophonists Neil Watson, Sean Irvine. Shannon Kristjanson, Jon Stevens, Paul Balcain. Lauren Teterenko and Ken Gold; trumpeters Jeff Johnson, Shane Hicks, Richard Boughton, Richard Gillis and Andrew Littleford; trombonists Joel Green, Jeff Presslaff, Keith Dyrda and Francois Godere.

January 31, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Colorfully Melodic Big Band Debut by the Sam Pilnick Nonet

If you want to make a big splash with your debut album, you put as many players on it as you can. Maybe you leave no doubt about where the record is going by opening with a nine-minute song which starts with the big riff from Also Sprach Zarathustra.

That’s what saxophonist Sam Pilnick did on the first album by his nonet, The Adler Suite, streaming at Bandcamp. It was not easy to resist being snarky about the album’s central concept: the mysteries of deep space (Pilnick came up with it on his first trip to Chicago’s Adler Planetarium). In all seriousness, Pilnick’s compositions are refreshingly uncluttered, tuneful and on the upbeat side: he and his formidable group managed to wrap up recording under the wire in February 2020, just ahead of the plandemic lockdowns.

The title of the opening number, Squawk Box refers to the NASA communication device which seems positively quaint after all these years. That famous Space Odyssey riff becomes a cheery march over an increasingly bustling rhythm, then suddenly the band drop out for a fleetingly sober break by pianist Meghan Stagl. She returns to deliver a longer, loungey twinkle. On bass clarinet, Ted Hogarth adds comfortable nocturnal ambience beneath growing lustre as the group wind their way out with an unhurried optimism. The far reaches of the galaxy have seldom been more inviting.

The album’s second tune, Star Launch opens with an attractively bustling theme, an intertwine between altoist Max Bessesen, trumpeter Emily Kuhn, trombonist Euan Edmonds, and Hogarth on baritone sax alongside guitarist Ben Cruz, bassist Ben Dillinger and drummer Matthew Smalligan. The bandleader races steadily through the song’s first solo, Bessesen raising the intensity to a genial 50s Basie-esque series of flurries which the ensemble ride out on.

Stagl switches to electric piano for extra starriness in Revolving Twins, a series of variations on a gentle, steadily circling riff, Cruz playing Luke S. to Smalligan’s Darth V. for a bit. Dillinger artfully shadows Pilnick’s deliberately paced upward trajectory to a febrile peak.

Kuhn does her best Venus impression in the tenderly resonant ballad Silver Light, and she’s got it, wafting over ambered horns and Stagl’s spacious chords. The moody duo number Constant Companion makes a good segue, the bandleader taking his time closing in on Stagl’s simple, loopy descending progression.

The album’s most epic track is House of the Massive (Pismis-24), inspired by a star system 6500 light years from home. With its hypnotically funky pulse, echoey electric piano, buoyant horns and shreddy guitar solo, it brings to mind late-period Steely Dan. Pilnick returns to spacious ambience with A Light Year, a contented canon for the horns and then takes that theme more bracingly and warily upward in Expanding Universe.

The group conclude with Falling Backwards, inspired by the return of the Gemini 12 expedition. Pilnick chooses his spots over a staggered, energetically syncopated drive and massed brassy atmosphere, Edmonds’ clusters and sailing phrases leading the group to the edge of night. Pilnick’s translucent compositions are a breath of fresh air: let’s hope we get to hear more from this purposeful crew.

January 25, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vivid, Lush, Cinematic Big Band Jazz From Lawrence Sieberth

Pianist Lawrence Sieberth‘s big band album Musique Visuelle – which hasn’t hit the web yet – is aptly titled. There’s a cinematic sweep and an abundance of vivid narrative in his majestic compositions and arrangements. Sieberth likes to take brightly expressive neoromantic themes to unexpected places, has a refised sense of texture and doesn’t shy away from darkness. He recorded the basic tracks in New York with a couple of trios which include bassists Yasushi Nakamura and Ricky Rodriguez, and drummers Jamison Ross and Henry Cole. The symphonic orchestral arrangements were recorded in New Orleans. Much of the album is just piano and orchestra, or the orchestra themselves; when all the musicians are in the mix, the interweave is seamless.

The album’s first number, Sus OAjos Espanoles is a fond ballad that soars on the wings of the strings, Sieberth’s piano coalescing out of starry runs to a tersely chromatic, flamenco-inflected waltz. The brass rises, then recedes for a minimalist, suspenseful piano solo. When the whole orchestra bursts in, the effect is breathtaking. Ernesto Lecuona is a reference point.

The second track is titled Twitter. Is this a snarky commentary on social media? Maybe. Sudden, suspiciously dramatic flares and droll, unfinished piano phrases alternate over rhythms that begin as oldschool 70s disco and shift to a jaunty, brassy, New Orleans-flavored shuffle.

Thorns & Roses is brooding and gorgeous: a bracing, neoromantic orchestral theme gives way to a spare, moody solo piano interlude, the strings adding haunted lustre. Percussionists Danny Sadownic and Pedro Segundo team up to open El Gringo de Fuego, which comes across as a mashup of Balkan brass music and an oldschool charanga, Sieberth building bluesy sagacity into his rhythmic, strutting lines. A tasty. gusty, brass-fueled arrangement fuels the flames on the way out.

Communion, an imperturbable, folksy gospel stroll, has gorgeously accordionsque, reedy textures as the orchestra bounces and sways along. Sieberth opens Threads of the Weaver solo with a baroque solemnity, then Erik Gratton’s flute and the rest of the orchestra come sweeping in. But this concerto for piano and strings follows a considerably darker, more complex thread as it winds out.

Titus Underwood’s oboe floats amiably over the orchestra as Suenos de Amor gets underway, rising to a lush, purposefully syncopated pulse, Sieberth choosing his spots in a spare solo. Once again, the ambiguity and complexity return to destabilize any potential drift into predictable comfort.

Sieberth reaches for Ellingtonian gravitas as Blue gets underway, the subtle counterrythms of the strings fueling a distant unease, the brass capping off a long, elegaic crescendo that the composer eventually brings full circle. The somber mood lifts in Brazilia, but not necessarily the suspense, in this balmy, catchy orchestral samba. McCoy Tyner’s Fly With the Wind comes to mind.

Waltz for the Forgotten begins with a wistful oboe solo over the strings and grows more nocturnal as it moves along: it has the feel of a closing credits theme. Cat & Mouse gives the ensemble a chance to have fun with wry cartoonish flourishes, but those quickly give way to an understatedly disquieted, syncopated sway. They take it out on a jaunty note.

The closing number is Paysage Africain, a briskly pulsing, gusty number spiced with trumpet and vibraphone. The modally tinged oboe solo on the way out is tantalizingly brief. What a gorgeous record, one of the most memorable releases of the past few months.

January 22, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Epically Genre-Smashing, Deliciously Unpredictable Album From Charlotte Greve

Over the years there have been a ton of jazz records made with a string section, or even an orchestra. But jazz with a choir? Has anyone ever made a jazz album with a choir? Saxophonist/singer Charlotte Greve has. Her latest release Sediments We Move – where she bolsters her quartet of guitarist Keisuke Matsuno, bassist Simon Jermyn and drummer Jim Black with adventurous, endlessly shapeshifting choir Cantus Domus – is streaming at Spotify..

This seven-part suite is like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Sometimes Caroline Shaw‘s new classical work comes to mind when the phrasing gets particularly cellular. Some of the most rhythmically straightforward interludes evoke bands like Wye Oak and My Brightest Diamond, when they straddle the line between artsy indie rock and modern classical music. There’s so much going on in this catchy but endlessly permutating album that what you see here is just the highlights. Conductor Ralf Sochaczewsky does Herculean work keeping the choir on the rails through Greve’s endlessly kaleidoscopic twists and turns.

The first interlude begins with a series of airy loops intertwining at glacial tempos. A delicate guitar figure enters and enlaces the choir’s stately vocals . Bass and drums become more prominent as the choir’s highs and lows coalesce into a quasi-canon. Greve moves to the mic with a stately, gracefully leaping melody over terse, steadily rhythmic bass and guitar, the men of the choir answering. The rainy-day feel warms as Black picks up the energy again. That’s just the first eight minutes of the record.

The second segment has a determined, emphatic sway, Greve’s unaffected, clear voice giving way to uneasy close harmonies from the choir and a simmering distorted guitar solo. From there she takes a carefree sax solo over subtly contrapuntal, looped choral parts, Matsuno finally kicking in toward the end.

A dancing bassline and incisive guitar lead to an unselfconsciously joyous crescendo of voices, then the sound grows more stark as the voices back brief sax and bass solos. Press repeat for extra joy…and whisper en masse when it’s almost over.

The deep-space interlude midway through comes as a complete shock, first with starry guitar, then pensive sax and ambience disappearing into the ether, followed by agitation and roar. Greve’s sax pulls the melody together tersely over Black’s steady tumbles before the nebula sonics return.

Part four opens with a couple of slow, lingering choral themes. There’s extra reverb on Greve’s judicious sax spirals and warmly conversational counterpoint from there, winding down to the most minimalist point here. But Black gets restless…he doesn’t want to let the pull of deep space get the best of everybody a second time around.

Guitar jangle and clang careens over calm resonance as the fifth segment kicks in and motors along: the point where the choir pick on the punk rhythm is irresistibly funny. Likewise, this is probably the first album to feature a sputtering bass solo backed by a towering choir in insistent 4/4 time. Scrambling guitar over an enveloping atmosphere evaporates for a funkier sway, the choir at the center.

Calmly and hypnotically, band and ensemble segue into the concluding portion, the bandleader’s sailing solo introducing a funky/stately dichotomy and hints of circling Afrobeat. Greve’s sax leads a reprise of the lush opening interweave. After a couple of triumphant, well-deserved crescendos, the choir take over with a carefree but unwavering rhythm. At this point, there’s no sense in giving away the ending: it’s not what anyone would expect. Maybe, ultimately, it’s not even an ending.

January 20, 2022 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Transcendence and Thrills From a Great Florida Big Band

One of the best large jazz ensembles in the country hails from Florida. So it’s possible that Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge‘s new album Within Us – streaming at Spotify – is the first big band album to be recorded in a convivial, energetic studio setting here in the US since live music and free assembly in general were criminalized throughout most of the country in March of 2020.

Tellingly, the bandleader takes the album title from Albert Camus’ essay Return to Tipasa, about finding hope and joy even in the darkest times. There’s a jubilant sway but also a dark undercurrent to the opening number, Chick Corea’s Chelsea Shuffle. The late pianist was slated to record this with the band, but tragically never got that opportunity. Soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson brightens the atmosphere with a bubbling solo, passes the baton to vibraphonist Warren Wolf and then a triumphant strut from bassist Mark Neuenschwander before a swaying, brass-fueled outro. It’s a refreshingly optimistic way to kick off the album.

Trail of the Ancients is classic Owen, a colorful, imagistic epic rising from a suspenseful intro with a Sara Caswell violin solo, to tensely pulsing brass counterpoint. If Pete Townshend is aware of the LaRue Nickelson guitar break announcing Caswell’s flurrying second solo, no doubt he’s laughing. But the mood turns 180 degrees from there with the pairing of Nickelson with steel guitarist Corey Christiansen. Caswell – who turns out to be the star of this record – returns for a cheery series of exchanges with Nickelson, over an understated latin pulse. It’s a Maria Schneider-class composition.

With its unabashed political theme, American Noir begins subdued and moody, trombonist Jerald Shynett over a somber guitar-and-piano backdrop, the orchestra looming in. But suddenly alto saxophonist Tami Danielsson cirlicues around, and there’s a break in the clouds waiting for Shynett’s return. From there it’s a colorful, bracing ride, through a piercing peak to a sudden, mysterious false ending.

The second cover here is Miles Davis’ Milestones, reinvented first with a funky bounce and playful bursts from the horns, tenor saxophonist Jack Wilkins and trumpeter Clay Jenkins offering sagacious cheer over drummer Danny Gottlieb’s muted New Orleans beat. Owen’s choice to detour into the noir makes a stunning contrast, considering how he brings the tune full circle.

The album’s second big epic is Apalachicola, reflecting the ecological devastation of eastern Florida’s oyster industry. Pensive overlays and counterpoint interchange with cries and flurries from Caswell’s violin. Christiansen’s over-the-top blues seems satirical, and spot-on as a portrait of greed, or at least cluelessness. Likewise, Brantley’s garrulous if somewhat subtler trombone solo. And Caswell’s closing solo drives home the cruel toll that pollution takes on our coastlines.

During the recording of Sparks Fly, the local fire department evacuated the band from the studio since sparks had been spotted on the roof – that’s what happens when you get musicians who haven’t played in awhile in the same room all together, for the first time in months! The group rise from a lithe, balletesque pulse on the wings of Caswell’s flights and then back for a jaunty conversation between Wilkins and Wilson, the latter on alto this time.

The Better Claim, first released on Owen’s landmark 2013 epic River Runs, is considerably less turbulent, from the subdued duet between Wolf’s lingering vibes and Jenkins’ wistful trumpet, to bright, brassy crescendos, contrasts between a delicate Wolf solo and the trumpeter’s bluesy sagacity.

The band wind up the record with the title track (subtitled, aptly, An Invincible Summer). In the liner notes, Owen cites Camus’ text as an inspiration: “No matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.” Airy suspense from Wolf and Caswell introduces pianist Per Danielsson’s spare, solo lyricism, interchanging with resonant hope and surprising tenderness from the ensemble. Rex Wertz echoes that gentle resolve on tenor sax,

Owen’s most symphonically successful album to date is River Runs, a surging portrait of American waterways, but this one is a joy and an inspiration, hands-down one of the top ten jazz albums of the year. May there be many more of these in the years to come.

November 8, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rich, Multi-Layered, Epic New Middle Eastern-Flavored Album From Amir Elsaffar

Amir Elsaffar’s Rivers Of Sound Orchestra play oceanic, tidally shifting soundscapes that blend otherworldly, microtonal Middle Eastern modes, lushly immersive big band jazz improvisation and what could be called symphonic ambient music. Elsaffar has made a name for himself as an extraordinary multi-instrumentalist and composer who has done as much to create a new style of music based on the magical maqams from across the Middle East as anyone alive. His latest epically ambitious, absolutely gorgeous new album The Other Shore is streaming at Bandcamp. Thematically, this is more majestically improvisational than his other large-ensemble work, although he weaves several themes and variations into it. Subtle, occasionally cynical humor typically takes the place of the politically-fueled anger that would often surface on albums like his 2015 Crisis record.

The album’s opening number, Dhuha is a diptych. The seventeen-piece ensemble begin with dense, nebulous, rising and falling tones, with pianist John Escreet, drummer Nasheet Waits, percussionist Tim Moore and mridamgam player Rajna Swaminathan adding stately accents behind Elsaffar’s broodingly chromatic, resonant trumpet. Cellist Naseem Alatrash takes a stark microtonal solo, handing off to Elsaffar’s sister Dena’s bracingly textured joza fiddle as the group rise from a brisk stroll to a churning groove. Echo effects and dramatic vocalese from Elsaffar give way to a thicket of pointillisms from vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, oudists George Ziadeh and Zafer Tawil, and buzuq player Tareq Abboushi. Then the eagle rises again. That’s just the first thirteen minutes of the record, and it sets the stage for what’s in store.

Elsaffar’s soaring, wordless vocals fuel the upward drive in Transformations from a circling, steady stroll. Mohamed Saleh’s oboe shadows a restrained but ebullient trumpet solo, then comes to the forefront as a seemingly tongue-in-cheek Kashmiri groove develops. Saxophonists Ole Mathisen and Fabrizio Cassol work a triumphant triangulation before an elegant descent to the ouds and Miles Okazaki’s spare guitar.

The album’s most orchestral track, Reaching Upward begins with a stately, moody string theme that Elsaffar brightens with a deviously martial trumpet theme which suddenly goes 180 degrees from there. Knowing how Elsaffar works, is he going to take the hypnotic, spiky, circling theme that Okazaki and the percussionists develop and send it spinning into the maelstrom? Not quite. We get a web of concentric circles and an elusive, bracing maqam theme, Elsaffar accompanying himself with rippling santoor. A blazing sax solo backs off for a good facsimile of the Grateful Dead, which morphs into a shivery trumpet theme and eventually falls away for a calm series of waves and a gamelanesque outro. Who else is creating music this wildly and fearlessly diverse?

Ashaa is only slightly less of an epic, and the point where it becomes clear that Escreet is playing a piano in a Middle Eastern tuning. Bassist Carlo DeRosa holds the suspense until the bandleader enters into a regal trumpet passage….and then the band hit a steady, anthemic, tantalizingly chromatic clave theme that goes in a dusky Ethiopian direction. It’s arguably the album’s most wickedly catchy interlude. Syncopated quasi Isaac Hayes psychedelic soul and variations recede for a percolating DeRosa solo, then it’s back to the long road to Addis Ababa.

A bright stairstepping theme introduces the bandleader’s edgy, machinegunning santoor in the next number, Concentric. After that, Lightning Flash has a bit of a cloudburst, a calm, then a spare, biting Abboushi buzuq solo finally replaced by a steady, mechanically pulsing theme that could be Darcy James Argue.

March is all about victory, an Andalucian-tinged update on a famous Ravel tune, with a tantalizingly sizzling violin solo, a sober oud duel mingling with the vibes, the horns ushering in a rapidfire, stabbing Saleh oboe break. Elsaffar wafts uneasily through his most poignantly resonant solo of the night in the final number, Medmi. As usual with Elsaffar, this is a lock for one of the best albums of the year.

September 15, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Historic, Ferocious Return to the East Village by the Mingus Big Band

Last night a fired-up, sold-out standing-room-only crowd at Drom got to witness the Mingus Big Band’s historic return to the neighborhood where Sue Mingus first pulled together some of the greatest musicians in jazz to play her iconic husband’s repertoire. Almost thirty years down the road, the current version of  the world’s most formidable large jazz ensemble brought out every moment of irony, bliss, revolutionary politics cynical humor and frequent venom in a stampeding set of some of bassist Charles Mingus’ best-loved tunes.

This was the Mingus Big Band’s first performance since March of 2020, and they were obviously amped to be able to play for an audience at long last. They’ve traded the now-shuttered Jazz Standard for Drom, which has even better sound, similarly good food and a much more romantic ambience. But this show wasn’t about romance, it was about adrenaline.

Tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery advised the crowd that they were watching some of the world’s greatest musicians, but he modestly didn’t count himself among them. He let his horn tell that story, pulling an elegy for a long-gone jazzman out of thin air, first with pensive, bluesy phrases that grew more mournful and then tormented, with a series of cruelly ratcheting, downward cascades. Then the band launched into a dynamically rich, stormy take of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, Mingus’ requiem for Lester Young.

Throughout the night, solos bristled with displays of extended technique. Just as Escoffery had done, baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian blended keening, shivery harmonics and duotones into her own opening solo, equal parts smoke and fire. Bass trombonist Earl McIntyre – who played with Mingus himself – went for cartoon humor but also spectacular range in his own closing solo.

Pianist David Kikoski’s sudden, deft shift from genial bluesiness to phantasmagoria in a tantalizing solo during the opening number, Gunslinging Birds, speaks to the depth of the group’s immersion in this material. Likewise, drummer Donald Edwards’ hypnotically turbulent solo lured Mingus’ irony-drenched Charlie Parker homage into wee-hours Alphabet City shadows.

Bassist Boris Kozlov and trombonist Conrad Herwig brought pure moody noir to a slinky, shapeshifting cha-cha take of Invisible Lady, a far more obscure number, springboarding off an arrangement by Jack Walrath. Solo-centric as this band always are, the hectic urban bustle and contrasting moments of nocturnal lustre were just as magnetic to witness.

Since reopening, Drom has not only become home to some of the creme de la creme of the Jazz Standard crowd, but also to refugees from the now-shuttered Jazz at Lincoln Center. The next concert in the comfortable, basement-level venue’s ongoing summer jazz festival is tomorrow night. July 31 at 8 PM with 90s acid jazz pioneers Groove Collective; cover is $20.

July 30, 2021 Posted by | concert, jazz, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

One of the World’s Mightiest Latin Jazz Orchestras Gets Back to Business at Birdland

When a bunch of oligarchs and their puppets in politics tried to take over the world in 2020, musicians were left out in the cold. In the liner notes to his new album Virtual Birdland, pianist Arturo O’Farrill, longtime leader of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra takes care to mention how people who play music for a living are no less essential than any other workers. Empowered by that knowledge, he kept the band going through a long series of webcasts, possibly the most labor-intensive of all the innumerable online collaborations of the past sixteen months or so. The great news is that the big band’s home base, Birdland, is open again, and the group have resumed the Sunday night residency they were banished from in March of last year. Showtime these days is 7 PM.. If you feel like celebrating, it couldn’t hurt to reserve a spot now since these shows are very likely to sell out. Cover is $20; your best deal is a seat at the bar.

Considering that individual parts on the record – streaming at Spotify – were recorded remotely in innumerable different sonic environments, the fact that it sounds as contiguous as it does reflects the herculean work of the engineers involved.

Big trombone fanfares interweave with lushly swirling reeds over a bubbling Punjabi-inflected groove in the cuisine-inspired opening number, Gulab Jamon. O’Farrill takes a cascading, brightly neoromantic solo with Bam Bam Rodriguez’s bass growling minimalistically behind him while the rhythm straightens into an emphatic clave. Tenor saxophonist Jasper Dutz summons a return to a web of triumphant counterpoint and a devious false ending.

Guest Malika Zarra sings her composition Pouvoir, a slinky, brassy Moroccan-flavored tune with solos from trombonist Mariel Bildstein and conguero Keisel Jimenez. This band have always slayed with Arabic and Jewish themes, underscored by their version of trombonist Rafi Malkiel’s brooding Desert, its uneasily undulating chromatics giving way to a serpentine solo by the composer and then a muted, soulful one from lead trumpeter Seneca Black.

With its nocturnal, Dizzy Gillespie-style suspense and bluster, Larry Willis’ Nightfall makes a great segue, trumpeter Rachel Therrien and tenor saxophonist Ivan Renta cutting loose hauntingly between the orchestra’s chromatic gusts. The bandleader spirals elegantly; Jimenez goes deep down the well as the storm hovers.

Guest guitarist Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi sings his methodical, bittersweet ballad Ana Mashoof, adding a starry solo in tandem with O’Farrill before Alejandro Aviles spins in on soprano sax. Alto saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera soars and weaves through a tightly turbulent take of his Samba For Carmen, echoed by O’Farrill’s trumpeter son Adam.

Alafia, by Letieres Leite – the Brazilian Arturo O’Farrill – gets a jubilant, percussion-fueled workout, part elegantly orchestral candomble theme, part feral frevo brass-band romp with a tantalizingly brief, smoky Larry Bustamante baritone sax solo.

O’Farrill first performed Rafael Solano’s En La Oscuridad with his big band legend father Chico O’Farrill alongside the great tenor saxophonist Mario Rivera, so playing this suave, balmy ballad again with Renta, a Rivera protege, brings the song full circle.

They close the album with a couple of salutes to transgression, something the world is rising to embrace like never before. The epic take of Papo Vazquez’s relentlessly anthemic Cimarron first features calm triumph from trombonist Abdulrahman Amer, Aviles turning up the heat on alto, then percussionist Carly Maldonado fueling a charge out. The final number is a towering, cinematic take of Tito Puente’s Para Los Rumberos: Renta, Malkiel, Maldonado, Jimenez and drummer Vince Cherico all get to cut loose. How beautiful it is that we can hear musicians of this caliber take material like this to the next level onstage again.

And if you’re around the East Village on the 29th, O’Farrill is leading a much smaller group at St. Marks Park at 2nd Ave. and 10th St. at half past noon.

July 25, 2021 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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