For the past few years, Brooklyn Rider have pushed the envelope pretty much as far as a string quartet can go, and in the process have raised the bar for other groups: they transcend any preconception about what serious composed music is all about. Their latest album, The Brooklyn Rider Almanac – streaming at Spotify - is their most ambitious effort yet, and may well be the one that most accurately captures what the group is all about. They draw on a wide composer base, including their own members, an A-list of mostly New York-based players and writers across the musical spectrum, from indie classical to Americana to rock and now even jazz.
It’s also a dance album in many respects – pianist/flutist Diana Wayburn‘s similarly eclectic Dances of the World Chamber Orchestra also comes to mind. Beyond the rhythms – everything from funky grooves to waltzes and struts and the hint of a reel or a stately English dance – dynamics are everything here. The pieces rise and fall and shift shape, often with a cinematic arc. The first track is Rubin Kodheli‘s Necessary Henry!, the group – violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen – establishing an ominous/dancing dichotomy out of a stormy intro. It may have originally been written for Kodheli’s snarlingly majestic cello metal band Blues in Space.
Maintenance Music, by Dana Lyn shifts from a lustrous fog with distant echoes of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here to a slow waltz and then a chase scene – it’s the most cinematic piece here. Simpson’s Gap, by Clogs‘ Padma Newsome makes a good segue, an Appalachian ballad given bulk and heft with fluttering echoes, as if bouncing off the mountain walls and down into the valley below.
The Haring Escape, by saxophonist Daniel Cords veers from swaying, echoing funk, to slowly shifting resonance, to an aggressive march. Aoife O’Donovan’s Show Me is akin to something Dvorak would have pieced together out of a gentle Hudson Valley dance. Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer‘s Dig the Say gives the quartet a theme and variations to work, a study in counterrythms, funky vamps bookending a resonantly atmospheric interlude.
There are two pieces by indie rock drummers here. Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier – most recently witnessed trying his best to demolish the house kit at Glasslands a couple of weeks ago – contributes the most minimalist piece here, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche’s Ping Poing Fumble Thaw being more pointillistic. The album continues on a kinetic path from here until the very end, through Ethan Iverson‘s Morris Dance – which blends contrastingly furtive and calm themes – then Colin Jacobsen’s Exit, with Shara Worden on vocals, a triumphantly balletesque, swirling, rather Reichian piece. The most rhythmically emphatic number here is by Gonazlo Grau, leader of explosive psychedelic salsa band La Clave Secreta. After Christina Courtin’s raptly atmospheric Tralala, the quartet ends with a warmly measured, aptly pastoral take of John Steinbeck, by Bill Frisell.
Narrowing down the best jazz albums of the year to a couple dozen or so is a cruel task: it’s safe to say that there have been hundred of good ones issued this year. This is an attempt to assemble the creme de la creme of this year’s crop in one easily digestible package: apologies to the many, many artists whose excellent releases aren’t included here.
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society- Brooklyn Babylon
The esteemed big band composer’s latest thematic opus is an important album in New York history, a very uneasy suite of variations illustrating a city in constant flux, often changing for the worse. Cruelly sardonic jackhanmmer rhythms and mechanically industrial circular vamps juxtapose with a resonant angst that peaks at the end. Balkan and circus flourishes, unorthodox instrumentation and quirky, often plaintive miniatures are interspersed amid the relentless pulse. It captures a moment already gone forever, maybe for good.
The Claudia Quintet – September
Drummer/bandleader John Hollenbeck’s attempt to “rework and transform the traumatic residue” of 9/11 resulted in an emotionally charged inner dialogue and a highly improvised, persistently uneasy, enigmatically enveloping series of themes, each assigned a date from that fateful September. The eleventh is not one of them. Nebulous and opaque, it vividly evokes the stunned, bereaved moment that preceded an outpouring of both wrath and goodwill among the city’s citizens. Maybe Hollenbeck can tackle that moment next.
Sexmob – Cinema Circus & Spaghetti (Sexmob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota)
Trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s irrepressible quartet finds the inner noir in Rota’s vintage Fellini film scores and magnifies it with charactistic ambitiousness and eclecticism. Creeping slinky dirges sit side by side with deep dub interludes, carnivalesque, cinematic and occasionally showing the group’s punk jazz roots. A rousing follow-up of sorts to Hal Wilner’s cult favorite 1981 Amarcord Nino Rota album.
Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge – River Runs
This “concerto for jazz guitar and saxophone” portrays some of the wild rivers of the American south and west in all their fearsome glory, an entire ecosystem with its messy, sometimes awe-inspiring, sometimes opaque, frequently frightening detail. Like Darcy James Argue, Owen delights in unorthodox instruments and voicings, terror just lurking beneath the whitecaps on several of these lush, ambitious numbers.
Ibrahim Maalouf – Wind
This homage to Miles Davis’ soundtrack to Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud. follows the architecture of the Miles record, but not sequentially. The Miles record is drenched in reverb, added post-production; trumpeter Maalouf’s production is as airy and sometimes arid as the old French silent film, for which this serves as a score, would seem to suggest. Overall, the effect of both albums is the same, an unrelenting angst foreshadowing imminent doom despite all distractions to the contrary. Together and separately, both are classics of the noir pantheon, this one with frequent latin tinges amid the gloom.
Michel Sajrawy- Arabop
Romany-flavored Middle Eastern jazz from the Palestinian guitarist and his inspired, polyglot Palestinian-Israeli band, a vividly powerful mix of Middle Eastern and Balkan-tinged romps along with a handful of haunting longer-scale numbers. Sajrawy plays microtonally and very artfully on a standard-issue Strat through an envelope pedal for the blippy tone so common in guitar jazz from east of the Danube – pulsing staccato grooves alternate with intense levantine sax interludes.
Pete Rodriguez – Caminando Con Papi
Salsa themes taken to the highest level of jazz. Trumpeter Rodriguez – son of legendary salsa crooner Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez – fires off some of the year’s most spine-tingling and incisive solos with striking terseness and attention to melodic trajectory throughout this surprisingly eclectic collection. Gritty modalities underpin a relentlessly intensity and Rodriguez’ wickedly precise flights and volleys; pianist Luis Perdomo is an equal part of the fireworks.
Bill Frisell - Big Sur
A quintet jazz suite of sorts commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival, it’s the iconic guitarist in high spirits, throughout a mix of Lynchian allusions, some surf rock, a Neil Young homage, strolling C&W and a Britfolk theme, with plenty of characteristic grit and ambiguity beneath its windswept surface.
Wadada Leo Smith – Occupy the World
This double-disc collection of towering epics picks up where the trumpeter’s magnum opus from last year, Ten Freedom Summers, left off. 21-piece Finnish ensemble Tumo get to judiciously explore and revel in Smith’s gusty new large-ensemble pieces, a mix of airily expansive, spacious, and majestically intense themes, with Smith’s signature social awareness.
Leif Arntzen – Continuous Break
It was a good year for trumpeters, wasn’t it? On his latest quintet release, one of New York’s most distinctive voices on that horn takes a page out of the vintage Miles Davis book: throw the band a few riffs and have them create songs on the spot. Tuneful and diverse to the extreme, it’s got standards, a tone poem, a gritty minor-key soul groove (which may be the album’s best track) and hotwired improvisation recorded completely live in the studio.
The Monika Roscher Big Band - Failure in Wonderland
The guitarist and her German ensemble stalk their way surrealistically through carnivalesque themes that often border on the macabre, with elements of noir cabaret, horror film music and psychedelic rock as well as big band jazz. Nothing is off limits to Roscher: vocoder trip-hop, gothic cinematics, savage tremolopicking, Gil Evans-esque swells and colors and fire-and-brimstone art-rock sonics.
Fernando Otero – Romance
Some might call this indie classical or even nuevo tango, but the Argentine-born pianist’s sonata transcends genre. It’s a series of themes and variations split between instruments, interchanging between time signatures, interwoven like a secret code. Inspired by Argentine writer and clarinetist Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch, it invites the listener to decide on a “modular” sequence of tracks, perhaps a wry nod to the reality of how listeners work in the iphone era. Taken in sequence, just for starters, this is a harrowing ride.
Hee Hawk - s/t
The most stunning debut in recent months blends the pastoral with the noir: imagine Bill Frisell scoring a Roman Polanski film. Bandleader/pianist Adam Lipsky’s compositions embrace Americana as well as Romany and film music, often luridly. A torchy stripper blues, hints of the Balkans, Ethiopia, and noir soundtrack atmosphere mix with irrepressible oldtimey swing and a creepy, shivery bolero.
Amir ElSaffar – Alchemy
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter continues to push the envelope with Middle Eastern themes, melodies and technique while also employing western classical architecture. This is a sonata of sorts, two central themes with many variations. ElSaffar’s quintet deftly and fascinatingly allude to (and sometimes leap headfirst) into otherworldly microtonal modes throughout a series of sometimes stately, sometimes exuberant, hard-swinging explorations.
The Mary Halvorson Septet - Illusionary Sea
Lush but biting, the guitarist maintains a lustrous majesty livened with cold mechanical satire and an intricate, incessantly fascinating counterpoint. While Halvorson sometimes bares her fangs with terse, evilly squirrelly cadenzas, she’s not usually centerstage: she leaves that to the constantly shifting, rich interchange of harmonies.
Mostly Other People Do the Killing – Red Hot
The quartet – expanded to a septet with Brandon Seabrook’s banjo, Ron Stabinsky’s piano and David Taylor’s bass trombone – burn through their most caustic yet accessible album to date. With 20s hot jazz trending hard with the one-percenters, it became obvious that the time was right for the Spinal Tap of jazz to give the genre a vigorous twist to put it out of its misery. MOPDtK claim not to be satirical, but this could be their most aggressive, and wildly successful, spoof yet. What will these guys come up with next?
Jussi Reijonen – Un
A still, spacious, slowly unwinding masterpiece from the Finnish oudist/guitarist and his quartet. Original night-sky themes and a classic Coltrane cover feature lithely intertwining levantine grooves, bittersweetly Egyptian-flavored motifs and Utar Artun’s eerily twinkling chromatic piano.
Bobby Avey – Be Not So Long to Speak
The most Lennie Tristano-influenced album in recent months is this crushingly powerful, glimmering solo piano album. It’s a mix of clenched-teeth articulacy and brooding pools of moonlit, swampy menace, setting an unwaveringly creepy tone throughout brooding tone poems with jackhammer pedalpoint, hints of Erik Satie and Louis Andriessen.
Kenny Garrett – Pushing the World Away
Garrett gets back to what he does best on this mostly-quartet session packed with several latin-tinged grooves plus those menacing modal vamps that this era’s preeminent alto saxophonist loves so much and plays with such an instantly recognizable intensity.
Rudresh Mahanthappa – Gamak
The alto saxophonist expands his singular vernacular with this hard-hitting, rhythmic effort. With a stilletto precision, flurries of postbop liven both the bhangra interludes and sunnier, more pastoral pieces here; guitarist Dave Fiuczynski supplies his signature apprehensive, intense microtonal edge, sometimes veering off toward raw metalfunk.
Dave Douglas – Time Travel
This one doesn’t have Aiofe O’Donovan’s vocals, but Douglas’ translucent tunesmithing doesn’t miss them. The fine-tuned chemistry and interplay between trumpeter Douglas and Jon Irabagon on tenor sax, Linda Oh on bass, Rudy Royston on drums and Matt Mitchell on piano showcases one of the most instantly recognizable working bands of recent years, through anthemic arcs, alternately cumulo-nimbus and cirrus ambience, a slide-step stroll and Mad Men-era grooves.
The Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra – Bloom
Luminous, lush and symphonic in a Maria Schneider vein, the colors at play on this subtly rhythmic, constantly shapeshifting album tend to be bright, summery and vibrant. Translucent motifs shift through the arrangements with an unlikely nimble, assured, fleet-footedness for such majestic music. Sara Serpa’s haunting vocalese is the icing on the cake.
Marc Cary – For the Love of Abbey
Cary was Abbey Lincoln’s pianist and music director through the end of her career, and draws on that gig with a loving but also fierce intensity that does her justice. This highly improvised solo collection of Lincoln songs is stormy and ferociously articulate, like the singer herself. It’s cantabile, elegant and regal but also feral, with a shattering final salute.
Fred Hersch and Julian Lage – Free Flying
This tightly choreographed, swinging performance from pianist Hersch and guitarist Lage is so seamless and tightly fluid that it’s often impossible keep track of who’s playing what. A concert recording from the Kitano from earlier this year, it’s a series of Hersch homages to influences from across the spectrum, with a frequent Brazilian flair – and a throwback to Hersch’s indelible duo album with Bill Frisell about thirteen years ago.
Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra – Book of Rhapsodies
Something of a return to noir form for the trumpeter/bandleader, parsing innovative early third-stream compositions, some with a cinematic or cartoonish tinge, from some familiar and more obscure names from the 30s and 40s: Raymond Scott, Charlie Shavers, Louis Singer and Reginald Foresythe.
John Funkhouser - Still
This trio performance from the third-stream pianist/tunesmith alternates moody and rhythmic tunesmithing, murky dirges and lyrical third-stream glimmer. Brooding latinisms, a gloomy version of House of the Rising Sun and a pitch-black raga-inflected title track make this one of the year’s catchiest, hummable yet darkest releases.
Steve Coleman and Five Elements – Functional Arrythmias
On which the alto saxophonist pays homage to iconic drummer/polymath Milford Graves with a characteristically vivid, bouncily naturalistic series of illustrations of anatomical phenomena. Long, circular rhythmic patterns anchor tight counterpoint between the horns, bass and drums. Riffs are simple, direct and memorable as expected; funk beats morph through tricky time signatures, and nobody wastes notes.
And a shout out to Dan Willis & Velvet Gentlemen’s scary Satie Project Volume 2 album, as well as to Bryan & the Aardvarks, for their glimmering, nocturnal debut, Heroes of Make Believe. Both came out last year but missed the 2012 best-of list here. Since either of those albums could easily top this one, it would be remiss not to mention them here.
“When we did this at the Museum of Modern Art a couple of months ago, they put us over in the corner,” John Zorn said with a smirk to the crowd massed in the Abstract Expressionism gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier today. “Here, they put us right in front of the Pollock.” Sure enough, right behind Zorn and his bandmate Milford Graves was Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm (No. 30).
Zorn had already gotten a foot in the door as a composer in the downtown scene during a time when the idea of a Pollock painting at the Met would have raised some eyebrows, not to mention a free jazz saxophonist and drummer squalling and rumbling in front of it. Has uptown finally caught up with downtown? As Dylan said, maybe everything’s a little upside down in New York right now, Zorn being feted at the Met for his antiestablishment antics and vast body of often strangely beautiful work while down in his old Lower East Side digs, it’s mostly Jeff Koons and Miley Cyrus wannabes strutting their stuff in the galleries and onstage. That someone who sounds anything like John Zorn wouldn’t be likely to get a gig in that neighborhood anywhere other than the Stone – Zorn’s own hangout – speaks to the LES’s death by gentrification more powerfully than just about anything else.
But Zorn was at home here and he played to the crowd. An alto saxophonist for the better part of four, maybe five decades, his chops have never been more razor-sharp. This duo improvisation was a roller-coaster ride, a sizzling display of extended technique peaking midway through with an endless series of trills delivered via circular breathing as Zorn slowly and very emphatically made his way up the chromatic scale over Graves’ crepuscular rumble. As intense as Zorn’s music can be, people sometimes forget what a great wit he is, and there was plenty of that here as well: a trick ending, a squonk or two that Graves slapped back at with a cymbal crash, and puckish pauses when least expected. Graves may be best known for his groundbreaking work in cardiac medicine, music history and acoustic science, but at 72 he’s absolutely undiminished behind the kit. And this one was considerably unorthodox: three floor toms, kick drum, ride cymbal and hi-hat, with two snares of differing sizes situated in the very front, Graves leaning on his central tom with his left elbow when he went for the very occasional higher timbre. That persistent low, matter-of-fact approach was the perfect complement to Zorn’s upper-register whirls and shrieks sprinkled with the occasional terse, pensive, chromatic phrase.
Elsewhere throughout the museum, small ensembles performed works from throughout Zorn’s career. In a Halloween-themed room in the American wing, a trio comprised of violinist Chris Otto, violist Dave Fulmer and cellist Jay Campbell had fun with Zorn’s spritely All Hallows Eve. They made it a warily suspenseful game of hide and seek, closer to an alternately lively and wispy Walpurgisnacht among the cicadas than, say, the John Carpenter movie. A quintet of Jane Seddon, Sarah Brailey, Abby Fischer, Mellissa Hughes and Kirsten Sollek sang the alternately rapt and assaultive antiphons of Zorn’s Holy Visions in the considerably more spacious medieval sculpture hall downstairs. Cellist Erik Friedlander treated the crowd packed into a room in the Assyrian section to a judicious, meticulously phrased solo take of Volac, a poignantly pleading partita from Zorn’s Masada: Book of Angels. The highlight of the morning was at the Temple of Dendur, where guitarist Bill Frisell, vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen and harpist Carol Emmanuel delivered a lushly gentle but incisively echoing version of the Gnostic Preludes and its warmly enveloping, hypnotic but anthemically interwoven, bell-like harmonies. And the museum opened with a sextet of trumpeters – Nate Botts, Wayne DuMaine, Gareth Flowers, Josh Frank, Stephanie Richards and Tim Leopold – premiering the brand-new Antiphonal Fanfare and its subtly crescendoingly, triumphant variations on a simple phrase a la Philip Glass. The reputedly prickly Zorn seemed anything but and during this piece was moved almost to the point of tears.
There were other performances later in the day for percussion, choir, oud, violin and finally the man himself at the museum’s venerable 1830 Appleton organ. What was all this like? After standing for five hours, with constant distractions from several millennia worth of fascinating stuff on the walls, it was time to call it a day. As the day went on, the crowds grew and everyone had their cameras out; there should be a ton of video out there if those people were generous enough to share it.
Among his many projects, multi-keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch plays in the eclectically tuneful Old Time Musketry, whose debut album Different Times was ranked among the top fifteen jazz releases of 2012 here last year. His latest album, Throughout: The Music of Bill Frisell, reinterprets compositions from across the career of this era’s greatest jazz guitarist. That these works would translate so well to piano almost goes without saying: Frisell is unsurpassed as a tunesmith. What’s most impressive and enjoyable here is that Schlegelmilch gets it: the lyricism, the bittersweetness, the darkness and also the wit. Most of the material comprises smaller-ensemble pieces from the mid-80s through the 90s, the period where Schlegelmilch probably fell under the composer’s spell.
Throughout, from Frisell’s collaboration with Petra Haden, opens the album, simple lingering rainy-day harmonies edging steadily through shifting shadows, an angst-fueled, elegantly waltzing nocturne. Rag – from the Is That You? album – is a particularly apt choice for piano, veering from lively, precise, Brubeck-esque precision to a more aberrant groove as the song picks up steam. Another track from that album, Twenty Years, the oldest one here, works a brooding modal vamp. Resistor, dating from the 1984 Rambler album, gets reinvented with a suspensefully witty minimalist syncopation and lefthand stride allusions. Hangdog, from Frisell’s 1991 live album, gets a similar, more melodically and rhythmically free treatment before Schlegelmilch gives it a dancingly phantasmagorical, Frank Carlberg-esque edge
There are three tracks here from Frisell’s landmark 1994 album This Land. Jimmy Carter Pt. 2 is reinvented as a hypnotic staccato bounce – this is the Habitat for Humanity Jimmy Carter, busy putting up shingles. Monica Jane gets a somber gospel noir interpretation, while the title track gives Schlegelmilch a lot of territory to cover and he does, from Lynchian modal ripple and gleam to a panoramic pastorale.
Child At Heart and Beautiful E – a diptych from 1991’s Where in the World – sees Schlegelmilch building guitarlike sustain with a rippling staccato attack before winding down to a judiciously resonant lyricism and then up again with a towering, majestic intensity: it’s the most breathtaking track here. The album winds up with a stunningly straightforward, haunting take of the Elvis Costello collaboration Deep Dead Blue, going deep inside to find its pitchblende core. It’s a brilliant way to end this fascinating and often riveting album, a good segue with Frisell’s just-released Big Sur.
Bill Frisell has a new album out, Big Sur. It’s Pacific Coast pastoral jazz commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival, this era’s preeminent jazz guitarist joined by his quintet: violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang, cellist Hank Roberts and drummer Rudy Royston. This may be the sunnier side of Frisell, but there’s a persistent unease that recurs throughout the album: lively and lithe as much of this music is, it’s deep. A couple of themes and variations are interspersed throughout a mix of songs that don’t miss the bass: in places, Frisell’s guitar loops or Roberts’ pizzicato carry a bassline, others don’t address it. Where that happens, the songs make tremendous practice pieces for bass, a challenge to match the minimalism and focus of the rest of the band.
There’s a dancing West African-flavored theme. There’s also a stately march with a considerably more apprehensive edge, moving from the emphatic Going to California with its warm, major-key jangle anchored in overdubbed lows with hints of noir, to the jaunty but wary strut and close harmonies of Gather Good Things, to the spare, understated title track. Highway 1 may be an elegant Sunday drive in one of Jay Leno’s old Pierce-Arrows rather than a hotrod theme, but again, Frisell grounds a persistent eeriness in the low registers: by the end, the funky beat has given way to a sway and a low roar. The most gripping, and characteristically Frisellian track here might be Shacked Up, with its ambling, blues-tinted, almost cruelly surrealistic Lynchian Pacific Northwest atmosphere.
But there’s humor here too. The Big One has Frisell and the strings doing a tongue-in-cheek faux Ventures impression. If you want to hear Rudy Royston almost play a surf beat – he refuses to completely Mel Taylor it – this is for you. We All Love Neil Young is a playful homage to Shakey’s catchy folk side, Scheinman getting the lead line. And Walking Stick (for Jim Cox) is Frisell at his most jovial and carefree as the band switches up the meter from a ballad to an oldfashioned C&W stroll.
Other highlights include the lively, cinematic Hawks, a syncopated English reel of sorts; Cry Alone, which is more steadily reflective than plaintive; the swaying folk-rock Song for Lana Weeks and the closing track, Far Away, with its unexpected grit and ambiguity barely beneath its windswept terrain. Here, Frisell finally allows himself a few bars’ worth of a solo that quickly tiptoes into the shadows. Where does this fall in the Frisell pantheon? Somewhere in the middle, which makes it one of the best albums of the year.
Wednesday night uptown at Shrine, Jussi Reijonen alluded that the quiet, reflective compositions from his new album Un might be liberating to New Yorkers looking to escape the afterwork bustle outside. Was he ever right. To describe Reijonen’s music, or his quartet onstage as cosmopolitan would be a considerable understatement. Respectively, guitarist/oudist Reijonen, pianist Utar Artun, bassist Brad Barrett and percussionist Tareq Rantisi represent for Finland, Turkey, California and Palestine. While Reijonen’s work, and his playing, span the emotional spectrum, there’s a searching quality to much of it that haunted this performance. He mused to the audience that this might have something to do with a childhood spent in the stillness of Lapland at the edge of the Arctic circle.
Reijonen’s lively, acerbically dancing oud led the band into the opening number, Rantisi’s nonchalantly triumphant cymbal crashes pairing against Artun’s starlit piano flourishes over stark washes from Barrett. An animatedly nocturnal, chromatically bristling Artun solo over a slinky rhythm wound down to a creepily mysterious, modal glimmer and then back up again, Reijonen then taking it in a stark, haunting direction evocative of Marcel Khalife.
While Rantisi had a full drum kit to work with, he colored the songs with boomy hand drum accents, played muffled hoofbeat rhythms on the toms with his hands and nebulous atmospherics with his brushes, ratcheting up the suspense. Likewise, Barrett alternated between long-tone pitchblende lines and agile, looping phrases, adding a minimalist pulse to an absolutely mystical take of John Coltrane’s Naima, Reijonen’s electric guitar bringing it to a rapturous, meditative but uneasy calm, equal parts Messiaen and Bill Frisell, Artun livening it with a pointillistic summer shower on the high keys.
They played Lorenzo Castelli’s Decisions, a gorgeously brooding jazz waltz, as a sonata of sorts, its theme and variations like waves on a rising tide driven by Artun’s sparkling, sometimes sinister crescendos. Reijonen followed with a homage to Toumani Diabate in a duo with Rantisi, energetically evoking spiky kora voicings that uncoiled with a serpentine, hypnotic energy.
And then a turmpet mysteriously wafted into the mix. Was there a ringer in the band walking in from offstage? No. The bartender had apparently decided he’d had enough of the band, so he’d put some high-energy Afrobeat on the house PA – while the set was still in progress! The same thing happened to Raya Brass Band a couple of weeks ago at Radegast Hall. Some people can’t buy a clue, and it’s too bad they work at music venues.
Newington, Connnecticut seems to be a nice enough place to grow up, one of those sleepy, comfortable New England hamlets off the interstate on the way to Boston. But it could just as easily be a setting for a Stephen King novel. Saxophonist Joshua Kwassman hails from there: the Maria Schneider-esque, pastoral sweep of his latest album Songs of the Brother Spirit has both the flinty rusticity and East Coast sophistication that define his home state at its best, as well as a moody, shadowy intensity. Here he’s joined by Gilad Hekselman and Jeff Miles on guitars, Arielle Feinman on vocals, Adam Kromelow and Angelo Di Loreto on piano, Craig Akin on bass and Rodrigo Recabarren on drums.
Kwassman distinguishes himself as a first-rate tunesmith with an ear for the imaginative and unexpected: he’ll go to an anthemic change in a second to drive a point home if he sees fit. His writing is by no means constrained by traditional jazz tropes, with a refreshing expressiveness and purpose. The opening track, Our Land has a Chris Jentsch-like clarity, Feinman’s airy vocalese blending with Hekselman’s lyrical lines for a springlike atmosphere, building toward clave with a simmering Kromelow solo and a roaring crescendo. We Were Kids, Kwassman’s hushed childhood reflection is lush yet detailed, with bounding alto sax, Kromelow taking it down gently to a balmy horn chart.
In Light There Is Song is terse and lyrical, with an optimistic, vintage Pat Metheny vibe, guitar and vocals again driving a long trajectory upward and then back down to an unexpected ghostliness. Meditation, a pensive reflection on the inevitable losses that come with the passage of time, contrats Kwassman’s moody clarinet against Feinman’s brightness. The album’s centerpiece is a triptych, The Nowhere Trail, a darkly cinematic narrative of a summer camping trip gone disastrously awry. A distantly sinister Di Loreto pedalpoint theme recurs with variations as Miles adds an offcenter unease against the dancing anticipation underneath. They rise to a fever pitch and suddenly the mood shifts, Hekselman drifting toward an apprehensive flamenco feel, Kwassman’s menacing melodica vamp signaling that suddenly everyrthing is not well. From there a dream sequence of sorts ensues, lit up by Feinman’s meticulously nuanced, opaque vocals and surreal glockenspiel: it ends by returning to a pastoral ambience with hints of the Beatles. Highly recommended for fans of Americana-flavored jazz, from Bill Frisell to Bryan & the Aardvarks.
Bassist Bryan Copeland’s Lynchian nocturnes are one of the most consistently enjoyable things happening in jazz right now. Tuesday night at Subculture’s comfortable, sonically enhanced basement space, Copeland led his group Bryan & the Aardvarks through a lush, glimmering, often poignant set of mostly new material. The keyboard-and-vibraphone pairing of Fabian Almazan (on piano and occasional electronic keys) and Chris Dingman draws some imnediate comparisons to the Claudia Quintet, but Copeland’s music is more cinematic and atmospheric. Drummer Joe Nero nonchalantly livened the band’s usual straight-up tempos, sometimes adding an undulating funkiness, other times weaving in a subtle polyrhythmic edge. Copeland has an intricate sense of harmony to rival Philip Glass, a composer he sometimes resembles, if in a considerably more ornate way.
The evening opened with a wistful, brooding chromatic theme that stubbornly resisted resolution, building tension through a long, methodically glistening Almazan solo, guitarist Jesse Lewis working his way up from spacious early Pat Metheny-style waves of melody to an unexpectedly wild flurry of Dick Dale-style tremolo-picking whose violence could easily have ruined the mood, but with the meteor shower filling the picture behind it, made a raw, rewarding coda.
Midway through the apprehensively hypnotic, chromatically-charged second number, The Sky Turns to Grey (bringing to mind Glass’ creepy In the Summer House), Copeland surprised everyone except his bandmates by beginning a solo in the middle of one of Almazan’s. Except that this bass solo turned out to be catchy, judiciously incisive variations on a guitar riff rather than a free-form excursion into uncharted territory. And when it seemed that Copeland would pass himself off as a rare bassist who limits himself to terse, memorable string motifs, toward the end of the set he surprised with an allusive, unexpectedly carefree solo that mimicked a horn line, something akin to Pharaoh Sanders signifying that it might be time to peel off the suit and knock a few back after a hard night at work.
The singlemindedness of this band is amazing, Dingman’s resonant waves rising and mingling with Almazan’s meticulous blend of energy and precision, towering High Romantic angst shifting in and out of the shadows, a soundtrack for any candy-colored clown who might have been waiting for the chance to pounce from out of the footlights. A dusky pastoral waltz followed a cinematic tangent, like a jazzier Dana Schechter tableau luridly swathed in Angelo Badalamenti velvet; a second waltz came across as a more rustic, gently bittersweet take on Bill Frisell-style blue-sky jazz, an appreciative nod from Copeland to his Texas roots. A later number worked from neon lustre up to agitation over an altered bossa groove. They wound up the night on a long, anthemically vamping swell fueled by Lewis’ uneasily insistent accents. Music this intricate and disarmingly beautiful is seldom played with as much energy as this individualistic group puts into it.
Pianist Danny Green’s compositions approach Brazilian and latin jazz with the the same kind of attractive but sometimes apprehensive tunefulness that groups like Brian & the Aardvarks, Jeremy Udden’s Plainville and Bill Frisell’s ensembles bring to the Americana side of the equation. A Thousand Ways Home, Green’s second album as a bandleader, captures him in a variety of settings, taking considerable inspiration from south-of-the-border sounds. Upbeat as much of this music is, it’s not shallow.
As expected, the standout tracks here are the darkest ones. The real stunner is Over Too Soon, a steady, unselfconsciously gorgeous, Lynchian song without words, lit up by Eva Scow’s flickering, tremolo-picked mandolin lines. Likewise, the diptych Dusty Road, shifting from Green’s bitingly cinematic, solo neoromanticism to a wary bossa nova bounce. Tranquil Days rises from a murky rubato intro to a vividly overcast tropical ambience, Tripp Sprague’s nonchalant tenor sax contrasting with Green’s brooding sostenuto. The aptly titled, understatedly potent Under Night’s Cover takes refuge in Green’s bright, bittersweet nocturnal gleam, drummer Julien Cantelm’s artfully camouflaged clave groove in tandem with Justin Grinnell’s judiciously funky bass. Nighttime Disturbance has both Green and Sprague percolating a moody, modally-charged tune that shifts to a carefree, funky sway. A diptych, Dusty Road, picks up with a jolt out of Green’s bitingly cinematic neoromanticism.
The title track, a jazz waltz, couples tersely bluesy bustle to warmly reflective melodicism that moves in a jauntily latin direction on the wings of Sprague’s soprano sax. A matter-of-fact bluesiness from both Green and Peter Sprague’s guitar drives the funky, steadily insistent Soggy Shoes, while Back to Work bounces along on a catchy catchy bossa tune. There are also a quartet of sambas: the blithe but laid-back vamp Flight of the Stumble Bee and its wry Monk allusions; Unwind, the mandolin adding guitar-like timbres in tandem with the piano as well as a bubbling, unexpectedly blues-infused solo; the incisively syncopated Running Out of Time; and Quintal de Solidao, with cheerily nuanced vocals by Claudia Villela and lithe guitar from Chico Pinheiro.
Ryan Blotnick has an original and distinctive voice on the guitar. His Americana-tinged jazz has some of the opacity of indie rock, but not the peevishness, along with occasional detours toward the baroque. He’s all the more noteworthy for not wasting notes, maintaining a pensive, grey-sky atmosphere for the most part through his new album Solo, Volume 1, streaming in its entirety at his Bandcamp page. His choice of guitar – a rare 1959 Martin 00-18 electric, indistinguishable from its acoustic sister except for the pickup haphazardly built in without any other design modifications – has a lot to do with the sound he gets here. For one, the album’s extreme closemiking raises the intimacy by leaps and bounds – listening to this, it’s almost as if you’re inside the body of the guitar. Being a hollowbody, it gets an unusually interesting, lo-fi resonance that Blotnick mines for a richly subtle sonic pallette by varying his attack and shifting dynamics within the eight compositions here.
His only cover here, Monk’s Mood, is spacious to the point of suspense – as he often does here, Blotnick offers not the slightest hint of where he’s going to go with this, precise and judicious but also restless, sometimes crossing the line into visceral unease. The most intense track here, Dreams of Chloe is a bit of an anomaly, Lynchian and luridly droning, Blotnick fingerpicking both low and high registers for a raw, wailing, desolate ambience.
The Ballad of Josh Barton is a less stylized, more original take on Bill Frisell-style Americana jazz that makes its way to an unexpectedly scampering interlude, Blotnick winding his way out as he alternates oldtime folk lines and variations on slow, watery, strummed motifs. A stubborn absence of resolution pervades this song, as it does many of the other tracks, most notably the next one, Salt Waltz, with its muted Spanish allusions.
Hymn for Steph brings to mind John Fahey, although it’s more expansive, a ghostly tremolo insinuating itself as Blotnick builds to variations on a stately yet nebulous descending riff. The longest track here, Lenny’s Ghost evokes Jorma Kaukonen in inspired early acoustic Hot Tuna mode, working permutations on a dark two-chord folk riff, hinting at flamenco and then spreading its wings and gently sailing aloft with elegant wide-angle arpeggios. Blotnick employs a backward-masking effect for the strangely attractive miniature Intermellen, and closes with the lyrical, allusive Michelle Says, alternating suspenseful crescendos with the album’s most classically-tinged interlude. It’s a great late-night album and a goldmine of inspiration for guitarists in a wide range of styles.