Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Individualistic Pianist Yelena Eckemoff Brings the Lights Up..A Little

Pianist Yelena Eckemoff inhabits the eerie netherworld somewhere between jazz, classical and film music. Russian-born, classically trained, jazz-inclined, she’s one of this era’s most individualistic and instantly recognizable artists. Her back catalog is full of icily intense, glacial themes that are the essence of noir. She’s got a new album, A Touch of Radiance, which raises the luminosity factor to the level of the aurora borealis…maybe. She and the band on the album are playing the release show at the Jazz Standard at 7:30 and 9:30 PM on August 12; cover is $20 and well worth it (and the venue has delicious food).

Eckemoff has assembled a brave choice of supporting cast. Vibraphonist Joe Locke is one of the most gripping, intense players in all of jazz and one of the standout soloists in Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans rarities band. Drummer Billy Hart is the motive force behind the Cookers, arguably the best postbop jazz group alive. Tenor sax player Mark Turner can play anything but is inclined toward the avant garde: he’s got a Jazz Standard gig coming up in September and an album out on ECM. Bassist George Mraz has a checkered past and does a lot to redeem himself here. There’s ostensibly an autobiographical tangent to the album, although the songs and the moods drift from it – which makes it all the more interesting.

The opening track starts with a morosely twinkling intro that quickly morphs into a strolling swing groove that still has Eckemoff looking over her shoulder: the trouble is not over yet, and the pairing with Locke’s vibraphone magnifies the eerie glimmer a thousand times over. It’s a brilliant touch that fits Eckemoff to a T (anybody remember that Twin Peaks movie theme that Locke did with Bill Mays?). They go back to creepy at the end.

The album’s second cut blends blues into Eckemoff’s wounded, shattered motives, Turner taking a pensively hazy solo early on, Mraz driving a dubwise pulse until Eckemoff decides to go for a bit of a bluesy swing before turning it over to Locke, who teams with Hart and says the hell with sadness. But then Hart brings back the sepulchral gloom, all by himself! Who would have thought he had it in him?

Track three is a very effective small-group take on Gil Evans bossa noir. Any exuberance here is credit to Turner, Locke seizing the chance to take it back into the shadows even while the band is quietly swinging. The fourth cut evokes Frank Carlberg at his most evilly phantasmagorical (like on his amazing Tivoli Trio album): this time, everybody is in it, Turner leading the way, Locke close behind. If this is love, then we’re all doomed.

The next cut bounces along heavily. As a cr0ss-genre mashup, it’s sort of the jazz equivalent of a Finnish surf rock song, Eckemoff and Turner jumping at the chance to leap through a series of minor changes and an absolutely creepy, jungly rhythmic thicket. After that, the band sways and swooshes with a Baltic chill through a shapeshifting waltz. The following track is hilarious: ponderous funk and then disco, on this otherwise brutally serious album? The band keeps a poker face all the way through.

Track eight, Tranquility (song titles are an afterthought in the Eckemoff book) has Turner and Locke hinting at balminess before Eckemoff brings it down to earth. It’s a cool (well, chilly) contrast between African-American jazz and Russian classical idioms. Hart’s chill clave drive gives the next track, a low-key, first-gear Mack truck diesel groove. It’s like a portrait of this year’s New York summer: hot days, mercifully cool nights. After all the gravitas, Eckemoff finally achieves the synthesis she’s been shooting for with the title track, a cinematic, crescendoing theme that would have worked for a late-night 70s sitcom (maybe one with a vampire).

Throughout the album, Eckemoff plays with sepulchrally confident chops and an unassailable upper-register glimmer: she’s never met a spiraling icicle phrase she couldn’t nail. For people who like nine-minute songs, and dark music in general, this is one of those rare albums that’s an absolute must-own – and one of the best of 2014.Stream it at Eckemoff’s webpage and decide for yourself.

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August 10, 2014 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Michael Feinberg Offers an Aptly Counterintuitive Homage to Elvin Jones

Bassist Michael Feinberg found the inspiration for his new album The Elvin Jones Project somewhat by coincidence. While exploring the work of some of his favorite influences, among them Jimmy Garrison, Gene Perla and Dave Holland, he discovered that pretty much all of them had one connection or another with the iconic, extrovert jazz drummer. And the album does justice to Jones: like him, it’s counterintuitive. Along with the high-voltage material – propelled with a constant sense of the unexpected by the Cookers’ Billy Hart, an old friend of Jones and a similarly exuberant player – there’s a mix of quieter pieces, a couple of rarities and a single, somewhat skeletal, New Orleans-flavored Feinberg original. With all this in mind, it becomes less surprising that a relatively new jack like Feinberg could pull together such a formidable lineup for the project: Hart, plus George Garzone on tenor sax, Tim Hagans on trumpet, Leo Genovese (of Esperanza Spalding’s band) on piano and Rhodes, and Alex Wintz guesting on guitar on three tracks.

They bookend the album with two tracks from the 1982 album Earth Jones: the somewhat eerily twinkling In a Silent Way-flavored title track, hypnotically vamping with the echoey Rhodes and the occasional sudden, agitated crescendo; and Three Card Molly, Hart swinging it with clenched-teeth intensity punctuated by Hagans’ fiery, wailing attack and Genovese’s dynamically-charged spirals and atmospherics. The interlude toward the end of that last track, Genovese’s noir chords enhanced by Hart’s mysterioso cymbal splashes, is one of the album’s many high points.

Rather than trying to out-glissando Coltrane, Garzone brings a meticulously nuanced, understatedly spectacular, breathy rapidfire attack to Trane’s Miles Mode, Hart’s rumbling accents matched by Genovese’s hard-hitting piano, Feinberg evoking Christian McBride throughout a spacious, punchy solo. A more obscure swing number, Steve Grossman’s 1970 composition Taurus People, also benefits from aggressive teamwork from the rhythm section throughout Feinberg’s new arrangement, Hart having a grand old time throwing offbeats and cymbals into the fray, Garzone taking it down and out with an unexpectedly wary judiciousness.

They bring a triumphant, rather hypnotic early 70s intensity to Frank Foster’s The Unknighted Nations, Mintz’ offcenter guitar taking it further outside over Hart’s rollercoaster snare work, then bringing it all back to the hook with a single whiplash phrase. And Feinberg gives a clinic in lyrical solo bass on a version of Nancy with the Laughing Face, inspired by the 1962 Coltrane quartet version. The album is due out from Sunnyside on September 11; Feinberg leads pretty much the entire cast here at the cd release show at Birdland on September 13 at 6 PM, with $20 seats still available as of this writing.

August 23, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Believe It: The Cookers’ New Album Is Amazing

The Cookers’ 2010 album Warriors ranked as one of that year’s top ten jazz albums here: how does their new one, Believe, just out from Motema, stack up alongside it? It’s different, and it’s even better. It’s one of those rare albums that come along a handful of times a year, that will blow you away the first time you give it a close listen. Who would have thought that all but two of the members of this perennially vital, intense veteran septet – saxophonists Billy Harper and Craig Handy, trumpeters Eddie Henderson and David Weiss, pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Billy Hart – are in their sixties or seventies? And who would have imagined that they’d come out with an album that’s mostly midtempo, with a couple of brooding ballads? This one has gravitas, rich melodic beauty and all sorts of deep playing and interplay. Interestingly, much as this band is all about power and fiery chops, it’s the compositions here that absolutely slay. The overall concept seems be something along the lines of “look, this isn’t just a superstar session, we’re a more-or-less fulltime band,” and they reaffirm that many times over.

The album kicks off with Believe, For It Is True, a Harper joint that juxtaposes a rather stern, stark modal piano melody with brighter, genial solos by the composer and then Weiss. It’s a good way to start the album. Temptation(s), by McBee, is a total knockout. From a similarly stark opening, the ensemble rises to an artfully layered, lush vintage 50s (think Miles and Gil) arrangement that fleshes out McBee’s bass riffage. Henderson alternates between warily soulful and swirly, McBee adds rhythmic insistence, then Cables gets nocturnal with the bass and drums and they they’re up and out. Wow!

Ebony Moonbeams, by Cables, is even plusher. Rhythms are hinted at and then Hart subtly establishes the clave, Henderson spirals and splatters, Cables takes the hook to Plaintiveville, Handy scurries over it and then Cables returns with an understated majestic intensity as the rhythm pulls away from the center. The lone cover is Wayne Shorter’s Free for All, moving matter-of-factly from tense restraint to unleashed modal menace. With a judiciously gleeful slasher attack, Hart absolutely owns this one, Henderson bringing in the evening sun for a moment before Handy and Cables join forces and take it into noir territory, all the way through a Hart solo where he somehow never loses the center, with a final mean drum roll to cap it off. Quest, another Harper tune, cleverly develops a wry martial New Orleans “charge” riff into more of the noir stuff, Hart again in richly colorist mode, Cables turning in what’s arguably the most chillingly exhilarating of all the solos here as he swings it with a dark flamenco tinge.

Will there be any respite? Maybe. But He Knows, a jazz waltz by Cables hints at a more carefree atmosphere, but beginning with Henderson’s purist, bluesy muted solo followed upwards by Handy, the shadows grow behind them; by the time they get to the piano solo, Cables can’t pull them back from watching the abyss. Tight Squeeze, by McBee, is exactly that, all suspense and understated chills: Harper broods, Weiss contemplates, Hart amps the mystery up to ten, works a couple of false endings and then lets McBee and Cables join in a surrealistic bounce. The final track, Naaj, a Hart composition, works permutations on a carnavalesque piano motif. Blast this in the car or after a bad day at work, share it with the friends whose lives you want to enrich the most, and if there’s someone very bright and intense that you want to seduce, this might do the trick. Watch for it on the list of best jazz albums of 2012 here in December if we make it that far.

July 15, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brian Landrus’ Traverse Album Takes a Quantum Leap

The Brian Landrus Quartet’s new album Traverse is fun even before it starts spinning, or whatever it does on your ipod besides run down the battery. The big-sky surrealism of the cover art, and the photo collage inside the cd cover are priceless – imagine Horizon’s 1975 album Breathless Sigh and you’d be on the right track. But the music here sounds nothing like that. A terrifically tuneful, entertaining collection which could well be the baritone saxophonist’s breakout album, he’s got an especially inspired band here: Lonnie Plaxico on bass, Michael Cain on piano and Billy Hart on drums. Landrus uses every bit of his range, far more than most baritone players – he’s sort of an update on Gerry Mulligan – with upper-register melodies outnumbering the lows many times over. That’s also how he writes. His background also extends beyond jazz to reggae (he’s played with current-day roots stars Groundation) and even doo-wop, so there are simple, catchy hooks all over the place. Consider this a creeper contender for the year’s best jazz album.

It opens counterintuitively with a jazz waltz. Hart is at the peak of his game from the first of innumerable, devious cymbal fills – in a lot of ways, he owns this album. As he swipes around, feeling for a comfortable place to hang, Landrus goes off exploring from the highs to the lows and back and forth, followed by Cain who does the same. The second track, Gnosis, is basically a two-chord jam over a suspenseful latin groove, Plaxico holding it together as Landrus’ bass clarinet paints moody ambience, Cain following a trajectory from loungey to minimalist to incisively jabbing with rewarding results. He goes deep into lyrical territory with a long, solo first verse on the beautiful piano-and-sax ballad Lone, basically a setup for the album’s high point, Lydian #4. Its modalities driven by Plaxico’s funky bass – and an all-too-brief, majestic solo toward the end – Landrus’ bright explorations soar over terse, rhythmic piano and yet more sly cymbal splashing by Hart.

If you think you’ve heard enough versions of Body and Soul for one lifetime or maybe more, Landrus’ will change your mind. He sets it up with a long, expansive solo passage, then he and the band turn it into a slowly unfolding contest for who can come the closest without actually touching it. The fun continues on the swinging Creeper, with its irresistible faux-noirisms, Cain’s vaudevillian piano rhythms and finally a chance for Hart to cut loose – and yet when he gets the chance, he doesn’t take it over the top, instead turning it something approximating the tunnel in the Halloween House. The album ends with Soundwave (titles are not Landrus’ forte), a gentle, attractive solo sax sketch. Watch for this on our best albums of 2011 list at the end of the year if we’re all still here to see it.

In case you were wondering, the 1975 album Breathless Sigh by Horizon doesn’t really exist – at least we hope not.

March 24, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Cookers Heat Up, Oldschool Style

Soul radiates from the grooves here – or from whatever a mp3 is made of. The Cookers’ new album Warriors also has cameraderie, and chemistry, and purism. These jazz veterans – Billy Harper on tenor, Craig Handy on flute and alto, Eddie Henderson and David Weiss on trumpet and flugelhorn, George Cables on piano, Cecil McBee on bass and Billy Hart on drums – mine a rich, oldschool 60s vein, alternately slinky, contemplative, joyous and adrenalized, often nocturnal but sometimes not. The band take their name from the legendary Freddie Hubbard album Night of the Cookers – imagine the Jazz Passengers without Blakey overdoing it, and you’d be somewhere in the vicinity of what this sounds like. The ensemble passages blaze, or offer lush ambience – it’s hard to believe sometimes that this is only a septet and not a big band. Melody is everywhere, in the central themes and in the solos, and it isn’t just solos around the horn, either: it’s all about the songs. And they are songs in the purest sense of the word.

The opening track The Core builds with simple gravitas and eventually catches fire, lit by a tersely majestic Cables motif, aggressive hard-charging solos from Henderson and Harper, Weiss bringing the band back. Spookarella is less spooky than cinematic, its ensemble intro reaching a blithe crescendo, Handy’s carefree flute solo juxtaposed with Cables’ subtly shifting, almost hypnotic block chords. The pianist is the star of this cut (and in an unostentatious, methodical way, perhaps the star of the entire album), in this case with a deftly polyrhythmic solo. The understatedly sexy boudoir ballad Close To You Alone lets Handy state his case expansively on alto while the ambience grows almost imperceptibly behind him – he’s got something up his sleeve and he makes it worth your while. Priestess works variations on a hook that sounds suspiciously like the one from SOS by Abba, a showcase for a gruffly lightning solo from Harper, Weiss playing the voice of reason and Handy upping the ante once again with some sizzling doublestops before what’s left of the hook returns at half the speed, worn out from everything that just happened.

Live at the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival last month, the jazz waltz Sweet Rita Suite 2 took on an ominous glimmer; here, the darkness is limited to Cables furtively shadowing Handy’s cheery flute. But Capra Black is every bit as potent as the version they played there, rich with ambience behind the solos, Weiss again playing wiser buddy to Harper’s fearless exuberance, Henderson feeling the electricity in summer night air, Cables the man half-behind the curtain, guiding the entire thing with judiciously sparse intensity. They close on a high note with the methodically swinging, vividly noirish Ladybugg, Cables and McBee stepping out of the shadows and then back in, followed by the powerhouse, aptly titled U Phoria, ablaze with trumpets, a stinging minor blues solo by Cables and matter-of-factly unstoppable incisiveness from Hart on the cymbals. Count this as one of our top ten jazz favorites for 2010. It’s out now on Jazz Legacy.

September 11, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Charlie Parker Jazz Festival 2010: Day Two

When this year’s Charlie Parker Jazz Festival was first announced, the JD Allen Trio was listed for day two. The game plan here was to get back from vacation in time to catch Sunday’s concert at Tompkins Square Park: however, by the time the lineup was finalized, Allen had been moved to Saturday, with Little Jimmy Scott taking his place (more about him later: from the NY Times’ account, Allen turned in a characteristically gripping set).

Torchy singer (and NPR fave) Catherine Russell opened. Her band is capable of transcendence in pretty much any situation. In a set of familiar standards, this time out they didn’t, but considering the crushing heat and humidity, not to mention the early hour, that was almost to be expected. That they played as well as they did was an achievement. Maybe the festival’s producers should take that into account and schedule performers from Mali or Jamaica, or from anywhere this kind of climactic torture is an everyday thing, for the first part of the show.

The Cookers have a new album, Warriors, just out. Billy Harper and Craig Handy on tenor, Eddie Henderson and David Weiss on trumpet, George Cables on piano, Cecil McBee on bass and Billy Hart on drums have about a millennium of jazz experience among them and turned in a joyously expansive, mid 60s-flavored set that gave each performer a chance to pitch a tent front and center and pull the crew in his own preferred direction. It wasn’t just solos around the horn: there was push and pull, and conversations, roles and personalities all exerting themselves vividly. Handy answered Harper’s exuberance sauvely, even pensively, while Henderson pushed Weiss to fan the blaze even higher. They opened with a gorgeously murky, modal excursion with rich melodic overlays. Cables led the band through a beautifully lyrical, Brubeck-tinged jazz waltz featuring his own methodically crescendoing, eventually cloudbursting solo. They wound up their set with a number based on an emphatic, bouncy chromatic riff featuring a terse Hart drum solo contrasting with some meandering horn work.

What else could be said about Vijay Iyer that hasn’t been said already? That his originals are better than his covers, maybe. The pianist has gotten accolades here before and is as good as you would expect, live. But the heat was unrelenting, and comfortable, cool Lakeside Lounge around the corner was beckoning. See you somewhere down the line, Vijay.

By the time Little Jimmy Scott rode his little electric scooter onto the stage, it had cooled down a bit. He’s every bit as vital as he was fifty years ago, in fact, probably more so: it’s as if he was born to be 84 years old. He’s always had an otherworldly voice, years older than he was, so it only makes sense that his career would peak so late in life. Word on the street is that it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, and the crowd adored him. Like Siouxsie Sioux, someone he’s probably never heard of, he works his own scale when he’s off in the blue notes, which is a lot, and which is so successful because he’s perfectly in tune with himself. He didn’t exhibit his wide-open, Leslie speaker-style vibrato until the middle of his set but when he did, it was every bit as jaw-dropping as it’s ever been. David Lynch knew what he was doing when he put Scott on the Twin Peaks soundtrack. Scott opened with a Summertime-inspired version of Nothing But Blue Skies, saxophonist TK Blue and pianist Alex Minasian shadowing him with finely attuned phrasing; on Your Turn to Cry, sirens from around the corner joined in with the music almost on cue during the first few bars of the intro, and Scott seized the moment with characteristic, gentle intensity: nobody gets so much out of so little as this guy. The showstopper was an absolutely devastating version of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, Blue’s anguished soprano sax interlude on the way out a perfectly appropriate touch, but as good as it was it was no match for what Scott had just done, silky but raw, nuanced but with a sledgehammer effect. He’s at the Blue Note tomorrow night and worth pretty much whatever they’re charging at the door.

And two big, fat, upraised middle fingers to the NYPD brass who embarrassed the beat cops at the local precinct by instructing them to kick out anyone who dared sit down at the tables with the chessboard markings at the park’s southwest corner if they then didn’t immediately break out a chess or checkers set. This has all the markings of a concession to the neighborhood’s yuppie newcomers who don’t like to be reminded that they live in a world where homeless people actually exist. The rookie cop assigned to do the honors couldn’t hide his boredom or embarrassment, mumbling to tired concertgoers to get up and leave after they’d found what looked like lucky seats in the midst of a sea of people. Police work is hard enough without subjecting members of the force to humiliation like this.

August 31, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment