Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Jazz for Obama 2012: Unforgettable

Jazz for Obama 2012 last night at Symphony Space was like one of those Kennedy Center New Year’s Eve concerts, a hall of fame lineup, except that this one vociferously represented the 99%. Only a special occasion like this could bring together such an all-star cast from five generation of jazz: Roy Haynes, McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, Kenny Barron, Jim Hall, Geri Allen, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride and Jeff “Tain” Watts, to name less than half of the cast. Inspired by the prospect of playing for free for the sake of benefiting the re-election campaign of a President who, as one of the organizers put it, “comes across as the only adult in the room,” they delivered what might be the most transcendent concert of the year. There’s an interview with organizer/pianist Aaron Goldberg up at artinfo that provides a lot of useful background.

Yet as ecstatic as the music was, there was a persistent unease. Timeless tenor sax sage Jimmy Heath kicked off the show alongside Barrron, Carter and the purist Greg Hutchinson on drums, with a soulful take of There Will Never Be Another You followed by Autumn in New York. Evocative and wistful as that one was, Heath ended it with a moody series of tritones, perfectly capsulizing the pre-election tension that hostess Dee Dee Bridgewater brought up again and again, imagining the spectre of Mitt Romney in the Oval Office. Guitarist Hall, who was particularly energized to be part of the festivities, joined Carter in a warmly conversational duo of All the Things You Are and then a biting blues. After a bright Barron/Carter ballad, tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane joined Allen, McBride and drummer Ralph Peterson for a wrenchingly epic take of one of Barack Obama’s favorite songs, John Coltrane’s Wise One. Its searing ache and ominous modalities were inescapable even as the quartet finally took it swinging with a redemptive thunderstorm from Peterson and his cymbals. As  Bridgewater put it, “That was a moment!”

Tyner and tenorist Joe Lovano followed, maintaining the full-throttle intensity with Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit, the pianist’s menacing low lefthand sostenuto vortices contrasting with the sax’s sharp, bluesy directness. After that, their take of Search for Peace held steady, majestic and unselfconsciously righteous. The first set closed with a playful bass/vocal duet on It’s Your Thing by Bridgewater and McBride.

The second part of the show opened with Becca Stevens and Gretchen Parlato teaming up for a couple of Brazilian-tinged pop songs. Mehldau was joined by McBride for a rapturous, casually contemplative take on Monk’s Think of One – and where was Tain? Oh yeah, there he was, jumping in and adding his signature irrepressible wit.

Claudia Acuna then led a family band of Arturo O’Farrill on piano, his sons Zack on drums and Adam on trumpet, Craig Haynes on congas and Alex Hernandez on bass through a blazing, insistent, Puerto Rican-spiced Moondance that simply would not be denied. After that, bass legend Henry Grimes wasted no time in thoroughly Grimesing Freedom Jazz Dance. Completely still but masterful with his fleet fingers, he took Allen and Watts on an expansive, surreal, brisk outer-space AACM-age stroll on the wings of microtones, slides, and a handful of wicked rasps. And Allen and Watts were game! She waited for her moment and then joined in with an off-center, minimalist lunar glimmer while Watts added distant Plutonian whispers. The concert ended on a high-spirited note with Goldberg taking over the keys for a boisterousl warped version of Epistrophy, along with McBride, Lovano and ageless drum legend Roy Haynes bedeviling his mates throughout an endless series of false starts, and endings, and good-natured japes: the tune hardly got past the waltzing introductory hook, McBride patiently looping it as Haynes shamelessly energized the crowd. It would have been impossible to end the show on a better note, equal parts exhilaration and dread.

Some of you may have reservations about another Obama administration, but consider the alternative: a corporate raider who’s made millions putting his fellow citizens out of work, who cavalierly looks forward to nuclear war with Iran and has such contempt for the American public that he doesn’t even bother to cover his lies. We are in a depression, no doubt: we will be in an even worse one if Romney might win, perish the thought. For those of you who aren’t out of work and can afford an investment in the future, there’s still time to help our President’s reelection campaign at WWW.JAZZFOROBAMA2012.COM.

October 10, 2012 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: The JD Allen Trio – I Am I Am

This is one of those rare and beautiful moments in music history. The idiom and the performance may be pure jazz but the concept is pure classical, a theme and variations. Its distant cousins are the Mexican Suite and Sketches of Spain, whose darkly thematic, richly melodic majesty the JD Allen Trio’s latest cd, I Am I Am, shares. It is not an overstatement to put tenor player Allen in the company of Ellington and Miles: this album belongs in that pantheon. If someone has to step up to the plate and declare this a classic, let us be the first to do the honors.

Three things you should know about this cd:

1) There’s a narrative arc to each of the songs – and they are songs in the purest sense of the word, no lyrics necessary – as well as an overall narrative for the entire suite.

2) Allen is all about melody, although he and his cohorts, bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston, aren’t averse to a quick sprint around the block when the mood strikes.

3) To steal a phrase that Brad Mehldau has used voluminously, this is an Art of the Trio album. August and Royston are every bit as essential to this project as Allen is. Royston is an aggressive player in the Tain Watts vein – here, he’s like a baseball catcher who beats a path between home plate and the pitching mound. He’s completely in the game. In the same vein as Jim White of the Dirty Three, Royston colors these songs like a pianist, filling in the spaces between the notes and punctuating the phrases as much if not more than simply providing propulsion. One of the most striking aspects of Allen’s arrangements is how he gives all the darkest sections – and these are everywhere – to August. Which for a bass player is like winning the lottery. August digs in for everything he’s worth, with smoldering chords, eerie chromatic passages and stark staccato pulses like bare branches against a winter sky. Then there’s Allen, who as often as not steps around the brooding pools of sound. What he’s doing is not implied melody per se, but it has the same effect, drawing the listener in to the point of practically becoming a participant. One can only imagine what another, bigger band, or a group in a different style of music might do with the songs here: the possibilities are endless.

From the first four, elegant notes of the atmospheric, almost rubato title track, the theme builds pensively and deliberately. The cd’s second cut seems almost a ruse: after blowing by the theme, the trio take a quick sprint in a classic 60s vein. Then the melody returns with a vengeance, sax and drums feeling around for their footing gingerly as the light dims while Royston keeps the path, such as it is, clear of traffic. By the fourth track, Titus, Allen continues to embellish the theme, August anchoring it with casual, chromatically-fueled chordal menace. Royston takes over center stage next, on Louisada, with a methodical, subtly climactic solo that winds up with an almost surf edge (this seems to be a band that listens widely and eclectically). From there, the tension builds again, Allen taking on more of the darkness, passing the baton to August and then, when least expected, he quotes the Godfather Theme. Track nine, Ezekiel has the band trying to outrun the main theme’s latest permutation, but there’s no escape. The suite wraps up with characteristic understatement, opening with a catchy, wary bass introduction, building to a haunting, insistently and unforgettably anthemic ensemble piece, closing with a simple bass chord. There’s also a bonus track afterward that seems to be something for the closing credits, a rather less menacing tune with a considerable resemblance to the opening melody of Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond.

All the way through, the understated, seemingly effortless power of the playing, the counterintuitive intelligence of the arrangements and the terse brilliance of the compositions are all breathtaking. Like all the great albums: Kind of Blue, London Calling, From South Africa to South Carolina, ad infinitum, this is a cd that ought to get into a lot of peoples’ DNA, that will enrich lives for time out of mind as it’s passed down from generation to generation. Until then, getting to know it will be like being initiated into a secret society. This album is all you need to get in.

February 7, 2009 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Flail – Never Fear

It’s always nice to have a scoop, but every once in awhile something comes over the transom that’s so good that it merits a writeup even if it’s not exactly news. The Flail’s debut cd was recorded a few years ago and slipped under our radar, but it’s good to report that the band is still together and playing regularly. These passionately intelligent jazz purists did a show last year at Small’s, which is how the album came to our attention. A quintet with piano, trumpet, tenor or soprano sax and rhythm section, they play vivid songs without words with an uncommon chemistry. A lot of jazz albums take their cue from putting players together to see what they can brew up on the spot, and more often than not the result is a showcase for the individuals rather than an ensemble effort. This, auspiciously, is the latter: every band member gets to solo, but it’s not the usual ostentatious parade of solos around the horn, ad infinitum. Everybody’s working within the songs.

Because this is an album of songs. Like Pamela Fleming or Kenny Garrett, the Flail like using big, memorable hooks as a jumpoff point. The opening track on the album, As You Like, has pianist Brian Marsella’s big, broad chords building a sturdy ladder for saxist Stephan Moutot to take off and climb. The following track, composed by trumpeter/bandleader Dan Blankinship has the piano and drums pairing off against each other as the sax and then trumpet go into exploratory mode, alternately boisterous and buoyant.

The next cut, Life Before the Rerun gets off to a flying start with a drum solo and then trumpet over a fast, loping bassline, venturing closer to bop than the rest of the album. Track four, Once, another Blankinship composition has the trumpeter building tensely and insistently to a crescendo and then passing the baton to Moutot, who ably steers the tune through high seas and brings it to comfortably to land. The gorgeously catchy Just About to Be layers coloristic piano and horns over a staccato bass pulse, building to an attractively precise Marsella solo. And then Moutot goes out exploring on soprano: it’s not the discovery that matters here, just the thrill of the chase. Bassist Reid Taylor’s Butterscotch is an idiomatic, torchy wee-hours ballad that would make a great addition to a slow-grooves mix.

Fraggle’s Car Got Toad begins with a relaxed Marsella piano solo and then picks up the pace in a split-second when Taylor comes in, building to a swinging, perhaps predictably jarring crescendo as the title would imply. After drummer Matt Zebroski’s soulful, gorgeously Middle Eastern-inflected 6/8 piano ballad We Travel, the cd closes with Blankinship’s title track, a magnificent, extended tour de force building from a haunting bass solo to where all guns are blazing, again with Middle Eastern tinges. It’s not every day that something this consistently gripping and exciting arrives in the mail. Fans of great melodic jazz: Brad Melhdau’s Art of the Trio Series, the aforementioned Pam Fleming and Ellington at his catchiest should definitely seek this out. The Flail plays the Fat Cat, 75 Christopher St. at 8:30 PM on Feb 27.

January 15, 2008 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment