Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Album of the Day 3/23/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #678:

Jeff “Tain” Watts – Watts

Most political and social commentary in jazz has been limited to musical portrayals of various types of pain and suffering. Inspired by the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles and the malfeasance of the Bush regime, here’s a rare one that doesn’t limit itself to just the tunes. The iconic, powerhouse drummer and sometime bandleader is joined on this 2009 release, his most recent, by Branford Marsalis on saxes, Terence Blanchard on trumpet and another powerhouse, Christian McBride on bass. It’s a diverse mix of New Orleans second line tunes, funk and bracing improvisation, all imbued with Watts’ signature sense of humor, frequently vicious and satirical. Katrina James, a hurricane reminiscence, is cynical to the extreme; Wry Koln, with its tongue-in-cheek latin groove, isn’t the slightest bit teutonic. There’s also the bitter, intense Dancing 4 Chicken, the playful Monk homage Dingle-Dangle and the eerie atmospherics of M’Buzai. The centerpiece is a brutally funny evisceration of George W. Bush’s legacy, The Devil’s Ring Tone: The Movie – which includes a conversation between the devil and Bush’s attorney, and is reprised as a stand-alone instrumental at the end. This one doesn’t seem to have made it to the sharelockers yet, but most of it is streaming at myspace, and it’s still available from cdbaby.

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March 23, 2011 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Delfeayo Marsalis’ Sweet Thunder Matches the Transcendence of the Ellington Original

Funny, true story: trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis asks Gunther Schuller to write the liner notes for his brand-new octet arrangement of Duke Ellington’s Sweet Thunder. Schuller writes back and basically says, “This album is a mistake.” He’s a little more tactful than that, but there’s no mistaking how he feels about it (you can read the whole thing in its entirety in the cd booklet). In case you don’t know who Gunther Schuller is, he’s a composer – an interesting, entertaining one – and has been a pioneer in jazz education for decades (he established the first conservatory degree program in jazz studies, at New England Conservatory in the 1960s). He also sees himself as keeper of the Ellington flame, so in addition to being possessive, he’s on the side of the angels. What also comes out in his response to Marsalis is that he’s a bigger fan of the early Ellington than the post-1950 works including all the suites. No disrespect to Dr. Schuller, but those suites are transcendent, possibly Ellington’s greatest achievements. One critic has already singled out Marsalis’ new arrangements here as being better than the original, which is a matter of taste. Whatever yours might be, it’s inarguable that this new album is just as good as the original. Which makes it pretty amazing: this majestic, Shakespearean-themed tour de force is one of the most exhilarating pieces of music ever written. For anyone who might wonder, why on earth would anyone want (or dare) to remake this, here’s the answer: if you could play this, and you had the chance, wouldn’t you?

Delfeayo Marsalis created his charts using the original Ellington scores in the Library of Congress. As Schuller was very quick to point out, the sound is brighter and the new score noticeable more terse (as you’d expect from an octet doing the work of the whole Ellington Orchestra). And yet, the towering, epic grandeur is still here in full force, whether on the title track that opens the suite, the bustling Sonnet to Hank Cinq or the slyly tiptoeing, bluesy swing of Up & Down, Up & Down. As befits a composition inspired by Othello, there are Moorish interludes and these are the choicest among the literally dozens of potent solo spots here. Bass clarinetist Jason Marshall brings a somber gravitas to Sonnet for Sister Kate; Branford Marsalis swirls with chilly exhilaration on soprano sax on Half the Fun and Sonnet for Caesar; and Victor Goines brings the intensity to uneasy heights on sopranino sax on Madness in Great Ones. Pianist Victor “Red” Atkins’ rippling, slashing depiction of the murder scene in Sonnet for Caesar, as reminiscent of Liszt or Schumann as the blues, might be the single most adrenalizing moment of them all. And Delfeayo Marsalis’ considered, jeweled lines, with or without a mute, are plainly and simply deep: he gets this music. The rest of the band elevates to that same level: there may be more complicated composers than Ellington, but none more emotionally impactful. Mark Gross on alto sax, Tiger Okoshi on trumpet, Mulgrew Miller on piano, Reginald Veal, Charnett Moffett and David Pulphus on bass, Winard Harper and Jason Marsalis on drums join in singlemindedly, alternately triumphant and wisely restrained.

It’s also worth mentioning that this album, stylistically if not thematically, bears some resemblance to the Live at Jazz Standard album issued last year by the Mingus Big Band. In reviewing that one, we hedged that allowing it for consideration as a candidate for best album of the year was absurdly unfair, the equivalent of allowing the ghost of Babe Ruth to compete in a home run hitting contest. The same could be said for this one. In case you haven’ t heard, the Mingus Big Band album ended up winning a Grammy – so here’s predicting that this one will win one too. The night of the awards, don’t forget that we said it first.

February 28, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The NY Phil Shows Their Mettle

Last night’s concert was a tough gig. The New York Philharmonic have played tougher ones, but this was no walk in the park (pardon the awful pun). And guest conductor Andrey Boreyko pushed them about as far as he could, on a Central Park evening where the air still hung heavy and muggy, helicopters sputtering overhead and, early on, the PA backfiring a little. During the sixth segment of a suite from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet (the section where the two lovers finally get together), the strings led a long flurry of sixteenth notes and it was only there that any trace of fatigue could be heard. That they got through it with as much aplomb as they did – and then had enough in reserve to triumphantly pull off the roaring swells of the ominous concluding march – speaks for itself. The Russian conductor’s careful attention to minutiae is matched by a robust (some might say relentless) rhythmic drive. The Phil responded just as robustly, resulting in a mutually confident performance that often reached joyous proportions.

This wasn’t your typical outdoor bill of moldy oldies with a thousand forks stuck in them, either. The ensemble opened with fairly obscure Russian Romantic composer Anatoly Lyadov’s Baba-Yaga, a witch’s tale. With a bit of a battle theme, an elven dance, suspenseful lull and something of a trick ending, it could be the Skirmish of Marston Moor (did Roy Wood know of it when he wrote that piece? It’s not inconceivable).

Branford Marsalis joined them for Glazunov’s Concerto in E Flat for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra, Op. 109. The textural contrast between his austere, oboe-like clarity against the lush, rich atmospherics of the strings was nothing short of exquisite, through the majestic ambience of the opening section, a couple of perfectly precise solo passages and the comfortable little dance that winds it up. He got the opportunity to vary that tone, shifting matter-of-factly through bluesier tinges on twentieth century Czech composer Ervin Schulhoff’s Hot Sonate. A smaller-ensemble arrangement, the suite ran from genial, Kurt Weill-inflected bounce to more complex permutations that could have easily been contemporary big band jazz (imagine an orchestrated Dred Scott piece).

The big hit of the night, unsurprisingly, was the Prokofiev. The ballet could be summed up as unease within opulence, a tone that resonated powerfully from the opening fortissimo fireball and the bitter, doomed martial theme that follows it, through its stately but apprehensive portrayal of Juliet as dancing girl, a richly dynamic take on the masked ball theme, the cantabile sweep of the two lovers parting, Friar Lawrence’s bittersweetly crescendoing scene, and the irony-charged intensity at the end. There were fireworks afterward, none of which could compare with what had just happened onstage – and which provided a welcome opportunity to beat the crowd exiting the park, and the storm that had threatened all evening but never arrived.

July 15, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Jeff “Tain” Watts 4 + 1 at the Jazz Standard, NYC 6/30/09

Longtime Marsalis brothers associate Jeff “Tain” Watts’ stand with his 4+1 group featuring Nicholas Payton on trumpet continues through this coming July 3 at the Jazz Standard. The fabled drummer – some would say the heir to Elvin Jones’ throne – is playing bandleader this time around, which other than the compositions doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. Watts pretty much runs the show whether it’s his group or not, and this was a characteristically intense night: what took it to the next level is that he got to do his own stuff, which is uniformly excellent. As fiery a composer as he is a player, he’s never shied away from controversy or apt social commentary. The high point of this set was The Devil’s Ringtone, Watts’ update on the Mingus classic Fables of Faubus (named after notorious segregationist Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus) transformed into a commentary on the Bush regime’s failure with (or deliberate neglect of) what happened in New Orleans. The band left off the conversation between a certain Mr.  W and “Devlin” that’s on the landmark Watts cd but the sarcastic second line march that ended it was every bit as biting. On the way there, pianist Lawrence Fields and bassist Chris Smith built murky ambience over a crime movie motif for some blazing work from tenor saxist Marcus Strickland and trumpeter Payton, flying over Watts’ booming crescendoing apprehension – cymbals to this guy are more or less the icing on the cake. It’s hard to think of another drummer (Rudy Royston, maybe) who gets the boom going as powerfully and propulsively as Watts.

The requiem theme was recurrent. Katrina James mourned both the loss of James Brown and New Orleans, beginning as eerie chromatic funk, Strickland bringing in the rage with an offhandedly vicious swipe at the end of a Payton solo, Fields’ persistently chordal attack against a Watts solo growing hypnotic against the impatient, anguished flail of the drums. The soulful, bluesy swing of A Wreath for John T. Smith – an especially poignant new number – gave Strickland and Fields the opportunity to contribute vividly bitter remorse in memory of a fellow Berklee student and drummer of Watts’ acquaintance who died young.

Watts is especially adept with latin beats, moving in and out of them, starting the first song of the set, Mr. JJ (a tribute to his dead canine friend) with a salsa feel that Fields eventually came around to. Mr. JJ must have been one crazy dog, considering how much everything had been chewed up by the time the group scampered off on the final chorus, Smith getting quite the workout climbing scales for the better part of ten frenetic minutes. The whole show only reinforced the relevance, fearless intensity and emotional depth of both Watts’ writing and his playing, and the new levels to which a first-class drummer can elevate a talented ensemble. You have several chances to see this crew through Friday, after which Watts is off to Europe again.

July 1, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment