Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Phil Dwyer Orchestra Sweeps Through the Seasons

The cover of the Phil Dwyer Orchestra’s new album, Changing, depicts what looks like the storm from hell barreling down the highway, the one that Pierre de Gaillande warned about. Which on one hand is what you might expect from a bunch of Canadians. Just as Vivaldi did, composer/multi-instrumentalist Dwyer’s four-part suite follows a seasonal trajectory here, beginning with Spring and taking it all the way through to when that hellish storm would be most likely to hit. Is this classical music or jazz? It’s both, sometimes both at once, it’s absolutely gorgeous and it gets better as it goes along. When’s the last time you heard an entire almost 40-piece orchestra play a sweeping, majestic crescendo in 10/4 time?

Throughout the album, violinist Mark Fewer is the featured soloist: he’s a good choice, foreshadowing the main theme with a sly quote from Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. Fewer and pianist Chris Gestrin bring it in austerely and bracingly. From there the orchestra rises and falls, majestically and lushly, with big, ambitious Gil Evans-influenced charts, through a bucolic, Turtle Island Quartet-style dance, many artful exchanges of voices, hints of the blues as the brass rises and finally a bright, brisk Gestrin solo. As many ideas as there are here, they’re orchestrated, and articulated by the ensemble, with a seamless and joyous precision.

Summer is a nocturne, and a somewhat nostalgic one. Fewer channels contentment, but Dwyer’s tenor sax solo cleverly avoids anything resembling that, serving and dodging and doing anything to avoid resolution until he finally hits it head on and hands it off triumphantly to the clarinet. From there, the orchestra emphasizes its warm buoyancy as a jazz waltz.

The charts for Autumn are to die for, a model of restraint with distantly swirling and sweeping strings, lingering brass, counterintuitive Jon Wikan drum breaks and a trick ending. The bass introduces an insistent, bolero-tinged theme that Fewer uses as a launching pad not for bittersweetness but for incisive contemplation. This isn’t a requiem for a more blissful past – this is bliss, if a soberly aware one, seizing the day as it comes along. Likewise, Winter whispers in with tinkly piano and distant swirls of strings, and then gets funky, then goes swinging, Fewer introducing a characteristically thoughtful, pensively fluttery Ingrid Jensen trumpet solo. For Canadians, winter isn’t a death metaphor: this is when the fun really starts, and Dwyer winds up the suite with a vigorous ebullience as Fewer sails overhead, austerely but approvingly. There’s so much more here that would take pages to chronicle: from here, the joie de vivre is all yours. Count this is as one of 2011’s best and most emotionally rewarding albums in any style of music.

November 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Montreal Jazz Festival 2011, Day One

The world’s most unpretentious jazz festival got off to an auspicious start yesterday. As with jazz festivals around the globe, the Montreal Jazz Festival encompasses many other styles of music as well. The local media raved about flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia’s performance last night, while word on the street was that tickets for the singer from that famous 70s metal band, and that has-been 80s funk guy, were hot. But as usual, the real action was in the smaller rooms. New York was well-represented: David Binney, pianist Dan Tepfer playing a duo with Lee Konitz, and Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog numbered among the literally hundreds of acts on the festival bill, which continues through July 4. And the habitants‘ groups proved just as interesting as the innumerable acts from out of town.

Our Saturday got off to an early start at one of the many makeshift beer tents with a smoking, genre-busting set by Montreal sextet Hot Pepper Dixieland (a spinoff of Le Dixieband, with a different drummer and clarinetist). Playing a mix of the well-known and the lesser-known, not just blissed-out dancefloor shuffles (although they did some of those too), they mixed in a hot 20s early swing vibe along with elements of ragtime. And they started out as brooding and minor-key as this kind of stuff gets before picking up the pace with a spiky, vividly rustic St. James Infirmary, a balmy My Blue Heaven and finally a surprisingly bracing, ominously minor-key tinged When the Saints Go Marching In.

Later in the afternoon, there was a “battle of the bands” on the esplanade, pairing off two marching units: Swing Tonique Jazz Band on the west side versus Streetnix on the east. Ostensibly a contest to see who could drown out the other, each entertained a separate crowd: volume-wise, the more New Orleans-flavored Swing Tonique had the upper hand versus Streetnix, who mined a more European vibe (including a bouncy, amped-up version of La Vie en Rose). Eventually, Streetnix launched into Caravan and resolutely stomped their way up to the middle of the plaza where Swing Tonique joined them, and then graciously gave their quieter compatriots a chance to cut loose. The entire crew closed with an energetic blues, with solos all around: by then, the crowd had completely encircled them, pretty much everyone sticking around despite the intermittent torrents of rain that would continue into the night.

Our original game plan was to catch jazz pianist John Roney next, but that was derailed by a pitcher of beer and some enormous mounds of fries over on Rue St.-Denis. Having watched Lorraine Muller a.k.a. the Fabulous Lolo – former frontwoman of popular Canadian ska bands the Kingpins and Lo & the Magnetics – play a tantalizing soundcheck earlier in the day, it was great to catch a full set of her band’s totally retro 60s ska and rocksteady. Two of our crew immediately suffered intense drummer envy: this guy had the one-drop down cold, and had a sneaky, rattling fill ready for wherever it was least expected. For that matter, the whole rhythm section, including bass, guitar, organ and piano, was pretty mighty, a solid launching pad for the band’s killer three-piece horn section, which Lolo joined a few times, playing baritone sax. They reinvented Hawaii 5-0 as a syncopated noir rocksteady theme and later on took a stab at the Steven Stills moldie oldie Love the One You’re With (did Ken Boothe or somebody from that era cover it, maybe?). Montreal reggae crooner Danny Rebel, a big hit with the crowd, duetted with Lolo on a straight-up ska tune and a balmy rocksteady ballad lowlit by the guitarist’s reverb-drenched twang. The rest of the set switched cleverly back and forth between bouncy and slinky. A band this good deserves a global following.

Last stop of the night was the Balmoral, a shi-shi bar around the corner where bassist Jean-Felix Mailloux was playing an intriguing set of original compositions in a duo with Guillaume Bourque on clarinet and bass clarinet. Mailloux’ background in gypsy jazz was obvious, but his influences extend to both klezmer and third stream sounds. One of the bass/bass clarinet numbers was a clinic in the kind of interesting things that can be done with a minor mode and a simple three-note descending progression; another paced along with moody tango ambience; another plaintively alluded to Erik Satie. Mailloux alternated between melody, pulse and pure rhythm, tapping out the beat on the body of the bass as Bourque circled with an intensity that ranged from murky to acerbic.

And despite the rain, the festival atmosphere was shockingly convivial (at least from a New Yorker’s perspective). A high school girl working security sheepishly asked one of us to open up a purse (cans, bottles and dogs are verboten) instead of giving us New York Central Park rent-a-pig attitude; beer vendors wandered throughout the crowd, as if at a hockey game. Although there was a tourist element, the occasional gaggle of fratboys or douchettes in tiaras and heels lingering on the fringes, this was overwhelmingly a laid-back, polyglot local crowd, not a lot of English being spoken other than the occasional song lyric. It’s hard to imagine a better way to kick off a vacation than this.

June 26, 2011 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, ska music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Ellen Rowe Quartet – Wishing Well

The most recent jazz album we reviewed was stylistically all over the place; the one before that maintained a very consistent mood. The Ellen Rowe Quartet’s new one falls somewhere in the middle – this is jazz songwriting. Elegant, richly melodic, often poignant, pianist/composer Rowe’s tunes get the chance to speak for themselves. A brief, hammering staccato passage during a characteristically understated yet heartfelt take of the old standard Alone Together (the only cover on the album) is as loud as she gets. Andrew Bishop, who absolutely gets this music, supplies similarly melodic, frequently pensive lines on tenor and soprano sax. Ingrid Jensen, another terrific choice, guests with characteristic sostenuto soul on flugelhorn; bassist Kurt Krahnke also makes his contributions count, particularly with his solos, and drummer Pete Siers provides terse yet incisive rhythm.

Rowe explores three styles here – ballads, swing and requiems – and makes all of them memorable. The opening cut, inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and dedicated to all the species who’ve been driven to extinction, has a vivid plaintiveness that evokes New York trumpet goddess Pam Fleming. Krahnke follows Jensen’s solo with a series of seamlessly moody horn voicings, all the way up to an evocatively bitter crescendo. Night Sounds, written in memory of Rowe’s brother, glimmers with distant latin allusions. The best song on the album – and it is a song in the purest sense of the word – is the genuinely haunting, modally tinged, thematic title track. But close behind is the swaying, funky Sanity Clause (a Chico Marx reference), written as an attempt to mine a more “modern idiom,” shifting almost imperceptibly from a carefree sway to an insistence that tugs on the listener and will absolutely not let go, courtesy of some gripping Bishop tenor work. It wouldn’t be out of place in the JD Allen songbook.

But all is not so gloomy here. Rowe proves just as adept at jaunty swing with the shuffle Lewisburg Bluesy-oo, an Ellington tribute of sorts driven by some casually expert Siers cymbal accents and named after the Pennsylvania town where the band used to do a stand every year. The ridiculously catchy Tick Tock mines a smoky, 4/4, early Jazz Messengers vibe, Krahnke’s devious bowed bass solo one of several highlights. And Seven Steps to My Yard melds elements of 7 Steps to Heaven and the Yardbird Suite as a showcase for some rhythmic shapeshifting. There’s also the title track, a beautiful ballad with more thoughtful buoyancy from Jensen, and an allusively wistful homage to Donald Walden, a mentor to scores of musicians including Rowe, featuring spot-on, emotionally candid solos from Krahnke and guest Andy Haefner on tenor. Count this among our favorites of 2010.

June 24, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment