Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Transcendence and Thrills From a Great Florida Big Band

One of the best large jazz ensembles in the country hails from Florida. So it’s possible that Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge‘s new album Within Us – streaming at Spotify – is the first big band album to be recorded in a convivial, energetic studio setting here in the US since live music and free assembly in general were criminalized throughout most of the country in March of 2020.

Tellingly, the bandleader takes the album title from Albert Camus’ essay Return to Tipasa, about finding hope and joy even in the darkest times. There’s a jubilant sway but also a dark undercurrent to the opening number, Chick Corea’s Chelsea Shuffle. The late pianist was slated to record this with the band, but tragically never got that opportunity. Soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson brightens the atmosphere with a bubbling solo, passes the baton to vibraphonist Warren Wolf and then a triumphant strut from bassist Mark Neuenschwander before a swaying, brass-fueled outro. It’s a refreshingly optimistic way to kick off the album.

Trail of the Ancients is classic Owen, a colorful, imagistic epic rising from a suspenseful intro with a Sara Caswell violin solo, to tensely pulsing brass counterpoint. If Pete Townshend is aware of the LaRue Nickelson guitar break announcing Caswell’s flurrying second solo, no doubt he’s laughing. But the mood turns 180 degrees from there with the pairing of Nickelson with steel guitarist Corey Christiansen. Caswell – who turns out to be the star of this record – returns for a cheery series of exchanges with Nickelson, over an understated latin pulse. It’s a Maria Schneider-class composition.

With its unabashed political theme, American Noir begins subdued and moody, trombonist Jerald Shynett over a somber guitar-and-piano backdrop, the orchestra looming in. But suddenly alto saxophonist Tami Danielsson cirlicues around, and there’s a break in the clouds waiting for Shynett’s return. From there it’s a colorful, bracing ride, through a piercing peak to a sudden, mysterious false ending.

The second cover here is Miles Davis’ Milestones, reinvented first with a funky bounce and playful bursts from the horns, tenor saxophonist Jack Wilkins and trumpeter Clay Jenkins offering sagacious cheer over drummer Danny Gottlieb’s muted New Orleans beat. Owen’s choice to detour into the noir makes a stunning contrast, considering how he brings the tune full circle.

The album’s second big epic is Apalachicola, reflecting the ecological devastation of eastern Florida’s oyster industry. Pensive overlays and counterpoint interchange with cries and flurries from Caswell’s violin. Christiansen’s over-the-top blues seems satirical, and spot-on as a portrait of greed, or at least cluelessness. Likewise, Brantley’s garrulous if somewhat subtler trombone solo. And Caswell’s closing solo drives home the cruel toll that pollution takes on our coastlines.

During the recording of Sparks Fly, the local fire department evacuated the band from the studio since sparks had been spotted on the roof – that’s what happens when you get musicians who haven’t played in awhile in the same room all together, for the first time in months! The group rise from a lithe, balletesque pulse on the wings of Caswell’s flights and then back for a jaunty conversation between Wilkins and Wilson, the latter on alto this time.

The Better Claim, first released on Owen’s landmark 2013 epic River Runs, is considerably less turbulent, from the subdued duet between Wolf’s lingering vibes and Jenkins’ wistful trumpet, to bright, brassy crescendos, contrasts between a delicate Wolf solo and the trumpeter’s bluesy sagacity.

The band wind up the record with the title track (subtitled, aptly, An Invincible Summer). In the liner notes, Owen cites Camus’ text as an inspiration: “No matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.” Airy suspense from Wolf and Caswell introduces pianist Per Danielsson’s spare, solo lyricism, interchanging with resonant hope and surprising tenderness from the ensemble. Rex Wertz echoes that gentle resolve on tenor sax,

Owen’s most symphonically successful album to date is River Runs, a surging portrait of American waterways, but this one is a joy and an inspiration, hands-down one of the top ten jazz albums of the year. May there be many more of these in the years to come.

November 8, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lush, Kinetic, Imaginatively Purist New Big Band Jazz From Dan Pugach’s Nonet Plus One

How do you get the most bang for your buck, to make a handful of musicians sound like a whole orchestra? Composers and arrangers have been using every trick in the book to do that since the Middle Ages. One guy who’s particularly good at it is drummer/bandleader Dan Pugach, whose retro style harks back to the 60s and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band. Over the past couple of years, Pugach’s Nonet Plus One have refined that concept, gigging all over New York. They’re playing the album release show for their debut album tonight, May 18 at 10 PM at their usual hang, 55 Bar.

The opening track, Brooklyn Blues, is definitely bluesy, but with an irrepressible New Orleans flair. Pugach likes short solos to keep things tight and purposeful: tenor saxophonist Jeremy Powell and trombonist Mike Fahie get gritty and lowdown while Jorn Swart’s piano bubbles up occasionally amid lushly brassy flares from the rest of the group.

Coming Here opens with a comfortable, late-night sweep anchored by Carmen Staaf’s glimmering piano, punctuated by gusts from throughout the band, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen soaring triumphantly and lyrically, Powell more pensive against Staaf’s hypnotic, emphatic attack. The tightly chattering outro, held down by bassist Tamir Shmerling, baritone saxophonist Andrew Gutauskas and bass trombonist Jen Hinkle, is a tasty surprise.

You wouldn’t think a big band version of the Dolly Parton classic Jolene would work, but this group’s not-so-secret weapon, singer Nicole Zuraitis, gives it a Laura Nyro-like intensity as the group punch in and out throughout Pugach’s darkly latin-tinged arrangement. Staaf’s spiraling, serioso chromatics are spot on, Jensen taking that intensity to redline.

Andrew Gould’s optimistic alto sax and David Smith’s catchy, fluttering trumpet solo take centerstage in Zelda, a slow, swaying ballad. Individual and group voices burst in and out of Belo’s Bellow over Pugach’s samba-funk groove, bolstered by Bernardo Aguilar’s pandeiro. Then they reinvent Chick Corea’s Crystal Silence as blustery, arioso tropicalia, Zuraitis’ dramatic vocal flights and Gould’s bluesy alto over Swart’s terse, brooding piano and Pugach’s lush chart and cymbals.

Likewise, Pugach’s piano-based arrangement of Quincy Jones’ Love Dance gives it a welcome organic feel. Zuraitis’ Our Blues gets a powerhouse arrangement to match her wry hokum-inspired lyrics and defiant delivery: “You’re much more clever when you shut your mouth,” she advises. Smith’s sudden crescendo, using Swart’s piano as a launching pad early during the subtle syncopations of Discourse This might be the album’s high point. Keeping a large ensemble together is an awful lot of work, but it’s understandable why a cast of musicians of this caliber would relish playing Pugach’s inventively purist charts.

May 18, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Memoriam: Joe Zawinul, 1932-2007

Viennese-born jazz keyboardist Joe Zawinul died September 11 in his hometown after a battle with cancer. He was 75. Zawinul pioneered the use of electronic keyboards in jazz and was a major influence on his fellow musicians, notably Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. While studying at the Berklee School of Music in 1958, Zawinul was hired away by Maynard Ferguson, and later played with Dinah Washington and Cannonball Adderley. While with Adderley in the 1960s he wrote Mercy Mercy Mercy, one of the first jazz songs to use an electric piano. Later in the decade he contributed the title track to the milestone Miles Davis album In a Silent Way, Davis’ first venture into the electric sound that he would expand on and continue to use throughout the remainder of his career.

In 1970 Zawinul founded Weather Report along with sax player Wayne Shorter and bassist Miroslav Vitous. Arguably the most important of the jazz fusion bands of the 70s, Weather Report played a mix of high-energy, funky jams and quieter, more reflective material. Zawinul’s work with the band – which later included legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius – broadened the sonic palette for jazz keyboards, utilizing different electric pianos, synthesizers and effects including wah, reverb, distortion and loops. It is hard to think of a jazz or funk musician since 1970 who was not influenced in some way, directly or indirectly, by Zawinul and Weather Report.

Zawinul’s best-known composition was Birdland, the opening track from Weather Report’s 1977 album Heavy Weather. What Take the A Train or Take Five were to earlier eras, Birdland was to the late 70s and early 80s, the most popular jazz song of its time. Even punk rockers knew the song’s simple, celebratory hook. After Weather Report dissolved in the early 80s, Zawinul led the Zawinul Syndicate, a fusion group that he played in until very shortly before his death, releasing several albums on his own BirdJAM label.

While jazz fusion remains a dirty word in some circles because of its use of rock arrangements and steady 4/4 time (not to mention the fact that fusion was the forerunner of Lite-FM style elevator jazz), there is no denying Zawinul’s pioneering influence, his uncanny sense of melody, his formidable chops and his brilliance as a bandleader.

September 13, 2007 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, obituary | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment