Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Thunderous Tunesmithing with Johnathan Blake’s Trio at the Jazz Gallery

What’s the likelihood that tenor sax powerhouse Chris Potter would find himself onstage with two other equally formidable tunesmiths? That happened last night at the Jazz Gallery, in an ecstatically pulsing, rumbling, thundering trio set with bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer/bandleader Johnathan Blake.

Another way to look at it is to ask how recently a drummer-led, chordless trio sold out a major Manhattan jazz venue – which was also the case last night. The premise of photographer/engineer Jimmy Katz’s new non-profit Giant Step Arts’ new Jazz Gallery series, which Blake’s trio inaugurated over the past couple of evenings, is to provide ambitious, outside-the-box artists with “What a record label would have done for them in the 90s,” as Katz put it before the show. From a two-night stand, a bandleader gets professional quality audio, video, a press kit, a live album and cds to sell.

What Katz didn’t say is that back in the 90s, an awful lot of up-and-coming jazz composers were locked out of that establishment because they thought too far outside the box, so this is an auspicious development. The upcoming slate of performers is also auspicious: alto sax titan Rudresh Mahanthappa leading yet another new trio, and also trumpeter Jason Palmer leading a quartet with tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and bassist Ben Williams.

Let’s hope that all of last night’s first set makes it onto the live album! Drummers aren’t often known as tunesmiths, but from the very first judicious riffs of Blake’s toms, he had an anthem going: his drums are tuned to play very discernible, catchy melodies. From that jaunty intro he wove a cumulo-nimbus vortex of intricately articulated polyrhythms, calm and immutable in the center of a storm, often anchoring the music with a steady clave. Blake likes to ride the rims for extra color to balance out that looming undercurrent, another consistent source of entertainment throughout the band’s roughly hour and a half onstage.

There were a couple of moments early on where he’d jab on an insistent, crushing beat and Oh would jab right back. Otherwise, she played melodies, as she always does. She opened the night’s third number – a playful tune by one of Blake’s Philly mentors, based on a simple four-note descending progression – with what grew into a tropical fanfare of sorts. That echoed what Blake had done with his intro to Mary Had a Little Lamb earlier. Later she found herself walking a scale – but tossed that idea aside after barely a couple of bars. Cliches simply don’t exist in her world.

Potter was his usual self, playing endless volleys of terse, purist minor-key blues phrasing without once lapsing into anything remotely rote – Charlie Parker did the same thing, but without Potter’s relentless focus. And Potter really waited for his moments to unleash that legendary extended technique: a devious detour into duotones when Blake and Oh backed off for a moment during a catchy, subtly shapeshifting clave-fueled Blake number, and a smoldering coda of valve-grinding harmonics to wind it up.

Oh’s tune turned out to be the night’s most complex adventure, moving beyond slinky, circular phrases punctuated by bright bass cadenzas over Blake’s pummeling rollercoaster grooves, to bright yet uneasy vistas far beyond any standard A-B-C sectioning. The night’s catchiest tune was the enigmatically modal Blake waltz that wound up the set. The bandleader explained that he took his inspiration for that one from something that Donny McCaslin’s son said to from the backseat of the family car, in response to a Phil Schaap piece on WBGO: “No bebop, daddy!” It was easy to see how this resonated with Blake – he and the kid have the same affinity for a hook.

January 23, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jean-Michel Pilc’s Essential Combines Great Wit and Great Chops

Jazz pianist Jean-Michel Pilc’s new live solo album Essential is just out on Motéma, and it’s a match of astonishing chops and playful wit, in fact, one of Pilc’s best creations. A defiant advocate of pure improvisation, the way Pilc takes both original and classic themes, deconstructs them or reconstructs them, all the while making them up on the spot, is extremely entertaining. As he explains, literally everything here is improvised with the exception of one in a series of fascinating miniatures titled Etude-Tableaux – and that one Pilc came up with only a few days before he recorded this concert. The cd version of this album features features not only live concert material but also a video of a special private performance from the two-night stand where this material was recorded.

Utilizing the entirety of the piano’s range, Pilc will occasionally venture beneath the lid and coax timbres directly from the strings themselves. There’s also evidence here of Pilc’s seemingly ambidextrous two-handed approach which on occasion resembles two separate voices, sometimes conversationally, but more often than not has them working virtually independently of one another. Also in full effect is Pilc’s puckish sense of humor. A delightful version of Caravan becomes a game of hide-and-seek, Pilc interjecting seemingly random fragments of the melody amid low, rumbling, pedaled atmospherics or joyous righthand cascades, practically a mashup of the original with an improvisation. Likewise, Pilc artfully skirts the melody of Take the A Train, a wry contrast between low boogie woogie-tinged lefthand and devious flourishes in the right. Someday My Prince Will Come hints at a darkly suspenseful bluesy ballad approach before flying off into the upper registers; by contrast, Pilc takes Chopin’s A Minor Waltz and turns it into a foundation for alternately bracing and warmly consonant lyrical passages, an utterly original repurposing which begins with pain and poignancy but ends on a hopeful note.

Yet the original improvisations are the pieces de resistance. The title track is a thoughtful, methodical blues ballad shaded grey – it’s slow enough that the listener can think along with Pilc and watch how he does it, finally scurrying off before returning to the source. The series of Etudes-Tableaux begin with a somewhat austere boogie, followed by a deliciously bouncy, fractured pop melody with an amusing series of endings; a starlit ballad that opens the door wide on the kind of riveting intensity Pilc can deliver; another that could be Haydn through the prism of Scott Joplin; a contrasting miniature that evokes both Erik Satie and the Boomtown Rats’ I Don’t Like Mondays; and a Brubeck-esque jazz waltz that plays clever rhythmic tricks. There’s also a judicious, expansive version of I Remember You; an eerie music-box take of Scarborough Fair; an arrestingly brooding, compelling Blue in Green, and Mack the Knife, reinvented as a jester.

Pilc is playing a bunch of festivals this summer including Montreal; his next NewYork dates seem to be Aug 30-31 at the Blue Note with Pilc Moutin Hoenig Potter featuring his longtime rhythm section, bassist François Moutin and drummer Ari Hoenig, plus saxophonist Chris Potter.

May 10, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment