Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Believe the Hype About Donald Vega

Memo to jazz bloggers: if somebody sends you a great album and you sit on it, you might just get scooped by the New York Times. Well, not that often – but it could happen, just as it did when the folks at Resonance sent over a copy of pianist Donald Vega’s new album, Spiritual Nature. Not that it needs the Times’ imprimatur (although he deserves the press): the album stands on its own merits as one of 2012’s most memorable. The Nicaraguan-born, California-educated Vega, a protege of John Clayton and Ron Carter, has listened deeply and absorbed much of the best postbop from the 60s forward along with plenty of salsa jazz and classical, influences he blends with equal parts power and subtlety, gravitas and grace. He has a veteran’s touch and a bag of licks to match, so it’s hard to think of another player of his generation that he resembles. One comparison from an earlier era, who continues to blend melodicism and improvisational latin-flavored bite as a member of the Cookers, is George Cables.

Vega is also a strong composer, as evidenced right off the bat with the album’s hard-hitting opening cut, Scorpion, from its no-nonsense horn hook (Bob Sheppard on alto sax, Gilbert Castellanos on trumpet and Bob McChesney on trombone) to Christian McBride’s tersely walking pulse, Lewis Nash’s counterintuitive drum attack and Vega’s lyrical, richly blues-tinged solos. Just the presence of that rhythm section signals how purist and auspicious this session became. The second cut, Ron Carter’s First Trip, interchanges balletesque syncopation and oldschool swing; they follow that with a balmy take on Monty Alexander’s River, featuring gossamer violin from Christian Howes, McBride anchoring Vega’s delicate blend of neoromanticism and the blues firmly in the earth. A second Alexander composition, Accompong, gets a considerably brighter, more bouncy interpretation, crescendoing with Anthony Wilson’s bubbly guitar work trading with Vega’s more spiky phrasing.

With its alternately light and dark modal dichotomy, swaying clave pulse and relentlessly crescendoing intensity from Vega, the title track – another Vega composition – is a standout here. Vega amps up the ambuiguity and suspense on a Neils Henning-Orsted Pedersen jazz waltz, Future Child, before taking it in a more genial yet restrained direction, as he does a little later with his ballad Contemplation, moving from spare and wary and then relaxing as an artfully arranged series of distinct horn voices emerges. Makato Ozone’s You Never Tell Me Anything gets a straight-up jump blues treatment: Vega’s exuberant flurries leaping onto the tail end of a bustling Nash drum break are one of the album’s most characteristic examples of the rich, purist interplay here.

Vega’s arrangement of Scriabin’s Etude, Op. 8., No. 2 is both lyrical and great fun, incorporating both Ethiopian melodic tropes and rhythms, a jazz waltz, and an absolutely gorgeous piano solo that Vega sends spiraling downward to darker terrain. A Jobim diptych, Falando de Amor; Tema de Amor gets a similarly third-stream, expansive take, while Vega’s Child’s Play has the feel of a jazzed-up Caribbean folk song, with its carefree violin and Nash’s playful conga-flavored groove. The album ends with Benny Golson’s Clifford Brown homage I Remember Clifford, building slowly and methodically to become more of a fond wee-hours reminiscence than an elegy. As far as both the compositions and the playing here are concerned, this album is head and shoulders above 99% of what’s come out this year. It’s deep stuff. It takes a long time to get to know and all of that is a pleasure.

August 18, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The JC Sanford Orchestra Rip up the Joint

Barflies at CBGB in 1976 may have reacted to the Ramones the same way the customers at Tea Lounge Monday night reacted to the JC Sanford Orchestra, that is, if laptops had existed the year Johnny Bench put the Yankees out of their misery early in the World Series. Everybody looked up from their keyboards, startled. And pretty much everybody stayed. This unlikely, upscale Park Slope coffee-and-beer joint might or might not end up being to big band jazz what CBGB was to punk, but for now it is the place to see pretty much every good large-scale jazz ensemble in New York that’s not led by a Schneider, a McNeely or the ghost of Mingus. Sanford is its impresario, and this was his group, many of the same cast who’d played so memorably on his Sanford-Schumacher Sound Assembly album from a couple of years ago. Conducting as well as contributing a long, soulful trombone solo on one song, he steered the crew on a mighty swing through a mix of numbers from that album along with plenty of towering, majestic and deceptively playful newer material that often crossed over the line into third stream and soundtrack-style atmospherics. Ceativity leapt from the charts, and the band seized it joyously.

They opened circular and fluttering with Rhythm of the Mind, with solo spots for blippy bass clarinet by Kenny Berger, Ben Kono taking it up warily on clarinet a bit later, the whole band nonchalantly bringing it down for a few bars’ worth of Buddhist chanting like it was the most natural thing for a jazz band in New York to be doing at that particular moment. Chuck and Jinx, a swinging, genial tribute to a man and his cat, saw bassist Aidan Carroll taking a deliberate stroll against Mike Eckroth’s ringing, sparse electric piano, bemused high brass playing the owner (or actually, the owned) while Ted Poor’s drums impersonated the irrepressible, furry creature who, whether or not we admit it, always runs the show. Poor would also elevate the long, shapeshifting Indecent Stretch, a partita of sorts, to magnificent heights, kicking up a storm with the piano and bass, later leading an increasingly agitated crescendo in big, determined steps beneath the rest of the group’s uneasy atmospherics.

An Attempt at Serenity was aptly titled and genuinely tormented in places, Nadje Noordhuis’ trumpet comforting and resolute alternating with guitarist Andrew Green’s vividly twisted, downright evil, bent-note phrasing. Would hope triumph in the end? For awhile it looked like it might, despite distant hints to the contrary that added yet another layer of suspense. It ended quiet, atmospheric and somewhat ambiguously. They wrapped up their first set with a blazing version of Your Word Alone, a big thank-you note to a friend and mentor of Sanford’s who from the sound of things singlehandedly scored him a plum teaching position. The composition gave the band a chance to express considerable humor, especially in the big crescendo that led to the joyous “eureka” moment where the contract (or the check) appears in the mail, violinist Christian Howes (whose latest album with Robben Ford and Eddie Floyd is a treat) ripping casually through an eerie, phantasmagorical solo played through a watery chorus-box effect. Through one tricky false ending after the other, the band quoted liberally from the Mission Impossible theme as individual voices  – notably Kono – appeared and vanished almost in a dub reggae style. The remarkably young audience – many of whom appeared to be high school kids animatedly trading music and doing homework – roared their approval. Hey, big band jazz was the default music of the under-20 crowd seventy years ago. Could happen again.

September 22, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment