Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Clinic in Smart Jazz Collaboration

Saxophonist Jason Robinson and pianist Anthony Davis have a new duo cd, Cerulean Landscape, out on Clean Feed, their first full-length album together. Richly melodic and often majestic, it’s simply one of the year’s best. The interplay and chemistry here are comfortably intuitive and strikingly collaborative, as you would expect from a couple of good listeners who’ve worked together frequently in the past. It’s less conversational than it is an exchange of ideas. The two share reconnaissance, intelligence and tactics, Davis’ piano sometimes taking on sax voicings with trills and glissandos of its own. Robinson’s aggression sometimes contrasts intensely with Davis’ judicious lyricism; sometimes it’s the other way around. Despite the title, there’s next to no blues here.

The opening track, by Davis, balances soprano sax stretching to break free, Davis’ signature third-stream elegance underneath. Finally Davis gets to cut loose himself and chase the demons away, then they end it on a quietly triumphant note. Someday I’ll Know, a ballad by Jason Sherbundy, lets Robinson flutter around, eventually ushering in a glimmering, terse solo passage from Davis, who takes it down to a modal-tinged apprehension that will recur memorably in places later on here. A study in contrasts, the third track, Viscissitudes, is something of a delayed-reaction call-and-response, frenetic circling sax over deft incisions that Davis eventually abandons and then follows with a similar apprehension. The musicians reverse roles on the unaffectedly magnificent Translucence, Davis’ alto flute treading gingerly while Davis glimmers darkly and insistently, Robinson leaping for a scampering run when Davis finally introduces some rhythm about three-quarters of the way through.

Robinson again plays good cop to Davis’ distantly moody menace on Of Blues and Dreams, complete with overtones flying from the soprano sax and Davis plucking and muting the piano strings. Davis’ shadow-and-surprise sniper attack late in the piece is arguably the high point of the album. After that, a swing tune without bass or drums – neither which seem necessary here, given the robust camaraderie – finally sees Davis taking a page out of Robinson’s bop book and cutting loose. The album winds up much the way it began, Robinson’s tangents extrapolating wildly from Davis’ mysterious home base, the circle expanding as Davis carefully maps out an increasingly playful series of puddlejumps.

Robinson also has two new other albums worth checking out. Cerberus Reigning is the second part of his ongoing solo Cerberus trilogy: it’s just Robinson, his saxes, some loops and a whole slew of effects. Don’t let the Dungeons ‘n Dragons song titles fool you – it’s soulful, lyrical, often very amusingly playful stuff. And his combo album The Two Faces of Janus with a cast including George Schuller, Marty Ehrlich and Rudresh Mahanthappa reaches for the occasional grit that surfaces on Cerberus and takes it up several notches.

December 15, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Colorado Saxophone Quartet’s Movie for the Ears

The new album 12 Preludes and Fugues by the Colorado Saxophone Quartet is a showcase for composer Michael Pagan’s seemingly boundless eclecticism, not to mention his sense of humor. There’s a centuries-old precedent for this: timbrewise, it’s just a little grittier than your typical wind ensemble. Imagine the baritone sax as the bassoon and the soprano as the oboe and you won’t be far off.  Most of these pieces clock in at around three minutes or less, many of them imaginatively interpolating elements of the baroque, jazz, and film music, frequently with trick endings and unexpected tempo shifts. Often the fugue will embellish the preceding prelude’s theme but just as often it’ll change the mood completely. The ensemble: Pete Lewis, Clare Church, Tom Myer, Andrew Stonerock and Kurtis Adams (yes, there are five in all, but apparently not all at once) – display an often stunning ability to get their fingers around all the styles here, some of which are pretty foreign to the saxophone. The album starts out baroque, goes in a darkly cinematic, more jazz-inflected direction, followed by brief detours into the Romantic era and 1950s latin pop.

The most stunning cut here is also the longest. Vividly alluding to the preceding fugue, Prelude IV expands on the noir atmosphere that will take centerstage throughout the following several segments, Bernard Herrmann as arranged by Gil Evans, maybe. Pagan’s use of interlocking voices is dizzying, to the point where the ensemble sounds many times larger than a simple four-piece. This segment is a suspense theme that goes up with an uneasy trill, then back down where it percolates darkly. Baritone sax maintains a magnificently burnished cello-like tone on the brooding fugue that comes afterward, followed by Prelude V which is actually a prelude and a fugue in itself, slow, methodical noir swing followed by a bustling, intricately orchestrated chase scene. A bit later, after a lull in the suspense, there’s a break with a baroque/jazz-infused tango, a jaunty ragtime/early swing number but without the cornball affectations, another series of noir interludes, a sad, atmospheric waltz and finally a break from the moody intensity with a warm nocturne that wouldn’t be out of place in Brahms.

The rest of this is isn’t as dark, often serving as a vehicle for Pagan’s abundant humor. Prelude XIX is a darkly comedic theme with almost a reggae beat and Middle Eastern tinges. The most overtly baroque works here which open the album are somewhat over-the-top in a Victor Borge/Raymond Scott kind of way and are often uproariously funny. As is the concluding piece, a genial, bouncily swinging tarantella melody that takes on the feel of a bumbling gangster movie theme. The ensemble clearly have as much fun playing this as Pagan must have when he wrote it – now it’s your turn.

September 14, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 9/8/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #874:

Dorothy Donegan – Live at the 1990 Floating Jazz Festival

Early in her career, pianist Dorothy Donegan was dismissed by critics because she was pretty, she wore what were considered racy outfits for the time and she played everything – and drove her band members nuts onstage, segueing from jazz to R&B to classical, often within the span of a single song. She particularly enjoyed playing Rachmaninoff and excelled at it. Twelve years after her death, she’s gained recognition as one of the most extraordinary jazz pianists ever. By the time she recorded this album, she was as likely to be playing on a boat as at a club and this is one of those gigs. Yet it reveals her to be as blissfully intense and occasionally chaotic as she was at her peak in the 1950s and 60s, matching sizzling chops to frequent repartee with the audience (who seem at times to have no idea what just hit them). And the irony is that she does it with more than just her usual Blackbird Boogie and variations on a million themes. It’s a pretty generic set list for someone so adventurous, at least until you hear it. Most of these songs are standards, but she makes nonstandards out of them, blasting out of Someday My Prince Will Come into Tiger Rag, a bit later leaping from Misty to a rousing version of Ellington’s Caravan. There are also boisterous saloon jazz versions of The Lady Is a Tramp, After Hours and Round Midnight. A lot of her studio albums from the 50s are out of print and worth keeping an eye out for if you’re the kind of person to troll used record stores and the Salvation Army for abandoned treasures. Chiaroscuro still has this one in their catalog; if you’re looking for a torrent, good luck with this.

September 8, 2010 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Luciano Troja Rediscovers an Important Jazz Composer

This is the kind of album we love best: a rediscovery, a new appreciation of someone who may have slipped under the radar. Sicilian pianist Luciano Troja learned of Earl Zindars (1927-2005) through Bill Evans, who popularized Zindars’ best-known composition, How My Heart Sings, as well as recording and playing many of the Chicago-based composer’s works throughout his career. Troja credits Zindars with being one of the pioneers of using multiple time signatures (in this case, 3/4 and 4/4) in the same piece, something of an overstatement: jazz groups were doing it decades before Dave Brubeck popularized the device. But Zindars has been long overdue for a rediscovery: he was third stream before the term existed. Like Brubeck, he blended impressionistic, sometimes brooding Romantic themes with jazz, utilizing strikingly imagistic melodies that sometimes took on a cinematic sweep. Also recognized within the classical world, his works for orchestra and brass were frequently performed during his lifetime. Troja’s new cd At Home with Zindars isn’t the first Zindars album – pianist Bill Cunliffe did one in 2003 with a sextet, and Zindars himself produced a couple for pianist Don Haas and his trio – but it’s probably the best (Zindars rarely recorded professionally, and it doesn’t appear that he ever released an album of his own). Troja plays solo, with an understatedly cantabile glimmer closely attuned to the nuance and warm emotional immediacy of Zindars’ music. It’s an album of subtleties: as a plus, many of the compositions here have never been previously released.

Many of these songs – and they are songs in the purest sense of the word – are miniatures, possibly designed to offer a comfortable melodic framework for extended improvisation. The casually swinging, Romantically tinged ballad Mother of Earl that opens the album sets the tone for most of the rest of what’s here. The simply titled Nice Place grows majestically out of a memorably Chopinesque architecture; Silverado Trail builds from minimalistic echoes of Debussy to a vivid blue-sky theme. The memorably moody, modally-tinged My Love Is an April Song is the darkest and most overtly jazz-oriented of all the tracks here, followed closely by the wary, apprehensive vignette I Always Think of You. Several others lean in the opposite direction toward pop, most successfully on the blues-infused Four Times Round, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Harold Arlen catalog. Troja’s version of How My Heart Sings gets a rubato treatment that reaches more avidly for the emotional brass ring here than anything else here; Troja’s lone composition here, Earl and Bill so perfectly captures Zindars’ trademark classical/blues blend that it could be Zindars himself. The album closes with its strongest and most intense track, Roses for Annig, which Zindars wrote for his wife shortly before his death. A couple of tracks here lean toward Windham Hill blandness and could have been left out, but all in all, this is an important achievement and a treat for fans of the genial, evocative style that Zindars – and Troja – so successfully mine. The album comes with a very informative, illustrated 44-page booklet in both English and Italian.

August 11, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Eric Vloeimans’ Fugimundi – Live at Yoshi’s

In terms of lush, exuberant melody, this is without question the most beautiful album of the year in any style of music. Warm, plaintive, sometimes soaring, sometimes contemplative, this live recording by Dutch jazz trumpeter Eric Vloeimans, guitarist Anton Goudsmit and pianist Harmen Fraanje – just out on Challenge Records – captures a characteristic, richly memorable performance. If you get the chance to see this group, don’t pass it up. One part jazz, one part late 19th century Romanticism, with influences from the pampas of Argentina to the Portuguese coast, their style is indelibly unique. What a treat it must have been to be in the club the night this album was made. Yet for all the accessibility, there’s both an elusiveness and an allusiveness to the melodies that draws the listener in: any sense of contentedness is matched by an equivalent longing.

Goudsmit’s guitar opens it eerily, gently tremolo-picking a flamenco melody, Vloeinams finally adding a stately old world beauty, nostalgia balanced by poignancy. They make their way into a playful stop-and-start over what’s essentially a soul-pop song, Vloeimans employing his trademark shifts in intonation. The trio segue seamlessly into the third track, March of the Carpenter Ants, moving through a wary, chromatically-charged Vloeimans solo to a fascinating section akin to a film shot with three cameras onto a single screen a la the Woodstock documentary. Insistent, separate yet together, it’s a moment that screams out for the replay button. That, and headphones.

Goudsmit builds the fourth cut, Ernesto from a minimal intro to a darkly Robbie Krieger raga-inflected passage echoed by piano and trumpet, then shifts into suspenseful tango mode with an understatedly anguished David Gilmour feel that Vloeimans picks up on and takes to its logical crescendo. The next cut, Phillip works a pastoral, Jenny Scheinman-style melody into a gorgeously catchy theme with heavy Ellington overtones. Vloeimans finally goes all the way up on the wings of his glissandos and then down again on the gracefully choreographed Weimar blues Harry Bo, moving optimistically to centerstage against fatalistic piano and guitar. The other tracks on the album include a couple of blues numbers, the first of which morphs cleverly into a pop ballad, the second with a Georgia on My Mind feel with jaunty trumpet and spiky guitar. The only miss here is Somewhere Over the Rainbow, an exercise in implied melody, the trio taking care to skirt its central theme when what they should have done is left it off the set list entirely. Lucky fans can see Eric Vloeimans’ Fugimundi play September 27 at the Rotterdam International Jazz Festival.

September 12, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Eldar Djangirov at the Jazz Standard, NYC 9/10/09

Dave Brubeck has given hotshot Kyrgyz-American pianist Eldar Djangirov the thumbs-up, and it makes sense that he would: beyond the two’s shared melodicism, both have a flair for incorporating classical motifs within a jazz framework. Djangirov’s obvious precursor – not assuming that he’s familiar with her work – is the legendary Dorothy Donegan, a ferociously powerful player who was equally at home with the blues and Rachmaninoff. Last night at the Jazz Standard, Djangirov (or Eldar, as his label prefers, given the potentially difficult surname), impressed with a vivid and heartfelt Chopinesque sensibility when he wasn’t barrelling through cascades the length of the keyboard in a blaze of Debussy-inflected color. Where was the jazz? As a great bluesman in the house remarked, this was “Euro-jazz.” Which won’t be a problem for adventurous listeners in search of innovative new talent: this guy qualifies many times over. Still, you have to wonder where his American audience is. It might be more of a rock crowd.

The rhythm section stayed out of the way for most of the show, probably due to unfamiliarity with both the material and the style, and the guest saxophonist didn’t add much on the few occasions he was given, so this became Djangirov’s show – he could have played it solo and wouldn’t have lost any fire. He opened with Exposition, the aptly titled opening cut on his new cd Virtue. It’s an ostentatious showcase for jazzing up classically-inflected hooks, and it worked until he went to his old analog synthesizer above the piano keys and then it was like Yes following Brubeck, a jaw-droppingly awkward segue to say the least. There would be a few like that later.

Insensitive, by contrast, is sarcastically titled – there’s a beautifully lyrical pop song underneath, and Djangirov brought out all the jeweled facets beneath its fluid rivulets. And then lit into an even more attractive, early Romantic style prelude that led back into the theme. Blues Sketch in Clave, also from the new cd, was neither really blues nor clave – it had more of a boisterous Brazilian rhythm – and also featured some beautiful cascading passages. Although a solo cover of the Sinatra standard I Should Care was a heavy-handed mess, Djangirov also gave it a welcome, unexpectedly ominous edge with some gypsy-inflected flourishes in the right hand. The same feeling would take centerstage on the night’s best song, Lullaby Fantasia, which alternated breakneck runs with poignant Chopinesque interludes.

On one level, following the crowd is never necessarily a good idea. But a crowd will also run from a burning building, and crowds of both rock and jazz players have run from most of the keening, woozy synthesizer sounds of the 70s simply because they’re cheesy. It’s amazing what timbre will do: Monk on the piano sounds like Monk; on a synth, it could be anything but Monk and that includes Phil Collins. That Djangirov would be unaware of that is probably a cultural tic: in much of Europe, and pretty much everywhere further east, fusion is still in vogue. While it wouldn’t be fair to label any sound or timbre completely off-limits – even the cheesiest synth has its uses, if only for comedic purposes – if he doesn’t put the thing on the shelf, at least for the jazz rooms, he’s going to get stuck with a fusion tag. Which would be too bad, because his sound innnovatively blends so many other, far more captivating styles. Still in his early twenties, there’s reason to believe this might be a passing phase. He’s at the Jazz Standard through Sunday the 13th, and considering the crowd for yesterday’s early set, reservations and/or early arrival are very highly recommended.

September 11, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment