Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Revisiting Some Classics by Mingus and His Many Advocates

Trombonist Ku’Umba Frank Lacy is a mainstay of the New York jazz scene, with a list of recording and touring credits a mile long as a both a bandleader and sideman. His Live at Smalls album, a red-hot straight-up postbop sextet date at the well-loved West Village basement spot, got a big thumbs-up here in 2014. And as big band fans know, Lacy is also an excellent singer with a distinctively gritty, dynamic low register. New Yorkers have at least three chances to catch him over the next week or so. He’s leading his own group on Dec 5 at 10:30 PM at Smalls, their usual haunt; cover is $20. In addition, he’ll be with the Mingus Big Band at the weekly Monday night Mingus ensembles’ residency at the Jazz Standard on Nov 27 and Dec 4, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $25

Lacy’s latest album with the Mingus Big Band, Mingus Sings – streaming at Spotify – is his star turn in the studio with the group. Although Charles Mingus’ music pretty much speaks for itself, he was an underrated wordsmith, and there are four tracks here representing his poetic side, along with others by Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, and a rarity  by his widow and longtime champion Sue Mingus.

Interestingly, Lacy doesn’t play on this record, although the band otherwise is as much of an allstar outfit as it always its, comprising trumpeters Alex Norris, Jack Walrath and the late Lew Soloff; trombonists Coleman Hughes, Conrad Herwig and Earl McIntyre; saxophonists Craig Handy, Wayne Escoffery, Alex Foster, Ronnie Cuber, Abraham Burton and Brandon Wright; bassists Boris Kozlov and Mike Richmond; pianists David Kikoski and Helen Sung, and drummer Donald Edwards.

The material spans the iconic composer’s career, from bustling swing to haunting third-stream epics. Lacy narrates Langston Hughes’ poetic commentary over slowly swaying lustre and then fingerpopping swing in Consider Me, a pensive Stormy Monday-inspired first-person commentary on black empowerment. Clearly, not much has changed in sixty years.

Dizzy Profile, part elegant waltz, part brisk swing, is a mighty, knowing reminder of how much controversy the pioneers of hard bop faced; again, somewhat ironically, it’s Coleman Hughes who gets to take a sagacious trombone solo instead of Lacy.

Weird Nightmare, as you would expect, is one of the real standouts on the album: Lacy holds back to let Mingus’ angst and longing really resonate while the band builds an eerily surreal backdrop. Portrait comes across as quite a contrast between the lyrics and the regal, almost somber quality of the music, animated by solos from Walrath and Handy. Another stunner, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat – with the first of the Joni Mitchell lyrics – is awash in grim, close harmonies, introduced by a gently plaintive Kikoski piano solo, Handy contributing a pensive, achingly angst-fueled alto solo.

Sweet Sucker Dance – from Mingus and Mitchell’s 1979 collaboration – has an infinitely more purist, epic sweep compared to the original and really does justice to Mitchell’s bittersweet, detailed character study. Likewise, Lacy digs in and wraps his tongue around Invisible Lady’s torrents of Elvis Costello noir iconography over murderous, tense  harmonies and nonstop, shadowy urban bustle: it’s the rare resurrection of a classic where the new lyrical dimension isn’t hopelessly ponderous.

Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love, which Mingus did write all by himself, is surprisingly restrained here: Cuber blows some purist blues spirals and Lacy saves his biggest melismatic moment for this one. Contrastingly, Dry Cleaner From Des Moines has a jaunty rumble to match Mitchell’s surreal beatnik narrative.

Noonlight – the one real obscurity here, posthumously discovered along with the scores for Mingus’ magnum opus, Epitaph – gets its lyrics and title from Sue Mingus. It turns out to be a saturnine-tinged but catchy and ultimately cheery ballad, shifting matter-ofl-factly between meters.

Mitchell’s lowdown vernacular and imperturbable narrative fit seamlessly with Chair in the Sky, with its sly bluesiness and unstoppable upward trajectory  – and Lacy has a ball matching its unhinged exuberance. Eclipse, the final number with Mingus’ words and music, is typically symphonic, a study in contrasts, slinky latin ballad morphing into towering anthem, Foster’s flute nailing both when the time comes. The final track is the second-line strut Jelly Roll, with a Costello lyric to match. It’s a good bet that most Mingus diehards already have this album, or at least have it playlisted somewhere; if not, hell, why not now?

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November 26, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Transcendent Mingus Big Band Show to Start Their Weekend at the Jazz Standard

Ever the advocate for the next generation of jazz greats, Sue Mingus took the bandstand briefly midway through the Mingus Big Band’s sold-out show last night at the Jazz Standard to encourage the audience to visit Manhattan School of Music today. From 1 to 5 PM, members of the three Mingus repertory ensembles are giving free seminars for the benefit of participants in this year’s Mingus high school competition, and the public is welcome to attend as well, “If that sort of thing interests you,” as she put it. If you’d rather see this band itself, they’re playing an all-too-rare Jazz Standard weekend stand through this Sunday, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM: as usual at this venue, early arrival and/or reservations are very highly encouraged.

The band was transcendent, as usual: explosive and pretty relentlessly intense, but also brimming with good humor that spilled over abundantly in just the right places. On one hand, that’s to be expected given the depth of the Mingus catalog (and this band’s Grammy win for the live album they made here as 2008 turned into 2009). On the other, it’s easy to take these groups for granted, since one of them is always here at the Jazz Standard every Monday. “I’ve got it, I’ve got it,” baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber hollered to his bandmates as he launched into an irrepressibly romping stop-time solo passage early on in E’s Flat Ah’s Flat Too while they waited with bated breath to leap back in. Moanin’, which closed the night’s first set, was a real barn-burner, Scott Robinson matter-of-factly setting up a blistering charge from fellow tenorist Wayne Escoffery. The band also rampaged through Slippers – a relatively rare tune in the band’s repertoire, played especially for the high school contingent who’ll be doing it over the weekend – with drummer Adam Cruz taking it down to a noir suspense with his solo midway through, working it expertly from nonchalant clave, to a hypnotically tribal rumble, to a crescendo that reverted to wild abandon.

The highlight of the night was another infrequent choice, Sue’s Changes, a wry, wickedly insightful and eventually tender tribute from the composer to his mercurial, irrepressibly energetic, reliably surprising wife. After the band had done a first pass through the song’s endlesss series of metric changes, tenor saxophonist Craig Handy offered a coy smooch with his mouthpiece before going deep into the blues, pianist Jim Ridl channeling a radiant glimmer before the final joyous full ensemble onslaught. A bit later, they began Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love lushly and brightly, but also carefully until Boris Kozlov’s bass solo, part High Romantic, part devious funk – after which point everybody put away any more romantic notions and swung like crazy. It was contagious: stellar and judicious performances from a cast including but not limited to alto saxophonist Alex Foster, trombonist/crooner par excellence Ku’Umba Frank Lacy (who also sang Elvis Costello’s lyrics on the opening number), trombonists Earl McIntyre and Conrad Herwig, and trumpeters Kenny Rampton and Greg Gisbert.

February 16, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Believe It: The Cookers’ New Album Is Amazing

The Cookers’ 2010 album Warriors ranked as one of that year’s top ten jazz albums here: how does their new one, Believe, just out from Motema, stack up alongside it? It’s different, and it’s even better. It’s one of those rare albums that come along a handful of times a year, that will blow you away the first time you give it a close listen. Who would have thought that all but two of the members of this perennially vital, intense veteran septet – saxophonists Billy Harper and Craig Handy, trumpeters Eddie Henderson and David Weiss, pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Billy Hart – are in their sixties or seventies? And who would have imagined that they’d come out with an album that’s mostly midtempo, with a couple of brooding ballads? This one has gravitas, rich melodic beauty and all sorts of deep playing and interplay. Interestingly, much as this band is all about power and fiery chops, it’s the compositions here that absolutely slay. The overall concept seems be something along the lines of “look, this isn’t just a superstar session, we’re a more-or-less fulltime band,” and they reaffirm that many times over.

The album kicks off with Believe, For It Is True, a Harper joint that juxtaposes a rather stern, stark modal piano melody with brighter, genial solos by the composer and then Weiss. It’s a good way to start the album. Temptation(s), by McBee, is a total knockout. From a similarly stark opening, the ensemble rises to an artfully layered, lush vintage 50s (think Miles and Gil) arrangement that fleshes out McBee’s bass riffage. Henderson alternates between warily soulful and swirly, McBee adds rhythmic insistence, then Cables gets nocturnal with the bass and drums and they they’re up and out. Wow!

Ebony Moonbeams, by Cables, is even plusher. Rhythms are hinted at and then Hart subtly establishes the clave, Henderson spirals and splatters, Cables takes the hook to Plaintiveville, Handy scurries over it and then Cables returns with an understated majestic intensity as the rhythm pulls away from the center. The lone cover is Wayne Shorter’s Free for All, moving matter-of-factly from tense restraint to unleashed modal menace. With a judiciously gleeful slasher attack, Hart absolutely owns this one, Henderson bringing in the evening sun for a moment before Handy and Cables join forces and take it into noir territory, all the way through a Hart solo where he somehow never loses the center, with a final mean drum roll to cap it off. Quest, another Harper tune, cleverly develops a wry martial New Orleans “charge” riff into more of the noir stuff, Hart again in richly colorist mode, Cables turning in what’s arguably the most chillingly exhilarating of all the solos here as he swings it with a dark flamenco tinge.

Will there be any respite? Maybe. But He Knows, a jazz waltz by Cables hints at a more carefree atmosphere, but beginning with Henderson’s purist, bluesy muted solo followed upwards by Handy, the shadows grow behind them; by the time they get to the piano solo, Cables can’t pull them back from watching the abyss. Tight Squeeze, by McBee, is exactly that, all suspense and understated chills: Harper broods, Weiss contemplates, Hart amps the mystery up to ten, works a couple of false endings and then lets McBee and Cables join in a surrealistic bounce. The final track, Naaj, a Hart composition, works permutations on a carnavalesque piano motif. Blast this in the car or after a bad day at work, share it with the friends whose lives you want to enrich the most, and if there’s someone very bright and intense that you want to seduce, this might do the trick. Watch for it on the list of best jazz albums of 2012 here in December if we make it that far.

July 15, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Cookers Heat Up, Oldschool Style

Soul radiates from the grooves here – or from whatever a mp3 is made of. The Cookers’ new album Warriors also has cameraderie, and chemistry, and purism. These jazz veterans – Billy Harper on tenor, Craig Handy on flute and alto, Eddie Henderson and David Weiss on trumpet and flugelhorn, George Cables on piano, Cecil McBee on bass and Billy Hart on drums – mine a rich, oldschool 60s vein, alternately slinky, contemplative, joyous and adrenalized, often nocturnal but sometimes not. The band take their name from the legendary Freddie Hubbard album Night of the Cookers – imagine the Jazz Passengers without Blakey overdoing it, and you’d be somewhere in the vicinity of what this sounds like. The ensemble passages blaze, or offer lush ambience – it’s hard to believe sometimes that this is only a septet and not a big band. Melody is everywhere, in the central themes and in the solos, and it isn’t just solos around the horn, either: it’s all about the songs. And they are songs in the purest sense of the word.

The opening track The Core builds with simple gravitas and eventually catches fire, lit by a tersely majestic Cables motif, aggressive hard-charging solos from Henderson and Harper, Weiss bringing the band back. Spookarella is less spooky than cinematic, its ensemble intro reaching a blithe crescendo, Handy’s carefree flute solo juxtaposed with Cables’ subtly shifting, almost hypnotic block chords. The pianist is the star of this cut (and in an unostentatious, methodical way, perhaps the star of the entire album), in this case with a deftly polyrhythmic solo. The understatedly sexy boudoir ballad Close To You Alone lets Handy state his case expansively on alto while the ambience grows almost imperceptibly behind him – he’s got something up his sleeve and he makes it worth your while. Priestess works variations on a hook that sounds suspiciously like the one from SOS by Abba, a showcase for a gruffly lightning solo from Harper, Weiss playing the voice of reason and Handy upping the ante once again with some sizzling doublestops before what’s left of the hook returns at half the speed, worn out from everything that just happened.

Live at the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival last month, the jazz waltz Sweet Rita Suite 2 took on an ominous glimmer; here, the darkness is limited to Cables furtively shadowing Handy’s cheery flute. But Capra Black is every bit as potent as the version they played there, rich with ambience behind the solos, Weiss again playing wiser buddy to Harper’s fearless exuberance, Henderson feeling the electricity in summer night air, Cables the man half-behind the curtain, guiding the entire thing with judiciously sparse intensity. They close on a high note with the methodically swinging, vividly noirish Ladybugg, Cables and McBee stepping out of the shadows and then back in, followed by the powerhouse, aptly titled U Phoria, ablaze with trumpets, a stinging minor blues solo by Cables and matter-of-factly unstoppable incisiveness from Hart on the cymbals. Count this as one of our top ten jazz favorites for 2010. It’s out now on Jazz Legacy.

September 11, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Charlie Parker Jazz Festival 2010: Day Two

When this year’s Charlie Parker Jazz Festival was first announced, the JD Allen Trio was listed for day two. The game plan here was to get back from vacation in time to catch Sunday’s concert at Tompkins Square Park: however, by the time the lineup was finalized, Allen had been moved to Saturday, with Little Jimmy Scott taking his place (more about him later: from the NY Times’ account, Allen turned in a characteristically gripping set).

Torchy singer (and NPR fave) Catherine Russell opened. Her band is capable of transcendence in pretty much any situation. In a set of familiar standards, this time out they didn’t, but considering the crushing heat and humidity, not to mention the early hour, that was almost to be expected. That they played as well as they did was an achievement. Maybe the festival’s producers should take that into account and schedule performers from Mali or Jamaica, or from anywhere this kind of climactic torture is an everyday thing, for the first part of the show.

The Cookers have a new album, Warriors, just out. Billy Harper and Craig Handy on tenor, Eddie Henderson and David Weiss on trumpet, George Cables on piano, Cecil McBee on bass and Billy Hart on drums have about a millennium of jazz experience among them and turned in a joyously expansive, mid 60s-flavored set that gave each performer a chance to pitch a tent front and center and pull the crew in his own preferred direction. It wasn’t just solos around the horn: there was push and pull, and conversations, roles and personalities all exerting themselves vividly. Handy answered Harper’s exuberance sauvely, even pensively, while Henderson pushed Weiss to fan the blaze even higher. They opened with a gorgeously murky, modal excursion with rich melodic overlays. Cables led the band through a beautifully lyrical, Brubeck-tinged jazz waltz featuring his own methodically crescendoing, eventually cloudbursting solo. They wound up their set with a number based on an emphatic, bouncy chromatic riff featuring a terse Hart drum solo contrasting with some meandering horn work.

What else could be said about Vijay Iyer that hasn’t been said already? That his originals are better than his covers, maybe. The pianist has gotten accolades here before and is as good as you would expect, live. But the heat was unrelenting, and comfortable, cool Lakeside Lounge around the corner was beckoning. See you somewhere down the line, Vijay.

By the time Little Jimmy Scott rode his little electric scooter onto the stage, it had cooled down a bit. He’s every bit as vital as he was fifty years ago, in fact, probably more so: it’s as if he was born to be 84 years old. He’s always had an otherworldly voice, years older than he was, so it only makes sense that his career would peak so late in life. Word on the street is that it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, and the crowd adored him. Like Siouxsie Sioux, someone he’s probably never heard of, he works his own scale when he’s off in the blue notes, which is a lot, and which is so successful because he’s perfectly in tune with himself. He didn’t exhibit his wide-open, Leslie speaker-style vibrato until the middle of his set but when he did, it was every bit as jaw-dropping as it’s ever been. David Lynch knew what he was doing when he put Scott on the Twin Peaks soundtrack. Scott opened with a Summertime-inspired version of Nothing But Blue Skies, saxophonist TK Blue and pianist Alex Minasian shadowing him with finely attuned phrasing; on Your Turn to Cry, sirens from around the corner joined in with the music almost on cue during the first few bars of the intro, and Scott seized the moment with characteristic, gentle intensity: nobody gets so much out of so little as this guy. The showstopper was an absolutely devastating version of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, Blue’s anguished soprano sax interlude on the way out a perfectly appropriate touch, but as good as it was it was no match for what Scott had just done, silky but raw, nuanced but with a sledgehammer effect. He’s at the Blue Note tomorrow night and worth pretty much whatever they’re charging at the door.

And two big, fat, upraised middle fingers to the NYPD brass who embarrassed the beat cops at the local precinct by instructing them to kick out anyone who dared sit down at the tables with the chessboard markings at the park’s southwest corner if they then didn’t immediately break out a chess or checkers set. This has all the markings of a concession to the neighborhood’s yuppie newcomers who don’t like to be reminded that they live in a world where homeless people actually exist. The rookie cop assigned to do the honors couldn’t hide his boredom or embarrassment, mumbling to tired concertgoers to get up and leave after they’d found what looked like lucky seats in the midst of a sea of people. Police work is hard enough without subjecting members of the force to humiliation like this.

August 31, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment