Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Prime Dave Brubeck Outtakes Rescued From the Archives

What jumps out at you immediately on the new Dave Brubeck Time OutTakes album is how incredibly fresh these songs were when the iconic pianist brought them into the studio in 1959. There are seven tracks here plus a bonus couple of minutes of self-effacing studio banter, streaming at Spotify. Most everything here other than the banter would appear in sometimes radically different form on the Time Out album, one of the ten most popular jazz records of all time. For anyone who might not rank Brubeck among the alltime great improvisers, he puts that theory to rest here. This isn’t just ephemera for diehards: it’s a shock this material hasn’t seen the light of day until now.

The first number is a practically nine-minute take of Blue Rondo A La Turk, Brubeck matching the go-for-broke rhythmic intensity of the final version, although he chills out almost to the point of getting lost when it comes to his solo – which explains why this didn’t make the cut. Still, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond really nails the dry martini sound he so famously emulated.

Beginning with Brubeck’s long neoromantic intro, a similarly expansive version of Strange Meadowlark captures both the bandleader and also Desmond at their lyrical best. Why didn’t this take end up on the record? We’ll never know.

Why the version of Cathy’s Waltz here also didn’t end up on the original album is another mystery: maybe a single, minor smudge of one of Brubeck’s high notes during the last verse in this otherwise jaunty, spot-on performance?

Hearing drummer Joe Morello subtly edge his way into the rhythm of Take Five on his ride cymbal is a trip: it’s easy to forget how much of the bestselling jazz single of all time is a drum solo. Desmond’s solo is a lot punchier here, as Morello’s turns out to be as well. One suspects he hams it up because he knows the song still isn’t ready.

Three to Get Ready is more wryly playful and slower than the final take, bassist Eugene Wright getting more time in the spotlight and having fun with it. The pianist is in lighter-fingered form, by contrast with Morello, in I’m in a Dancing Mood, another perfectly serviceable take. The last number is a “Watusi Jam,” referencing one of the innumerable dance memes of the late 1950s. Desmond sits out this deviously jungly Morello vehicle. Even when Brubeck and his legendary quartet aren’t at the peak of their form here – and 99% of the time they are – the fun they’re having is irresistible. And it’s no less insightful to witness how they went about making history with it.

December 28, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dave Brubeck’s Lullabies: Marginalia or Major Revelations?

Conventional wisdom is that music written for family and kids is ephemera. In reality, the reverse is often true: take the Bach Klavierubung, or Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, for example. Freed from the demands of concert audiences or record labels, a composer can follow his or her own muse. Where does the new Dave Brubeck Lullabies solo piano compilation – streaming at Spotify – fall between those two extremes? Somewhere in between.

Brubeck famously broke up his legendary quartet so he could spend more time at home with his kids, so it’s no surprise that he would record this material, albeit decades later for his grandchildren. It’s his last studio recording, but his chops are undiminished. He bookends the album with appropriately tender, subtly ornamented takes of the famous Brahms lullaby. The tracks everybody wants to hear, obviously, are the originals. Going to Sleep is catchy, on the sparse side and strongly echoes Debussy. Lullaby For Iola, written for his beloved wife, is a similarly spacious pavane.

Softly, William, Softly is arguably the best and most poignantly folksy of the bunch. Brubeck deviously reharmonizes Brahms for Briar Bush. The last one, a solo take of Koto Song wasn’t included with the digital promo for the record.

Gershwin’s Summertime fits in perfectly here, in a casual, lyrical way; brooding bluesiness aside, it’s a lullaby, after all. Brubeck works a low-key, subtly ragtime-inflected sway in When It’s Sleepy Time Down South and makes stately art-song out of There’s No Place Like Home.

He indulges in a bit of unexpected dynamics in an otherwise tender take of A Dream Is a Wish Is Your Heart Makes and finds spare resilience as well as classical heroism in All Through the Night. And he goes deeper into lustrous neoromantic mode with the simply titled Sleep.

He also makes lullabies out of a famous Irish ballad and that number from the Wizard of Oz that needs to be put to sleep forever. This isn’t exactly Brubeck at his most irrepressibly inventive, but it’s unbeatable as functional music. Some of the luckiest members of the generation just being born may someday have fond memories of this completely different side of a jazz icon.

December 27, 2020 Posted by | children's music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Irrepressible, Purist Fun From an Important, Individualistic New Voice in Jazz Piano

On one hand, pianist Jinjoo Yoo is as purist and trad as they get. She’s Monk-ish in her economy of notes, passion for the blues and laserlike sense of a good tune, but she actually doesn’t sound much like Monk. Brubeck is another touchstone – or imagine John Lewis without the booze (hard to do, but just try). For those reasons, her decision to work with the veteran rhythm section of bassist Neal Miner and drummer Jimmy Wormworth really pays off in her new album I’m Curious, streaming at Spotify. She’s playing Shapeshifter Lab this May 13 at 7 PM; cover is $10. If jazz piano is your thing, this is somebody you need to catch while she’s on her way up.

In addition to a knack for a good tune, Yoo has a killer sense of humor, which pops up all over the place on the album. The first track is Blullaby, a jaunty early-morning wake-up call. Yoo lets the sun radiate in, then works a supple, light-fingered, bluesy shuffle and throws in a wry Ellington quote as Miner dances and Wormworth’s deviously offbeat brushwork takes advantage of the room’s natural reverb. Almost imperceptibly, she builds a crescendo until her insistent attack  channels an unexpected gravitas

Yoo nicks the intro to Dizzy Blossom straight from Brubeck, tosses off a handful of cheery flourishes and then gets down to bluesy business, waiting for just the right moment to go sailing into the upper registers. The rhythm section’s approach is much the same as on the opening number.

With its blend of misterioso neoromanticism and the blues, the album’s title track is unselfconsciously Ellingtonian. The way Yoo works this strut from allusively creepy toward a more optimistic direction is just plain classic. Yoo takes her inspiration for the jaggedly incisive, Middle Eastern-flavored And I Call It Home from filmmaker Teymur Hajiyev’s gritty Azeri suspense flick Shanghai, Baku – its modal intensity reminds of Monk more than any other piece here. It’s the album’s darkest cut.

To Barry with Love – a solo number and a shout-out to Yoo’s teacher, postbop elder statesman Barry Harris – balances gleefully flickering, Errol Garner-ish riffs with oldschool majesty. There’s also a slightly more low-key, alternate take of Bullaby. 

May 11, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Iconic Noir Pianist Ran Blake Offers a Dark Salute to the Great George Russell

It’s autumn in New York. Finally, in this overheated age, we’ve made it there. And what better way to conclude Halloween week than with the latest album by the definitive noir pianist of our era, Ran Blake, which opens and then after fifteen additional tracks, concludes with that song? The cd, Ghost Tones, a tribute to Blake’s old pal George Russell, sadly isn’t streaming anywhere on the web, but you can get a sense of its magically shadowy gravitas from the momentary clips up at cdbaby.

Throughout the record, the saturnine majesty of Blake’s playing is undiminished. Like Dave Brubeck at age eighty, he’s never played with more depth or poignancy. The album is a mix of pieces by Russell – one of the great individualists of the last half-century, an underrated but vastly influential composer who shares Blake’s dark sensibility – alongside Blake originals and a handful of chilly, sepulchral reinventions of jazz standards. The album’s opening track is a clinic in how Blake, playing solo, uses his signature, Messiaen-esque close harmonies to take a moody ballad far deeper into the night than its composer ever dreamed. Then, to wind up the album, Blake offers a spare, guardedly optimistic, far more straight-up take that hews much more closely to the original.

Alice Norbury (Blake’s shout-out to Russell’s wife) opens stately and stern, but then the clouds lift a bit, Blake multitracking his piano with string synth, broadening his usual noir cinematic sweep. As becomes crystal clear, this is a portrait of a profound and formidable personality. Drunmer Charles Burchell’s clave drives the first Russell composition, Living Time, with a white-knuckle tension as bassist Brad Barrett bubbles, Blake swirls and ripples and the horns – Peter Kenagy on trumpet, Aaron Hartley on trombone – punch in, Doug Pet’s tenor sax soaring like a vulture overhead. It’s 70s noir Morricone taken to the next level.

Blake’s solo piano miniature, Paris, perfectly captures that city’s twilit, rain-drenched angst amid the ghosts of centuries past as it rises to an insistent peak, again recalling Messiaen. Telegram From Gunther, a tongue-in-cheek miniature by Blake and another old third-stream pal, Gunther Schuller, makes an intro to the cumulo-nimbus electroacoustic industrial decay of Biography.

The best-known Russell number here, Stratusphunk, gets stripped to its austere, rust-tinged chassis as a solo piano piece. Another, Jack’s Blues rises artfully from a wary foghorn fanfare to an alllusive stroll through a desolate South Street Seaport or Boston Wharf of the mind, lowlit by Kenagy’s Miles-like muted trumpet. Then Blake makes a good segue with a solo take of Rodger & Hart’s Manhattan, taking that same tangent to its logical, briskly walking conclusion. After that, Russell’s Ballad of Hix Blewitt marks a return to plaintive, cinematic sweep with strings and Dave Fabris’ resonant pedal steel.

One of the most dynamically menacing Blake solo numbers here is his Cincinnati Express, building to twisted ragtime and then back. With its bell-like multi-keys,Vertical Form VI shows just how far into the avant garde – think Louis Andriessen – Russell could go and includes a sample from a 1998 London big band concert recording by the Living Time Orchestra. After Blake’s ominoulsy swaying solo version of Jacques Crawls, a spare, spacious take of Russell’s Lonely Place makes a brilliantly apt segue, Pet’s desolate, wee-hours upper-Broadway sax and Hartley’s trombone enhancing the ambience. Another well-covered Russell tune, Ess-Thetic, gets an insistent, menacingly circular solo piano treatment; there’s also an austerely reinvented take of You Are My Sunshine introduced by vertigo-inducing strings and steel. It’s noir music in its most brooding, bittersweet, distantly heartbreaking perfection, and ought to help introduce the brilliance and individualism of Russell to a new audience.

Blake gets a likely star-studded 80th birthday tribute at Jordan Hall, 290 Huntington Ave in Boston, his longtime New England Conservatory stomping ground, on November 13 at 7:30 PM.

October 31, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Sachal Studios Orchestra Bring Their Titanic Pakistani Reinterpretations to JALC

[originally published at Lucid Culture’s sister blog New York Music Daily]

The Sachal Studios Orchestra‘s latest album Jazz and All That is more all that than it is jazz – and it is all that, most definitely. The Pakistani orchestral ensemble plays Bollywood-style versions of popular Western themes with a titanic, epic Mahlerian/Spector-esque power, driven mainly by a massive string section. Their shtick is to substitute South Asian instruments like sitar, sarangi, wood flute and tabla in place of piano, sax or drum kit when it comes time for solos. They also prove perfectly competent at playing styles from around the world in their original idioms, without any distinguishable Pakistani/Indian flavor, demonstrated here via a vividly Celtic-tinged version of Morning Has Broken and a lavish, string-driven cover of Jobim’s iconic bossa nova hit, Wave. They’re at Rose Theatre at Jazz at Lincoln Center at 8 PM on Nov 22 and 23, where they’ll be collaborating with Wynton Marsalis’ JALC Orchestra. It’s hard to imagine a more potentially explosive cross-cultural orchestral collaboration on any New York stage in recent memory.

The album opens with a full-throttle vamp through Stevie Wonder’s You’ve Got It Bad Girl, with sitar, flute and harmonium over a Bacharach-esque groove. The French chanson favorite If You Go Away (Si Tu Dois Partir) is as much art-rock as it is cinematic theme, a long, sweeping crescendo building as the thicket of percussion grows denser, handing off to terse vibraphone and then piano solos. Moonlight in Vermont opens with a conversation between sitar and fiddle, then a slide guitar, a hypnotically tricky, rhythmic but aptly dreamy reinterpretation that may well be the best version of this old chesnut ever recorded.

Monsoon, by Wazir Afzal, a trip-hop song, is the most hypnotic number here, flavored with moody harmonica, a long trumpet solo handing off to the sitar. The orchestra’s version of the Pink Panther theme is oldschool Bollywood as S.D. Burman would have done it; they wait til the fourth time through the verse to go completely over-the-top with the sitar. The comedy continues with Ponteio, by Edu Lobo, redone as Pakistani disco with a jawharp intro, bass flute and then harmonica adding gravitas to this otherwise airy vamp. And to the orchestra’s massive credit – pun intended – they manage not only to not butcher Eleanor Rigby, but to beef up the original’s macabre surrealism with a barrage of strings which actually push the delicately nuanced sitar line out of the sonic picture.

The worst song on the album is the weepy early 90s REM hit Everybody Hurts…but by eliminating the vocals and doing it as a stunningly simple Americana waltz, albeit with stark traditional fiddle and harmonium, it’s completely transformed into a catchy lullaby. The best and longest song on the album is the Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays tune To the End of the World, which they reinvent as an uneasily glimmering Isaac Hayes-style crime-jazz theme, bluesy piano and dancing bass paired off against the sitar over a black velvet groove. The Dave Brubeck classic Blue Rondo a la Turk is the closest thing to the original here: lavish as it is, the sitar lead sticks very close to Brubeck’s piano line.  And Kafi Jazz (Five Rivers), by Baqir Abbas has the sitar leading a lush, uneasy bossa groove, the tsunami of strings again subsuming the lead instruments, nimble acoustic guitar and then a sitar/guitar exchange brightening the mist. Fans of all of the above artists will find this anything from exhilarating to maddeningly weird to LMAO funny, all of which seem to be the point of this irrepressible large ensemble.

November 11, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

John Funkhouser’s Darkly Glimmering New Album: One of 2013’s Best

Pianist John Funkhouser’s previous album, Time, was a rhythmically challenging but tunefully Brubeckian trio effort. His new one, Still, puts more of an emphasis on the tunesmithing, with potently dynamic results: it’s one of this year’s best piano jazz albums. Two of the top players in the Boston scene, Greg Loughman and Mike Connors, play bass and drums, respectively, along with guest appearances from guitarist Phil Sargent and chanteuse Aubrey Johnson.

The opening narrative, Indigo Montoya’s Great Escape sounds like Marc Cary’s Focus Trio burning through a Kenny Garrett tune, rippling its way quickly to a percussive latin vamp, its back-and-forth variations from murky and minimal tracing a memorably moody upward trajectory. The band practically segues out of it with a dirgey version of House of the Rising Sun, a feature for Loughman’s tersely mournful bowed lines juxtaposed with the bandleader’s similarly terse piano and an expansive gravel-pit of a drum solo that makes an understatedly potent coda. One of Funkhouser’s standout compositions here, The Deep contrasts his stygian, judiciously spaced block chords and Sargent’s atmospherics with Loughman and Connors’ increasingly funky polyrhythms, psychedelic funk up against warmly Frisellian pastoral colors…..and then a boogie?!?

Funkhouser and Loughman reinvent Rodgers and Hart’s My Romance as a duet with a lyrical third-stream glimmer, Connors finally roaming in from the perimeter and introducing some unexpected metric shifts. By contrast, Monk’s Little Rootie Tootie is a dancing, wryly syncopated feature for Sargent’s reverb-drenched, methodical, crescendoingly insistent lines. Leda coalesces from a gothically catchy neoromantic theme to a dark waltz, Johnson working the eerie/calm atmosphere with her icily opaque, literally bone-chilling upper-register vocalese, Loughman’s balletesque solo echoing her later on. Then they pick up the pace with Shakedown, a witty, richly nuanced noir stroll that’s essentially a Monk homage. The concluding, title track is Funkhouser’s Middle Eastern noir piece de resistance, echoing both Vijay Iyer as well as Cary’s take on the Erik Satie book with its resonant, hauntingly allusive midrange piano, Loughman and Connors in turn working the mysterioso depths and then rising in tandem with Funkhouser as the other solos. It’s too slow and haunting to be dizzying; Krysztof Komeda (whose darker themes Funkhouser sometimes evokes here) might well have called it astigmatic.

October 14, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Resonant Nocturnes and Lively Solo Pieces from Matt Herskowitz

Pianist Matt Herskowitz’ new solo concert album, Upstairs, captures a November, 2011 gig at Montreal’s popular Upstairs Bar & Grill. It has a similar lyricism and gleam as Fred Hersch’s Alone at the Vanguard album from a couple of years ago, albeit with more of a third-stream flavor. It’s a mix of nocturnes and energetic, upbeat material imbued with equal parts classical precision and Herskowitz’ signature improvisational flair and humor.

Amid the crepuscular glimmer and the hjinks here are two showstoppers. The first is a meticulously nuanced solo piano arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s  Dzienkuye, a standout track from the late third stream icon’s Jazz Impressions of Eurasia album. Somberly neoromantic, Herskowitz takes it up on a lively and lushly dancing note before a rapt, starlit interlude and then a triumphant outro – it’s no surprise that Brubeck gave Herskowitz the thumbs-up for this.

The quiet, Satie-esque surrealism of Waltz in Moscow builds more eerily and bluesily, veering between those idioms with a vividly pervasive unease. By contrast, Michel Pettruciani’s Cantabile juxtaposes jaunty, often rapidfire ragtime with a middle interlude that more accurately reflects the title. Herskowitz’ dreamy take of  Schumann’s Traumerei reminds that he’s just as good at classical as jazz, while an instrumental version of Bella’s Lament – from the the play Bella, the Colour of Love, about Marc Chagall and his wife – reverts to a familiar trajectory from brooding neoromanticism toward a more upbeat narrative.

Herskowitz plays his famous Bach a la Jazz (from the film Les Triplettes de Belleville) like the lark it was to begin with, when he sent the playful knockoff of Bach’s C Minor Prelude from the Well-Tempered Klavier along with a lot more serious stuff to the film’s musical director. The album ends with rousing, impressively hard-hitting, expansive takes on Gershwin’s But Not for Me and I’ve Got Rhythm. It’s out now on Justin Time.

January 19, 2013 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Memoriam – Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck, the iconic pianist who transformed jazz with his unpredictable rhythms, rich melodic sensibility and paradigm-shifting vision, died today in a hospital in Norwalk, Connecticut, a day before what would have been hs 92nd birthday. Brubeck wrote party music, dance music, makeout music and profoundly intense, stormy themes that resonate as powerfully and magically now as ever.

One of the greatest composers of the last century, Brubeck drew as deeply on classical music as jazz. A student of Darius Milhaud, he wrote orchestral and choral works as memorable as any of his jazz compositions: his longer pieces often served as vehicles for his more serious, dramatic themes. More than any other composer, Brubeck was responsible for popularizing the use of tempos other than a steady 4/4 across all styles of jazz. He was also arguably the most effective proponent of third-stream music, incorporating classical themes, arrangements and architecture in a swinging, improvisational milieu.

Although he was a gifted pianist and a captivating improviser, a fluent player of blues, gospel and classical music in addition to jazz, Brubeck was not an ostentatious musician: he played purposefully, often creating a narrative or driving a theme to which his his bandmates were encouraged to add their distinctive personalities. His skills remained practically undiminished through a performing career that spanned from the 1930s into this year.

Brubeck recorded the best-selling jazz song of all time, Take Five, the title track to the 1959 album written by his Dave Brubeck Quartet bandmate, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond. Over a recording career that spanned parts of seven decades, he sold millions of albums, not counting millions of downloads, a rarity in jazz. One reason for his popularity is his knack for a catchy tune: few composers in any style of music have written such memorable songs as Three to Get Ready, It’s a Raggy Waltz, Unsquare Dance or Blue Rondo a la Turk, to name a few. Another signature trait that won him millions of followers was his sense of humor; his songs are imbued with as much lively, playful fun as classical rigor. His body of work, both live and in the studio, ranks with those of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and any of the classical composers. Considering how vital he was until the very end, one could always hope for another tour and another chance to see this legend in concert: he is greatly and deeply missed. Our thoughts are with all the musicians and individuals lucky enough to know him.

December 5, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, obituary | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vijay Iyer’s Accelerando from a Distance

Why cover Vijay Iyer’s Accelerando now, in the wake of all the acclaim, the unprecedented sweep of the Downbeat critics’ poll, ad infinitum? For one, to assess how much of the hype is justified. And from a blogger’s perspective, it never hurts to step out of the magic, secret corners that we and sometimes we alone seem to know about, and venture out into the so-called mainstream to lure traffic off the wider expanses of the world wide web into those magic, secret corners. So consider this both a ploy and an unvarnished attempt to make sense of Iyer’s soaring popularity.

Which is well-deserved. Let’s get the punchline out of the way: he has a rare gift for melody as well as a fearlessness that extends from the political to his choice of material. Iyer will literally cover anything. Yet as much as has been written about how he’s bringing cutting-edge concepts into what’s left of any kind of jazz mainstream – which doesn’t seem to exist any more than it does in rock or any other style of music these days – what’s been surprisingly absent from the discussion is how much gravitas amd depth Iyer brings to the equation. Sometimes a single note – here, for example, a lingering, quiet low lefthand accent after a briskly dissociative take of Herbie Nichols’ Wildflower has ended and is fading out – is all he needs to drive the mood home. Long ago, Dave Brubeck began working that magisterial territory with the same kind of rhythmic authority that Iyer does here with his trio, Stephan Crump and Marcus Gilmore. More recently, Marc Cary, and to some extent, Gerald Clayton have roamed with the same kind of understated drama and majesty without losing the pulse of the music. Ultimately, that’s what gives Iyer’s work (and Brubeck’s, and Cary’s, and Clayton’s) lasting value.

In case you missed it elsewhere, the theme of Accelerando is dance rhythms, and all the fun that can be had with them. As usual, the compositions are a mix of originals and covers from across the musical spectrum, from the sublimely avant to the ridiculously commercial. Much as the rhythms are jaunty, the moods tend to be brooding, sometimes verging on menace. Bode, the Satie-esque modal piece that opens the album, builds to a Cary-esque rumble. The modal intensity is maintained on the nimbly dancing, somewhat ironically titled Optimism, a blend of grace and gravitas, Gilmore shadowing and then driving the long upward arc. Similarly, Iyer engages the drums in the muddled, off-center rhythms of a radical reinvention of The Star of a Story – a semi-hit by the 70s disco band Heatwave – moving from pretty straightforward funk into the smoke above the embers, and then back out.

Iyer’s attempt to reduce a rather frantic, largescale Henry Threadgill Very Very Circus piece, Little Pocket Size Demons, to its essence is wildly successful, with creepy, aching bowed bass over a piano loop, Gilmore’s right foot steady as the rhythm expands, Iyer more allusive than outright menacing. The wryly titled Lude is a somewhat more subdued adventure in the push-pull of action versus pensive stasis, fueled irrepressibly and funkily by Crump and Gilmore. The title track rises with a McCoy Tyner-esque stomp over a hypnotic major sixth vamp and goes phantasmagorical, while Actions Speak bounces variations off an agitated piano cluster, from dizzy apprehension to matter-of-fact rippling throughout pretty much the entirety of the keys. The album concludes with a surprisingly terse, gospel-drenched take of The Village of the Virgins, an Ellington ballet number:

There are also a couple of tracks here that add nothing to the album, both of them covers. Mmmhmm – credited to Flying Lotus, a purveyor of insipid electronic dancefloor beats – gets an atmospheric trip-hop backbone, Crump’s agile bowed lines over Iyer’s lushly sustained low lefthand that eventually expands by leaps and bounds. It’s attractive, and moody – and nothing that Lisa Hilton couldn’t have pulled off. Michael Jackson’s Human Nature syncopates and caches the melody in polyrhythms, then finally gets hit head on. The choice of this song in particular is a mystery: the hook isn’t very strong to begin with, and it has baggage, a cloying, schlocky top 40 ballad recorded by someone who will ultimately be remembered, if at all, for his crimes against children rather than for anything he did in showbiz. If there’s anything to take from this, it’s that the richness and intensity that defines Iyer’s compositions is sometimes lost when he tackles inferior composers – and compared to Iyer, most composers are.

October 9, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brilliant, Intense Solo Improvisation from Arturo O’Farrill

On a cold, windy evening in October of last year, pianist Arturo O’Farrill went into the Noguchi Museum in Queens, where, amidst the sculptures, he was inspired to record an album of solo piano improvisations, “the scariest thing a pianist can do,” as he puts it. O’Farrill feels an outsider’s cameraderie with Isamu Noguchi’s work: the two artists have similarly polyglot backgrounds and affinities for destroying boundaries. To call this recording, titled The Noguchi Sessions, a vigorous blend of third-stream jazz with latin inflections, would be accurate in a very broad sense but does not remotely do it justice. To call it a major work, one of the most important and brilliant albums released this year runs the risk of overhyping it. Yet gravitas is one of O’Farrill’s defining traits, along with a polymath’s ravenousness for ideas. O’Farrill is a big-picture guy: time and time again, he gets it. Ernesto Lecuona wrote Siboney in memory of a people originally indigenous to Cuba: O’Farrill reaches into it deeply and pulls out a requiem. Yet O’Farrill’s take also eventually hits a triumphant swell, and goes out with a flourish: he wants these people to be remembered for their humanity. His take on Mingus’ Jelly Roll is a lot more wry than it is sly: Mingus knew the tragedy in Jelly Roll Morton’s life, and O’Farrill knows that too, his bitingly precise righthand runs adding irony over the ragtime exuberance. This humanity is perhaps most vivid here on the sardonic Alisonia, juxtaposing O’Farrill as manic bad cop versus his wife’s steady resilience. She’s portrayed as the calm center of the storm here, and she wins in the end: much as he blusters and muddies the waters (with a pummeling low lefthand drive here), she’s obviously the rock in his life. A take of Obsesion, the salsa jazz classic, is obsessive to the extreme, up so close and personal and frantic that it’s worrisome! And Mi Vida, dedicated to O’Farrill’s beloved aunt and uncle, portrays the couple very much together through thick and thin, even as a wary modal melody is introduced via the lefthand again – O’Farrill isn’t afraid to plunge into those depths, here or anywhere else.

It’s especially interesting to hear him play solo in light of his best-known work as leader of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. His approach is steady, businesslike, relentlessly intense, as it pretty much always it. He takes his time getting into the opening track, The Sun at Midnight, distantly Asian-tinged clusters evoking an in-the-moment theme; otherwise, the album is pretty straight-ahead. He doesn’t employ much rubato, instead finding the occasional opportunity to add space and distance. And when he hits a cadenza, or a rare, brutal explosion of raw noise, the effect packs a wallop. It’s exactly what you would expect from a first-rate big band guy: he picks his spots and makes them count. As usual, O’Farrill isn’t afraid to take a stand, represented here by The Delusion of the Greedy, juxtaposing squirrelly, mechanical, conspiratorially lockstep righthand runs against a serioso bluesiness that gains traction just as the 99% are gaining traction against the robber barons among us – whose days are numbered, as this piece makes ineluctably clear. His take on Oh Susannah reaches to reclaim the melody from its repugnant minstrel origins: unlike the Dave Brubeck version, O’Farrill interpolates snatches of the tune amidst variations that run from blithe to practically macabre. And In Whom, dedicated to O’Farrill’s talented drummer son Zachary, incorporates both distantly anxious, Debussy-tinged ripples as well as a wry bittersweetness that evokes Donald Fagen at his peak.

There’s also a matter-of-factly crescendoing improvisation on I Had a Secret Love; a nimbly spun version of Danny Boy that works its way out expansively and nostalgically, dedicated to the heroes of 9/11; and an alternately tender and energetic take of Randy Weston’s Little Niles. This is not light music by any stretch of the imagination: it’s something to go deeply into and spend some time with because it will move you profoundly if you let it. A lock for one of 2012’s best albums.

July 13, 2012 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment