Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Ken Fowser and Behn Gillece’s New Album: Tuneful and Retro with an Edge

It’s hard to think of anybody who makes better jazz albums than alto saxophonist Ken Fowser and vibraphonist Behn Gillece  Jazz being defined by improvisation, and magic being hard to bottle, so many studio efforts by jazz artists sound strained, rote or haphazard- Not these guys’ records: they have the livewire energy that you would expect from the duo in concert. There is absolutely nothing about their new one, Top Shelf, which is cutting edge, or for that matter references any jazz style after about 1965. But it is tuneful beyond belief: Christian McBride would call it “people music.” This band of journeymen plays with a singlemindedness and focus matched on few other studio efforts from recent months. Gillece, in particular, has a fondness for edgy chromatic vamps and the occasional biting modal interlude; likewise, Fowser is a no-nonsense tunesmith and purposeful player. Here they join forces with Steve Einerson on piano, Michael Dease on trombone, Dezron Douglas on bass and Rodney Green on drums.

Most of the compositions here are by Gillece. The albums opens with a biting swing tune, Slick, immediately setting the tone with an allusively slashing, modal Fowser solo, Dease taking it in a more bluesy direction, Gillece straddling between the two. Stranded in Elizabeth – at a Jersey studio, maybe? – is catchy as hell, with Gillece spiraling out ot the hook, Fowsser choosing his spots as Green rumbles and then lets Dease add an ironic edge.

Due Diligence, one of three tracks by Fowser, maintains a deliciously purist bluesiness, Einerson’s pinpoint solo being a highlight,  Gillece taking it into more nebulous territory –  then Dease channels Wycliffe Gordon with some LOL buffoonery. Ginger Swing builds suspense out of a wicked catchy vibraphone hook. hinting at a lickety-split swing that they finally leap into as Gillece and then Einerson go scampering in a blaze of precise chops. Unstopppable, another Fowser tune, is aptly titled, Gillece having a great time with a prowling, animatedly nocturnal solo before turning it over to Fowser, who takes it in an unexpectedly dark direction before they wind it up, anthemic and triumphant.

Discarded works a murky On Broadway feel. both Gillece and Douglas maintaining a gritty, clenched-teeth, modally-charged intensity. It might be the best song here, or at least the darkest. That could also be said about the slowly turbulent, resonant ballad For the Moment, with its achingly teasing crescendos, bittersweet Fowser sax and misterioso Einerson solo. And just when the jaunty, bossa-tinged Pequenina sounds like they’ve left the shadows behind, Fowser brings them back – he’s good at that. The title track makes syncopated bossa out of the blues, with yet another cool chromatic vamp; the album winds up with Proximity, engaging the whole band in the album’s most buoyant charts, switching between lickety-split swing and an almost marching midtempo rhythm.You will walk around all day humming these tunes to yourself. It will put you in a good mood. It’s one of the best albums of 2013 and it’s out now from Posi-Tone.

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May 24, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Who Says Club Owners Can’t Play?

Most club owners who play music usually suck at it. The reason many of them open a venue is to have a place to play since nobody else will give them a gig. But once in awhile, you find a club owner who not only isn’t an atrocity exhibition, but actually has talent. Case in point: pianist Spike Wilner, impresario of Smalls, the well-loved downtown New York jazz institution. Wilner has a vivid, impressionistic third-stream style that draws as deeply on ragtime as it does on classic jazz, and on his latest album La Tendresse – out now from Posi-Tone – there are some genuinely breathtaking moments. He’s got a fast, liquid legato that can keep up with pretty much anybody in either jazz or classical, something he proved beyond reproach on his previous solo album, recorded live at the club. Here, his ragtime roots are in equally full effect: he covers Solace, and while he doesn’t try to put an original stamp on Scott Joplin, he also doesn’t embarrass himself. And the album gets even better from there.

He opens the title track, one of three original compositions here, with a rather stern passage featuring a lot of block chords that slowly develop outward into shuffling ripples that grow unexpectedly chilly and chromatic: if this is tenderness, then tenderness is scary. The second original, Silver Cord, also works a neoromantic vibe, slowly unwinding from tensely rhythmic to more cantabile, with a bit of wry Donald Fagen in the chords toward the end. Wilner reinvents Leonard Cohen’s – woops, Irving Berlin’s Always as a jazz waltz, building intensity with a delightfully vivid, ringing series of raga-like chords. He puts his own mark on Lullaby of the Leaves slowly and methodically, solo, from an expansive rubato intro, to a casual ragtime-fueled stroll and a playful classic rock quote at the end. Then he, bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Joey Saylor – who stay within themselves as supporting players throughout the album – scurry their way through a lickety-split take of After You’ve Gone, a showcase for sizzling, precise chops.

A couple of other tracks are far more pensive, notably purist takes on Ellington’s Le Sucrier Velours and Monk’s Crepuscule with Nellie, along with a nocturnally bluesy, wee-hours version of Richard Rodgers’ Little Girl Blue. I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together gets a skeletal, practically minimalist interpretation that’s over all too soon in well under three minutes. There are a couple of short tracks here that could have been left on the cutting room floor and the album wouldn’t be any worse for it, especially a song from the Wizard of Oz, that – it’s awfully hard to resist a bad pun here – if they’d only had a clue, would have given up trying to redeem as ragtime. Speaking of the Wiz, there are several other quotes here from that soundtrack that are as mystifying as the inclusion of that particular cut. Otherwise, this is something that ought to bring together fans of ragtime, jazz and the Romantic repertoire, who will probably unanimously enjoy a collection by a musician who probably doesn’t need any more fans (club owners always draw hugely at their gigs, if only because the artists they book make sure to come out and be seen there) but deserves them anyway.

June 15, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tim Mayer and His Band Get Resilient

Tenor saxophonist Tim Mayer’s album Resilience is a throwback to urban juke-joint jazz from the 60s, with somewhat cleaner digital production values. Mayer is an irrepressible presence with a slightly smoky tone, a quicksilver legato and a keen sense of dynamics, something you might not expect to come across on a hot blowing session like this one. The band behind him rises to the occasion, no surprise considering that George Cables, one of that era’s most vivid, no-nonsense players, plays piano on this session along with Dezron Douglas on bass, Willie Jones III on drums, along with Greg Gisbert on trumpet and Michael Dease on trombones.

Interestingly, they kick it off with a Dease swing blues, For Miles, a showcase for Dease’s bright tenor trombone and Cables’ purist, terse work along with a characteristically soaring Mayer excursion that sets the stage for most of what’s to come. Kenny Dorham’s Escape has plenty of edge and bite and lets the band air out their chops right from the opening brass harmonies – Mayer goes off uneasily, passes to Gisbert who takes it more relaxed, followed by Cables’ spacious, genial solo and then Dease again to bring it full circle. Charles Tolliver’s Emperor March gets a delightful Sara Jacovino arrangement with an additional high reeds section and a marvelous series of shifting voices, Jones artfully sneaking the clave back in when least suspected. Then they scale it back to a quartet for a bluesy take on Jule Styne’s I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry.

Ironically, Fats Navarro’s Dance of the Infidels is a feature for sax and trombone rather than trumpet, and a surprisingly calm, mattter-of-fact one at that. They tackle Lee Morgan’s Blue Lace with a practically Afrobeat rhythm, Mayer’s clenched-teeth intensity swirling up to guest Claudio Roditti, who delivers sanity and commonsense and warm vibes on rotary trumpet. Cables’ suave presence is a highlight of their cover of Monk’s Work; they end the album with Cables’ own Klimo, a classic of its kind, its staggered salsa vamp a solid launching pad for Mayer’s confidently surging solo as well as trumpeter Dominic Farinacci’s soulful, unselfconsciously optimistic guest spot and some warm wirewalking by Douglas. And even the album’s weakest track, Fire & Ice by Steve Turre, has the band pulling out all the stops, unperturbed. This is the kind of jazz that used to flourish in neighborhood bars in big cities forty years ago, before clubowners realized that there was an audience who would go see jazz and would pay $10 for a drink even if they wouldn’t think of dancing to the music. Play this loud and not with a $10 drink unless it’s a whole bottle.

December 5, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment