Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Everybody’s Jumping Out of Their Shoes to Play Central Park

What a pleasure it was to walk down the hill to the Central Park mall on Sunday afternoon without being assaulted by the tedious, computerized whoomp-whoomp that all the druggies would be dancing to in years past. Instead, the sounds were organic. A guy with an acoustic guitar. A bunch of southern kids having a picnic and listening to twangy Nashville pop on a big boombox. Ralph Williams, tall and resolute, running sinuous riffs solo on tenor sax as he’s been doing since forever at the far end of the benches by the bandshell. The Dark Sky Hustlers playing expertly slinky, vampy funk instrumentals in the middle of the mall.

And at the south end, four of the foremost musicians in jazz, busking.

OK, this wasn’t your typical busker gig. Photographer Jimmy Katz and his nonprofit Giant Step Arts began booking top-tier jazz talent there on the weekends last fall, as a way to help keep New York musicians solvent in the time since Andrew Cuomo criminalized live music venues. Katz is keeping the series going this year, working with drummer Nasheet Waits on the booking side and Jazz Generation’s Keyed Up program for sponsorship. Sunday’s allstar lineup was the kind that people pay a hundred dollars a ticket for at swanky festivals: Wayne Escoffery on tenor sax, Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, Dezron Douglas on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums. At the peak of the quartet’s first set, there might have been forty people scattered around the area. Where was everybody else? In the middle of the mall, watching the Dark Sky Hustlers. More about that later.

But even with the sonic competition from the Hustlers’ loud guitar amp, this was the place to be for a set of classics. The four players took a winding staircase up into Sonny Rollins’ East Broadway Rundown, Escoffery’s flurrying solo contrasting with Pelt’s spacious, allusively modal approach. The way Pelt shadowed Escoffery at halfspeed or thereabouts, as they wound it down to a brief drum solo, was the kind of sage, perfectly executed moment so many jazz fans have had to turn to albums and youtube clips to find over the past year.

The rest of the set underscored the group’s combined erudition, each a bandleader in his own right. By the time they’d made it halfway through a roughly ten-minute, hard-swinging, anthemically bluesy take of Joe Henderson’s Punjab, Blake was already getting hot, throwing elbows and jabbing when least expected. Kenny Dorham’s Short Story was more of a short novel, from a snazzy latin intro to swinging sizzle from Escoffery and Pelt and a rat-a-tat coda from Blake that he could have kept going for twice as long and everybody still would have wanted more. They closed with a ballad, If Ever I Would Leave You, the drummer immediately cracking the whip when it was apparent that the Strat across the way was drowning out the horns. When Douglas went to take a spare, plaintive solo, the guitar went silent: pure serendipity.

After the set was over, the Dark Sky Hustlers were still going, and it turned out that they were good at what they were doing: loopmusic, essentially. The Strat player has a deep bag of Memphis and New Orleans licks, and used them voluminously over one slowly undulating two-chord vamp after another, stashed away in his loop pedal.

Therein lies the joy and also the hazard of playing public spaces. The elephant in the room, of course, is Cuomo: if clubs were open at capacity, all of these musicians could continue their careers without jousting for sonic space. What’s most ironic here is that had the Dark Sky Hustlers known who was playing just a few hundred feet away, they might have joined the crowd. They’re a funk band; Johnathan Blake plays in Dr. Lonnie Smith‘s group. And there’s nobody funkier than him.

This spring’s lineup of jazz talent in the park is just as off the hook as this group. This coming Saturday, April 10 there’s a twinbill starting at noon with alto saxophonist  Sarah Hanahan leading a trio with bassist Phil Norris and drummer Robert Lotreck followed at 1:30 by iconic free jazz bassist William Parker‘s Trio with Cooper-Moore plus Hamid Drake on percussion at Summit Rock in Seneca Village in Central Park – enter at 82nd St. on the west side. Hanahan and her trio return on Sunday the 11th at the same time, followed at 1:30 by intense tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana leading hers with Pablo Menares on bass and Kush Abadey on drums. It’s not likely that there will be any funk bands to compete with up there.

April 6, 2021 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Allstar Jazz Crew the Analog Players Society Slink Into Psychedelic Territory

The Analog Players Society live up their name in a way: they definitely are players. Check out this lineup: Donny McCaslin on tenor sax, Orrin Evans on piano, Dezron Douglas and Ben Rubin splitting the bass duties and Eric McPherson on drums. With officially sanctioned gigs hard to find outside of Sweden, they’ve joined the brave few making new records these days. Their three-song ep Tilted – streaming at Bandcamp – is the first in a planned two-part series and it’s actually like nothing you would expect from this an allstar cast. Is this lounge music? Psychedelia? Trip-hop? Acid jazz? Postbop? All of the above – and it’s not totally analog either.

They open it with a twelve-minute version of Jobim’s One Note Samba. McCaslin starts out airy and wary over Evans’ judiciously expanding modalities, then brings his echo pedal into the mix while McPherson introduces some slinky funk. They bring it down to a mutedly dancing, hypnotic bass solo while McPherson edges into trip-hop, Evans suddenly breaking the mesmeric mood with tinkling phantasmagoria. One of those “this is why we love jazz” moments.

Evans opens the second number, a wry reinvention titled Epistrophe, on toy piano, as McPherson more or less loops a New Orleans funk riff. McCaslin figures out echo effects both analog and digital over the circular groove. Evans’ restraint and commitment to keeping the mood going with just a handful of sudden “are you awake” riffs is pretty amazing for a guy with his chops. Taking Monk tunes apart and reducing them to most basic terms is fun!   

For now, the final cut is Freedom is But a Fraction of Humanity, the quartet fading up into misterioso, triangulated piano/bass/drums polyrhythms before McCaslin expands beyond uneasy loopiness, only to back away for Evans’ darkly glittery cascades. Everything coalesces over a spring-loaded, rumbling groove: then everybody backs down for a whispery bass solo as McPherson finds the clave with his woodblock and Evans pedals his upper-register chords. This is a very fun and often very funny album.

August 29, 2020 Posted by | funk music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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