Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

An Inspired, Dynamic Live Debut Album by the Ulysses Owens Jr. Big Band

Drummer Ulysses Owens Jr.’s debut album with his big band, Soul Conversations – streaming at Spotify – sounds like one of those exuberant field recordings that jazz clubs love to play before shows. They get everybody drinking and they’re full of juicy solos. And it’s all but impossible to hear them ever again. This one you can.

Recorded at Lincoln Center before that venue was weaponized for totalitarian divide-and-conquer and lethal injection schemes, it’s on the trebly, boomy side: it sounds like a monitor mix. The group, comprised largely of up-and-coming New York players, open with a brassy. hard-swinging take of Dizzy Gillespie’s Two Bass Hit. Trumpeter Wyatt Forhan’s wildly spinning solo and baritone saxophonist Andy Gatauskas’s droll break before a similarly devious false ending are the highlights.

The tropically lustrous London Town, by trumpeter Benny Benack III features balmy work from the composer and guest vibraphonist Stefon Harris. Beardom X, a terse Owens swing tune, has a punchy bass solo from Yasushi Nakamura, pianist Takeshi Ohbayashi piercing the lustre before tenor saxophonist Diego Rivera adds bluesy gravitas and shivery intensity.

Red Chair is a wickedly catchy jazz waltz, trombonist Eric Miller choosing his spots up to a fleetingly bright crescendo, Ohbayashi’s bright chords and judicious glimmer fueling the next one. It’s the high point of the album.

Owens propels the group through a briskly shuffling take of Giant Steps, Rivera and fellow tenorist Daniel Dickinson conversing energetically. On alto sax, Alexa Tarantino dances sagely in an immersive, lushly lyrical Language of Flowers.

Human Nature, the cheesy Michael Jackson ballad, is a less than ideal vehicle for this group, even with Harris’ vividly twinkly vibes. But Owens’ decision to make a deadpan 12/8 ballad out of Neal Hefti’s Girl Talk is irresistibly funny and validates anyone who ever suffered through another band’s florid take.

Charles Turner III sings his swing blues Harlem Harlem Harlem, through a long series of intros to a spine-tingling, cascading Erena Terakubo alto solo, soulfully energy from trombonist Michael Dease and a ridiculously comedic cameo from trumpeter Summer Camargo. They close the record with the title track, Tarantino spiraling amid the contentedly New Orleans-flavored nocturnal ambience.

And what about the leader? He often plays with a very oldschool 50s flair here: lots of offbeat shuffles and vaudevillian cymbal flourishes. Close your eyes and this could be Max Roach with a careeningly energetic crew in front of him. It’s become a familiar refrain here, but more artists and particularly large ensembles like this should make live albums. Owens’ gig page doesn’t have any shows listed; among the band members here in New York, Tarantino is playing Ellington and Nat Cole tunes tonight and tomorrow night, May 23 and 24 at Bryant Park at 5:30 PM with members of the American Symphony Orchestra.

May 23, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Celebrating Charles Mingus’ Depth and Irony at the Django This Month

There’s a monthlong celebration of the Charles Mingus centennial going on at the Django right now, which is open without restrictions. One of this month’s potentially most adrenalizing shows is bassist Boris Kozlov’s so-called “Electric Mingus Project” with Johnathan Blake on drums, who are playing at 10 PM on April 9. Kozlov is the musical director of the Mingus Big Band, who have reconvened their weekly 7 PM Monday night residency there after the Jazz Standard, their longtime home, fell victim to the 2020 lockdown. Cover is $25.

Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of Mingus tribute albums coming out this year, and Kozlov is on one of the best of the bunch so far. Posi-Tone Records pulled together an allstar lineup they call Blue Moods, whose all-Mingus album Myth & Wisdom is streaming at Bandcamp. These guys really nail everything that Mingus is all about – the irony, and gravitas, and cynicism that sometimes boils over.

And while some of these songs are iconic, there are handful of rarer gems as well, often very counterintuitively reinvented. The group open the album with Better Get it in Your Soul, a tightly scrambling, stripped-down take of this subtly sardonic 12/8 anthem, tenor saxophonist Diego Rivera’s smoky, shuffling lines over pianist Art Hirahara’s increasingly crushing attack in tandem with drummer Joe Strasser.

Strasser gives Nostalgia in Times Square a loose-limbed latin groove, shifting between that same time signature and a sly swing, River and Hirahara hitting on the beat before the pianist and then River use the bluesy changes as a launching pad.

Kozlov and Strasser infuse Tonight At Noon with a breathless urban bustle, Rivera matching the precise forward drive over Hirahara’s similarly purposeful ripples and chords. They open Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love on a aptly balmy, languid note but then have fun mixing up the rhythm, a glistening, lyrical David Kikoski piano solo at the center.

One of the most radical reinventions here is Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk, Mingus’ restless, distantly Stravinskian ballad reconfigured as a slow drag assembled around a soulful, exploratory Rivera solo before Hirahara takes the band flying for a bit. The quartet then condense Peggy’s Blue Skylight to a purposeful five minutes or so of no-nonsense swing

They raise the underlying devious slinkiness several notches in Pussy Cat Dues, Hirahara adding a steely modal edge beneath Rivera’s enigmatic blues. The decision to make a twisted cha-cha out of Pithecanthropus Erectus might seem odd, downplaying Mingus’ withering sarcasm for a more incisive approach fueled by a long Kikoski solo.

Rivera pairs a calm, reflective soulfulness against Hirahara’s impressionistic ripples in an expansive take of Self-Portrait in Three Colors. They close with a hard-charging, gritty Reincarnation of a Lovebird, where Rivera and Hirahara get to swing their sharpest edges here. High as the guy who wrote these songs set the bar, Mingus fans will  not be disappointed.

April 5, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trombonist Michael Dease’s Latest Album: How Many Flavors Can You Handle?

Trombonist Michael Dease‘s latest album All These Hands – streaming at Posi-Tone Records – is an ambitious jazz travelogue. The title is a characteristically wry reference to the fact that he’s got so many people on it. On one hand, it’s a chance for the bandleader to show off his command of a whole bunch of regional styles: lookit me, I’m in New Orleans! Now I’ve gone back to the Delta to visit Robert Johnson’s grave! But what’s consistent, beyond the relevance and the sometimes grim historical references throughout this vast, diverse collection, is the tunesmithing. Riffs jump out at you from all over and have you humming them afterward despite yourself. No wonder all these big names want to play with him: the core band on the album has Renee Rosnes on piano, Gerald Cannon on bass, Lewis Nash on drums and Steve Wilson doing his usual multi-reed thing, with Etienne Charles on trumpet and Randy Napoleon on guitar. Dease is leading most of this band over a weekend stand on May 26 and 27 at 10:30 PM at Smalls.

Before we leave town here, what does Dease’s portrait of Brooklyn sound like? Kenny G? A trombone with a drum machine? A virtual trombone? Wait, those are Notbrooklyn things, as we say around these parts. Set to Nash’s steady, flickering clave groove, Dease’s Brooklyn is latin, and full of light/dark contrasts and hints of early Steely Dan – Brooklyn knows the charmer under this guy. In fact, it’s one of the album’s best songs, with a deliciously slippery bass solo from guest Rufus Reid.

The rest of the album measures up strongly. The opening number, Creole Country is balmier and more bossa-tinged than the name might imply, the beat loosening into a shuffle artfully and imperceptibly, Rosnes anchoring Dease and Wilson’s airy lines. Delta City Crosssroads is a sagely animated conversation between Dease’s muted, tongue-in-cheek character and Napoleon’s rustic slide man. There are two similar blues duets later on: the Detroit shout-out Black Bottom Banger, between Dease and Cannon, and Memphis Fish Fry, Dease pairing off jauntily against Rosnes’ Fender Rhodes.

The Dizzy Gillespie-inspired Good & Terrible is another catchy clave tune, Rosnes again grounding Dease’s purposeful, airy solo, Cannon taking a wry tiptoe tangent. Territory Blues is as straight-up as a swing blues can get, with purist solos from Cannon and Napoleon – whose presence on what sounds like a National steel guitar is an unexpectedly welcome touch. Benny’s Bounce is another swing tune with a long series of handoffs: Dease’s bubbly solo to Wilson’s more airy tenor, Rosnes’ clusters and Cannon finally hitting that Benny Golson-influenced bounce.

The band goes back to the default clave for the album’s most epic track, Downtown Chi-Town, which could just as easily be Spanish Harlem, Wilson’s spiraling flute handing off to the bandleader, percolating as he chooses his spots and then giving Wilson the floor for some enigmatically modal explorations on tenor. Everybody gets into the act at the end.

Dease opens Gullah Shout Ring with a long, allusively bluesy solo and then holds the center as guitar and bass flutter and stab at the perimeter – it’s the freest number here, at least until they pull it together into another swing blues with an implied Heartbreak Hotel vibe. Muted suspense and chirpy trombone-and-trumpet riffs punctuate the goodnatured Chocolate City, a diptych of sorts that goes completely in the opposite direction, fueled by Rosnes and Dease: it’s a riveting piece of music with a real payoff. Guest bassist Rodney Whitaker makes the most of a solo piece to end the album, mashing up the blues with a moody, ragaesque quality. It’s awfully rare that you hear an album with so many flavors which is as this solid as this one is all the way through. Count on Dease to pull out just as many over Memorial Day weekend.

May 17, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment