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?

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

Orrin Evans’ New Trio Album Is One of the Year’s Best

Pianist Orrin Evans has been on a creative rampage lately. Recorded at a single marathon session at a Brooklyn studio this past February, his latest album Flip the Script, a trio project with Ben Wolfe on bass and Donald Edwards behind the kit, does exactly that. It’s his most straightforward album under his own name (to distinguish his small-group work from his role as conductor/pianist with his mighty jazz orchestra the Captain Black Big Band.) To steal a phrase from the JD Allen fakebook (a guy Evans has worked with, memorably), this is jukebox jazz: roughly four-minute, terse, wickedly tuneful, relentlessly intense compositions. For lack of a better word, this is deep music, full of irony and gravitas but also wit. Evans’ work has always been cerebral: to say whether or not this is his most emotionally impactful recording depends on how much Captain Black makes you sweat.

Question, by bassist Eric Revis, opens the album with a relentless unease that will pervade much of what’s to come, the rhythm section walking furiously against an evil music-box riff from the piano: the way Evans shadows Wolfe as the bassist pulls away from the center and then returns is one of the album’s many high points and will have you reaching for the repeat button. The first Evans composition here, Clean House, works gravely bluesy modalities into a dark Philly soul melody: the trio’s simple, direct rhythmic rhythmic insistence on the third verse is a clinic in hard-hitting teamwork. With its apprehensive chromatics, the title track has echoes of Frank Carlberg, Edwards coloring it with counterintuitive accents and the occasional marauding, machinegunning phrase as much as he propels it, something he does throughout the album: fans of Elvin Jones or Rudy Royston will eat this up. The quietly imploring, spaciously Shostakovian minimalism of When makes quite a contrast: Evans’ coldly surreal, starlit moonscape could be Satoko Fujii.

A phantasmagorical blues, Big Small balances slyness against gravitas, Wolfe turning in a potently minimalist solo as he builds to quietly boomy chords against the drums, Evans offering hope of a resolution but then retracts it as the mysterioso ambience returns. The piano’s relentless interpolations build to an artful clave rumble by Edwards and then a false ending on a bracingly chromatic reinvention of Luther Vandross’ A Brand New Day, while TC’s Blues, a diptych, morphs from loungey swing to expansive, allusively shadowy modalities that give Edwards a platform to whirl and rumble on. They follow that with an unexpectedly brooding take on Someday My Prince Will Come, then go back to the originals with The Answer, a clever, considerably calmer response to the Revis tune

The album ends with The Sound of Philadelphia, Evans’ hometown. But this isn’t happy tourists gathered around a bicentennial Liberty Bell: it’s a vacant industrial lot in north Philly next to a diner that’s been closed for years and a house that may or may not have people in it. Evans strips Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s jovial Philly soul tune to the bone, slows it down, takes every bit of bounce out and adds a menacing turnaround. It’s a quietly crushing way to bring this powerful creation to a close. Count this among the half-dozen best jazz albums to come over the transom so far this year, another major contribution from the Posi-Tone label.

July 6, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Ralph Bowen Flips the Script

If you were looking for a sequel to saxophonist Ralph Bowen’s 2011 release, Power Play, you won’t get it, at least not this time around. This blog called that one “hard-hitting, purposeful and tuneful beyond belief” and ranked it as one of last year’s five best jazz albums. Bowen’s new album Total Eclipse is quite a change. Although Jared Gold’s B3 anchors the tunes here, it’s hardly your typical organ-and-sax record. It’s as if Bowen decided to totally flip the script and do pensive and opaque instead of rigorously melodic. This one’s also a lot more rhythmically complex, but if you hang with it, it grows on you, with thoughtful and impactful playing from the rest of the band as well, Mike Moreno on guitar and the nonpareil Rudy Royston (of JD Allen’s trio) on drums. Bowen is playing a pair of cd release shows at Smalls this weekend, June 8 and 9 at 10 PM with a slightly different lineup, Gold on organ plus Freddie Bryant on guitar and Donald Edwards behind the kit.

All this is not to say that there isn’t memorable tunesmithing here. The closing cut, a soul ballad titled In My Dreams, begins with a nebulous, suspenseful sway and then artfully juxtaposes mysterioso ambience with Bowen’s warm, bucolic lead lines. A lickety-split showcase for Royston’s precise machine-gun attack, the funky Hip Check works clever rhythmic permutations on staggered sax clusters. Continuing in reverse order, the ten-minute epic Exosphere is the most ambitious and memorable track here. Beginning as a somewhat altered, anthemic soul tune held down by a signature Royston rumble, they go into tiptoe swing for a bit, Bowen adding some unexpectedly tasty microtones and chromatics, then bring it down ominous and suspenseful for a long, chordally-charged organ solo that Royston eventually can’t resist bringing out of the murk.

Arrows of Light alternates tricky funk with purposeful swing, Bowen setting an apprehensive tone early on that Moreno and Gold bring even higher in turn with a chromatic intensity. On Green (as in “go on green”), which precedes it, works a casual-versus-tense dichotomy, a pervasive sense of the unexpected finally resolving into a sense of triumph on the wings of Gold’s insistent, unpredictably stabbing chords. They set that one up with The Dowsing Rod, a similar tension (Bowen calm and bucolic, Gold on edge) resolving picturesquely when they suddenly hit the water table. There’s also the swaying, offbeat Into the City, sort of a polyrhythmic take on a go-go theme with some smartly intricate beatwise interplay between Bowen and Gold; Behind the Curtain, with pensive syncopation, Gold artfully shadowing a casually piercing Moreno solo (his fat, slightly reverb-tinged tone here always raises the intensity factor); and the opening, title track, brightly swinging but avoiding any type of resolution. Why explain these tracks in reverse? Because the album makes more sense that way: start with the catchy stuff and work your way back to the more abstruse numbers and everything makes more sense. It’s out now on Posi-Tone.

June 5, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ralph Bowen’s Power Play: A Clinic in Melody

It looks like we have our first classic of the year. On the cover of his new album Power Play, saxophonist Ralph Bowen stands in an alley, holding his sax more like a goalie than a winger. But the title is absolutely spot-on. This is one of those albums that musicians will hear and will immediately want to play along to. Yet ironically, non-musicians will probably enjoy this the most because they can just relax and enjoy it for what it is rather than having to figure out what Bowen is doing. Which actually isn’t all that difficult, most of the time, other than the most rapidfire passages (which will take lots of practice if you want to do them with the same kind of soul and style), because melody is simple. It lingers. As does this album.

If you play, this is a clinic in the kind of things you could be doing, and maybe should be doing. Bowen’s sense of melody is stunning, and yet completely unpredictable. He alternates effortlessly between scales and modes, shows off some wickedly blistering speed in places yet only when he really has to drive a point home. The closest comparison is probably Joshua Redman, but Bowen’s attack is lighter and more crystalline, and that contrasts, sometimes mightily, with the intensity of the tunes. He plays both tenor and alto here and is equally compelling either way. It’s hard-hitting, purposeful and tuneful beyond belief, and it elevates the crew behind him. Donald Edwards’  no-nonsense drums team up with Kenny Davis’ crisp, propulsive bass, along with Orrin Evans’ piano. About Evans, what else is there to say – everything he touches lately turns into magic (have you heard his Tarbaby album from last year? Get the damn thing!), and this is yet another example.

They don’t waste time getting started with an aggressive, matter-of-fact swing blues, which sets up an immediate contrast with the gorgeous, richly countermelodic Drumheller Valley, its intro with echoes of Brubeck, Evans kicking in a majestically chordal solo followed by an artfully divergent passage into Bowen’s lusciously ominous spirals. Two-Line Pass – a highway reference, maybe? – is relentless, Evans again matching the understated overdrive of Bowen’s restless bustle. Evans goes into rippling Americana-via-Brubeck on The Good Shepherd, a wickedly catchy modal number; Bowen’s long, bumpy descent out of the clouds on the warmly thoughtful swing tune Bella Firenze is arguably the high point of the whole album. Although on second thought that could be his big crescendo out, on alto, on the almost deviously nonchalant blues ballad Jessica, which follows it.

Walleye Jigging is a tongue-in-cheek lazy afternoon tableau complete with an expansive cocktail piano solo and an extended interlude in three before reverting to relaxed, syncopated swing. The album ends with A Solar Romance, a gently optimistic ballad that turns dark in seconds and gives Bowen the chance to work the suspense for all it’s worth, all the way to a very uneasy resolution. The lone cover here is My One and Only Love, where the bass and piano give Bowen plenty of room for what’s basically an expansive (ok, eight-minute) solo that somehow manages not to be boring. It’s only February, but you’ll see this on our best albums of 2011 list. It’s out now on Posi-Tone.

February 10, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment