Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Believe the Hype About Donald Vega

Memo to jazz bloggers: if somebody sends you a great album and you sit on it, you might just get scooped by the New York Times. Well, not that often – but it could happen, just as it did when the folks at Resonance sent over a copy of pianist Donald Vega’s new album, Spiritual Nature. Not that it needs the Times’ imprimatur (although he deserves the press): the album stands on its own merits as one of 2012’s most memorable. The Nicaraguan-born, California-educated Vega, a protege of John Clayton and Ron Carter, has listened deeply and absorbed much of the best postbop from the 60s forward along with plenty of salsa jazz and classical, influences he blends with equal parts power and subtlety, gravitas and grace. He has a veteran’s touch and a bag of licks to match, so it’s hard to think of another player of his generation that he resembles. One comparison from an earlier era, who continues to blend melodicism and improvisational latin-flavored bite as a member of the Cookers, is George Cables.

Vega is also a strong composer, as evidenced right off the bat with the album’s hard-hitting opening cut, Scorpion, from its no-nonsense horn hook (Bob Sheppard on alto sax, Gilbert Castellanos on trumpet and Bob McChesney on trombone) to Christian McBride’s tersely walking pulse, Lewis Nash’s counterintuitive drum attack and Vega’s lyrical, richly blues-tinged solos. Just the presence of that rhythm section signals how purist and auspicious this session became. The second cut, Ron Carter’s First Trip, interchanges balletesque syncopation and oldschool swing; they follow that with a balmy take on Monty Alexander’s River, featuring gossamer violin from Christian Howes, McBride anchoring Vega’s delicate blend of neoromanticism and the blues firmly in the earth. A second Alexander composition, Accompong, gets a considerably brighter, more bouncy interpretation, crescendoing with Anthony Wilson’s bubbly guitar work trading with Vega’s more spiky phrasing.

With its alternately light and dark modal dichotomy, swaying clave pulse and relentlessly crescendoing intensity from Vega, the title track – another Vega composition – is a standout here. Vega amps up the ambuiguity and suspense on a Neils Henning-Orsted Pedersen jazz waltz, Future Child, before taking it in a more genial yet restrained direction, as he does a little later with his ballad Contemplation, moving from spare and wary and then relaxing as an artfully arranged series of distinct horn voices emerges. Makato Ozone’s You Never Tell Me Anything gets a straight-up jump blues treatment: Vega’s exuberant flurries leaping onto the tail end of a bustling Nash drum break are one of the album’s most characteristic examples of the rich, purist interplay here.

Vega’s arrangement of Scriabin’s Etude, Op. 8., No. 2 is both lyrical and great fun, incorporating both Ethiopian melodic tropes and rhythms, a jazz waltz, and an absolutely gorgeous piano solo that Vega sends spiraling downward to darker terrain. A Jobim diptych, Falando de Amor; Tema de Amor gets a similarly third-stream, expansive take, while Vega’s Child’s Play has the feel of a jazzed-up Caribbean folk song, with its carefree violin and Nash’s playful conga-flavored groove. The album ends with Benny Golson’s Clifford Brown homage I Remember Clifford, building slowly and methodically to become more of a fond wee-hours reminiscence than an elegy. As far as both the compositions and the playing here are concerned, this album is head and shoulders above 99% of what’s come out this year. It’s deep stuff. It takes a long time to get to know and all of that is a pleasure.

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August 18, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Two Sides of Brazil

Here’s an interesting case of how two groups can cover a lot of the same territory and come up with results that are equally compelling but completely different. Basically, Grupo Falso Baiano’s Simplicidade: Live at Yoshi’s is the party; Claudio Roditti’s Bons Amigos is the afterparty. They both play bossa nova jazz, for the most part anyway, and keep the rhythm simple and in the pocket – no hypnotic volleys of booming Bahian beats here. Both represent the classic Brazilian songbook, yet don’t neglect current-day composers. Otherwise, the albums are like two sides of the same coin.

Grupo Falso Baiano – that’s tongue-in-cheek Portuguese for “fake Bahian band” – have Jesse Appelman’s mandolin as a lead instrument, other than when guest Jovino Santos Neto isn’t playing electric piano or flute, which gives their sound a bright, rustic bite. Appelman gets a deliciously resonant, slightly watery tone out of it, much like a Portuguese guitar, alongside Brian Moran on 7-string acoustic guitar, Zack Pitt-Smith on reeds and Ami Molinelli on terse, purist percussion. Their opener here, Caminhando, is typical, a happy samba but with bite, Pitt-Smith’s balmy solo contrasting with Appelman’s spikily caffeinated lead lines. They do the same thing with Jacobo de Bandolim’s bossa nova title track, shifting methodically from pensive to triumphant, Appelman finally ringing out joyously over the final verse.

The thicket of textures from piano, guitar and mando get lush but aggressive on Pixinguinha’s Cheguei – they way they do it, it’s two steps from being a surf song. A trio of Santos Neto compositions follow: first, Feira Livre, scurrying warily with extra thump on the low end from guest percussionist Brian Rice, lit up by an animated Pitt-Smith alto sax solo. Kenne E Voce starts out as a jam with the two flutes floating overhead but then gets a welcome shot of adrenaline as Santos Neto switches back to keys. The third of his tracks is a beautifully expansive ballad, with affectingly starlit piano and pensive alto sax work.

Altamiro Carrilho’s Bem Brasil is done somewhat coyly, with constant rhythmic shifts and a surprisingly slamming outro; Sivuca’s Deixa O Breque amps up its balmy tropicalisms, while Bandolim’s Doce De Coco gets a cinematic, Henry Mancini-ish treatment, building from Santos Neto’s solo piano intro to Appelman’s ragtimish solo. They close with a joyously romping take on Sivuca’s Forro Na Penha.

Where Grupo Falso Baiano work a fast dance vibe elegantly, trumpeter Claudio Roditi reaches for a slightly slower, more cosmopolitan one alongside Donald Vega on piano, Marco Panascia on bass, Romero Lubambo on guitars and Mauricio Zottarelli on drums. Egberto Gismonti’s O Sonho – a prototype for many pop songs, most famously Joe Jackson’s Steppin’ Out – opens the album as a full-band study in dynamic shifts, rising and falling, Roditi taking it out on a surprisingly moody note with a characteristically crystalline solo. They raid a more recent era for Eliane Elias’ bittersweet Para Nade, followed by Roditi’s Bossa De Monk, done simple and proper with the trumpeter emulating a Charlie Rouse-style fluttery/calm diptpych. The title track, a Toninho Horta ballad, gets a warm, wee-hours treatment; after that, they swing Roditi’s own, clever composition Levitation – an artful arrangement of two shifting two-chord vamps – with a carefree, bluesy vibe.

Roditi’s most effortlessly stunning track here, Fantasia (Stella), has the trumpeter holding the center after Vega’s memorably murky solo intro, through wary banks of chromatics and a similarly apprehensive bass solo, Lubambo finally spiraling free of the tension. They end the album with another Elias tune, Amandamada, a playfully syncopated showcase for Lubambo, and then a high-spirited original, Roditi’s own piccolo samba, where he plays animated flutelike cadences on piccolo trumpet.

Both releases have been out since last year, Grupo Falso Baiano on Massaroca Records and Roditi on Resonance.

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

Ken Fowser and Behn Gillece Chase Two in a Row

Saxophonist Ken Fowser and vibraphonist Behn Gillece’s previous album Little Echo was one of the best of 2010; how does their new one Duotone measure up? Where Little Echo was all gorgeous, often lurid Mad Men era ambience, this one’s got a more stripped-down, late night juke-joint flavor. The teamwork between the co-bandleaders is familiar yet fresh: it isn’t always this way, but often it’s Gillece introducing an element of menace or suspense, playing bad cop to Fowser’s warmly tuneful, blues-tinged lines. Likewise, the tunes – most of them supplied by Gillece – have a comfortably familiar swing and the kind of knowing ability to pick a spot and hit a high note that comes from hosting innumerable late-night jams, as these guys have both done.

The opening track, Overcooked, a briskly shuffling two-chord vamp with latin allusions, sets the mood. Gillece’s fast, sostenuto lines have a literally hypnotic effect, pianist Donald Vega bringing it up with a rippling intensity. Spontaneity begins dramatically: they rubato it and swell on a single chord, then the hook comes in and drummer Willie Jones III has them off swinging, Fowser soulful and sailing over Gillece’s insistence.

The chromatically-fueled Attachment features a neat handoff from Fowser to Gilllece, who does the same to Vega, whose climactic intensity is characteristic of everything he does here. Likewise, Back to Back swings slowly and then goes up the ladder again. Then they flip the script with Come Around Again, a somewhat skeletal, cozy ballad, just vibes/sax evoking the ambience of Little Echo.

In the Twilight takes the idea of the opening track to the next level, Vega punching in incisively and memorably, Fowser maintaining a sense of cool. The best track here, Low Ball, evokes a slightly more ornate, Johnny Mandel-esque California noir swing. Bongo, by Fowser, is a casually cheery bossa tune lit up by Gillece’s bright neon malletwork. The album wraps up with the thoughtfully swaying, crescendoing, catchily early 70s bluesy Offset and then One for G, another Fowser tune to end it on a genially swinging note. As melodic jazz goes, Fowser and Gillece are really onto something. It’s out now on Posi-Tone.

October 21, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment