Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Nicholas Urie’s Big Band Album Explores the Brilliance of Bukowski

Charles Bukowski liked Beethoven, maybe because he recognized a fellow drunken genius, maybe because Beethoven is great drinking music. Would Bukowski have appreciated Nicholas Urie’s new Bukowski-themed big band album, My Garden? Maybe. Urie’s intent here is to honor Bukowski’s legacy by elevating him above his popular image as the poet laureate of fratboy excess. A good guess is that the frequently astringent third-stream atmospherics would have grabbed him, not to mention that all but one of the tracks here illustrates a poem or a Bukowski quote. And the one that doesn’t is ironically right up his alley, booze-wise: “Drinking beer doesn’t make you fat. It makes you lean: against bars, tables, chairs and poles.” Its main character aside, this is a fascinating modern big band album with some delicious charts, clever and even psychedelic production and an A-list of jazz talent, most of them from the New York area.

If you can get past – or don’t mind, or even enjoy – Bukowski’s gimlet-eyed perspective, he was an amazing observer. It’s hard to find someone who can distill an idea to its essence like he could, and usually did. Urie knows this, and takes his cues from there. As much as the arrangements here are lush and rich, there are no wasted notes: the band’s focus is intense. The brief opening track, Winter: 44th Year sees Bukowski feeling suicidal, knife in hand, drunk-dialing some woman and getting her answering service (this was in the days before voicemail), brought to life with moody, swirling atmospherics. Round and Round – the simple phrase “you have my soul and I have your money” – makes an uncharacteristically roundabout way to explain away a dayjob, and the music perfectly captures this, the band’s circular chromatics leading to a careful, soberly disdainful Rhodes solo from Frank Carlberg, up to impatiently circling Kenny Pexton tenor sax and then a labyrinth of vocal overdubs from Christine Correa. John Carlson’s ominous solo trumpet kicks off the title track – “pain is flowers blooming all the time,” vivid rainy day ambience walking steadily with the trumpet and then Alan Ferber’s trombone lifting the downcast atmosphere a bit with wryly bluesy tints as the band swells behind him.

A very cleverly disguised ballad, Weeping Women illustrates Bukowski’s claim that he would have offered women more solace if they hadn’t been so high-maintenance. Awash in shifting segments, Carlson, Douglas Yates on alto and Jeremy Udden on soprano sax alternate voices in a conversation, less weepy than brooding and somewhat conspiratorial. A predictably shrill crescendo is followed by a laugh-out-loud disappointed ending: Bukowski would have liked this! Another circular number, Lioness – “There’s a lioness in the hallway: put on your lion’s mask and wait” is vigorous fun, driven by Carlberg’s unbridled, staccato piano. The arguably strongest track here is Slaughterhouse – “I live in the slaughterhouse and am ill with thriving” –  a feast of tectonic shifts and high/low contrasts, Udden’s soprano sax against Max Siegel’s bass trombone, with a bit of a round and a neat soprano/alto conversation over just the rhythm section. The last track, Finality, illustrates a rather nihilistic portrayal of a crazy Ezra Pound repudiating his life’s work, a moment that ostensibly comes to all of us. Pexton’s tenor rises gravely against Carlberg’s judicious, acidic chords, then Carlson’s trumpet blazes while Rome burns in the distance. The one bit of a letdown here is the number about beer not making you fat, which Correa sings like a wine drinker – or your mother – against the rhythmically tricky playfulness of the chart which then goes completely off the charts when the booze kicks in. Sober, it’s a great album – how does it sound after a few drinks? That’s a question that deserves an answer!

Advertisements

March 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, poetry, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: The Mingus Big Band – Live at Jazz Standard

Allowing the new live cd by the Mingus Big Band to qualify as a contender for best album of 2010 isn’t really fair – it’s like sponsoring a home run-hitting contest and then inviting the ghost of Babe Ruth to compete. Every Monday night at New York’s Jazz Standard, the three Mingus repertory bands rotate: the original Mingus Odyssey, the ten-piece Mingus Orchestra, and this unit. Broadcast live and recorded by NPR as 2008 turned into 2009, it captures the Mingus Big Band in particularly exuberant form, blazing through a mix of classics and obscurities. Credit drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts for characteristic breakneck intensity – and also for staying within himself as much as he does. The fun the group is having is visceral – but with this material, who wouldn’t? Mingus’ music leans toward the dark and stormy, but here, when the rains come, the band splashes through the puddles undeterred.

The concert kicks off with the joyously slinky blues of Gunslinging Birds, including brief, incisive breaks by Watts and bassist Boris Kozlov (whose regular gig with this unit is a bass player’s dream come true, especially as he gets to play Mingus’ old lions head bass). New Now Know How (which is a question: New, Now – Know How?, according to arranger Sy Johnson) has an infectious, buoyant enthusiasm that transcends its somewhat sly, swinging atmospherics, trumpeters Randy Brecker and Kenny Rampton getting the chance to shine and making the gleaming most of it (this is the first recording of the song since the original Charles Mingus version). They follow the vivid, gentle Bill Evans-style ballad Self-Portrait in Three Colors with a lickety-split romp through Birdcalls, Wayne Escoffery’s blissfully extroverted, modally tinged tenor sax giving way to Vincent Herring’s alto while bari player Lauren Sevian, altoist Douglas Yates and tenorist Abraham Burton battle for the edges. Then they segue into Hora Decubitus, which is considerably more roughhewn and belligerently ominous than the version by Elvis Costello (who wrote the lyrics). Trombonist Ku’umba Frank Lacy growls them with a knowing wariness, and his solo comes down quickly out of the clouds.

Cryin’ Blues features a tightly restrained muted trumpet solo from Rampton, a deviously whispery one from Kozlov, and one that’s absolutely majestic from Lacy. And the whole ensemble takes the majesty up as far as it will go once they’ve scurried their way into the middle passages of Open Letter to Duke; Sevian and Escoffery segue it deftly and fluidly into an electric, soaring version of Moanin’, lit up by a long, biting, expressionistic David Kikoski piano solo. Lacy brings Goodbye Pork Pie Hat up out of chaos with a soaring vocal, Escoffery taking the spotlight, magisterial and intense. The band wraps up the night with a strikingly terse version of Song with Orange, waiting til the very end to take it out in a big explosive blaze. As good as the performances here are, the album is also remarkably well-produced, with a welcome absence of whooping and hollering – either the Jazz Standard folks managed to convince the New Year’s Eve revelers to keep it down, or the crowd was so blown away by the music that they didn’t make much noise til it was practically over. Nice to see – the man who was arguably the greatest American composer deserves no less.

July 6, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment