Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Nathaniel Smith Quartet Puts Out a Memorable Debut

The songs on the Nathaniel Smith Quartet’s debut album are cosmopolitan and often warmly evocative – and they’re songs in the purest sense of the word. Smith’s hooks and tunes are memorable, if not always head-on – there’s plenty of implied melody, and as you would expect from a drummer, he’s got a great feel for the spaces between. In case you might be wondering, this cat plays under the name Nathaniel Smith to avoid confusion with his colleague of the same name who goes by Nate. He’s got a good band: on alto sax, Jon Irabagon hangs closer to the purist melodicism of his Concord Jazz work rather than the bebop terrorism of his more outside projects like Mostly Other People Do the Killing. Mark Anderson holds down the bass smartly and tersely, with Jostein Gulbrandsen – who also contributes two compositions – on guitar.

The opening track, Daybreak and Then Dusk, seems to allude to a day gone in a flash, briskly shuffling, Gulbrandsen feeling around uneasily for his footing, Irabagon running out of gas comedically after a scurrying excursion, Anderson playing the voice of reason and taking it halftime as Smith splashes around, obviously in his element. Tortoise Pendant, a jazz waltz in disguise, gracefully expands from a steady center – in the distance, you can hear an old soul song amid Irabagon’s expansive permutations. The first of Gulbrandsen’s songs, Return of the Bear – a stock market allusion, maybe? – shuffles edgily over a terse central hook, Irabagon bringing it up to a rapidfire swirl and then back, where they hammer it home simply and matter-of-factly. Gulbrandsen’s other one is the largo ballad Tomorrow’s Perfume, a really interesting one, the languidness of the melody making room for artful, judicious coloring from Smith, Irabagon allowing just enough of the tune to emerge that its distant blues ballad ancestry becomes clear.

The last three tunes on the album are Smith originals. Actionable Intelligence is a latin number (a Guantanamo reference?), Irabagon adding another priceless anticlimax, Anderson once again getting the chance to referee and making his call count. Travishamockery is a catchy, swaying, funk-infused number with Irabagon’s most gripping solo, after which he makes a face, saying “I’ve had enough” – it’s impossible not to laugh. Smith knocks out the beat completely deadpan on his ride cymbal toward the end, with a devious trick ending. The final track, Shadow Puppet, another jazz waltz, has Gulbrandsen’s finest moment here, biting and focused as he makes his way out of the upper registers, Smith decisively throwing a jab or two when the moment is right. Although some listeners may find some of the guitar solos on the longish side, for the great majority of the time, this group really makes their notes count for something. The album is out now on Fresh Sound New Talent.

Smith is also a particularly insightful and articulate writer: his blog offers a provocative and inspiring look at the state of jazz today from the point of view of a player who’s come up in the past decade or so.

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January 25, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Peppe Merolla – Stick with Me

Jazz falls into a lot of categories: boudoir jazz, solace-after-a-rough-day jazz, late night sleepy jazz, drunk jazz, fake jazz. Drummer Peppe Merolla’s debut as a bandleader, Stick with Me, is party jazz. It’s the kind of album you can actually put on repeat and not get sick of and it’s our favorite so far this year. Tunes leap from the grooves (ok, the, um, bitmap) of this one with a joyous exuberance that occasionally mellows out into warmly expansive reflection, contentment with a job well done. Merolla is a no-nonsense player with considerable wit, and the tone he sets is contagious. They’re off with a genial rumble from the toms and a characteristically playful yet ethereal Steve Turre shell motif into a modified latin groove (a vibe they’ll bring back again and again here) with casually blazing solos from Jim Rotondi’s trumpet and Turre’s trombone, tenor player John Farnsworth offhandedly quoting Trane, Mike LeDonne (on piano here) introducing some otherworldly tones before joining in the bounce. The fun continues on Ferris Wheel (a tongue-in-cheek title for sure – Bumper Cars would be more like it) with an insistent New Orleans horn riff, a buoyant Farnsworth solo and speeds up as Lee Smith walks the bass and the trombone plays deadpan staccato. A second consecutive Farnsworth tune, Junior, swings genially with a cinematic 70s New York flair, right down to LeDonne’s judiciously summery Rhodes piano. Yet another Farnsworth track builds from pensive, Coltrane-style majesty to irrepressible swing. And the everybody’s-invited after-hours vibe of their version of Willie Nelson’s  Crazy has the melody making the rounds of the band with a joyous directness and simplicity before more contemplative turns from everybody.

There’s also the deliriously circling latin jazz of Mozzin’ (yet another tasty Farnsworth tune), the snaky Marbella with its characteristically boisterous, tuneful Turre trombone, the vividly anthemic Princess of the Mountain and the spiritedly bluesy, high-energy Bud Powell homage One for Bud, a counterintuitive showcase for horns rather than the piano. The small handful of solos Merolla takes here actually sound composed, with a definite trajectory and a punch line. Put this on when the party’s been going for a few hours and soon even your “I hate music that doesn’t have singing” crowd will be humming along. It may be only February, but this is one is likely to end up on a lot of best-of lists this year. And it’s also reason to look forward to what Farnsworth may have up his sleeve next time out.

Merolla has an interesting backstory. A drummer from the age of five, he toured with his parents, the actors Gino Morelli and Tina Barone. After opening for Sinatra at a New York City concert, Sinatra was so impressed that he re-christened the teenage Merolla as “Little Joe” and arranged a three-album record deal for him.

February 27, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

CD Review: Tim Kuhl – Ghost

If you’re familiar with the popular bar band the Izzys (who’ve been playing Saturday nights at Lakeside off and on for the better part of two years now) and wonder where they get that swinging Charlie Watts groove, that’s Tim Kuhl behind the drums. Kuhl also leads a first-class jazz sextet. This cd, Ghost, is their auspicious debut. It’s an impressively diverse collection of melodically and rhythmically captivating songs without words. Kuhl’s compositions are remarkably tuneful, and the crew he’s assembled: Mark Aanderud on piano; Nir Felder on electric guitar; JC Kuhl on saxes; Rick Parker on trombone and Jeff Reed on bass sink their teeth into them with gusto.

Predictably, the cd’s upbeat opening track Versus kicks off with a brief drum figure, anchored by soaring, tandem horns over vividly incisive piano and frenetic guitar runs. The title track is a beautiful song, even if it’s not particularly sepulchral, starting slowly with pensive electric guitar chords, in fact an indie rock chord progression, followed by buoyant horns. Eventually the piano comes in, comfortable and loungey, running down from the tinkling upper registers and back again. Then the trombone kicks in and the pace picks up before reverting to the original theme, the horns holding everything together. Dr. Doom builds over a spy theme in 9/4 on the piano as the guitar and horns mix and match and intermingle crazily. Nemesis reverts to a darkly thoughtful vibe, Aanderud’s coloristic piano matched by JC Kuhl’s balmy, ambient lines.

The tongue-in-cheek Eye of the Beholder begins with a drum solo, a strikingly terse fanfare on mostly the snare and the toms, the kind of thing you’d play if you were in a brick-lined room so as not to damage your ears or drive out the crowd with all the high frequencies bouncing off the walls. Likewise, Boogie Monsters of Swing is neither a boogie nor straight-up swing; instead, the rhythm section and piano get busy while the horns announce an action theme before jumping into the pandemonium. The cd concludes with a brief guitar fragment that might have fallen out onto the cutting room floor. Rating: four smacks upside the head with a drumstick – it’s not everyday that you hear original jazz as melodic or interesting as this. Kuhl’s next jazz gig is August 17 at 8 at the Lucky Cat with a new crew: stay tuned.

July 25, 2008 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment