Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Vijay Iyer’s Accelerando from a Distance

Why cover Vijay Iyer’s Accelerando now, in the wake of all the acclaim, the unprecedented sweep of the Downbeat critics’ poll, ad infinitum? For one, to assess how much of the hype is justified. And from a blogger’s perspective, it never hurts to step out of the magic, secret corners that we and sometimes we alone seem to know about, and venture out into the so-called mainstream to lure traffic off the wider expanses of the world wide web into those magic, secret corners. So consider this both a ploy and an unvarnished attempt to make sense of Iyer’s soaring popularity.

Which is well-deserved. Let’s get the punchline out of the way: he has a rare gift for melody as well as a fearlessness that extends from the political to his choice of material. Iyer will literally cover anything. Yet as much as has been written about how he’s bringing cutting-edge concepts into what’s left of any kind of jazz mainstream – which doesn’t seem to exist any more than it does in rock or any other style of music these days – what’s been surprisingly absent from the discussion is how much gravitas amd depth Iyer brings to the equation. Sometimes a single note – here, for example, a lingering, quiet low lefthand accent after a briskly dissociative take of Herbie Nichols’ Wildflower has ended and is fading out – is all he needs to drive the mood home. Long ago, Dave Brubeck began working that magisterial territory with the same kind of rhythmic authority that Iyer does here with his trio, Stephan Crump and Marcus Gilmore. More recently, Marc Cary, and to some extent, Gerald Clayton have roamed with the same kind of understated drama and majesty without losing the pulse of the music. Ultimately, that’s what gives Iyer’s work (and Brubeck’s, and Cary’s, and Clayton’s) lasting value.

In case you missed it elsewhere, the theme of Accelerando is dance rhythms, and all the fun that can be had with them. As usual, the compositions are a mix of originals and covers from across the musical spectrum, from the sublimely avant to the ridiculously commercial. Much as the rhythms are jaunty, the moods tend to be brooding, sometimes verging on menace. Bode, the Satie-esque modal piece that opens the album, builds to a Cary-esque rumble. The modal intensity is maintained on the nimbly dancing, somewhat ironically titled Optimism, a blend of grace and gravitas, Gilmore shadowing and then driving the long upward arc. Similarly, Iyer engages the drums in the muddled, off-center rhythms of a radical reinvention of The Star of a Story – a semi-hit by the 70s disco band Heatwave – moving from pretty straightforward funk into the smoke above the embers, and then back out.

Iyer’s attempt to reduce a rather frantic, largescale Henry Threadgill Very Very Circus piece, Little Pocket Size Demons, to its essence is wildly successful, with creepy, aching bowed bass over a piano loop, Gilmore’s right foot steady as the rhythm expands, Iyer more allusive than outright menacing. The wryly titled Lude is a somewhat more subdued adventure in the push-pull of action versus pensive stasis, fueled irrepressibly and funkily by Crump and Gilmore. The title track rises with a McCoy Tyner-esque stomp over a hypnotic major sixth vamp and goes phantasmagorical, while Actions Speak bounces variations off an agitated piano cluster, from dizzy apprehension to matter-of-fact rippling throughout pretty much the entirety of the keys. The album concludes with a surprisingly terse, gospel-drenched take of The Village of the Virgins, an Ellington ballet number:

There are also a couple of tracks here that add nothing to the album, both of them covers. Mmmhmm – credited to Flying Lotus, a purveyor of insipid electronic dancefloor beats – gets an atmospheric trip-hop backbone, Crump’s agile bowed lines over Iyer’s lushly sustained low lefthand that eventually expands by leaps and bounds. It’s attractive, and moody – and nothing that Lisa Hilton couldn’t have pulled off. Michael Jackson’s Human Nature syncopates and caches the melody in polyrhythms, then finally gets hit head on. The choice of this song in particular is a mystery: the hook isn’t very strong to begin with, and it has baggage, a cloying, schlocky top 40 ballad recorded by someone who will ultimately be remembered, if at all, for his crimes against children rather than for anything he did in showbiz. If there’s anything to take from this, it’s that the richness and intensity that defines Iyer’s compositions is sometimes lost when he tackles inferior composers – and compared to Iyer, most composers are.

October 9, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Who Says Club Owners Can’t Play?

Most club owners who play music usually suck at it. The reason many of them open a venue is to have a place to play since nobody else will give them a gig. But once in awhile, you find a club owner who not only isn’t an atrocity exhibition, but actually has talent. Case in point: pianist Spike Wilner, impresario of Smalls, the well-loved downtown New York jazz institution. Wilner has a vivid, impressionistic third-stream style that draws as deeply on ragtime as it does on classic jazz, and on his latest album La Tendresse – out now from Posi-Tone – there are some genuinely breathtaking moments. He’s got a fast, liquid legato that can keep up with pretty much anybody in either jazz or classical, something he proved beyond reproach on his previous solo album, recorded live at the club. Here, his ragtime roots are in equally full effect: he covers Solace, and while he doesn’t try to put an original stamp on Scott Joplin, he also doesn’t embarrass himself. And the album gets even better from there.

He opens the title track, one of three original compositions here, with a rather stern passage featuring a lot of block chords that slowly develop outward into shuffling ripples that grow unexpectedly chilly and chromatic: if this is tenderness, then tenderness is scary. The second original, Silver Cord, also works a neoromantic vibe, slowly unwinding from tensely rhythmic to more cantabile, with a bit of wry Donald Fagen in the chords toward the end. Wilner reinvents Leonard Cohen’s – woops, Irving Berlin’s Always as a jazz waltz, building intensity with a delightfully vivid, ringing series of raga-like chords. He puts his own mark on Lullaby of the Leaves slowly and methodically, solo, from an expansive rubato intro, to a casual ragtime-fueled stroll and a playful classic rock quote at the end. Then he, bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Joey Saylor – who stay within themselves as supporting players throughout the album – scurry their way through a lickety-split take of After You’ve Gone, a showcase for sizzling, precise chops.

A couple of other tracks are far more pensive, notably purist takes on Ellington’s Le Sucrier Velours and Monk’s Crepuscule with Nellie, along with a nocturnally bluesy, wee-hours version of Richard Rodgers’ Little Girl Blue. I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together gets a skeletal, practically minimalist interpretation that’s over all too soon in well under three minutes. There are a couple of short tracks here that could have been left on the cutting room floor and the album wouldn’t be any worse for it, especially a song from the Wizard of Oz, that – it’s awfully hard to resist a bad pun here – if they’d only had a clue, would have given up trying to redeem as ragtime. Speaking of the Wiz, there are several other quotes here from that soundtrack that are as mystifying as the inclusion of that particular cut. Otherwise, this is something that ought to bring together fans of ragtime, jazz and the Romantic repertoire, who will probably unanimously enjoy a collection by a musician who probably doesn’t need any more fans (club owners always draw hugely at their gigs, if only because the artists they book make sure to come out and be seen there) but deserves them anyway.

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

Gorgeous Torchy Jazz Reinventions from Catherine Russell

Eclectic chanteuse Catherine Russell’s new album Strictly Romancin’ may have been timed to a Valentine’s Day release, but it transcends anything that might imply. A Louis Armstrong homage of sorts (Russell’s multi-instrumentalist dad Luis played in Armstrong’s band), it’s a loosely thematic mix of brilliantly reinvented yet period-perfect swing and blues tunes, plus a gospel number featuring Russell’s 86-year-old mom’s powerful contralto harmonies. The album fuses many of the best ideas to come out of swing, soul and blues over the past hundred years. Russell has put out good albums before, but this is the New York-based vocalist’s greatest shining moment out of many. She’s always been a highly nuanced, versatile singer: she is an extraordinary one here, her eclecticism reaching new heights of sensitivity and sophistication, even beyond that of her excellent previous album Inside This Heart of Mine. Most of the A-list crew here played on that one: musical director Matt Munisteri on guitar and other fretted instruments; Mark Shane on piano; Lee Hudson on bass; Mark McClean on drums; Joey Barbato on accordion; Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; John Allred on trombone; and Dan Block and Andy Farber on reeds.

It’s also a great shining moment for Munisteri, possibly the most imaginative purist in jazz, someone whose immersion in the history of American roots music is deep but hardly reverential: he takes all these old songs and makes them sound as fresh and fun as they must have been when musicians first sank their teeth into them in the 30s and 40s. For example, the opening track, Under the Spell of the Blues takes its cue from the Ella Fitzgerald original, but adds a spring-loaded intensity with precise piano and Russell’s maple sugar, Bessie Smith-inspired vocals. If you’ve had enough of I’m in the Mood for Love for this lifetime and the next, you need to hear this version: Barbato and then Munisteri rescue it from schlock hell and transport it to swing heaven.

Cab Calloway’s Wake Up and Live is done as an refreshingly brusque, no-nonsense piano shuffle with Munisteri reaching for a rockabilly vibe – and it works perfectly. Ev’ntide, a rare Hoagy Carmichael tune is wee-hours dixieland, fueled by Kellso’s sly, souful wit. Lil Green’s Romance in the Dark, a slowly swaying blues ballad is the most overtly romantic tune here, followed by a jauntily sophisticated take on the Ellington/Strayhorn jump blues I’m Checking Out, Goom-bye. Abbey Lincoln’s No More gets the full-on, potently determined Nina Simone treatment, while Mary Lou Williams’ Satchel Mouth Baby (another Louis Armstrong tune) gives Russell the chance to show off her coy side; Munisteri’s deviously spiraling  solo takes it to its logically adrenalized conclusion.

Everything’s Been Done Before looks back to the swinging Luis Russell/Louis Armstrong version, but takes it further south with Aaron Weinstein’s violin and Barbato’s accordion blissfully handing things over to Munisteri’s sly, googly-eyed shuffle. The most overtly bluesy, raw number here, Ivory Joe Hunter’s Don’t Leave Me has Munisteri channeling T-Bone Walker at his most suavely incisive. I Haven’t Change a Thing balances showtune bravado with blues soulfulness, with biting rhythmic tradeoffs to keep everybody guessing; it makes a good segue with the brisk Ellington tune Everybody Loves My Baby and its snazzy horn charts. The album winds up with a jauntily irresistible take of Red Allen’s Whatcha Gonna Do When There Ain’t No Swing, the most oldtimey cut here, banjo and band taking it doublespeed and back, again and again with a perfectly choreographed charm. A lot of people are going to love this album: jazz purists, kids who have just discovered oldtimey music, hardass blues fans and maybe even some of the crowd who gravitated to Norah Jones ten years ago when that singer reminded so-called mainstream audiences that jazz was once everybody’s music. The album is out now on Harmonia Mundi; Russell also did a characteristically brilliant live set on NPR which you can stream here. You’ll see this on lots of “best albums of 2012” lists this year.

February 26, 2012 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Doug Webb’s New Renovations Takes It Up a Notch

Last summer, jazz saxophonist Doug Webb released an entertainingly trad album titled Midnight. This new one, from the same session, is called Renovations. If we’re in luck, maybe we’ll live to see them reissued together as Midnight Renovations. Intriguing title, huh?

This one is a lot more upbeat, occasionally pretty intense. Buckle your seatbelt – bet you’ve never heard as energetic a version of Satin Doll as the one that has the band jumping out of their socks as animatedly as they do for seven minutes and change here. Besides Webb on tenor, there’s Joe Bagg on piano, Stanley Clarke on upright bass and Gerry Gibbs on drums. Larry Goldings’ casually rippling, summery piano provides an apt backdrop for the languid soprano sax lines on a swaying midtempo version of Then I’ll Be Tired of You – and his organ background comes through fluid and concise, a long solo taking everything up to a crescendo that holds back just thisshort of joyous. An especially amped version of Vernon Duke’s hit I Can’t Get Started, from the long-forgotten film Follies of 1936, has Webb charging hard alongside Mahesh Balasooriya’s express-train piano.

With Goldings manning the throttle again, a tensely swinging I’ve Never Been in Love Before contrasts with Webb’s long, comfortable runway landing, and then brings in some genial blues with the piano. They take Nat Cole’s You’ve Changed doublespeed at just the right random moment; Gershwin’s They Can’t Take That Away from Me, the bluesiest tune here, is also unsurprisingly the most rustic.

Toots Thielemans’ Bluesette is reincarnated, stripped down to what’s basically a rapidfire two-chord jam, Webb’s soprano sax taking a clarinet-like tone, Balasooriya spinning off some wildfire cascades to Webb who takes them even higher: it’s a triumphant pinnacle in an unlikely setting, more than hinting at how much further outside they might be capable of going if they went on longer. The album’s closing cut, Henry Mancini’s Slow Hot Wind – now there’s a title for the moment, huh? – is sort of the mirror image of that, slowly pulsing and sultry, with a geniunely fluid, relaxed solo by Clarke where he doesn’t overvibrato it, Webb’s tenor pushing the caravan along with a stream of eighth notes, Goldings’ dynamics refusing to let the suspense go too far one way or another, Webb finally joining him and they tumble into the vortex. It’s another welcome out-of-control moment – Lisa Simpson, eat your heart out. If you’re wondering what that’s all about, Webb voices her sax parts on the tv show. This one’s out now on Posi-tone.

March 24, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Delfeayo Marsalis’ Sweet Thunder Matches the Transcendence of the Ellington Original

Funny, true story: trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis asks Gunther Schuller to write the liner notes for his brand-new octet arrangement of Duke Ellington’s Sweet Thunder. Schuller writes back and basically says, “This album is a mistake.” He’s a little more tactful than that, but there’s no mistaking how he feels about it (you can read the whole thing in its entirety in the cd booklet). In case you don’t know who Gunther Schuller is, he’s a composer – an interesting, entertaining one – and has been a pioneer in jazz education for decades (he established the first conservatory degree program in jazz studies, at New England Conservatory in the 1960s). He also sees himself as keeper of the Ellington flame, so in addition to being possessive, he’s on the side of the angels. What also comes out in his response to Marsalis is that he’s a bigger fan of the early Ellington than the post-1950 works including all the suites. No disrespect to Dr. Schuller, but those suites are transcendent, possibly Ellington’s greatest achievements. One critic has already singled out Marsalis’ new arrangements here as being better than the original, which is a matter of taste. Whatever yours might be, it’s inarguable that this new album is just as good as the original. Which makes it pretty amazing: this majestic, Shakespearean-themed tour de force is one of the most exhilarating pieces of music ever written. For anyone who might wonder, why on earth would anyone want (or dare) to remake this, here’s the answer: if you could play this, and you had the chance, wouldn’t you?

Delfeayo Marsalis created his charts using the original Ellington scores in the Library of Congress. As Schuller was very quick to point out, the sound is brighter and the new score noticeable more terse (as you’d expect from an octet doing the work of the whole Ellington Orchestra). And yet, the towering, epic grandeur is still here in full force, whether on the title track that opens the suite, the bustling Sonnet to Hank Cinq or the slyly tiptoeing, bluesy swing of Up & Down, Up & Down. As befits a composition inspired by Othello, there are Moorish interludes and these are the choicest among the literally dozens of potent solo spots here. Bass clarinetist Jason Marshall brings a somber gravitas to Sonnet for Sister Kate; Branford Marsalis swirls with chilly exhilaration on soprano sax on Half the Fun and Sonnet for Caesar; and Victor Goines brings the intensity to uneasy heights on sopranino sax on Madness in Great Ones. Pianist Victor “Red” Atkins’ rippling, slashing depiction of the murder scene in Sonnet for Caesar, as reminiscent of Liszt or Schumann as the blues, might be the single most adrenalizing moment of them all. And Delfeayo Marsalis’ considered, jeweled lines, with or without a mute, are plainly and simply deep: he gets this music. The rest of the band elevates to that same level: there may be more complicated composers than Ellington, but none more emotionally impactful. Mark Gross on alto sax, Tiger Okoshi on trumpet, Mulgrew Miller on piano, Reginald Veal, Charnett Moffett and David Pulphus on bass, Winard Harper and Jason Marsalis on drums join in singlemindedly, alternately triumphant and wisely restrained.

It’s also worth mentioning that this album, stylistically if not thematically, bears some resemblance to the Live at Jazz Standard album issued last year by the Mingus Big Band. In reviewing that one, we hedged that allowing it for consideration as a candidate for best album of the year was absurdly unfair, the equivalent of allowing the ghost of Babe Ruth to compete in a home run hitting contest. The same could be said for this one. In case you haven’ t heard, the Mingus Big Band album ended up winning a Grammy – so here’s predicting that this one will win one too. The night of the awards, don’t forget that we said it first.

February 28, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 1/1/11

Happy New Year! Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues, all the way to #1. We’re going to kick off 2011 proper with #759:

Duke Ellington – The Far East Suite

Here’s a relatively obscure 1964 treasure from the world’s most bluesy classical composer…or the world’s most classical bluesman. We picked it since we figured nobody else ever would. The title is a complete misnomer: other than the Asian-tinged jam Ad Lib on Nippon, this is actually a Middle Eastern suite, one of the earliest and still most fascinating examples of Middle Eastern-influenced jazz. In the years after World War II, the US State Department paid good money to send American musicians around the world just as the Brits would send out missionaries a hundred years earlier. To call these cultural imperialist missions successful is something of an understatement. The Duke was inspired to write this one after jaunts to India, Japan and Saudi Arabia. And as intense and majestic as some of this – Isfahan, Depk and Amad, for example – there’s plenty of characteristically sly wit, especially in the sardonically titled Tourist Point of View and Mount Harrissa (which is Take the A Train with a tritone – a “devil’s chord” – thrown in to help transform the Manhattan subway theme into a mountain of falafel-stand hot sauce). This edition of the Ellington Orchestra includes longtime vets Harry Carney, Cootie Williams and Johnny Hodges. The 2004 reissue includes a series of outtakes which take up as much room as the original tracks, some of them interesting, some less so. Here’s a random torrent.

January 1, 2011 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Something Old, Something New, a Lot That’s Borrowed and Plenty of Blues

A couple of noteworthy recent releases under the big broad banner of Ellingtonia: a welcome digital reissue of the 1963 Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins album (distributed by Harmonia Mundi) as well as Dan Block’s new From His World to Mine: Dan Block Plays the Music of Duke Ellington. The first isn’t the summit meeting between legends that the title implies. A more apt description would be Hawk Plays Ellington: the Duke is strictly a member of the supporting cast here, generously giving the tenor player – whose style he clearly dug – a lot of space, and Hawkins seizes the moment. 47 years later, the album retains the wee-hours vibe of the original because that’s what it was, a couple of busy guys squeezing in a one-off session which ultimately would be the only one they would do together. Although by this point Ellington had become a bluesy classical composer and Hawkins still had bop tendencies, they found common ground with a bunch of jump blues tunes, many of them in the Black and Tan Fantasy mold: eerie minor themes that eventually smooth out into genial swing. It’s nicely remastered – drummer Sam Woodyard’s deft rimshots and cymbal hits enjoy improved clarity compared to the original, as does Aaron Bell’s bass. The most offhanded moments here are the best. Limbo Jazz, clearly not meant as a take, has Woodyard audibly singing along, but Hawk’s casual tradeoffs with baritone man Harry Carney perfectly complete the picture. Likewise, Mood Indigo makes a long launching pad for a single Hawkins solo that just keeps going, and going, and going, Ellington waving him to take another verse, and then a chorus, knowing that the guy was on his game. And Ellington’s song specifically for Hawkins, Self-Portrait of Bean, leans in stately and serious, verging on noir. What’s stunning after all these years is that everything here is basically a pop song, albeit a very sophisticated, often dark-tinged one.

Reedman Dan Block realizes that covering the classics requires some reinvention: otherwise, why bother? With painstaking purism but also considerable joy, he alternates between radical reinterpretation and a bluesy geniality very similar to the Hawkins album, in a set of mostly brilliant obscurities. It’s just as much a triumph of smart archivism as it is of inventive playing and arranging. The late 30s showstopper Are You Stickin’? becomes a latin number, Block’s sailing clarinet interspersed with Mark Sherman’s marvelously terse vibraphone lines, while a late 40s vocal tune, The Beautiful Indians grows from atmospherics to a pulsing tango. Playing tenor sax, Block brings out every bit of subtle, wide-eyed satire in Suburbanites, a 1947 Al Sears showcase, then switches to bass clarinet for a gypsy-tinged, bluesy take of an early one of Ellington’s “portraits,” Portrait of Bert Williams (a popular black vaudevillian of the era). Mt. Harrissa, which is the slightly altered version of Take the A Train from the vastly underrated Far East Suite, is done as a noir bossa with vibes – harrissa may be the hot sauce of choice at falafel stands around the world, but this one’s minty, with balmy Block tenor and guitar from James Chirillo. Block’s love for all things Ellingtonian is contagious, bringing out an inspired performance from the entire cast, the rest of whom include Catherine Russell’s rhythm section of Lee Hudson on bass and Brian Grice on drums plus Mike Kanan on piano and Pat O’Leary on cello. It’s out now on Miles High Records.

December 20, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Catherine Russell’s Latest Album Does the Time Warp Her Way

Catherine Russell’s latest cd Inside This Heart of Mine is the great album the Moonlighters didn’t release this year. A purist, inspired mix of swing blues and shuffles from the 1920s to the present day, it cements Russell’s reputation as a connoisseur of brilliant obscurities, and a reinventer of some which aren’t so obscure. Her band is phenomenal: Matt Munisteri on guitar and banjo, Mark Shane on piano, Lee Hudson on bass, Brian Grice on drums, with Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, Dan Block on tenor sax and clarinet and John Allred on trombone, among others. The oldtime sound here reminds just how edgy, and fun, and actually ahead of its time much of the material here was: the band play it with joyous intensity and bite. This isn’t exactly safe, easy listening.

The title track, a Fats Waller tune, is recast as a slow, darkly torchy swing blues, trumpet and trombone consoling each other. All the Cats Join In transforms Peggy Lee’s seemingly innocuous 1946 jaunt to the ice cream parlor to something far more adventurous, taking it back in time another twenty years to when the place was probably a speakeasy. Block’s sax is so psyched to be there that he misses his exit and stays all the way through the the turnaround. Another Waller tune, We the People, gets a celebratory dixieland-inflected treatment.

The ruefully swinging Troubled Waters, based on the 1934 Ellington recording with Ivie Anderson in front of the band, is a suicide song, but Russell only alludes to it: she doesn’t go over the top, leaving the real mournfulness to Kellso’s muted trumpet. By contrast, Maxine Sullivan’s As Long As I Live is jaunty and understatedly sultry, with genial piano from Shane. The apprehensive ballad November, by producer Paul Kahn, is characteristically dark and understated, pacing along slowly on the beat of Munisteri’s guitar, with lowlit ambience from Rachelle Garniez’ accordion and Sara Caswell’s violin.

Just Because You Can, written by Garniez – one of this era’s most individual songwriters- is a pacifist anthem. Russell gives it surprising snarl and bite, if not the kind of disquieting ambiguity that Garniez would undoubtedly bring to it, Caswell’s violin handing off to Munisteri’s devilish banjo. The rest of the album includes a lazy, innuendo-laden Long, Strong and Consecutive (another Ellington band number); a vividly wary version of Arthur Prysock’s Close Your Eyes; a hilarious take of Wynonie Harris’ 1954 drinking song Quiet Whiskey; a strikingly rustical, even bitter banjo-and-tuba cover of Willie Dixon’s Spoonful; and a couple of upbeat, 1920s style numbers to close it. The fun the band has playing all of this stuff translates viscerally to the listener. Simply one of the best albums of 2010. It’s out now on World Village Music.

September 17, 2010 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Adam Schroeder’s Baritone Sax Blows a Cool Breeze

The most recent jazz album we reviewed was aggressive, urban jazz. This one is mellow and breezy – but it’s hardly elevator jazz. Adam Schroeder is the baritone saxophone player in the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. So it’s no surprise to see that he’s got his bandmates, one of the current era’s great jazz rhythm sections, John Clayton on bass and Jeff Hamilton on drums along with the group’s superb guitarist, Graham Dechter, on this session. It’s Schroeder’s first as a bandleader. Clint Eastwood is a fan, which means something because Eastwood is a connoisseur. Schroeder combines a Gerry Mulligan geniality with bluesy Harry Carney purism as well as a remarkable ear for space, something you have to learn in a big band – or else.

The album, titled A Handful of Stars, begins anticlimactically: you won’t miss much by fast-forwarding past their version of I Don’t Want to Be Kissed. But the first of sadly only two originals, Midwest Mash is great fun, a casual blues/funk bounce hitched to Hamilton’s clave beat, good cheer all around, particularly when it comes time for a subtly amusing Clayton solo. Neal Hefti’s Pensive Miss is a clinic in terse, mimimal playing, done as a wee-hours ballad, Dechter adding a slowly bright Barney Kessel-ish solo followed by a quietly pointillistic one from Clayton. A matter-of-factly swinging version of Jessica’s Birthday, by Quincy Jones has Hamilton stepping out playfully this time. The Cole Porter standard I Happen to Be in Love gives Schroeder a rare opportunity to build some actual tension here, then it’s back to Dechter taking one of his characteristically richly chordal excursions.

The other original here, Hidden Within begins with a vividly whispery I-told-you-so conversation between Schroeder and Clayton and grows more expansive yet more spacious: the silences are as meaningful as the notes themselves. Understatedly jovial, the Barry Harris bossa tune Nascimento has Dechter moving from blues to sheer joy, Schroeder moving back toward more pensive terrain followed by a tricky polyrhymic solo from Hamilton. They do the title track, a Glenn Miller hit, as a brisk, snappy pop song, much as Paula Henderson might have arranged it. They end with a purist take of Ellington’s Just a Sittin’ and A-Rockin’ and a bustling version of Cole Porter’s It’s All Right with Me, Hamilton taking it up all the way with a Gene Krupa gallop. It’s out now on Capri Records.

August 13, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Ellen Rowe Quartet – Wishing Well

The most recent jazz album we reviewed was stylistically all over the place; the one before that maintained a very consistent mood. The Ellen Rowe Quartet’s new one falls somewhere in the middle – this is jazz songwriting. Elegant, richly melodic, often poignant, pianist/composer Rowe’s tunes get the chance to speak for themselves. A brief, hammering staccato passage during a characteristically understated yet heartfelt take of the old standard Alone Together (the only cover on the album) is as loud as she gets. Andrew Bishop, who absolutely gets this music, supplies similarly melodic, frequently pensive lines on tenor and soprano sax. Ingrid Jensen, another terrific choice, guests with characteristic sostenuto soul on flugelhorn; bassist Kurt Krahnke also makes his contributions count, particularly with his solos, and drummer Pete Siers provides terse yet incisive rhythm.

Rowe explores three styles here – ballads, swing and requiems – and makes all of them memorable. The opening cut, inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and dedicated to all the species who’ve been driven to extinction, has a vivid plaintiveness that evokes New York trumpet goddess Pam Fleming. Krahnke follows Jensen’s solo with a series of seamlessly moody horn voicings, all the way up to an evocatively bitter crescendo. Night Sounds, written in memory of Rowe’s brother, glimmers with distant latin allusions. The best song on the album – and it is a song in the purest sense of the word – is the genuinely haunting, modally tinged, thematic title track. But close behind is the swaying, funky Sanity Clause (a Chico Marx reference), written as an attempt to mine a more “modern idiom,” shifting almost imperceptibly from a carefree sway to an insistence that tugs on the listener and will absolutely not let go, courtesy of some gripping Bishop tenor work. It wouldn’t be out of place in the JD Allen songbook.

But all is not so gloomy here. Rowe proves just as adept at jaunty swing with the shuffle Lewisburg Bluesy-oo, an Ellington tribute of sorts driven by some casually expert Siers cymbal accents and named after the Pennsylvania town where the band used to do a stand every year. The ridiculously catchy Tick Tock mines a smoky, 4/4, early Jazz Messengers vibe, Krahnke’s devious bowed bass solo one of several highlights. And Seven Steps to My Yard melds elements of 7 Steps to Heaven and the Yardbird Suite as a showcase for some rhythmic shapeshifting. There’s also the title track, a beautiful ballad with more thoughtful buoyancy from Jensen, and an allusively wistful homage to Donald Walden, a mentor to scores of musicians including Rowe, featuring spot-on, emotionally candid solos from Krahnke and guest Andy Haefner on tenor. Count this among our favorites of 2010.

June 24, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment