Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Curmudgeonly View of This Year’s Charlie Parker Festival

Why did the final day of this year’s Charlie Parker Festival at Tompkins Square Park feel so tired? For one, because the order of bands was ass-backwards. Alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin, who opened, should have headlined: she and her quartet built an energy that, for many reasons, none of the other acts matched.

The relatively small size of the crowd was also a factor. Sure, there were a lot of people gathered down front, but there was never a problem finding space on the lawn, and the perimeter was deserted. To the west, a homeless guy with wireless speakers was blasting the Carpenters. To the east, a strolling brass band had conveniently picked the afternoon of the festival to compete with Benjamin’s all-Coltrane set during the quietest moments. If Kenny G had been onstage, that interference would have been welcome. But he wasn’t. How classless and uncool!

And as a rock musician would say, other than pianist Fred Hersch, everybody else was playing covers.

Drummer Carl Allen can bring the highest echelon talent wherever he wants, considering the size of his address book.. But the potential fireworks between trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and tenor saxophonist JD Allen never materialized, each reading charts throughout a wide-ranging set of material associated with Art Blakey. Allen was more chill behind the kit than Blakey ever was, and the horns (and spring-loaded bassist Peter Washington, and pianist Eric Reed) went for cruise-control rather than friendly sparring – or otherwise. It was lovely – and it sounded as old as it was.

Ageless tenor saxophonist George Coleman thrilled the crowd with a viscerally breathtaking display of circular breathing throughout one persistently uneasy modal interlude, leading an organ jazz quartet. In another moment, he and his alto player conjured up the aching microtonal acidity of Turkish zurlas. Organist Brian Charette was having a great time bubbling and cascading while the bandleader’s son shuffled and swung and shimmered on his cymbals. But as much veteran talent was on display here, it was mostly Charlie Parker covers.

Benjamin has a bright, brassy, Jackie McLean-esque tone on her horn and a killer band. Pianist Sharp Radway is both sharp and way rad: with his crushing low-register chords, endlessly vortical pools of sound and modal mastery, he was the highlight of the festival. Bassist Lonnie Plaxico walked briskly and pedaled and eventually went to the deepest part of the pocket and stayed there while drummer Darrell Green played much more chill than Elvin Jones ever did with Trane’s band. Benjamin’s decision to work her way up from brooding chromatics and modes all the way to a hypnotically swaying A Love Supreme – with guest vocalist Jazzmeia Horn – was also smart programming. Spiraling and bobbing and weaving, her homage to every saxophonist’s big influence (and sometimes bête noire) was heartfelt and affecting. It also would have been fun to have heard some of her own material: she’s a very eclectic writer and a good singer too.

Maybe the sound guy expected Hersch to savage the keys like Radway did, but he didn’t, and for that reason a lot of his signature subtlety got lost in the mix. Bassist John Hebert’s mutedly terse pulse was often considerably higher, and drummer Eric McPherson – one of the great kings of subtlety – was sometimes almost inaudible. Attack aside, Hersch’s signature mix of neoromantic glimmer, wry humor and gravitas is actually a lot closer to Radway’s style than might seem apparent. Hersch deserved more attention, so that we could have given it back to him more than it seems we did.

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August 25, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another Brilliant Concert Album from Fred Hersch

Like so many musicians before him, Fred Hersch has found his muse at the Village Vanguard, no great surprise considering that he was the first pianist ever booked there for a weeklong solo gig. Unlike Alone at the Vanguard, his stellar solo recording of a single night there in late 2010, his new double-cd set, Alive at the Vanguard – just out on Palmetto – collects the highlights from his most recent stand this past February with his inspired trio of bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson. Hersch is a meticulous, eclectic, purist polymath, a Monk disciple with Bill Evans heart. A mix of vivid, mostly slow-to-midtempo originals and classics, this is not an ostentatious album, but it’s a deep one.

There’s a lot of music here: almost two hours’ worth. The trio’s chemistry is clear right off the bat, Hebert’s dancing, incisive bass and McPherson’s judiciously deft, terse brush and cymbal work fused with Hersch’s trademark lyricism. The album opens ausiciously with Havana, an insistently cosmopolitan nocturne, artfully switching up tempos. Tristesse, a Paul Motian homage, maintains an elegaically glimmering neoromantic atmosphere with a vivid sense of longing. Fittingly, it takes on a rhythmic pulse as the drum chair remains silent in tribute to Hersch’s former collaborator. Segment – the only Charlie Parker composition in a minor key – is precise to a fault, fluidly moving between tempos as Hersch engages McPherson in a cool chromatically-fueled crescendo up to a brisk latin shuffle.

They whisper their way conversationally and almost conspiratorially through a diptych of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman and Miles Davis’ Nardis. Dream of Monk, from Hersch’s theatre suite My Coma Dreams, is arguably the high point of the album, a spot-on blend of terse tunefulness and off-center irony: it’s so good it could pass for Monk himself, through yet another devious series of tempo changes, from swing to an allusive waltz and then back again. Bracingly modern third-stream atonalities eventually give way to moody melodicism on Rising, Falling, followed by a carefully bouncy, shiny take of Softly As in a Morning Sunrise, the first of two tunes from the Sonny Rollins book, Hebert’s pulse leading Hersch out of the shadows. The first cd closes with a suavely swinging, ragtime-hued take of a Hersch favorite, Doxy.

The second disc’s appropriately titled first track, Opener, is a showcase for McPherson, as he builds his solo with the same judicious spirit that pervades this album. After a dynamically-charged take of I Fall in Love Too Fast, they romp through the deliciously bouncing, wryly dark Jackalope: the creature may be a cartoon, but this one has bite, Hersch enjoying himself throughout a long vamp that eventually reaches toward latin territory before returning to the big, bad opening riff.

Another pairing, of Russ Freeman’s The Wind into Alec Wilder’s Moon and Sand, is especially choice, beginning dark, hypnotic and lyrical, then turning the second number into a fugue with a strong, funky pulse. Sartorial, a tribute to Ornette Coleman’s fashion sense, moves from brightly clustering coyness to a latin flair, followed by a trickily rhythmic From This Moment On. They wind up the album with a segue from an expansive but measured take of Oscar Hammerstein’s The Song Is You into a joyously spiraling, swinging, relatively obscure Monk piece, Played Twice. Everything here is consummately thought out and in the moment: arguably the best piano jazz album of 2012. Vijay Iyer, double dare you to tackle any of the originals here.

September 23, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Benjamin Drazen’s Inner Flights Delivers Understated Intensity

Intense but not overbearing, richly melodic, rhythmically surprising yet extremely accessible, saxophonist Benjamin Drazen’s new album Inner Flights is smartly titled. Beneath the surface calm, there’s an inner fire – he’s one of those guys like JD Allen who chooses his spots. Drazen likes a clear tone with a judicious vibrato to drive a point home occasionally. While he typically favors restraint in his phrasing, pianist Jon Davis gets to absolutely scorch here, blazing through one tricky, ferocious chart after another, alongside Carlo de Rosa on bass and Eric McPherson on drums. This isn’t just one of the most fascinating jazz albums of the year, it’s one of the most fascinating albums of the year, period.

They get off to a briskly tuneful start with a somewhat altered swing blues, Mr. Twilight – a Mr. Moonlight allusion, it seems – with Davis taking no time launching into a rapidfire solo, echoes of Kenny Barron, Drazen on alto. Monkish comes together slowly, hints at swing and then goes there. It’s an unselfconsciously fun, wry evocation of Monk in a more devious moment, Drazen in airy Phil Woods mode without totally ripping him off, Davis once again getting some delicious charts, including some neat tradeoffs with the drums, and makes the most of them. The requiem Prayer for Brothers Gone By opens with Drazen pensive and somewhat apprehensive over rippling piano and low bowed bass, moves further from the center as each instrument reflects a second time around, then becomes a tone poem of sorts, winding down gracefully with upper-register cascades from Davis. By contrast, Jazz Heaven is a crisp, deviously syncopated swing tune, Drazen buoyantly playful, Davis following in the same vein. Building off a dark, incisive staccato piano hook, the title track is where Drazen and Davis switch roles, the sax cutting loose more here than anywhere else – when Drazen spirals down into a gritty modal atmosphere, the effect is viscerally intense. As it winds out, Drazen overdubs a sax section that eventually flutters to an unexpectedly elegant landing.

The warmly nostalgic Neeney’s Waltz updates Willard Robison-style Americana for a new century, while Kickin’ Up Dirt, an absolute gem, shifts from rubato piano glimmer to relaxed syncopated sway, distantly mysteriouso modalities, hints of a jazz waltz and then a real one: it’s a clinic in how to write allusively. There are also two covers here, a staggered, scurrying version of Gershwin’s This Is New, Drazen kicking up some dust along the shoulder of the blues road, and an expansively deconstructed and then reconstructed version of Polka Dots and Moonbeams, everybody taking their time. Watch for this on our Best Albums of 2011 list. It’s out now on Posi-tone.

March 11, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Gaida – Levantine Indulgence

Syrian-born chanteuse Gaida’s debut cd has been highly anticipated in world music circles: for once, it’s a release which lives up to its hype. Her high, versatile voice with just the hint of a jazzy, smoky edge draws comparisons to Natacha Atlas, and like Atlas, she proves equally captivating not only at the levantine ballads intimated by the title, but also bossa nova and rock. What’s most notable is how she and the group behind her shift between styles, often mingling jazz and Brazilian motifs within a traditional levantine framework. As much as there may be tears close to her eyes, as she puts it, on many of these songs, there’s also joy and exuberance. When she became part of the scene at New York’s music mecca Alwan for the Arts, a who’s who of expatriate Middle Eastern musicians assembled around her. The band on the album is extraordinary – credits include Amir ElSaffar on trumpet and santoor, Bridget Robbins on ney flute, Johnny Farraj on riq, Tareq Abboushi on buzuq and Zafer Tawil on oud, qanun and percussion. In fact, the album’s title track may be its most disarmingly beautiful, a taqsim (improvisation) with Gaida’s fetching vocalese surrounded by wary qanun, percussion and even a terse upright bass solo.

The cd begins with a classic Mohammed Abdel Wahab style Egyptian ballad featuring ney flute and characteristically vivid trumpet accents from ElSaffar. Ammar picks up the pace with insistent buzuq and oud chords and a triumphantly ululating choir of women’s voices – and even a little piano for extra spice. Gaida’s most wrenchingly intense vocal here is on the imploring habibi jazz ballad Khaifa Uhibuka, which segues into a slinky levantine number featuring qanun and oud. There’s also a haunting piano-based European-style art-rock song (with Arabic lyrics), a swaying, upbeat one-chord groove number, a straight-up bossa song, and the majestic anthem Bint Elbalad, wrapping up the album with intense, darkly soulful solos from buzuk and trumpet once again. You’re going to see this on a whole lot of “best-of” lists at the end of the year, including ours. Gaida plays the cd release show on 3/21 at 6:30 PM at le Poisson Rouge, advance tickets are an absolute must because the show will sell out.

March 11, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment