Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Frank Wess’ Magic 101: Truth in Advertising

Tenor sax legend Frank Wess has a new album out, Magic 101 with Kenny Barron on piano, Kenny Davis on bass and Winard Harper on drums. The title is apt. If you heard this without knowing the backstory, you might think that it makes a good, warmly purist companion piece to the recent Harry Allen/Ehud Asherie albums, and you’d be right. The backstory, of course, is that Wess was 89 when he recorded this (he’s 91 now) and is at the absolute top of his game as tunesmith through a mix of familiar standards, a couple of awe-inspiring duets with Barron, an original and a solo piece. The vibe is the same as on the two memorable Hank and Frank albums he made with Hank Jones in the past decade; casual but deep in the tradition, and in the feeling that tradition implies.

From the first note, it’s obvious that the band is amped through the roof to play with him – and they hang back, and they chill because that’s what he’s doing most of the time. Wess hits the opening track,  Say It Isn’t So with a blippy Dexter Gordon-ish nonchalance that  picks up as it goes along. There’s an absolutely gorgeous moment here where Harper switches to a vaudevillian shuffle on the ride cymbal, and then it all comes together. Barron’s solos here rank with anything he’s ever recorded: the neoclassical fanfare he hides in the middle of the third verse is absolutely delicious.

The Very Thought of You is a Barron feature, with some richly lingering upper register lines that sound as it he’s playing an electric piano. Harper’s subtle brushwork underscores an unselfconsciously deep, nunaced Wess solo on the first verse – it’s amazing how much control and range he still has, to rival anyone a fifth his age!  The sole Wess original here, Pretty Lady, is a duet with Barron, the pianist’s coloristic, judicious lyricism against balmy sax, picking up unexpectedly with My Funny Valentine echoes. Another duet,  Come Rain or Come Shine works the same vein, Barron in more of a ragtime mode against Wess’ mistiness, moving through gospel and then hitting an unexpectedly chilling couple of bars and then lingering in a noir ending. Wow!

Easy Living serves as an almost ten-minute launching pad for Wess’ warmly exploratory, richly blues-infused soloing, Davis leading the band through a subtle series of tempo shifts as it slowly picks up steam. Likewise, the bassist tackles Blue Monk with a determination not to walk simple blues change and the rest of the band follows, Barron choosing his spots, Wess taking it as high as he goes on this album. Wess ends it with a solo tenor rendition of All Too Soon, a clinic in allusive implied melody and how to choose a spot. Long may he play things like this.

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August 3, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Wild Celebration of 25 Years of Jazz at the New School

The New School’s jazz program turned 25 this year: to celebrate, they threw an eclectic, often transcendent bash last night featuring a mix of jazz legends, alumni, faculty and students, a younger generation practically jumping out of their socks to be playing with icons, the veterans just as psyched to be up there with what could be the next generation of jazz greats. The premise of the night – other than to get more than three hours’ worth of enticing video for students who might be vaccillating between jazz programs – was a tribute to former faculty members Frank Foster and Benny Powell. For whatever reason, the program ended up having more to do with Dizzy Gillespie than the Basie connection those two shared for decades. But what’s unplanned is almost always why jazz is so much fun.

The Foster/Powell tribute kicked off with a blistering version of Foster’s Manhattan Madness. Reggie Workman, as shrewd an observer of talent as there is, introduced the band and told everyone to keep an eye out for pianist Martha Kato, a student. He was right on the money about her: fearless when it came to mining the lowest registers for magisterial power, she showed off a crystalline, bluesy purism that made a perfect match alongside a mix of alums and faculty: Kenyatta Beasley (who conducted the ensemble) ; Cecil Bridgewater on trumpet; Arun Luthra,  Keith Loftis and the Cookers’ Billy Harper on saxes; Christopher Stover on trombone; Rory Stuart and Mike Moreno on guitars; Josh Ginsburg on bass; and the Yellowjackets’ Marcus Baylor clattering up a storm on drums. Their take on a series of swing, Afro-Cuban and bossa nova themes reveled in the tunefulness that defined Foster’s repertoire.

The night’s single most transcendent moment was a rich, gospel-infused blues duet between pianist Junior Mance and violinist Michi Fuji. The two play together in Mance’s trio and share a finely attuned chemistry, Fuji adding an element of mystery with judiciously placed glissandos, Mance mimicking Fuji’s attack with some unexpected flutters of his own before returning to an otherworldly glimmer. The two were done all too soon. Mance plays with his trio most Sundays at Cafe Loup on 13th just west of 6th Ave. in case you might need more of him.

Close behind was an expansive, high-energy yet richly dynamic “trumpet battle” led by the great Jimmy Owens in tandem with Bridgewater, a tribute to Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Gillespie, Thad Jones and also Thelonious Monk. Owens’ straight-ahead, often slyly witty style paired off with Bridgewater’s artfully ornamented attack; Bridgewater’s decision to do Clifford Brown’s Dahoud as a subdued, plaintive ballad was shatteringly successful. Again, it was a student, bassist Tony Lannen, who held the crowd rapt with both his wit – it takes nerve to punctuate your first solo of the night with a joke and make it resound like he did – and then a bristlingly precise, rapidfire spot later on which he played entirely with his bow. Meanwhile, Winard Harper put on a clinic in joyous, counterintuitive, latin-tinged beats: when he finally got a solo, it was all avant garde sticks and hardware and rims, and yet purist in a way that drew a straight line back to Elvin Jones. At one point, Owens wanted to take it all the way down to just his horn, but pianist JoAnne Brackeen wasn’t looking up: she’d become one with the resonant sheets of Monk she was playing at that point. Another up-and-coming talent, Alejandro Berti, joined in a genially crescendoing round-robin of trumpets to wind up the set on a literally high note.

For the night’s second duet, faculty pianist Andy Milne joined forces with Swiss harmonicist Gregoire Maret for a radical, slowly unwinding, atonalist reinterpretation of Body and Soul. The night ended on with the more traditionally ecstatic sounds of the Eyal Vilner Big Band, first backing nonagenarian tenor player Frank Wess and then fellow tenor legend Jimmy Heath, who’s five years his junior. Wess embodied pure soul, matched nuance to energy and got two standing ovations out of it; Heath, eternally youthful, refused to take a seat, cheered on his new bandmates – Mike McGarill, Tom Abbott, Lucas Pino, Asaf Yuria and big baritone guy Jason Marshall on saxes; the explosive Cameron Johnson and Takuya Kuroda on trumpet; Ivan Malespin and John Mosca on trombones; Yonatan Riklis on piano and Mike Karn on bass, with drummer Joe Strasser showing off a nimble originality matched to a power that never quite exploded – clearly, he was feeling the room and played to it perfectly. Chanteuse Brianna Thomas – whom none other than Will Friedwald has anointed as arguably the new generation’s finest straight-ahead jazz singer – joined them and battled a nonresponsive PA to put her message of sass and style across vividly in a rousing take of Lover, Come Back to Me. Otherwise, Vilner’s arrangements of Bud Powell (a potently percussive Un Poco Loco) and Diz nimbly articulated voices throughout the ensemble, Vilner himself taking the occasionally understated bluesy solo spots on alto sax. When they closed with what sounded like a Gillespie reworking of a Louis Jordan jump blues, Heath grinned and looked on deviously before choosing his spot to join in the raucous riffage as it wound out. It was something of a shock to see a handful of empty seats: concerts with the sheer magnitude of this one don’t come along every day.

The New School may not have weekly concerts like they had back in the early days, but those they do have tend to be extraordinary: both Marc Ribot (with his noir soundtrack project) and Ethiopian jazz masters Either/Orchestra have delivered equally sensational concerts here in recent months, something to keep in mind if you’re looking for major live jazz events percolating just under the radar.

April 26, 2012 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Hall of Fame Jazz Concert on April 25 at the New School

Here’s a killer concert for jazz fans in New York: this coming Wednesday, April 25 at 7:30 PM at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium at 66 W 12th St., a mix of hall-of-famers and rising stars get together to celebrate 25 years of the New School’s well-regarded jazz program. $30 tickets (a real bargain considering who’s on the bill) are still available as of this writing: your best bet is to call ahead to 212-229-5488 and make sure since tix go fast once word gets out. If you want to stop by and pick them up, the box office is open Monday-Thursday 4-7 PM and Friday 3-6 PM. Here’s the lineup:

– A tribute to Frank Foster and Benny Powell led by trumpeter/arranger Kenyatta Beasley, with Keith Loftis, tenor/soprano sax; Arun Luthra, alto sax; Chris Stover, trombone; Martha Kato, piano; Josh Ginsburg, bass; Marcus Baylor, drums; Billy Harper, tenor sax; Rory Stuart, guitar

– Piano duos with Junior Mance and violinist Michi Fuji plus Andy Milne and harmonicist Gregoire Maret

– A trumpet battle led by Jimmy Owens along with Alejandro Barti and Cecil Bridgewater with JoAnn Brackeen on piano, Tony Lannen on bass and Winand Harper on drums

– The Eyal Vilner Big Band, composed of New School alumni and joined by Jimmy Heath and Frank Wess plus Eyal Vilner, arranger/saxophone; Mike McGarill, alto/flute; Tom Abbott, alto/clarinet; Lucas Pino, tenor/clarinet; Asaf Yuria, tenor; Jason Marshall, Bari/bass clarinet; Cameron Johnson, trumpet; Takuya Kuroda, trumpet/flugelhorn; Ivan Malespin, trombone; John Mosca, trombone; Yonatan Riklis, piano; Mike Karn, bass; Joe Strasser, drums; Brianna Thomas, vocal.

See you there!

April 17, 2012 Posted by | concert, jazz, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment