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

Lyrical Piano Icon Fred Hersch Hasn’t Played the Vanguard Since January, So He Must Be Back This Month

The Vanguard is pianist Fred Hersch‘s home base, and it’s been six months since he played there. So he’s due, and he’s back for a stand starting on July 23 through the 28th with his long-running, conversational trio, bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson. Sets are at 8:30 and around 10; cover is the usual $35.

These days Hersch has been releasing almost as many albums as he does weeks at the Vanguard. The latest one, Begin Again – streaming at Spotify – is a real change of pace, a lavishly orchestrated collection of tunes from throughout his career, recorded with German jazz orchestra the WDR Big Band. With his trio, Hersch is all about clever conversations, and playfulness, and singleminded attention to a song’s emotional center. This one, maybe unavoidably due to the sheer size of the project, is more about how much epic grandeur Hersch’s translucent tunes are suited to. Answer: a lot. Vince Mendoza’s arrangements are sharp and often surprisingly restrained. On one hand, given the joie de vivre and humor in Hersch’s writing, it must have been hard to resist the temptation to go completely epic with them. On the other, there’s a lot of gravitas on this record.

The band punches in and out throughout the cleverly dancing, triumphant metric shifts of the opening, title track, with a long, hushed, suspenseful interlude and a coda that’s gone in a flash. Alto saxophonist Johan Horlen rises from a gentle intro to a joyous peak over a lustrously majestic backdrop and Hersch’s steady neoromantic phrasing in Song Without Words #2: Ballad, high reeds and muted brass adding extra lustre.

A lot of Hersch’s vast back catalog doesn’t stay in one place for very long, and the version of Havana here is characteristic, Ernesto Lecuona glimmer followed by a punchy, ebullient jazz waltz with a stormy Paul Heller tenor sax solo. The desolate big-sky intro to Out Someplace (Blues for Matthew Shepard) is chilling; the band’s violence afterward is only slightly less so.

Maybe because of the size of the lineup, Hersch amps up his attack on the fugal lines of Pastorale – a standout, classically-inspired track from his brilliant 2011 Alone at the Vanguard album. The oldest number here is the vividly overcast yet kinetic Rain Waltz, brmming with artful orchestral interpolation orchestra amid Hersch’s incisive articulation. Trumpeter Ruud Bruels’ moodiness and alto sax player Karolina Strassmeyer’s more energetic spot foreshadow a titanic, brassy crescendo .

The album’s longest number, The Big Easy begins with a moody On Broadway sway, then slowly edges toward jubilation, punctuated by trombonist Ludwig Nuss and trumpeter Andy Haderer’s easygoing, coyly muted solos. The bustling, tropically-tinged Forward Motion makes quite a contrast. The album’s final cut is The Orb, from Hersch’s Coma Dreams suite, Hersch working his way cautiously from a uneasy, starlit Lynchian tableau to warm lyricism. Deep stuff from a deep guy.

July 13, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Fred Hersch Brings an Unexpected Album Back to the Vanguard

When pianist Fred Hersch got his first stand as a bandleader at the Village Vanguard – after innumerable gigs there as a sideman – he decided to record the first night. Almost twenty-two years later, he edited three sets worth of material down to a digestible eight numbers, a couple of originals mixed in with some animated standards.

How does The Fred Hersch Trio ’97 @ The Village Vanguard – streaming at Spotify – compare with Hersch’s more recent work?  This is party music. There’s less gravitas and more humor – although Hersch’s wit has hardly dimmed over the years, as his recent duo album with Anat Cohen bears out. The sonics here are a little on the trebly side, although the separation between instruments is good, and the ice machine doesn’t factor in.

Chronologically, this is the first live recording of Hersch leading a band, and the only one with this trio, Drew Gress on bass and Tom Rainey on drums. Hersch is bringing his current trio with bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson back to the Vanguard, which over the years has become his home away from home. The trio are there on New Year’s Day through the third of january, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30; cover is now $35. Then the pianist leads a quartet with the great Miguel Zenon on alto sax through the 6th.

The group work tightly shifting syncopation, latin allusions, a little coy blues and an even more puckish doublespeed crescendo in the album’s kinetic, practically ten-minute first number, Easy to Love. Gress’ amiably tiptoeing solo sets up a chugging one from Rainey. Hersch’s own righthand/lefthand conversation winds it up deviously. 

Hersch’s raindrop intro to an even more expansive My Funny Valentine is similarly choice. Rainey develops a tongue-in-cheek clave; Gress pirouettes, then dips into the shadows, a signal to Hersch to reemerge and quickly toss aside caution: a genuinely amusing valentine.

Three Little Words makes an aptly lighthearted, briskly swinging segue, followed by the dancing, Bill Evans-inspired original Evanescence, Gress leading a cleverly triangulated intro. There’s a subtle fugal quality to this dynamically shifting, Brazilan-tinged song without words.

Andrew John, a Gress ballad, could be a more spacious Donald Fagen, with some richly airy Rainey cymbal work. The take of I Wish I Knew has a loose-limbed swing and glisteningly dancing lines from the bandleader, while Swamp Thang –  the second Hersch tune here – opens with a deadpan strut that gets more evilly cartoonish. To close the album, they shift their way warily but energetically their way through You Don’t Know What Love Is, capped off by a ridiculously funny Rainey solo.

December 30, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Year’s Midsummer Night Swing Festival Kicks Off on a Powerfully Relevant Note

Midsummer Night Swing is a New York rite of passage. Everybody does it at one time or another. It’s hard to think of a more romantic date night. Every year starting at the end of June, Lincoln Center rolls out a real dancefloor at the southwestern corner of the campus in Damrosch Park, where an eclectic series of bands serenade the dancers with everything from 30s big band swing to 20s hot jazz, salsa dura, and this year, even classic honkytonk. Not everybody dances; lots of folks just come out for the music, or to watch the spectacle. By Manhattan jazz club standards, admission is a real bargain at $17, and there are deals if you go to multiple shows, as many people do.

This Tuesday, June 26 at 7:30 PM is kickoff night with a monster all-female band assembled by Lincoln Center specially for this occasion. They take their inspiration from the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated, all-female swing group. Trumpeter Bria Skonberg leads this multi-generational mix of allstar and rising star talent, which features Regina Carter on violin, Anat Cohen on clarinet and Champian Fulton on piano with Lakecia Benjamin, Sharel Cassity, Chloe Feoranzo, and Camille Thurman on saxes; Emily Asher on trombone; Linda Briceño and Jami Dauber also on trumpets; Endea Owens on bass and Savannah Harris on drums.

If you’re going there to listen, who among these artists should you single out? Pretty much all have them have gotten some ink here at one point or another. One of the most obvious choices is Anat Cohen, who turned in what was arguably the most riveting performance at last year’s Charlie Parker Festival with her epic, often hauntingly mysterious, klezmer-influenced tentet, testifying to her prowess in a big band setting.

On one hand, her latest album, Live in Healdsburg – streaming at Spotify and recorded in California a couple of years ago – is 180 degrees from that, a duo performance with the similarly lyrical Fred Hersch on piano. Yet in its own way, it’s just as lavish, an expansive, warmly conversational, vivid and unselfconsciously joyous collaboration.

Hersch opens the night’s first track, the aptly titled A Lark, with impressionistic, Debussy-esque belltones before Cohen gently dances in and then all of a sudden it’s a surreal update on ragtime. The push-pull between Cohen’s voice of reason and Hersch’s trickster is irresistibly fun, especially when the two switch roles and Cohen goes spiraling. Neither have ever glistened more than they do here.

Another Hersch number, Child’s Song is both more spaciously tender and tropical, giving Cohen a launching pad for her terse, crystalline, often balletesque lines, especially when Hersch mutes his insistent, pointillistic approach. Hersch begins the first Cohen tune here, The Purple Piece with a brooding austerity: it’s as far from over-the-top as you can get. Cohen maintains the bluesy bittersweetness with her aching melismas over an understated waltz rhythm, Hersch grounding it with his expressive neoromantic chords and occasional, more incisive shifts.

As they do with many of the songs here, they build from opacity to an understated swing and then playful, experimentation in a pretty radical remake of Isfahan. Then in in the last of the Hersch pieces, Lee’s Dream, they jump out of their shoes gracefully over a precise, distantly stride-influenced piano drive that bookends a flutteringly disorienting interlude.

From Hersch’s phantasmagorical intro to Cohen’s similarly canivalesque shifts between wistful blues and eerie microtones, the album’s most lavish number could be characterized as a haunting improvisation loosely based on Jimmy Rowles’ The Peacocks. Their approach to Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz is similar if somewhat more flitting. They encore with a similarly individualistic version of Mood Indigo, Cohen’s low, meticulously somber approach lightened somewhat by Hersch’s spare, steady, glimmering architecture. There could be plenty of moments like this from a completely different crew on Tuesday night in the park.

June 23, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amy London Shares an Archive Full of Stars

“You know, i played on that record.”

Sit around for any length of time with a bunch of sidemen, or bandleaders who sometimes lend their talents to others, and the conversation inevitably drifts to the obscure. Sometimes the thread ends on a down note. Eventually, “I wonder when she’s gonna put out that album,” turns into “That album never came out.”

Until this month, that’s what both Fred Hersch and Dr. Lonnie Smith would have said about Amy London’s wryly titled new retrospective, Bridges, streaming at Spotify. The singer and member of bebop quartet the Royal Bopsters recorded her first three sessions as a bandleader in 1984, 1987 and 1990,. None of them have seen the light of day until now.

An ambitious effervescence pervades this retrospective. To paraphrase London, it’s someone who cut her teeth on blue-eyed soul doing her damnedest to make a mark singing both bop and ballads. In the years since she recorded this material, she’s done both. It doesn’t look like she’s touring the record, but the Royal Bopsters are at Minton’s on Jan 13 at 7:30 PM for $15.

There are three ensembles on the three sessions represented here. Fred Hersch leads the 1987 recordings from the piano (and contributes vocals!), joined by drummer Victor Lewis, Harvie S on bass, Bob Mintzer on tenor sax and Cyro Baptista on percussion. The 1990 recordings – tracks eight through twelve – feature pianist Peter Madsen, bassist Dean Johnson, drummer Eliot Zigmund, trumpeter Byron Stripling and New York Voices leader Darmon Meader.

The final two cuts include Dr. Lonnie Smith on Hammond organ, Bobby Franceschini on tenor sax, guitarist Jack Wilkins, bassist Harvie S and drummer Akira Tana.

London’s clear, uncluttered delivery, sometimes with a tinge of mist, makes an apt vehicle for a singer whose ideas typically echo horn phrasing. London isn’t just the bandleader – she’s an integral part of these ensembles, and there  are innumerable, vivid illustrations of that here. The slinky intertwine between vocals and bass in A Sleepin’ Bee, just for starters. Likewise, the imaginative vocal-and-sax duet to kick off I’m in the Mood For Love. The torrents of vocals-as-trumpet-solo in Bohemia After Dark are irrepressibly fun and as craftily thought-out as any instrumental contribution to the sessions.

London shifts from brooding storytelling mode to an Afro-Latin stomp in Love For Sale, The rest of the album includes a full-throttle take of Devil May Care, a expansively pensive wee-hours interpretation of Dream, a hazily shimmery, organ-fueled version of You’ve Changed and a really nifty tropical reinvention of the 60s klezmer-pop hit Night Has a Thousand Eyes.

January 6, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Erudite Piano Luminary Fred Hersch Winds Up His Stand at an Iconic Spot Tonight

August in New York: what a beautiful time to be here, isn’t it? Sure, it’s hot, but the hordes of recent invaders have all gone off to the Hamptons, or wherever they stash their inheritances – or simply back to mom and dad in Bloomfield Hills or Lake Oswego. It didn’t used to be this way; then again, it didn’t used to be this hot. Let’s enjoy it while we can, shall we? For those of us in the mood to revel in a cosmopolitan Old New York experience, pianist Fred Hersch is winding up his stand at the Village Vanguard tonight, August 21 with his long-running trio, bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson. Sets are at 8:30 and 10:30 PM; cover is $30 and includes a drink; today being Sunday, there won’t be the usual crowds of tourists making their pilgrimage here

Hersch’s aptly titled latest album is Sunday Night at the Vanguard (due out momentarily and therefore not yet at Spotify). It’s a similarly lyrical follow-up to his lavish 2012 Alive at the Vanguard double album. This one is as perennially fresh, and bursting with joie de vivre, and spontaneity, and erudition as anything the guy’s ever recorded. Even in the most rigorous, uppermost echelons of jazz, Hersch’s craftsmanship stands out. Is he a NEA Jazz Master yet? OK, he’s still a little young for that.

That this album is a typical Hersch performance, not just in terms of the track-by-track, speaks to that. Hersch’s trio has a rare chemistry that reflects years of long nights on the road as well as its interweave of personalities, Hersch both sage and wit, Hebert the freewheeling groovemeister and McPherson the king of subtlety. The three ease their way in with a midtempo take of a rare Rodgers and Hammerstein number, A Cockeyed Optimist; McPherson’s almost impreceptibly crescendoing shuffle drive is fascinating to hear unfolding. Likewise, his misterioso cymbal bell intro, in tandem with Hersch’s minimalist misterioso approach, ramps up the suspense on the evening’s first original, Serpentine, an intricately interwoven portrait of an enigmatic Ornette Coleman associate, part Monk, part baroque, with a ghostly bass-and-drums interlude at the center..

The Optimum Thing also echoes Monk, Hersch putting an uneasily playful spin on a series of Irving Berlin changes, an acerbically swinging blend of quaint and off-center; how well the pianist manages to disguise what his bandmates are up to is pricelessly funny. Calligram (for Benoit Delbecq), a shout-out to his individualistic French colleague pairs the steady, starlit anchor of the bass and drums against Herseh’s occasionally wry, deep-space explorations. Then the three pick up the pace again with the tersely catchy, allusively latin-tinged postbop of Blackwing Palomino.

Hersch slows down the Beatles’ For No One to reveal its inner cavatina, then makes an eerily stairstepping music-box theme out of it. The three do Kenny Wheeler’s Everybody’s Song But My Own as a jaunty, pointillistic, altered cha-cha, then give Jimmy Rowles’ gothic jazz favorite The Peacocks an epic, dynamically shifting intensity, from the bandleader’s moody solo intro to a white-knuckle intensity over Hebert’s stern pulse. The trio close the set by swinging through the almost cruel, knowing ironies of Monk’s We See. The encore is a solo take of Hersch’s favorite closing. bemedictine ballad, Valentine. If there’s anybody who can be canonized as the rightful heir to Thelonious Monk – in terms of purposefulness, shadowy tunefulness and just plain fun – Hersch is as good a choice as any.

August 21, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Best Jazz Albums of 2013

Narrowing down the best jazz albums of the year to a couple dozen or so is a cruel task: it’s safe to say that there have been hundred of good ones issued this year. This is an attempt to assemble the creme de la creme of this year’s crop in one easily digestible package: apologies to the many, many artists whose excellent releases aren’t included here.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society– Brooklyn Babylon
The esteemed big band composer’s latest thematic opus is an important album in New York history, a very uneasy suite of variations illustrating a city in constant flux, often changing for the worse. Cruelly sardonic jackhanmmer rhythms and mechanically industrial circular vamps juxtapose with a resonant angst that peaks at the end. Balkan and circus flourishes, unorthodox instrumentation and quirky, often plaintive miniatures are interspersed amid the relentless pulse. It captures a moment already gone forever, maybe for good.

The Claudia Quintet – September
Drummer/bandleader John Hollenbeck’s attempt to “rework and transform the traumatic residue” of 9/11 resulted in an emotionally charged inner dialogue and a highly improvised, persistently uneasy, enigmatically enveloping series of themes, each assigned a date from that fateful September. The eleventh is not one of them. Nebulous and opaque, it vividly evokes the stunned, bereaved moment that preceded an outpouring of both wrath and goodwill among the city’s citizens. Maybe Hollenbeck can tackle that moment next.

Sexmob – Cinema Circus & Spaghetti (Sexmob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota)
Trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s irrepressible quartet finds the inner noir in Rota’s vintage Fellini film scores and magnifies it with charactistic ambitiousness and eclecticism. Creeping slinky dirges sit side by side with deep dub interludes, carnivalesque, cinematic and occasionally showing the group’s punk jazz roots. A rousing follow-up of sorts to Hal Wilner’s cult favorite 1981 Amarcord Nino Rota album.

Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge – River Runs
This “concerto for jazz guitar and saxophone” portrays some of the wild rivers of the American south and west in all their fearsome glory, an entire ecosystem with its messy, sometimes awe-inspiring, sometimes opaque, frequently frightening detail. Like Darcy James Argue, Owen delights in unorthodox instruments and voicings, terror just lurking beneath the whitecaps on several of these lush, ambitious numbers.

Ibrahim Maalouf – Wind
This homage to Miles Davis’ soundtrack to Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud. follows the architecture of the Miles record, but not sequentially. The Miles record is drenched in reverb, added post-production; trumpeter Maalouf’s production is as airy and sometimes arid as the old French silent film, for which this serves as a score, would seem to suggest. Overall, the effect of both albums is the same, an unrelenting angst foreshadowing imminent doom despite all distractions to the contrary. Together and separately, both are classics of the noir pantheon, this one with frequent latin tinges amid the gloom.

Michel Sajrawy– Arabop
Romany-flavored Middle Eastern jazz from the Palestinian guitarist and his inspired, polyglot Palestinian-Israeli band, a vividly powerful mix of Middle Eastern and Balkan-tinged romps along with a handful of haunting longer-scale numbers. Sajrawy plays microtonally and very artfully on a standard-issue Strat through an envelope pedal for the blippy tone so common in guitar jazz from east of the Danube – pulsing staccato grooves alternate with intense levantine sax interludes.

Pete Rodriguez – Caminando Con Papi
Salsa themes taken to the highest level of jazz. Trumpeter Rodriguez – son of legendary salsa crooner Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez – fires off some of the year’s most spine-tingling and incisive solos with striking terseness and attention to melodic trajectory throughout this surprisingly eclectic collection. Gritty modalities underpin a relentlessly intensity and Rodriguez’ wickedly precise flights and volleys; pianist Luis Perdomo is an equal part of the fireworks.

Bill Frisell – Big Sur
A quintet jazz suite of sorts commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival, it’s the iconic guitarist in high spirits, throughout a mix of Lynchian allusions, some surf rock, a Neil Young homage, strolling C&W and a Britfolk theme, with plenty of characteristic grit and ambiguity beneath its windswept surface.

Wadada Leo Smith – Occupy the World
This double-disc collection of towering epics picks up where the trumpeter’s magnum opus from last year, Ten Freedom Summers, left off. 21-piece Finnish ensemble Tumo get to judiciously explore and revel in Smith’s gusty new large-ensemble pieces, a mix of airily expansive, spacious, and majestically intense themes, with Smith’s signature social awareness.

Leif Arntzen – Continuous Break
It was a good year for trumpeters, wasn’t it? On his latest quintet release, one of New York’s most distinctive voices on that horn takes a page out of the vintage Miles Davis book: throw the band a few riffs and have them create songs on the spot. Tuneful and diverse to the extreme, it’s got standards, a tone poem, a gritty minor-key soul groove (which may be the album’s best track) and hotwired improvisation recorded completely live in the studio.

The Monika Roscher Big Band – Failure in Wonderland
The guitarist and her German ensemble stalk their way surrealistically through carnivalesque themes that often border on the macabre, with elements of noir cabaret, horror film music and psychedelic rock as well as big band jazz. Nothing is off limits to Roscher: vocoder trip-hop, gothic cinematics, savage tremolopicking, Gil Evans-esque swells and colors and fire-and-brimstone art-rock sonics.

Fernando Otero – Romance
Some might call this indie classical or even nuevo tango, but the Argentine-born pianist’s sonata transcends genre. It’s a series of themes and variations split between instruments, interchanging between time signatures, interwoven like a secret code. Inspired by Argentine writer and clarinetist Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch, it invites the listener to decide on a “modular” sequence of tracks, perhaps a wry nod to the reality of how listeners work in the iphone era. Taken in sequence, just for starters, this is a harrowing ride.

Hee Hawk – s/t
The most stunning debut in recent months blends the pastoral with the noir: imagine Bill Frisell scoring a Roman Polanski film. Bandleader/pianist Adam Lipsky’s compositions embrace Americana as well as Romany and film music, often luridly. A torchy stripper blues, hints of the Balkans, Ethiopia, and noir soundtrack atmosphere mix with irrepressible oldtimey swing and a creepy, shivery bolero.

Amir ElSaffar – Alchemy
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter continues to push the envelope with Middle Eastern themes, melodies and technique while also employing western classical architecture. This is a sonata of sorts, two central themes with many variations. ElSaffar’s quintet deftly and fascinatingly allude to (and sometimes leap headfirst) into otherworldly microtonal modes throughout a series of sometimes stately, sometimes exuberant, hard-swinging explorations.

The Mary Halvorson Septet – Illusionary Sea
Lush but biting, the guitarist maintains a lustrous majesty livened with cold mechanical satire and an intricate, incessantly fascinating counterpoint. While Halvorson sometimes bares her fangs with terse, evilly squirrelly cadenzas, she’s not usually centerstage: she leaves that to the constantly shifting, rich interchange of harmonies.

Mostly Other People Do the Killing – Red Hot
The quartet – expanded to a septet with Brandon Seabrook’s banjo, Ron Stabinsky’s piano and David Taylor’s bass trombone – burn through their most caustic yet accessible album to date. With 20s hot jazz trending hard with the one-percenters, it became obvious that the time was right for the Spinal Tap of jazz to give the genre a vigorous twist to put it out of its misery. MOPDtK claim not to be satirical, but this could be their most aggressive, and wildly successful, spoof yet. What will these guys come up with next?

Jussi Reijonen – Un
A still, spacious, slowly unwinding masterpiece from the Finnish oudist/guitarist and his quartet. Original night-sky themes and a classic Coltrane cover feature lithely intertwining levantine grooves, bittersweetly Egyptian-flavored motifs and Utar Artun’s eerily twinkling chromatic piano.

Bobby Avey – Be Not So Long to Speak
The most Lennie Tristano-influenced album in recent months is this crushingly powerful, glimmering solo piano album. It’s a mix of clenched-teeth articulacy and brooding pools of moonlit, swampy menace, setting an unwaveringly creepy tone throughout brooding tone poems with jackhammer pedalpoint, hints of Erik Satie and Louis Andriessen.

Kenny Garrett – Pushing the World Away
Garrett gets back to what he does best on this mostly-quartet session packed with several latin-tinged grooves plus those menacing modal vamps that this era’s preeminent alto saxophonist loves so much and plays with such an instantly recognizable intensity.

Rudresh Mahanthappa – Gamak
The alto saxophonist expands his singular vernacular with this hard-hitting, rhythmic effort. With a stilletto precision, flurries of postbop liven both the bhangra interludes and sunnier, more pastoral pieces here; guitarist Dave Fiuczynski supplies his signature apprehensive, intense microtonal edge, sometimes veering off toward raw metalfunk.

Dave Douglas – Time Travel
This one doesn’t have Aiofe O’Donovan’s vocals, but Douglas’ translucent tunesmithing doesn’t miss them. The fine-tuned chemistry and interplay between trumpeter Douglas and Jon Irabagon on tenor sax, Linda Oh on bass, Rudy Royston on drums and Matt Mitchell on piano showcases one of the most instantly recognizable working bands of recent years, through anthemic arcs, alternately cumulo-nimbus and cirrus ambience, a slide-step stroll and Mad Men-era grooves.

The Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra – Bloom
Luminous, lush and symphonic in a Maria Schneider vein, the colors at play on this subtly rhythmic, constantly shapeshifting album tend to be bright, summery and vibrant. Translucent motifs shift through the arrangements with an unlikely nimble, assured, fleet-footedness for such majestic music. Sara Serpa’s haunting vocalese is the icing on the cake.

Marc Cary – For the Love of Abbey
Cary was Abbey Lincoln’s pianist and music director through the end of her career, and draws on that gig with a loving but also fierce intensity that does her justice. This highly improvised solo collection of Lincoln songs is stormy and ferociously articulate, like the singer herself. It’s cantabile, elegant and regal but also feral, with a shattering final salute.

Fred Hersch and Julian Lage – Free Flying
This tightly choreographed, swinging performance from pianist Hersch and guitarist Lage is so seamless and tightly fluid that it’s often impossible keep track of who’s playing what. A concert recording from the Kitano from earlier this year, it’s a series of Hersch homages to influences from across the spectrum, with a frequent Brazilian flair – and a throwback to Hersch’s indelible duo album with Bill Frisell about thirteen years ago.

Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra – Book of Rhapsodies
Something of a return to noir form for the trumpeter/bandleader, parsing innovative early third-stream compositions, some with a cinematic or cartoonish tinge, from some familiar and more obscure names from the 30s and 40s: Raymond Scott, Charlie Shavers, Louis Singer and Reginald Foresythe.

John Funkhouser – Still
This trio performance from the third-stream pianist/tunesmith alternates moody and rhythmic tunesmithing, murky dirges and lyrical third-stream glimmer. Brooding latinisms, a gloomy version of House of the Rising Sun and a pitch-black raga-inflected title track make this one of the year’s catchiest, hummable yet darkest releases.

Steve Coleman and Five Elements – Functional Arrythmias
On which the alto saxophonist pays homage to iconic drummer/polymath Milford Graves with a characteristically vivid, bouncily naturalistic series of illustrations of anatomical phenomena. Long, circular rhythmic patterns anchor tight counterpoint between the horns, bass and drums. Riffs are simple, direct and memorable as expected; funk beats morph through tricky time signatures, and nobody wastes notes.

And a shout out to Dan Willis & Velvet Gentlemen’s scary Satie Project Volume 2 album, as well as to Bryan & the Aardvarks, for their glimmering, nocturnal debut, Heroes of Make Believe. Both came out last year but missed the 2012 best-of list here. Since either of those albums could easily top this one, it would be remiss not to mention them here.

December 30, 2013 Posted by | jazz, lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Fred Hersch and Julian Lage Make a Memorable Live Duo Album

The crowd at the Japanese-owned Kitano Hotel in Murray Hill this past February got a tightly choreographed performance from pianist Fred Hersch and guitarist Julian Lage. Throughout their duo album Free Falling, recorded during their stand there, the two keep a strict tempo: no rubato or free interludes or similar messing around. That rich harmonic convergence is a clinic in  brisk, steady phrasing – imagine a snare-and-hi-hat shuffle beat underneath and the picture is complete. Much of the time it’s hard to distinguish who’s playing what, the performance is that seamless. The two will be at the Blue Note on November 25-27. no  doubt reprising and reimagining many of the songs on the album.

The opening number, Song without Words #4 opens as a neoromantic theme and gives way to a Brazilian-tinged romp highlighted by Lage’s solo – Egberto Gismonti-ish in the best sense of the word. Down Home, a Bill Frisell homage (and a reminder of Hersch’s memorable late-90s collaboration with the guitarist) evokes a strolling Willoughby, Connecticut of the mind (google the Twilight Zone episode if it’s not familiar), a rustic pastoral pre-ragtime theme that gives Lage a launching pad to take it up all the way.

Heartland – for Art Lande – gives Lage the chance to build a gently lyrical wee-hours theme. The title track – a Gismonti homage – is a spectacularly pointillistic neo-baroque duet with some particularly choice lo-hi contrasts from Hersch’s dancing piano and Lage’s Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds glimmer. Sam Rivers’ Beatrice gets reinvented as a similarly lithe song without words – this could be Gismonti too. Song without Words #3: Tango messes with a straight-up Argentine beat, Lage’s lines careful and incisive as Hersch builds to a dance. Stealthiness, a Jim Hall homage, gives Lage a chance to go just thisfar outside: there’s a devious Halloweenishness that Hall would not doubt approve of, whether Lage is jumping at the chance to take it doublespeed or let those double-string bends ring out loud and just long enough to pack a wallop. Gravity’s Pull – writtten for Mary Jo Salter – finally backs off on the steady tempo a little, deviously alluding to the REM college radio hit from a lifetime ago with a tightly interlocking polyrhythmic attack. The two wind up the album with a take of Monk’s Dream which builds to a droll game of chase before Hersch brings everything back to a purist bluesiness.

October 28, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Parade of Jazz and Classical Talent Showcases the Sonics at Subculture

There was no need for the parade of musicians on the bill this evening at Subculture to do anything more than phone in their performances. After all, they were only there to give a by-invite-only audience of media and a few friends an idea of how both amplified and unamplified acts sound in the newly renovated space. But they did far more than that: if the quality of most of these artists is an indication of what the venue will be booking in the coming months, that’s something to look forward to. And the sonics here are exquisite, to rival the Village Vanguard and Carnegie Hall: Subculture has quietly vaulted to the ranks of Manhattan’s top-tier listening rooms.

On the unamplified side, a-cappella quartet New York Polyphony – Christopher Dylan Herbert, Craig Phillips, Geoffrey Williams and Steven Caldicott Wilson – blended voices richly and intricately in pre-baroque Palestrina motets and then with a slyly joyous new arrangement of Rosie the Riveter. The up-and-coming ACJW String Quartet – Grace Park, Clara Lyon, John Stulz and Hannah Collins – made energetic work of a Philip Glass excerpt and then took what could have been Schubert’s String Quartet No. 12 – if Schubert had finished writing it – to the next level. The famous nocturnal theme became a suspenseful springboard for animated, even explosive cadenzas, a mystery unfolding with an increasing sense of triumph. Student ensembles can be erratic, but they also bring fresh ears and ideas to a performance and this was a prime example of that kind of confluence.

On the more groove-oriented side, pianist/chanteuse Laila Biali sang her driving, playful new arrangement of This Could Be the Start of Something New with Joel Frahm on tenor sax, Ike Sturm on bass and Jared Schonig on drums. The highlight of the night, unsurprisingly, was pianist Fred Hersch, who delivered an understatedly bittersweet, strolling blend of ragtime-tinged pastoral shades on Down Home, his homage to Bill Frisell (with whom he collaborated memorably about fifteen years ago), a standout track from Hersch’s new live album, Flying Free, with guitarist Julian Lage. Singer Jo Lawry then joined Hersch and over lush, glimmering, Debussy-esque cascades, delivered a biting, half-sung, half-narrated reflection on clueless parades of tourists in the Louvre crowding around to take pics and videos of the Mona Lisa – and then moving on. The two wound up their brief set, joined by Richie Barshay on hand drum, for an electrically dancing, animatedly conversational take of the new album’s bossa-flavored title track, an Egberto Gismonti tribute.

September 16, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 20 Best Jazz Albums of 2012

Assembling a year-end list that’s going to get a lot of traffic demands a certain degree of responsibility: to be paying attention, and to be keeping an eye on what’s lurking in the shadows because that’s usually where the action is. Gil Evans knew that, and that’s why he’s on this one.

As pretty much everybody knows, the final Dave Brubeck Quartet live show surfaced this year, as did the earliest known Wes Montgomery recordings, a tasty couple of rare Bill Evans live sets and a big box set of previously unreleased Mingus. The reason why they’re not on this list is because they’re on everybody else’s…and because they’re easy picks. This is an attempt to be a little more adventurous, to cast a wider net, to help spread the word about current artists whose work is every bit as transcendent. Obviously, there are going to be glaring omissions here: even the most rabid jazz advocate can only digest a few hundred albums a year at the most. And much as Henry Threadgill’s Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp and the historic Sam Rivers Trio’s Reunion: Live in New York are phenomenal albums, they both fell off the list since each has received plenty of praise elsewhere.

1. Wadada Leo Smith – Ten Freedom Summers
The trumpeter/bandleader’s massive four-cd box set is his magnum opus, as historically important as it is sonically rich, harrowing, cinematic and eclectic, anchored in the blues and gospel and taking flight pretty much everywhere else. Some will say that the string-driven sections of this restless Civil Rights Movement epic are classical music, and they’re probably right: Smith is just as formidable and powerful a composer in that idiom as he is in jazz. With a huge cast of characters, most notably pianist Anthony Davis and drummer Pheeroan AkLaff. This Cuneiform release gets the top spot for 2012.

2. Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans
Conductor/arranger Ryan Truesdell, a leading Evans scholar, unearthed and then recorded ten of the iconic composer’s most obscure big band works and arrangements for the first time, with the blessing of the composer’s family and an inspired cast of players. In a way, to fail to put this lush noir masterpiece at the top of the list is ridiculous, considering how emotionally intense, luminous, haunting and resonant this music is. As with Smith’s album, a huge lineup turns in a chilling performance, including possibly career-defining moments from drummer Lewis Nash, pianist Frank Kimbrough and especially vibraphonist Joe Locke. Truesdell heads up the Gil Evans Project, who put this out.

3. Hafez Modirzadeh – Post-Chromodal Out!
The most radical, paradigm-shifting and sonically intriguing album of the year was the Persian-American saxophonist’s latest adventure in microtonal music. Blue notes have defined jazz from the beginning, but this album is blue flames: and to be hubristic, here’s to the argument that this album is Vijay Iyer’s greatest shining moment so far, as he revels in a piano tuned in three-quarter tones to mimic the tetrachords of the music of Iran. An adventurous cast delivers overtone-fueled, sometimes gamelanesque mystery and menace through two suites, one by Modirzadeh, one by saxophonist Jim Norton. With Amir ElSaffar on trumpet, Ken Filiano on bass, Royal Hartigan on drums, Danongan Kalanduyan on kulintang, Faraz Minooei on santoor and Timothy Volpicella on guitar. Pi Records get credit for this one.

4. Ran Blake & Sara Serpa – Aurora
The second collaboration from the iconic noir pianist and the eclectic singer/composer is every bit as intense and otheworldly as their 2010 collaboration, Camera Obscura, and considerably more diverse. This one’s taken mostly from a concert  in Serpa’s native Portugal, a mix of classics, brilliant obscurities, icy/lurid cinematic themes and a riveting a-cappella take of Strange Fruit. It’s out on Clean Feed.

5. David Fiuczynski – Planet Microjam
A stunningly diverse set by the pioneering microtonal guitarist, joining  forces with Evan Marien on bass, Evgeny Lebedev on piano, David Radley on violin, Takeru Yamazaki on keyboards and a rotating cast of drummers including Kenwood Dennard, Jovol Bell, Jack DeJohnette and Club D’Elf’s Eric Kerr. Alternately otherworldly, wryly sardonic, ferocious and utterly Lynchian, Fiuczynski reinvents Beethoven as well as exploring Asian, Middle Eastern and Indian themes. It’s out from Rare Noise.

6. Neil Welch – Sleeper
The Seattle saxophonist leads a chamber jazz ensemble with Ivan Arteaga on alto and soprano saxes, Jesse Canterbury on bass clarinet, Vincent LaBelle on trombone and David Balatero and Natalie Hall on cellos through a chilling narrative suite about the murder of an Iraqi general, Abdel Hamed Mowhoush, tortured to death in American custody. Shostakovian ambience gives way to a cinematic trajectory laced with sarcasm and terrifying allusiveness. A triumph for Seattle’s Table and Chairs Music.

7. The Fab Trio – History of Jazz in Reverse
The late violin titan Billy Bang with bassist Joe Fonda and drummer Barry Altschul in a deep and casually riveting 2005 session, improvising a gospel-drenched Bea Rivers elegy, an Asian-tinged Don Cherry homage, a salsa vamp and chillingly chromatic funk and swing. Tum Records happily saw fit to pull this one out of the archives.

8. Giacomo Merega – Watch the Walls
The bassist is joined by his Dollshot saxophonist bandmate Noah Kaplan plus Marco Cappelli on guitar, Mauro Pagani on violin and Anthony Coleman on piano for a chillingly sepulchral series of improvisations that range from whispery, to atmospheric, to quietly horrific, to funereal: a bleak black-and-white film noir for the ears. Free jazz doesn’t get any better than this. It’s out on Underwolf Records.

9. Gregg August – Four By Six
The eclectic bassist from JD Allen’s trio (and the Brooklyn Philharmonic) writes intense, pulsing pan-latin themes, often with a brooding Gil Evans luminosity. This one mixes quartet and sextet pieces, with Sam Newsome on soprano sax, Luis Perdomo on piano and E.J. Strickland or Rudy Royston on drums,Yosvany Terry on alto sax, John Bailey on trumpet and  JD Allen on tenor sax.

10. Orrin Evans – Flip the Script
Glistening with gritty melody, wit, plaintiveness and unease, this is the pianist’s most straightforward and impactful small-group release to date (to distinguish it from his work with the mighty Captain Black Big Band), a trio session with bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Donald Edwards. Phantasmagorical blues, chromatic soul and a haunting reinvention of the old disco hit The Sound of Philadelphia are highlights of this Posi-Tone release.

11. The Fred Hersch Trio – Alive at the Vanguard
The pianist’s third live album at this mecca is a charm, like the other two, a lavish and gorgeously melodic double-disc set culled from his February, 2012 stand there with bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson  Mostly slow-to-midtempo with lots nocturnes, interplay, a Paul Motian homage, and happily plenty of Hersch’s lyrical originals. It’s out on Palmetto.

12. Brian Charette – Music for Organ Sextette
Organ jazz doesn’t get any more interesting or cutting-edge than this richly arranged, characteristically witty, high-energy session with Charette on the B3 along with John Ellis taking a turn on bass clarinet, Jay Collins on flute, Joel Frahm on tenor, Mike DiRubbo on alto and Jochen Rueckert on drums. Eclectic themes – a reggae trope gone to extremes, a baroque fugue, jaggedly Messiaenic funk and gospel grooves – make a launching pad for witty repartee.

13. Tia Fuller – Angelic Warrior
The saxophonist shows off her sizzilng postbop chops on both soprano and alto sax on a fiery mix of mostly original compositions with a warm camaderie among the band: Shamie Royston on piano, Rudy Royston on drums, Mimi Jones on bass, John Patitucci playing single-note guitar-style leads on piccolo bass, Shirazette Tinnin on percussion. Terri Lyne Carrington on drums on three tracks, and Dianne Reeves adding an aptly misty vocal on Body and Soul  It’s a Mack Avenue release.

14. Guy Klucevsek –  The Multiple Personality Reunion Tour
The irrepressible accordionist teams up with members of novoya polka stars Brave Combo for this playful, brightly entertaining, characteristically devious romp through waltzes, cinematic themes, and reinventions of Erik Satie. With Marcus Rojas on tuba, Jo Lawry on vocals, John Hollenbeck on drums, Dave Douglas on trumpet, Brandon Seabrook on guitar, Steve Elson on tenor sax and many others. It’s out on Innova.

15. Old Time Musketry – Different Times
On their auspicious debut, multi-reedman Adam Schneit and multi-keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch lead this quartet with bassist Phil Rowan and drummer Max Goldman through a moody yet rhythmically intense mix of wintry, pensive, Americana-tinged themes in the same vein as the best work of Bill Frisell or Jeremy Udden.

16. Endemic Ensemble – Lunar
For some reason, Seattle has put out a ton of good music this year and this is yet another example, a tuneful mix of swing, droll minatures and a darkly majestic clave tune, all with bright and distinct horn charts. With Steve Messick on bass, Ken French on drums, David Franklin on piano, Matso Limtiaco on baritoine saxes amd Travis Ranney on saxes

17. The Danny Fox Trio – The One Constant
We may have lost Brubeck, but lyrical third-stream composition is in good hands with guys like pianist Danny Fox, gritting his teeth here with bassist Chris van Voorst van Beest and drummer Max Goldman throughout this edgy, bitingly vivid, occasionally sardonic set of mood pieces and cruelly amusing narratives

18. Slumgum – Quardboard Flavored Fiber
Rainy-day improvisation, noirish third-stream themes, latin and funk interludes, Sam Fuller-style cinematic themes for a new century and playful satire from this fearless LA quartet: Rory Cowal on piano, Joe Armstrong on tenor sax, Dave Tranchina on bass and Trevor Anderies on drums.

19. Catherine Russell – Strictly Romancin’
Guitarist Matt Munisteri is the svengali behind this historically rich, expansive, soulful Louis Armstrong homage from the chanteuse whose multi-instrumentalist dad played with Satchmo for many years. With 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. From Harmonia Mundi.

20. Juhani Aaltonen and Heikki Sarmanto – Conversations
Two old lions of Nordic jazz, Finnish tenor saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen and pianist Heikki Sarmanto trade on and off lush, nocturnal modal themes throughout this lavish, casually vivid double-disc set. Notes linger and are never wasted, the two take their time and leave a mark that’s either warmly resonant or broodingly ominous. A Tum Records release.

21. Bass X3 – Transatlantic
For anyone who might think that this is a joke, or a novelty record – Chris Dahlgren and Clayton Thomas’ basses blending with Gebhard Ullmann’s bass clarinet – you have to hear it. For fans of low tonalities, it’s sonic bliss, the centerpiece being a roughly 45-minute drone improvisation broken up into three parts, spiced with playfully ghostly embellishments amidst brooding desolation and hypnotic, suspenseful rumbles. A Leo Records release.

December 25, 2012 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment