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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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

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

Fred Hersch’s Coma Dreams Premiered Memorably in New Jersey

My Coma Dreams: the title of Fred Hersch’s eclectic new multimedia suite evokes a lurid, surreal netherworld. At the world premiere yesterday at Montclair State College in Montclair, New Jersey, the brilliant jazz pianist and an eleven-piece ensemble conducted by Gregg Kallor revealed it to be definitely surreal, less lurid than one would imagine, blackly amusing and ultimately a genuinely heartwarming portrait of joie de vivre triumphing over enormous odds. In order to facilitate a cure for a particularly virulent case of pneumonia, the doctors at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York put Hersch into a medically induced coma, from which he was not expected to emerge as his old self, perhaps not at all. Yet he did, and after what must have been a grueling rehabilitation process, resumed playing, touring and ultimately making a beautifully lyrical solo album, Alone at the Vanguard, this past December. Hersch’s newest work makes a good companion piece to John Kelly’s The Escape Artist (just reviewed here), another harrowing narrative with a similar gallows humor, also set at St. Vincent’s.

With a narrative by Herschel Garfein, spoken and often sung by actor Michael Winther, the suite shifts between the dreams that Hersch was able to remember from his two months in the coma, along with Hersch’s own observations and those of his doctor and his lover, who maintained a resolute vigil throughout the ordeal. The transitions between narrative voices can be awkward – sometimes it’s less than clear who’s telling the story. But to paraphrase Garfein’s program notes, the story takes a back seat to Hersch’s musical interpretation of it, and of the dreams, often stunningly lyrical, haunting and also uproariously funny.

In one of the early dreams, Hersch finds himself bound and gagged in the back of a van. How he tries to ransom himself from his kidnapers is characteristic of the wry surrealism here, and it’s vividly portrayed via a frantically pulsing, Mingus-esque tableau that gave drummer John Hollenbeck a deliciously amusing interlude to sprint from the scene, less Keystone Kops than Dragnet. Another dream involves a party on a plane – and then another plane, albeit one either set in another century, or with costumes to match. “One cool airline!” is Hersch’s interpretation, the band swinging through a sultry tango-flavored piece lit up by the string quartet of violinists Joyce Hammann and Laura Seaton, violist Ron Lawrence and Deoro cellist Dave Eggar.

The most stunning number on the bill relates to a dream concerning a duo improvisation in Brussels that is fraught with anxiety but ultimately works out well. Beginning with a hypnotic, plucked pedal figure on violin, much of it is essentially a one-chord vamp that builds to an almost cruel suspense with a long, surreal, noir Twin Peaks piano solo whose bright, lurid menace is literally breathtaking. That tune is soon followed by an equally vivid one where Hersch – a Thelonious Monk devotee – finds himself in a cage alongside the guy with the beard and the hat. There’s a composition contest: whoever comes up with a piece of music first gets out. Hersch busies himself while Monk relaxes with a grin; the music gives Hersch an opportunity to literally channel Monk’s playing, with every subtle and not-so-subtle weird dissonance, smokily warped blues phrase and roll he can come up with – and there are many. It’s the longest section here.

The two funniest ones are parodies, and both got the audience roaring: the first a sendup of a schmaltzy girl-in-a-coma afterschool special tv show, the second titled Jazz Diner, a cruelly entertaining account of another dream where Hersch finds himself playing straight man to a diva doing hours and hours at a jazz diner in the woods. Just when the satire starts to feel interminable, Hersch decides he’s had enough and makes the piece interesting,  Steven Lugerner‘s tenor solo beginning as something of a spoof but soon taking off with an energetic unease. By contrast, Hersch offers a requiem, stately and elegant with the strings gently amping the sadness, for the now-shuttered St. Vincent’s – the first New York hospital to have an AIDS ward, which Hersch credits with saving his life more than once.

There are also songs, and strangely, neither Hersch’s cerebral wit nor his purist melodicism translate to them: the effect is like following Monk with Journey, or more accurately, Andrew Lloyd Webber. But except for one of them, they’re over soon. There’s also a video component, which at best is redundant and at worst is distracting (jazz audiences like to watch the musicians). But the strength of the compositions, and the playing, transcends these minor flaws. The rest of the ensemble included trombonist Mike Christianson, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, multi-reedman Adam Kolker and bassist John Hebert: one hopes that this stellar crew can be part of the Manhattan premiere of this powerful and compelling work.

May 9, 2011 Posted by | concert, drama, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fred Hersch: Good to Be Alive at the Vanguard

This is one of those rare albums that will appeal to casual listeners just as much as headphone wearers seeking something more cerebral or emotionally impactful. In a lot of ways, it’s a good-to-be-alive album. A couple of years ago, no one knew whether or not iconic pianist Fred Hersch would be around to make this, considering how few people have survived a two-month coma, much less returned to their old selves afterward. But that’s what Hersch did, even after having had to relearn his instrument. His new album, Alone at the Vanguard is oldschool, being the entire final set of the final night, December 5, 2010 of his solo stand at that jazz mecca. Surprisingly, it was Hersch, not Ellington or McCoy Tyner or even Brad Mehldau who was the first pianist to get a solo weeklong gig there. Hersch brags that he was “in the zone” for this set, which is an understatement, and after all he’s been through, he deserves to blow his own horn a little. Hersch can do many things well: here he features a richly chordal, third-stream attack, late Romantic emotional intelligence through the randomizing prism of jazz.

In the Wee Small Hours of Morning, which opens the album, ripples with that chordal attack and a long, fascinating series of lefthand/righthand tradeoffs, starlit ambience shifting to a relaxed, wee-hours vibe. The jaunty Down Home, dedicated to Bill Frisell, has a sly Donald Fagen feel and includes a devious Wizard of Oz quote (no, it’s not Somewhere over the Rainbow). The most memorable track here, Echoes, builds from a hypnotic kaleidoscope of noirisms to expressive cascades and a vividly vigorous overture of sorts: of all the songs here (and they are songs in the purest sense of the word), this is the most solidly upbeat, less defiant than simply enjoying the moment. Likewise, Pastorale (a Schumann homage) crescendos with an almost baroque, fugal architecture – the conversation goes back and forth between the hands and never gets tiresome.

Lee’s Dream has a surprisingly sprightly, ragtime-ish elegance, something of a surprise for a song dedicated to Lee Konitz, legend of cool jazz. Jacob de Bandolim’s Doce de Coco slowly and fascinatingly evinces a bossa bounce and hints of the blues from the Brazilian composer’s matter-of-factly fluid lines. Eubie Blake’s Memories of You gets a steely, often clenched-teeth intensity that winds down with a bitter grace; Hersch closes on a balmy, bluesy note with Sonny Rollins’ Doxy (to appreciate the warmth of this take on it, you ought to hear Jon Irabagon’s relentlessly assaultive version on his Foxy album). Fred Hersch will be at the Jazz Standard March 2-6 with a typically first-class cast of characters including guitarist Julian Lage and tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger,who’s rightfully riding a big wave of buzz at the moment.

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