Lucid Culture

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.

Advertisements

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

Bass Heaven Is Here on Earth

For fans of low tonalities, BassX3’s new album Transatlantic is heaven. It’s the second one from multi-reedman Gebhard Ullmann (who plays bass clarinet and bass flute) with bassists Chris Dahlgren and Clayton Thomas. To call this the best jazz album of the year so far invites all kinds of arguments – after all, can a recording this opaque, rhythmically inchoate and impossibly esoteric be much more than a curio? Absolutely! Whether you consider this free jazz, ambient music or indie classical, it’s a rich, murky masterpiece. Its centerpiece is the title track, an epic, 33-minute three-part suite. The low drone of the two basses being bowed in tandem builds a chocolatey mist laced with overtones, with the occasional creak, thud or rattle, evoking the hum of the diesels and maybe a hammock swaying in a stateroom. You could call it the Titanic Theme – from the point of view of passengers in steerage, anyway. Ulllmann, as usual, doesn’t limit himself to any preconceived tonalities, offering a blithely whistling microtonal solo in the first segment as the bassists rattle the occasional random household item like ghosts flitting through the sonic frame.

The other tracks here are just as enjoyable and much less static. The Thing features burbling, echoey twin basses with the bass clarinet wandering the moors, off to the side; then the basses back away, leaving Ullmann prowling contentedly, centerstage. The No Place has the bass flute looming pensive and minimalistic over jagged, distantly percussive bass chords and atonal accents and the occasional jarring pluck of a string: an Asian-tinged horror film score for before the point where the suspense reaches the level of a scream. The aptly titled Epic layers minutely wavering bass flute over a rather menacing backdrop of overtones and low washes; then the group all go spiraling around in what sounds like the bottom of a well before returning to a lusciously droning rumble that Ullmann uses as a long launching pad for some unexpectedly energetic low bass clarinet work. Ornette’s Closet contrasts brightly bouncing clarinet over echoey low-register playfulness; the diptych Berlin Is Full of Lonely People, a desolate, brooding tone poem, is the most melodically memorable track here.

Ullmann also has a considerably more lively if less intense release out with his Clarinet Trio, simply titled 4, featuring him playing bass clarinet alongside Jurgen Kupke on clarinet and Michael Thieke on alto clarinet. Fans of Ullmann’s back catalog will find this casually conversational session more in line with his previous free jazz work. The tracks include an artfully disassembled, brightly layered Balkan cocek dance; a wryly swaying, atonal blues; a tensely exploding tone poem that might have been a sketch for Transatlantic; a playfully martial study in low-register clusters; all sorts of friendly jousting, and an Ornette Coleman cover. Both albums are out now on Leo Records.

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

Conference Call Doesn’t Phone This One In

You have to give these guys credit, they fly without a net every time. By the time reed player/composer Gebhard Ullmann’s quartet Conference Call played their concert on April 22, 2007 in Krakow, they were a well-oiled machine. As far outside as some of their improvisations go, the chemistry in the band is visceral: at this point, they could just press “record” and go for it, knowing they’d get something worthwhile out of it. And as reliably adventurous as these players are – Ullmann on saxes and bass clarinet, Michael Jefry Stevens on piano, Joe Fonda on bass and George Schuller on drums – there’s far more structure and melody in the performances on this album, What About…? than might seem evident at first listen. It’s a long album, two cds and almost an hour and a quarter’s worth of music, but virtually all of it will hold your attention if you listen closely. Jazz doesn’t get any more psychedelic than this.

A cynic would say that the Europeans always go for the weirdest stuff, and these guys start out weird – a flutter of the sax, a wrinkle of the piano, and eventually they work in tandem, fluttering as the bass and drums do recon. But ultimately Ullmann is the scout here, as he will be for the rest of the night, searching overhead as the piano pounds gently – the two converse briefly and then bass and drums join the agitation. They segue into the next two tracks – a tastily chromatic, minimalist piano rumble with variations and then a slowly pulsing nocturne, overtone-laden bowed bass and sax whistling and weaving out of focus, adding a vertiginous, off-center unease. As with many of the tracks here, they fade out gracefully when everyone’s said all they have to say.

Ullmann frequently goes completely against the central key here, with bracingly effective results, particularly on the fourth track – the first of a loosely connected three-part suite – that blends both classical and funk piano tinges while the sax flies overhead. And the device adds considerable humor on the practically seventeen-minute second part, Ullmann swinging obliviously as the rest of the band prowl around, tentative and ominous until they finally coalesce and take it up to a clever false ending.

The second cd opens with Fonda taking over the obliviously swinging role after a long, tersely played yet expansive intro. Stevens’ sardonically titled Could This Be a Polka is actually one of the most memorably warped tangos ever written, Ullmann’s bass clarinet indignant, insistent and eventually even belligerent as the piano brings it back out of the chaos when least expected. Litmus, by Schuller builds from conspiratorial call-and-response to a long machine-gun vamp; Ullmann’s Translucent Tones is an impressionistic exercise in shadowplay, glimmer versus low thoughtful washes of sound as the piano slowly establishes a camouflaged lento groove. The jauntily amusing title track is basically a swing tune with the rhythm stripped away (a paradox, but that’s what makes it so much fun), piano, bass and drums hinting at it but never quiet going there as Ullmann blithely sways along, completely on his own for almost the entire eight minutes. As intriguingly and surprisingly melodic as this album is, it has legs well beyond the free jazz/outsider jazz crowd who are its primary audience.

August 18, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Ullmann/Swell 4 – News? No News

The most recent jazz album we reviewed here was part sleepy bedtime jazz and part solace-after-a-hard-day jazz. The one before that was boudoir jazz. The Ullmann/Swell 4’s debut as a unit together is fun jazz, headphone jazz, the kind of album where it’s obvious from the first few notes what a good time the band is having. You want psychedelic? Wow. The star of the show, at the absolute top of his game here, is veteran drummer Barry Altschul. He refuses to sit still or stop misbehaving, in the process delivering a clinic in how to propel a song on the off-beat. Meanwhile, the group converse and shift shapes, careening joyously between blazing hooks and impressively terse, actually interesting free jazz interplay. They open it up rousingly with Altschul establishing what will be his trademark here, rumbling and crashing around under a circular horn motif, trombonist Steve Swell eventually running amok, then tossing the hot potato to his co-leader, tenor saxist Gebhard Ullmann.

The second track, aptly title New York opens with a swaying vamp and a sly bluesy hook – Swell takes over as the boom turns into more of a crash, bustle alternating with chaos. Like New York, the underpinning is sturdy and stands up to constant use. Track three is similar to two but quieter, morphing into a crashing swing number with Ullmann skirting the melody, resisting it as the drums do the same with the rhythm. They follow that with a more exploratory joint, Ullmann throwing off some high overtones and getting into a casual conversation with Swell.

The next cut takes a pretty, cinematic ballad and pulls the wings off, Ullmann and Swell in turn, and all of a sudden they bring it back but Altschul is still off in cumulo-nimbus land somewhere.The title track gets sandwiched by two artfully constructed improvisations, the first kind of like what happens when four jazz guys walk into a very quiet bar, the second far more invigorated. The song itself percolates along on a catchy bass hook from Hilliard Greene, who plays ringmaster, whether heating it up for a fiery duel between Swell and Ullmann’s bass clarinet, or simply holding it together as Altschul does his thing. The cheery Berlin has Greene’s bouncy pulse again providing the glue as the horns slowly and ineluctably take it outside. The album ends on a high note with the multistylistic showcase Airtight, playfully swoopy bass turning into a funk vamp as Altschul prowls around and swipes at his cymbals to keep the cliches away, Ullmann’s bass clarinet solo all over the place register-wise, trombone fluttering as bass and bass clarinet interlock hypnotically with the drums, finally Greene’s reliable low register signaling the way out of the labyrinth. There’s a lot going on here, headphones absolutely required.

March 6, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment