Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Todd Marcus Brings His Mighty, Majestic Middle Eastern Jazz to Brooklyn

Todd Marcus is not only one of the great individualists in jazz, he’s also a great composer. His axe is the bass clarinet, which he’s worked hard to elevate from mere anchor of the low reeds to a lead instrument, something that requires some pretty heavy lifting. If you have to hang a title on his new album Blues for Tahrir, you could call it big band jazz, which with a powerhouse nine-man cast of characters it assuredly is. But it transcends genre: it’s Middle Eastern, and it’s cinematic, and it has a mighty angst-fueled majesty that under ideal circumstances also ought to reach the rock audience that gravitates toward artsy bands like Radiohead or Pink Floyd. There’ve been some amazing big band jazz albums issued in the past few years, but none as good as this since Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society released their withering anti-gentrification broadside Brooklyn Babylon in 2012. As happened with that album, time may judge Blues for Tahrir to be a classic.

It’s a complex, bittersweet response to the hope and also the disappointments in the wake of the Arab Spring. The band comprises Greg Tardy on tenor sax, Brent Birckhead on alto sax and flute, Russell Kirk on alto sax, Alex Norris on trumpet, Alan Ferber on trombone, Xavier Davis on piano, Jeff Reed on bass, Eric Kennedy on drums, Jon Seligman on percussion and Irene Jalenti on vocals.

Taking its title from Tahrir Square – ground zero for the freedom fighters of the 2011 revolution in Cairo – the album opens with Many Moons, stately horn harmonies joining in an enigmatic march before Marcus introduces the lively, dancing central theme. Brightly assertive voices shift shape throughout the orchestra, setting the stage for the bandleader to pensively weave up to an uneasily sailing crescendo, Davis leading the band into a clearing and a triumphantly cinematic coda.

Adhan, the opening segment of the four-part Blues for Tahrir Suite, foreshadows the revolution with both angst and determination, variations on a fervent muezzin’s call to prayer, a lively and purposeful alto sax interlude at the center. Reflections, a new arrangement of Blues for Tahrir, from Marcus’ previous album, Inheritance, follows a judicious pulse that alternates between optimism and dread, Marcus’s solo channeling the former. Tears on the Square vividly mirrors the horror and loss of the government’s deadly assaults on the revolutionaries there, stark solo bass introducing a funereal theme pairing bass clarinet and wordless vocals with a wounded, distant outrage from the full orchestra. The suite winds up with the bustling, noir-tinged Protest, leaving no doubt that the struggle is far from over.

Wahsouli – Arabic for “my arrival” – mingles a gripping, sternly majestic theme within an intricately orchestrated swing groove and clever tempo shifts, Tardy bobbing and weaving overhead. Bousa – meaning “a kiss” – draws on the emotionally charged balladry of legendary Egyptian crooner Abdel Halim Hafez, a slinky, suspensefully dynamic anthem with subtle Latin tinges. The album’s two selections not written by Marcus are Gary Young’s Alien, a moodily enveloping but kinetic and soul-infused platform for Jalenti’s brooding alto vocals, and a darkly resonant, driving take of Summertime. This album will give you chills. And you can see Marcus and ensemble play it live at Shapeshifter Lab on May 18 with sets at 8:15 and 9:30 PM.

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May 15, 2015 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Elio Villafranca Brings His Blazing Original Afro-Cuban Grooves Back to JALC

Eclectic, intense Cuban pianist Elio Villafranca & the Jass Syncopators have made Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center pretty much their home in NYC. They’ve got another weekend stand coming up June 13-15, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. The lineup is pretty much the same as their last stand here, the notable change being Steve Turre on trombone and his signature conch shells in place of trumpeter Terrell Stafford. Which probably means more time in the spotlight for saxophonist Vincent Herring, always a good sign. Here’s what they sounded like in the room about eighteen months ago:

“You might think from their name that Elio Villafranca & the Jass Syncopators play New Orleans second-line marches, or hot jazz from the 20s. In actuality, that’s just how the word for their music is pronounced in Spanish. Last night at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Cuban pianist and his allstar lineup romped through an expert and exhilarating blend of salsa and hard bop with richly melodic interludes and the occasional plunge into third-stream sounds. That’s been a common trait among Cuban pianists practically since the days of Ernesto Lecuona – at least those evil conquistadors left one good thing on the island, the “classical tinge,” to twist a Jelly Roll Morton phrase. Much as that is one of Villafranca’s signature characteristics, this show was all about the party: watching the couples sit and sway rapturously with the lights of Manhattan glimmering from high across the park, it was surprising that there wasn’t anyone other than guest dancer Mara Garcia undulating up there with the band.

Throughout the night’s early set, Villafranca for the most part eschewed flashy soloing in lieu of an endless groove, whether that be a frequently polyrhythmic salsa slink – Villafranca is one of the most rhythmic pianists anywhere – with straight-ahead swing, a couple of detours into rumbling Puerto Rican bomba and a long, fiery mambo at the end. Locked in with the tumbling piano, tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy alternated between hard-driving flights and warm melodicism and a wryly smoky bourdoir jazz interlude toward the end of the bomba tune. Trumpeter Terrell Stafford blasted through bop grit with rapidfire glissandos and trills…and a descent into genial blues at the end of his last solo, when he’d taken it so high that there was nowhere else to go. Alto saxophonist Vincent Herring served as a powerful foil to all the goodnatured wailing, adding a biting, sometimes haunting, modally-fueled gravitas. Bassist Carlos Henriquez held to a purist, terse groove – and took one of the night’s most memorable solos, voicing a horn. Drummer Lewis Nash seemed to be having the most fun of anyone up there as he swung through conga riffs, artful clave variations that leaned on the off beat, and a jovial bounce that was all the more powerful for its simplicity.

Augmenting the rhythm was an excellent two-man team of congas and bongos, Puerto Rico’s Anthony Carrillo and the Dominican Republic’s Jonathan Troncoso. The attractively lyrical opening number, Incantations, had Villafranca staking his claim to nimble, hair-raising polyrhythms. The band bookended a brightly pouncing, riff-driven tune with dark streetcorner conga breaks, following with a song ‘dedicated to politics,’ A Great Debater, Villafranca driving its insistence to a clamoring crescendo followed by a playful Nash solo. They wound up by taking a new, untitled bomba tune and swinging it with bisected, lyrical/frenetic solos from the horns, and then the big mambo at the end where Villafranca finally took off for the upper registers with a breathtaking tumbao assault: as cruelly as he hit the keys, the groove never wavered. It was every bit as adrenalizing to watch as it must be to dance to.”

June 5, 2014 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Elio Villafranca: Blazing Original Afro-Cuban Grooves at JALC

You might think from their name that Elio Villafranca & the Jass Syncopators play New Orleans second-line marches, or hot jazz from the 20s. In actuality, that’s just how the word for their music is pronounced in Spanish. Last night at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Cuban pianist and his allstar lineup romped through an expert and exhilarating blend of salsa and hard bop with richly melodic interludes and the occasional plunge into third-stream sounds. That’s been a common trait among Cuban pianists practically since the days of Ernesto Lecuona – at least those evil conquistadors left one good thing on the island, the “classical tinge,” to twist a Jelly Roll Morton phrase. Much as that is one of Villafranca’s signature characteristics, this show was all about the party: watching the couples sit and sway rapturously with the lights of Manhattan glimmering from high across the park, it was surprising that there wasn’t anyone other than guest dancer Mara Garcia undulating up there with the band.

Throughout the night’s early set, Villafranca for the most part eschewed flashy soloing in lieu of an endless groove, whether that be a frequently polyrhythmic salsa slink – Villafranca is one of the most rhythmic pianists anywhere – with straight-ahead swing, a couple of detours into rumbling Puerto Rican bomba and a long, fiery mambo at the end. Locked in with the tumbling piano, tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy alternated between hard-driving flights and warm melodicism and a wryly smoky bourdoir jazz interlude toward the end of the bomba tune. Trumpeter Terrell Stafford blasted through bop grit with rapidfire glissandos and trills…and a descent into genial blues at the end of his last solo, when he’d taken it so high that there was nowhere else to go. Alto saxophonist Vincent Herring served as a powerful foil to all the goodnatured wailing, adding a biting, sometimes haunting, modally-fueled gravitas. Bassist Carlos Enrique held to a purist, terse groove – and took one of the night’s most memorable solos, voicing a horn. Drummer Lewis Nash seemed to be having the most fun of anyone up there as he swung through conga riffs, artful clave variations that leaned on the off beat, and a jovial bounce that was all the more powerful for its simplicity.

Augmenting the rhythm was an excellent two-man team of congas and bongos, Puerto Rico’s Anthony Carrillo and the Dominican Republic’s Jonathan Troncoso. The attractively lyrical opening number, Incantations, had Villafranca staking his claim to nimble, hair-raising polyrhythms. The band bookended a brightly pouncing, riff-driven tune with dark streetcorner conga breaks, following with a song “dedicated to politics,” A Great Debater, Villafranca driving its insistence to a clamoring crescendo followed by a playful Nash solo. They wound up by taking a new, untitled bomba tune and swinging it with bisected, lyrical/frenetic solos from the horns, and then the big mambo at the end where Villafranca finally took off for the upper registers with a breathtaking tumbao assault: as cruelly as he hit the keys, the groove never wavered. It was every bit as adrenalizing to watch as it must be to dance to. Villafranca and his “jass” band are back at Dizzy’s Club tonight and tomorrow if you’re in the mood.

October 12, 2012 Posted by | concert, jazz, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Falkner Evans’ New Album Blends Smarts and Accessibility

The arrangements on jazz pianist/composer Falkner Evans’ new album The Point of the Moon sound bigger than they are. This little band – a quartet, mostly – often delivers the anthemic grandeur of a group twice their size or even larger. That’s an especially impressive achievement for Evans, considering that much of his recent work has been in a trio setting. In addition to a rhythm section including Belden Bullock on bass and the ubiquitously counterintuitive Matt Wilson on drums, there’s the horn section of Greg Tardy on tenor sax and Ron Horton on trumpet, with Gary Versace joining the mix on the final two tracks.

The brightness and accessibility of the tunes often masks their depth and complexity: this is hummable stuff, but it’s also not shallow. The album gets off to something of a false start: if the undeniably pretty opening cut, Altered Soul, has you thinking “lounge-ola,” hang in there, they’re not phoning it in, they’re just warming up. The second track, Drawing In, is a gently and deftly syncopated wee hours ballad. An elusive Tardy line gives way to what’s as close to a lush chart for two voices as you can possibly imagine, then hands it off to both sax and trumpet in turn, with a playfully pointillistic bass solo, Horton spinning and dipping gracefully out of it.

Dorsoduro manages to swing blithely without being cloying, Tardy taking his time and exploring both the upper and lower registers, Evans maintaining the nocturnal congeniality. The most energetic track here, Cheer Up briskly scurries out of a tricky intro with a high-flying Tardy bop solo. The fun is contagious, and the whole band gets into it, especially Wilson. By contrast, Jobim’s O Grande Amor gets a welcome dose of gravitas, the whole rhythm section leaving it to another one of those juicy horn charts, Horton going long and blues-infused, Evans keeping it terse, playing it close to his vest, a little wounded.

Slightest Movement follows practically as a segue, reverting to the saloon-jazz warmth of the earlier part of the album. The standard While We’re Young is done as a Mad Men era jazz waltz. Off the Top, a swing tune, has the feel of a standard, something you can’t quite put your finger on and that’s because it’s an original. With Versace’s lush organ work, it’s like a 50s/60s Ellington combo and Procol Harum hanging out all together at the hotel bar after the show. The album closes on a potent note with the gorgeously plaintive, tango-infused title cut, lowlit by Versace’s accordion and another one of those big/little horn charts. As a whole, it’s a very successful blend of catchy tunesmithing, inspired writing and playing.

August 9, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sue Mingus Talks About the Mingus Big Band’s New CD, Live at Jazz Standard

The Mingus Big Band’s new album Live at Jazz Standard came out a little earlier this year, an exuberant and often exhilarating mix of classics by the pantheonic composer and bassist. The virtuosic repertory unit who play Mondays nights at the club leap from noir tension, to dizzying bop, to genially melodic playfulness with a focus, intensity and camaraderie that does justice to the composer (full review here coming soon). Sue Mingus – Charles Mingus’ widow, executive producer of the album, and tireless advocate and director of the Mingus repertory bands – gave us some characteristically reflective responses to our questions about the album:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: How happy are you with the new cd?

Sue Mingus: It’s great musicians playing great music. We’re pleased.

LCC: Can I ask why the decision was made to record on New Year’s Eve rather than just some random date? Didn’t the prospect of your typical noisy, increasingly drunken New Year’s Eve crowd scare you off? Admittedly, a Mingus audience tends to be somewhat more urbane than your average New Year’s Eve crowd, but didn’t that concern cross your mind?

SM: No, not at all. We like our audiences any night of the week. We chose to play New Year’s Eve since it’s one of the big nights of the year at a club where we have a residency, the Jazz Standard. Also because we were recorded by NPR that night and broadcast nationally. I should add that the main reason for doing this cd was that we were celebrating, fifty years later, three of the seminal jazz albums. 1959 was a banner year for jazz: Coltrane, Brubeck, Mingus and a number of others put out some of their most important albums. Entering 2009, we were celebrating, fifty years later, Mingus Ah Um, Mingus Blues and Roots, and Mingus Dynasty. We chose material from those three albums.

LCC: You served as executive producer on this album, so you also selected the songs?

SM: Yes, since it was those albums we were celebrating.

LCC: What is your specific role in relation to the various Mingus repertory bands: this group, the Mingus Big Band and also the Mingus Orchestra and the original unit, Mingus Odyssey?

SM: I started them and I hired them!

LCC: Do you also audition the musicians?

SM: We don’t really need to audition – word gets around! A week ago, last Monday we had a wonderful trumpeter, Avishai Cohen and also Greg Tardy on tenor sax sitting in. New musicians are coming into the band all the time. We have a large pool, over 150 musicians who have learned this music: I have a big spectrum I can draw from each week. I hire the musicians each week and commission the arrangements. A lot of the arrangements are made by the members of the band, for example, last week the band played Meditations for Moses, arranged by bass player Boris Kozlov.

LCC: In addition to the many extraordinary musicians who play Mingus regularly with this unit, there are a couple of ringers on this album, notably Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums – who really takes the energy to the next level – and Randy Brecker on trumpet. How did they come to be part of this recording?

SM: Randy played with us from the start – he was in the original Mingus Dynasty frequently. He’s been playing this music since Charles died and well before: he and Michael Brecker were on the last album with Charles, who as you know, by that time couldn’t play since he was in a wheelchair. Randy’s been a Mingus player for a long time; Jeff plays with us frequently. It wasn’t like outsiders who didn’t know the music.

LCC: It’s been awhile since the Mingus Big Band did an album. When was the last one?

SM: 2007. Live in Tokyo.

LCC: Can we talk a little about the individual tracks? What do you prefer, the Elvis Costello version of Hora Decubitus or the version here, with vocals by Ku-umba Frank Lacy?

SM: I like them both obviously. We love Frank Lacy, he’s a marvelous jazz singer, but we also love Elvis Costello’s version – as you know, he wrote the lyrics.

LCC: Do you have a favorite among the songs on the new album?

SM: It’s hard to choose favorites with Mingus! You want something uptempo? You want something with a classical form, a latin piece, bebop, a beautiful ballad, an extended work? It’s all part of the whole.

LCC: Since the Jazz Standard has one of your bands at the club every Monday, have you thought of doing what the New York Philharmonic Orchestra does, recording pretty much everything and making it available for sale on itunes?

SM (laughs): All it takes is money! We’ve done a dozen albums with the Mingus Big Band, so much of the repertoire has been recorded. But as you know it’s a vast amount of music, and it’s very expensive, to hire the musicians, a studio, the engineers and so forth. It’s a worthy idea, if you know any volunteers for the cause, send them over!

LCC: How do you feel about the fact that a lot of people, maybe the majority of people who hear this album will only hear it in mp3 format rather than at its sonic best on the cd?

SM: I don’t know. People’s listening habits over the years have changed so incredibly much. What do you think?

LCC: I think that the ipod is the new transistor radio. Back in the day there were people who listened to the radio that way and were perfectly satisfied, just as I think that some people are satisfied with the sound of a mp3.

SM: People are used to mp3s now, some people prefer it…

LCC: True. One last question, this is not an easy one, not something we could ever know for sure: what do you think Charles Mingus would have gone on to do, had he lived? When we lost him, in 1979, for example, hip-hop was just around the corner. Do you think he would have embraced that?

SM: It might have been not as challenging as he would have liked. An album he listened to the most the last six months of his life was Cumbia and Jazz Fusion. There’s one whole side that’s cumbia jazz. The other side is the piece Todo Modo, which is “third stream,” as Gunther Schuller called it, classical-jazz fusion. Had he lived, I think that’s the direction he would have pursued. But with Mingus, you never know.

LCC: Any Mingus news that we don’t know about yet that we can report here?

SM: We are having our third Mingus high school competition that will take place in January, our newest project where high school students from around the country come out and compete, February 18-20 at Manhattan School of Music. It’s nice to hear kids playing Mingus with such enthusiasm, and so attentively. This summer, there’s a free concert at Washington Square Park with the Mingus Orchestra on July 27 – and then the band tours!

June 16, 2010 Posted by | interview, jazz, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment