Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Samuel Blaser Pushes the Envelope, As Usual

Jazz trombonist Samuel Blaser has been on a creative tear lately. His absolutely gorgeous third-stream Consort in Motion album with the late, great Paul Motian on drums plus Russ Lossing on piano and Thomas Morgan on bass was one of those records which should have been on our best-of-2011 list but got cut since it had already received so much good press elsewhere. If the idea of otherworldly jazz improvisations on vivid Renaissance themes by Monteverdi, Frescobaldi and Marini strikes you as intriguing, the album is that and much more, minutes of exquisite beauty matched by Lossing’s sepulchral, austerely glimmering, sometimes chillingly apprehensive piano and Motian’s suspenseful clouds of cymbals alongside Blaser’s purist melodicism and occasional good humor.

Blaser also has two other albums out which sound absolutely nothing like that. The first, issued last September (and also available on limited edition vinyl!), is Just Observing, credited to “three-piece brass band” La Fanfare du Porc, an irrepressibly comedic, often wickedly catchy live set on the Moisturizer or Ilhan Ersahin tip with Blaser alongside bass clarinetist Lucien Dubuis and drummer Luigi Galati. Blaser isn’t afraid to go for laughs, and neither is Dubuis, spiraling and skronking over a boogie, several shuffles, dixieland and funk beats, with droll Spokes-like counterpoint and tongue-in-cheek Gypsy Schaeffer-ish diversions, on songs with titles like In the Shower and The Olive with Variable Geometrics. If you ever wondered how well a trombone could mimic hip-hop-style turntable scratching, this is the album for you.

Notwithstanding the beauty and brilliance of Consort in Motion, the most fascinating of all of these albums is last October’s release of Boundless, a 2010 live recording of free improvisations with Blaser accompanied by Marc Ducret on guitar, Banz Oester on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums. Done as a lavish four-part suite, it’s hard to believe that virtually all of this is an expansive, thoughtfully paced one-chord jam. Cleaver methodically builds six-foot snowbanks with the swirls from his cymbals as Ducret alternates between long sustained tones, skronk and the occasional, savagely understated, distortion-toned attack, Blaser and Oester taking turns holding the center. The quartet calmly navigate their way from warm permutations on a characteristically vivid Blaser riff, through a long (seventeen-minute) suspense interlude with Ducret masterfully shadowing Blaser, through tense, agitated noir atmospherics fueled by Blaser’s chromatics, to a conclusion with murky echoes of dub reggae. The chemistry and interplay has a singleminded focus, and for free jazz, it’s remarkably tuneful. Needless to say, it’ll be interesting to see what Blaser comes up with next – one thing’s for certain, which is that whatever it is, it’ll be fascinating to hear.

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January 19, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rich Halley’s Requiem for a Pit Viper: More of a Party Than a Funeral

Catchy, robust and often boisterous but also extremely erudite, the Rich Halley Quartet’s Requiem for a Pit Viper is one of the most dynamic, entertaining albums of the year in any style of music. It doesn’t sound much like a requiem, either. It references many different eras in jazz, sometimes goes deep into noir and packs a wallop whatever the band is doing. This is one of those albums where it’s obvious how much fun the musicians are having – a close listen reveals two teams at work here, sometimes pulling away from each other to ratchet up the tension. The front line of Halley and trombonist Michael Vlatkovich conspires and banters while the mighty rhythm section of Clyde Reed on bass and Carson Halley (Rich’s son) on drums often takes over center stage. With its fat low end, the production of the album perfectly matches the players. Reed is a muscular, intense, melodic presence in the John Hebert mold, every bit as much a part of the propulsion as the drums. Carson Halley manages to be simultaneously intuitive and counterintuitive: maybe from working with his dad, he’s honed his sense of the unexpected, and an ability to nail a bullseye when the opportunity appears. One current-day ensemble this group resembles is deviously improvisational Bostonians Gypsy Schaeffer. Both bands are completely unpredictable – you never know where their jams are going to end up – and all of this works because these guys have so much fun together.

The title track is a funky, noir, Mingus-esque piece, a couple of chase scenes fueled by the punishing rhythm section, trombone conversing animatedly with whoever/whenever. They get slinky and lowdown on the second track, breezily meandering sax contrasting with ominous drums, a fat bass groove and an irresistibly droll ending. View from the Underpass coalesces slowly out of a crazed, blustery intro, bass figuring heavily in all the tradeoffs. As with the previous track, they can’t resist taking it out on a comedic note. They follow it with the aptly titled, playfully allusive Circumambulation, which hints at everything from a jazz waltz, to swing, to a bolero, Vlatkovich’s brightly terse trombone contrasting with tarpit bass and drums.

Reed rumbles between the horns’ raindrops on a pretty ballad titled Maj, Halley’s smoky, casually warm lines holding down the center as Vlatkovich rides the shoulder warily. They go back to noir with the cinematic swing shuffle Wake Up Line, Halley ambushing Vlatkovich memorably before they finally join forces – and then give way to Reed’s relentless detective work, which finally turns up all the evidence he needs. Squeaker is basically a reggae song carried by the sax, with a brief bass-and-drums break and a trippy, circular bass hook.

A deftly staggered ensemble piece and one of the most entertaining songs here, Subterranean Strut works its way into an approximation of a second line march, quotes a cheesy old disco hit, sends Halley swirling up as the rhythm section very subtly goes doubletime (when’s the last time you ever heard subtle doubletime?) and finally lands in the murk with moody atmospherics. They closed with Afternoon in June, driven by a neat series of bass riffs, and a long sax/trombone conversation that barely hints at the unselfconscious buffoonery the trombone and bass will descend into later on. It’s a fitting way to end this very smart, very amusing album.

September 6, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Joel Yennior Trio’s Smart, Entertaining Debut

Trombonist Joel Yennior is best known for his work with Either/Orchestra, but he’s also a composer and bandleader with an often deviously witty signature sound. His free jazz quartet Gypsy Schaeffer’s most recent album, from last year, was an absolute delight. So is his latest project, the Joel Yennior Trio’s debut cd, Big City Circus. And it’s more diverse than the wickedly playful improvisations that he excels at: his dark, pensive central suite here is just as compelling as the more upbeat compositions. This group has an interesting configuration: Yennior is joined here by Eric Hofbauer on guitar and Gary Feldman on drums: as a bassless outfit, the trio deftly switch around to provide a low-register pulse, whether the guitar is pedaling a chord or a low note on the beat, Yennior pulls his slide all the way out, or the drums rumble around. And it makes the arrangements interesting, particularly on Monk’s Gallop’s Gallop, Yennior and Hofbauer switching roles, Hofbauer doing subtly spot-on rhythm and bass at once during the first verse.

The genial original swing tune Dancing Dave sets a warmly melodic tone that remains throughout the album. Burt Bacharach’s A House Is Not a Home is a showcase for gently swaying, warmly tuneful upper-register work from Yennior as the guitar and drums swing tersely underneath. A shapeshifting Ran Blake ballad, Breakthru is closer to Gypsy Schaeffer’s unpredictable jams than anything else here, Hofbauer and Feldman prowling around, waiting for the moment when they all pull it together at the end.

Another original, Postcard to Dorothy is a vividly expressive, wistful jazz waltz. Yennior goes low and outside as Hofbauer solos gently up to a simple Coltrane-esque hook, some deft drum accents and then back. The centerpiece of the album is the practically sixteen-minute three-part suite Justice Lost, inspired by a dispiriting turn Yennior took as a jury member (it was a murder trial: they didn’t convict). They kick it off with a big, cynical intro, liberally quoting the Godfather theme, Feldman’s cymbals and eventually Hofbauer’s guitar chords resounding memorably beneath Yennior’s protesting trombone. The second part is a mournful Ellingtonian blues with some bitterly rustic muted playing by Yennior and a couple of pointedly ironic passages where guitar and trombone go off on completely different tracks but then lock back in a split second. It winds up with a staccato tango that hints at collapse, which it does after a bright solo by Yennior. Feldman gets marvelously suspenseful and whispery, trombone and guitar diverge further and further from any kind of resolution, and then it’s over. The album closes with a brightly tuneful, shuffling version of Estrellita, a Mexican pop song from the 1950s popularized by Charlie Parker. It’s a stealth candidate for best jazz album of 2010.

August 11, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Quartet Offensive – Carnivore

We need more jazz like this: counterintuitive, surprising, innovative and tuneful as hell. Although capable of a gem like the long lyrical ballad Jelly, the album’s next-to-last track, Quartet Offensive also like their noise. On this new cd, the Baltimore jazz group prove equally adept at an MC5-style amalgam of gritty riff-rock and free jazz, as well as intermingling plenty of effectively haphazard improvisation within the strikingly terse, melodic architecture of their compositions. Much of this compares favorably with the excellent, melodic Boston free jazz outfit Gypsy Schaeffer. John Dierker gets a surprising amount of range out of his bass clarinet, adding unexpected textures in tandem with Eric Trudel’s tenor sax. Matt Frazao‘s often heavily processsed guitar also adds a wealth of shades and frequencies over the often astonishingly minimalist, subtle groove of the rhythm section, Adam Hopkins on bass and Nathan Ellman-Bell on drums. Headphone music, most definitely.

The big riff-rockers are the opening and closing tracks here. The first works a raunchy funk-metal riff down into a guitar-and-horns freakout in the same vein as King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man, then winds its way back up. The last cut moves deftly from riff-rock to swing, sax and guitar effects bubbling like acid on cinderblock in midsummer until the insistent pulse of the horns brings the track back into focus. The single best track might be the langorous yet fascinating dirge Heavy-Light. An off-kilter conversation between Dierker and Trudel opens it, guitar entering mysteriously over the horns’ repetitive insistence, sax eventually rising overhead. Then a sunbaked guitar solo that morphs into a rippling firestorm as the effects pedals seem to gleefully fry themselves. Meanwhile, the rhythm section maintains the pace of a tortoise. But it’s a funky tortoise: he just moves at about a third of the speed that we do.

Or, the best song here might be the tongue-in-cheek narrative The Sheep Ate the Flowers, kicking off with a staccato guitar riff that works itself into a maelstrom of noise into guitar feedback that fades down until it’s mostly inaudible, then up to a hypnotic, circular, guitar-driven fusionesque vamp. Or it could be the self-explanatory O.D., kicking off with yet more staccato guitar echoed restlessly by the horns, followed by what sounds like a playful rip of the chorus from Steely Dan’s Josie – in 13. Sax and then guitar solos grow increasingly unhinged, to the point where at the end of Frazao’s crazed trip to the emergency room, the horns have to take over and comp and keep the restraints tightly knotted. There’s also a evocatively pensive ballad titled Gooodbye, Cavendish and the straight-up groove Yo Banana Boy with its thoughtful Wes Montgomery-inflected guitar and shapeshifting harmonies between the horns. The liner notes indicate that this album was recorded with help from the Peabody Office of Career Development and the Maryland State Arts Council: money well spent. One can only wonder how many other excellent groups like this are kicking around towns like “Ballmer.” Quartet Offensive’s next gig is a free show on September 12 at 9 PM at Windup Space, 12 W North Ave. in Baltimore with Brooklyn group Afuche.

September 3, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Gypsy Schaeffer – New Album

These guys are funny: Boston quartet Gypsy Schaeffer’s website bills them as “traditional straight ahead free jazz,” wisely giving themselves license to get away with pretty much anything they want. True to its title, this is a new album, but they could have called it “good album” or even “excellent album” and they wouldn’t be overstating it. Be aware that there’s nothing remotely gypsy about this band. Trombonist/bandleader Joel Yennior is a known commodity for his innovative work with Either/Orchestra; saxist Andy Voelker leads the aptly titled Wild Sextet, the house band at popular Boston-area hotspot Matt Murphy’s Pub in Brookline. Bassist Jef Charland and drummer/author Chris Punis make a rhythm section that just jumps out at you, Charland’s strikingly melodic, terse sensibility a good match for the alternately straight-ahead and colorful stylings of Punis, riding the traps and keeping the group’s adventurous excursions from going completely off the rails. Notwithstanding all their free jazz associations, this is an often stunningly melodic album. To the band’s further credit, it’s often utterly impossible to differentiate between composition and improvisation here: the jams sound composed, and even the catchiest passages tend to fly off the page in a split-second. It’s a brightly convivial, smartly cheery ride.

 

The cd’s opening cut builds off a characteristically simple, catchy, upbeat hook over Punis’ boogie-inflected beat, everything eventually flying apart and then coming together again. The second track, Live a Little is a showcase for chemistry and how well the band listen to each other, the rhythm stepping along but not gingerly as the horns go separate but equal to a sudden, quick, catchy chorus. Yennior gets confident and bluesy, then Voelker takes it further outside as Charland fans the flames with chords, Yennior bringing it back to the head while Voelker defiantly stands upwind and continues his diatribe.

 

The wonderfully titled Grape Soda and Pretzels, a Charland composition, testifies to one of the great snack combinations with a Penny Lane feel, bass soloing deftly and minimalistically off the melody, Yennior using all of his available range, almost like a trumpeter, as is his custom. Like many of the pieces here, this one segues into the next track with slowly pacing bass and drum accents, trombone, then pensive sax and suddenly the rhythm section goes on a roll. And now they’re in the next tune, Welcome Edison, warmly exploratory over balmy sax as Punis colors it and Charland anchors it with a pretty hook. There’s another segue, into Double Quartet with some strangely muted work from Yennior, a fanfare and echoes from Voelker.

 

The catchiness returns on the swing tune Shark Tank, boisterous trombone offering hints of the blues, contrasting nicely with a minimalist Charland solo and innumerable false endings as Punis thrashes around on the ground – and finally a gorgeous horn chart out of it. It’s unclear if the next track, Exuberant Irrationalism is a political statement, but it could be, a foghorn call on the trombone to open it, bass swinging purposeful and halfspeed over a shuffle beat, scurrying along to where Voelker goes off again and Yennior responds with insistent quarter notes, pulling it all back together. After a couple more segues into contemplative, conversational rubato-land, the cd wraps up with Identity Crisis, sax squeaking playful but ever-present in the background,Yennior carrying the melody over swinging bass while Punis alternates between clearing brush and standing back watching everybody to see how much they’ve been goofing off while he’s been working hard. If you’ve made it this far, you now know much fun this band has and hopefully have a picture of how much more interesting it would actually be to put this on the ipod and give it a listen.

 

Gypsy Schaeffer are more than generous with their music, offering all sorts of free bonus tracks at their site. With all the band members busy with other gigs, there’s nothing on their live calendar at the moment: watch this space for upcoming dates. Either/Orchestra plays Regattabar in Cambridge, MA on May 1.

April 7, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment