Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Weighing in on the New Rudresh Album

Rudresh Mahanthappa’s new album Gamak, out from ACT, hits the street today. The jazz media genuflects to the alto saxophonist’s virtuosic, boundary-stretching technique, range and imaginative compositions: is this all it’s cracked up to be? Pretty much. It’s a major album, not just because it’s pushing the envelope further and further into microtonal territory, but because it’s exciting, hard-edged music. This is what happens when the core of Jack DeJohnettte’s band is left to their own inventive devices. Much has been made of how Rudresh (nice to be instantly recognizable in jazz by your first name alone, isn’t it) has drawn on his Indian background, but this isn’t “Indian jazz” – he has a singular vernacular As you would expect, the microtones keening and bending from Dave Fiuczynski’s guitar strings are more strikingly otherworldly than the single-note lines of the sax, but both musicians are often hanging in scales that don’t exist in western music – and so much the better. Bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Dan Weiss hit hard and keep it terse behind them.

The opening track slams along on a rapidfire bhangra riff from the sax, then they swing it down to a memorably wall-bending, creepily microtonal Fiuczynski solo and eventually crunch their way out. A long, memorably disorienting interlude from Fiuczynski leads to a spiraling exchange with the sax on the raga-inspired second cut, Weiss driving it purposefully as the bandleader evokes the eerie timbres of a Turkish ney flute. After a disarmingly lyrical, syncopated shuffle tune, they bring back the eerie tonalities with We’ll Make More, a more radical, pummeling yet funky revisitation of the raga melody that opened Rudresh’s pioneering 2003 album Black Water.

A track from that album, Are There Clouds in India is as balmy as the original but more surreal and uneasy, both guitar and sax building to bustling tension and then moving back toward a semblance of calm comfort, exchanging airy volleys in a mysterious new language. Lots of Interest makes all this look easy – it’s actually anything but – indulging Fiuczynski’s Screaming Headless Torso side before reverting to staggered funk.

They follow a practically minimalist bass solo with Copernicus and its machinegun sax over nervous changes, then Wrathful Wisdom with its breath-stopping swoops, wry Fiuczynski humor and Middle Eastern allusions. That part of the world is referenced more directly on Ballad for Troubled Times, Rudresh driving it with a liquid legato, Moutin artfully choosing his spots to illuminate. The album ends with a miniature, Majesty of the Blues which is more of a math-jazz piece. What may be this album’s strongest suit is that it softpedals the strange scales: melody is so front and center that it’s sometimes beside the point that so much of this is blue notes. Which, ultimately, is what defined the roots of jazz and will define its future branches.

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January 29, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Twisted Tonalities from David Fiuczynski

An image of a person or an object which is grossly distorted is typically perceived as cartoonish. But take a portrait and distort the eyes, or the mouth, or the teeth just a little, and suddenly it becomes grotesque, even menacing. That’s exactly what guitarist David Fiuczynski does on his latest album, Planet Microjam, and that’s why it’s one of the most deliciously creepy releases of recent years. He uses familiar architecture – jazz, funk, classical and even a reggae groove or two – as a framework for slippery, quavery tonalities that refuse to resolve in any ordinary sense. The average listener might say that he sounds like he’s playing out of tune, which actually is just the opposite of what’s happening: there’s a very distinct (and fascinating, and often thrilling) harmonic language here, it’s just that he and his bandmates seem to be the only ones who speak it. The group includes 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.

Obviously, microtonal music has been around for centuries. Every time a horn player or guitarist hits a blue note, that’s a microtone; rock bands like Public Image Ltd. and Sonic Youth built careers out of shimmery, otherworldly guitar sonics that resonate beyond the usual major and minor scales. One of Fiuczynski’s many tricks here is to do the opposite of what a blues or jazz guitarist typically does, bending a note to add an element of tension: playing a fretless or quartertone guitar, he hits a note that in the western scale would be considered flat, then bends that upward to land squarely where he’s going. There are plenty of other tricks here, some borrowed from Indian and Asian music, some uniquely his own, and he blends them artfully for an effect that ranges from chilling to comedic. Fiuczynski can be very funny: there are a couple of instances where he does a “look, ma, see how many notes there are in this scale” thing, other times doing microtonal Wes Montgomery, or a twisted fanfare, or an off-key quote or two. But most of the album is serious and disconcerting.

With the exception of a spaciously bucolic arrangement of a traditional Chinese melody, this is an upper-register album: there aren’t a lot of low notes, even from the bass and the piano. Fiuczynski will frequently wiggle around a note in the style of a Hawaiian slack key guitarist; other times, he swoops and dives like a sitarist, plays with a slide or matter-of-factly walks his way through the wobbly sonics. The album opens cleverly with Micro Emperor, an arrangement of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, reinvented as a rather joyous Indian-flavored dance. Lebedev’s piano offers artful chromatic allusions to his bandmates’ murkily keening tonalities on the second track, set to a slow, sludgy reggae-tinged groove. There are two tracks based on a quartertone string quartet by Julian Carrilo: the first pensive and blues-tinted, the second a sinister, Lynchian nocturne with a delicious contrapuntal guitar interlude. Sun Ra’s Sun Song gets redone as a cross between a slide blues and a sitar piece (although it isn’t exactly either one); they follow that with Fiuczynski’s Horos Fuzitivos, a cryptic, energetic, microtonal take on current-day gypsy jazz fusion. A little later they slide into a spacious approximation of a tango, DeJohnette’s quiet rumble enhancing the otherworldly mood.

A minimalist, querulous mini-raga, Green Lament segues into the album’s most intense, memorable track, the aptly titled Apprehension. That one begins with warped washes of sound over tricky polyrhythms, stretches out with an anxious, sustained violin solo, muddles around and then winds down like a broken toy at the end. The album ends on an equally anxious, unresolved note with a dark solo guitar piece featuring samples of Fiuczynski’s dog. In a 25-plus year career distinguished by a distinctive, idiosyncratic style and prodigious chops that are equally at home in funk, metal, jazz and Middle Eastern music, most notably with his Moroccan-inspired Kif ensemble, this is the best thing Fiuczynski has ever done. No doubt there’ll more of it.

May 30, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Two More Unlikely Gems from the CTI Archive

The reissues keep coming from the CTI vaults. Creed Taylor’s influential 1970s West Coast jazz label may be remembered for fusion, but the fact is that they put out some amazing albums. The highlight of the latest batch is Freddie Hubbard’s improbable 1971 First Light, with George Benson, Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette, Airto Moreira, Phil Kraus on vibes and Richard Wyands on keyboards plus an orchestra. Something this casually lavish could only have occurred in the 70s – especially for a jazz trumpeter who wasn’t likely to sell ten thousand albums. Did anybody make money on this project? Doubtful. But it was worth it many times over. After all the mysterioso atmospherics fade down, the eleven-minute title track is essentially a two-chord vamp over a tense son montuno beat: Hubbard works it thematically and judiciously, pretty remarkable considering that you can practically smell the ganja wafting from under the door at Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio. The orchestra’s thousand butterfly wings flutter, announcing choruses and solos, Benson goes lickety-split to bring the energy up a notch and turns it over to Hubbard until it’s obvious that he’s out of gas.

The cover of Paul McCartney’s odious Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey is deviously funny, Hubbard distancing himself from the cloying opening riff at the first turn and turning it into a diptych of one-chord funk jams, Benson unable to do much with it so he hits the same riffs again and again. If you ever suffered through the original in the supermarket or via lite FM radio, the trick ending will make you laugh. It’s amazing how they take Henry Mancini’s Moment to Moment and mix funk, a boozy ballad vibe and an orchestra; the cover of Yesterday’s Dreams is the piece de resistance here, done as brooding bossa nova, orchestra magically interpolated with big swells at just the right moments. Leonard Bernstein’s Lonely Town gets a subtle 1971 LA noir treatment; the rest of the album includes both an outtake (another vampy one, Cedar Walton’s Fantasy in D) and an expansive 1975 live take of the title track with Carter, DeJohnette and not Eric Gales on guitar, as the liner notes indicate, but an uncredited and quite agile Rhodes player.

Another choice pick from the CTI vaults is George Benson’s Beyond the Blue Horizon, also from 1971. It’s a similarly unexpected treat: a Hammond B3 album that’s about as far from Breezin’ as…hmmm, Kind of Blue is from Bitches Brew. Here Rev. Benson is backed by Clarence Palmer on organ plus a rhythm section of Carter and DeJohnette. They take So What as a swinging shuffle, Benson running through the raindrops, Carter bobbing and weaving as DeJohnette works an almost martial beat. Luiz Bonfa’s The Gentle Rain is bossa as Jimmy McGriff might do it, Palmer’s swift, brooding intensity shifting it to more of a tango before the storm subsides and Benson reemerges with a smile.

The rest of the album is Benson originals. All Clear has a warm, grazing-in-the-grass soul groove, followed by the atmospheric, catchy, gently swaying Ode to a Kudu. The last, Somewhere in the East, is a real eye-opener, probably the most “free” that Benson has ever been captured on vinyl, Carter’s steady groove anchoring Carter and Benson as they hammer and bend, sometimes atonally. Three outtakes are included as well: All Clear done more as a straight-up B3 shuffle; an even more ethereal guitar-and-drums take of Ode to a Kudu and a surprisingly straightforward Somewhere in the East: it’s something of a shock that this jaunty swing version, with its biting, rumbling outro wasn’t chosen for the album instead. Both of these are back in print, for a long time let’s hope, on CTI Masterworks.

May 5, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment