Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Highlights of This Year’s Charlie Parker Festival

The way to approach the Charlie Parker Festival in its early years was to show up early, not only because Tompkins Square Park would be packed. If you were lucky, this being the pre-internet era, you’d find a flyer that would give you an idea of whether to spend the afternoon in the park or at Lakeside Lounge around the corner. Often the bill would be so good that the bar wouldn’t even be a consideration until after the show was over. Then the festival became a two-day thing that started uptown at Marcus Garvey Park, winding up the next day downtown, which was twice as cool – a whole weekend full of mostly top-level, big-name jazz, for free. But recent years have not been so kind. Last year’s initial slate was cancelled by Bloombergian edict in anticipation of a hurricane that mysteriously never arrived; the substitute lineup that the promoters cobbled together a few days later for a single Harlem show slipped under most everyone’s radar. This year’s festival continued a downward slide, mirrored by the size of the crowds. Although all the seats uptown were taken by mid-afternoon, downtown seemed to be more poorly attended than ever, no great surprise considering what the bill had to offer in terms of star power and otherwise. If Lakeside was still open, Sunday would have been about about 80% Lakeside and 20% festival.

But over the course of the weekend, there were plenty of memorable moments. Saturday’s bill began with drummer Jamire Williams’ quartet Erimaj. The only thing in their set that alluded to a past prior to about 1967 was a sample from Charlie Parker – who sounded long past his prime whenever the snippet happened to be recorded, Kris Bowers stepping on him with a beautifully lingering series of lyrical piano phrases as he’d continue to do alongside Williams, Vicente Archer on bass guitar, guitarist Matt Stevens on Les Paul and Jason Moran guesting on Rhodes on a funk number. The opening number, aptly titled Unrest, saw Williams rising from tense, portentous In a Silent Way atmospherics to an increasingly agitated state, pushed further in that direction by Bowers’ elegantly biting phrases and Stevens’ crying single-note accents. From there they segued into a radically reinvented, basically rubato take on Ain’t Misbehaving, with fractured lyrics delivered haphazardly by the bandleader as he created a snowy swirl with his hardware, Bowers moving to Rhodes for a bubbly two-chord vamp out. Moran then came up to take over the Rhodes on a steadily paced funk number that evoked the Jazz Crusaders right before they dropped the “jazz.” Stevens’ Choosing Sides set a potently crescendoing, anthemic rock tune to a trickier tempo, then the guitarist went off on a long, meandering tangent, playing endless permutations off a single string in the same vein as 90s indie rock stoners like Thinking Fellers Union. Sometimes rock and jazz are like the sheep and the wolf that you’re trying to ferry across the river along with the lettuce. This was one of those case where the boat wouldn’t hold all three, with predictable results. They went back to the pretty straight-up, echoey Rhodes funk to close it out with an amiably energetic groove.

After a set of standards and soul hits by chanteuse Rene Marie and her trio, a well-liked local attraction, 87-year-old drummer Roy Haynes practically skipped to the front of the stage. Playing with the vigor of a man half his age and working the crowd for all it was worth, he took his time getting going, choosing his spots, leaving all kinds of suspenseful spaces for the Fountain of Youth Band: Jaleel Shaw on alto sax, Martin Bejerano on piano and a bassist who took considerably fewer chances than his bandmates. It didn’t take long for Haynes and Bejerano to engage in clenched-teeth polyrhythms, the pianist quoting Brubeck’s Camptown Races and then Monk, Shaw – who rose gracefully to the impossible task of filling Charlie Parker’s shoes alongside Bird’s old drummer – weaving his way expertly into a climactic series of trills.

Haynes is the prototype for guys like Tyshawn Sorey, who rather than banging a beat out of the kit, let the sound rise from within: his big, boomy sonics bely the fact that he’s actually not wailing all that hard. That became key to a long, stunningly energetic solo that Haynes eventually used for comic relief as he spun in his seat, dashing from tom to tom, telling the crowd that, no, it wasn’t over yet and he’d let them know when it was. They did a couple of pretty ballads, the second, Springtime in New York rising to a brisk latin pulse, Shaw finally cutting loose with a raw shriek after playing steady, thoughtfully bright bop lines all afternoon, Bejerano taking it back down into darker modal territory before a brief duel with Shaw and a clever series of false endings. All that made their blithe, carefree, casually allusive take on Ornithology seem almost like an afterthought.

Opening Sunday’s festivities with a trio set featuring bassist Philip Kuehn and drummer Kassa Overall, Sullivan Fortner made no attempt to bond with the crowd; he let them come to him. And they did, throughout an enigmatic, introverted, quietly fascinating set. From the still, meditative solo introduction to Thelonious Monk’s I Need You So, the pianist – best known at this point for his work with Roy Hargrove – reinvented it as a tone poem, taking his time building it with stately clusters and big banks of block chords. As he would do throughout the show, Fortner turned the tune over to Kuehn early on, who responded simply and effectively, a potently melodic foil to Fortner’s nebulous sostenuto. An original, Purple Circles built from a similar atmospheric backdrop to hints of a jazz waltz and then samba, once again putting the bass front and center for a long, incisive solo. They took the old standard Star Eyes from rubato expansiveness to a casual bounce, up and then down again. From there they picked up the pace and swung, took a memorable diversion into a beautiful ballad (anybody know what that one was?) and closed with a original that pretty much summed up the set, Overall’s animated swing and Kuehn’s sometimes incisive, sometimes hypnotic pulse walking a tightrope between contrast and seamlessness with Fortner’s opaquely lit chromatics.

And that was pretty much it for Sunday. There was poetry – really, really bad poetry, which no jazz could redeem. There was one of those selfconsciously fussy, arty bands, there was a crooner, and also Patience Higgins and the Sugar Hill Quartet, who excel at what they do – but where they excel the most is on their home turf, after the sun goes down, where it’s a lot easier to get close to the stage and feed off their oldschool energy. At times like this Lakeside becomes even more sorely missed.

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August 28, 2012 Posted by | concert, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band Is Everything You’d Expect

In some ways, what Pink Floyd, Nektar, Supertramp and all the rest of the orchestrated rock bands were to the “classic rock” era, new big band jazz is to the decade of the teens. It’s where you get your epic grandeur fix. Towering, intense angst; full-blown exhilaration. There’s a lot more of the latter than the former on pianist Orrin Evans’ brand-new Captain Black Big Band album, but there’s still gravitas and intensity as you would expect from him. Like the Mingus repertory bands, Evans employs a rotating cast for this group, in this case an A-list mostly from New York and Philadelphia, in a live concert recording. Also like Mingus, the compositions blend an impatient urban bustle with an irrepressible joie de vivre. The compositions are pretty oldschool, closer to Mingus or Ellington than, say, than Jim McNeely.

The album gets started on a trad note with Art of War, a brisk bluesy swing tune by drummer Ralph Peterson. Rob Landham’s alto solo goes squalling quickly and spirals out neatly with a blaze as the brass rises – it’s sort of a warmup for what’s to come.Here’s the Captain, by bassist Gianluca Renzi opens with Evans’ murky distant piano grandeur – it’s a Cuban son montuno groove led by the trombone, an incisively simmering Victor North tenor solo followed by Evans who stays on course with a couple of cloudbursts thrown in for good measure. Inheritance, by bass clarinetist and big band leader Todd Marcus is swinging and exuberant with New Orleans tinges and a modified Diddleybeat. The first of Evans’ compositions, Big Jimmy is a soaring swing number with some deftly concealed rhythmic trickiness, trumpeter Walter White faking a start and then moving it up to some blissed-out glissandos, followed by tenor player Ralph Bowen who jumps in spinning out wild spirals – it’s adrenalizing to the extreme.

Buoyantly memorable in a late 50s Miles kind of way, Captain Black maxes out a long, fiery ensemble passage into solos by pianist Jim Holton (Evans has moved to the podium to conduct), Bowen shifting from shuffle to sustain followed by trombonist Stafford Hunter shadowboxing with the band. They save the best for last with the final two tunes. Easy Now is absolutely gorgeous, a study in dark/light contrasts with an ominous, dramatic low brass-driven intro lit up by drummer Anwar Marshall’s blazing cymbals. Trumpeter Tatum Greenblatt and then baritone saxophonist Mark Allen go from pensive to assured and playful over Evans’ wary, wounded gospel-tinged lines; it winds up on a roaring, powerful note. The album concludes with the rich sepia tones of Jena 6, a track that also appears on Evans’ superb Tarbaby album from last year, referencing the Arkansas students persecuted in the wake of a 2007 attack by white racists. A lyrical Neil Podgurski piano intro begins the harrowing narrative with an ominous series of slow, portentous gospel-tinged crescendos. As Jaleel Shaw’s alto moves from genial swing to unhinged cadenzas and anguished overtones while the orchestra cooks behind him and then leaves him out to wail all alone, the effect is viscerally stunning. Count this among the most richly satisfying albums of 2010 so far. Evans will be interviewed on NPR’s A Blog Supreme this Friday the 25th; the album is just out on Posi-Tone.

March 21, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: The Gregg August Large Ensemble at the Jazz Gallery, NYC 4/10/09

This year the Jazz Gallery has been commissioning big band projects. More musicians should do what bassist/composer Gregg August (whose powerfully melodic contributions appear on the latest JD Allen Trio cd, reviewed here recently) did with his. Leading a ten-piece all-star ensemble on Friday night, August proved every bit as potent a composer as an instrumentalist, playing a thematic series of pieces inspired by and frequently including poems that explore race relations. Interpreting the texts both literally and thematically, August’s richly melodic, aptly relevant compositions created a program that screams out to be recorded.

 

August’s arrangements maximized the ensemble’s diverse talents: Jaleel Shaw’s ecstatically fiery alto sax flights, Sam Newsome’s rapidfire fluidity on soprano, JD Allen’s darkly direct terseness on tenor and pianist Luis Perdomo’s vividly bittersweet, concise chordal work along with his own straightforwardly melodic, sometimes latin-inflected lines, many of them echoing horn voicings. Drummer Donald Edwards’ strategy shaded toward darkness with innumerable well-placed cymbal accents and flourishes. The night opened on an auspicious note with an interpretation of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Shaw building his final solo to screaming, gritty overtones illustrating the exasperation of confinement over the rhythm section’s staggered beat. Sweet Words, based on a sacastic Langston Hughes poem about (what else) bigotry proved to be a pretty straightforward, tuneful ensemble piece highlighted by a relentlessly intense, expansive Perdomo solo.

 

A New Orleans tableau, Sky, based on poet Richard Katrovas’s encounter with a possibly homeless young black man painted a stark picture of a balmy morning tinged with misunderstanding and regret, Allen’s lyrical tenor opening against pensively crescendoing piano and bowed bass, the group pulsing through a funereal arrangement colored by rubato drums. Perhaps the high point of the night was Your Only Child, a literal illustration of Marilyn Nelson’s poem A Wreath for Emmett Till, a recording of Till’s mother describing her murdered son’s mutilated body playing over the ominous atmosphere of the intro, singer Miles Griffith echoing the song’s theme and ending with a fervent evocation of sobbing agony.

 

The second set maintained the captivating intensity of the first, opening with the slinky, insistent I Rise (a musical translation of the famous Maya Angelou poem) highlighted by a joyous solo from Shaw followed by a characteristically thoughtful, matter-of-fact one from Allen. The lushly orchestrated, Mingus-inflected I Sang in the Sun (from the Carolyn Kizer poem) brought back the vocals, lowlit by some marvelously succinct shading by Thomas. A Cornelius Eady poem about an encounter with a racist in an ice cream parlor provided a solid platform for a slyly bluesy trombone solo and some funky work by August. The night wound up with Letter to America (on a Francisco Alarcon poem), impassioned vocals echoed by John Bailey’s blazing, bluesy trumpet and yet another uncompromisingly confrontational solo by Allen building to a casually intense coda. In a year of some extraordinary live jazz, a packed house got to witness what has to be one of the highlights of the year so far.

 

April 12, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment