Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Album of the Day 4/13/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #657:

Erroll Garner – Contrasts

A virtuoso jazz pianist with an inimitable style, Garner’s signature sound mixed classical flourishes into a highly ornamented, relaxed attack. With what looked like an effortless command, he’d play a song fairly straight through while expanding on the melody, rather than using it as a template for bebop. He’s best remembered for the iconic Misty, which is here, along with a dozen other tracks from this 1954 trio session with Wyatt Ruther on bass and Eugene Heard on drums, reissued in 1998. The big showstopper is the jaunty, bluesy 7-11 Jump (which is what the song clocks in at). There’s also a darkly Tschaikovskian Sweet and Lovely, a conspiratorial Exactly Like You, a fairly radical reinterpretation of You Are My Sunshine, an expansive Part Time Blues and a refreshingly bluesy, un-Broadwayish There’s a Small Hotel along with upbeat versions of Rosalie and Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me along with a luxuriant take on In a Mellow Tone. Highly recommend wee-hours listening. Here’s a random torrent.

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April 12, 2011 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 3/10/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #691:

Chet Baker – The Best of Chet Baker Sings

Here’s something for the ladies. This is a guy whose vision never wavered: the warm, soulful, direct clarity of his trumpet matched his voice and made this one of the great bedroom albums. Pretty impressive, considering how wasted he was most of the time. Nobody ever did a jazz ballad better than this guy. This 1989 reissue includes everything on the iconic original 1952 Chet Baker Sings plus almost another album’s worth of mid-50s material with Russ Freeman on piano, Bob Whitlock on bass and the great Chico Hamilton on drums. It’s got all the hits: Let’s Get Lost; The Thrill Is Gone; Time After Time; I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes) and Just Friends. Among the later singles are That Old Feeling and It’s Always You (and yeah, it’s got My Funny Valentine too, but that song is so overrated). The jazz world hated this when it first came out: everybody thought this was a sellout. A couple of other Baker albums also worth seeking out are his Together album with Paul Desmond from the 70s, and his live Chet Baker in Tokyo album from 1987, just a year before his death. Here’s a random torrent.

March 10, 2011 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Luciano Troja Rediscovers an Important Jazz Composer

This is the kind of album we love best: a rediscovery, a new appreciation of someone who may have slipped under the radar. Sicilian pianist Luciano Troja learned of Earl Zindars (1927-2005) through Bill Evans, who popularized Zindars’ best-known composition, How My Heart Sings, as well as recording and playing many of the Chicago-based composer’s works throughout his career. Troja credits Zindars with being one of the pioneers of using multiple time signatures (in this case, 3/4 and 4/4) in the same piece, something of an overstatement: jazz groups were doing it decades before Dave Brubeck popularized the device. But Zindars has been long overdue for a rediscovery: he was third stream before the term existed. Like Brubeck, he blended impressionistic, sometimes brooding Romantic themes with jazz, utilizing strikingly imagistic melodies that sometimes took on a cinematic sweep. Also recognized within the classical world, his works for orchestra and brass were frequently performed during his lifetime. Troja’s new cd At Home with Zindars isn’t the first Zindars album – pianist Bill Cunliffe did one in 2003 with a sextet, and Zindars himself produced a couple for pianist Don Haas and his trio – but it’s probably the best (Zindars rarely recorded professionally, and it doesn’t appear that he ever released an album of his own). Troja plays solo, with an understatedly cantabile glimmer closely attuned to the nuance and warm emotional immediacy of Zindars’ music. It’s an album of subtleties: as a plus, many of the compositions here have never been previously released.

Many of these songs – and they are songs in the purest sense of the word – are miniatures, possibly designed to offer a comfortable melodic framework for extended improvisation. The casually swinging, Romantically tinged ballad Mother of Earl that opens the album sets the tone for most of the rest of what’s here. The simply titled Nice Place grows majestically out of a memorably Chopinesque architecture; Silverado Trail builds from minimalistic echoes of Debussy to a vivid blue-sky theme. The memorably moody, modally-tinged My Love Is an April Song is the darkest and most overtly jazz-oriented of all the tracks here, followed closely by the wary, apprehensive vignette I Always Think of You. Several others lean in the opposite direction toward pop, most successfully on the blues-infused Four Times Round, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Harold Arlen catalog. Troja’s version of How My Heart Sings gets a rubato treatment that reaches more avidly for the emotional brass ring here than anything else here; Troja’s lone composition here, Earl and Bill so perfectly captures Zindars’ trademark classical/blues blend that it could be Zindars himself. The album closes with its strongest and most intense track, Roses for Annig, which Zindars wrote for his wife shortly before his death. A couple of tracks here lean toward Windham Hill blandness and could have been left out, but all in all, this is an important achievement and a treat for fans of the genial, evocative style that Zindars – and Troja – so successfully mine. The album comes with a very informative, illustrated 44-page booklet in both English and Italian.

August 11, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 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: Leron Thomas – Around You

Trumpeter/composer Leron Thomas’ new cd is an album of beautiful ballads: it’s tempting to ask, is this a joke? Thomas has a distinctive, sometimes brutally sardonic sense of humor, and a vastly more diverse sensibility than he lets onto here. To see him go in such a traditional jazz direction, so effortlessly and unselfconsciously, it only makes sense to wonder if he has something up his sleeve. This is Blue Note stuff, Newport stuff, accessible yet brimming with inspired contributions from a well-chosen supporting cast: Lage Lund on guitar, Frank LoCrasto on acoustic and electric piano, Burniss Earl Travis on bass and electric bass and Jamire Williams on drums. From the photo on the album cover, Thomas doesn’t look any happier than he would if he was opening for Chris Botti (somebody he’d blow off the bandstand: then again, so would a whole lot of good jazz players). But when he picks up his horn…wow. Vividly lyrical and expressive, the melodies jump out and linger memorably: you can hum this stuff to yourself in the street.

The opening track, Doc Morgan works its way methodically into a slow triplet rhythm which Williams tosses playfully, the rest of the band in turn echoing Thomas’ terse, distantly bluesy explorations with a similar purist touch. The suspiciously titled Conformed Retro mines a subtle, tuneful bossa vibe for all the balminess Thomas can muster, yet for all its trad overtones, the playing isn’t cliched, particularly when he picks up the energy. The contrast between Lund’s eighth-note flights and Williams’ terse, solid snare-and-cymbal is awfully compelling too, as is LoCrasto when he introduces a brisk tectonic shift and the band has no choice but to follow. Wordless Fable, for all its unassuming warmth, hints at a resolution but won’t go there – and then it’s over.

So what is Paycheck Players about? Dudes who are broke all week because they bought so many drinks for girls on Friday night? Or is it a stab at mercenary musicians? LoCrasto’s spritely, tongue-in-cheek electric piano offers a hint. The album closes with the title track, a gorgeous, contemplative song without words that reminds of Harold Arlen, particularly at the end: somebody should give this one lyrics. Who is the audience for this? Your typical Newport/Blue Note jazz crowd. It’s almost as if Thomas is saying, “I can do this as well as anybody in the business, almost without trying.” No joke.

July 20, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Ellen Rowe Quartet – Wishing Well

The most recent jazz album we reviewed was stylistically all over the place; the one before that maintained a very consistent mood. The Ellen Rowe Quartet’s new one falls somewhere in the middle – this is jazz songwriting. Elegant, richly melodic, often poignant, pianist/composer Rowe’s tunes get the chance to speak for themselves. A brief, hammering staccato passage during a characteristically understated yet heartfelt take of the old standard Alone Together (the only cover on the album) is as loud as she gets. Andrew Bishop, who absolutely gets this music, supplies similarly melodic, frequently pensive lines on tenor and soprano sax. Ingrid Jensen, another terrific choice, guests with characteristic sostenuto soul on flugelhorn; bassist Kurt Krahnke also makes his contributions count, particularly with his solos, and drummer Pete Siers provides terse yet incisive rhythm.

Rowe explores three styles here – ballads, swing and requiems – and makes all of them memorable. The opening cut, inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and dedicated to all the species who’ve been driven to extinction, has a vivid plaintiveness that evokes New York trumpet goddess Pam Fleming. Krahnke follows Jensen’s solo with a series of seamlessly moody horn voicings, all the way up to an evocatively bitter crescendo. Night Sounds, written in memory of Rowe’s brother, glimmers with distant latin allusions. The best song on the album – and it is a song in the purest sense of the word – is the genuinely haunting, modally tinged, thematic title track. But close behind is the swaying, funky Sanity Clause (a Chico Marx reference), written as an attempt to mine a more “modern idiom,” shifting almost imperceptibly from a carefree sway to an insistence that tugs on the listener and will absolutely not let go, courtesy of some gripping Bishop tenor work. It wouldn’t be out of place in the JD Allen songbook.

But all is not so gloomy here. Rowe proves just as adept at jaunty swing with the shuffle Lewisburg Bluesy-oo, an Ellington tribute of sorts driven by some casually expert Siers cymbal accents and named after the Pennsylvania town where the band used to do a stand every year. The ridiculously catchy Tick Tock mines a smoky, 4/4, early Jazz Messengers vibe, Krahnke’s devious bowed bass solo one of several highlights. And Seven Steps to My Yard melds elements of 7 Steps to Heaven and the Yardbird Suite as a showcase for some rhythmic shapeshifting. There’s also the title track, a beautiful ballad with more thoughtful buoyancy from Jensen, and an allusively wistful homage to Donald Walden, a mentor to scores of musicians including Rowe, featuring spot-on, emotionally candid solos from Krahnke and guest Andy Haefner on tenor. Count this among our favorites of 2010.

June 24, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Peppe Merolla – Stick with Me

Jazz falls into a lot of categories: boudoir jazz, solace-after-a-rough-day jazz, late night sleepy jazz, drunk jazz, fake jazz. Drummer Peppe Merolla’s debut as a bandleader, Stick with Me, is party jazz. It’s the kind of album you can actually put on repeat and not get sick of and it’s our favorite so far this year. Tunes leap from the grooves (ok, the, um, bitmap) of this one with a joyous exuberance that occasionally mellows out into warmly expansive reflection, contentment with a job well done. Merolla is a no-nonsense player with considerable wit, and the tone he sets is contagious. They’re off with a genial rumble from the toms and a characteristically playful yet ethereal Steve Turre shell motif into a modified latin groove (a vibe they’ll bring back again and again here) with casually blazing solos from Jim Rotondi’s trumpet and Turre’s trombone, tenor player John Farnsworth offhandedly quoting Trane, Mike LeDonne (on piano here) introducing some otherworldly tones before joining in the bounce. The fun continues on Ferris Wheel (a tongue-in-cheek title for sure – Bumper Cars would be more like it) with an insistent New Orleans horn riff, a buoyant Farnsworth solo and speeds up as Lee Smith walks the bass and the trombone plays deadpan staccato. A second consecutive Farnsworth tune, Junior, swings genially with a cinematic 70s New York flair, right down to LeDonne’s judiciously summery Rhodes piano. Yet another Farnsworth track builds from pensive, Coltrane-style majesty to irrepressible swing. And the everybody’s-invited after-hours vibe of their version of Willie Nelson’s  Crazy has the melody making the rounds of the band with a joyous directness and simplicity before more contemplative turns from everybody.

There’s also the deliriously circling latin jazz of Mozzin’ (yet another tasty Farnsworth tune), the snaky Marbella with its characteristically boisterous, tuneful Turre trombone, the vividly anthemic Princess of the Mountain and the spiritedly bluesy, high-energy Bud Powell homage One for Bud, a counterintuitive showcase for horns rather than the piano. The small handful of solos Merolla takes here actually sound composed, with a definite trajectory and a punch line. Put this on when the party’s been going for a few hours and soon even your “I hate music that doesn’t have singing” crowd will be humming along. It may be only February, but this is one is likely to end up on a lot of best-of lists this year. And it’s also reason to look forward to what Farnsworth may have up his sleeve next time out.

Merolla has an interesting backstory. A drummer from the age of five, he toured with his parents, the actors Gino Morelli and Tina Barone. After opening for Sinatra at a New York City concert, Sinatra was so impressed that he re-christened the teenage Merolla as “Little Joe” and arranged a three-album record deal for him.

February 27, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

CD Review: Erica Lindsay & Sumi Tonooka – Initiation

Recorded back in 2004, this is a brand-new release on the cusp of becoming a welcome rediscovery. A quartet jazz session featuring compositions by tenor saxophonist/Bard College professor Erica Lindsay and pianist Sumi Tonooka along with an absolutely killer rhythm section of Rufus Reid on bass and Bob Braye on drums, most of this dexterously walks the line between purism and accessibility. Lindsay plays with a confident, smoky tone and a keen sense of melody; likewise, Tonooka’s style is comfortably bluesy and assured. Reid is his usual fluid, smartly melodic self and Braye – who sadly did not live to see this album released – turns in a powerful, memorable performance. If this was his swan song, he picked a hell of a note to go out on, whether getting the cymbals shimmering on a turnaround or elevating the third track above the level of So What homage with an aggressive, fullscale, Elvin Jones-style charge.

The opening track, Mari is a catchy, hook-based swing number; Lindsay evokes Joe Henderson with her casually tuneful, wee hours vibe reasserted by Sunooka and then Reid, cleverly foreshadowing Lindsay’s return from the bar. Mingus Mood, a thoughtful ballad, is less Mingus than Grover Washington Jr. (don’t laugh!!!) in purist mode, i.e. circa All My Tomorrows, almost minimalist as Lindsay and then Reid carry the tune over Tonooka’s tersely precise chords.The title track playful shifts from tricky, winking intro to a casual Lindsay solo that she builds smartly and casually around a series of rapidfire clusters; Tonooka deftly works her solo rhythmically with latin flourishes. The somewhat hypnotic Serpent’s Tail plays an understated rhumba rhythm off a repetitive Reid riff that both sax and piano use as a springboard for expansively tasteful excursions.

The late 50s riff-driven swing vibe returns pleasantly with In the Void, followed by the ballad Somewhere Near Heaven which powerfully contrasts brooding, sometimes ominous, Bill Mays-ish piano with pensively optimistic sax. Black Urgency shuffles with a tunefulness and sense of direction worthy of JD Allen and features Braye at his most counterintuitive and incisive. The album closes with arguably its strongest (and most rhythmically challenging) number, simply titled Yes, Lindsay and then Tonooka at their most forceful and memorable, whether pulsing on the beat or swirling with rivulets of glissandos. There’s a lot to enjoy here, more than an hour’s worth of tunes.

January 23, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment