Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Benny Sharoni’s Retro Jazz Is a Hit

The last jazz album we reviewed was noisy, frenetic and half rock. This one is all melody, laid-back and gorgeously oldschool. It’s one of those sleeper albums that you can put on and fool your snob friends with – just tell them it’s a rare reissue from fifty years ago, and most of them will buy it. Boston-based tenor saxophonist Benny Sharoni assembled a first-rate band to join him in a convivially expansive, purist mood on his new album Eternal Elixir. Joey “Sonny” Barbato (whose 2006 cd Crackerjack is a genuine classic and one of the finest of its rare kind, an accordion jazz album) plays piano here, joined by Barry Ries on trumpet, Mike Mele on guitar, Todd Baker on bass and Steve Langone on drums, with Kyle Aho taking over the 88s on four of the tracks. The vibe here is retro in a refreshing way: it feels like one of those early 60s Impulse albums, driven by camaraderie rather than showboating, the kind of date players record because they have something they think is worth capturing, rather than simply to satisfy the terms of a label deal.

The album opens with Bernstein, Sharoni’s propulsive tribute to the conductor/composer, Barbato’s fluidly precise runs echoed by Sharoni further on. French Spice, a tastily catchy Donald Byrd tune from 1961 that moves deftly from hypnotic pulse to proto-funk to straight-up swing and back again, Sharoni taking his cue from Wayne Shorter’s casually soulful performance on that song (as he does on another Byrd composition here, an understated version of the vampy Pentecostal Feelin’). Barbato’s terse, understated solo turns with a grin from blithe to bluesy in a split second. The version of Estate here mutes its bossa origins, recasting it as slow swing and stripping it down to its inner soul with aptly summery, almost minimalist solos from Barbato and then Sharoni. Likewise, the band breathes new life into Bobby Hebb’s Sunny as a latin jazz number, a launching pad for some lively melismas and trills from Ries and some impressively straight-up blues from Aho.

Benito’s Bossa Bonita, an original gets the same casually comfortable, easy-wearing swing of Estate, with a couple of especially choice, effortlessly congenial solos from Sharoni and a terse conversation between Aho’s piano and Baker’s bass. To Life, based on the 1964 Cannonball Adderley version, maintains the laid-back bluesy mood, Ries (with a mute) and then Sharoni gimlet-eyed and content while Barbato keeps watch with sharp, incisively staccato chords. Another original, Cakes, sways with a distant Donald Fagen feel (Sharoni is a fan, having discovered Steely Dan as solace during his mandatory tour of duty in the Israeli army, a low point in his life), and a moody, reverb-tinged Mele solo. The album winds up with The Thing to Do, a cagy, swinging Blue Mitchell tune from 1964 and Senor Papaya, which takes its title from Sharoni’s papaya-grower father back home in Israel. Sharoni admits it’s quite ironic since Sr. Papaya himself is so laid-back and the song anything but. The Benny Sharoni Quartet plays Fridays in August at 8:30 PM at Winslow’s Tavern in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.

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August 5, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amina Figarova Makes Her Travels Memorable Ones

“What happens on tour stays on tour,” jazz pianist Amina Figarova asserts, but the fun spills over onto the compositions on her new album Sketches. It’s a striking change, considerably more upbeat than her stunned, intensely evocative 9/11-themed September Suite. A series of vividly cinematic snapshots of her travels around the world, they chronicle moods rather than specific locales – at least as far as the official story goes, anyway. This is obviously a band that has a good time on tour. A sense of optimism and confidence pervades the arrangements here, achieving a remarkably big sound for a sextet, Figarova joined by Ernie Hammes on trumpet and flugelhorn, Marc Mommaas on tenor sax, Bart Platteau on flutes, Jeroen Vierdag on bass and Chris “Buckshot” Strik on drums. She favors expansive, impressionistic solos and lush horn charts with considerable tempo and dynamic shifts, often creating a narrative. Recorded in a single day, these tableaux capture a well-traveled band at the peak of their creative chemistry.

The opening track, Four Steps to… is an anthem with a vivid sense of anticipation, clever tradeoffs between the trumpet and flute and a sense of calm triumph at the end. By contrast, Unacceptable is perturbed, scurrying along with a breathless Figarova solo that bristles back into the head jaggedly. The title track works a staggered, circular piano riff against characteristically lush horns.

Evocatively wintry but playful, Caribou Crossing opens in late afternoon and ushers in the twilight gently and memorably. An upbeat, catchy ensemble piece, Breakfast for the Elephant has Figarova moving ebulliently out of Hammes’ balmy introspective lines. Back in New Orleans, a slow, swinging ballad, gives Mommaas a chance to flutter in doubletime against the thoughtful legato of the piano. With its Caravan drums, Flight No. captures the scramble to the airport gate, a well-deserved break at cruising altitude and then pandemonium all over again, a theme revisited in the similar Train to Rotterdam. Look at That begins almost as trip-hop, cymbals and bass running a loop, Figarova leading the ensemble brightly and cheerily all the way through. The album winds up with the brisk, bouncily expansive Happy Hour and then the partita In Your Room, beginning as a classically-tinged nocturne with particularly biting piano and flute until the bass brings down the lights. It’s a long album, almost an hour and a quarter worth of music: obviously Figarova’s recent travels have been memorable ones. She and the sextet play Dizzy’s Club on August 9 at 7 and 9:30 PM.

August 4, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Jamie Begian Big Band Grins and Pushes the Envelope

Big Fat Grin, the new album by the Jamie Begian Big Band delivers everything a modern big band jazz outfit ought to: it’s a treat for anyone who goes for an intricate mesh of textures and a BIG, boisterous, ecstatic yet cerebral sound. Begian, a guitarist, takes a backseat here to the charts (there are cuts on which he doesn’t play at all). His game plan – to have fun, in a smart way – is a rousing success in every sense of the word. Fans of Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, the Alan Ferber Nonet and similar cutting-edge largescale ensembles have a lot to sink their ears into here. A sense of the unexpected pervades everything. Begian gets maximum impact out of the powerhouse sonics because of the dynamism of the arrangements, often pared down for just a couple of voices, or even a single instrument, so when the band takes it up all the way, the effect can be breathtaking. Another neat thing about this band is that it’s not all about the blare, either – the low end doesn’t get neglected, especially when Max Seigel is anchoring it with his bass trombone alongside Dave Ambrosio’s prominent bass. A handful of tracks here work permutations on a repetitive, circular theme, often moving the voicings around in an unpredictable rondo. Begian also frequently employs collage-style charts, intricate overlays of individual instruments that fan out kaleidoscopically, a device that’s as fascinating to follow as it is original and innovative.

The centerpiece here is a four part suite titled Tayloration, the most retro of the compositions. Tracking a persistent, three-note pulse through several permutations – murky low-register explorations lit up by a gruff Jeff Bush trombone solo, an altered bossa segment, a slow, sly boogie and swing passages that contrast vividly with the underlying simplicity. The album’s opening track, Funky Coffee is basically an orchestrated funk groove. The entire crew’s in on it, making it contagious to the extreme, with a characteristically terse, bluesy Marc McDonald alto solo. The following cut, Halay is essentially a one-chord jam, variations on a fanfare over a swaying bass pulse, with a brightly lyrical, klezmer-tinged Dimitri Moderbacher clarinet solo. The most counterintuitive track here is Patience, which begins by cycling an eerie chromatic theme, individual voices pairing off against the bass, and ends up matching an insistently serious horn chart against the woozy grin of Begian’s slide guitar. A gentle, bucolic number, Suddenly, Summer Falls features balmy flute from Moderbacher and solo flugelhorn from Jason Colby, followed by some surprising but perfectly devised Memphis-style soul guitar. The album ends with the title track, a blast of surprises including a truly hilarious false ending. The Jamie Begian Big Band play the Bahai Center, 53 E 11th St between University Place & Broadway on Tuesday, July 20 at 8 PM.

July 18, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Ullmann/Swell 4 – News? No News

The most recent jazz album we reviewed here was part sleepy bedtime jazz and part solace-after-a-hard-day jazz. The one before that was boudoir jazz. The Ullmann/Swell 4’s debut as a unit together is fun jazz, headphone jazz, the kind of album where it’s obvious from the first few notes what a good time the band is having. You want psychedelic? Wow. The star of the show, at the absolute top of his game here, is veteran drummer Barry Altschul. He refuses to sit still or stop misbehaving, in the process delivering a clinic in how to propel a song on the off-beat. Meanwhile, the group converse and shift shapes, careening joyously between blazing hooks and impressively terse, actually interesting free jazz interplay. They open it up rousingly with Altschul establishing what will be his trademark here, rumbling and crashing around under a circular horn motif, trombonist Steve Swell eventually running amok, then tossing the hot potato to his co-leader, tenor saxist Gebhard Ullmann.

The second track, aptly title New York opens with a swaying vamp and a sly bluesy hook – Swell takes over as the boom turns into more of a crash, bustle alternating with chaos. Like New York, the underpinning is sturdy and stands up to constant use. Track three is similar to two but quieter, morphing into a crashing swing number with Ullmann skirting the melody, resisting it as the drums do the same with the rhythm. They follow that with a more exploratory joint, Ullmann throwing off some high overtones and getting into a casual conversation with Swell.

The next cut takes a pretty, cinematic ballad and pulls the wings off, Ullmann and Swell in turn, and all of a sudden they bring it back but Altschul is still off in cumulo-nimbus land somewhere.The title track gets sandwiched by two artfully constructed improvisations, the first kind of like what happens when four jazz guys walk into a very quiet bar, the second far more invigorated. The song itself percolates along on a catchy bass hook from Hilliard Greene, who plays ringmaster, whether heating it up for a fiery duel between Swell and Ullmann’s bass clarinet, or simply holding it together as Altschul does his thing. The cheery Berlin has Greene’s bouncy pulse again providing the glue as the horns slowly and ineluctably take it outside. The album ends on a high note with the multistylistic showcase Airtight, playfully swoopy bass turning into a funk vamp as Altschul prowls around and swipes at his cymbals to keep the cliches away, Ullmann’s bass clarinet solo all over the place register-wise, trombone fluttering as bass and bass clarinet interlock hypnotically with the drums, finally Greene’s reliable low register signaling the way out of the labyrinth. There’s a lot going on here, headphones absolutely required.

March 6, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

CD Review: Eric Vloeimans’ Fugimundi – Live at Yoshi’s

In terms of lush, exuberant melody, this is without question the most beautiful album of the year in any style of music. Warm, plaintive, sometimes soaring, sometimes contemplative, this live recording by Dutch jazz trumpeter Eric Vloeimans, guitarist Anton Goudsmit and pianist Harmen Fraanje – just out on Challenge Records – captures a characteristic, richly memorable performance. If you get the chance to see this group, don’t pass it up. One part jazz, one part late 19th century Romanticism, with influences from the pampas of Argentina to the Portuguese coast, their style is indelibly unique. What a treat it must have been to be in the club the night this album was made. Yet for all the accessibility, there’s both an elusiveness and an allusiveness to the melodies that draws the listener in: any sense of contentedness is matched by an equivalent longing.

Goudsmit’s guitar opens it eerily, gently tremolo-picking a flamenco melody, Vloeinams finally adding a stately old world beauty, nostalgia balanced by poignancy. They make their way into a playful stop-and-start over what’s essentially a soul-pop song, Vloeimans employing his trademark shifts in intonation. The trio segue seamlessly into the third track, March of the Carpenter Ants, moving through a wary, chromatically-charged Vloeimans solo to a fascinating section akin to a film shot with three cameras onto a single screen a la the Woodstock documentary. Insistent, separate yet together, it’s a moment that screams out for the replay button. That, and headphones.

Goudsmit builds the fourth cut, Ernesto from a minimal intro to a darkly Robbie Krieger raga-inflected passage echoed by piano and trumpet, then shifts into suspenseful tango mode with an understatedly anguished David Gilmour feel that Vloeimans picks up on and takes to its logical crescendo. The next cut, Phillip works a pastoral, Jenny Scheinman-style melody into a gorgeously catchy theme with heavy Ellington overtones. Vloeimans finally goes all the way up on the wings of his glissandos and then down again on the gracefully choreographed Weimar blues Harry Bo, moving optimistically to centerstage against fatalistic piano and guitar. The other tracks on the album include a couple of blues numbers, the first of which morphs cleverly into a pop ballad, the second with a Georgia on My Mind feel with jaunty trumpet and spiky guitar. The only miss here is Somewhere Over the Rainbow, an exercise in implied melody, the trio taking care to skirt its central theme when what they should have done is left it off the set list entirely. Lucky fans can see Eric Vloeimans’ Fugimundi play September 27 at the Rotterdam International Jazz Festival.

September 12, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Andrew Green – Narrow Margin

Taking its title from the 1952 Richard Fleischer noir film, this often astonishingly memorable cd was written by guitarist Andrew Green while recuperating from a broken wrist. It’s simply one of the best jazz albums of the year. Talk about putting downtime to good use! It’s both a loving homage to noir soundtrack music as well as an intriguing update on the style. This is all about tension and mystery, and in keeping with the genre, JC Sanford‘s trombone, John Hebert‘s bass and Mark Ferber‘s drums establish an ominous backdrop for Bill McHenry‘s tenor sax and Russ Johnson‘s trumpet while composer Green’s guitar plays the P.I. role, working every angle. The songs here – and they are songs in the purest sense of the word – can evoke a sense of dread, but often deviously: they’re stylized but not formulaic. As with a good noir movie, very little is as it seems.

Right from the first few notes of the opening track, .45 Auto, the scene is set: a breathless horn hook, guitar spins off it and then a vivid Johnson solo over a murky rhythm section, who, sensing they’ve been discovered, then go scurrying off. Then McHenry goes honking cheerily to a big swell with echoes of Mingus. The second track, Midnight Novelette works a sinister theme with trombone and then the full band over a latin-tinged beat with playful muted trumpet and a tasteful, incisive Joe Pass style solo by Green. Both the third and sixth tracks, Miro and Short Cut have a vintage 50s Miles Davis feel – they could be classics from that era and may someday be acknowledged as such. The first is basically a swinging four-chord song that runs its gorgeously bracing chorus three times at the end to drive its point home; the other builds from a ridiculously catchy head to a Green solo that sputters and finally goes over the edge screaming over the distorted, reverberating roar of a rhythm guitar track. McHenry assumes his frequent role as the voice of reason while Green battles with the demons on the fretboard as the band rises out of the melee.

The title track cleverly interpolates Bernard Herrmann’s theme from Taxi Driver within the framework of a contrasting, more contemplative but equally suspenseful original, reinforcing the tension of the film piece. Other tracks here – pretty much all of them are standouts – include Black Roses, a calmly inscrutable exercise in how to build intensity, the golden-age 50s style Totally Joe, with a killer solo by Green peeking around the central chords rather than totally skirting them, and the least noir of all the tracks here, the concluding cut Honeymoon in Ipswich. Yet it also evokes a shadowy atmosphere, impatient, angry guitar pitted against a bustling, circular rhythm section that eventually goes way, way down for Sanford’s blissfully oblivious trombone to add an even further unbalanced feel: something is just waiting to go dreadfully wrong here. And then it’s over. As with a great suspense film, it screams out for a sequel.

The group celebrate the album’s release with a full-band show at 8 PM on Sept 20 at the Cornelia St. Cafe. Early arrival is very highly recommended.

September 10, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Paul Meyers – I’ve Got the World on a String

Smartly tasteful, purist Brazilian-style jazz from a first-rate cast of players: bandleader Paul Meyers on guitar, Helio Alves on piano, Donny McCaslin on saxes and flutes, Leo Traversa on bass and Vanderlei Pereira on drums and percussion. The songs are spacious and expansive, generous in that there’s always plenty of room for individual contributions. The chemistry between band members is obvious, creating strong and memorable interplay, nobody overplays, and the swells and ebbs of the songs are magnificently timed. You can dance to a lot of this: in the summer, ideally under the stars. It picks up as it goes along.

The title track opens with subtle samba inflections, then they burst out brightly, Alves leading the pack, bringing in a little blues but not darkening the mood, Meyers stepping out warmly on acoustic, McCaslin’s sax following comfortably in its wake, bobbing on the waves. Eyes That Smile is the prototypical song here. It’s more of a salsa groove, electric guitar and piano locked in, Meyers’ fast, scurrying, brightly melodic guitar solo down to a balmy flute interlude. And then picks up again, sax taking over, the rest of the band returning gently, this time with acoustic guitar and an Alves solo with some neat Cuban spice.

Plum begins somewhat bittersweet but grows warmer with a devious guitar-driven groove, Traversa playing with a trebly Jaco tone when it’s his turn to solo: again, dynamics come to the front here. Stars has more of a cuban beat with fluttery flute, and some particularly neat interplay between piano, guitar and flute as they each carry a part of an arpeggio. Gary Burton’s Panama, a tune originally recorded with Pat Metheny, is bouncier, the group playing against a steady guanguanco groove, guitar running through a marimba patch to enhance the tropical ambience. McCaslin gets to soar higher here than he has on any of the earlier tracks, as does Alves. Because, a strikingly somber nocturne, also serves as a showcase for McCaslin to add some darker inflections

River opens with some African inflections from Meyers, then the piano comes crashing in. Alves finally gets the chance to fire off some cascades and makes the most of them. And then McCaslin floats a balmy breeze over the rhythm section’s scurrying intricacies. The album wraps up on a high note with the buoyantly swinging, aptly titled North Meets South. If there’s anything to nitpick about here, it’s that the impeccable good taste that Meyers and crew exhibit here is both blessing and curse. They really have a lock on a mood and keep it going. The trouble is, they tease you: just when you think they might just explode and go crazy for once, they bring it back down. It would be interesting to hear this crew live and see how many more chances they might take.

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

CD Review: The JD Allen Trio – Shine!

There is no other composer in any other genre who is so completely on top of his game as tenor sax player JD Allen is right now, and thankfully he had the foresight to get back into the studio while he’s hot. This new one proves that last year’s release, the darkly majestic I Am I Am – a bonafide modern day jazz classic – was no fluke. “The music told me that it wanted to be called Shine,” he recently told WBGO’s Josh Jackson with a wink. “I feel very shiny when I wake up in the morning…a nice quarter that I might find, a nickel or two. Shine is good.” In a sense, the new album is an extension of the terse, four-minute “jukebox jazz” style the group mined so richly as a suite on the previous cd, here adding a somewhat more vintage, exploratory Pharaoh Sanders edge. The trio feel remains the same, bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston an integral part of the compositions rather than merely supplementary pieces (in a spectacular moment of triumph for Royston, drums very frequently serve as the lead instrument here). As before, melody remains absolutely front and center – if anything, the songs here may be even catchier, if not as dark. Allen’s stock in trade as a sideman has always been an ironclad, logically terse no-nonsense attack and that’s in full effect here. This is jazz for humming to yourself coming up out of the subway to the street where it’s a lot cooler.

The cd opens with Esre, echoes of the central theme from I Am I Am, Royston kicking it off with a flurry of drums, Allen entering minimalistically yet with a surprising amount of squall. Sonhouse takes an opentuned delta blues guitar riff and soars with it over an understated funk bassline and Royston’s Niagara Falls cascades. On Conjuration of Angles, Allen serves as the the anchor, calm and assured whether gentle and stately or, later on, playfully breezy as Royston colors it wildly with a little help from a bitterly brief hint of a solo by August.

Marco has something of a signature sound for Allen, variations on an apprehensively circular theme.The title track is a surprisingly gentle, reassuring ballad, almost a lullaby, Royston rattling around with heightened expectations, threatening to spontaneously combust, but he never does. The rhythm section remains on the prowl on The Laughing Bell while Allen provides buoyant contrast: as with so many of the tracks on I Am I Am, it’s a masterpiece of matching timbre to emotion. East Boogie follows, Allen morphing an old Ornette Coleman theme into a gorgeously warm piano voicing over a comfortably syncopated stomp. A cleverly echoey rumble, Ephraim has August playing off Allen and then Royston. There’s also a cozy, trad swing blues with a terse bass solo, both Allen and Royston jumping out of their shoes on Teo, and a boisterously wary final tune simple titled Variations. And the next-to-last track, Se’Lah has the rapturous, spiritual-infused feel of a jazz classic.

The trio have some low-key shows coming up: in Brooklyn at Puppets Jazz Bar on 6/25 at 9 and at the Stone on 7/21 at 8 followed by a big six-night stand at the Vanguard starting on 8/11. If you wish you’d been around back in the day when Bird and Trane were kicking up dust, remember this era has its own great ones too: you might want to catch more than one of these shows.

June 16, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment