Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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August 11, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 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: Satoko Fujii Ma-Do – Desert Ship

Multistylistic Japanese composer/pianist Satoko Fujii has just released four radically dissimilar albums simultaneously this spring: one by her gypsy jazz quartet Gato Libre, another by her mammoth Orchestra Tokyo; a noisy improv date by her free jazz outfit First Meeting, and this characteristically fascinating, emotionally varied, richly melodic one by her pretty straight-up small combo Ma-Do. This particular unit happens to be three-quarters of Gato Libre, Fujii on her usual piano this time alongside husband and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura and bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu, plus drummer Akira Horikoshi. A normal music site would have lumped all these albums together into a single article: we’re taking the time to assess each on its own merits because it would take pages to do justice to them in one fell swoop.

The opening cut sets the tone right off the bat, variations on a catchy hook with the inevitable crazed improvisational freakout lurking somewhere down the line. In this case it’s circular permutations of a theme very evocative of the Doors’ Break on Through riff on the piano, Tamura flying overhead in a similarly catchy vein. Koreyasu eventually emerges from the pileup unscathed, somberly, by himself. This album’s title track also appears, far more lushly arranged, on Fujii’s Zakopane cd (just reviewed here) with her Orchestra Tokyo. This version is even more stripped down than it would seem, Tamura’s trumpet a lonely figure in the wilderness, bass coming in with a koto line, piano following in a similarly minimalistic vein. The best song on the album is Nile River, a poignantly swaying modal piano/trumpet theme with the bass scraping gashes in the fabric, wild and skronky, leading the way up.

The album’s fourth cut, Ripple Mark has Fujii running a simple chordal riff, adding menace by degrees as the bass prowls around on its own, Tamura making his entrance with the drums’ martial stomp. They segue into the sarcastically titled Sunset in the Desert, essentially just a big swinging drum solo with occasional squealing accents from trumpet and bass (and Fujii sneaking in to see what the boys have been breaking at the end). Pluto is an otherworldly series of piano cascades with pauses for bass and drums and occasional, brief deoxygenated accents by Tamura into yet another crazed breakdown. They take that idea to its logical and considerably amusing extreme on the perfectly titled While You Were Sleeping, Fujii tossing ever more uneasily as Tamura and Horikoshi jump, stomp and blare, refusing to stop the madness until she finally accedes and gets up. Capillaries has everybody in the band exchanging ever more boisterous trails of bubbles; the album ends with the airy, distant, icily wary epic Vapour Trail, Fujii at her most incisive and bracing, the rest of the band giving her a wide berth. What else is there to say? Another triumph for this extraordinary composer. It’s out now on Not Two Records.

March 29, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Salvatore Bonafede Trio – Sicilian Opening

Italian jazz pianist Salvatore Bonafede blends diverse classic styles and pensive European melodies along with the occasional rustic Sicilian accent into a strikingly memorable, hummable mix on this new cd. In the style of another eminently catchy current composer, JD Allen, pretty much everything here clocks in at under five minutes, sometimes considerably less. Yet as indelible as the compositions are, the playing is impeccably tasteful and understated – if anything, these guys could cut loose a lot more if they felt like it.

The album opens with a jaunty New Orleans theme, quoting Brubeck liberally early on. According to the liner notes, the second cut is ostensibly Arab-influenced, but it’s basically a swaying, moody two-chord vamp into a catchy, bluesy chorus. Track three, Ideal Standard memorably addresses issues of communication or lack thereof via Bonafede’s tensely judicious minor-key phrasing. Bassist Marco Panascia maintains the vibe, voicing a solo that builds intensity as it follows Bonafede’s lines even as it brings the volume down to the lower registers. The trio follow that with a slow, expressive quasi blues, drummer Marcello Pellitteri deftly bouncing accents off the piano’s bass notes.

The warmly cinematic seventh track paints an Americana-inflected tableau evocative of the late Danny Federici’s solo work. Of the two covers here, Blackbird is a song that should be retired – no matter what Bonafede does with it, which isn’t straying particularly far from the original, you are only waiting for the moment to arrive when it’s over. But with his version of She’s Leaving Home, Bonafede really captures the understated exasperation and unspoken rage in the McCartney original. The other tracks include a tribute to Palermo that builds to the closest approximation of a scream that there is here; a hypnotic Dr. John homage, and a casually swaying number that blends gospel with an updated, martial WC Handy vibe. The album creeps up on you if you’re not paying attention – that’s how strong the melodies are.  The liner notes have an earnestness that’s often hilarious, like they’ve been babelfished backwards and forwards. Somebody get these guys a translator that speaks…that is to say, one with a voice that isn’t computer-generated.

March 5, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

CD Review: The Dave Rivello Ensemble – Facing the Mirror

This cd is something of a feel-good story. Jazz composer/conductor Dave Rivello is a Bob Brookmeyer protege and the influence is clearly audible here. Recorded in 2002 but just recently released, this cd features Rivello leading his Rochester, New York-based twelve-piece jazz orchestra through an inspired set of eight mostly robust originals. Like his colleagues Jim McNeely, JC Sanford and Maria Schneider, Rivello is pushing the envelope with big band jazz  – this cd only raises the intrigue of what he may have been up to in the intervening years. As with the best big bands, there’s plenty of grandeur and majesty on this album but also an impressive out-of-the-box imagination. Rivello is especially adept at dynamics, frequently interspersing brief, incisive solo drum passages as a segue or to take a crescendo down a notch. His tradeoffs and thematic variations can be rhythmic as well as melodic. He likes a pulse – the piano here is an integral part of the rhythm section. Rivello is clever and often devious – he can’t resist a trick ending, or three, and there’s maybe just as much interplay between the orchestra and the soloists as there is between the individual players. Throughout, the compositions show off a strong sense of melody and an equally strong sense of purpose. As long as they go on – frequently more than ten minutes at a clip – these songs take a definable trajectory. They go somewhere. This is your chance to get to know this guy before he’s famous.

The opening track, One by One by One works a reggaeish vamp into a soul shuffle, Red Wierenga‘s piano taking a deliberate solo against the horn riffs to a big bright crescendo and the first of what will be an innumerable series of trick endings throughout the cd. There’s a defiant satisfaction to how Rivello lets the darkly tinged latin vamp breathe as the second track, Of Time and Time Past, unwinds with the warm effect of a good chianti. As the orchestra rises and falls, the plaintiveness remains,very evocative of Pam Fleming‘s work, particularly when Mike Kaupa‘s trumpet is flying overhead. Stealing Space builds a tense, noir-tinged intro to a quick crescendo, pits balmy tenor against the casual, ambient swell of the horns, then starts to scurry and bounce all the way into a deliciously mysterioso passage by the rhythm section. The rhythmic tradeoffs between piano, bass and drums are exquisite, and the way the rhythm section intermingles between the swells and blasts as the piece winds up are very captivating as well. The drum/orchestra tension recurs on the next track.

The standout cut here is Beyond the Fall, towering, resonant and powerful as the trombones take the central phrase to a roaring, dramatic, low-register swell. Matt Pivec‘s soprano sax solo plays off Wierenga’s Donald Fagen-esque, murkily minimalist chordal work to a big squalling crescendo as the horns circle overhead in menacing anticipation. And then it’s back to the ferocity of the intro. The Path of Innocence begins atmospherically and features a beautiful, Middle Eastern-inflected tenor solo by Jose Encarnacion and then some memorably fugal work by Wierenga, righthand echoing the left. The concluding cut is a brief, comfortable nocturne that would work perfectly as a tv theme. Now the operative question: when can we expect something more from Rivello? If this is any indication, it should be exciting to say the least.

September 4, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pamela Fleming & Fearless Dreamer at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, NYC 9/18/07

Two long, exhilarating sets of jazz from the highly sought-after horn player/bandleader and her seemingly favorite cast of characters. Pam Fleming has played with everybody. She spent a few years in reggae legend Burning Spear’s band as one of the all-female trio the Burning Brass, toured with Natalie Merchant and has lately been the not-so-secret weapon in Hazmat Modine. Her trademark is the instant crescendo. Whether playing trumpet or flugelhorn, she can pull one out of thin air in a split-second and make it seem perfectly natural, a trick that only a few musicians (Robert Cray and Mary Lee Kortes come to mind) can pull off. As breathtaking a soloist as she is, it’s ironic that in her own band, she doesn’t get to do that much. Most of her compositions seem to be written through, in other words, meant to be played note for note without much if any opportunity for soloing or extemporization.

Fleming typically writes in three disparate styles: vividly evocative, richly melodic songs without words; long, sprawling, psychedelic one-chord jams that sound like early 70s gangster movie soundtracks, and jazzed-up reggae tunes that wouldn’t be out of place in the Monty Alexander songbook (imagine if Alexander was a horn player instead of a pianist). Many of the compositions she played tonight had a narrative, cinematic feel: Hollywood would do well to seek her out.

Tonight she had almost all of the unit from her latest album: the always surprising, brilliantly musical Todd Isler on drums and percussion, the fast, stylistically diverse Peter Calo on electric guitar, Leo Traversa holding down the bass, Jim West on keys, and new group member Erik Lawrence on tenor and alto sax and flute. They opened with the reggae tune Slimy Business (guess which business that is), Fleming and Lawrence conversing through their instruments and trading off on sections of the melody, a sonically textural treat. They followed that with the gorgeous, major-key Because of Anthony from their first album. The brand-new, defiant, bluesy I’ve Had Enough gave both Fleming and Lawrence their first chance to stretch out. The haunting, achingly beautiful More Than Anything began with West playing the song’s central hook and built from there; from what Fleming told the audience, it seems to be a love song, but it’s very, very dark: West’s tasteful, traditional approach to his part worked wonders. After that, they did Intrigue in the Night Market, a rousing gypsy dance she wrote for Metropolitan Klezmer (another band she plays in regularly), featuring a boisterous, imaginative hand drum solo from Isler.

The highlight of the first set was Say Goodbye, which actually isn’t nearly as mournful as the title might imply: it’s a comfortable, familiar-sounding theme (perhaps this is a personal interpretation: maybe I’m so used to saying goodbye that it feels comfortably familiar). With its nostalgic, homey central hook, it sounds like it ought to be playing over the opening credits of a popular tv drama (any HBO people out there?).

The evening’s most mesmerizing piece was Fleming’s ominous 9/11 theme, Climb, the title track from her most recent album. From the song’s tersely harrowing opening hook, it’s obvious what’s going to happen, yet the foreshadowing is white-knuckle intense, right up to inevitable crash – and the band missed the crescendo when they hit it. To their credit, they turned on a dime and then brought out every bit of the macabre, disastrous feel of the following succession of chords as the song literally fell apart. Live, watching the melody break down and disintegrate was absolutely riveting. It’s a credit to this band that they can absolutely nail Fleming’s sometimes completely unexpected thematic and mood changes.

The night finally came to a close with Ba-Bo-De, a world-music inflected, two-chord vamp that unsurprisingly evoked a Burning Spear jam, which Fleming opened by playing a conch shell for a few bars. Fleming had had a devious look on her face the entire night, and took this as her opportunity to finally leave the stage and circulate amongst the audience, getting seemingly everyone to sing part of the melody. The crowd loved the personal attention, and the band jumped on the opportunity to get mischievous while she was out mingling with the audience.

This show was part of an ongoing series here called Women Take the Bandstand, featuring a new female-fronted act on the third Tuesday of every month. Given the venue, it seems to be mostly jazz and world music. Kudos to the reliably friendly, sonically superb Nuyorican for creating the series: it’s an admirable concept.

September 20, 2007 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments