Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Electric Jazz Before It Got Cheesy – Surprise Reissues from the CTI Vaults

2010 being the fortieth anniversary of 1970s cult jazz label CTI Records, it’s no surprise that there’d be reissues from those vaults coming out right about now. For fans who might be put off by the label’s association with the dreaded f-word, the good news is that the reissued stuff far more closely evokes the Miles Davis of, say, In a Silent Way, than it does fusion. The first one in the series is Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, which often beautifully capsulizes the late 60s/early 70s moment when jazz had gone pretty much completely electric with psychedelic rock overtones, but hadn’t yet been infiltrated by stiff drumming and paint-by-numbers electric guitar solos. Herbie Hancock, who maybe more than any other artist excelled the most during that brief period, plays electric piano and organ here, most stunningly during an absolutely chilling Rhodes solo on an eerily fluttering cover of John Lennon’s Cold Turkey. And he really chooses his spots on a slowly crescendoing version of Suite Sioux. Joe Henderson sets the mood that Hancock will take to its logical extreme on Cold Turkey, but the tenor player is completely tongue-in-cheek to the point of inducing good-natured laughs for his playful insistence on Suite Sioux and the brighty cinematic Intrepid Fox. The atmospheric ballad Delphia has aged well, as has the title track. It’s present here in two versions: the studio take, with its whirling intro building to blazingly catchy jazz-funk, and a far slinkier live take with a sizzling, spiraling George Benson guitar solo. Drummer Lenny White never played more judiciously than he does here, and forty years later, hearing Ron Carter on Fender bass is a trip: he doesn’t waste a note, with a touch that pulls overtones out of the air. It’s up at itunes and all the usual spots.

As is the digital reissue of the 1972 California Concert double album from the Hollywood Palladium, a showcase for CTI’s frontline stable at the time: Hubbard on flugelhorn, Carter on bass, Hank Crawford on alto, George Benson on guitar, Johnny Hammond (the former Johnny “Hammond” Smith) on Rhodes and organ, Stanley Turrentine on tenor, Hubert Laws on flute, Billy Cobham on drums and Airto Moreira on percussion. Benson absolutely owns this record: his unhinged atonal flights and circles of biting blues have absolutely nothing in common with the smooth grooves of Breezin’. He pulls Hammond up and pushes him to find the hardcore funk in a long, characteristically loose version of Carole King’s It’s Too Late. An over twenty-minute take of Impressions takes the vibe back ten years prior, fueled by the guitar and the organ, Laws taking it up eerily and stratospherically, Carter doing the limbo with equal parts amusement and grace. Fire and Rain is happy unrecognizable, reinvented as a woozily hypnotic one-chord jam that could be War during their Eric Burdon period. Straight Life starts out as rocksteady and ends as funk; So What gets taken apart and reassembled, at doublespeed the first time around. The high point here, unsurprisingly, is Red Clay, with its blistering flugelhorn and guitar passages…and then Carter casually detuning his bass when the band leaves him all by himself onstage. The recording is far from perfect: Airto is inaudible much of the time, and supporting horn accents fade in and out of the mix during solos. And these grooves are long: do we really need five minutes of band intros by an announcer who’s obviously half in the bag? Still, it really captures an era, one that sadly didn’t last very long.

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November 8, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fabrizio Sotti’s Computer Crashes; His Album Doesn’t

Fabrizio Sotti may be best known as a producer, someone who’s worked with hip-hop luminaries like Dead Prez, Ghostface Killah and reggae toaster Half Pint (and also some who are less than luminary). He’s also a thoughtful, stylistically diverse jazz guitarist. What he seems to be going for on his latest album Inner Dance is an update on the expansively playful vibe of those Wes Montgomery/Jimmy Smith albums from the 60s. This is a feel-good story in more ways than one: halfway through recording, Sotti’s hard drive died and he lost everything (yet another argument for the benefits of two-inch tape). And he also lost the services of bassist James Genus, who’d played on the original tracks but whose schedule had become too busy to accommodate further recording. So Sotti brought in B3 organist Sam Barsh, and suddenly they had a new vibe to work with. What they ended up with is actually a very 80s sounding album – but 80s in a good way. Sotti frequently utilizes a watery chorus-box tone, Barsh alternating between tasteful atmospherics and good-natured exuberance. Victor Jones handles the drum work with a crafty understatement, with Mino Cinelu taking over the throne on the title track.

They open with a gently purposeful swing blues, and then the acoustic guitar ballad Kindness in Your Eyes, Sotti negotiating his way through it nimbly, with some nifty tremolo-picking over atmospheric waves of organ. They segue into the title track: finally Sotti kicks into gear with a very Wes solo after an interminable one by guest harmonica player Gregoire Maret, then segue out and pick up the pace with I Thought So, a showcase for fluidly dancing, staccato fretwork and bubbly, classically-tinged arpeggiation by Barsh. Amanecer, a cowrite with brilliant Chilean soul/jazz chanteuse Claudia Acuña (who also sings on the track) has an aptly hushed beauty, Sotti’s flights up and down the scale midway through the song wisely and poignantly restrained. A Michael Brecker homage, Brief Talk actually more closely resembles the blue-sky ambience that Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays were mining circa As Falls Wichita. Then they pick up the pace with the best of the upbeat numbers here, Last Chance, offer a tribute to Monk with the swinging, artfully voiced Mr. T.M. and close with a brief, ruminative nylon-string solo vignette. When he’s not behind the board, Sotti is sought after as a sideman: one listen to this album and the reason for his popularity becomes clear.

August 8, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Genre-Smashing New Guitar Albums from Chris Burton Jacome and Lawson Rollins

Chris Burton Jacome and Lawson Rollins are both gifted acoustic guitarists with individual voices, each with an innovative, flamenco-inspired approach and a new album out. Jacome imaginatively blends both rock and Middle Eastern melodies within a traditional gypsy flamenco framework, while Rollins brings a biting flamenco edge to his groove-oriented world jazz instrumentals. If flamenco or gypsy guitar is your thing, both of these guys should be on your radar, particularly since each has his best days ahead of him.

Jacome is a feel-good story: as a teenager, he wanted to be Eddie Van Halen, but was happily disabused of that fantasy when he discovered flamenco. He immersed himself in it the old-fashioned way, learning from the source from Roma in Spain. His new album Levanto is a fullscale ballet, a theme and variations complete with dancing – as a purist, he’s continuing a centuries-old tradition that blends music with dance, legend and storytelling. Dynamics are his strong suit: he’s the rare guitarist you actually want to hear more of (lots more of, actually – as with Rollins, he’s sometimes conspicuously absent on his own album). Backed by the vivid, incisive violin of Jennifer Mayer, Adrian Goldenthal on bass, Kristofer Hill on percussion and a trio of brassy vocalists (Chayito Champion, Olivia Rojas and Vanessa Lopez), the group alternate between fiery dance instrumentals, dramatic ballads, poignantly fingerpicked passages and a lot of tap-dancing. Jacome makes artful use of the Arabic hijaz scale as well as interpolating catchy rock passages within the compositions’ stately architecture. The problem is that as an album, the segues are jarring – just when a song seems about to sail joyously over the edge, here come those dancers again. It’s easily solved once you upload the tracks and sequence them yourself (it should be emphasized that fans of oldschool flamenco will have no problem with this; however, a lot of momentum gets lost if you just leave the tracks in their original order). What this really should have been is a DVD – it leaves the impression that there’s a whole side to the spectacle that doesn’t translate if the audio is all you have.

Rollins comes at flamenco as a jazz player with blazing speed and a wealth of original ideas: by the time the fifth track begins, he’s delved into rhumba, samba, Cuban son and back again. Like Jacome, he has an inspired cast of characters behind him including Charlie Bisharat on violin, Dave Bryant on percussion, the great Iranian composer Kayhan Kalhor guesting on kamancheh on one track and Airto Moreira, Flora Purim and their daughter Diana Booker contributing backing vocals. Rollins tosses off one lightning phrase after another, sometimes handing them off to Bisharat, other times to the wryly muted trumpet of Jeff Elliott. He imaginatively works the traditional descending scale of flamenco music in all kinds of new ways, even adding some tersely textural electric guitar beauty to the title track. The highlight of the cd is the triptych at the end, the Migration Suite, upping the ante with biting, Middle Eastern flavored arrangements and motifs. The problem here is the production: when there are horns here, they’re so compressed that they sound like a synthesizer, an effect that compromises all the playing here, even Rollins’. Where the Brazilian vocalists might have been able to contribute something memorable, they’re as buried in the mix as the Jordanaires on an old Elvis record. Even Kalhor gets flattened out. There may be a reason behind this: one of the cuts here was a “most added” track on easy-listening radio earlier in the year. Which on one level is fine, Rollins deserves to be heard – but in a context that does justice to the fire and imagination of his playing, his compositions and the peers he plays with. More than anything, this reminds of the work of another quality guitarist, Peter White, whose series of world music-inspired acoustic instrumental albums about 20 years ago typecast him as an easy-listening, smooth jazz guy rather than the world class player he is.

Lucky Arizonans can see Chris Burton Jacome play the cd release show for this one at the Chandler Center for the Arts, 250 N Arizona Ave. in Chandler on May 2.

April 27, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Blues in Space

Cellist Rubin Kodheli is a busy sideman in the New York scene, perhaps best known as a member of lush, hauntingly atmospheric art-rockers Edison Woods. He’s also a composer, and considering how gracefully he leaps from genre to genre as an ensemble player, it’s no surprise that his own band Blues in Space spans many different styles as well.

There are five songs on this captivating ep (it’s up on itunes), a mix of clever, playful and frequently ferocious instrumentals. Three of them have a crunchy metal edge in the same vein as Apocalyptica or Rasputina in a particularly enraged moment; others are quieter. Under the layers and layers of cello, soaring, grinding, roaring or wailing through an army’s worth of digital effects, there’s also Justin Sabaj’s tasteful, incisive guitar and Garrett Brown’s percussion, from a pounding metal thump to judicious tribal beats.

The first track, Like a Tree is full of evocative soundtrack-style vistas, swaying and ornate with an eerie, stark cello passage about halfway through before returning to its earlier atmospherics. As its title would imply, Apocalypse is straight-up thrash metal – it’s a showcase for Kodheli’s virtuosic ability to transpose metal guitar voicings to the cello. This particular apocalypse is pretty much done with destroying the world by about halfway through, eventually fading out with an evil oscillation.

With its blithe, pizzicatto stroll, Happy Minor evokes another genre-bending New York string ensemble, Ljova and the Kontraband. The self-explanatory Rage is a wild, crunchy metal number, its darkest segments interestingly played with clean tone without any of the crazy electronic effects. The last cut, The Greatest swirls around atmospherically for a couple of minutes before exploding with more sizzling metal riffs. Throughout the songs, Kodheli shows off an impressive restraint, a welcome change from the self-indulgence in most metal. He’s more interested in hooks, and in developing a mood. There are definitely plenty of indie films in development who would get good mileage out of the stuff here. Blues in Space play le Poisson Rouge on August 19 at 11ish with special guest Eleanor Norton of Divahn on cello.

August 11, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Memoriam: Joe Zawinul, 1932-2007

Viennese-born jazz keyboardist Joe Zawinul died September 11 in his hometown after a battle with cancer. He was 75. Zawinul pioneered the use of electronic keyboards in jazz and was a major influence on his fellow musicians, notably Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. While studying at the Berklee School of Music in 1958, Zawinul was hired away by Maynard Ferguson, and later played with Dinah Washington and Cannonball Adderley. While with Adderley in the 1960s he wrote Mercy Mercy Mercy, one of the first jazz songs to use an electric piano. Later in the decade he contributed the title track to the milestone Miles Davis album In a Silent Way, Davis’ first venture into the electric sound that he would expand on and continue to use throughout the remainder of his career.

In 1970 Zawinul founded Weather Report along with sax player Wayne Shorter and bassist Miroslav Vitous. Arguably the most important of the jazz fusion bands of the 70s, Weather Report played a mix of high-energy, funky jams and quieter, more reflective material. Zawinul’s work with the band – which later included legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius – broadened the sonic palette for jazz keyboards, utilizing different electric pianos, synthesizers and effects including wah, reverb, distortion and loops. It is hard to think of a jazz or funk musician since 1970 who was not influenced in some way, directly or indirectly, by Zawinul and Weather Report.

Zawinul’s best-known composition was Birdland, the opening track from Weather Report’s 1977 album Heavy Weather. What Take the A Train or Take Five were to earlier eras, Birdland was to the late 70s and early 80s, the most popular jazz song of its time. Even punk rockers knew the song’s simple, celebratory hook. After Weather Report dissolved in the early 80s, Zawinul led the Zawinul Syndicate, a fusion group that he played in until very shortly before his death, releasing several albums on his own BirdJAM label.

While jazz fusion remains a dirty word in some circles because of its use of rock arrangements and steady 4/4 time (not to mention the fact that fusion was the forerunner of Lite-FM style elevator jazz), there is no denying Zawinul’s pioneering influence, his uncanny sense of melody, his formidable chops and his brilliance as a bandleader.

September 13, 2007 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, obituary | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment