Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Noah Preminger Gets Meticulous at the Jazz Standard

If Noah Preminger was a painter, he wouldn’t be Pollock: he’d be Paul Klee, maybe. Last night, in his Jazz Standard debut as a bandleader, what the tenor saxophonist left unsaid wasn’t as interesting as what he played, but it created many, many moments of suspense, most of them brief, some more lingering. It’s impressive enough not to overplay, but Preminger’s use of space is pretty extraordinary. His playing on his new album Before the Rain – whose release he was celebrating last night – is judicious, but onstage he chose his spots with an artful gambler’s resolve. Figuring out what was composed and what he was making made up on the spot was often impossible to tell. And for a relatively young guy (he’s a couple of years out of conservatory) to get a band of veterans as good as the crew he has on the album to back him speaks more than any review could. Early on, he pitched a few riffs that pianist Frank Kimbrough playfully swatted at, but otherwise this was less a clinic in interplay than simply good listening. During his bandmates’ solos, Preminger watched intently, but not with anticipation – he was picking up ideas.

And what the group ran out there was every bit as interesting as what Preminger did himself. Drummer Matt Wilson is always inspiring to watch, but this time out he had the counterintuitivity meter pinned in the red. On the blithely catchy Quickening, a Kimbrough tune from the new record, he took a solo that began as a fugue of sorts, morphed into clave and then a winkingly circular riff that he looped over and over. Otherwise, he’d introduce an unexpected shuffle, prowl around rubato while bassist John Hebert held the rhythm, or the one time that Hebert finally veered off the end of the runway, Wilson pounced and saved the song from a certain dip in the Hudson.

Hebert’s lines were every bit as invigorating, and invigorated, as Wilson’s. On the set’s next-to-last number, catchy but wary with a distant bolero feel, he worked the fringes from a pedal note to a percussive yet tuneful frenzy where it looked like he might break a string. As the band wound their way with an unselfconscious casualness into the warmly inviting first song, a Preminger composition simply titled K, he held the center while Wilson and Preminger slipped around in search of a firm footing; later, when the moment called for it, he’d slip a chord or two into a lull, the effect being as if he’d hit an overdrive pedal. And Kimbrough was his usual lyrical, expressive self, whether playing hide-and-seek with the inner Mexican folk song hidden within Ornette Coleman’s Toy Dance, adding bracing phantasmagorical touches on the next-to-last song of the set or artfully evading any kind of resolution on an otherwise surprisingly straight-up version of the vivid Preminger ballad Before the Rain. They closed the set with a gently lyrical, meticulous version of Rodgers and Hart’s Where or When that brought to mind Brubeck’s calm, bucolic version of Georgia on My Mind, a comfortable landing that drew raucous applause from what looked to be a sold-out room. Preminger is back at the Jazz Standard with Fred Hersch (who has a very captivating solo album recorded at the Vanguard, just out) on March 4-5.

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February 17, 2011 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Conference Call Doesn’t Phone This One In

You have to give these guys credit, they fly without a net every time. By the time reed player/composer Gebhard Ullmann’s quartet Conference Call played their concert on April 22, 2007 in Krakow, they were a well-oiled machine. As far outside as some of their improvisations go, the chemistry in the band is visceral: at this point, they could just press “record” and go for it, knowing they’d get something worthwhile out of it. And as reliably adventurous as these players are – Ullmann on saxes and bass clarinet, Michael Jefry Stevens on piano, Joe Fonda on bass and George Schuller on drums – there’s far more structure and melody in the performances on this album, What About…? than might seem evident at first listen. It’s a long album, two cds and almost an hour and a quarter’s worth of music, but virtually all of it will hold your attention if you listen closely. Jazz doesn’t get any more psychedelic than this.

A cynic would say that the Europeans always go for the weirdest stuff, and these guys start out weird – a flutter of the sax, a wrinkle of the piano, and eventually they work in tandem, fluttering as the bass and drums do recon. But ultimately Ullmann is the scout here, as he will be for the rest of the night, searching overhead as the piano pounds gently – the two converse briefly and then bass and drums join the agitation. They segue into the next two tracks – a tastily chromatic, minimalist piano rumble with variations and then a slowly pulsing nocturne, overtone-laden bowed bass and sax whistling and weaving out of focus, adding a vertiginous, off-center unease. As with many of the tracks here, they fade out gracefully when everyone’s said all they have to say.

Ullmann frequently goes completely against the central key here, with bracingly effective results, particularly on the fourth track – the first of a loosely connected three-part suite – that blends both classical and funk piano tinges while the sax flies overhead. And the device adds considerable humor on the practically seventeen-minute second part, Ullmann swinging obliviously as the rest of the band prowl around, tentative and ominous until they finally coalesce and take it up to a clever false ending.

The second cd opens with Fonda taking over the obliviously swinging role after a long, tersely played yet expansive intro. Stevens’ sardonically titled Could This Be a Polka is actually one of the most memorably warped tangos ever written, Ullmann’s bass clarinet indignant, insistent and eventually even belligerent as the piano brings it back out of the chaos when least expected. Litmus, by Schuller builds from conspiratorial call-and-response to a long machine-gun vamp; Ullmann’s Translucent Tones is an impressionistic exercise in shadowplay, glimmer versus low thoughtful washes of sound as the piano slowly establishes a camouflaged lento groove. The jauntily amusing title track is basically a swing tune with the rhythm stripped away (a paradox, but that’s what makes it so much fun), piano, bass and drums hinting at it but never quiet going there as Ullmann blithely sways along, completely on his own for almost the entire eight minutes. As intriguingly and surprisingly melodic as this album is, it has legs well beyond the free jazz/outsider jazz crowd who are its primary audience.

August 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

Concert Review: The Jentsch Group Quartet at Context Studios, Brooklyn NY 6/17/09

The Jentsch Group are shapeshifters in both senses of the word: sometimes jazz guitarist/composer Chris Jentsch’s project is a big band, sometimes much a smaller crew. This was a rare performance of a lean, stripped-down unit featuring Matt Renzi on saxophones, Jim Whitney of Andy Statman’s band on double bass and John Mettam on drums. Playing a captivating mix of both older and new, unreleased material from Jentsch’s forthcoming cd Fractured Pop, Jentsch revealed an uncanny ear for timbre, melodies taking on different shades and significance as they took on different permutations, passed between the band members. Jentsch likes variations on a theme and this show was full of them.

As someone influenced by Toru Takemitsu and Indian music as well as American styles, Jentsch also doesn’t let preconceived stylistic constraints get in the way. Was this rock, or was this jazz? It was both – if you can write in both idioms, why not? The first number started out pretty and jangly over some tricky changes but then straightened itself into a fairly straight-up indie rock instrumental over variants on the most basic blues riff, Renzi adding brightness before Jentsch took it into offhandedly biting David Gilmour territory with a solo of his own, then handing the reins back to the sax. Throughout the set, Jentsch used his volume pedal like an ebow, adding shades of sustain on the next number, a warm yet pensive melody in 6/8 that with its alternately stark and expressive permutations, one of them a latin guitar vamp, evoked Astor Piazzolla. A brief reggae interlude, Jentsch playing four on three, made for a playful diversion. 

Then they launched into the main theme from Jentsch’s 2007 album Brooklyn Suite, a genuine modern jazz classic. The central hook is a savagely descending four-bar theme that ranks with any other iconic melody you can imagine. It’s neither difficult to play nor to sing to yourself and hearing Renzi pick it up before Jentsch finally got its hands on it and tore it to shreds was something akin to watching B.B. King do The Thrill Is Gone…or seeing Coltrane work himself into a particularly inspired Giant Steps. It was that good. The album version is lush and sweeping: this four-piece edition gave the melody the opportunity to bare its fangs even further, unconstrained by the swells of the horns and reeds. Maybe to see if anybody was paying attention, Jentsch tossed in a familiar Eddie Van Halen quote (ok, it was Beat It) toward the end. They wrapped up the set with one of the more ambient, atmospheric parts of the Brooklyn Suite, a cut from the new Cycles Suite cd propelled with masterful subtlety by Whitney and closed with a world premiere, the apprehensive nocturne Are You Bye?, an opportunity for Mettam to add some expansive menace, which Jentsch explained afterward took not only its title but also its central chord progression from Bye Bye Blackbird. Considering that Jentsch doesn’t frequently play out, this was worth the trek to the Williamsburg waterfront and then some.

June 19, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment