Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Ralph Bowen’s Power Play: A Clinic in Melody

It looks like we have our first classic of the year. On the cover of his new album Power Play, saxophonist Ralph Bowen stands in an alley, holding his sax more like a goalie than a winger. But the title is absolutely spot-on. This is one of those albums that musicians will hear and will immediately want to play along to. Yet ironically, non-musicians will probably enjoy this the most because they can just relax and enjoy it for what it is rather than having to figure out what Bowen is doing. Which actually isn’t all that difficult, most of the time, other than the most rapidfire passages (which will take lots of practice if you want to do them with the same kind of soul and style), because melody is simple. It lingers. As does this album.

If you play, this is a clinic in the kind of things you could be doing, and maybe should be doing. Bowen’s sense of melody is stunning, and yet completely unpredictable. He alternates effortlessly between scales and modes, shows off some wickedly blistering speed in places yet only when he really has to drive a point home. The closest comparison is probably Joshua Redman, but Bowen’s attack is lighter and more crystalline, and that contrasts, sometimes mightily, with the intensity of the tunes. He plays both tenor and alto here and is equally compelling either way. It’s hard-hitting, purposeful and tuneful beyond belief, and it elevates the crew behind him. Donald Edwards’  no-nonsense drums team up with Kenny Davis’ crisp, propulsive bass, along with Orrin Evans’ piano. About Evans, what else is there to say – everything he touches lately turns into magic (have you heard his Tarbaby album from last year? Get the damn thing!), and this is yet another example.

They don’t waste time getting started with an aggressive, matter-of-fact swing blues, which sets up an immediate contrast with the gorgeous, richly countermelodic Drumheller Valley, its intro with echoes of Brubeck, Evans kicking in a majestically chordal solo followed by an artfully divergent passage into Bowen’s lusciously ominous spirals. Two-Line Pass – a highway reference, maybe? – is relentless, Evans again matching the understated overdrive of Bowen’s restless bustle. Evans goes into rippling Americana-via-Brubeck on The Good Shepherd, a wickedly catchy modal number; Bowen’s long, bumpy descent out of the clouds on the warmly thoughtful swing tune Bella Firenze is arguably the high point of the whole album. Although on second thought that could be his big crescendo out, on alto, on the almost deviously nonchalant blues ballad Jessica, which follows it.

Walleye Jigging is a tongue-in-cheek lazy afternoon tableau complete with an expansive cocktail piano solo and an extended interlude in three before reverting to relaxed, syncopated swing. The album ends with A Solar Romance, a gently optimistic ballad that turns dark in seconds and gives Bowen the chance to work the suspense for all it’s worth, all the way to a very uneasy resolution. The lone cover here is My One and Only Love, where the bass and piano give Bowen plenty of room for what’s basically an expansive (ok, eight-minute) solo that somehow manages not to be boring. It’s only February, but you’ll see this on our best albums of 2011 list. It’s out now on Posi-Tone.

Advertisements

February 10, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 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

Concert Review: Turkish Woodstock II, 7/3/10

Last year’s “Turkish Woodstock” was sold out practically before the show started: if you include the thousands who couldn’t get inside New York’s Central Park Summerstage arena, a safe guess is that there were about 20,000 people milling about. This year’s “Turkish Woodstock II” a.k.a. Istanbulive didn’t appear to reach peak capacity until well after 4 PM. Both 2009 and 2010 shows blended east and west, although the segues last year (the NY Gypsy All-Stars, clarinet legend Husnu Senlendirici, Painted on Water and MFO, with a cameo from the Brooklyn Funk Essentials) were more seamless. But this year’s still made for a good, eclectic bill. The concert began with a single foreboding, somewhat funereal traditional song by Emrah Kanisicak, backed by oud, percussion, bass, drums and accordion. Chanteuse Sukriye Tutkun then took over centerstage. She has a lovely voice, exemplary range and a completely casual, warmly familiar stage presence. It was as if she was singing in her living room (ok, not her living room, but maybe from her fire escape – it was a brutally hot afternoon). Calmly and methodically, she ran through a selection of understated, Middle Eastern-tinged ballads and a slinky pop song that evoked Henry Mancini. The songs were all seemingly Mancini-era: the crowd knew most of them; a few sang along.

Ilhan Ersahin’s Istanbul Sessions – Ersahin on tenor sax, Alp Ersonmez on electric bass, Turgut Bekoglu on drums and Izzet Kizil on percussion were next, a short, rewarding day’s journey into night. Ersahin, impresario of well-loved East Village jazz oasis Nublu – is at his best when he mines a nocturnal vibe, and he worked his way down. He’s all about melody – it wasn’t til the third song of his set that he worked any kind of ornamentation, in this case an evil little trill, into his playing. Ersonmez matched him, sometimes pedaling a note or, occasionally, a chord, for what felt like minutes on end while the percussion clattered hypnotically and Ersahin scoped out the territory. Chipper and cheery, he worked permutations on a series of catchy hooks much like JD Allen will do, keeping each piece to a comfortable four minutes or so. They got better and better as they went along, Ersahin introducing a sly, late-night, understatedly simple bluesy tinge. Ersonmez introduced one with a fast percussive line that mimicked an oud while Ersahin ran circles around a bouncy spy theme, followed by a trance-inducing percussion solo. They went out on a joyous note with the reggae-tinged Freedom, pulsing along with a wickedly catchy three-chord chorus. Anyone who misses the late, great Moisturizer should discover Ersahin: he has the same irrepressible, irresistibly playful sensibility.

By the time moody rock quartet Duman – Turkish for “smoke” – took the stage, the arena looked close to capacity. They got a lot more singalongs than Tutkun – the young crowd, restless to this point, were suddenly one with the music. Turkish lyrics aside, Duman have the same memorable jangly and sometimes chromatically tinged sound that’s been all the rage in Latin America since the days of popular Mexican rockers Caifanes. Add some terse Johnny Marr cross-string guitar work, with just a hint of surf, or sometimes riff-driven garage rock, and that’s their terrain. What was most impressive was that despite their monochrome sound, all the songs didn’t sound the same: Duman are not boring. One anthem began almost ghostly before its chorus exploded out of nowhere; another sounded like the Smiths’ What Difference Does It Make, through a glass darkly. Brooding verses gave way to upbeat, hook-driven choruses, and vice versa. The band’s two guitarists traded a few solos, including one that they might have learned back in the day when they might have been playing Hotel California for their friends. There was another act scheduled to play afterward, but with a completely different demographic and a pop feel as different from this as Ersahin, and Tutkun before him, had been.

July 7, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Ilhan Ersahin’s Istanbul Sessions with Erik Truffaz

This is groove jazz but it’s not exactly lite jazz. Over a steady beat, whether that might be in straight-up 4/4 or something more complex, saxophonist/composer (and Nublu nightclub owner) Ilhan Ersahin joins forces with trumpeter Erik Truffaz, bassist Alp Ersonmez, drummer Turgut Alp Bekoglu and percussionist Izzet Kizil to create an imaginative series of soundscapes, some hypnotic and totally psychedelic, others closer to a traditional jazz framework. Horns and reeds are occasionally abetted by light electronic touches (a pitch pedal for the trumpet, effects pedal for the bass and occasional loops) that bring up the playfulness factor but never turn the tunes  completely over to the machines. This album blends pretty much equal amounts of late-night chillout material along with more melodically diverse, often Middle Eastern-tinged compositions.

The opening track, Freedom shuffles over a looping, aggressive reggae-tinged bass riff, Ersahin’s tenor expanding slowly. Truffaz comes in with similar precision, then they eventually switch roles. With its martial beat and hypnotically steady 8th-note bassline, Bosphorus’ understatedly bracing Middle Eastern modal flourishes give way to warm atmospheric vistas. The band follow this with Doors to Heaven, a breezy conversation between trumpet and sax; then a segue into an off-kilter passage that slowly congeals with a dub reggae feel.

Sam I Am features Ersahin at his balmiest, working a series of scales over clattering drums and a hypnotic bass pulse, then hinting at Middle Eastern tones, Bekoglu getting a rare chance to really cut loose with the drums and making the most of it. The aptly titled Downtown Istanbul moves quickly from fond wee-hours salute to jagged blues, Truffaz flailing against the rhythm section’s dubwise low-register wash. By contrast, Les Ottomans, a brisk motorway melody, optimistically awaits an action film ready to speed along with it before the final showdown. The album closes with its two best cuts, the echoey David Lynch style nightmare noir of Alley Cats, and Our Theory, which matches woozy dub to soaring majesty. Ilhan Ersahin’s Istanbul Sessions play this year’s Turkish Woodstock at Central Park Summerstage on July 3. Early arrival, 3 PM is a necessity, least year’s concert having conservatively drawn a crowd of about ten thousand, packing the arena in minutes. If you miss him there, you can always catch him on his home turf at Nublu.

June 9, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Brian Landrus – Forward

A promising, enjoyably listenable debut just out on Cadence from multistylistic baritone saxist/bass clarinetist Brian Landrus. Despite the presence of a full octet here, the compositions are more scaled-down with breaks for consistently gripping solos from a terrific cast of characters: George Garzone on tenor, Allan Chase on alto, Jason Palmer on trumpet, Michael Cain on piano, John Lockwood on bass and a rattling two-percussionist section of Bob Moses and Tupac Mantilla. Landrus likes a modified latin beat, which the percussion is particularly suited for, has a way with a catchy hook and uses the totality of his range, prowling up to the higher registers a lot more than he growls down low.

They open it up with their only cover, an affably bluesy version of Monk’s Ask Me Now, Landrus in casually Harry Carneyesque mode. Most of the originals here follow a time-honored pattern: the ensemble runs a catchy hook for a verse with individual solos following. The full-group passage is the longest and most powerful on the first Landrus composition here, The Stream, Garzone going four over a neat triplet latin groove when it’s time to step out. The aptly titled Shadows is a rubato number with Landrus all over the place while the percussion clatters underneath; Cain comes out of it with remarkable and pleasantly startling bluesy focus. Landrus switches to hushed alto flute for a gentle, somewhat Hubert Laws-inflected nocturne titled To Love and Grow (don’t let the title scare you off), a brisk New Orleans/latin hybrid called Classification, next the hypnotically circling title track and then the album’s strongest song, the matter-of-factly terse vintage 50s swing number Beauty of Change (titles are obviously not this guy’s strong suit). They close with a brief, pensive baritone sax solo and then the equatorially atmospheric tone poem Destination, Landrus featured again on alto flute, distant through a thicket alive with god only knows what. Strong writer, good performances, good choice of supporting cast, let’s see what he brings next time. What we have in the meantime grows on you the more you hear it.

March 16, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 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