Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The JD Allen Trio’s Landmark VICTORY! Out May 17

The JD Allen Trio’s new album VICTORY!, out on May 17, is one of those rare albums that stands to influence an entire generation of players. But that’s not the reason why it’s worth hearing: it’s because it’s such a good listen. Emotionally impactful and surprisingly diverse, it’s the most eclectic release so far by this extraordinary tenor sax-bass-drums unit who’ve been making potent albums since 2007. The group play the cd release show on May 18 at 7:30 PM at le Poisson Rouge.

The JD Allen Trio’s 2007 debut I AM I AM didn’t just explode out of nowhere – the tenor saxophonist and bandleader had been a sought-after sideman since the 90s. But it was an explosion, and four years later validates the fact that we called it a classic at the time. The new album seems to be the third and possibly climactic chapter of a triptych that began with I AM I AM and continued with 2009’s Shine! Allen disarmingly calls his compositions “jukebox jazz,” continuing the tradition of guys like Monk and Brubeck, whose compositions were as catchy as they were cerebral, and who sold hundreds of thousands of them as 45 RPM singles. Taking the form of a classical sonata – a theme and variations which end conclusively – the new album offers twelve succinct, interwoven compositions. With its direct, unflinchingly intense central theme which itself refers back to I AM I AM, this album takes the intensity of that album’s breakthrough suite to the next level, and on to its logical conclusion. Yet while all the rigor of I AM I AM is also in full effect here, this new album explores considerably more emotionally and musically diverse terrain. And it ends optimistically.

The title track sets the tone for much of the album, dark enigmatic minor-key gospel beauty played out against the stately insistence of the rhythm section, bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. Royston’s aggressive introduction offers no hint of the balmy swing that emerges on the second track, The Pilot’s Compass, Allen interjecting commentary as August pulses and Royston supplies his signature, muscular rumble. They follow with the darkly biting, minor bluesy The Thirsty Ear and then the broodingly potent, ominously modal Sura Hinda, Allen’s solemn vibrato adding extra gravitas. As on I AM I AM, August gets an enviable role to play throughout the album, notably on The Learned Tongue as he shadows Allen while the drums go rubato, or on Philippe Petit – a homage to the World Trade Center wirewalker – where his serious, bowed lines, equal part triumph and terror, balance against Royston’s playful intricacies and Allen’s calm, steely optimism.

The simply titled Motif allows Allen and Royston to take the theme further outside as August sits out. Fatima allows a playful element to creep in over Royston’s nimble shuffle; Mr. Steepy enters with unexpectedly blithe swing blues, Allen running eighth notes a la Ben Webster, Royston eventually cutting loose with a grin and crowding everyone out of the picture. The album winds up with three unexpected shifts: a Harold Arlen-esque ballad; The Hungry Eye, centered around a vividly off-center bass solo; and the final track, reprising The Pilot’s Compass and elevating it to a rare sense of joy, ending suddenly with a bit of a wink. It could be the high point in a career of a group whose trajectory is still on the upswing.

May 10, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Plunge Gets Lowdown and Fun

File this under “fun jazz.” A band whose main instruments include trombone, bass and sousaphone leaves a lot of room for comedy, and that’s exactly what New Orleans trio Plunge offer on their psychedelic, entertaining new album Tin Fish Tango. The album title evokes a submarine: the songs manuever deviously more than engaging in any kind of combat. Despite having no drums, the trio of trombonist Mark McGrain, bassist James Singleton and saxophonist Tim Green along with Tom Fitzpatrick on tenor sax and Kirk Joseph on sousaphone maintain a tight groove, and a sensibility that’s often strikingly minimalist. There are a lot of passages here featuring just one instrument, and they’re sort of the opposite of hard bop: each player seems to want to do the most with the least. Since they’re a New Orleans band, the compositions here frequently, but not always, evoke Crescent City style themes. There’s a lot of conversing, some lead-and-pitch, and frequent quotes, from the Skatalites to the Beatles, to raise the amusement factor.

The opening track, a minimalist reggae tune, is a study in divergence and convergence while the bass holds the beat steady, a device that will recur here frequently. The most traditional, and arguably best track here, is Big Bang Theory, which rather than being explosive is a jauntily catchy late 50s Miles Davis style tune: to call this the best song on the album is not to be disrespectful to the cleverness or originality of the other material here, it’s just the most cohesive and memorable cut. The aptly titled Huff-A-Round is a clinic in three-part harmony writing; Pelican Jam, one of several free improvisations here, is done as a sort of suite of miniatures, the band members taking turns introducing themes that sometimes grab hold but just as often disappear from view.

The blithe shuffle Life Lite starts out upbeat and hangs onto the groove even as it drifts off into mellowness after a tastily bright soprano sax solo from Green. He goes off on a Middle Eastern tangent on another reggae-tinged tune, Bright Side and then goes soaring and expansive on The Kroop, over Singleton’s hard-hitting bass chords. There’s also the methodically shifting segments of Love’s Wildest Talent (?!?), the artfully syncopated funk of Jougs and a blues that starts out tense and warms up fast to wind up the album. Their previous album, reviewed last year here, was good: this is even better.

January 24, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dave Liebman Delivers an Adrenalizing, Unexpected Trio Album

This album – titled The Dave Liebman Trio Plays the Blues a la Trane –  was in the can for awhile before Liebman might have said to himself, “Hey, why not release this?” And why not? He’s the rare artist who could probably get away with releasing pretty much everything he plays – which he may realize, because he’s pretty much been doing that lately. This set has the saxophone giant playing in a trio situation at a live date in Belgium in the spring of 2008 with Marius Beets on bass and Eric Ineke on drums, an interestingly stripped-down configuration in light of Liebman’s recent, noteworthy big band work. The official story is that Liebman decided to go completely off program for this one and jam out on a series of blues by John Coltrane, or associated with him. It’s both fresh – especially for the rhythm section – and retro at the same time.

On tenor, Liebman wastes no time establishing a formidable attack, one rapidfire spiral after another on Miles Davis’ All Blues, following a late 50s Trane style, exploratory yet managing not to meander. The rhythm section quickly falls into place, Ineke with a loose, funky shuffle against Beets’ lean, fluid pulse that turns wintry and somewhat wry when it comes time for his solo toward the end. Throughout the album, they hold their places, leaving centerstage to Liebman aside from the occasional solo spot. Trane’s Up Against the Wall shuffles steadily along with a genial New Orleans swing: it’s the most straight-up number here. Mr. P.C. features a long, bright, sprightly bass solo (too low in the mix, as is the case all night, the one drawback with this album), Ineke taking a long, playful 3-on-2 solo. Liebman prowls around the minor blues scale or its edges, turning up the heat with the glissandos, but with restraint. A long, methodically crescendoing Village Blues – the one tune here with any real handoffs between the players – sees Liebman wrapping up his final soprano sax salvo unexpectedly – “OK, I’ve made my point, that’s all I’ve got to to say.” Ellington’s Take the Coltrane, tongue-in-cheek in its original version and just as jaunty here, opens with a bass solo and ends the set on an upbeat note. The album is best experienced in its entirety: as an unintended suite, it works strikingly well. It’s a must-own for Liebman fans, and Trane fans ought to enjoy this just as much, a worthwhile homage from one of the greats of this era to one from another. Liebman has an auspicious stand coming up at Birdland on February 22-26 with with his famous 80s quartet including pianist Richie Beirach, bassist Ron McClure and drummer Billy Hart.

January 20, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 8/27/10

Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #886:

The JD Allen Trio – I Am I Am

A landmark album in modern jazz. A theme and variations with a few playful, sometimes wildly furious diversions, this tenor sax trio session was sort of the zeros counterpart to late 1950s Sonny Rollins – but better. Released at the end of 2008, Allen deftly skirts the edges of eerie, sometimes Middle Eastern-tinged modal intensity, turning over the darkest shades to bassist Gregg August, who welcomes them like a vampire welcomes the night. Rudy Royston, the greatest of this era’s jazz drummers and heir to Elvin Jones’ throne, is a ferociously hard hitter, building the shape of these strikingly melodic, barely four-minute segments every bit as much as Allen does. They quote the Godfather theme and Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond and even hint at a surf music vamp when they’re not working the terse, brooding central motif from fiery riffage to understated elegiac drama. Allen’s previous and subsequent studio work is every bit as memorable and melodic but not as intense, but his live performances – especially with this rhythm section – are among the most exhilarating of any band in recent years.

August 27, 2010 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Mark Lomax Trio Tackles a Daunting Theme

The Mark Lomax Trio isn’t your typical jazz trio. On their new album The State of Black America, drummer Lomax, bassist Dean Hulett and tenor saxophonist Edwin Bayard approach Lomax’s compositions with equal parts vigor and rigor. Lomax has stated that he wrote this as an exploration on themes of self-improvement and empowerment: seen as a demonstration of awareness and self-discipline, and the myriad possibilities that open up within those parameters, it’s a stunning success. One possible interpretation is that Lomax, trained in European musical theory, decided to apply the principles of minimalism to a style, jazz, which often resists the severity that school of thought entails.

The other possibility, of course, is that he simply told his guys not to overdo it. Whatever the case, this album is a clinic in making every note count: Lomax is the rare drummer who leaves you wanting more, leading his bandmates through a strikingly terse, brilliantly counterintutive and ultimately joyous series of explorations. Hulett takes the role traditionally assigned to the drums, maintaining the rhythmic center with a strikingly spare, decisive melodicism: he doesn’t just walk scales. Lomax is a colorist here: his palette uses the entire spectrum and the entirety of his kit (especially his snare sound, a richly resounding snap that other drummers will be scratching their heads trying to emulate once they hear it). Likewise, Bayard thoughtfully and decisively builds permutations on simple, memorable blues-based motifs: stripped to its core, this is a great blues album.

The opening cut, Stuck in a Rut seems to be very ironically titled, a jaunty blues theme that contrasts Lomax’s matter-of-factly rapidfire underpinnings with a long, slinkily expansive solo by Hulett. The quintessential track here is the second one, The Unknown Self, a showcase for quietly bristling intensity on Lomax’s part (he opens and closes it with a hushed, rapt intensity), Hulett echoing Bayard and taking the song deep into the blues with another long, minimalist solo. The practically twelve-minute third track, The Power of Knowing moves stately, even regally, bass and sax carrying on a Socratic dialogue once everyone converges, piece by piece, from the shadows. Bayard absolutely owns the fourth track, masterfully expanding on a series of smartly positioned building blocks, Lomax taking his time judiciously and finally reaching the level of a rumble as Bayard circles overhead, triumphantly. They close with a long, expressive blues featuring yet another warmly intelligent, ruminatively deliberate bass solo. This is headphone jazz: those who are in it for the long haul will be richly rewarded. It’s out now on Inarhyme Records.

August 11, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Joel Yennior Trio’s Smart, Entertaining Debut

Trombonist Joel Yennior is best known for his work with Either/Orchestra, but he’s also a composer and bandleader with an often deviously witty signature sound. His free jazz quartet Gypsy Schaeffer’s most recent album, from last year, was an absolute delight. So is his latest project, the Joel Yennior Trio’s debut cd, Big City Circus. And it’s more diverse than the wickedly playful improvisations that he excels at: his dark, pensive central suite here is just as compelling as the more upbeat compositions. This group has an interesting configuration: Yennior is joined here by Eric Hofbauer on guitar and Gary Feldman on drums: as a bassless outfit, the trio deftly switch around to provide a low-register pulse, whether the guitar is pedaling a chord or a low note on the beat, Yennior pulls his slide all the way out, or the drums rumble around. And it makes the arrangements interesting, particularly on Monk’s Gallop’s Gallop, Yennior and Hofbauer switching roles, Hofbauer doing subtly spot-on rhythm and bass at once during the first verse.

The genial original swing tune Dancing Dave sets a warmly melodic tone that remains throughout the album. Burt Bacharach’s A House Is Not a Home is a showcase for gently swaying, warmly tuneful upper-register work from Yennior as the guitar and drums swing tersely underneath. A shapeshifting Ran Blake ballad, Breakthru is closer to Gypsy Schaeffer’s unpredictable jams than anything else here, Hofbauer and Feldman prowling around, waiting for the moment when they all pull it together at the end.

Another original, Postcard to Dorothy is a vividly expressive, wistful jazz waltz. Yennior goes low and outside as Hofbauer solos gently up to a simple Coltrane-esque hook, some deft drum accents and then back. The centerpiece of the album is the practically sixteen-minute three-part suite Justice Lost, inspired by a dispiriting turn Yennior took as a jury member (it was a murder trial: they didn’t convict). They kick it off with a big, cynical intro, liberally quoting the Godfather theme, Feldman’s cymbals and eventually Hofbauer’s guitar chords resounding memorably beneath Yennior’s protesting trombone. The second part is a mournful Ellingtonian blues with some bitterly rustic muted playing by Yennior and a couple of pointedly ironic passages where guitar and trombone go off on completely different tracks but then lock back in a split second. It winds up with a staccato tango that hints at collapse, which it does after a bright solo by Yennior. Feldman gets marvelously suspenseful and whispery, trombone and guitar diverge further and further from any kind of resolution, and then it’s over. The album closes with a brightly tuneful, shuffling version of Estrellita, a Mexican pop song from the 1950s popularized by Charlie Parker. It’s a stealth candidate for best jazz album of 2010.

August 11, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Tivoli Trio

This is exquisitely creepy, surreal stuff. It’s as good a jazz album as has come over the turnstile here so far this year. Jazz pianist Frank Carlberg grew up in Helsinki, fascinated by carnivals and the circus – his neighborhood amusement park featured a small combo, the Tivoli Trio, with the unlikely combination of trumpet, organ and drums. As a composer, Carlberg particularly excels at big band arrangements; this time out, he endeavored to recreate what he’d heard as a child, if only in spirit rather than actual memory. It’s a deliciously twisted, disquieting ride, worth it for the rhythm section alone – John Hebert’s bass and Gerald Cleaver’s drums jump right in on the fun, each taking on a gleefully sinister, gnomish persona.

An off-center fanfare opens the album; bass and drums mimic a restless crowd, and then they’re off with Tricks, a scurrying, phantasmagorically creepy, repetitive music box themed tune. A chase sequence follows with suspenseful variations on the previous theme, Carlberg utilizing a marvelously eerie, repetitive series of horn voicings. On Rumble Mumble, drums take centerstage, Carlberg playing deftly diabolical tritone-flavored accents off them. They follow with a strange little vignette, circular piano riff against bass screeching and squealing like the ghost of a decapitated ape.

Bill’s Hat is sad, tired, possibly murderous little march that morphs into a swinging shuffle, the backstage crew at the sideshow having a little laugh at someone’s expense – Hebert gets to throw some knives at his bandmates’ feet as they dance around. On the next track, Two for Tea, the rhythm section bounces around playfully as Carlberg gets to throw knives this time. This is where the truth comes out: they’re a team of gremlins, everybody off on his own yet completely with the same mind when it comes to trouble. Next is another strange miniature with brief horror-movie, cello-like arco work by Hebert against methodical, glimmering block chords from Carlberg.

Devious and high-spirited, Potholes has Hebert providing atmospherics as the drums creep around disorientingly – then Carlberg comes sailing in, oblivious to the trouble the other two have just been up to. The most straight-up jazz number here, Spit (The Game) works from atonal punches on the piano to block chord work driven by judicious bass chords or scrapy bowing, Cleaver’s ever-present cymbal boom just a mallet’s-length away. Tumbles is evocatively if completely uneasily acrobatic with sizeable breaks for devious bass and drums; the cd winds up with the less-than-subtly menacing, expansive yet poignantly lyrical Harlequin and then a brief reprise for the crowd, Sgt. Pepper style. Put this on and then kill the lights – you’ll see it in December on our best albums of the year list.

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

CD Review: Orrin Evans – Faith in Action

We like to mix it up here. The most recent jazz album we reviewed was headphone jazz; the one before that was gypsy jazz. This one is solace-after-a-hard-day jazz. Pianist Orrin Evans leads a trio with bassist Luques Curtis and Nasheet Waits on drums here on his Posi-Tone Records debut, essentially a tribute to Evans’ friend and mentor Bobby Watson. Evans matches a precise articulation to a hard-hitting lefthand attack: his playing is cerebral, intense, sometimes febrile, often uneasy. It will pick you up and straighten your head out even as it plays games with your mind: there’s a lot going on here, as sharply focused as the playing is.

Evans kicks off with an original, the matter-of-factly bluesy Don’t Call Me Wally, switching up the time signature and getting a little march thing going on for awhile. The title track, like many others here a Watson composition has a shuffling My Favorite Things vibe propelled artfully by Waits’ lithe cymbal work. Wheel Within a Wheel has Evans cutting loose amidst lush sheets of cymbals by Rocky Bryant, Waits playfully doing three-on-four behind Curtis’ brief, incisive solo. Another Watson tune, Appointment in Milano has Evans bludgeoning a chromatic vamp a la McCoy Tyner.

The fifth track is essentially a funk song in shifting tempos, chugging bass propelling it as guest Gene Jackson’s drums add color. Beattitudes, by Watson, climbs out of the murk impressionistically and expansively; an Evans original, MAT-Matt prowls around over a hypnotic chromatic riff. The best song on the album is the title cut from Watson’s landmark 1986 album, Love Remains, done here as an understatedly rueful ballad, sustained chords over a matter-of-fact, resigned rhythm section and some deliciously ominous, starlit, upper register work from Evans at the end. The album wraps up with a no-nonsense stride number by Evans that gives Curtis a chance to up the intensity with a defiantly strutting solo, and a straight-up swing tune.

March 15, 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: Plunge – Dancing on Thin Ice

From New Orleans comes this fun, delightfully smart, somewhat minimalist trio groove jazz project. Plunge doesn’t have a drummer, so bassist James Singleton has to propel the unit by all by himself and does a great job. He swings like crazy and when he cuts loose once in awhile he’s still got a strong grip on the throttle. Composer Mark McGrain uses the full range of his trombone, judiciously, while saxophonist Tim Green adds a wise, knowing, bluesy soulfulness. What hits you right off the bat is what a good time these guys are obviously having – while they’re adding an interesting, original edge to a whole bunch of different styles, this isn’t just art for art’s sake. You can hum along to literally everything here.

The cd’s first track, Friday Night at the Top is a hypnotic groove –  Singleton runs a sinuous bass riff while Green and then McGrain prowl around. The second cut, Life of a Cipher is a slinky spy theme with a rhumba pulse – toward the end Singleton breaks out his bow and delivers some eerie funk while the horns hold down the hook. Yet another groove number, Orion Rising has Singleton walking it with effortless ease while McGrain and then Green offer completely different witness accounts of what’s going on.

On the sludgy Luminata No 257, Singleton holds it down with his bow as the horns take turns peeking up the periscope. The unabashedly silly One Man’s Machine sounds like a P-Funk b-side instrumental, the guys caught unawares messing around with the bass synthesizer. The title track is joyous, bouncy N’Awlins flavor stripped to just the basics, gets woozy and then comes out of it with a bass solo of all things. With a straight-up oldschool southern vibe, the single most striking track here is the gorgeous, pensive jazz waltz Missing Mozambique. The cd’s two concluding cuts maintain that feel, like the nucleus of a second-line band working the subtle underpinnings of what would otherwise be blazing marches. Marketed as a crossover electronic project, the effects on the album are happily limited to the occasional effects-box timbre, like the oscillation quietly swirling beneath the bass on the opening cut. There’s so much melody here that this could become very, very popular.

January 13, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment