Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Curmudgeonly View of This Year’s Charlie Parker Festival

Why did the final day of this year’s Charlie Parker Festival at Tompkins Square Park feel so tired? For one, because the order of bands was ass-backwards. Alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin, who opened, should have headlined: she and her quartet built an energy that, for many reasons, none of the other acts matched.

The relatively small size of the crowd was also a factor. Sure, there were a lot of people gathered down front, but there was never a problem finding space on the lawn, and the perimeter was deserted. To the west, a homeless guy with wireless speakers was blasting the Carpenters. To the east, a strolling brass band had conveniently picked the afternoon of the festival to compete with Benjamin’s all-Coltrane set during the quietest moments. If Kenny G had been onstage, that interference would have been welcome. But he wasn’t. How classless and uncool!

And as a rock musician would say, other than pianist Fred Hersch, everybody else was playing covers.

Drummer Carl Allen can bring the highest echelon talent wherever he wants, considering the size of his address book.. But the potential fireworks between trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and tenor saxophonist JD Allen never materialized, each reading charts throughout a wide-ranging set of material associated with Art Blakey. Allen was more chill behind the kit than Blakey ever was, and the horns (and spring-loaded bassist Peter Washington, and pianist Eric Reed) went for cruise-control rather than friendly sparring – or otherwise. It was lovely – and it sounded as old as it was.

Ageless tenor saxophonist George Coleman thrilled the crowd with a viscerally breathtaking display of circular breathing throughout one persistently uneasy modal interlude, leading an organ jazz quartet. In another moment, he and his alto player conjured up the aching microtonal acidity of Turkish zurlas. Organist Brian Charette was having a great time bubbling and cascading while the bandleader’s son shuffled and swung and shimmered on his cymbals. But as much veteran talent was on display here, it was mostly Charlie Parker covers.

Benjamin has a bright, brassy, Jackie McLean-esque tone on her horn and a killer band. Pianist Sharp Radway is both sharp and way rad: with his crushing low-register chords, endlessly vortical pools of sound and modal mastery, he was the highlight of the festival. Bassist Lonnie Plaxico walked briskly and pedaled and eventually went to the deepest part of the pocket and stayed there while drummer Darrell Green played much more chill than Elvin Jones ever did with Trane’s band. Benjamin’s decision to work her way up from brooding chromatics and modes all the way to a hypnotically swaying A Love Supreme – with guest vocalist Jazzmeia Horn – was also smart programming. Spiraling and bobbing and weaving, her homage to every saxophonist’s big influence (and sometimes bête noire) was heartfelt and affecting. It also would have been fun to have heard some of her own material: she’s a very eclectic writer and a good singer too.

Maybe the sound guy expected Hersch to savage the keys like Radway did, but he didn’t, and for that reason a lot of his signature subtlety got lost in the mix. Bassist John Hebert’s mutedly terse pulse was often considerably higher, and drummer Eric McPherson – one of the great kings of subtlety – was sometimes almost inaudible. Attack aside, Hersch’s signature mix of neoromantic glimmer, wry humor and gravitas is actually a lot closer to Radway’s style than might seem apparent. Hersch deserved more attention, so that we could have given it back to him more than it seems we did.

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August 25, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

JD Allen Reinvents Boudoir Jazz

There used to be a NPR clip of Betty Carter playing a New Year’s Eve show where in one of the night’s closing swing ballads, a young JD Allen took a solo that was absolutely perfect for what it was: wee-hour contented bliss. Many years later, one suspects that’s not what jazz fans are counting on from him. If anybody has that clip or knows where it is, holler back: it’s relevant to this discussion.

For the last ten years or so, Allen has been the Mingus of the tenor sax, this era’s most darkly tuneful, ferociously relevant and often witheringly intense player, composer and bandleader on that instrument. Over the past couple of years, he’s deviated from his often searing, modally-infused three-minute “jukebox jazz” to embrace the blues in all its many forms, with his savagely terse 2016 release Americana. Then he completely flipped the script with his 2017 quartet album Radio Flyer, a far more expansive and improvisational excursion, adding guitarist Liberty Ellman to his long-running rhythm section of bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. This time out, Allen has flipped the script yet again with Love Stone (streaming at Spotify), a cover album of ballad standards that bring to mind that mysterious, contentedly celebratory NPR moment but hardly settle for replicating it. He and the quartet are playing the release show on June 18 at Nublu 151, with sets at 8 and 10 PM. Cover is $15.

While some of these numbers are pretty standard Netflix-and-chill, a lot of them aren’t. Many of them are among the starkest and most spacious Allen’s ever done. “Playing the melody while knowing the lyrics is like drinking champagne and laughing at yourself all night long,” Allen asserts in the coy love note in the cd booklet. He also shares specific lines culled from those lyrics as a guide to where he’s going musically.

For starters, he and the group don’t reinvent Stranger in Paradise as much as they take it out of a straitjacket, substituting a gently and loosely syncopated, thoughtful if not exactly carefree sway, Ellman’s lingering chords first foreshadowing and then switching roles with Allen’s smoky, wafting phrases. Harry Allen (no relation) is more of a comparison than you would ever think, knowing this bandleader’s back catalog.

The take of Until the Real Thing Comes Along is closer to that other Mr. Allen with a similarly oldschool swing guy like Ed Cherry on guitar, the rhythm section a sotto-voce, slinky presence. Royston, playing with greater subtlety than he’s ever been called to do on album, goes to that same well again with August in Why Was I Born. Likewise, Allen’s melismatic tendrils curlicue and entwine, introducing what’s probably been the most spacious, Barney Kessel-ish solo Ellman’s ever recorded,

Fueled by Allen’s almost grimly acidic highs, “You give me chills” is the not-so-subtext for the quartet’s skeletal take of You’re My Thrill: August’s easygoing but spring-loaded chords over Royston’s misterioso brushwork make for one of the album’s most rapturous moments. The remake of the old folk ballad Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies has a distant, rivetingly Frisellian bittersweetness – it’s the closest thing to an original here and the best song on the album.

Likewise, while Put on a Happy Face has a muted swing, Allen’s occasional flicker of a microtone or sinuous cluster offers split-second context, a place in a much bigger picture. Prisoner of Love is anything but a prisoner’s tale – with a focus that’s both prayerful and gimlet-eyed, Allen and group leave no doubt where they’d like to go with it…and suddenly Allen throws the blinds open and the sun streams in.

True to the lyric, Allen brings more than a hint of his signature defiance to Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You). The album comes full circle with the subtly shifting metrics of Gone with the Wind. The most trad thing about it is how it’s used: it’s best appreciated (and most useful, believe it) with a snifter of bourbon and your dearest one close by. If your dearest one has enough lust for life to go out on a Monday night, Allen’s album release show could be your best date of the year.

June 16, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment