Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Isaiah Collier Brings His Relentless Intensity to Drom Tomorrow Night

Isaiah Collier is not the guy you want to see if you want to mellow out for the evening. The powerful, purposeful saxophonist brings a rare intensity to the stage. If adrenaline is your thing, you do not want to miss his gig tomorrow night, March 27 at 7 PM at Drom, where he’s playing with his group the Chosen Few. The club has no restrictions; if you don’t already have your advance ticket, it’ll cost you twenty bucks at the door.

Collier is a prime example of the kind of musician who in all likelihood would have ended up in New York if he had been coming up twenty years ago, but who was priced out in the years afterward. No matter: he’s made a huge mark in his native Chicago. He has a handful of records out. Arguably the best of them is his 2019 trio release The Unapologetic Negro, a live set with bassist James Wenzel and drummer Marcus Evans recorded at the Coda Club Cafe in Chicago and streaming at Bandcamp.

This is a long album, with several numbers clocking in at over ten minutes, a luxury you can treat your listeners to if you aren’t constrained by the limits of a recording studio.. The first is Tri Steps, a savagely playful response to Coltrane’s Giant Steps, except with tritones. Lots of musicians have had fun with this concept over the years: Collier introduces his allusively creepy theme on soprano sax and immediately turns it over to Wenzel’s even more allusively dancing lines. Collier’s attack afterward has a laser focus and intensity: he gets a woody, otherworldly, duduk-like tone out of the soprano, with a steady, subtly oscillating timbre as Evans and Wenzel maintain a simmering pulse.

Collier gives Walk With Me Lord a bristling minor-key solo intro, his bandmates leading him into a haunting, biting minor blues over a lithely shimmering 12/8 groove. There’s a deliciously terse bass solo punctuated by slurry chords, Middle Eastern allusions and balletesque pointillisms. Collier sticking to a matter-of-fact intensity through a relentless , steady barrage of passing tones worthy of Otis Rush – another Chicago guy by the way. The lightning sax volleys as the song reaches escape velocity are Marshall Allen-class breathtaking.

A deviously enigmatic shuffle, Mr. Night has Wenzel and Evans engaging in a slyly knowing conversation, Collier switching to tenor for a swinging modal blues that lightens somewhat, his volleys reaching for the sky.

In Closed Doors, he goes back to soprano, beginning with sepulchral trills over Wenzel’s somberly hypnotic bass riffage, then follows a rapt, spacious, chromatic trajectory, sometimes pensive, sometimes outraged. The starkly polyrhythmic baroque blues between Collier and Wenzel midway through this practically thirteen-minute epic is unlike anything you’ve probably heard this year.

Retrograde Amian is a more, expansively thoughtful and restrained tableau that eventually hits a low-key, casual swing, the moment where Collier decides to be anything but with his duotones and smoldering tenor lines is another high point.

Collier works chromatically charged blues with hints of blue-flame roadhouse boogie and bolero noir in Mali: again, the shadowing between Wenzel and the bandleader is a mystery movie for the ears, with a dusky break for the rhythm section and a masterful descent to a regal touchdown. Collier goes completely off-mic for a joyously ragged outro on an out-of-tune piano.

The big twenty-three minute showstopper is 5874/ We Want Justice Right Now: Evans sets the stage with a suspensefully textured solo intro, Collier busting in with a lickety-split swing and variations on a brooding minor-key blues theme. Wry sax/drum exchanges rise to a brisk acerbity, transcending any ordinary goofy repartee. The trio follow with doublespeed agitation, a shamanic singalong and another haphazardly inspired off-mic Collier piano break;

They encore with the briskly catchy Ode to JD – a JD Allen shout-out, maybe? – with Collier on tenor, the group expanding on a catchy descending riff and variations.

March 26, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Solo Songs Without Words From This Era’s Foremost Tenor Saxophonist

You know the archetype. He stands in silhouette, leaning on a wall sometime after midnight, left foot pressed against the bricks maybe. He’s playing sax, the spare, mournful phrases echoing into the darkness. That is not what JD Allen‘s new solo sax album Queen City – streaming at Spotify – sounds like.

It’s a collection of what he calls vignettes: personal portraits, a small handful of standards and tableaux obviously influenced by the lockdown, a time when this era’s preeminent tenor saxophonist found himself confronting serious existential questions. Most of these pieces have very steady rhythm: this is a great record to play along with. There are no overdubs or effects, other than some tasty natural reverb. For a recording made during arguably the worst time in history for musicians, it’s remarkably upbeat, although not without Allen’s signature gravitas.

There’s a little more mist, and once in awhile a bit of unexpected honk in his sound here, and none of the feral squall he will typically use to make a particularly intense point. He opens with a straightforwardly chugging, unembellished take of Three Little Words and follows the changes just as closely to end the record with a balmy but similarly steady, rather upbeat version of These Foolish Things.

The album has two other covers. Allen reinvents Just a Gigolo with a bit less lockstep precision and without a hint of buffoonery – although there are jokes if you listen closely. And Wildwood Flower – the last thing you’d expect from this guy – becomes a lovely, expansive ballad.

But as usual with Allen, it’s the originals that stand out the most. In a return to the jukebox jazz esthetic that he owned for the better part of two decades, most of these numbers are on the short side, sometimes close to the two-minute mark. The first is Maude, a coy, tiptoeing character study. The second, O.T.R. is a bright, tightly swinging number with some chromatics to raise the energy – it could have fit in on many of Allen’s albums since 2008 or so.

Retrograde – now THERE’s a theme from 2020, huh? – turns out to be a shuffling swing tune with plenty of edge and bite. What kind of dichotomy is there in Gem and Eye? It turns out to be a tasty pair of themes and variations. Seven tracks into the album, we finally get some of Allen’s spine-tingling extended technique: harmonics, duotones and echo phrases – with the tantalizingly brief. Mother.

The album’s title cut – a shout-out to Allen’s relatively recent digs in Cincinnati – is the most acerbically latin-tinged number here. He closes the record with a trio of portraits. There’s whimsicality but even more dead-serious purpose in Vernetta. Kristian with a K is a thoughtful. friendly guy who doesn’t waste words. And the ballad Nyla’s Sky is the big, balmy cloudbreak here: we may have been through hell in the last sixteen months, but everything’s going to be ok, Allen seems to say.

July 8, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Darkly Intense, Hauntingly Blues-Infused George Washington Carver Tribute From James Brandon Lewis

Tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis‘ forthcoming album Jesup Wagon – streaming at Spotify– comes across as the logical follow-up to JD Allen‘s withering, darkly erudite trio album, Americana. Both sax players plunge to the depths of the blues, typically in minor keys: Allen with his someday-iconic trio, Lewis with a quintet. Lewis’ album is more high-concept. It’s a series of tone poems in tribute to George Washington Carver, complete with some acerbic spoken word by the bandleader. In terms of concisely impactful, purposefully executed ideas, this is one of the best albums of the year.

He takes the album title from the agricultural wagon that Carver invented. He opens with the title track, a stark minor-key blues riff, meticulously modulated. Then he adds the extended technique and a wide palette of dynamics. The rhythm section – William Parker on bass and Chad Taylor on drums – enters with a jaunty shuffle, cornetist Kirk Knuffke taking a first flurrying solo. From there, Lewis expands on the blues with a purist growl

Parker switches to the magically incisive Moroccan sintir bass lute to join with cellist Chris Hoffman as a two-man bass section in the gnawa-inflected blues Lowlands of Sorrow: imagine a Randy Weston tune without the piano. Knuffke sounds the alarm, fires off biting chromatics and sets up the bandleader’s 5-7-1 riffage; the two duel it out memorably at the end.

The whole band exchange disquietly off-center harmonies but coalesce for insistent echo phrases as Taylor builds tumbling intensity in the third number, Arachis. Lewis’ smoky, squawking defiance in resisting a return to home base eventually inspires Knuffke to do the same; Parker is the rumbling voice of reason.

The marching dynamic is similar in Fallen Flowers, with strong echoes (in every sense of the word) of Civil Rights Era Coltrane. Hoffman chooses his spots, with and without a bow as Taylor keeps an altered hip-hop groove going with his pointillistic hits on the rims and hardware. Flutters and flurries agitate and disperse; Lewis sneaks a little faux backward masking in to see if anyone’s listening.

Knuffke and Hoffman trade steady, workmanlike lines as Experiment Station gets underway, ragtime through a very dark funhouse mirror. Lewis’ steely, rapidfire focus and fanged, trilling crescendo are the high point of the record. Knuffke’s Balkan allusions over Taylor’s expanding crash keep the blaze going, Parker serving as the rugged, boomy axle on which all this turns. They wind it down gingerly but methodically.

Taylor plays mbira on Seer, Parker propelling it with a slow bounce; the African instrument adds a surreal edge to an indelibly African series of minor blues riffs. The group’s concluding epic, Chemurgy has a hypnotically circling bounce, sending a final salute out to Coltrane, and the blues, and Carver, Knuffke’s sturdy cornet, and Lewis’ insistent and meticulous variations – and wise, knowing conclusion – a reminder how much struggle was involved to get to this point.

Lewis’ next gig is May 1 at around noon with his Freed Style Free Trio with Rashaan Carter on bass and Taylor on drums in Central Park, on the elevation about a block north of the 81st St. entrance on the west side as part of Giant Step Arts’ ongoing weekend series there. The trio are followed at 1-ish by sax player Aaron Burnett’s quartet with Peter Evans on trumpet, Nick Jozwiak on bass, and Tyshawn Sorey on drums

April 25, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Edgy, Memorable Rainy-Day Jazz From Jorma Tapio & Kaski

Reedman Jorma Tapio & Kaski play purposeful, moody jazz that shifts between incisive compositions and thoughtful, cohesive improvisation. Their latest album Aliseen is streaming at Spotify.

They open with Reppurin Laulu, a bracingly terse melody with Tapio on alto sax, choosing his spots over an ominously hypnotic, boomy, qawwali-inflected gallop from bassist Ville Rauhala and drummer Janne Tuomi. They immediately flip the script with Henkaeys, a study in eerie, airy extended technique over a muted swing and then spare cymbal accents.

The spare fragmentary bass-and-sax riffs of the next track, Lasten Juhlat expand to more of a wry conversation as the drums linger off to the side, a deadpan bowed bass solo at the center. From there the group edge their way into Siltasalmi, a slow, brooding ballad, interrupted by desolate solos from bass and drums

Tapio switches to throaty-toned flute for the lithely swinging She’s Back and stays there through Lost, a ghostly tableau punctuated by sparse bass and cymbal whispers. With allusively modal sax, incisive bass chords and Tuomi’s light-fingered touch on the cymbals and snare, Manner brings to mind JD Allen’s trio work, at that group’s most pensive.

Tapio returns to flute for Huli, a catchy, upbeat miniature. The album’s most epic track, Way Off again evokes Allen’s work in a more turbulent context as the bandleader choose his spots and wails with the bass and drums each clustering in separate corners; Rauhala provides a moody, spacious solo at the center.

The album winds up with Nukunuku, a study in contrasts between warmly muted flute and gritty bowed bass, and then the marching title track, the bass’ reedy harmonics mimicking a harmonica. If this was a shot at maintaining a consistent mood throughout a whole slew of styles, it’s a calmly smashing success.

November 21, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

JD Allen Puts Out His Most Intense, Powerful Album in Close to a Decade

JD Allen is this century’s most powerful, relevant tenor saxophonist. He probably has a more intuitive understanding of both chromatics and the blues than any composer alive. His technique is scary, and unsurpassed when he feels like pulling out all the stops, something he always does when playing his own material. His latest album Toys/Die Dreaming is streaming at youtube. How ironic that he would win a poll for “rising star composer” when his star rose a long time ago, and never went down, even before his landmark I Am I Am album in 2008. It’s time we put this guy in the hall of fame alongside Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins, and Pharaoh Sanders.

Recorded in a marathon one-day session in Queens this past January, this is an expansive and often searing recording with Allen’s current trio, which these days includes bassist Ian Kenselaar and drummer Nic Cacioppo. Until recently, Allen was best known for crystallizing a sharply purposeful style he called “jukebox jazz,” three-minute songs loaded with one slashing hook after another. His last three albums have been more expansive: this one blends the concise, relentless intensity of records like Victory with his more recent, longscale adventures. What’s consistent is is the almost absurdly hummable, singable quality of his tunes.

The trio open with the standard You’re My Thrill, the rhythm section doing a solid impression of a flamenco band with their flurrying beats as Allen’s darkly bracing phrases shift through emphatic, intense riffage, that signature rugged, gritty tone never wavering. Kenselaar has obviously taken a cue from his predecessor in the Allen trio, Gregg August, his solos leaping between slinky melody and stirring chords.

Allen’s first original is The G Thing, a dark, bluesy minor-key song without words, with a tentative swing where August and Allen’s original drummer, Rudy Royston, would have thrashed the shit out of this. Allen’s lusciously Lynchian smokiness right before the end perfectly capsulizes his appeal over the years.

Die Dreaming comes across as a Moisturizer song with tenor sax in place of Paula Henderson’s baritone, along with savagely erudite register shifts and the Arabic modes that  have become Allen’s signature trope when he wants to make a point. You want catchy? Purposeful? A bassist who’ll dig in for a chord if it’s needed?

Red Label, which the rhythm section brought with them after recording it with trombonist Peter Lin, gets elevated above (or maybe those of us on the low end should say below) generic slinky stripper territory into starkly smoky blues. Kenselaar and Allen team up in the F clef before the bandleader expands into what becomes more expansively lurid territory.

Toys, another original, is a classic Allen study in irony: predictably lyrical, bluesy sax, spare who knows what cutting loose from the rhythm. I Should Care, a familiar ballad from other projects, gets stripped to the bone, a stark portrait of white-knuckle, chilling angst. The three close the album with Allen’s blues-infused Elegua (The Trickster), Cacioppo shifting nimbly from a Royston Rumble to suspenseful swing behind Allen’s dark, increasingly sardonic runs, channeling a Yoruba god who won’t sit still. It’s a deliciously haphazard frontrunner for best jazz album of 2020, something Allen has definitely gotten used to over the years.

September 16, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Serendipitous, High-Voltage Live Album and Crown Heights Appearance from Gerald Cleaver

A rabbi, a minister and an imam walk into a bar.

They’ve all had a bunch to drink. Jazz plays over the PA: it’s obviously a live recording, and the band are cooking. They have a loose, comfortable, solo-centric camaraderie, over a floating swing. The three holy men try to figure out who’s playing.

The trumpeter enters with a wild volley, then digs in, hard and bluesy. “Is that Woody Shaw?” the rabbi ponders. “He was Jewish, you know. Woody Schwartz!”

The rabbi is kidding. He doesn’t have a clue who this is. The sax player is more suave: at one point, the pianist goes down in the lows with a snarl to see if he’ll take the bait and get all gritty, but he doesn’t. The bass player walks the changes furiously; the drummer is colorful and has the whole kit resonating.

“This is one of those situations where we’ll never know who this was. It’s just some random night that somebody had the presence of mind to record,” the imam asserts. That’s a Muslim thing: the Prophet tells us to chill because some things are beyond our understanding.

The minister has other things in mind. He asks the bartender, who tells him that the record is Gerald Cleaver’s Violet Hour, Live at Firehouse 12 (for the sake of the story, let’s say he’s streaming the thing from Spotify). If you want to be like these three wise men of dubious sobriety but impeccable taste, you can see Cleaver lead a completely different but similarly incendiary trio with Brandon Seabrook on guitar and Brandon Lopez on bass at Bar Bayeux in Crown Heights tomorrow night, Feb 5 at 8 PM.

If you’ve scrolled down this far, you’ve figured out that this is a party record. The middle of the lineup is allstar caliber, and future Hall of Famer JD Allen, on tenor, isn’t even the cleanup hitter. That might be trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, or multi-reedman Andrew Bishop, who sizzles here. Chris Lightcap is the bass player, with Ben Waltzer on piano.

The first track, the one that the three holy men happened to walk in on, is aptly titled Pilgrim’s Progress, meant to illustrate triumph over adversity. After that, Bishop switches between genially smoky bass clarinet and some slashing moments on soprano sax over the syncopatedly dancing, allusively latin-tinged groove of The Silly One, the rest of the band following in a darker mood.

From there they segue into Tale of Bricks, a grim oldtime gospel tune cached amid a busily stairstepping drive. It’s Exodus, movement of jah people, deciding that Pharaoh was a Silicon Valley boss and that ‘s time to take their talent elsewhere. Over about twelve minutes, Pelt chooses his incisions and then wails, as Allen does later; Bishop’s bass clarinet shivers and combusts. Told you this was solo-centric.

Carla’s Day starts out with a moody, distantly Frank Foster-ish vampiness, the daily struggle making way for better times, speeding up, slowing down. It’s the album’s most contiguous number; Allen’s whirls and spirals and dissections might be its high point. The bandleader’s rumble and Lightcap’s looming chords make the bridge to the defiantly swinging, even catchier, Brubeck-tinged Detroit, a shout-out to Cleaver and Allen’s hometown, This isn’t music for people with short attention spans but it is very entertaining if you have a long one, half a dozen road warriors captured doing what they do best, in good company.

February 4, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Revisiting a Searing, Classic Blues Record by JD Allen

You don’t typically expect a blues album to be tenor sax, bass and drums. Nor, in 2016, would anyone have expected JD Allen, this era’s most individualistic titan of the jazz tenor, to make a blues record. Yet he did – and his Americana album (streaming at Spotify) remains one of his two or three best releases, right up there with 2008’s game-changing I Am I Am, which signaled that Allen would go on a roll that he remains on to this day. He’s playing Smalls tonight, Dec 9 at 10:30 PM, leading a quartet: it’s rainy, it’s professional night and an ideal circumstance to catch his relentless, restless modal power. Cover is $25. If you feel like making a night of it, drummer Dan Pugach‘s imaginatively arranged nonet open the evening at 7:30.

Allen opens the album with the slowly ambling Tell the Truth Shame the Devil, playing sparely, spaciously, with a restrained optimism, matched by drummer Rudy Royston’s judicious, minimalist counteraccents and bassist Gregg August’s similarly spare, walking lines and occasional devious harmony. In the album liner notes, Allen asserts with his usual acerbity that traditional African-American blues is hardly limited to the blues scale and the hallowed 1-4-5 progression, although in this cas that’s mostly what this tune is about, the bandleader waiting until the last verse before really pushing the edges.

The first of the album’s two covers, the classic Another Man Done Gone has August bowing stern, stygian responses to Allen’s brooding, characteristically modally-tinged lines as Royston prowls and tumbles: it perfectly capsulizes the interplay this band enjoyed over the course of a long run that lasted more than a decade. Likewise, August’s anguished, cello-like phrasing captures the horror of the song’s narrative, an innocent man kidnapped into the prison-industrial complex.

Allen solos judiciously and somberly over August’s terse, incisive vamp and Royston’s similarly restrained, tumbling drums throughout the third track, Cotton, up to a catchy, anthemic turnaround and finally a lusciously crescendoing coda fueled by Royston. August’s simmering chords drive an ominous Middle Eastern-flavored vamp in Sugar Free to a suspiciously blithe swing and a jaunty, New Orleans-spiced bass solo until Allen brings it all back home.

Bigger Thomas is one of those wickedly incisive, catchy “jukebox jazz” tunes that Allen started firing off one after another about a dozen years ago: as it shuffles along, he brings in the gritty modalities again. Opening with August’s slow, spacious six-chord theme, the album’s title track could be Jimi Hendrix without the distortion and the noisy effects, maybe a psychedelic interlude from Axis: Bold As Love.

Over a boomy, loose-limbed shuffle groove, Allen teases that he might leave the brooding passing tones of Lightnin’ behind, but he doesn’t. There’s a little Howlin’ Wolf in there along with some venomously funny interplay with the rhythm section. The album’s second cover, Bill McHenry’s If You’re Lonely, Then You’re Not Alone, gets a spacious, wistful treatment: beyond August’s brilliantly distilled bassline, most people would be hard-pressed to call this blues. The trio close with Lillie Mae Jones, an upbeat variation on a favorite, enigmatic modal riff that Allen uses a lot: imagine if Booker T. Jones’ axe was sax instead of organ.

Whether you consider this blues or jazz, this defiantly unsettled, frequently angry salute to a treasured but misunderstood American tradition remains one of the best albums of the decade. Although Allen has recently moved on to a new trio, and some surprisingly more trad gigs as a sideman with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and other big names, this more than any other recent release captures him at his dark, majestic best.

December 9, 2019 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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

A Darkly Simmering Comeback From This Era’s Most Potent Tenor Saxophonist

Although tenor saxophonist JD Allen’s compositions gravitate toward concise, often slashing melodies, there’s just as much majesty and gravitas in his music. Often that ache and struggle and anger reaches Shostakovian proportions. Over the course of thirteen albums as a bandleader, Allen has concretized an intense, uncompromising style that draws heavily on bristling chromatics and every facet of the blues, from his breakout 2008 album I Am I Am, through his savagely insightful, blues-steeped Americana collection from 2016. His last couple of records have been a more improvisational quintet release with guitarist Liberty Ellman, and a collection of standards. And they have their moments, but his latest one, Barracoon – streaming at Spotify – is a return to form, a protest jazz collection initially inspired by Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It’s a more expansive take on the signature, three-minute “jukebox jazz” sonata-style records Allen started putting out a decade ago; the rage is more restrained, more veiled, but it’s still there.

Allen has a brand-new trio this time. Both bassist Ian Kenselaar and drummer Nic Cacioppo stick close to the roles that Gregg August and Rudy Royston held in Allen’s previous trio for the better part of a decade, although Kenselaar doesn’t dive as frequently into the pitchblende depths August would descend to, and Cacioppo’s rhythms here are closer to traditional New Orleans shuffle grooves.

Cacioppo punches out one of those second-line rhythms and expands a bit from there as Kenselaar slams his strings for darkly woody resonance, Allen blipping and dancing with a bluesy ebullience throughout the album’s title cut. The second track, G sus (that’s an insider musician joke) begins with Allen’s sparse, saturnine phrases and similarly sparse chords from Kenselaar (on electric bass this time) over scrambling drums, the bandleader picking up steam judiciously.

The Goldilocks Zone is a classic, catchy, suspiciously blithe Allen jukebox jazz number, with more than a few echoes of peak-era Sonny Rollins and an understated polyrhythmic interweave between the trio. In The Immortal (H. Lacks), Allen shifts back and forth between balmy resonance and acerbically wary lines as Cacioppo tumbles gracefully and Kenselaar – on electric again – shifts between stark chords and incisively trebly riffage, shadowing the bandleader,

The album’s fifth track, 13, shuffles along, catchy yet enigmatic, although both Allen and Kenselaar brighten as they move closer to a Veracruz-tinged bounce. Allen’s gravelly, darkly bluesy pulses grow more animated as the drums get busy in Beyond the Goldilocks Zone: titles really set the tone here.

Kenselaar’s anthemically dancing bass over shuffling drums opens Communion, Allen weaving his way through the methodical eighth notes of an unexpectedly triumphant song without words. EYE Scream is a longscale take on Allen’s I Am I Am modal brushfires, a plucky bass solo giving way to straightforwardly uneasy one from the bandleader

The album’s coda, and darkest track, is Ursa Major, Kenselaar returning incisively to electric, Allen shifting deftly between major and minor, Cacioppo exercising some welcome restraint. The trio close with the lone cover here, When You Wish Upon a Star, which despite all the fun the band have with it (Cacioppo’s cymbals are hilarious) seems tacked on. Where does this album fall in the Allen pantheon? Definitely in the top five, and that includes the killer Tarbaby record with Oliver Lake and Orrin Evans.

Now where is the album release show for this masterpiece taking place? The Vanguard? Jazz at Lincoln Center? Not yet. The trio will be warming up for much bigger stages when they play on July 26 at 8 PM at Bar Bayeux at1066 Nostrand Ave. in Prospect Lefferts Gardens. The show is free; take the 2 to Sterling St.

June 19, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 20 Best Jazz Albums of 2017

The single most riveting jazz album, and arguably the most important album of the year in any style of music was Fukushima, by the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York. A narrative of personal terror rather than a depiction of the horrific events of March 11, 2011, its tension is relentless. Fujii, who conducts the orchestra, alternates several harrowing themes within ominous cloudbanks of improvisation, poignantly lyrical solos and segments which shift from stately and elegaic to withering, chattering satire. That’s the bandleader’s response to the greed-fueled attempts to cover up the disaster. As Fukushima reactor number three continues to leak its deadly contents into the Pacific, it’s a shock that more artists haven’t addressed the ongoing environmental crisis. As Fujii succinctly said after leading the group in the world premiere of the suite in 2016, it’s not over.

Whittling this list down to another nineteen albums out of the hundreds of releases that deserve to be credited here was almost painful. It makes no sense to try to rank them: if an album’s good enough to make this list, you ought to hear it.

Ran Blake & Dominique Eade – Town & Country
Protest jazz, icy Messiaenic miniatures, reinvented standards and luminous nocturnes from the noir piano icon and his brilliant longtime singer collaborator. Listen at Spotify 

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound – Not Two
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s latest large-ensemble recording, blending elements of Middle Eastern, Indian music and jazz is an album for our time: turbulent, restless and packed with poignant solos from a global lineup. Listen at New Amsterdam Records 

Anouar Brahem – Blue Maqams
The oudist teams up with bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Django Bates for some of the year’s most haunting themes, drawing evenly from the Middle East, the tropics and the west. Listen at Spotify 

JD Allen – Radio Flyer
This era’s preeminent tenor saxophonist/composer expands on his usual terse, three-to-four-minute “jukebox jazz,” biting irony and ironic humor by bringing guitarist Liberty Ellman in to join the longtime ace rhythm section of bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. Listen to a little bit at Soundcloud 

The Mary Halvorson Octet – Away with You
The world’s foremost under-forty jazz guitarist has never written more plaintively, or more amusingly. Even more caustic sarcasm than Allen, not quite as many jokes as Mostly Other People Do the Killing (see below). Haunting pedal steel ace Susan Alcorn is the not-so-secret weapon here. Listen at Bandcamp 

Vijay Iyer – Far From Over
Like Allen, Iyer beefs up his sound, in this case bolstering his trio with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey by adding cornetist Graham Haynes, Steve Lehman on alto sax and Mark Shim on tenor. Fearlessly political, constantly uneasy, bustling with urban noir tableaux, a requiem and smoking bhangra jazz. Listen at Spotify 

Greg Lewis – The Breathe Suite
The organist best known for reinventing Monk tunes dedicates each track on this often shattering, sometimes acidic collection to black men murdered by police. Angst, horror and slashing solos from guitarists Marc Ribot or Ron Jackson take centerstage as the bandleader builds relentless ambience. There’s never been an organ jazz record anything like this. Listen at Spotify 

Doug Wieselman‘s Trio S – Somewhere Glimmer
The multi-reedman (who also plays banjo here, more than competently) joins forces with drummer Kenny Wollesen and cellist Jane Scarpantoni for broodingly cinematic themes on a smaller scale than his legendary, carnivalesque Kamikaze Ground Crew have typically tackled. Listen at Bandcamp 

Guy Mintus – A Home In Between
With his long-running trio, bassist Tamir Shmerling and drummer Philippe Lemm, the pensive, incisive Israeli-born pianist cascades through dark cinematic tableaux with moody Middle Eastern and angst-fueled neoromantic interludes. This is one restless album. Listen at Spotify 

Shahin Novrasli – Emanation
Eerily rustling, acerbically modal postbop and more Middle Eastern-flavored themes from the Azeri pianist (an Ahmad Jamal protege) with bassist James Cammack and drummer André Ceccarelli plus Georgian percussionist Irakli Koiava. Violinst Didier Lockwood proves perfect for this uneasy project. Listen at Spotify 

The Jihye Lee Orchestra – April Wind
The singer/composer makes some serious waves with her first big band recording, a lustrously blustery, suspensefully cinematic, dynamic suite inspired by a ferry disaster off the Korean coast. Listen at her music page 

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan – Small Town
The iconically  lyrical guitarist and his sympatico bassist bandmate intimately reinvent bluegrass, Lee Konitz, Paul Motian and some Frisell standbys in a return to the format he first recorded with thirty-five years ago. Listen at Spotify 

Tomas Fujiwara – Triple Double
Two horns (Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and Ralph Alessi on trumpet), two guitars (Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook) and two drummers, Gerald Cleaver holding down the second chair through variations, and frequent sparring, over one bitingly catchy theme after another. Drummers always lead the best bands, don’t they? Listen at Bandcamp  

Josh Green & the Cyborg Orchestra  – Telepathy & Bop
Composer/conductor Green ambitiously makes his debut with an irrepressibly theatrical, sometimes vaudevillian, lavishly cinematic big band album that rivals Esquivel for outside-the-box creativity and bizarro orchestration. One of the funnest and most irreverent albums of the year. Listen at Spotify 

Sam Bardfeld – The Great Enthusiasms
In this fearlessly political collection, the violinist takes each of the song titles from speeches by Richard Nixon. Pianist Kris Davis and drummer Michael Sarin join in the rich irony, bristling with energy. If Thelonious Monk had been a violinist, he would have made this record. Listen at Bandcamp 

Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge – Whispers on the Wind
The follow-up to the composer/conductor’s titanically gripping, picturesque River Runs suite isn’t quite as intense, but it’s just as dark, inspired by Larry McMurtry, Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy. Unorthodox instrumentation to rival Darcy James Argue; twisted cowboy themes; southwestern gothic; brassy solar flares and the most counterintuitive, smart jazz guitar solo of the year: that’s LaRue Nickelson on acoustic. Listen at Spotify 

Fabian Almazan – Alcanza
The Cuban-born pianist has done some memorable work with strings and orchestration; here, the Shostakovich-inspired bandleader fully realizes that epic vision, with Camila Meza centerstage on vocals and guitar. Plaintive ballads, vertigo-inducing overlays, glistening melodicism that’s equal parts latin and classical, and a grandeur unmatched by any other album this year. Listen at Spotify 

Rudresh Mahanthappa & the Indo-Pak Coalition – Agrima
The alto saxophonist’s wind-tunnel control and technique are as breathtaking as always. The themes are more distinctly Indian, and darker, and more ambitious. Guitarist Rez Abbasi takes his tunefulness to new levels. And let’s not stop with the music: let’s say the hell with imperialist historical smog and unite India with Pakistan. Listen a little at Soundcloud

Jen Shyu – Song of Silver Geese
The esteemed singer and multi-instrumentalist peppers this surreal, envelopingly lush nocturnal suite with moon lute and piano, mingling with strings and vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s Jade Tongue ensemble. Singing in Timorese, Korean, Chinese and other languages, she gives voice to individuals real and mythical impacted by or lost to tragedy.  Listen at Pi Recordings

Mostly Other People Do the Killing  – Loafer’s Hollow
Packed with both inside jokes and irresistibly cartoonish humor, the world’s funniest jazz group give the gasface to Count Basie and his innumerable imitators in 30s style swing. They can spot a cliche a mile away and never miss their target. Satire doesn’t any broader, more spot-on or more hilarious than this. Listen at Spotify 

December 30, 2017 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment