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.

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

JD Allen Brings His Restless, Uneasy Power and Tunefulness to Smalls This Labor Day

The restlessness and persistent unease in tenor saxophonist JD Allen’s compositions mirror how he works.  Much as he’s concretized a wickedly terse, hard-hitting, sometimes grimly ironic melodicism, he never stays in the same place for long. As a composer, Allen has few rivals in any style, let alone the postbop jazz he’s mined so intensely over the past ten years in particular. Yet he and his trio are also consummate improvisers. That bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston have a thing for the darkness in Allen’s writing explains a lot about their interplay, which borders on the telepathic. More than a decade of touring together will help get you there too.

Allen’s latest album is Radio Flyer; he and the trio are playing a rare Monday night gig at Smalls at 10:30 PM on Labor Day, Sept 4; cover is $20. If you wish you’d seen those great Sonny Rollins trios of the 50s – or the 90s – this group is on that level. It’s time that the jazz world realized that Allen deserves to be up on that same pedestal with Rollins and Ben Webster. The great ones aren’t just plaques in the hall of fame: some of them walk among us and maybe hang at the bar after.

On one hand, Radio Flyer (a brand of little red wagon) is your typical Allen album: ominous minor modes, plenty of stark bowed bass and rumbling drums, gravitas  and tunes everywhere. What’s different this time is that the songs are a lot longer than Allen’s usual three-to-four minute “jukebox jazz” pieces, and that there’s guitar on the album. Allen has never had guitar in the band before: how does it work out? Liberty Ellman is also a consummate improviser, so he gets where Allen is coming from. And if you’ve seen Allen live, constructing  a jazz symphony out of a handful of themes from one album or another, this is what that sounds like.

The album opens with Sitting Bull, Allen’s distantly American Indian-inflected, brooding sax panned hard left, Ellman hanging back in the opposite channel, August moodily in and out of the picture as Royston machetes the underbrush. Yet as dark as this is, when Allen pulls a funky swing together, there’s a joke, and it’s way too good to give away. He’s like that. August’s chugging, deep blues contrasts with Ellman’s pensively chosen phrases up to where Allen takes it out with one of his signature grey-sky riffs.

The title track leaves no doubt that this is another one of Allen’s sonata-like suites: nobody in jazz does theme-and-variations better than this guy. Ellman’s ringing, overtone-laced washes and Royston’s rumble along the perimeter contrast with the bandleader and the bass, steady at the center. Then they leave it to Royston to hold it together, Ellman’s long, enigmatic solo echoing Allen’s.

How happy is Heureux? Somewhat. Counterrhythms and echo devices abound through the loose intro, to a bustling, floating swing, yet neither August nor Royston ever lapse into a straight-up walk or shuffle. If only other rhythm sections were this interesting- or had this much fun. Ellman can’t resist, and pushes them hard when he takes flight.

The band pick up the pace with The Angelus Bell, with its artful-dodger tradeoffs between voices  – lots and lots of clever echoing and use of space on this album. Sancho Panza echoes the restrained, stormy majesty of Allen’s iconic 2007 I Am I Am album, August edging toward the Middle East with his shadowy, dancing, microtone-infused lines, Royston’s relentless prowl and Ellman’s mournful, spare jangle underpinning Allen’s bright but elegaic melody.

Royston’s tongue-in-cheek rhythmic japes set the stage for the rest of the band in Daedalus. a apt decision considering that it’s the album’s most straight-ahead number. They close it out with another American Indian reference, Ghost Dance, Roston’s sotto-voce cymbals misting August’s purposeful incisions, Ellman finally getting to take an opening solo and matching Allen’s deep, bluesy grandeur. You’ll see this album on many best-of lists, here and at NPR and elsewhere at the end of the year.

September 2, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Daniel Bennett Brings His Irrepressible Wit and Catchy Jazz Songs to the Lower East Side

Who’s the funniest person in jazz? Wycliffe always knows when to go for the punchline. Jon Irabagon probably plays more musical jokes than anybody else, and Moppa Elliott is right there with him. Put those two together in Mostly Other People Do the Killing – who have a typically killer new album – and look out. Mary Halvorson can be devastatingly funny when she wants; ditto Brian Charette. Another guy with an endless supply of pretty hilarious ideas is Boston-based reedman Daniel Bennett, who has a characteristically devious new album, Sinking Houseboat Confusion streaming at Spotify. He and his long-running four-piece group with guitarist Nat Janoff, bassist Eddy Khaimovich and drummer Matthew Feick have a St. Paddy’s Day gig coming up at 8:30 PM at the third stage at the Rockwood. Cover is $10, the club wasn’t enforcing that annoying drink minimum the last time this blog was in the house there, and if you must be out on March 17, this show should be amateur-free.

The album’s first track is a steady, motoring guitar theme, John Lizard Comes Home: Janoff’s deadpan purposefulness brings to mind Jon Lundbom in sardonically carefree mode. Bennett plays his usual alto sax and also flute on the second number, Andrew Variations, an upbeat, pastorally-tinged tune with a serpentine lattice of voices (and amusing electronic patches) akin to Tom Csatari’s most humorous work.

Bobby Brick Sent Me Daniel Bennett has a purposefully vamping, modal groove and a no-nonsense alto attack from the bandleader, in the same vein as JD Allen’s “jukebox jazz.” The title cut brings back the album’s opening motorik beat, endless success of growling, distorted rock guitar changes and some wry alto/flute multitracks. Bennett sticks with the flute on Paint the Fence, with its woozy guitar sonics and surrealistic Jethro Tull jazz vibe: fans of Prague jamband weirdos Jull Dajen will love this.

Doctor Duck Builds a Patio – gotta love those titles, huh? – is a sort of syncopated take on the opening number: again, it’s like Csatari, but even more surreal and a lot more shreddy. We Are OK! opens ominously, Bennett playing eerily rippling cimbalom-like lines on piano as the tune comes together, a series of echoey long-tone phrases over a steady rhythm and then a stampeding free-for-all.

Poet Michele Herman recites her wry Little Disappointments of Modern Life over Bennett’s solo alto waves and echoes. Then he switches to clarinet for Animals Discussing Life Changes, a waltz, the most cartoonish number here. The album winds up with a spacy, vertiginous, suspiciously blithe reprise of the title theme, Bennett back on alto and joined by Mark Cocheo on guitar.

Although this is fun, colorful music, Bennett has a serious side. He came down strongly on the side of the good guys in that recent social media kerfluffle where Robert Glasper alleged that women jazz fans (“Fine European women,” to be specific) hear with their lower extremities and don’t have the brains to understand solos.

March 16, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rising Star Tenor Saxophonist Melissa Aldana Takes Her Sound to the Next Level

Unlike a lot of jazz musicians, tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana grew up in the idiom. She represents the third generation of a formidable Chilean musical family. She’s gone on record citing her latest album, Back Home, as an example of a more mature sound for her. Major understatement: it’s her breakthrough, the material to match the fearsome chops that put her on the map when she became the first South American and the first woman to win the Thelonious Monk competition six years ago. With her regular rhythm section, bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Jochen Rueckert, this is her second trio release, streaming at Spotify.

The rhythm section begin Aldana’s opening track, Alegria, with a tightly spinning, springl-loaded rumble as Aldana plays a terse melody overhead and builds methodically toward a carefree, gently triumphant vibe. There’s some defiantly individualistic Sonny Rollins in there, but there’s also the catchy, impactful “jukebox jazz” of JD Allen, as well as a tight, familiar chemistry similar to Allen’s long-running trio. Short, punchy figures and an emphasis on Aldana’s upper registers figure prominently throughout the album.

Before You has a fetching, hey-wait-a-minute-don’t-leave-yet feel over a shifting clave (Aldana wrote it for her boyfriend…awww). Rueckert’s misterioso, stygian cymbals and Menares’ precise, tiptoeing lines amplify the brooding mood of Aldana’s spacious, airy approach throughout Time. The album’s title track is its most trad yet carefree: Aldana has a great sense of humor and that really comes through here. And it’s contagious.

As a writer, Menares is represented by two tracks. The first, Desde La Lluvia is e minimalistic, lyrical jazz waltz where Aldana waits til the third time around before she goes dancing where the clouds used to be, in a bright after-the-rain scenario. Menares opens his other number, En Otro Lugar, with a bit of a solo ghost ballet before Rueckert gets a brisk clave going and Aldana lingers toward the back, choosing her spots: you can hear some of the considered yet fearlessly warped tones of an old mentor, George Garzone in there.

Rueckert brings two numbers to the album. Obstacles, the first, anchors judiciously considered variations on its hook in subtle rhythmic shifts, building to a floating swing capped off with a wryly galloping drum solo. Menares loops a cachy riff as Servant shifts in an out of a spinning triplet drive, Aldana once again hanging back with an austere, bluesy purism. The lone cover here is a sparse, misty, wee-hours bass-and-sax take of the Kurt Weill/George Gershwin tune My Ship.

In an era where so many players bleat and blow like a four-year-old with a jar of bubble soap, Aldana’s restraint and sense of purpose here are a breath of fresh air.

March 23, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

JD Allen Releases a Characteristically Majestic, Intense New Album Uptown at Minton’s

Having followed JD Allen‘s career over the years, it’s validaing to see how much recognition the tersely stormy tenor saxophonist/composer has received lately. On the other hand, where the hell was the jazz media ten years ago? At that point, he had already concretized his signature style of “jukebox jazz” – concise, machete-sharp statements that for all their brevity packed a wallop as mighty as any other composer these days can deliver in any other style of music. What Darcy James Argue or Maria Schneider can say with eighteen musicians, JD Allen can say with three. He’s in the midst of a weekend stand at Minton’s for the release of his latest album, Graffiti, with his long-running trio, Gregg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums. It’s a group that like the Brubeck Quartet, or Coltrane’s early 60s bands, may someday be considered iconic. Sets tonight are at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; your best and most economical bet is the $25 bar seats, since the sound travels well in the club’s historic space.

The new album both continues and refines the vision Allen began with on I AM I AM, the slashing 2006 variations-on-a-theme, a device he’s worked with each of his successive trio albums. You could call them jazz sonatas, spiced with ominous modalities, majestically savage, wickedly cutting minor-key riffage and key input from the rhythm section. One reason why Allen’s trio is so strong is that they’ve been together so long, a rarity in jazz these days. The other is that Allen’s compositions put the bass and drums as front and center as his magisterial, hard-hitting sax. While he’s capable of blustery volleys of hardbop, he rarely does that, eschewing gratuitous displays of fearsome technique for judiciously placed melody and embellishments, and both August and Royston maintain that dynamic. The former is as likely to add color and cumulo-nimbus ambience with his bow, while the latter – arguably this era’s most mutably colorful jazz drummer – gets to cut loose, completely off his leash, with explosive results.

At the closing night of this year’s Winter Jazzfest, Allen and his trio justified a headline status of sorts with a riveting hourlong midnight set at Subculture. Across town at the Minetta Lane Theatre, Rudresh Mahanthappa had just delivered a spine-tingling set of meticulously reinvented, Indian-tinged Charlie Parker themes, a spectacular display of wind-tunnel control, subtle dynamic shifts and commandingly turbocharged power. But Allen was the highlight of the evening and the festival. Much as the group kept a laser focus on the compositions, each number – drawing on a mix of material from the I AM I AM, Shine! and Grace albums – got an expansive yet purposeful workout, like a hitter methodically adjusting to a series of completely different pitchers and then hitting the ball out of the park. Royston volleyed and pummeled and shuffled, August supplied stygian gravitas, negotiating the pitchblende terrain with the night vision of a panther, Allen stunning the crowd with both purpose and technique, and a long series of duotone hooks to open the set. After an uneasy charge through a series of overcast, sometimes somber themes, Allen completely flipped the script with a couple of standards, as if to say, you think you knew me? But it was the originals that everybody in the room had come out for, and it wasn’t long before the band went back to them, shadowboxing with the weight of history and a relentless drive to bring some victory to the task.

June 13, 2015 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sarah Manning Takes a Sensationally Successful Shot at Chamber Jazz

Sarah Manning is to the alto sax what JD Allen is to the tenor: even in a world of rugged individualists, she stands out. Lots of artists doll themselves up, tone themselves down and smile sweetly for the camera for an album cover shot. Manning scowls at you from the inside of the cd booklet for her new Posi-tone album, Harmonious Creature. Her bright, defenestrating, Jackie McLean-esque tone, angst-fueled crescendos and stunningly uneasy tunesmithing also set her a step ahead of the pack. Her previous 2010 Posi-Tone release, Dandelion Clock, was that year’s underrated gem. It may be early in the year, but her new album Harmonious Creature threatens to be the best of 2014. Her chromatically-fueled edge brings to mind Kenny Garrett; her moody compositions compare with Garrett and Allen as well. This new quintet session is an ambitious and slashingly successful move into the increasingly crowded chamber jazz arena with Eyvind Kang on viola, Jonathan Goldberger on guitar, Rene Hart on bass and Jerome Jennings on drums. Manning is playing the album release show at I-Beam at 8 PM on Jan 25 with a slightly altered lineup featuring the reliably electrifying Alli Miller on drums.

The opening track, Copland On Cornelia Street, starts as stately waltz, brings the guitar in, lingers on the turnaround and then Manning works some morose magic over Goldberger’s brooding resonance. It picks up with a sunbaked Goldberger solo over a dancing, whirling rhythm. Did Aaron Copland find his epiphany in the West Village? He was a Queens guy – it’s not out of the question.

Tune Of Cats echoes a famous Coltrane riff before the group takes it over Jennings’ careful, tumbling pulse, Manning’s utterly casual phrasing contrasting with the relentless intensity of the melody, her tone more smoky than usual. Floating Bridge, an austerely bright jazz waltz, has Kang echoing Manning’s kinetic lines, the bandleader teasing the listener with flitting motives over Jennings’ imperturbible washes….and then sax and viola go back at it.

Reharmonized jazz versions of rock and country tunes can leave you gasping for oxygen, but Manning’s cover of Gillian Welch’s I Dream A Highway stakes out atmospheric, Frisellian big-sky territory. Goldberger’s pointillisms against gently unfolding sax and viola fill the vast expanse up to a ridiculously psychedelic, ambient outro that pans the speakers. Later in the album, they take a similar approach to Neil Young’s On the Beach, but at a glacial tempo that Manning finally cuts loose and blasts straight through once the final “get out of town” verse hits, the band following her searing lead to the point where any atttempt to get back into ballad mode would be pointless.

The naturalistic Grey Dawn, Red Fox blends allusions to the baroque and simmering exchanges of voices into a precarious narrative that grows more anthemic as it shifts course: this animal is on the lookout for something far more dangerous. If Manning is to be believed, the Radish Spirit guards its ground closely, with a tight, somewhat frosty cameraderie from the whole group, Manning and Goldberger taking it into the shadows before Hart rises to the foreground and pulls it back. The enigmatically titled Three Chords For Jessica emerges from Hart’s solo chromatics to a haunting, elegaic, gorgeously Middle Eastern-tinged grey-sky theme. Don’t Answer To The Question returns to waltz tempo with some understatedly wicked push-pull between Goldberger, Jennings and Kang. The album ends with a counterintuitively warm guitar feature, What the Blues Left Behind.

January 9, 2014 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Jaimeo Brown Goes for Transcendence on the Lower East Side

We know that we’re in a depression when Falu is onstage singing, trading licks with JD Allen and the club isn’t sold out. Tuesday night at Drom, there was a good crowd in the house for the album release show for percussionist Jaimeo Brown’s Transcendence. But Allen routinely packs the Village Vanguard when he does a weeklong stand there, and Falu is playing her album release show at the Highline on the 29th with a whole slew of great bands including Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat, Ellingtonian Balkan horn band Slavic Soul Party and the Toomai String Quintet.

In a roundabound way, Brown explained how his excellent new album (reviewed here) reinvents the cult classic album How We Got Over: Sacred Songs of Gee’s Bend by the Gee’s Bend Quilters. Over samples of choirs and piano/vocals from the two recorded volumes by that rural Alabama community ensemble (spanning half a century), guitarist Chris Sholar played tersely and meaningfully, even when he got to the Hendrix licks. Much as that endless series of classic rock quotes grew tiresome, his sampler got old even faster. On one hand, to play drums against a tape is cruelly difficult: that Brown was able to match his intricate and sensitive ornamentation to a recorded backdrop testifies to his strength as a timekeeper. On the other hand, the karaoke aspect was superfluous at the beginning – name a singer who wouldn’t want to trade licks with JD Allen, they’d be lined up around the block – and exasperating at the end when the mp3s or whatever they were drowned out the sax.

Getting to that exasperating point was a lot of fun. Falu heard Allen’s snarling modal intensity and realized that she could conjure even more magic out of him, and she did. It didn’t take a minute before the two were duelling and then matching up note for note in a raw, plaintive duet as Brown built a storm of sparkles with his cymbals behind them. Allen took the dark African modes of the rustic gospel licks that appear early on the album and spun cruel, sharp amber glass spirals against them: to hear both the sax and voice reach for an emotion and nail them in a few notes, succinctly, again and again, was exhilarating. Falu began and ended utilizing her powerful lower register singing ghazals against a sweeping, cymbal hailstorm groove with a seemingly endless series of playful tradeoffs with Allen midway through. That the crew onstage were able to to have so much fun and evoke such a panorama of feeling over the course of practically two hours of playing to a backing track testifies to their singleminded focus.

May 17, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Haunting Update on Old Spirituals from Jaimeo Brown’s Transcendence

Percussionist Jaimeo Brown’s new Transcendence album (just out from Motema) was inspired by a cult classic, How We Got Over: Sacred Songs of Gee’s Bend by the Gee’s Bend Quilters. It’s a double album of old African-American spirituals recorded during quilting sessions which Brown has sampled extensively and used as the basis for a rather haunting series of what could be described as jazz tone poems.

One amazing thing about the performance of those spirituals is how rhythmically they were sung: Brown plays seamlessly with them, and everybody in his ensemble is swinging, if slowly and sometimes morosely.  Brown’s compositions lean toward minimalism – every note here counts – with an uneasy push and pull. It’s a dark, relentlessly ntense suite of sorts. JD Allen begins with the blues, spirals around, hits the occasional repetitive, insistent riff, and then develops his themes with a modally-infused gravitas: he is the perfect choice of tenor saxophonist for this project. Guitarist Chris Sholar brings a smoldering, slow-burn, David Gilmour-esque majesty and angst to the pieces, often playing with a slide. Pianist Geri Allen works an eerily starlit, otherworldly pedalpoint as the sax, guitar and keyboards (also including Andrew Shantz’ harmonium and Kelvin Sholar’s light electronic effects) shift around within the sonic picture. Brown artfully leads a series of slow crescendos, sometimes riding the traps around the perimeter, other times building to a crushing gallop. Singer Falu adds Indian-influenced vocalese on the more hypnotic of the album’s twelve tracks. And Brown’s parents, bassist Dartanyan Brown and flutist Marcia Miget, each take an emphatic cameo.  The result is stark and richly evocative: the way the bandleader weaves the sampled choir and individual voices into the music casts them as ghosts from another era that eerily prefigures our own. The whole thing is streaming at Jaimeo Brown’s tour page.

And he gets the big picture. From his liner notes: “On a macro level, politically this music is a warning to our generation. Global corporations and banks are destroying local cultures throughout the world. The same spirituals that gave strength to our ancestors need to give us strength today as we consisder the very real possibility of modern global slavery, and look in earnest for ways to avoid that unacceptable state. In the midst of darkness the brighest light and hope can appear.”

April 2, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, gospel music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment