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.
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.
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.
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.”
Continuing with today’s “why would you want to make a record of somebody else’s tunes” theme, Cookers trumpeter David Weiss has gone the route of reinvention and reassessment with his quintet Point of Departure on their latest album Venture Inward, due out on the 26th from Posi-Tone. It’s both a look back and a step forward from the melodic 60s postbop sounds that Weiss loves so much. This group follows the Cookers’ blueprint both for starpower, with JD Allen on tenor sax and Nir Felder on guitar, and for having a monster rhythm section, bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Jamire Williams, to match Weiss’ other group’s veteran team of Cecil McBee and Billy Hart. Williams in particular owns this record. Given a lot of chances to cut loose, he adds grit and drive and wit in places, particularly on a long, surreal, rather droll solo on the second track. Having seen him play in many different contexts, this is one of his great achievements.
To open the album, Herbie Hancock’s I Have a Dream gets both expanded and a lot more tightly wound – in both senses of the word – bristling with solos from Weiss, Felder and then Allen in surprisingly nonchalant mode over Williams’ curb-dusting assault. The horn counterpoint as Williams spins on a dime midway through is an artful treat. Miles Davis’ Black Comedy is a workout for tight horn harmonies as well as for a muscular performance from the rhythm section.
The first of two Contemporary Jazz Quintet pieces, an epic take of trumpeter Charles Moore’s Number 4 begins scurrying but moody, a launching pad for Allen’s signature blend of intensity and judicious tunefulness before Weiss chooses his own spots while Williams builds an almost imperceptible trajectory upwards. The group loosens as Felder goes exploring but never loses the swing, even when it seems they’re going to pull into a parking space for a second.
Two Andrew Hill compositions are included as well. Allen gets vividly restless on the first solo on Venture Inward – it’s as long as many of his own songs – before Weiss moves in for another long, thought-out excursion. The Hill ballad Pax floats along with a rather somber, rainy-day ambience before Felder spikes it and then Allen takes it in a more seductive direction. The album winds up with the second Contemporary Jazz Quintet piece, Snuck In, replete with moody tension, scampering swing, purposeful postbop scampering from Weiss and darker, similarly measured contributions from Allen and Felder. Besides being great fun to hear, albums like this serve a lot of useful purposes: they make you want to revisit the source material, or discover it for the first time, not to mention keeping it alive for a contemporary audience.
Gregg August validates the theory that a good bass player always has a gig – to the extreme. He’s as comfortable servimg as first chair bass of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, or with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, as he is with the JD Allen Trio and Quartet and with his own bands. Versatile as August is, his passion is latin jazz. In his world, that extends to Spanish music, a genre he knows a little something about, having first honed his symphonic chops with orchestas in Spain. His playing is terse, direct and hard-hitting: much as he has chops to rival anyone’s, he chooses pulse and melody over any kind of gratuitous display. Because of that, it’s refreshing to hear his instrument as prominent in the mix as it is here: he invariably leaves you wishing for more. His compositions are nimble, energetic, and relevant: August does not shy away from darkness or from confronting issues of justice and social inequality. His new album Four by Six is not lighthearted, but it is often exhilarating. Here most of the tracks alternate between his quartet with Sam Newsome on soprano sax, Luis Perdomo on piano and E.J. Strickland on drums, and with his sextet with Rudy Royston on drums plus Perdomo, Yosvany Terry on alto sax, John Bailey on trumpet and Allen on tenor.
The album opens with Affirmation, an acerbic, somewhat acidic strut for the quartet. Newsome throws some elbows and they swing it back and forth. Another quartet tune, For Calle Picota is catchy as hell – it has the same kind of majesty and gravitas and economy of notes that Allen is known for, Strickland and Perdomo working toward a salsa swing as Newsome somersaults amiably.
For Max, the first of the sextet numbers, begins with a lush, flamenco-esque chart straight out of the Gil Evans book circa 1959 that Perdomo and then Allen follow in the same vein. The slowly slinking bass solo as the horns rise majestically over August’s roaring chordal pedalpoint is nothing short of transcendent. By contrast, Bandolim shifts quickly from a lively, tricky ensemble tune to free and spacious, with some marvelously judicious work from the whole band over whispery, nebulous rhythm bookended by sudden bursts of swing.
Newsome stars on the pensive salsa swing of Strange Street, taking his time achieving altitude, handing off to Perdomo, who goes for loungey and then lets August take it deep, deep into the shadows: his nonchalant chromatics are absolutely chilling. A Ballad for MV follows: the two pieces are essentially a diptych, this one more boisterous, Strickland’s clenched-teeth cymbals refusing to let go as Newsome sails apprehensively and Perdomo holds it down with a moody glimmer.
Relative Obscurity, for sextet, quickly shifts from a lushly syncopated horn chart to unchecked aggression by Bailey and then tensely hypnotic circularity from August. The album ends with a low-key, brooding knockout, For Miles, opening as a morose jazz waltz driven by Perdomo’s Satie-esque minimalism, Terry taking it just short of a triumphant hail-mary pass but instead alley-ooping to Perdomo who takes it up…and then down again into the eerily glimmering depths. August plays the album release show for this one at Birdland at 6 PM on Dec 6 with a slightly different cast; he’ll be at Shapeshifter Lab with the quartet on Dec 14 at 8 PM.
2012 being the 25th anniversary of the Bang on a Can avant garde music marathon, it makes sense that this year’s marathon yesterday at the World Financial Center would be a more oldschool one than in years past, with more emphasis on familiar faces and American composers than the wide-ranging internationalist vibe of recent years. Judging from the first forty percent of the show, not to mention the tantalizing bill that loomed ahead for the evening, this year’s was one of the best in recent memory. Unlike the last few years, where BOAC would cleverly seem to work the occasional obvious bathroom break or even a dinner break into the programming, from noon to about half past five there wasn’t a single tune-out: not everything on the bill was transcendent, but a lot was.
Lois V Vierk was one of the composers on the program along with Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich and Martin Bresnick at the first marathon in 1988; this time out she was represented by her galloping, hypnotically enveloping, Reich-esque Go Guitars, performed by the Dither guitar quartet – Taylor Levine, James Linaburg, Josh Lopes and James Moore. Cellist Ashley Bathgate followed, solo, with Daniel Wohl’s insistently minimalist, echoing, rhythmic Saint Arc, a good segue with its bracing atmospherics. The crowd’s focus shifted to the rear of the atrium for trombone quartet Guidonian Hand playing Jeremy Howard Beck’s Awakening, a pro gay marriage polemic inspired by the chants of protestors as well as Jewish shofar calls. Vividly evocative of uneasy crowd noise, a sense of reason developed, and then a triumphantly sostenuto fanfare with wry echoes of Also Sprach Zarathustra.
BOAC All-Star Vicky Chow played Evan Ziporyn’s In Bounds. Inspired by essay about basketball, Ziporyn explained that he had mixed feelings about asking Chow to tackle such a demanding task as essentially becoming a one-woman piano gamelan with this work – but she was up for it. It’s classic Ziporyn, catchy blues allusions within a rapidfire, characteristically Javanese-influenced framework. Moving from attractive concentric ripples to some tongue-in-cheek Tubular Bells quotes to a welcome spaciousness as the piece wound down, Chow’s perfectly precise, rapidfire music-box attack raised the bar for pretty much everyone who followed.
The NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble conducted by Jonathan Haas negotiated their way through Ruben Naeff’s Bash, its point being an attempt at making a party out of group tensions. Its interlocking intricacies were a workout especially for vibraphonist Matthew Lau, but he didn’t waver, alongside Patti Kilroy on violin, Maya Bennardo on viola, Luis Mercado on cello, Florent Ghys on bass, Charles Furlong on clarinet, Anne Dearth on flute and Jeff Lankov on piano. Steadily and tensely, they illustrated an uneasily bustling party scene that eventually reached for a slightly more lush, relaxed ambience without losing its incessant rhythmic intensity.
Bass clarinetist Michael Lowenstern was then joined by extrovert violin virtuoso Todd Reynolds for an unexpectedly catchy new wave pop melody and then Footprints (not the Wayne Shorter composition), a genially bluesy, upbeat number where the BOAC All-Stars’ Dave Cossin joined them on drums. They’d busked with this one during a European tour and made enough for dinner from it one night in Vienna about twenty years ago. Then Guidonian Hand took the stage for Eve Beglarian’s In and Out of the Game, inspired by her epic Mississippi River trip a couple of years ago: an anthemic, upbeat piece, it was delivered rather uptightly, perhaps since the ensemble was constrained by having to play along with a tape.
Julia Wolfe’s My Lips From Speaking isn’t one of her white-knuckle intense, haunting numbers: it’s a fun extrapolation of the opening riff from Aretha Franklin’s Think (played by Aretha herself on the record). Piano sextet Grand Band – Chow, David Friend, Paul Kerekes, Lisa Moore, Blair McMillen and Isabelle O’Connell had a ball with it, each wearing an ear monitor so as to catch the innumerable, suspenseful series of cues as the gospel licks grew from spacious and minimalist to a joyously hammering choir. Ruby Fulton’s The End, sung by Mellissa Hughes with Dither’s Taylor Levine on uke and M Shanghai String Band’s Philippa Thompson on spoons, made a good segue. Inspired by the Beatles’ The End – as Fulton explained, one of the few places on record where Ringo ever took a bonafide drum solo – its hypnotic, insistent rhythm and Hughes’ otherworldly harmonies in tandem with the drones and then overtones rising from Levine’s repetitive chords built an increasingly complex sense of implied melody, as captivating as it was clever.
The first piece delivered by the BOAC All-Stars – Chow, Bathgate and Cossin on vibraphone and percussion this time plus Robert Black on bass, Mark Stewart on guitars and Ziporyn on clarinets – was Nibiru, by Marcin Stanczyk, one of the composers who’s come up through BOAC’s MassMoCa mentoring program. An apprehensive blend of anxious, intense percussion and ominous outer-space motifs, it pondered the existence of the phantom planet from harmonic-laden drones to surfy staccato guitar to where Bathgate finally took it to the rafters, her cello’s high harmonics keening eerily over Ziporyn’s bass clarinet wash.
The biggest audience hit of the afternoon – big surprise – was Thurston Moore’s Stroking Piece #1. It took a long time to for the All-Stars to build from faux Glenn Branca to critical mass but when they finally got the chance, a minor chord abruptly and rather chillingly making an appearance, Cossin slamming out a four-on-the-floor beat, the band had a great time with it even if it wasn’t particularly challenging. As it wound out, Stewart artfully led them from a crazed noise jam back into quiet, mantra-like atmospherics.
That may have been the peoples’ choice, but the next piece, Gregg August’s A Humble Tribute to Guaguanco, performed by his bass quartet Heavy Hands with Greg Chudzik, Lisa Dowling and Brian Ellingsen, was the most memorable of the afternoon. “Taking advantage of the percussion and the vocal quality that we can get from the bass,” as the bandleader (and four-string guy from sax powerhouse JD Allen’s amazing trio) explained, they made it unexpectedly somber and terse, alternately bowing, picking and tapping out an interlocking beat, eventually adding both microtones and polyrhythms. A dancing pulse gave way to sharp, bowed chromatic riffs, part flamenco, part Julia Wolfe horror tonalities. The second they finished, a little sparrow landed in front of the stage as if to signal its approval.
The following work, Besnick’s Prayers Remain Forever was performed by by TwoSense (Bathgate and Moore). Introducing the composer, Julia Wolfe reminded that he taught all three of the BOAC founders, and that his Yale School of Music ensemble Sheep’s Clothing was the prototype for BOAC. “At a certain point in life existential questions become extremely important,” he explained – the title of the work is from the last line of the Yehuda Amichai poem Gods Come and Go. A plaintively elegaic, part mininalist, part neoromantic work, as it expanded from a simple chromatic motif, a sense of longing became anguish and then descended to a brooding, defeated atmosphere, the cello and piano switching roles back and forth from murky hypnotics to bitterly rising phrases, with a particularly haunting solo passage from Bathgate. Yet what was even more impressive about her playing is how closely she communicates with her bandmates, Moore especially: the duo played as a singleminded voice.
Then things got loud and memorably ugly with “punk classical” ensemble Newspeak, whose late-2010 album Sweet Light Crude is a gem. They played that tune, a savagely sarcastic love song to an addiction that will eventually prove lethal, Hughes’ deadpan, lushly Romantic vocals soaring over cinematics that built from anxiously sweeping to metal grand guignol fueled by Brian Snow’s cello, Levine’s guitar and bandleader/composer David T. Little’s coldly stomping drums. They also rampaged through Oscar Bettison’s B & E (with Aggravated Assault), emphasizing its jagged math-rock rhythms and a pummeling series of chase scenes.
Michael Gordon, one of the original BOAC trio with Wolfe and David Lang, led his band – the BOAC All-Stars’ Stewart, Cossin and Zioporyn plus Reynolds on violin and Caleb Burhans on viola – through his own Thou Shalt/Thou Shalt Not from behind a keyboard. This was a disappointment and didn’t measure up to Gordon’s usual high standard. Juicy textures – creepy funeral organ, staccato twin microtonal violins, foghorn bass clarinet – overshadowed simplistic percussive riffage, which carried on far too long without much focus: if he could cut this down to 3:05, he’d have a hit. Next on the bill was soprano saxophonist Jonas Braasch, who performed his alternately rapt and amusingly echoey Quasi Infinity through a digital effect he’d created to approximate an amazing 45-second natural reverb that Oliveros had reveled in while recording in a Washington State cistern in 1988. That boded well for Oliveros and her Deep Listening Band, who played digeridoo-heavy, warmly enveloping works immediately afterward. And while it’s hubris to walk out on an artist as perennially fresh and compelling as she is, there’s a point where concerts of this length and the demands of having a life don’t coincide. Apologies to Oliveros and her crew for not sticking around for their entire set.
One final issue that ought to be addressed, and not just by BOAC and the World Financial Center landlords, is that there needs to be a no-under-fours rule here. And for that matter, at every serious music event in New York, maybe everywhere in this country. This didn’t used to be an issue, but with the helicopter parenting fad, children having become yuppie bling, national restaurant chains and thousands of other businesses are retaliating. A reasonably bright four-year-old can be taught to sit quietly or at least move around quietly while a concert is in progress; a two-year old can’t. Too bad that there’s no way to ban the yuppies along with their annoying, sniveling, whiny spawn, which would solve the whole problem.
If you see a lot of jazz, you’re probably used to watching familiar faces run through familiar material and wondering to yourself, what if they were left to their own devices? What if they did their own stuff – would they take it to the next level? Doug Webb’s latest album Swing Shift is one answer to that question.
Back in April of 2009, the saxophonist sequestered himself in a Los Angeles studio for a marathon session with a rotating cast of characters. By any standard, the results were spectacularly successful, netting enough material for two good-naturedly energetic, expertly delivered albums of mostly standards, 2009’s Midnight and 2010’s Renovations…and this one. If edgy postbop jazz is your thing, this is your album: Posi-Tone definitely saved the best for last. Webb has chops that’ll make your eyeballs pop. Remember that old Coltrane line about how “everybody thinks I’m playing glissandos but they’re really arpeggios,” or something like that? Whether playing tenor or alto, Webb is on that level, technique-wise, rising with seemingly effortless ease from liquid crystal swirls to gritty, clenched-teeth squalls in places. But this isn’t a chops album – it’s a hot vibe album on a high-octane tip in the same vein as Freddie Hubbard’s Night of the Cookers.
Rhythmic shifts are key here, even as they gradually get into it with Mal Waldron’s Soul Eyes, done as a matter-of-factly swinging blues ballad. Webb takes it doublespeed in a split second, almost imperceptibly, setting up an incisively scampering Larry Goldings piano solo, then resuming his pace without breaking a sweat – or so it seems. Then they jump into the centerpiece of the album, the practically 23-minute Patagonia Suite, a co-write for Webb and bassist Stanley Clarke (who proves to be the perfect fit for this record, whether turning in tireless overtime walking scales, adding low-pressure buoyancy with judicious, juicy chords and even leading the band through a reggae-tinged interlude toward the end). Playing alto with a high, biting, practically snarling tone, Webb casually makes his way through steady eighth-note clusters built around a simple minor-key riff, to wailing squalls, to a dark, stern, straight-ahead, thoughtfully JD Allen-esque interlude that he ends completely unleashed. The architecture is just as smart as the playing, Webb assigning pianist Mahesh Balasooriya (and, to a lesser extent, Clarke) the tough role of following with long solos that echo the sax’s shift from methodical to completely unhinged. Both players register a bullseye, drummer Gerry Gibbs (who played the entire session) cleverly building suspense with his one deadpan, matter-of-fact solo.
In fact, the piece as a whole seems to be a series of variations on Frank Foster’s gorgeously edgy Simone, which is the track that follows: whether their version served as the prototype, or was intended as a coda, it works magically, with a jaw-dropping, supersonic cadenza by Balasooriya, incessant but almost imperceptible tempo shifts and a relentlessly bracing, modal attack by Webb.
They do Rogers and Hart’s Where or When as a trio with no drums, Joe Bagg playing piano with terse hints of stride: even here, Webb is still wired from track two and in edgy minor mode, which redeems this increasingly moldy oldie many times over. They follow that with a Webb/Gibbs duo, Rizone, swirling clusters versus steadily shuffling rhythm and wind up the album with another bracing Webb/Clarke collaboration, Apodemia, evocative (as much of this album is) of Kenny Garrett’s best 1990s-era work. As they do with Where or When, they take their time pulling it together, Clarke fueling the smoldering blaze with his chords, Bagg’s piano unveiling a rippling midnight ambience while Webb broodingly contemplates his next move, the band swaying expectantly underneath. Other than the first track, the tension never really lets up here. This isn’t late night sleepy jazz and it sure as hell isn’t boudoir jazz but as a shot of adrenaline after a rough day at work, it’s unbeatable. Lisa Simpson would be proud (Webb plays her sax parts on tv).
The trouble with a lot of jazz albums is that a lot of bands can’t translate their interplay from the stage or even the rehearsal room to the studio. As a result, they sound stiff – or as if everybody was just trying to lay down their parts and get the hell out. Alto saxophonist and Bjorkestra bandleader Travis Sullivan’s New Directions, on the other hand, sounds like a live show, except with studio-quality acoustics. It’s a great summertime album, brightly tuneful, full of good spirits and inspired playing from pianist Mike Eckroth, bassist Marco Panascia and drummer Brian Fishler (AKA Frank Feta of Richard Cheese’s band). Sullivan favors a clear, uncluttered tone and strongly melodic extrapolations rather than any crazed, heavy breathing. But as attractive as the melodies are, this isn’t lightweight by a long shot. Intense? Not particularly. Subtle and fun? You bet.
The opening track, Jamia’s Dance works vividly expansive Sullivan explorations of an absurdly catchy central hook. Autumn in NH is not a drinking song as you might expect (New Hampshire tops all states but Wyoming in per-capita alcohol consumption) but rather a morosely lyrical mood piece that stretches the band as far out into free territory as they go here. A hard-charging, samba-tinged number, Tuneology picks up the pace and sets the stage for Hidden Agenda, which begins as a funky mid 70s style crime movie tune with echoes of Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver theme – the hidden agenda here seems to be a big, long crescendo that involves everybody in turn, with a funny Coltrane quote, a bass solo that nimbly and energetically works a piano line and a spiraling Sullivan salvo out. They cover Rodgers and Hart’s Spring Is Here slowly and make it much more wintry that you would expect; the catchy, sprightly Georgie contrasts an understated dark soul piano pulse with Sullivan spinning around brightly overhead. Their cover of Tears for Fears’ odious 80s schlockfest Everybody Wants to Rule the World is a real shocker – it’s unrecognizable until they hit the hook, almost, Sullivan defiantly evading its cloying quality and then immediately messing up the tempo, taking it out on a limb and handing it over to Eckroth. Third time around, Panascia’s panacea is to make it funky.
A jazz waltz, Leap of Faith is another track with a pensive undercurrent beneath Sullivan’s stunningly effortless, good-natured glissandos, Eckroth adding a wee hours wink, Sullivan making an abrupt shift in a much more straight-ahead direction afterward, setting the stage for a deliciously swirling crescendo. It’s the kind of moment you see in concert a lot, which doesn’t make it onto studio albums as much as it should. An enigmatically bustling song without words, Magic Monday has Sullivan and Eckroth trading busily opaque solos over Panascia’s muscular pulse. The album winds up with the title track, an aggressive, terse, catchy straight-up strut that wouldn’t be out of place in the JD Allen catalog, Panascia leaping to a sprint and then back again, Fishler finally getting a chance to cut loose and hit hard and makes the absolute most of it. File this under melodic jazz, yet another triumph for the Posi-Tone label, who in this decade are making a mark much in the same way that Impulse did in the 60s. Sullivan’s next gig is with Bjorkestra on June 14 at 9 at Highline Ballroom.