Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Curmudgeonly View of This Year’s Charlie Parker Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Hall of Fame-Caliber Band Tackles the Entirety of Jazz History at Birdland This Week

Who knew that the estimable Carl Allen could play a Philly soul shuffle with the best of them? Or that saxophonist James Carter had a thing for 20s hot jazz? If he doesn’t, he sure fooled everybody last night as a member of alto saxophonist Vincent Herring’s ten-piece ensemble, who were playing the first night of their weeklong stand at Birdland. The concept, The Story of Jazz: 100 Years, is ambitious – sets continue nightly at 8:30 and 11 PM through Jan 27.

In a marathon hour and a half onstage last night to open the stand, they made it from 1917 to the late 70s. On one hand, that’s not as much of a challenge for this particular hall of fame crew as it would be for a less seasoned cast. This is an allstar band to rival any other one, anywhere. Sharing the stage with Herring, Allen and Carter were Eric Alexander on tenor sax, Jon Faddis and Jeremy Pelt on trumpets, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Mike LeDonne on piano and organ, Kenny Davis on bass and Nicolas Bearde on vocals and also reading from a script that offered a surface overview of jazz history.

Through the decade of the 60s, the group’s charts were fascinating; the playing was as sage and thrilling as you would expect from artists of this caliber. Herring and Alexander shared Coltrane riffs judiciously and soulfully. Faddis and Pelt threatened to pop valves, then shifted into resonant, peak-era Miles mode. Carter clearly saw this as a cutting contest, and he’d come to slay, whether mining unexpectedly low richness from his clarinet, spiraling and flurrying with his usual white-hot intensity on soprano sax, saving his most exhilarating volleys for his tenor sax.

As this particular narrative acknowledged, jazz first bubbled up in the melting pot of New Orleans in the 1890s but didn’t reach critical mass until around World War 1 with Jelly Roll Morton and his contemporaries. The group began there, blazed through dixieland and then a balmy take of Summertime, sung with august restraint by Bearde.

By now, it was obvious that this was going to be a greatest-hits survey. Basie got a nod, as did the Ellington band via a blistering charge through one machinegunning solo after another. Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ got a only slightly less boisterous doublespeed coda. Bearde particularly excelled with his post-opiated interpretation of Straighten Up and Fly Right as the band barreled and bounced behind him.

The 50s, a decade the band spent plenty of time in and could have stayed in for even longer, were most vividly represented by Take Five and its balmy, unexpectedly plush chart, and So What, an apt vehicle for Pelt. For whatever reason, the group saved Caravan and its whirlwind of round-the-horn solos for the 60s. Was Eubanks going to get one, as a shout to Juan Tizol? Yes – he ended up playing it pretty close to the vest.

They reinvented The Girl From Ipanema as a boogaloo: did anybody catch that wicked moment where Davis fired off a neat series of doublestops in response to a similarly slinky LeDonne organ phrase? Allen did. It was just as cool to hear them run a couple of impassioned verses of Les McCann’s protest-jazz anthem Compared to What.

It was in the decade after that where the band lost focus and phoned it in. You would have, too, if you’d been onstage. These guys all have substantial individual catalogs, and they cut their teeth on the classics, so vamping their collective way through one cheesy 70s fusion hit after another seemed rote – and unfamiliar terrain. Has anyone in this ensemble ever had to fake their way through a Chuck Mangione number? Doubtful. At least they did the club’s theme song – Weather Report were responsible for that one. Did anybody notice? The staff did.

Conventional wisdom among diehard jazz fans is that the 70s were a dead decade, and that’s far from true. This group could have had a ball with something by Ruben Blades, or Tito Puente – latin jazz was underrepresented in this particular set. An AACM interlude, like the group’s detours into dixieland and early bop, would have been appropriate. There’s got to be something by, say, Anthony Braxton or Henry Threadgill from that era that’s translucent enough to resonate with the tourists.

Devil’s advocate says that tourists have no idea who Braxton or Threadgill are. And that’s not true either – the Europeans often know them better than an American audience would. All this is not to criticize the band’s achievements last night – everybody is busy with their own projects, and there’s only so much time to come up with charts for a group this size. They’re there for the rest of the week for fans of history and pure adrenaline.

January 24, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Warren Wolf’s New Album Mixes It Up Memorably

Jazz vibraphonist Warren Wolf’s latest album, a self-titled effort which serves as his Mack Avenue debut, gets more interesting the more you hear it. It alternates boisterous Friday night saloon tunes with some surprisingly intense ballads, as well as a shapeshifting solo workout – on both vibraphone and marimba – on Chick Corea’s Señor Mouse. Wolf’s supporting cast is characteristically first-class – longtime influence/mentor/bandmate Christian McBride on bass, Greg Hutchinson on drums and Peter Martin on piano along with Jeremy Pelt on trumpet and Tim Green on alto and soprano sax.

The opening cut, 427 Mass Ave. (the address of Boston jazz hotspot Wally’s Cafe) is a cleverly camouflaged blues with a sprightly bounce and bright solo spots for Pelt, for Green’s alto, an exuberant sprint from the bandleader himself and then McBride, who finally can’t resist getting caught up in the moment. Then they get quiet with Natural Beauties, a gentle but matter-of-fact ballad, Wolf taking it up a notch and then turning it over to a geninely tender Green soprano sax solo. Sweet Bread is a briskly pulsing, catchy postbop swing tune, horns taking turns in a tug-of-war with piano and vibes. Then they go back down with the brooding How I Feel at This Given Moment , Wolf edging toward noir the first time around, more relaxed the second, with Martin echoing him. It’s as if the two came into the bar stressed, has a couple of drinks and suddenly concluded that the world doesn’t look so bad

Eva is a hot little number, briskly swinging with wary chromatics, vivid pointillisms from Wolf and matter-of-fact buoyancy from Green’s alto. Best known as a Bill Evans tune, the version of Emily here gets a late 70s soul/pop tinge done. They follow that with the most potent song here, Katrina, a sad, bitter New Orleans nocturne that turns funky and even creepier for a bit before heading into swing with some memorably rapidfire staccato Wolf phrasing.

One for Lenny is a full-throttle showstopper dedicated to their Boston drummer friend Lenny Nelson, who’s known for speed. They juxtapose that one with the slowest tune here, Martin’s Intimate Dance, a jazz waltz. One especially notable feature is that maybe due to the presence of McBride, the production here gives the low end a little boost of fatness which makes a great contrast with the ringing highs of the vibes. This album ought to draw a big crowd of fans who like their jazz vivid and tuneful. Wolf will be at the Vanguard later this year with McBride’s Inside Straight, a crew whose shows this year have validated their reputation for vigor and entertainment.

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

The Gerald Wilson Orchestra’s Legacy Does Justice to the Windy City

It’s been a great year for big band jazz releases and this is a particularly enjoyable one. The Gerald Wilson Orchestra’s new one, Legacy jazzes up the classics and celebrates nonagenarian composer/conductor Wilson’s Chicago home turf with dynamic charts that range from stark and suspenseful to lush and majestic. As you would expect from this guy, the band is monstrous, with up to 20 players, building from the A-list rhythm section of Renee Rosnes on piano, Peter Washington on bass and Lewis Nash on drums. A lot of the ideas here are very ambitious, but Wilson always cuts to the chase, with a why-didn’t-I-think-of-that logic and directness. Case in point: the opening Variations on a Theme by Stravinsky, which is less gritty eeriness than blazing intensity followed by a long swing passage with bright sax and trumpet solos. It’s a three-and-a-half minute hit. Who would have thought?

A mysterious bass pulse underpins the lushly melodic, warmly crescendoing Virgo, which they take up and back down methodically, swing it with a blithely spiraling Anthony Wilson guitar solo and later on intersperse some big swells with bright alto sax. They go out the way they came in. Variations on Claire de Lune starts as a slowly swinging piano blues, acknowledges the otherworldly theme and then goes doublespeed with jovial alto sax and gritty trumpet, and eventually a memorably slow fade. Likewise, Variations on a Theme by Puccini kicks off bluesily – it’s hard to find the classical tune here until it rears its wiggy head coming out of a deliciously tuneful baritone sax solo. September Sky, a warmly reflective, Hubert Laws-inflected indian summer flute tune gets an equally startling and effective doublespeed breakdown with the whole orchestra roaring, Rosnes bringing it back down in a heartbeat as the brass rises majestically in the distance against her wee-hours flourishes.

The rest of the album is a suite titled Yes Chicago Is… Referencing numerous famous Chicago venues and a well-known Dylan tune as well as the local sports franchises, it’s a very smartly crafted theme and variations, beginning with a pensive, nocturnal third-stream piano/bass motif. What comes after? Some striking chromatics; shapeshifting, melodic swing; a slyly insistent ballpark theme capped off by playful baritone sax; some nifty tradeoffs between swirling atmospherics and joyous trumpet; and a surprisingly serioso outro. Clearly, Wilson’s relationship to his hometown is a complex one – it beats the hell out of Sweet Home Chicago. There isn’t a single miss on this album, a real treat, which has been out since the end of last month on Mack Avenue.

July 16, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Noah Haidu’s Slipstream Floats Away

Jazz pianist Noah Haidu has an intriguing new album just out on Posi-tone. Haidu has an individual style – he wanders and hints at melody, with deft use of chromatics, rather than hitting it head-on. That role is left to the horns here, and he’s got a couple of really good ones, Jeremy Pelt on trumpet and Jon Irabagon on alto sax, along with Chris Haney on bass and John Davis on drums (with Willie Jones III behind the kit on three tracks). Haidu aims for an update on a classic 50s hook-based style, with judicious shifts in time and tempo, plenty of room for some choice solo spots and an inevitable return to the head or the hook at the end of the song.

Jones gives the cheery opener, Soulstep, a steady clave beat, Pelt and Irabagon both cutting loose with good-natured, lyrical solos, Haidu right behind them. The stern chords that open Where Are We Right Now are a false alarm: it morphs into a bright ensemble piece, Haidu adding a bit of a rattling, funky edge, Irabagon spinning through the clouds with an effortless grace: it’s hard to imagine that the purist pro at work here has an alter ego whose antics have made recent albums by Bryan Murray and Jon Lundbom so hilarious. The title track maintains the upbeat vibe, a brisk blend of old (30s, vaudevillian) and newer (60s, loungey). Break Tune builds off a staggered, Monk-ish piano hook, Irabagon playing good cop to Pelt’s repeat offender as the trumpet mauls the end of a series of swirling Irabagon phrases.

The judiciously brooding piano ballad Float, a trio piece with bass and drums, is a blues in disguise, followed by Take Your Time, wistful and simple with a purist pop feel. Another trio piece, Just One of Those Things gives Haidu a launching pad for some particularly tasty, bluesy horn voicings as he works his way up the scale. They close with a genial, 50s style swing theme, The Trouble Makers, which exemplifies everything that’s good and also frustrating about the album, including but not limited to the indomitable rhythm section and Pelt’s genial soloing. Trouble is that by now, the tropes that Haidu has fallen back throughout the album have past their expiration date as far as maintaining suspense, or for that matter maintaining interest. Does that staccato chromatic run up the scale mean the end of the solo? Of course it does, weren’t you listening when that happened ten minutes ago? Or the time before that? This is the kind of album that works best as an ipod shuffle: most every track here is a good choice for spicing up a mix or adding a hit of energy between slow ballads. And it’s reason to keep an a eye on Haidu to see what he puts out next.

April 14, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment