Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Mighty, Majestic Big Band Debut from Christopher Zuar

Let’s say you want to start your career with a real bang. You don’t just want to slip in via the back door – you want to smash a grand slam on the first pitch you see in the majors. That’s pretty much what Christopher Zuar did with his debut recording, Musings, which hasn’t hit Spotify yet although there are a few tracks up at Sunnyside Records’ page. With the aid of producer Mike Holober, the young-ish (20s) composer assembled a titanic nineteen-piece crew of some of this era’s most distinguished names in big band jazz to play his lavish, lyrical charts. The result is the year’s best jazz debut – nothing else comes close. They’re playing Symphony Space on Dec 15 at 7:30 PM; cover is $22. If large ensemble jazz is your thing, you’d be crazy to miss this.

Zuar comes out of the Jim McNeely school of lush jazz orchestration, and there are echoes of the serpentine sweep of Maria Schneider as well here. But ultimately, this a toweringly individualistic statement. For all the epic gramdeur, there’s purpose, and drive, and eclectic influences as diverse as latin, Brazilian and baroque music.The opening track, Remembrance, springboards off a very simple octave riff and builds tension around a root note, in a Marc Ribot vein. At the center is a long, expressively nuanced Dave Pietro alto sax solo.

Frank Carlberg’s austere piano opens the steady, Bach-inspired Chaconne with a sly allusion to an infamous Led Zep riff, drummer Mark Ferber’s misterioso brushwork and bassist John Hebert’s minimalistic punches grounding the bright, brassy swells overhead as Zuar works another famous tune into the equation. Disquieting echo phrases mingle and flutter as Vulnerable States opens, Jo Lawry’s crystalline vocalese sailing over an uneasy, latin-tinged bustle: Zuar employs that superb voice as impactfully as Asuka Kakitani did with Sara Serpa on her similar blockbuster of a debut a couple of years ago.

Ha! (The Joke’s On You) – a shout-out to Zuar’s bubbe – references the baroque with its call-and-response along with a fiery, horn-driven vaudevillian funk surrealism driven by Pete McCann’s frenetically crescendoing wah guitar. Artfully fragmented voices intersperse, converge and then join forces as the ballad So Close Yet So Far Away coalesces, tenor player Jason Rigby’s turn from wistful to gritty triumph taking centerstage, down to a long, suspenseful outro.

Anthem has chattering Brazilian tinges, a dancing bass solo and a big vocal hook from Lawry,. Lonely Road, a reflection on the systematic destruction of Zuar’s beloved West Village in the ongoing blitzkrieg of gentrification, is a gem of a miniature rich with elegaic counterpoint: it quietly screams out for the composer to make a big wrecking ball out of it like the other numbers here.

The album winds up with its lone cover, a lithely bittersweet take of Egberto Gismonti’s 7 Anéis,  a striking, nebulously furtive interlude punctuated by swirly soprano sax at its center. This album is genuinely spectacular effort that also comprises the inspired, energetic work of woodwind players Ben Kono, Lucas Pino and Brian Landrus, trumpeters Tony Kadleck, Jon Owens, Mat Jodrell and Matt Holman, trombonists Tim Albright, Matt McDonald, Alan Ferber and Max Seigel. You’ll see this as this blog’s pick for best jazz debut of 2016 when the full list is published at NPR next week.

December 10, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sweeping Orchestral Big Band Jazz from Idan Santhaus

The big band compositions on Idan Santhaus‘ new Posi-tone album There You Are have steady tempos, bright colors and a slowly unfolding melodicism, sort of a reverse image of Bob Belden’s darkly panoramic Animation project. Santhaus honed his chops as a teenage flutist with the Haifa Youth Orchestra in his native Israel; as you might expect from someone with a classical background and a stint in Jim McNeely’s BMI Composers Workshop, his compositions are third-stream, straight down the middle between classical and jazz, sort of a Maria Schneider Junior. This is big band jazz with an orchestral sweep rather than beefed-up blues or swing, an ensemble project rather than a launching pad for a lot of expansive soloing – which isn’t a bad thing at all. If you can’t wait til Schneider’s next album, this will tide you over.

Much of the opening track, After All is a simple one-chord overture whose waves grow harder the brass rising over an insistent Jon Gordon alto sax solo. Tempo Rarely climbs out of a tensely suspenseful intro to rising and crashing flamenco allusions, then bookends a slinkily swinging, noirish interlude with a funky full-ensemble pulse. The title track begins with suspenseful low sheets punctuated by drum bursts, Santhaus’ own flute terse over a bossa beat. Frank Basile adds a goodnatured, even wry counterbalance on bari sax  as it builds.

Now I Feel Like It, Now I Don’t works variations on a catchy singalong hook around a moody bridge of sorts, Matt Garrison’s lingering tenor sax exchanging with Thomas Barber’s more carefree trumpet. Purple and Yellow, a slow late summer tableau sets resonant sostenuto harmonies under James O’Connor’s emphatic trumpet and another smoky excursion from Basile. A Place I Know brings back a summery bossa soul groove, a feature for Michael Dease’s lyrical trombone and Ben Kono’s lively soprano sax, pianist Deanne Witkowski underscoring it with a purist bluesiness.

Change of Season plays off a brightly funky central riff, Mark Small’s tenor solo following the ensemble on a darker trajectory, Andy Hunter’s trombone holding the center over a marionettish dance fueled by the high reeds. High Maintenance starts out as a lustrous ballad and morphs into a pouncing swing tune: it’s the most trad track here. The album winds up with Nothing Yet?!?, taking a somber minor blues riff slowly upward with a brooding bolero pulse. There are two ensembles here, one with eighteen members, the other with sixteen, many of the players appearing in both, tight and seamless all around.

October 10, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

JC Sanford Leads the Brooklyn Big Band Renaissance

Tea Lounge, a cavernous former delivery truck garage in Park Slope, is a somewhat unlikely location to have become Big Band Central in New York, with a series of weekly shows to rival anything that’s playing at the Vanguard or Birdland. JC Sanford – lyrical trombonist, innovative composer, popular big band conductor, and now an impresario – created the Monday series, and recently took some time away from rehearsals and logistics to give us the lowdown:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: People in the know all know that Monday night is the new Saturday – and has been for a long time in New York. Maybe ever since the days of the week were invented. But why don’t you do this, say, on a Saturday?

JC Sanford: Monday night in NYC has historically been “big band night.” Thad Jones and Mel Lewis – now the Vanguard band – Gil Evans at Sweet Basil; Maria Schneider at Visiones; Toshiko Akiyoshi at Birdland, and Howard Williams at the Garage….Obviously most of those situations don’t exist anymore for various reasons, but I wanted to carry on that Monday night big band tradition, but this time in Brooklyn. It does create some conflicts, but it doesn’t look like anybody’s not managed to field a complete band as of yet.

LCC: This month you have the Jeff Fairbanks Jazz Orchestra on September 6, then on the 13th the Javier Arau Jazz Orchestra, your own JC Sanford Orchestra on the 20th, and the Jamie Begian Big Band – whose new cd Big Fat Grin is great fun – on the 27th. Can you give us an insider view of what they sound like, and why it’s worth the shlep out to the Slope if you don’t live there?

JCS: Well, one thing that’s so great about this series is the variety you’ll see and hear from week to week. This month is no different. Jeff Fairbanks’ repertoire is a mix of modern jazz and Asian music, including a suite he wrote about Chinatown. Javier, a Bob Brookmeyer protégé like myself, has a great sense of form and color. I like to think of his works as thematically cinematic. My vibe has long been to push the limits of what is “expected” in a specific musical setting without totally abandoning the essence of the genre, sounding adventurous while remaining “accessible.” I combine a lot of elements of traditional jazz, classical, and pop music. And yes, Jamie’s music is FUN. He can be truly dedicated to an idea or mood or bust out a quirky groove at any point.

LCC: Why the sudden popularity of new jazz for large ensembles? Can we credit Darcy James Argue for springboarding it – or at least being a magnet for it, or is this a scene that’s always been bubbling under the radar?

JCS: I think the existence of so many groups comes from a few different places, actually. Years ago, Bob Brookmeyer and Manny Albam started the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop where burgeoning composers were able to bring in their large ensemble music to be critiqued by master composers and eventually read down by a group of professional players. These days Jim McNeely leads the workshop, and so many writers have been through there. I would say a majority of the bandleaders that have been a part of this series at least spent a few minutes in that program at some point. Also Brookmeyer obviously influenced so many composers through the years, but he also did it tangibly as a teacher at New England Conservatory for several years. So many of his students have graduated, moved to New York, joined the BMI workshop, and their started their own bands. I think Maria Schneider’s popularity and distinctive voice really inspired a lot of folks, too. Luckily some folks like myself, and even more so Darcy, have been lucky enough to have a healthy dose of all three.

But to answer your question directly, I think Darcy is more a representative of the possible future of big bands rather than the present. At this point, his dramatic rise to success has happened too quickly for us to see its effects on other bands yet, as a majority of the bands on this series have been around for several years already. He has figured out a way to generate interest in his product in a way I didn’t think was possible anymore, though. I think we all, as large ensemble leaders, should be inspired by his meteoric rise. It’s encouraging to me, and makes me think that there is hope for us all on some level. Hopefully this series can be an avenue for that kind of exposure.

LCC: This is music you have to absolutely love, to play it live: if you’ve got twenty people in the ensemble, even with a gig at a swanky club, nobody walks away rich afterward. Back in the 30s and 40s, bands would sustain themselves by doing long stands at hotel bars or places like Minton’s. How does a big band sustain itself these days?

JCS: Well, I think you’re seeing that these days it’s pretty rare for any large band to do many long stands at all, even the super-established ones. I mean, that’s a great tradition they’ve established of having Maria Schneider playing all week at the Jazz Standard during Thanksgiving, but even that is only once a year. So, generally big bands sustain themselves by not playing very often and having a leader who’s willing to take a hit to their wallet. Folks like John Hollenbeck have a successful performing career, so he can, from time to time, drop a few dollars on a great gig at le Poisson Rouge or something. Most of the players in these bands know the deal: you’re not going to make much on a big band gig, generally. But they do it because they want to play great music, and there seems to be plenty of opportunities to do that these days.

LCC: Your Sound Assembly album, from 2008, is a real favorite of mine. You’ve got some gems on there: a convolutedly fun tribute to a man and his cat, a crazed, Mingus-esque subway rush hour tableau and an astringent, ambient number influenced by Charles Ives. Any chance you’ll be playing any of them on the 20th?

JCS: Thanks. I’m still sussing out the exact program for the gig, but we will definitely play a few tunes from that record, including the feline foray and the MTA tribute, which will be, unlike the current organization, fast and efficient.

LCC: I get the feeling that if Tea Lounge keeps up doing this, it’ll become a sort of CBGB for the new wave of big bands. What do you think?

JCS: I’m really hoping so – as long as being the CBGBs of anything doesn’t include it sadly closing down, to the severe consternation of its audience. What I am noticing is that in addition to the regular clientele, a lot of musicians are hanging there. They want to check out what other folks are writing and support their fellow strugglers. The Tea Lounge is a really great vibe. Good grub and good drinks – including full bar – and since there’s no cover – just a $5 suggested donation – it’s really easy to just drop in and hang. People bring their kids. It’s mellow and fun. And the sound of the room is pretty good, too, which is more than I can say about a lot of the places big bands are forced to play in this city.

LCC: Can I ask a really obvious question, as far as the venue is concerned: will the September shows start on time? Sometimes what’s advertised as a 9 PM show at this place turns into 11 PM in reality…

JCS: That’s actually a very practical question. I think these folks are pretty prompt. The latest you’ll see anything start there is 9:15. This might be because these are composer/arranger-led bands, they want to get through all the charts they have programmed.

September 1, 2010 Posted by | concert, interview, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Dave Rivello Ensemble – Facing the Mirror

This cd is something of a feel-good story. Jazz composer/conductor Dave Rivello is a Bob Brookmeyer protege and the influence is clearly audible here. Recorded in 2002 but just recently released, this cd features Rivello leading his Rochester, New York-based twelve-piece jazz orchestra through an inspired set of eight mostly robust originals. Like his colleagues Jim McNeely, JC Sanford and Maria Schneider, Rivello is pushing the envelope with big band jazz  – this cd only raises the intrigue of what he may have been up to in the intervening years. As with the best big bands, there’s plenty of grandeur and majesty on this album but also an impressive out-of-the-box imagination. Rivello is especially adept at dynamics, frequently interspersing brief, incisive solo drum passages as a segue or to take a crescendo down a notch. His tradeoffs and thematic variations can be rhythmic as well as melodic. He likes a pulse – the piano here is an integral part of the rhythm section. Rivello is clever and often devious – he can’t resist a trick ending, or three, and there’s maybe just as much interplay between the orchestra and the soloists as there is between the individual players. Throughout, the compositions show off a strong sense of melody and an equally strong sense of purpose. As long as they go on – frequently more than ten minutes at a clip – these songs take a definable trajectory. They go somewhere. This is your chance to get to know this guy before he’s famous.

The opening track, One by One by One works a reggaeish vamp into a soul shuffle, Red Wierenga‘s piano taking a deliberate solo against the horn riffs to a big bright crescendo and the first of what will be an innumerable series of trick endings throughout the cd. There’s a defiant satisfaction to how Rivello lets the darkly tinged latin vamp breathe as the second track, Of Time and Time Past, unwinds with the warm effect of a good chianti. As the orchestra rises and falls, the plaintiveness remains,very evocative of Pam Fleming‘s work, particularly when Mike Kaupa‘s trumpet is flying overhead. Stealing Space builds a tense, noir-tinged intro to a quick crescendo, pits balmy tenor against the casual, ambient swell of the horns, then starts to scurry and bounce all the way into a deliciously mysterioso passage by the rhythm section. The rhythmic tradeoffs between piano, bass and drums are exquisite, and the way the rhythm section intermingles between the swells and blasts as the piece winds up are very captivating as well. The drum/orchestra tension recurs on the next track.

The standout cut here is Beyond the Fall, towering, resonant and powerful as the trombones take the central phrase to a roaring, dramatic, low-register swell. Matt Pivec‘s soprano sax solo plays off Wierenga’s Donald Fagen-esque, murkily minimalist chordal work to a big squalling crescendo as the horns circle overhead in menacing anticipation. And then it’s back to the ferocity of the intro. The Path of Innocence begins atmospherically and features a beautiful, Middle Eastern-inflected tenor solo by Jose Encarnacion and then some memorably fugal work by Wierenga, righthand echoing the left. The concluding cut is a brief, comfortable nocturne that would work perfectly as a tv theme. Now the operative question: when can we expect something more from Rivello? If this is any indication, it should be exciting to say the least.

September 4, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment