Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Gregg August and Sextet Smolder at Smoke

On one level, it could be said that bassist Gregg August and his band put on a clinic in straight-ahead latin-flavored postbop last night at Smoke. But the show was also just plain good fun: the sextet’s judicious exuberance was contagious. Much as August’s compositions can be rigorously cerebral and often very intense, they’re just as catchy  The solo of the night – at least from the generously expansive first set – was from Yosvany Terry on alto sax, who began with a goodnatured nonchalance and worked his way methodically and increasingly apprehensively to a shivery, menacing coda on For Max, a wickedly hook-driven, vintage Miles Davis-inflected number from August’s latest album Four by Six. Trumpeter John Bailey channeled his inner bluesman, tenor saxophonist John Ellis worked the corners dynamically over the sometimes incisively dancing, sometimes radiantly resonant piano of Xavier Davis, drummer Rudy Royston pushing the clave by riding the rims, throwing elbows at August with playful polyrhythms. And for all of August’s wry wit – most noticeably during a solo late in the set, where he seemed to draw a blank and then decided to make a good joke out of it – his music is serious. Darkness and transcendence were in full effect.

They only did the traditional solos-around-the-horn thing once, on the opening number, Deceptions, Royston more than hinting that he was in the mood for more than a steady swing groove,  finally taking it outside as August held the rhythm in place, switching to terse, even minimal, from out of a tirelessly racewalking pace. The night’s second tune built on a ridiculously catchy ensemble hook from the horns over clave syncopation – that groove was nearly ubiquitous even when it was implied, which was much of the time. A little later, they mixed up the beats with an epically intense take of Sweet Melody, a dark salsa jazz piece, Davis building noir ambience with lingering, glimmering chromatics over Royston’s hypnotically simple pulse, Terry switcing to chekere and energizing the crowd with his agility on the big rattle. They gracefully faded down all but one of the songs, which made sense considering that everybody in the band is busy with other projects (August is first chair bassist in the Brooklyn Phiharmonic and also joins forces with Royston in JD Allen’s trio), and may not have had much rehearsal time at their disposal. But any chance to see August lead a band and play his own music is a treat, and made the trip uptown to this cozy, sonically rich spot well worth the effort.

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February 7, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Vivid Melodies, Nimbly Negotiated by the Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra

The Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra’s debut album, Bloom is luminous, lush and symphonic in a Maria Schneider vein. Although there are many different colors at play here, they tend to be bright, summery and vibrant. Translucent motifs shift through the arrangements with an unlikely nimble, assured, fleet-footedness for such majestic music: both the composer/conductor and her nineteen-piece ensemble deserve credit for manuevering through so many intricate turns. One particularly luminous timbre among many is singer Sara Serpa, whose wordless vocals add either brightness or opacity, depending on context. She’s a particularly good addition considering how singable Kakitani’s themes are. Throughout the album’s eight tracks, there are allusions to Brazil, the Romantic and late 70s Weather Report in the more amplified moments, but ultimately she has a singular voice.

The title track opens, a clinic in almost imperceptible crescendos, syncopated, suspenseful swells making way for an expansive John Bailey trumpet solo and then spiraling Jason Rigby tenor sax over Mark Ferber’s energetically dancing drums. As it reaches final altitude, Rigby builds to rapidfire clusters as the banks of clouds coalesce and move around him.

Electric Images moves around a lot; hazy ambience becomes a bright jazz waltz, bubbly Mike Eckroth Rhodes piano signals a tempo shift that slowly rises with Serpa’s guardedly hopeful lines, then lushness alternates with austerity all the way through a jaunty series of exchanges with the drums. Nobody gets stung in the Bumblebee Garden; rather, it’s a serene place for reverie from Serpa, trombonist Matt McDonald adding bluesiness to a decidedly non-bluesy atmosphere that builds to some tremendously interesting counterpoint between orchestra subgroups.

Dance One, inspired by the Matisse portrait of dancers in mid-stride, kicks off at full steam, working a tune evocative of the Police’s King of Pain, rich with countermelodies, smartly crescendoing John O’Gallagher alto sax and a nifty series of trick endings. Opened Opened , the first of two pieces from Kakitani’s suite Reimagining My Childhood, expands a traditional Japanese folk melody with a bluesy minor-key edge fueled by serioso Serpa vocalese, smoldering Kenny Berger bass clarinet and fiery dynamics that turn the low brass loose with an unexpected ferocity in what at first appeared to be such a gentle piece of music. The second song from that suite, Dragonfly’s Glasses is basically a segue and considerably brighter, lit up by a casual, airy Ben Kono alto sax solo as it sways up to another false ending.

Islands in the Stream is not the Kenny Rogers schlockfest but an original (Kakitani may not have been born yet when that monstrosity hit the airwaves). That too makes a good segue: Afrobeat allusions give way to a jazz waltz, Berger’s baritone sax handing off to Pete McCann’s bell-like solo guitar, trumpeter Matt Holman building from wary to carefree before tenor saxophonist Mark Small darkens it again…and then McCann takes it up, unleashed and screaming. The final track, Skip, takes a gentle ballad melody, syncopates it in 9/4 up to a dancing Eckroth piano solo, lets trombonist Mark Patterson heat up the warm lyricism and takes it out with a joyous Weather Report pulse. Other contributors to this disarmingly attractive album include Jeff Wilfore and David Spier on trumpets, Jacob Garchik on trombone, Jeff Nelson on bass trombone and Dave Ambrosio on acoustic and electric bass.

The Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra plays the cd release show on Feb 11 at 7:15 PM at Drom; advance tix are only $10. They’re also playing Shapeshifte Lab on Feb 28 at 8 for the same deal.

January 31, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dark Latin Jazz Intensity from Gregg August

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.

December 4, 2012 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Gregg August Large Ensemble at the Jazz Gallery, NYC 4/10/09

This year the Jazz Gallery has been commissioning big band projects. More musicians should do what bassist/composer Gregg August (whose powerfully melodic contributions appear on the latest JD Allen Trio cd, reviewed here recently) did with his. Leading a ten-piece all-star ensemble on Friday night, August proved every bit as potent a composer as an instrumentalist, playing a thematic series of pieces inspired by and frequently including poems that explore race relations. Interpreting the texts both literally and thematically, August’s richly melodic, aptly relevant compositions created a program that screams out to be recorded.

 

August’s arrangements maximized the ensemble’s diverse talents: Jaleel Shaw’s ecstatically fiery alto sax flights, Sam Newsome’s rapidfire fluidity on soprano, JD Allen’s darkly direct terseness on tenor and pianist Luis Perdomo’s vividly bittersweet, concise chordal work along with his own straightforwardly melodic, sometimes latin-inflected lines, many of them echoing horn voicings. Drummer Donald Edwards’ strategy shaded toward darkness with innumerable well-placed cymbal accents and flourishes. The night opened on an auspicious note with an interpretation of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Shaw building his final solo to screaming, gritty overtones illustrating the exasperation of confinement over the rhythm section’s staggered beat. Sweet Words, based on a sacastic Langston Hughes poem about (what else) bigotry proved to be a pretty straightforward, tuneful ensemble piece highlighted by a relentlessly intense, expansive Perdomo solo.

 

A New Orleans tableau, Sky, based on poet Richard Katrovas’s encounter with a possibly homeless young black man painted a stark picture of a balmy morning tinged with misunderstanding and regret, Allen’s lyrical tenor opening against pensively crescendoing piano and bowed bass, the group pulsing through a funereal arrangement colored by rubato drums. Perhaps the high point of the night was Your Only Child, a literal illustration of Marilyn Nelson’s poem A Wreath for Emmett Till, a recording of Till’s mother describing her murdered son’s mutilated body playing over the ominous atmosphere of the intro, singer Miles Griffith echoing the song’s theme and ending with a fervent evocation of sobbing agony.

 

The second set maintained the captivating intensity of the first, opening with the slinky, insistent I Rise (a musical translation of the famous Maya Angelou poem) highlighted by a joyous solo from Shaw followed by a characteristically thoughtful, matter-of-fact one from Allen. The lushly orchestrated, Mingus-inflected I Sang in the Sun (from the Carolyn Kizer poem) brought back the vocals, lowlit by some marvelously succinct shading by Thomas. A Cornelius Eady poem about an encounter with a racist in an ice cream parlor provided a solid platform for a slyly bluesy trombone solo and some funky work by August. The night wound up with Letter to America (on a Francisco Alarcon poem), impassioned vocals echoed by John Bailey’s blazing, bluesy trumpet and yet another uncompromisingly confrontational solo by Allen building to a casually intense coda. In a year of some extraordinary live jazz, a packed house got to witness what has to be one of the highlights of the year so far.

 

April 12, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment