Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Bright and Dark Shades of Cutting-Edge Big Band Jazz in Gowanus

Bassist Robert Sabin did triple duty the night of one of the year’s best twinbills this past Tuesday at Shapeshifter Lab, first leading his own group, Humanity Part II, then playing two sets with trombonist John Yao‘s explosive, vividly cinematic large 17-Piece Instrument big band. Yao wasn’t the only one with cinematic compositions: Sabin’s were just as vivid, and vastly darker. Nobody writes more evocatives dirges than this guy.

Guitarist Jesse Lewis opened the night’s first number, Scarecrow, as he’d often do throughout the set, building opaque washes of sound before Sabin and drummer Jeremy Noller joined him. Sabin’s compositions in this project draw as as much on classical and film music as jazz. Although this piece and others rose to lustrous peaks fueled by trumpeters Dan Urness and Matt Holman, alto saxophonist Aaron Irwin and tenor saxophonist Jason Rigby, the mood was typically somber, no surprise since Sabin’s latest album features what appears to be a corpse lying in the woods on the cd cover. Horn player Chris Komer contributed a methodically percolating solo midway through, over the group’s nebulous, midtempo swing.

Rigby’s bittersweetly minimalist tenor rose out of the mist as the group built Scarecrow to an uneasiliy soaring web of tersely echoing phrases, with a long trumpet solo out. Elegaically tolling bell-like motives permeated the wounded Tenebre. a quiet showstopper with saxes switched out for brooding clarinets as it gathered steam, Rigby’s gentle solo flickering amist angst-tinged swells, echoed by tuba player Ben Stapp. The mighty, steady, melancholy brass harmonies and eventually the creepy cha-cha that followed brought to mind Gil Evans’ iconically noir early 60s work, as did much of the rest of Sabin’s material.

After Ghost, a hypnotically resonant tone poem with some deliciously dynamic frenetic-to-calm guitar by Lewis, Sabin opened Through a Glass Darkly, prowling around in the murk with his bow. Lewis joined him with some harrowing David Gilmour phrasing, brooding modalities from Yao (who was also doing double duty) and Rigby leading the funeral procession out. The group closed with a similarly dark reworking of Ennio Morricone’s Humanity Part II and a low-key, enveloping update on the old folk song Pretty Polly

Awhile ago a certain extrovert drummer was asked to explain his large ensemble’s success. “We play jazz for tourists,” he explained. As colorful, and tuneful, and imagistically crystalline as Yao’s compositions are, there ought to be a Manhattan jazz club willing to give him a place to entertain the crowds and represent this city with music that’s every bit as accessible as the schlock that guy’s band plays but is also cutting-edge. Oh yeah – Yao already does when he plays with Arturo O’Farrill’s band and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Still, his music would resonate with a vastly wider audience.

Yao’s mighty ensemble opened with the grittily swinging Hellgate, Rigby (another guy playing the whole marathon evening) at the center between contrasting flutter and buoyancy. Slow Children, a vividly urban tableau with the composer on trombone, showcased incisive parallel voicings, Rigby pairing off against the brass and holding his own, then a warm interlude with trombone and the rhythm section over a steady clave.

Early Morning Walk took the bustle, and distant angst, up another notch, a multi-part extravaganza with hints of funk, latin soul, a ballestesque Sabin bass solo and a big rush-hour peak: what started with maybe a dog walk and a couple of errands ended with a pretty frenetic train ride. By contrast, Flip-Flop – the title track to Yao’s most recent album with this group – featured an animated, jovial conversation between Irwin and tenor saxophonist Rich Perry as the piece followed an almost impercetibly steady upward trajectory toward lickety-split intensity.

Where Sabin’s work evoked Gil Evans in the 1960s, Yao’s Out of Socket brought to mind the Miles David collaborator’s lively, blustery dance band charts from ten years earlier, winding up with the brass blazing on a droll parade riff. Jesse Stacken’s meticulously looping piano anchored the clever echo phrases in Illumination, baritone saxophonist Andrew Hadro fueling a long, purposeful crescendo before Stacken added neoromantically lustrous cascades. Artfully implied rhythm shifts and hints of tropicalia figured in First Step, Alejandro Aviles’ soprano sax flights giving way to boisterous low brass. They closed with an expansive, hard-swinging take of Herbie Hancock’s Fingerpainting. There were also two resonant, minimalistic, rhythmless miniatures, designed to employ extended technique from the rhythm section as color, Yao explained. Altogether, a fiery and rewarding performance for the rest of the band, including trumpeters Nick Marchione, Jason Wiseman, Dave Smith and Andy Gravish; trombonists Matt McDonald, Mike Fahn, Eric Miller and bass trombonist Jennifer Wharton and drummer Vince Cherico.

Yao’s big band is back at Shapeshifter on April 5 at 8:15 PM; baritone saxophonist Frank Basile‘s sextet opens the night at 7, with a $10 cover.

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March 21, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Imaginative, Witty New Jazz from the John Yao Quintet

Trombonist John Yao’s new quintet album, In the Now – out now from Innova – blends vivid tunefulness, clever composition and inspired teamwork. It’s accessible, but it’s also cerebral, and there’s also considerable wit here, as you would expect from a group including Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s Jon Irabagon on saxes. Although Yao is a versatile stylist with considerable big band experience – notably with Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra – his approach here is typically methodical and precise. He and Irabagon often work a cool/hot dynamic alongside Randy Ingram on piano, Leon Boykins on bass and Will Clark on drums. While there are plenty of echoes of classic 60s postbop tropes, Yao’s arrangements and voicings are original, imaginative and completely in the here and now.

Tersely shifting countermelodies between the horns introduce the opening track, Divisions, Ingram introducing a spaciously lyrical style that he’ll work memorably throughout the album, a succession of solos contrasting Yao’s matter-of-factness with Irabagon’s jaunty, clustering, often flutelike alto work. They take it out unexpectedly quietly. Track two, Funky Sunday, builds a sense of anticipation with intensely focused trombone/sax harmonies, a smartly minimalist rhythm section arrangement that only opens up when the horns diverge and become more carefree, and some very imaginatively textured organ – including a pedal solo – by Ingram. For NDJ, a jazz waltz, is a showcase for Irabagon’s silvery, rapidfire legato versus Yao’s stately insistence, with echoey Rhodes piano from Ingram and a judiciously paced bass solo from Boykins.

The title track alludes to a late 50s style bustle – carried by the piano rather than the horns – over constant rhythmic shifts, from swing to hesitation, Ingram echoing Irabagon’s microtonal attack which rather amusingly shifts back and forth from haphazard to focused and back again. Not Even Close also has a cleverness that may be satirical, right from the start, as the sax and trombone lock in and then the whole band goes off on individual tangents. There’s another series of handoffs between Yao and Irabagon and a defiant refusal to resolve anything: they leave that to Ingram, who takes it from spaciously and warily chromatic to join Boykins’ and Clark’s casual swing.

A bright, funkily syncopated number, Pink Eye follows the same trajectory as the second track here with a series of light/dark and serious/playful dichotomies, Irabagon going as far out on a limb as he can with predictably snarky results. The strongest track here, the slowly swaying Shorter Days, is the only particularly pensive one: Ingram’s moody tonalities suspensefully shadowing Irabagon and Yao slowly turn to Neoromantic and completely turn the tune around, the sax and trombone’s richly lyrical, bucolic harmonies taking it out on an unexpectedly triumphant note.The album ends with Snafu, the most outright amusing track: it’s sort of a Taxi Driver Theme groove, but a wee-hours one without much of a hint at where it’s going. When it starts to fall apart, the band employs a gimmick that’s been used for ages in soul music, and rock, and bluegrass but not so often in jazz: the wait for the whole quintet to throw up their hands and say the hell with it is the most entertaining part.

Yao’s next New York performance with the quintet is October 5 at 8 PM at the Firehouse Space, 246 Frost St. in Williamsburg.

July 21, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment