Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Thunderous Tunesmithing with Johnathan Blake’s Trio at the Jazz Gallery

What’s the likelihood that tenor sax powerhouse Chris Potter would find himself onstage with two other equally formidable tunesmiths? That happened last night at the Jazz Gallery, in an ecstatically pulsing, rumbling, thundering trio set with bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer/bandleader Johnathan Blake.

Another way to look at it is to ask how recently a drummer-led, chordless trio sold out a major Manhattan jazz venue – which was also the case last night. The premise of photographer/engineer Jimmy Katz’s new non-profit Giant Step Arts’ new Jazz Gallery series, which Blake’s trio inaugurated over the past couple of evenings, is to provide ambitious, outside-the-box artists with “What a record label would have done for them in the 90s,” as Katz put it before the show. From a two-night stand, a bandleader gets professional quality audio, video, a press kit, a live album and cds to sell.

What Katz didn’t say is that back in the 90s, an awful lot of up-and-coming jazz composers were locked out of that establishment because they thought too far outside the box, so this is an auspicious development. The upcoming slate of performers is also auspicious: alto sax titan Rudresh Mahanthappa leading yet another new trio, and also trumpeter Jason Palmer leading a quartet with tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and bassist Ben Williams.

Let’s hope that all of last night’s first set makes it onto the live album! Drummers aren’t often known as tunesmiths, but from the very first judicious riffs of Blake’s toms, he had an anthem going: his drums are tuned to play very discernible, catchy melodies. From that jaunty intro he wove a cumulo-nimbus vortex of intricately articulated polyrhythms, calm and immutable in the center of a storm, often anchoring the music with a steady clave. Blake likes to ride the rims for extra color to balance out that looming undercurrent, another consistent source of entertainment throughout the band’s roughly hour and a half onstage.

There were a couple of moments early on where he’d jab on an insistent, crushing beat and Oh would jab right back. Otherwise, she played melodies, as she always does. She opened the night’s third number – a playful tune by one of Blake’s Philly mentors, based on a simple four-note descending progression – with what grew into a tropical fanfare of sorts. That echoed what Blake had done with his intro to Mary Had a Little Lamb earlier. Later she found herself walking a scale – but tossed that idea aside after barely a couple of bars. Cliches simply don’t exist in her world.

Potter was his usual self, playing endless volleys of terse, purist minor-key blues phrasing without once lapsing into anything remotely rote – Charlie Parker did the same thing, but without Potter’s relentless focus. And Potter really waited for his moments to unleash that legendary extended technique: a devious detour into duotones when Blake and Oh backed off for a moment during a catchy, subtly shapeshifting clave-fueled Blake number, and a smoldering coda of valve-grinding harmonics to wind it up.

Oh’s tune turned out to be the night’s most complex adventure, moving beyond slinky, circular phrases punctuated by bright bass cadenzas over Blake’s pummeling rollercoaster grooves, to bright yet uneasy vistas far beyond any standard A-B-C sectioning. The night’s catchiest tune was the enigmatically modal Blake waltz that wound up the set. The bandleader explained that he took his inspiration for that one from something that Donny McCaslin’s son said to from the backseat of the family car, in response to a Phil Schaap piece on WBGO: “No bebop, daddy!” It was easy to see how this resonated with Blake – he and the kid have the same affinity for a hook.

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January 23, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Tuneful Two-Horn Postbop Effort from Saxophonist Stephane Spira

French-born, New York-based saxophonist Stephane Spira has an interesting backstory. An engineer by trade, he pursued his passion for jazz in wee-hours clubs in his native Paris before relocating to New York to play fulltime. His previous efforts in the studio have included collaborations with trumpeter Lionel Belmondo and pianist Giovanni Mirabassi. Spira’s fourth album as a bandleader, In Between, features more of the strikingly translucent, disarmingly catchy compositions that have characterized his work.

The performances here center around a tight harmonic interplay and lively, intuitive interaction between Spira and trombonist (and Steve Lacy collaborator) Glenn Ferris, anchored and spiced by a similarly integral rhythm section, Steve Wood on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums. There’s irony in the album title, inspired by the cosmopolitan dynamic of a Paris-born bandleader in NYC, and the American-born, Paris-based Ferris. As usual, Spira matches a terse lyricism to a slightly smoky tone on tenor sax and a similarly thoughtful, considered, Steve Lacy-inspired clarity on soprano, all the while engaging the rest of the band both rhythmically and melodically throughout a diverse mix of numbers that span the emotional spectrum. In addition to nine originals here, Spira radically reinvents Duke Ellington’s Reflections in D as a mystical tone poem before swinging it hard, and transforms the Baden Powell/Vincius de Moraes classic Samba en Preludio into a haunting dirge driven by Wood’s starkly funereal arco work. The album winds up on a cleverly humorous note with Grounds 4 Dismissal, Wood’s wry, historically allusive joust for bass and drums.

The album’s opening track, Cosmaner, wastes no time in setting the stage with a wickedly catchy shuffle theme that’s equal part Rio and New Orleans, with nifty handoffs from tenor to trombone and Wood’s bass filling in all the implied melody. Likewise, Glenntleman serves as a bright feature for Ferris’ bluesy soulfulness. Dawn in Manhattan gives the group a long launching pad to build from balmy ambience to a slinky implied clave underpinning Spira’s warmly casual soprano and Ferris’ sly, low-down lines. In the same vein, Ferris channels Wycliffe Gordon in laid-back, drolly acerbic mode on the chromatically-fueled In Transit, divergent horn voicings coalescing to a lively conversation before Wood shifts from hypnotically circular riffage to resonant atmospherics.

Spira offers a nod to Coltrane on Flight, with its unexpected rhythmic shifts and purposeful tenor work over Blake’s flurrying, colorful volleys. The vivid ballad A Special Place has Ferris elegantly leading the band out of lushly misty Brazilian ambience into a purist blues ballad, Blake again playing colorist with his misterioso brushwork, Spira adding his signature spacious, judiciously considered phrasing.

N.Y. Time, a kinetic jazz waltz, has Spira leading an allusively moody modal groove, Ferris adding an incisive solo before Blake takes it shuffling into the shadows. With its shifting counterrhythms and tight, purist horn harmonies, the album’s title track alludes to Monk without being derivative. And the aptly titled Classic juxtaposes a bluesy Wood solo with a neat horn chart that diverges and then regroups, up to a triumphantly emphatic chorus: it’s “in the tradition” without being overly reverential, a quality that in many ways defines Spira’s work.

June 2, 2014 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment