Lucid Culture


Benjamin Drazen’s Inner Flights Delivers Understated Intensity

Intense but not overbearing, richly melodic, rhythmically surprising yet extremely accessible, saxophonist Benjamin Drazen’s new album Inner Flights is smartly titled. Beneath the surface calm, there’s an inner fire – he’s one of those guys like JD Allen who chooses his spots. Drazen likes a clear tone with a judicious vibrato to drive a point home occasionally. While he typically favors restraint in his phrasing, pianist Jon Davis gets to absolutely scorch here, blazing through one tricky, ferocious chart after another, alongside Carlo de Rosa on bass and Eric McPherson on drums. This isn’t just one of the most fascinating jazz albums of the year, it’s one of the most fascinating albums of the year, period.

They get off to a briskly tuneful start with a somewhat altered swing blues, Mr. Twilight – a Mr. Moonlight allusion, it seems – with Davis taking no time launching into a rapidfire solo, echoes of Kenny Barron, Drazen on alto. Monkish comes together slowly, hints at swing and then goes there. It’s an unselfconsciously fun, wry evocation of Monk in a more devious moment, Drazen in airy Phil Woods mode without totally ripping him off, Davis once again getting some delicious charts, including some neat tradeoffs with the drums, and makes the most of them. The requiem Prayer for Brothers Gone By opens with Drazen pensive and somewhat apprehensive over rippling piano and low bowed bass, moves further from the center as each instrument reflects a second time around, then becomes a tone poem of sorts, winding down gracefully with upper-register cascades from Davis. By contrast, Jazz Heaven is a crisp, deviously syncopated swing tune, Drazen buoyantly playful, Davis following in the same vein. Building off a dark, incisive staccato piano hook, the title track is where Drazen and Davis switch roles, the sax cutting loose more here than anywhere else – when Drazen spirals down into a gritty modal atmosphere, the effect is viscerally intense. As it winds out, Drazen overdubs a sax section that eventually flutters to an unexpectedly elegant landing.

The warmly nostalgic Neeney’s Waltz updates Willard Robison-style Americana for a new century, while Kickin’ Up Dirt, an absolute gem, shifts from rubato piano glimmer to relaxed syncopated sway, distantly mysteriouso modalities, hints of a jazz waltz and then a real one: it’s a clinic in how to write allusively. There are also two covers here, a staggered, scurrying version of Gershwin’s This Is New, Drazen kicking up some dust along the shoulder of the blues road, and an expansively deconstructed and then reconstructed version of Polka Dots and Moonbeams, everybody taking their time. Watch for this on our Best Albums of 2011 list. It’s out now on Posi-tone.

March 11, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: The Joris Teepe Big Band – We Take No Prisoners

The album title may be a boast, but this is adrenalizing stuff. The Joris Teepe Big Band came about when the Dutch-American bassist found himself commissioned to write for the North Netherlands Symphony Orchestra. Word got out, and he was invited to do a guest spot with the Bucharest Radio Big Band. Scaling down the orchestral arrangements to fit a seventeen-piece big band, he discovered he had something and this is the result. As befits a large ensemble, the compositions are long, ablaze with light, color and energy. Smooth jazz, it’s not. Teepe’s greatest strength is an ear for a hook: as complex and ornate as many of his charts are, he knows that hooks are simple and direct. With considerable exuberance, the group shoots straight for the mark and hits it every time.

The fast swing number that opens the album, Flight 643 begins with an almost dixieland flourish and keeps going, sax driving a Coltrane-esque descending progression into a big blazing crescendo and variations, ruminative piano against incisive bass and drums back up into the big arrangement. The title track opens with a scurrying rhythm, piano climbing and establishing an ambitious mood into one of those characteristic big hooks that works itself into another, even louder descending riff, and then an intriguingly shifting series of permutations. Even more ambitious, Peace on Earth has the orchestra echoing two guitar passages: warmly lyrical wah-wah in the opening section swirled around by the reeds, later the horns maintaining the intensity of a fiery, distorted guitar interlude, passing it off to Peter Brainin on sax who brings it all the way up.

Interestingly, the best song on the album is the quietest. With its lush, Gil Evans-style chart, Almost Lucky is strikingly slow and atmospheric, working up a big, towering four-note classical phrase. Finally, Teepe takes a solo mid-song and instead of cutting loose, he makes every judicious, careful note count, returning behind the curtain nonchalantly as the horns swell. The most retro track here is It Is Peculiar, with its catchy, bluesy swing and an ebullient trumpet solo from John Eckert. The cd wraps up with the big swinging Basie-esque epic, The Princess and the Monster, a clever narrative as well as a showcase for some sailing Don Braden sax work and later Jon Davis’ vividly lyrical piano. Teepe plays frequently in town: watch this space.

September 6, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment