Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Ralph Bowen’s Power Play: A Clinic in Melody

It looks like we have our first classic of the year. On the cover of his new album Power Play, saxophonist Ralph Bowen stands in an alley, holding his sax more like a goalie than a winger. But the title is absolutely spot-on. This is one of those albums that musicians will hear and will immediately want to play along to. Yet ironically, non-musicians will probably enjoy this the most because they can just relax and enjoy it for what it is rather than having to figure out what Bowen is doing. Which actually isn’t all that difficult, most of the time, other than the most rapidfire passages (which will take lots of practice if you want to do them with the same kind of soul and style), because melody is simple. It lingers. As does this album.

If you play, this is a clinic in the kind of things you could be doing, and maybe should be doing. Bowen’s sense of melody is stunning, and yet completely unpredictable. He alternates effortlessly between scales and modes, shows off some wickedly blistering speed in places yet only when he really has to drive a point home. The closest comparison is probably Joshua Redman, but Bowen’s attack is lighter and more crystalline, and that contrasts, sometimes mightily, with the intensity of the tunes. He plays both tenor and alto here and is equally compelling either way. It’s hard-hitting, purposeful and tuneful beyond belief, and it elevates the crew behind him. Donald Edwards’  no-nonsense drums team up with Kenny Davis’ crisp, propulsive bass, along with Orrin Evans’ piano. About Evans, what else is there to say – everything he touches lately turns into magic (have you heard his Tarbaby album from last year? Get the damn thing!), and this is yet another example.

They don’t waste time getting started with an aggressive, matter-of-fact swing blues, which sets up an immediate contrast with the gorgeous, richly countermelodic Drumheller Valley, its intro with echoes of Brubeck, Evans kicking in a majestically chordal solo followed by an artfully divergent passage into Bowen’s lusciously ominous spirals. Two-Line Pass – a highway reference, maybe? – is relentless, Evans again matching the understated overdrive of Bowen’s restless bustle. Evans goes into rippling Americana-via-Brubeck on The Good Shepherd, a wickedly catchy modal number; Bowen’s long, bumpy descent out of the clouds on the warmly thoughtful swing tune Bella Firenze is arguably the high point of the whole album. Although on second thought that could be his big crescendo out, on alto, on the almost deviously nonchalant blues ballad Jessica, which follows it.

Walleye Jigging is a tongue-in-cheek lazy afternoon tableau complete with an expansive cocktail piano solo and an extended interlude in three before reverting to relaxed, syncopated swing. The album ends with A Solar Romance, a gently optimistic ballad that turns dark in seconds and gives Bowen the chance to work the suspense for all it’s worth, all the way to a very uneasy resolution. The lone cover here is My One and Only Love, where the bass and piano give Bowen plenty of room for what’s basically an expansive (ok, eight-minute) solo that somehow manages not to be boring. It’s only February, but you’ll see this on our best albums of 2011 list. It’s out now on Posi-Tone.

February 10, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: The Joshua Redman Trio at the Jazz Standard, NYC 10/21/09

Believe it or not, as of this writing (morning of Thursday, October 22), there is still limited seating available for Joshua Redman‘s series of trio shows at the Jazz Standard, which runs through the 25th. You’ll probably have more luck with a weekday or one of the Sunday night sets (7:30 and 9:30 only) – or if you’re a jazz fan and you’re in the neighborhood, you can try your luck  in the event that somebody reserved and then didn’t show up. Because this is a series of shows you should see, in a room particularly suited to such intimate, soulful performances.

It’s hard to believe that last night’s first set was Joshua Redman’s Jazz Standard debut, and he made it a memorable one. Backed by the solid, tasteful groove of Matt Penman on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums, Redman reminded how perfectly his sound works in this format (an all too rare setup for the sax player, even with the resounding success of his 2007 trio album Back East). They opened with a cleverly idiosyncratic, tongue-in-cheek, latinized version of “the one song you wish you’ll never hear again,” as Redman called it, Mack the Knife. Moving from an expansive, bluesy intro, the melody only took shape after a long, casually swinging buildup – was it merely a playful quote, like the others Redman had thrown in, or was it the actual song?

From there, they didn’t waste time getting to what would turn out to be the best song of the set, Ghost, from Redman’s latest cd Compass. It’s a pensively unwinding modal masterpiece, Penman unwaveringly maintaining the suspense as Redman methodically paralleled him, taking the melody deeper and deeper into darkness. Hutchinson finally took it out on an equally tense, gripping note, playing the snare with his hands for a murky, booming ambience. Their covers were also typically purist. Freddie Hubbard’s Crisis took on a defiant, early 70s feel as Redman swung out and around its catchy, chromatic four-note descending hook; Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady was a lush, romantic clinic in how to use the blues scale without ever lapsing into cliche. A breezy, slightly post-bop inflected original bore some impressive resemblance to JD Allen with Redman running scattershot within its tight, catchy architecture, Hutchinson joyously straight-ahead, feeling the room and not overdoing it when it came time for his solo. Finally, at the end of the last number, a 4/4 funk tune with a James Brown catchiness and simplicity, Redman cut loose with some oboeish chromatics – as usual, throughout the show he’d stayed within himself, never overplaying, always making his notes count, purist that he is. He’s never let the hype go to his head, still playing like one of the greats of the fifties. Take a trip back to a great place in time and see one of these shows – it may be awhile before you get a chance to see another like it.

October 22, 2009 Posted by | jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment