Cameron Mizell is the great pastoral jazz guitarist not named Bill Frisell. Like Frisell, he has a laser sense for a catchy hook, a spacious approach to melody, a fondness for the unconventional and a flair for the lurid that occasionally bares its fangs from deep in the shadows. Mizell’s latest album Negative Space – streaming at Destiny Records – is a trio effort with multi-keyboardist Brad Whiteley and drummer Kenneth Salters. Mizell is playing the small room at the Rockwood on March 13 at 7 PM.
The album’s opening miniature sets the stage, a brief, resonant Frisell-style tone poem of sorts, just a couple of tersely exploratory guitar tracks and a little cymbal work from Salters. Big Tree takes those hints of unbridled gorgeousness and, to paraphrase Richard Thompson, really brushes those treetops, a series of soul-infused echo phrases. The slowly swaying Yesterday’s Troubles, Mizell’s distorted riffage paired with Whiteley’s echoey Rhodes piano, sounds like Beninghove’s Hangmen covering a set piece from Quincy Jones’ In the Heat of the Night soundtrack.
Likewise, Whiskey for Flowers hints that Mizell’s going to plunge into Marc Ribot noir, but instead hits a warmly vamping pastorale shuffle that builds to an unexpectedly sweet Jerry Garcia-ish peak (it’s inspired by couple-bonding: Mizell’s wife has come to share his appreciation for the hard stuff). By contrast, Take the Humble is a crescendoing funk shuffle that owes more to Booker T than to, say, Scofield, especially when it comes to Whiteley’s organ solo.
Mizell builds a slow burn over Whiteley’s ominously circular Philip Glassine piano phrases on the album’s cinematic centerpiece, Clearing Skies, rising to David Gilmour epic grandeur, Whiteley channeling blues through the prism of REM balladry. Don’t laugh: it works. Likewise, Get It While You Can, a punchier take on the Grateful Dead version of the old folk song Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.
Barter reaches from spare and then expansive Booker T-ish verses toward Pink Floyd grandeur. A Song About a Tree would be a standout track on any Frisell album, a luscious song without words assembled from catchy electrified bluegrass hooks, drifting matter-of-factly further into space. Unfolding has such an odd rhythm – at heart, it’s a reggae anthem – that it almost seems like the drum was a last-minute overdub. The album’s title cut has an ECM feel, Whiteley’s waves of piano building and then receding way too soon: it could have gone on for twice as long and nobody would complain. The final track is part Dark Side of the Moon majesty, part cinematic Ribot menace. Beyond the tunesmithing here, the absence of bass makes this a great practice record.
Multi-keyboardist Brad Whiteley got his start as a classical organist while still in his teens. Since his precocious years in that demimonde in upstate New York, he’s branched out about as far as a musician can go. He still keeps a foot in the door with a regular position as a church organist, all the while immersing himself in jazz and doing some rock sideman gigs as well. His debut album Pathless Land is out and streaming at Destiny Records’ Bandcamp page.
It opens with a jaunty, anthemic organ shuffle, Winsome Excursion, a swinging, terse, soul-infused number that’s one of ten originals. This one, as well as the nimbly bouncy, lushly crescendoing, Jimmy Smith-influenced stroll Bass Instincts, and the album’s lone cover, a joyously uninhibited roller-rink take of Come Rain or Come Shine, feature the trio of Whiteley alongside guitarist Andrew Lim and drummer Kenneth Salters.
The first of the piano numbers, Erika’s Song (a warmly cantabile, resonant yet rhythmic ballad, dedicated to Whiteley’s wife and bandmate Erika Lloyd) also features Salters in the drum chair along with bassist Daniel Foose. Whiteley puts his knack for emotionally vivid third-stream piano on display with Suite: Contemplation, anchoring Lloyd’s crystalline, deep-sky vocalese with brooding block chords and steady, eerily Satie-esque figures over Salters’ misterioso mallet and cymbal work. Likewise, Suite: Resolve mingles darkly latin-tinged phrases and uneasy chromatics over a restless drive punctuated by an elegantly insistent Foose solo and a relentless, shamanic, otherworldly spirit duel between the piano and the drums.
The purposeful yet enigmatic, modally-tinged No Regrets throws a nod in the direction of Thelonious Monk over a spring-loaded rhythm that the band eventually takes triumphantly swinging up to a lively Foose bass solo, then back into moody terrain as Salters rumbles around the perimeter. Whiteley returns to the organ for Nostalgiastic, a slinky, clave-driven homage to the soul sounds of the sixties, with a judiciously sunny Lim guitar solo at the center.
The album’s title track, a swinging song without words, sets Whiteley’s precise upper-midrange melodies and lefthand/righthand exchanges over a brisk, skintight rhythm, Foose again contributing a dancing, kinetic bass solo. The album concludes with the organ tune Brooklyn Hustle, building suspense until the band finally breaks free with a lickety-split swing and purposefully bluesy solos by Lim and Whiteley, each player choosing his spots. The eclecticism of these compositions testifies to Whiteley’s long view of music from Bach to the B3. Yet in the end, Whiteley’s translucent, melodic sound is uniquely his own. He’s got plenty of gigs coming up: a couple that look especially choice are on April 21 at 9 in a duo with Michael Eaton at Something Jazz Club, then the next night, April 22 at 9 he’s at Tomi Jazz with excellent, hard-hitting Texas saxophonist Stan Killian.
Andy Akiho may be most closely associated with indie classical music, but underneath the cleverly shapeshifting arrangements on his new album No One to Know One beats the heart of a great pop tunesmith. Atonality may be all the rage (when, since about 1918, has it NOT been all the rage?) but this guy is all about melody. He has a long career in film scores staring him in the face if he wants it. The span from style to style on this record is a long and constantly unexpected one: bits of Middle Eastern music, reggae, noir jazz, Japanese folk songs and brooding 80s pop along with the bright, ringing soca tonalities you would expect from a composer whose axe is the steel pan. It’s a triumphant blend of cutting-edge creativity and accessibility.
The first six tracks here are from his Synesthesia Suite, and are color-coded (Akiho experiences specific pitches as colors). Hadairo (Beige) is the LAST thing you would expect beige to be – it inspired a bright, rhythmic, Balkan-tinged dance with a pointillistic bass solo, a potently dark interlude where the string section mimics the pans and then launches into a series of clever false endings (Akiho has a great wit and employs it generously here). Kiiro (Yellow) begins with a suspenseful music-box vibe enhanced by Maura Valenti’s harp, builds to carnivalesquely orchestrated atonalities and then a creepy waltz that takes on some jarring polyrhythms. Murasaki (Purple) alternates brooding reggae with shimmery glissandos from the harp and pans; Aka (Red) is the weak link here, although it could have been a massive pop hit back in the 80s – think Lisa Lisa or the”La-da-dee, La-da-da” song. Karakurenai (Crimson), a piece for solo prepared steel pan (with certain areas magnetized to shift the pitch downward) half-conceals what sounds like an old Japanese folk song amidst loopy atmospherics and accelerating polyrhythms. The last of the colors here is Daidai Iro (Orange), a trio piece for Akiho with bassist Samuel Adams and drummer Kenneth Salters, revisiting the pop undertone of Red but without the cloying 80s vibe.
The centerpiece here is to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem (read the toggle for subtext), a richly cinematic noir suite complete with simulated sirens and several chase scenes. It’s literally a movie for the ears: furtive polyrhythms, temporary respite at a safe house, strings rising and then screeching apprehensively and flurries of high woodwinds balanced against a relentless march and an ending which is pure menace. It was the hit of the Bang on a Can Marathon in 2008 and is just as much a showstopper here.
By contrast, The Ray’s End, a trio piece for pan, trumpet and violin juxtaposes a wary chromatic vamp with hypnotic ambience punctuated by Akiho’s judiciously spacious pan accents. NO one To kNOW one (read the toggle again) is another suspense movie, this one set in a disco invaded by Ian Rosenbaum’s vibraphone assault (he plays this one with chopsticks) and later an apprehensive, Middle Eastern-flavored dialogue between Akiho and Mariel Roberts’ cello. There’s a LOL-funny Beatles quote a little later on that’s too good to give away here. The album ends with 21, just pan and cello building loops that venture tensely into a thicket of interwoven melody and textural contrasts. These are just the highlights: to really enjoy all the entertainment this album has to offer, you need headphones and time alone. It’s out now on Innova.