Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Hall of Fame-Caliber Band Tackles the Entirety of Jazz History at Birdland This Week

Who knew that the estimable Carl Allen could play a Philly soul shuffle with the best of them? Or that saxophonist James Carter had a thing for 20s hot jazz? If he doesn’t, he sure fooled everybody last night as a member of alto saxophonist Vincent Herring’s ten-piece ensemble, who were playing the first night of their weeklong stand at Birdland. The concept, The Story of Jazz: 100 Years, is ambitious – sets continue nightly at 8:30 and 11 PM through Jan 27.

In a marathon hour and a half onstage last night to open the stand, they made it from 1917 to the late 70s. On one hand, that’s not as much of a challenge for this particular hall of fame crew as it would be for a less seasoned cast. This is an allstar band to rival any other one, anywhere. Sharing the stage with Herring, Allen and Carter were Eric Alexander on tenor sax, Jon Faddis and Jeremy Pelt on trumpets, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Mike LeDonne on piano and organ, Kenny Davis on bass and Nicolas Bearde on vocals and also reading from a script that offered a surface overview of jazz history.

Through the decade of the 60s, the group’s charts were fascinating; the playing was as sage and thrilling as you would expect from artists of this caliber. Herring and Alexander shared Coltrane riffs judiciously and soulfully. Faddis and Pelt threatened to pop valves, then shifted into resonant, peak-era Miles mode. Carter clearly saw this as a cutting contest, and he’d come to slay, whether mining unexpectedly low richness from his clarinet, spiraling and flurrying with his usual white-hot intensity on soprano sax, saving his most exhilarating volleys for his tenor sax.

As this particular narrative acknowledged, jazz first bubbled up in the melting pot of New Orleans in the 1890s but didn’t reach critical mass until around World War 1 with Jelly Roll Morton and his contemporaries. The group began there, blazed through dixieland and then a balmy take of Summertime, sung with august restraint by Bearde.

By now, it was obvious that this was going to be a greatest-hits survey. Basie got a nod, as did the Ellington band via a blistering charge through one machinegunning solo after another. Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ got a only slightly less boisterous doublespeed coda. Bearde particularly excelled with his post-opiated interpretation of Straighten Up and Fly Right as the band barreled and bounced behind him.

The 50s, a decade the band spent plenty of time in and could have stayed in for even longer, were most vividly represented by Take Five and its balmy, unexpectedly plush chart, and So What, an apt vehicle for Pelt. For whatever reason, the group saved Caravan and its whirlwind of round-the-horn solos for the 60s. Was Eubanks going to get one, as a shout to Juan Tizol? Yes – he ended up playing it pretty close to the vest.

They reinvented The Girl From Ipanema as a boogaloo: did anybody catch that wicked moment where Davis fired off a neat series of doublestops in response to a similarly slinky LeDonne organ phrase? Allen did. It was just as cool to hear them run a couple of impassioned verses of Les McCann’s protest-jazz anthem Compared to What.

It was in the decade after that where the band lost focus and phoned it in. You would have, too, if you’d been onstage. These guys all have substantial individual catalogs, and they cut their teeth on the classics, so vamping their collective way through one cheesy 70s fusion hit after another seemed rote – and unfamiliar terrain. Has anyone in this ensemble ever had to fake their way through a Chuck Mangione number? Doubtful. At least they did the club’s theme song – Weather Report were responsible for that one. Did anybody notice? The staff did.

Conventional wisdom among diehard jazz fans is that the 70s were a dead decade, and that’s far from true. This group could have had a ball with something by Ruben Blades, or Tito Puente – latin jazz was underrepresented in this particular set. An AACM interlude, like the group’s detours into dixieland and early bop, would have been appropriate. There’s got to be something by, say, Anthony Braxton or Henry Threadgill from that era that’s translucent enough to resonate with the tourists.

Devil’s advocate says that tourists have no idea who Braxton or Threadgill are. And that’s not true either – the Europeans often know them better than an American audience would. All this is not to criticize the band’s achievements last night – everybody is busy with their own projects, and there’s only so much time to come up with charts for a group this size. They’re there for the rest of the week for fans of history and pure adrenaline.

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January 24, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Darkly Soulful New Album and a Brooklyn Release Show From String Jazz Titan Akua Dixon

Akua Dixon is the dean of jazz cello. Like Ron Carter, she began her career as a classical musician but found that that the doors of that world were closed to African-Americans. And after four decades, she’s still finding new, soulful ways of expression. On her new album, Akua’s Dance – streaming at Spotify – she only plays cello on three tracks, shifting to baritone violin for the rest of the album for a series of vivid and often poignant low-midrange tableaux. She’s playing the album release show tonight, March 11 with sets at s 9 and 10:30 PM at Sista’s Place, 456 Nostrand Ave in Bed-Stuy. Cover is $20 if you call the restaurant at (718) 398-1766 and make a reservation; take the A/C to Nostrand.

The album opens with I Dream a Dream, guitarist Freddie Bryant’s eerie pedal chords and spiky solo punctuating Dixon’s austere lines over an altered. balletesque bolero anchored by bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Victor Lewis. It’s the first of two tracks from Dixon’s opera about New Orleans voodoo legend Marie Laveau. The other, the title cut, is a slinky clave number in 7/4, Dixon’s purposeful, moody, expressive lines giving way to a majestically Spanish-flavored Bryant solo.

The twin bassline that opens the catchy, propulsive Dizzy’s Smile is a lot of fun; then Dixon takes a fond, vintage swing-infused solo. Her steady phrasing throughout Aziza Miller’s slow ballad If My Heart Could Speak to You is steeped in blues and understated plaintiveness, set against Bryant’s resonant sparkle. Dixon carries the pensive melody of Orion’s Gait, a jazz waltz, then hands off to guitarist Russell Malone, who turns up the lights.

Dixon sings Abbey Lincoln’s Throw It Away, the album’s lone vocal number, with melismatic nuance and bittersweet determination. Switching to cello, Dixon opens Afrika! Afrika! with a deep, bluesy river of a solo, Malone and bassist Carter (with whom Dixon finally reunited for their first recording date in four decades) joining in with somber elegance until Dixon introduces the dancing, gospel-infused main theme

Dixon’s take of the Sade boudoir soul classic The Sweetest Taboo has a welcome starkness and directness, Lewis adding a subtle Brazilian-tinged undercurrent, with a deliciously shivery outro from the bandleader. The version of the old spiritual I’m Gonna Tell God All of My Troubles offers broodingly intense contrast, through several subtle metric shifts. Dixon winds up the album with Don’t Stop, a hypnotically kinetic launching pad for a sailing solo from Bryant in contrast to Lewis’ uneasy rumble. As string music goes in 2016, in any style of music, it doesn’t get any more impactful than this.

March 11, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Frank Wess’ Magic 101: Truth in Advertising

Tenor sax legend Frank Wess has a new album out, Magic 101 with Kenny Barron on piano, Kenny Davis on bass and Winard Harper on drums. The title is apt. If you heard this without knowing the backstory, you might think that it makes a good, warmly purist companion piece to the recent Harry Allen/Ehud Asherie albums, and you’d be right. The backstory, of course, is that Wess was 89 when he recorded this (he’s 91 now) and is at the absolute top of his game as tunesmith through a mix of familiar standards, a couple of awe-inspiring duets with Barron, an original and a solo piece. The vibe is the same as on the two memorable Hank and Frank albums he made with Hank Jones in the past decade; casual but deep in the tradition, and in the feeling that tradition implies.

From the first note, it’s obvious that the band is amped through the roof to play with him – and they hang back, and they chill because that’s what he’s doing most of the time. Wess hits the opening track,  Say It Isn’t So with a blippy Dexter Gordon-ish nonchalance that  picks up as it goes along. There’s an absolutely gorgeous moment here where Harper switches to a vaudevillian shuffle on the ride cymbal, and then it all comes together. Barron’s solos here rank with anything he’s ever recorded: the neoclassical fanfare he hides in the middle of the third verse is absolutely delicious.

The Very Thought of You is a Barron feature, with some richly lingering upper register lines that sound as it he’s playing an electric piano. Harper’s subtle brushwork underscores an unselfconsciously deep, nunaced Wess solo on the first verse – it’s amazing how much control and range he still has, to rival anyone a fifth his age!  The sole Wess original here, Pretty Lady, is a duet with Barron, the pianist’s coloristic, judicious lyricism against balmy sax, picking up unexpectedly with My Funny Valentine echoes. Another duet,  Come Rain or Come Shine works the same vein, Barron in more of a ragtime mode against Wess’ mistiness, moving through gospel and then hitting an unexpectedly chilling couple of bars and then lingering in a noir ending. Wow!

Easy Living serves as an almost ten-minute launching pad for Wess’ warmly exploratory, richly blues-infused soloing, Davis leading the band through a subtle series of tempo shifts as it slowly picks up steam. Likewise, the bassist tackles Blue Monk with a determination not to walk simple blues change and the rest of the band follows, Barron choosing his spots, Wess taking it as high as he goes on this album. Wess ends it with a solo tenor rendition of All Too Soon, a clinic in allusive implied melody and how to choose a spot. Long may he play things like this.

August 3, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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