Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Best Jazz Albums of 2013

Narrowing down the best jazz albums of the year to a couple dozen or so is a cruel task: it’s safe to say that there have been hundred of good ones issued this year. This is an attempt to assemble the creme de la creme of this year’s crop in one easily digestible package: apologies to the many, many artists whose excellent releases aren’t included here.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society– Brooklyn Babylon
The esteemed big band composer’s latest thematic opus is an important album in New York history, a very uneasy suite of variations illustrating a city in constant flux, often changing for the worse. Cruelly sardonic jackhanmmer rhythms and mechanically industrial circular vamps juxtapose with a resonant angst that peaks at the end. Balkan and circus flourishes, unorthodox instrumentation and quirky, often plaintive miniatures are interspersed amid the relentless pulse. It captures a moment already gone forever, maybe for good.

The Claudia Quintet – September
Drummer/bandleader John Hollenbeck’s attempt to “rework and transform the traumatic residue” of 9/11 resulted in an emotionally charged inner dialogue and a highly improvised, persistently uneasy, enigmatically enveloping series of themes, each assigned a date from that fateful September. The eleventh is not one of them. Nebulous and opaque, it vividly evokes the stunned, bereaved moment that preceded an outpouring of both wrath and goodwill among the city’s citizens. Maybe Hollenbeck can tackle that moment next.

Sexmob – Cinema Circus & Spaghetti (Sexmob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota)
Trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s irrepressible quartet finds the inner noir in Rota’s vintage Fellini film scores and magnifies it with charactistic ambitiousness and eclecticism. Creeping slinky dirges sit side by side with deep dub interludes, carnivalesque, cinematic and occasionally showing the group’s punk jazz roots. A rousing follow-up of sorts to Hal Wilner’s cult favorite 1981 Amarcord Nino Rota album.

Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge – River Runs
This “concerto for jazz guitar and saxophone” portrays some of the wild rivers of the American south and west in all their fearsome glory, an entire ecosystem with its messy, sometimes awe-inspiring, sometimes opaque, frequently frightening detail. Like Darcy James Argue, Owen delights in unorthodox instruments and voicings, terror just lurking beneath the whitecaps on several of these lush, ambitious numbers.

Ibrahim Maalouf – Wind
This homage to Miles Davis’ soundtrack to Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud. follows the architecture of the Miles record, but not sequentially. The Miles record is drenched in reverb, added post-production; trumpeter Maalouf’s production is as airy and sometimes arid as the old French silent film, for which this serves as a score, would seem to suggest. Overall, the effect of both albums is the same, an unrelenting angst foreshadowing imminent doom despite all distractions to the contrary. Together and separately, both are classics of the noir pantheon, this one with frequent latin tinges amid the gloom.

Michel Sajrawy– Arabop
Romany-flavored Middle Eastern jazz from the Palestinian guitarist and his inspired, polyglot Palestinian-Israeli band, a vividly powerful mix of Middle Eastern and Balkan-tinged romps along with a handful of haunting longer-scale numbers. Sajrawy plays microtonally and very artfully on a standard-issue Strat through an envelope pedal for the blippy tone so common in guitar jazz from east of the Danube – pulsing staccato grooves alternate with intense levantine sax interludes.

Pete Rodriguez – Caminando Con Papi
Salsa themes taken to the highest level of jazz. Trumpeter Rodriguez – son of legendary salsa crooner Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez – fires off some of the year’s most spine-tingling and incisive solos with striking terseness and attention to melodic trajectory throughout this surprisingly eclectic collection. Gritty modalities underpin a relentlessly intensity and Rodriguez’ wickedly precise flights and volleys; pianist Luis Perdomo is an equal part of the fireworks.

Bill Frisell – Big Sur
A quintet jazz suite of sorts commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival, it’s the iconic guitarist in high spirits, throughout a mix of Lynchian allusions, some surf rock, a Neil Young homage, strolling C&W and a Britfolk theme, with plenty of characteristic grit and ambiguity beneath its windswept surface.

Wadada Leo Smith – Occupy the World
This double-disc collection of towering epics picks up where the trumpeter’s magnum opus from last year, Ten Freedom Summers, left off. 21-piece Finnish ensemble Tumo get to judiciously explore and revel in Smith’s gusty new large-ensemble pieces, a mix of airily expansive, spacious, and majestically intense themes, with Smith’s signature social awareness.

Leif Arntzen – Continuous Break
It was a good year for trumpeters, wasn’t it? On his latest quintet release, one of New York’s most distinctive voices on that horn takes a page out of the vintage Miles Davis book: throw the band a few riffs and have them create songs on the spot. Tuneful and diverse to the extreme, it’s got standards, a tone poem, a gritty minor-key soul groove (which may be the album’s best track) and hotwired improvisation recorded completely live in the studio.

The Monika Roscher Big Band – Failure in Wonderland
The guitarist and her German ensemble stalk their way surrealistically through carnivalesque themes that often border on the macabre, with elements of noir cabaret, horror film music and psychedelic rock as well as big band jazz. Nothing is off limits to Roscher: vocoder trip-hop, gothic cinematics, savage tremolopicking, Gil Evans-esque swells and colors and fire-and-brimstone art-rock sonics.

Fernando Otero – Romance
Some might call this indie classical or even nuevo tango, but the Argentine-born pianist’s sonata transcends genre. It’s a series of themes and variations split between instruments, interchanging between time signatures, interwoven like a secret code. Inspired by Argentine writer and clarinetist Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch, it invites the listener to decide on a “modular” sequence of tracks, perhaps a wry nod to the reality of how listeners work in the iphone era. Taken in sequence, just for starters, this is a harrowing ride.

Hee Hawk – s/t
The most stunning debut in recent months blends the pastoral with the noir: imagine Bill Frisell scoring a Roman Polanski film. Bandleader/pianist Adam Lipsky’s compositions embrace Americana as well as Romany and film music, often luridly. A torchy stripper blues, hints of the Balkans, Ethiopia, and noir soundtrack atmosphere mix with irrepressible oldtimey swing and a creepy, shivery bolero.

Amir ElSaffar – Alchemy
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter continues to push the envelope with Middle Eastern themes, melodies and technique while also employing western classical architecture. This is a sonata of sorts, two central themes with many variations. ElSaffar’s quintet deftly and fascinatingly allude to (and sometimes leap headfirst) into otherworldly microtonal modes throughout a series of sometimes stately, sometimes exuberant, hard-swinging explorations.

The Mary Halvorson Septet – Illusionary Sea
Lush but biting, the guitarist maintains a lustrous majesty livened with cold mechanical satire and an intricate, incessantly fascinating counterpoint. While Halvorson sometimes bares her fangs with terse, evilly squirrelly cadenzas, she’s not usually centerstage: she leaves that to the constantly shifting, rich interchange of harmonies.

Mostly Other People Do the Killing – Red Hot
The quartet – expanded to a septet with Brandon Seabrook’s banjo, Ron Stabinsky’s piano and David Taylor’s bass trombone – burn through their most caustic yet accessible album to date. With 20s hot jazz trending hard with the one-percenters, it became obvious that the time was right for the Spinal Tap of jazz to give the genre a vigorous twist to put it out of its misery. MOPDtK claim not to be satirical, but this could be their most aggressive, and wildly successful, spoof yet. What will these guys come up with next?

Jussi Reijonen – Un
A still, spacious, slowly unwinding masterpiece from the Finnish oudist/guitarist and his quartet. Original night-sky themes and a classic Coltrane cover feature lithely intertwining levantine grooves, bittersweetly Egyptian-flavored motifs and Utar Artun’s eerily twinkling chromatic piano.

Bobby Avey – Be Not So Long to Speak
The most Lennie Tristano-influenced album in recent months is this crushingly powerful, glimmering solo piano album. It’s a mix of clenched-teeth articulacy and brooding pools of moonlit, swampy menace, setting an unwaveringly creepy tone throughout brooding tone poems with jackhammer pedalpoint, hints of Erik Satie and Louis Andriessen.

Kenny Garrett – Pushing the World Away
Garrett gets back to what he does best on this mostly-quartet session packed with several latin-tinged grooves plus those menacing modal vamps that this era’s preeminent alto saxophonist loves so much and plays with such an instantly recognizable intensity.

Rudresh Mahanthappa – Gamak
The alto saxophonist expands his singular vernacular with this hard-hitting, rhythmic effort. With a stilletto precision, flurries of postbop liven both the bhangra interludes and sunnier, more pastoral pieces here; guitarist Dave Fiuczynski supplies his signature apprehensive, intense microtonal edge, sometimes veering off toward raw metalfunk.

Dave Douglas – Time Travel
This one doesn’t have Aiofe O’Donovan’s vocals, but Douglas’ translucent tunesmithing doesn’t miss them. The fine-tuned chemistry and interplay between trumpeter Douglas and Jon Irabagon on tenor sax, Linda Oh on bass, Rudy Royston on drums and Matt Mitchell on piano showcases one of the most instantly recognizable working bands of recent years, through anthemic arcs, alternately cumulo-nimbus and cirrus ambience, a slide-step stroll and Mad Men-era grooves.

The Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra – Bloom
Luminous, lush and symphonic in a Maria Schneider vein, the colors at play on this subtly rhythmic, constantly shapeshifting album tend to be bright, summery and vibrant. Translucent motifs shift through the arrangements with an unlikely nimble, assured, fleet-footedness for such majestic music. Sara Serpa’s haunting vocalese is the icing on the cake.

Marc Cary – For the Love of Abbey
Cary was Abbey Lincoln’s pianist and music director through the end of her career, and draws on that gig with a loving but also fierce intensity that does her justice. This highly improvised solo collection of Lincoln songs is stormy and ferociously articulate, like the singer herself. It’s cantabile, elegant and regal but also feral, with a shattering final salute.

Fred Hersch and Julian Lage – Free Flying
This tightly choreographed, swinging performance from pianist Hersch and guitarist Lage is so seamless and tightly fluid that it’s often impossible keep track of who’s playing what. A concert recording from the Kitano from earlier this year, it’s a series of Hersch homages to influences from across the spectrum, with a frequent Brazilian flair – and a throwback to Hersch’s indelible duo album with Bill Frisell about thirteen years ago.

Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra – Book of Rhapsodies
Something of a return to noir form for the trumpeter/bandleader, parsing innovative early third-stream compositions, some with a cinematic or cartoonish tinge, from some familiar and more obscure names from the 30s and 40s: Raymond Scott, Charlie Shavers, Louis Singer and Reginald Foresythe.

John Funkhouser – Still
This trio performance from the third-stream pianist/tunesmith alternates moody and rhythmic tunesmithing, murky dirges and lyrical third-stream glimmer. Brooding latinisms, a gloomy version of House of the Rising Sun and a pitch-black raga-inflected title track make this one of the year’s catchiest, hummable yet darkest releases.

Steve Coleman and Five Elements – Functional Arrythmias
On which the alto saxophonist pays homage to iconic drummer/polymath Milford Graves with a characteristically vivid, bouncily naturalistic series of illustrations of anatomical phenomena. Long, circular rhythmic patterns anchor tight counterpoint between the horns, bass and drums. Riffs are simple, direct and memorable as expected; funk beats morph through tricky time signatures, and nobody wastes notes.

And a shout out to Dan Willis & Velvet Gentlemen’s scary Satie Project Volume 2 album, as well as to Bryan & the Aardvarks, for their glimmering, nocturnal debut, Heroes of Make Believe. Both came out last year but missed the 2012 best-of list here. Since either of those albums could easily top this one, it would be remiss not to mention them here.

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December 30, 2013 Posted by | jazz, lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Leif Arntzen’s Best Album – In Case You Haven’t Heard

Leif Arntzen’s latest abum Continuous Break takes a page out of the vintage Miles Davis book: throw the band a few riffs and have them create songs on the spot. That all this sounds as good as it does, and as thoroughly composed as it does, is credit both to the band’s chemistry and the hooks that Arntzen tossed into the brew. One of the most individualistic and consistently original trumpeters to emerge from the New York scene over the past 25 years or so, Arntzen may be best known for his his scarily evocative Chet Baker project, Channeling Chet, but he’s also an extremely eclectic, first-rate composer. Recorded live in the studio, this mix of purist, in-the-tradition renditions of standards and out-of-the-box originals is the best album Arntzen’s made to date, and a strong contender for best jazz album of 2013. Arntzen is joined here by regular band since 2010: guitarist Ryan Blotnick, keyboardist Landon Knoblock,  bassist Michael Bates and drummer Jeff Davis. The whole thing is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening track, Beautiful Mind starts as a tone poem and becomes a deviously mysterious, nebulously bluesy, atmospheric game of hide-and-seek, Blotnick’s resonance and bubbles eventually taking centerstage as the rhythm congeals into something of a funky shuffle. Then Arntzen comes in and takes it in a mid-60s Miles direction. Psykodelic Divide is a  bustling misterioso urban nocturne a la Taxi Driver, trumpet and Wurlitzer neon-lighting a bass groove.

The picturesque Pretending I’m a Bird works long, floating, dreamy passages gently ornamented by the bass and guitar. The best and most haunting track here might be Tired, inspired by a riff Arntzen picked up from his son Miles (drummer for Antibalas and leader of the similarly edgy Afrobeat jamband Emefe). Dark gospel trumpet rises over a haunting psychedelic rock groove over a killer Bates bassline, the band shifting in a pastoral direction before Arntzen goes machinegunning his way out. Likewise, Arntzen’s laser-surgical precision, rising over the bubbly Wurly on Vain  Insane, will give you goosebumps.

The first of the standards, My Ideal, juxtaposes Davis’ edgy brushwork against Arntzen’s trademark lyricism. The most animated and intricate number is The Call, replete with conversations, good cop/bad cop dynamics and a simmering tension as Bates holds the center. Street Dog sets a wryly blazing Blotnick slide solo over slinky funk as Bates references Albert King…and then Arntzen turns it into a beautiful ballad. Their closing take of Bye Bye Blackbird blends Blotnick’s resonantly enigmatic, judicious lines with Arntzen’s balminess, Bates once again holding it all together.

November 27, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Leif Arntzen Explains His Brilliant New Album, with a Release Show at Nublu on May 25

You typically don’t expect someone who’s been been a presence in the New York jazz scene since 1985 to wait until now to make the best album of his career. But not only is Leif Arntzen’s new album Continuous Break a career high-water mark, it’s also one of this year’s best. The brilliantly individualistic trumpeter plays the album release show this Saturday, May 25 at Nublu at around 10 with the players on it: guitarist Ryan Blotnick, keyboardist Landon Knoblock, bassist Michael Bates and drummer Jeff Davis. It’s an intimate space and the band hasn’t played in awhile, so early arrival is advised. Arntzen graciously took some time away from rehearsals and pre-concert logistics to answer a few questions:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: In my opinion, the new album is your best ever. Do you agree? It’s definitely your most eclectic…

Leif Arntzen: This record was the hardest I’ve ever done, but at the same time I felt the most at home with the process. I didm’t feel any limitations to play anything in particular or stick to one sound or musical direction. Anything we played became fair game, and that created a lot of intensity from all of us, to make whatever we played count for something. It was our special moment in time, and we played that way. I think we got what we were looking for.

LCC: I understand all the tracks are live, continuous takes, oldschool style. Is that true?

LA: Yes, it was live off the floor crowded in a small studio playing next to each other. There was a lot of sonic bleed, so overdubs were not an option.

LCC:  I also understand that the tunes came together in an unusual way, in bits and pieces rather than either fully formed compositions or flat-out jams. Can you explain that?

LA: When everyone is so capable of so many things, of playing anything, for me it seemed more important to give the group simple ideas that made each of us have to dig…for something that brings us together, moves us forward. It was like we each showed up with our paintboxes, but only one big canvas to lay it down. I tried to simplify the starting point with simple melodies as much as possible…I think that gave us a wider horizon.

LCC: On the new album, it seems to me that you’ve thrashed a bunch of defiantly individualistic, outside-thinking guys into shape. Or is this them jumping at the opportunity to play lyrical, tuneful, memorable, composed or at least semi-composed music?

LA: As a horn player, I want to clear a way forward somehow through all the sound. I want to be playing outside too…but if there isn’t a melodic and rhythmic home, then being outside loses its meaning. I don’t have the luxury of playing more than one note at a time, so I have to imagine whatever I can to make my choices meaningful. I think everyone in the band is doing that in their own way, in their own voices. Maybe that’s why the music sounds more composed than it actually is.

LCC: Obviously there’s all kinds of improvisation on the album. I usually can pick up on where people are putting their own personalities, but this one is hard to figure out. For example, on your version of My Ideal, I love how Jeff adds an edgy contrast with his brushes against the lyrical gentleness of the melody line. His idea or yours?

LA: That’s Jeff. He has such a voice. He comes up with colors and shapes in the strangest ways…that made it easy for me to just play with the time and space…because I felt like that was all I needed to do to get something beautiful. It’s easy when all of us are after the same thing.

LCC: One of my favorite tracks is Tired, a laid-back funk groove that hits a big, explosive pastoral crescendo on the chorus. Are you into the Americana jazz thing that’s steamrolling these days, Bryan & the Aardvarks, Jeremy Udden, Bill Frisell?

LA: I really admire Bill’s version of Shenandoah on one of his recent albums. I love American classic melodies, folk and country music storytelling…I loved the Gil Evans Orchestra when they hit a big sonic full band stride. My son Miles [the brilliant drummer in Antibalas and leader of  Emefe] wrote a bass line and guitar riff inspired by his love of Nigerian Afrobeat and American funk…He called it Tired. When I heard the line, I heard so much of deep America in it, jazz rock pioneers, funk masters and delta blues, and came up with the melody….and so we just took it to our own place.

LCC: Another one I like a lot is The Call, where you take what could be a totally generic, lickety-split swing shuffle and introduce all those conversations, and good cop/bad cop dynamics, and rhythmic push-pull even though the bass is always holding the center Was that planned?

LA: The Call is not planned, and intended to allow us to go anywhere…it’s fast and we each just hitch aboard and see where we wind up, try to get there and back in one piece, together.

LCC: I hope you can forgive me for having discovered you not from your original music but from your Channeling Chet project. I never got to see Chet Baker in concert, so seeing you do his music – which seemed to me to be as close to channeling as anyone can get – brought me full circle with it in a sense. I think that speaks for a lot of other listeners. Looking back, how did that impact your career? By exposing you to a lot of people who might not have discovered you otherwise…or did it become a millstone, you being associated so closely with Baker’s work instead of your own compositions?

LA: I grew up listening to my dad’s Louis Armstrong recordings, and he was my favorite. After Louis it was Miles and Freddie and Coltrane. Chet came along much later in my own experience. It happened after singing a cameo in a New York show, where I sang and played Days Of Wine And Roses as a band feature while the name stars took a break. The New York writers wrote about it, with comparisons to Chet. When that happened I went back to better understand his music and playing. That’s when I became a diehard Chet fan. Eventually I paid homage to him in my own way on the Channeling Chet recording. His sound production adn technique were really something else, such a beautiful melodist. For awhile there it seemed like the Chet thing overshadowed a little, but mostly I didn’t worry about it.

LCC: You have a rep as a purist. What’s up with the Wurly? Did you write this stuff with electric rather than acoustic piano in mind? Or just the confidence that Landon Knobloch wouldn’t clutter the songs with it?

LA: I’ve been thinking more electric for some time. I grew up with rock, I like the Wurly, a Wurly was handy, and Landon just sounds great on it, gets a real swirly thing going on, and especially with Ryan too…Rock is a part of what this band is about, and I feel at home.

LCC: On the new album, as far as influences are concerned, I definitely hear Miles as far as space and pacing is concerned, and Freddie Hubbard  as far as perfect articulation and weightlessness of the notes. Am I on to something or not? What other trumpeters inspire you these days?

LA: Miles recordings have been a constant for me in my life. In terms of the horn, Miles and Freddie pioneered the sound of the horn, probably the biggest influence for me. But I can’t set aside Kenny Dorham, Chet, and of course Louis Armstrong perhaps most of all. Louis paved the way for all of us for just everything. I still listen to him all the time, hoping one day I could ever move an audience like that. There’s a recording of him touring in Europe in 1935, you’d think it was the Beatles, people are getting so crazy. Also his small group recordings with Duke Ellington are masterpieces.

LCC: Any plans to take this band on the road?

LA: Well, in the coming years I plan to work this band at every opportunity. I believe in this band, best one I ever had. We’ll do some touring around the east coast, maybe up to see my Canadian brothers and sisters…also working on a Spain tour for later this year.

May 21, 2013 Posted by | interview, jazz, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment