Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Trombonist Michael Dease’s Latest Album: How Many Flavors Can You Handle?

Trombonist Michael Dease‘s latest album All These Hands – streaming at Posi-Tone Records – is an ambitious jazz travelogue. The title is a characteristically wry reference to the fact that he’s got so many people on it. On one hand, it’s a chance for the bandleader to show off his command of a whole bunch of regional styles: lookit me, I’m in New Orleans! Now I’ve gone back to the Delta to visit Robert Johnson’s grave! But what’s consistent, beyond the relevance and the sometimes grim historical references throughout this vast, diverse collection, is the tunesmithing. Riffs jump out at you from all over and have you humming them afterward despite yourself. No wonder all these big names want to play with him: the core band on the album has Renee Rosnes on piano, Gerald Cannon on bass, Lewis Nash on drums and Steve Wilson doing his usual multi-reed thing, with Etienne Charles on trumpet and Randy Napoleon on guitar. Dease is leading most of this band over a weekend stand on May 26 and 27 at 10:30 PM at Smalls.

Before we leave town here, what does Dease’s portrait of Brooklyn sound like? Kenny G? A trombone with a drum machine? A virtual trombone? Wait, those are Notbrooklyn things, as we say around these parts. Set to Nash’s steady, flickering clave groove, Dease’s Brooklyn is latin, and full of light/dark contrasts and hints of early Steely Dan – Brooklyn knows the charmer under this guy. In fact, it’s one of the album’s best songs, with a deliciously slippery bass solo from guest Rufus Reid.

The rest of the album measures up strongly. The opening number, Creole Country is balmier and more bossa-tinged than the name might imply, the beat loosening into a shuffle artfully and imperceptibly, Rosnes anchoring Dease and Wilson’s airy lines. Delta City Crosssroads is a sagely animated conversation between Dease’s muted, tongue-in-cheek character and Napoleon’s rustic slide man. There are two similar blues duets later on: the Detroit shout-out Black Bottom Banger, between Dease and Cannon, and Memphis Fish Fry, Dease pairing off jauntily against Rosnes’ Fender Rhodes.

The Dizzy Gillespie-inspired Good & Terrible is another catchy clave tune, Rosnes again grounding Dease’s purposeful, airy solo, Cannon taking a wry tiptoe tangent. Territory Blues is as straight-up as a swing blues can get, with purist solos from Cannon and Napoleon – whose presence on what sounds like a National steel guitar is an unexpectedly welcome touch. Benny’s Bounce is another swing tune with a long series of handoffs: Dease’s bubbly solo to Wilson’s more airy tenor, Rosnes’ clusters and Cannon finally hitting that Benny Golson-influenced bounce.

The band goes back to the default clave for the album’s most epic track, Downtown Chi-Town, which could just as easily be Spanish Harlem, Wilson’s spiraling flute handing off to the bandleader, percolating as he chooses his spots and then giving Wilson the floor for some enigmatically modal explorations on tenor. Everybody gets into the act at the end.

Dease opens Gullah Shout Ring with a long, allusively bluesy solo and then holds the center as guitar and bass flutter and stab at the perimeter – it’s the freest number here, at least until they pull it together into another swing blues with an implied Heartbreak Hotel vibe. Muted suspense and chirpy trombone-and-trumpet riffs punctuate the goodnatured Chocolate City, a diptych of sorts that goes completely in the opposite direction, fueled by Rosnes and Dease: it’s a riveting piece of music with a real payoff. Guest bassist Rodney Whitaker makes the most of a solo piece to end the album, mashing up the blues with a moody, ragaesque quality. It’s awfully rare that you hear an album with so many flavors which is as this solid as this one is all the way through. Count on Dease to pull out just as many over Memorial Day weekend.

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May 17, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Champian Fulton Brings a Subtly Victorious Take on Dinah Washington to the West Village

On one hand, would you ever want to hear anybody other than Dave Brubeck play Take Five? OK, maybe the surf rock version by Mike Rimbaud. On the other hand, there’s the argument that jazz, like classical or folk music, is a repertoire that any artist with the requisite talent ought to sink their teeth into. Which is where Champian Fulton is coming from on her new album, After Dark, a Dinah Washington tribute streaming at Spotify. Fulton will be playing that material and more in a rare duo show with bassist David Williams at Mezzrow on April 26 at 7:30 PM; cover is $20.

Covering material so closely associated with such an iconic figure is a potential minefield, but Fulton meets that challenge head-on, in a performance that’s respectful but not reverential. On one hand, Fulton has assimilated Washington’s style – those coy little swoops up into head voice, the dips into feline lows, and the spaces between the notes – to the point where there are are many places on this album where, if you didn’t know who the singer was, you would assume it was Washington. On the other, Fulton puts her own stamp on these songs. The new album is a mostly trio affair, with Williams and drummer Lewis Nash as rhythm section plus her dad Stephen Fulton on trumpet and flugelhorn on a handful of numbers.

Another way Fulton differentiates her versions from the originals is that she’s as nuanced and expressive a pianist as she is a singer. Lots of iconic tracks here, beginning with a slowly swinging, uncluttered, gently seductive take of Ain’t Misbehavin’, the elder Fulton’s gentle, smoky muted lines in contrast with the younger’s nonchalant good cheer. That Old Feeling has even more subtlety but also exuberant wit, right from the LOL intro. How does she tackle Washington’s signature song, What a Difference a Day Makes? She lets Nash give it a masterfully hushed, bossa tinge, her piano as spacious as her vocals, a lot more low-key than the original.

Blue Skies gets a rubato intro with a few wisps from Williams’ bow, the trumpet adding a New Orleans jauntiness as the swing kicks in, up to a considered, purposeful piano solo. The group does a perfectly acceptable job with Keeping Out of Mischief Now; on the other hand, it’s sort of redundant, Ain’t Misbehavin’, round two.

A Bad Case of the Blues is a showcase for the bandleader’s elegantly expansive command of that style on the piano as well as on vocals. Travelin’ Light makes a striking contrast between a rather stern, embittered backdrop and a distantly embittered, matter-of-fact approach to a sad storyline, the band picking it up, wryly trading eights as they wind it up to the final chorus. Mad About the Boy is the most stunning reinvention here, part Brecht/Weill, part Beethoven.

All of Me may be the Hotel California of vocal jazz, but the singer makes it worthwhile, with a bass/vocal intro that looks straight back to Sarah Vaughan and Joe Comfort. Give a close listen to the piano solo on slow, slinky version of Baby Won’t You Please Come Home: through the first verse, Fulton voices the lyrics emotion for emotion with her fingers, phrase by phrase, a neat trick. A steady, slow, vocal-less solo piano Midnight Stroll makes an apt closing track, another showcase for her purist command of the blues.

Throughout these songs, what’s most striking is how much care and attention Fulton gives every line, every word: she really sells the lyrics, which isn’t easy because, let’s face it, some of them would sound awfully prosaic delivered by someone who didn’t give a damn. Fulton moves effortlessly and vividly from delight, to wistfulness, to wounded angst in a matter of seconds and makes it seem completely natural, the work of a deep and insightful individual and a rare force on both the keys and the mic.

April 22, 2016 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project Does It Again Live at the Jazz Standard

Pretty much everybody, at least in the jazz world, agreed that Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans, by conductor and Evans scholar Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project, was the best album of 2012. You rarely see that kind of consensus. Even for an ambitious jazz bandleader, it was an enormously labor-intensive achievement. Truesdell also left himself little wiggle room for a sequel: pretty much anything was destined to be anticlimactic. So Truesdell – who has probably spent more time unearthing rare and previously unknown Evans compositions and arrangements than anyone else – flipped the script. Rather than emphasizing the iconic big band composer’s genre-smashing, paradigm-shifting later works, the group’s new live album, Lines of Color features a lot of older material. It’s also on the upbeat side: Evans’ music is Noir 101 core curriculum, and what’s here tends to be more lighthearted than Evans typically is. So there’s another cult audience – the oldtimey swing crowd – that will probably love this if they get to hear it. You can hear this mighty, stormy, dynamically rich, twenty-plus-piece group when they play their annual residency at the Jazz Standard starting this Thursday, May 14 and running through the 17th, with sets at 7:30 and 10 PM. It’s pricy: $30, and $35 on the weekend, but it’s worth it. Remember, the club doesn’t have a drink minimum (although they have a delicious and surprisingly affordable menu if you feel like splurging).

The new album opens with a punchy, sleek take of the noir waltz Time of the Barracudas, from the iconic 1964 album The Individualism of Gil Evans. On the heels of a bouncy Marshall Gilkes trombone solo, tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin takes it up with an aptly marionettish pulse through a series of a playful hints at endings. The band follows by reinventing Bix Beiderbecke’s Davenport Blues as a lustrous slow drag, Mat Jodrell’s trumpet carrying its triumphant New Orleans tune much of the way. This version is notable for being exactly the way Evan originally wrote it before many better-known revisions, right down to the second line-flavored break midway through.

Avalon Town both embodies its dixieland origins and transcends them – those oceanically eerie close harmonies as it opens are a prime example of how Evans could take something utterly generic and make magic out of it. And you thought you knew (or wish you’d forgotten) Greensleeves? Just wait til you hear the mighty outro and warily tasty Marshall Gilkes trombone solo that concludes it.

John Lewis’ Concorde, another track from The Individualism of Gil Evans, has more of a jet-age ebullience and plushness than the uneasily bossa-tinged original – here Lois Martin’s viola plays Lewis’ original righthand figure for piano. Singer Wendy Gilles does a marvelously nuanced job, ranging from fullscale angst to playful cajolery on Can’t We Talk It Over, over a pillowy backdrop with Evans’ signature high reed/low brass dichotomy. Later on, she offers an elegantly cheery take of Sunday Drivin’.

Gypsy Jump, an early work from 1942, reveals that already Evans was doing things like hinting at Tschaikovsky and opening with a figure he’d recycle memorably later on with Miles Davis. It’s lternately neblous and disarmingly oldtimey, McCaslin’s sax enhancing the former and Steve Kenyon’s clarinet the latter. Then the band makes a medley of Easy Living, Everything Happens to Me – centered around Gilles’ heartfeld, angst-driven, tersely bluesy phrasing – and another Johnny Mercer tune, Moon Dreams, which builds to a galactic sweep, dreamy JMW Turner colors over that omnipresent low, murky pulse.

Just One of Those Things is another mashup of vintage swing and lush sophistication, Steve Wilson’s purposefully fluttering yet unresolved soprano sax solo at the center. The album ends with a take of How High the Moon that’s on the slow side – at least for a song that so often gets played lickety-split – with an exchange of barely bar-length solos frou throughout the band, bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Lewis Nash pushing it with what’s practically a shuffle beat. You like epic? You like counterintuitive? You like venues with exquisite sound? The album was recorded in this very same space, most likely in front of a sold-out house, but it’s a big-studio quality production. Some if not all of it is up at Truesdell’s webpage along with tracks from that amazing first album.

May 12, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Elio Villafranca Brings His Blazing Original Afro-Cuban Grooves Back to JALC

Eclectic, intense Cuban pianist Elio Villafranca & the Jass Syncopators have made Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center pretty much their home in NYC. They’ve got another weekend stand coming up June 13-15, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. The lineup is pretty much the same as their last stand here, the notable change being Steve Turre on trombone and his signature conch shells in place of trumpeter Terrell Stafford. Which probably means more time in the spotlight for saxophonist Vincent Herring, always a good sign. Here’s what they sounded like in the room about eighteen months ago:

“You might think from their name that Elio Villafranca & the Jass Syncopators play New Orleans second-line marches, or hot jazz from the 20s. In actuality, that’s just how the word for their music is pronounced in Spanish. Last night at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Cuban pianist and his allstar lineup romped through an expert and exhilarating blend of salsa and hard bop with richly melodic interludes and the occasional plunge into third-stream sounds. That’s been a common trait among Cuban pianists practically since the days of Ernesto Lecuona – at least those evil conquistadors left one good thing on the island, the “classical tinge,” to twist a Jelly Roll Morton phrase. Much as that is one of Villafranca’s signature characteristics, this show was all about the party: watching the couples sit and sway rapturously with the lights of Manhattan glimmering from high across the park, it was surprising that there wasn’t anyone other than guest dancer Mara Garcia undulating up there with the band.

Throughout the night’s early set, Villafranca for the most part eschewed flashy soloing in lieu of an endless groove, whether that be a frequently polyrhythmic salsa slink – Villafranca is one of the most rhythmic pianists anywhere – with straight-ahead swing, a couple of detours into rumbling Puerto Rican bomba and a long, fiery mambo at the end. Locked in with the tumbling piano, tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy alternated between hard-driving flights and warm melodicism and a wryly smoky bourdoir jazz interlude toward the end of the bomba tune. Trumpeter Terrell Stafford blasted through bop grit with rapidfire glissandos and trills…and a descent into genial blues at the end of his last solo, when he’d taken it so high that there was nowhere else to go. Alto saxophonist Vincent Herring served as a powerful foil to all the goodnatured wailing, adding a biting, sometimes haunting, modally-fueled gravitas. Bassist Carlos Henriquez held to a purist, terse groove – and took one of the night’s most memorable solos, voicing a horn. Drummer Lewis Nash seemed to be having the most fun of anyone up there as he swung through conga riffs, artful clave variations that leaned on the off beat, and a jovial bounce that was all the more powerful for its simplicity.

Augmenting the rhythm was an excellent two-man team of congas and bongos, Puerto Rico’s Anthony Carrillo and the Dominican Republic’s Jonathan Troncoso. The attractively lyrical opening number, Incantations, had Villafranca staking his claim to nimble, hair-raising polyrhythms. The band bookended a brightly pouncing, riff-driven tune with dark streetcorner conga breaks, following with a song ‘dedicated to politics,’ A Great Debater, Villafranca driving its insistence to a clamoring crescendo followed by a playful Nash solo. They wound up by taking a new, untitled bomba tune and swinging it with bisected, lyrical/frenetic solos from the horns, and then the big mambo at the end where Villafranca finally took off for the upper registers with a breathtaking tumbao assault: as cruelly as he hit the keys, the groove never wavered. It was every bit as adrenalizing to watch as it must be to dance to.”

June 5, 2014 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Gil Evans Project at the Jazz Standard This Week: Major Moment in NYC Music History

Isn’t it a good feeling to be witness to history – and be aware enough to realize in the moment that it’s something you’ll take with you for the rest of your life? Like Wadada Leo Smith’s stand earlier this month in Brooklyn, the Gil Evans Project‘s ongoing weeklong residency at the Jazz Standard is an important moment in New York jazz history. Last night, midway through the big band’s first set, conductor Ryan Truesdell received the Jazz Journalists’ Association’s awards for best album of 2012 and for best big band. Truesdell had known about this for a few days but clearly, the impact hadn’t sunk in. He searched for a place in front of the band that wasn’t covered in scores. “I’m all discombobulated up here,” he groused. If that’s discombobulation, the rest of us are in trouble.

Throughout the week, Truesdell – one of the world’s most passionate and insightful Evans scholars – has been focusing on different parts of the iconic composer/arranger’s life. This evening’s centerpieces were works from the 1964 album The Individualism of Gil Evans. “It changed my life,” Truesdell explained, and no doubt there were others in the crowd who shared that feeling: practically fifty years later, the pull of its dark, burnished colors is no less magnetic. He and the band repeat the program – no doubt with plenty of surprises – tonight, and then revisit Evans’ and Miles Davis’ Porgy and Bess on Sunday to wind up the week with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Needless to say, reservations are recommended.

Rather than playing the whole album all the way through, the ensemble teased the crowd, alternating numbers from it along with some unexpected treats. This set’s highest point of many was a slow, towering, ornate, angst-fueled ballad that Truesdell had just recently discovered among Evans’ papers, a fragment simply titled Blues, which was getting its world premiere. You don’t expect a fragment to turn into fifteen minutes of lingering, resonant intensity, but that’s what this one was. Blues in this case meant pianist Frank Kimbrough’s big block chords leading up to a characteristically rich cloud of sound big enough to block out the sun. Alto saxophonist Dave Pietro made his way carefully and moodily through a modally-fueled solo before trombonist Marshall Gilkes went in a more trad, upbeat direction. When the piece threatened to collapse under its own weight at one point, Kimbrough was there in a split second with an absolutely creepy upper-register riff; and then they were back on track.

They’d opened with a deliciously fluid, resonant take on Nothing Like You, if anything more fully fleshed out than the tiptoeing swing of the album version, Kimbrough scampering and then turning the spotlight over to Tom Christensen’s hard-hitting tenor sax. Truesdell acknowledged that the version of John Lewis’ Concorde on that album is one of the most difficult pieces to play in the entire jazz repertoire, but the group was up for it. “We have the best tuba and bass trombone players in the universe,” Truesdell bragged, and Marcus Rojas and George Flynn held up, digging into the groove as the cha-cha built to a dazzling, fugal exchange of licks percolating through the group as the song reached final altitude. Meaning of the Blues took the Miles Ahead arrangement and expanded on it, a lush, slow forest fire lit up further by another pair of methodical, minutely intuitive Gilkes and Pietro solos, drummer Lewis Nash weaving subtly back and forth between time signatures as the piece shifted from somber to animated and back. They closed the set with an arrangement of Greensleeves – which Evans had originally written for Kenny Burrell in 1965 – taking the world’s most innocuous melody and made noir folk out of it, Kimbrough leading the way this time with a distant menace.

It’s not easy to keep track of everybody in this band, considering that Truesdell had contracted for 34 players for the week. Contributors to this scary/beautiful evening included but were not limited to trumpeters Greg Gisbert, Augie Haas and Laurie Frink; saxophonists Alden Banta; Steve Wilson and Donny McCaslin; french horn players Adam Unsworth and David Peel, Lois Martin on viola and Jay Anderson on bass.

May 18, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Elio Villafranca: Blazing Original Afro-Cuban Grooves at JALC

You might think from their name that Elio Villafranca & the Jass Syncopators play New Orleans second-line marches, or hot jazz from the 20s. In actuality, that’s just how the word for their music is pronounced in Spanish. Last night at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Cuban pianist and his allstar lineup romped through an expert and exhilarating blend of salsa and hard bop with richly melodic interludes and the occasional plunge into third-stream sounds. That’s been a common trait among Cuban pianists practically since the days of Ernesto Lecuona – at least those evil conquistadors left one good thing on the island, the “classical tinge,” to twist a Jelly Roll Morton phrase. Much as that is one of Villafranca’s signature characteristics, this show was all about the party: watching the couples sit and sway rapturously with the lights of Manhattan glimmering from high across the park, it was surprising that there wasn’t anyone other than guest dancer Mara Garcia undulating up there with the band.

Throughout the night’s early set, Villafranca for the most part eschewed flashy soloing in lieu of an endless groove, whether that be a frequently polyrhythmic salsa slink – Villafranca is one of the most rhythmic pianists anywhere – with straight-ahead swing, a couple of detours into rumbling Puerto Rican bomba and a long, fiery mambo at the end. Locked in with the tumbling piano, tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy alternated between hard-driving flights and warm melodicism and a wryly smoky bourdoir jazz interlude toward the end of the bomba tune. Trumpeter Terrell Stafford blasted through bop grit with rapidfire glissandos and trills…and a descent into genial blues at the end of his last solo, when he’d taken it so high that there was nowhere else to go. Alto saxophonist Vincent Herring served as a powerful foil to all the goodnatured wailing, adding a biting, sometimes haunting, modally-fueled gravitas. Bassist Carlos Enrique held to a purist, terse groove – and took one of the night’s most memorable solos, voicing a horn. Drummer Lewis Nash seemed to be having the most fun of anyone up there as he swung through conga riffs, artful clave variations that leaned on the off beat, and a jovial bounce that was all the more powerful for its simplicity.

Augmenting the rhythm was an excellent two-man team of congas and bongos, Puerto Rico’s Anthony Carrillo and the Dominican Republic’s Jonathan Troncoso. The attractively lyrical opening number, Incantations, had Villafranca staking his claim to nimble, hair-raising polyrhythms. The band bookended a brightly pouncing, riff-driven tune with dark streetcorner conga breaks, following with a song “dedicated to politics,” A Great Debater, Villafranca driving its insistence to a clamoring crescendo followed by a playful Nash solo. They wound up by taking a new, untitled bomba tune and swinging it with bisected, lyrical/frenetic solos from the horns, and then the big mambo at the end where Villafranca finally took off for the upper registers with a breathtaking tumbao assault: as cruelly as he hit the keys, the groove never wavered. It was every bit as adrenalizing to watch as it must be to dance to. Villafranca and his “jass” band are back at Dizzy’s Club tonight and tomorrow if you’re in the mood.

October 12, 2012 Posted by | concert, jazz, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Believe the Hype About Donald Vega

Memo to jazz bloggers: if somebody sends you a great album and you sit on it, you might just get scooped by the New York Times. Well, not that often – but it could happen, just as it did when the folks at Resonance sent over a copy of pianist Donald Vega’s new album, Spiritual Nature. Not that it needs the Times’ imprimatur (although he deserves the press): the album stands on its own merits as one of 2012’s most memorable. The Nicaraguan-born, California-educated Vega, a protege of John Clayton and Ron Carter, has listened deeply and absorbed much of the best postbop from the 60s forward along with plenty of salsa jazz and classical, influences he blends with equal parts power and subtlety, gravitas and grace. He has a veteran’s touch and a bag of licks to match, so it’s hard to think of another player of his generation that he resembles. One comparison from an earlier era, who continues to blend melodicism and improvisational latin-flavored bite as a member of the Cookers, is George Cables.

Vega is also a strong composer, as evidenced right off the bat with the album’s hard-hitting opening cut, Scorpion, from its no-nonsense horn hook (Bob Sheppard on alto sax, Gilbert Castellanos on trumpet and Bob McChesney on trombone) to Christian McBride’s tersely walking pulse, Lewis Nash’s counterintuitive drum attack and Vega’s lyrical, richly blues-tinged solos. Just the presence of that rhythm section signals how purist and auspicious this session became. The second cut, Ron Carter’s First Trip, interchanges balletesque syncopation and oldschool swing; they follow that with a balmy take on Monty Alexander’s River, featuring gossamer violin from Christian Howes, McBride anchoring Vega’s delicate blend of neoromanticism and the blues firmly in the earth. A second Alexander composition, Accompong, gets a considerably brighter, more bouncy interpretation, crescendoing with Anthony Wilson’s bubbly guitar work trading with Vega’s more spiky phrasing.

With its alternately light and dark modal dichotomy, swaying clave pulse and relentlessly crescendoing intensity from Vega, the title track – another Vega composition – is a standout here. Vega amps up the ambuiguity and suspense on a Neils Henning-Orsted Pedersen jazz waltz, Future Child, before taking it in a more genial yet restrained direction, as he does a little later with his ballad Contemplation, moving from spare and wary and then relaxing as an artfully arranged series of distinct horn voices emerges. Makato Ozone’s You Never Tell Me Anything gets a straight-up jump blues treatment: Vega’s exuberant flurries leaping onto the tail end of a bustling Nash drum break are one of the album’s most characteristic examples of the rich, purist interplay here.

Vega’s arrangement of Scriabin’s Etude, Op. 8., No. 2 is both lyrical and great fun, incorporating both Ethiopian melodic tropes and rhythms, a jazz waltz, and an absolutely gorgeous piano solo that Vega sends spiraling downward to darker terrain. A Jobim diptych, Falando de Amor; Tema de Amor gets a similarly third-stream, expansive take, while Vega’s Child’s Play has the feel of a jazzed-up Caribbean folk song, with its carefree violin and Nash’s playful conga-flavored groove. The album ends with Benny Golson’s Clifford Brown homage I Remember Clifford, building slowly and methodically to become more of a fond wee-hours reminiscence than an elegy. As far as both the compositions and the playing here are concerned, this album is head and shoulders above 99% of what’s come out this year. It’s deep stuff. It takes a long time to get to know and all of that is a pleasure.

August 18, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Gil Evans Centennial Album: A Major Moment in Jazz History

Conductor/arranger Ryan Truesdell launched the Gil Evans Project last year to commemorate the centennial of the most cinematic composer in the history of jazz. To date, Truesdell has staged a series of commemorative big band concerts as well as releasing the album Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans. Given access to the Evans family archive, Truesdell unearthed numerous unrecorded works, ten of which are included here: three compositions and seven arrangements. As history, it’s a fascinating look at the development and crystallization of Evans’ visionary style. As a work of art, it’s classic Gil Evans: deep, rich and relentlessly intense, a titanic achievement and a major moment in jazz history, on par with the discovery of Charles Mingus’ Epitaph. It trivializes any consideration of where this album might stand on a “best albums of the year” list: this is music for eternity.

Evans was the personification of noir. His lush, epic charts refuse to cede defeat even as the shadows creep in – or sweep in, which is more often the case. His influence cannot be understated, although, strange as it may seem, he remains an underrated composer: his best work ranks with Shostakovich, or Ellington, both composers he resembles, often simultaneously. The mammoth orchestra here, totaling 36 musicians, rises to a herculean challenge: some of the playing here is so brilliant as to be career-defining. The high-water marks here are the original works. The first previously unreleased piece, Punjab, was originally intended to be released on the legendary 1964 lp The Individualism of Gil Evans but for some reason never made the cut (maybe because it’s almost fifteen minutes long). The sonics could only be Evans, a spectrum reaching from the darkest depths to the most ethereal highs. The composition hauntingly blends Middle Eastern and Indian themes with energetically jazz and blues-based interludes, a characteristic roller-coaster ride from Dan Weiss’ hypnotic tabla introduction, to screaming woodwind cadenzas, menacing low brass portents and suspensefully whispery washes, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson’s long, allusively modal, spiraling solo accented by Frank Kimbrough’s apprehensively twinkling piano and the devastatingly direct drums of Lewis Nash. As usual, the soloists are interpolated within the framework of the whole: in many cases Evans creates the illusion that there is interplay between the chart, or at least part of the orchestra, and the soloist.

The work that Truesdell – one of the world’s leading Evans scholars – ranks as the composer’s magnum opus is the nineteen-minute-plus triptych Waltz/Variation on the Misery/So Long. Although versions of these pieces were released separately in the 60s, the arrangement for the three pieces together is from an unrecorded 1971 Berlin concert and it is as massive as Evans ever got (which says a lot). Vibraphonist Joe Locke turns in the performance of a lifetime injecting luridly macabre phrases, alternately stealthy and breathtakingly frantic, over ominous cumulo-nimbus backdrops, murderously mysterious climbs from the depths and incessantly terse, shifting voices within the orchestra. Wilson follows with an equally astonishing, memorable solo, riddled with microtones like a bullet-spattered getaway car. The angst is inescapable, notwithstanding Beethovenesque brass luminosity, a warmly soulful Marshall Gilkes trombone solo, Evans’ signature light/dark contrasts everywhere and an ending that is completely the opposite of everything that foreshadows it.

An equally noir if slightly shorter track here, with a previously unreleased arrangement from that 1971 concert, is Kurt Weill’s Barbara Song. Evans recorded this on the Individualism lp with a band only two-thirds the size of the ensemble here and the result is a mighty, surrealistically chilling, absolutely transcendent sweep. Locke again dazzles and ripples in a centerstage role, this time providing illumination over the sometimes distant, sometimes imminent sturm und drang driven by Nash’s succinct insistence and the lurking bass trombone of George Flynn.

Most of us know The Maids of Cadiz from the Miles Ahead album; the version here dates back seven years earlier to 1950 and Evans’ tenure in Claude Thornhill’s big band. It’s a revealing glimpse of Evans at work in a similar context, it’s almost twice as long and seems about fifty times as big. It’s amazing how Evans would go from the exuberantly ornate tango-jazz of this chart to the plushness – not to mention the terseness – of his version for Miles Davis. This one features prominent, portentous bass from Jay Anderson, a vividly nocturnal Kimbrough solo and a warm, absolutely gorgeous solo out by trumpeter Greg Gisbert.

A handful of tracks also portray Evans the working musician and his approach to some of the more pedestrian fare that paid his rent. How About You, a jaunty, dixieland-flavored Thornhill-era track, shows how he was employing alternate voicings throughout the orchestra just as cleverly as he would later in his career, not to mention the demands those charts made on the musicians. The closing cut, Look to the Rainbow – with vocals by Luciana Souza – first comes across as a relatively generic samba-pop song…but wait til the lush, bittersweet crescendo kicks in as the song winds up! And Evans’ own early 50s composition Dancing on a Great Big Rainbow – which somehow evaded making it onto vinyl despite being in the catalog of three of its era’s most popular big bands – seems a prototype for how he’d take a song from its upbeat origins and transform it into something completely different. This one grows wings but does the opposite of taking flight.

There are two other vocal numbers here, both of them absolutely Lynchian. Smoking My Sad Cigarette, sung with equal parts sadness and sass by Kate McGarry, features a pillowy arrangement that finally morphs into a swaying blues. The oldest track here, Beg Your Pardon, dates from 1946; Wendy Gilles sings it and absolutely knocks it out of the park with her coy, split-second, spot-on melismas. And Who’ll Buy My Violets, a ballad from the Thornhill era, is arguably the most Lynchian track here, Kimbrough doing an unexpected Floyd Cramer impersonation as the orchestra swells behind him and imbues what seems on the surface to be an innocuous pop melody with morose gravitas.

The sonic quality of the album is extraordinary: the care and attention to close-miking and minute detail is meticulous. Although nothing beats the vinyl warmth of a vintage Gil Evans record, this is the most sonically gorgeous digital recording of Evans’ work ever made. Kudos to engineer James Farber and the rest of the orchestra: flutists Henrik Heide and Jesse Han; oboeists Jennifer Christen and Sarah Lewis; bassoonists Ben Baron, Michael Rabinowitz and Alden Banta; multi-reedmen Dave Pietro, Donny McCaslin, Scott Robinson, Brian Landrus and Charles Pillow; horn players Adam Unsworth, David Peel and John Craig Hubbard; trumpeters Augie Haas and Laurie Frink; trombonist Ryan Keberle; tuba player Marcus Rojas; guitarists James Chirillo and Romero Lubambo, percussionist Mike Truesdell and tenor violinist Dave Eggar. It would take a book to give due credit for what they’ve accomplished here.

July 17, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Gerald Wilson Orchestra’s Legacy Does Justice to the Windy City

It’s been a great year for big band jazz releases and this is a particularly enjoyable one. The Gerald Wilson Orchestra’s new one, Legacy jazzes up the classics and celebrates nonagenarian composer/conductor Wilson’s Chicago home turf with dynamic charts that range from stark and suspenseful to lush and majestic. As you would expect from this guy, the band is monstrous, with up to 20 players, building from the A-list rhythm section of Renee Rosnes on piano, Peter Washington on bass and Lewis Nash on drums. A lot of the ideas here are very ambitious, but Wilson always cuts to the chase, with a why-didn’t-I-think-of-that logic and directness. Case in point: the opening Variations on a Theme by Stravinsky, which is less gritty eeriness than blazing intensity followed by a long swing passage with bright sax and trumpet solos. It’s a three-and-a-half minute hit. Who would have thought?

A mysterious bass pulse underpins the lushly melodic, warmly crescendoing Virgo, which they take up and back down methodically, swing it with a blithely spiraling Anthony Wilson guitar solo and later on intersperse some big swells with bright alto sax. They go out the way they came in. Variations on Claire de Lune starts as a slowly swinging piano blues, acknowledges the otherworldly theme and then goes doublespeed with jovial alto sax and gritty trumpet, and eventually a memorably slow fade. Likewise, Variations on a Theme by Puccini kicks off bluesily – it’s hard to find the classical tune here until it rears its wiggy head coming out of a deliciously tuneful baritone sax solo. September Sky, a warmly reflective, Hubert Laws-inflected indian summer flute tune gets an equally startling and effective doublespeed breakdown with the whole orchestra roaring, Rosnes bringing it back down in a heartbeat as the brass rises majestically in the distance against her wee-hours flourishes.

The rest of the album is a suite titled Yes Chicago Is… Referencing numerous famous Chicago venues and a well-known Dylan tune as well as the local sports franchises, it’s a very smartly crafted theme and variations, beginning with a pensive, nocturnal third-stream piano/bass motif. What comes after? Some striking chromatics; shapeshifting, melodic swing; a slyly insistent ballpark theme capped off by playful baritone sax; some nifty tradeoffs between swirling atmospherics and joyous trumpet; and a surprisingly serioso outro. Clearly, Wilson’s relationship to his hometown is a complex one – it beats the hell out of Sweet Home Chicago. There isn’t a single miss on this album, a real treat, which has been out since the end of last month on Mack Avenue.

July 16, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project Unearths Rare, Never-Recorded Jazz Classics

Ryan Truesdell wears a lot of hats: composer, conductor and fulltime copyist for the Maria Schneider Orchestra. He’s also the founder of the Gil Evans Project. Revered by jazz fans for his paradigm-shifting arrangements for Miles Davis, Evans remains a cult figure decades after his death: sometimes lush and opaque, sometimes devastatingly direct, his compositions are still miles ahead of anything in the jazz mainstream. The Gil Evans project seeks to revive interest in the great composer/arranger by recording, releasing and playing rare, previously unreleased material that Truesdell discovered with the help of Evans’ family. A passionate and persuasive advocate for Evans’ music, Truesdell took some time out of his demanding schedule to give us the scoop:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: When did you discover Gil Evans? You were a kid, right? You heard Sketches of Spain and said, “Wow,” maybe? That’s what happened to me, and to pretty much everybody I know, who’s familiar with Evans…

Ryan Truesdell: My first exposure to Gil was through the album Porgy and Bess. It was some time in high school. I was looking for recordings of Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley and saw that they were both on that record, plus I liked the album cover so I bought it. Little did I know what I was in for. From the first notes of Buzzard Song, I was hooked. I had never heard anything like that. At this point in my musical life, I was just starting to be interested in composition. Then to hear something like that? It was incredible. I think I went out the next day and bought the other records – Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain and Quiet Nights. Then I started branching out to other things Gil had done with his own group or as an arranger on other people’s recordings. It was all so new and amazing to me. The way he used sound and color and the harmony of everything. And the fact that every time I listen to one of his records, I hear something new. I’ve listened to Porgy and Bess a thousand times over the years and to this day, I still find something new hidden in there every time hear it. Gil just had a mysterious quality to his writing and I was so curious to find out the answers to the mystery.

LCC: What inspired you to start the Gil Evans Project?

RT: This project started relatively gradually over the past few years. I started searching out Gil’s music because of my interest in it from a composer’s viewpoint. I wanted to learn as much as I could from Gil’s music to benefit my own writing, to learn and grow as a composer. Most of Gil’s music has never been widely available, so I would go through people that knew or worked with Gil or the Evans family directly. Then I started helping the Evans family out a bit more organizing Gil’s music, getting it back into playing condition, and trying to locate music that the family didn’t have copies of. As I was collecting all this music and going through it, I started to realize that I had a lot of pieces that I couldn’t find recordings of. After a while, I realized I had a LOT (at last count around 50 pieces) of unrecorded works of Gil’s, spanning his whole career. Around the same time, discussion was starting to happen about how best to celebrate Gil’s upcoming centennial in May 2012. The unrecorded music I found was really amazing and I felt it wasn’t fair to leave it in a filing cabinet, unplayed and unheard. So, that’s how the project started: what better way to celebrate Gil’s 100th birthday than to present a whole album of music never-before-heard, and show a whole other side of Gil people may not be aware of. I’m really looking forward to finally get this on record, and to share it with the world. It’s truly incredible music.

LCC: Gil Evans, as you know better than most anybody, was an extremely eclectic composer. Is the upcoming album the swing Gil Evans, the third-stream Gil Evans, the noir Gil Evans – or all of them?

RT: I’ve discovered arrangements of Gil’s from all eras of his career – one piece as early as 1937 that I suspect that he wrote for his own band, before he joined Skinnay Ennis or Claude Thornhill. For the recording, I’m going to look at everything I’ve found that hasn’t been recorded and pick the best charts. I’ve definitely found more tunes from the early part of his career than the later, but I think the tunes I’ve chosen will give the record a nice balance of his whole career.

LCC: Tell us about the songs. Do you have a particular favorite among them?

RT: There is one song in particular I’m drawn to; an arrangement Gil did for Astrud Gilberto of “Look To The Rainbow.” When they did the record of the same name in 1965, they recorded a version of “Look To The Rainbow” with just rhythm section, Astrud and one flute. But, I uncovered a full arrangement of this tune, for the same sessions, that they didn’t record. I’m not really sure why, but it’s really beautiful. I think everyone will agree when they hear it. A beautiful approach to the tune and just a great arrangement. But, in all honesty, every tune I’ve found has something that just amazes me. I can’t wait for everyone to hear these arrangements of Gil’s. I think they’ll find some new favorites of their own.

LCC: To what degree, if at all, are you rearranging any of the compositions?

RT: Almost none. In fact, there is only one tune out of all of them that I’m taking a very slight deviation from Gil’s approach, and that’s only in the rhythm section’s groove. Every note, every rhythm, every sound is Gil’s. Since this will be the first time these pieces have been put on record, I want them to be as close as possible to Gil’s original intention. The only reason I’m taking a slight deviation on the one tune is because Gil had just rehearsed it once, and hadn’t taken the time to perfect it, so I felt I could maybe make a slight change. I felt the rhythm section groove that Gil had used at the rehearsal didn’t fit the tune as well, and might be the reason Gil didn’t pursue the tune further. It is a tune based on Indian music and scales, and the groove was a sort-of jazz waltz. I’m going to try and incorporate a little more of the Indian vibe to the tune. I’m going to add a tabla player and see where that takes the tune.

LCC: How many of these compositions been previously recorded?

RT: Every piece I’m recording of Gil’s has never been on record before. There are a couple tunes that you will recognize in association with Gil – Maids of Cadiz, Waltz, etc. – but the arrangements of these tunes are totally new and never heard on record before. I’ve also uncovered a few of Gil’s original compositions that I’ll be recording as well. It’s especially great to find these since Gil was more known as an arranger than a composer, and this shows that Gil was writing a few more of his own compositions.

LCC: In what year of Evans’ career do you start, and where do you end?

RT: The never-before-recorded music that I’ve discovered all total spans nearly his entire career, from 1937 through 1987. For the recording, I chose the “best of the best” of these pieces and it happened that this time period was a little smaller – 1946 through 1971 or so.

LCC: Is there a backstory to any of the compositions you’ve unearthed that we should know about?

RT: Absolutely. Each tune has its own individual history within Gil’s career, but then all of these tunes together come together to give us a better view into Gil’s history as a whole. It’s amazing that this music, that has been undiscovered until now, held so much information on Gil’s history. I’ve been discussing each tune and its individual history and relationship to Gil’s career for the Project participants through the ArtistShare site, www.gilevansproject.com. It’s all outlined there for those who have pre-ordered the cd (or another participant level) and have chosen to participate in the project to follow the process of discovery and creation. I also plan to outline the history in the liner notes of the final cd as well.

LCC: You’re recording the album in August, right? Who’s on it?

RT: The group is made up of mostly NYC-based musicians – 30 all total – including Steve Wilson, Frank Kimbrough, Jay Anderson, Joe Locke, Luciana Souza, Lewis Nash, Marcus Rojas, Andy Bey, Greg Gisbert, Laurie Frink, etcetera. It’s an amazing group of musicians and I can’t wait to hear what they do to this music. The recording is in late August, the 21st through the 26th, here in New York.

LCC: You’re a musician yourself. Will you be playing on the album?

RT: I’ll be conducting in addition to my producing duties.

LCC: I understand you’re doing multiple cd release shows? Where and when, and with whom?

RT: I have a cd release concert in the works, but the details aren’t finalized yet, so it’s a little early to give specific details. BUT, I can say that we will have a cd release show, or shows, performing these never-before-recording works, in addition to a lot of the music of Gil’s that hasn’t been available or performed since it was first recorded. The cd is being released on May 13, 2012, Gil’s 100th birthday, so the concerts will be happening on that day for sure, and hopefully the few days leading up to it. So, all I can say now is that if you want to come to the cd release, plan on being in NYC on and around May 13, 2012! I’ll release further details as the plans become finalized.

June 27, 2011 Posted by | interview, jazz, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment