Linda May Han Oh Releases Her Gracefully Kinetic Marcel Marceau-Inspired New Album at the Jazz Standard
Linda May Han Oh is the only jazz bassist to ever make the cover of the Village Voice. That speaks both to her enormous popularity in the jazz community as well as her appeal beyond it. As a sidewoman, her distinctive style is tireless, purposeful and tuneful to the max: she’s never content to merely walk scales, but she also isn’t self-indulgent. Her own compositions have flair and wit and a general sense of optimism. Her latest album Walk Against Wind, inspired by the exploits of legendary mime Marcel Marceau, is streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing the album release show on April 19 at the Jazz Standard, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $25.
Her jaunty bass solo kicks off the lithely dancing opening diptych, Lucid Lullaby; guitarist Matthew Stevens throws some similarly goodnatured sparks into the mix, tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel adding airiness. The second part is a tone poem of sorts where Oh anchors Wendel’s serenity with stygian, sustained bowing.
Firedancer is more about the dancer than the flames, propelled by guest Fabian Almazan’s minimalistic pedalpoint and Wendel’s judiciously steady figures. Speech Impediment is Oh at her wryly amusing best, her own irrepressible vocalese punching in tandem with Wendel’s insistent upper-register lines over drummer Justin Brown’s flurries and clusters. Then the conversation restarts between Wendel and Stevens.
Oh switches to Fender for the bubbly Perpluzzle, a study in contrasts between Stevens’ distorted chords and Wendel’s gracefully kinetic melody over Brown’s shadowboxing beats. The title track alternates between an unexpectedly dark march over a catchy modal hook and a doublespeed variation that’s just short of frantic: clearly, getting out into the gusts was a challenge, but once you’ve got your footing, apparently all is well.
Oh returns to Fender for the similarly hypnotic, catchy Ikan Bilis, gingerly spiced with Minji Park’s traditional Korean percussion. The enigmatic Mother Reason juxtaposes Wendel’s occasionally Joe Maneri-ish, microtonally-tinged longtone phrases against Stevens’ resonant chords and slow, methodical single-note lines.
Stevens builds tension with a rising-and-falling phrase throughout Mantis as the rest of the band hovers distantly. Oh and then Brown scour the ocean floor beneath steady guitar/sax harmonies in another hypnotically catchy number, Deepsea Dancers. Stevens, Brown and Almazan – on electric piano – prowl energetically over Oh’s moody, chromatic pedalpoint in Midnight, a Hollywood hills noir set piece with a long, deliciously fiery crescendo out. The album winds up with the bouncy Steve Coleman-esque syncopation of Western. Good to hear such a consistently strong collection from such a major force on the low strings.
Composer/conductor Kyle Saulnier’s mighty twenty-piece Awakening Orchestra played one of the year’s best concerts last month at Shapeshifter Lab in Gowanus, on a fantastic doublebill with pianist Fabian Almazan‘s chamber jazz group, Rhizome. Saulnier’s most obvious comparison is Darcy James Argue, considering how fearlessly relevant and politically inspired the two composers’ recent work has been. Maria Schneider is another, in terms of epic sweep and textural lustre.
Pablo Masis introduced one of Saulnier’s favorite recent tropes, a long, searching trumpet solo to open the evening’s first song, an imaginative reinvention of the Low cult favorite, Murderer, sung over balmy high reed swirls and cloudbanks of brass by Julie Hardy and Seth Fruiterman. As would be the case throughout the performance, James Shipp’s lingering vibraphone provided unsettling, twinkling contrast, in the same vein as the Claudia Quintet, while trumpeter Seneca Black prowled the perimeter with a similar judicious unease, up to a simmering coda.
Jesse Lewis’ The Robert Frost Experiment gave alro saxophonist Vito Chiavuzzo a glistening backdrop for wistful pastoralisms, drummer Jared Schonig pushing toward a steady heroic theme, guitarist Michael McAllister adding enigmatic textures. Empty Promises, the second movement of Saulnier’s This Is Not the Answer suite from the band’s 2014 album, moved deftly from lushly nocturnal ambience to a steadier disquiet, echoing Bernard Herrmann with its subtly shifting rhythms, trumpet/high reeds dichotomies and a vivid wee-hours street scene of sorts from Chiavuzzo, rising to an angst-fueled peak.
As dynamic as the early part of the set was, the high point was Saulnier’s new election year suite, a work in progress. He explained that he’d originally envisioned the project as pretty grim, but that it had become much more complicated than that (Bernie Sanders had not yet conceded on Bastille Day, the date of this show). The first of these numbers, Free Labor, Free Land, Free Men draws on the original slogan of the Republican Party. Trombonist Willem De Koch supplied the wary, circumspect introduction, the orchestra reaching toward a vast, brooding panorama, Schonig finally kicking in and then turning it over to Shipp’s opaque atmospherics and then unexpectedly anthemic, psychedelic lines. De Koch’s wounded foghorn resonance took centerstage as early promise gave way to sheer dejection, chaos and then blaring, stentorian sarcasm. Let’s not forget that the Republicans began life as abolitionists. The second part, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité began with Aaron Kotler’s lyrical, neoromantically optimistic piano, RJ Avallone’s trumpet leading a bustling, swinging drive upward, Samuel Ryder’s bluesy tenor sax spiraling into a brief, harrowing conclusion.
Saulnier emphasized that he wanted to wind up the show on a positive note, and then led the group through a plush take of Hi-Lili, a summery chamber-pop reworking of an early 50s hit, Fruiterman on vocals. Altogether, a provocative and powerful performance by the group, which also featured saxophonists Andrew Gould, Andrew Gutauskas and Carl Maraghi; trumpeter Daniel Urness; trombonists Michael Boscarino, Matthew Musselman and Joe Barati, and bassist Nick Dunston. They return to Shapeshifter Lab to continue the suite this coming November 11 at 7:30 PM.
Almazan followed with a simlarly luminous, dynamic, more briskly paced set equally informed by neoromanticism and cutting-edge large ensemble jazz. The pianist fired off long, sinuous cascades, his balletesque leaps and bounds anchored on the low end by bassist Linda Oh, who really got a workout as the show went on. Guitarist Camila Meza added alternately misty and crystalline vocalese as well as decisive, emphatic chordal swells over the shifting sheets and tricky rhythmic pulse of a string quartet, fueled by the drums’ exuberant bluster. An anthemic, cinematic sweep gave way to brief, lively Afro-Cuban romps, a marionettish string interlude or two, allusions to Shostakovian horror and latin noir balladry. Following the Awakening Orchestra and managing not to be anticlimactic was quite the challenge, but Almazan and his crew delivered. He’s currently on West Coast tour; his next gig in that part of the world is on August 12 with support from the Aruan Ortiz Trio at the SF Jazz Center, 201 Franklin St. in San Francisco. $15 tix are available.
Chris Dingman isn’t just a talented jazz vibraphonist: he’s a brlliant tunesmith. He probably scored his album release gig with his band the Subliminal and the Sublime this June 26 at 7 PM at the Greene Space because he wrote a popular WNYC radio theme that everybody in the organization knows, so nobody could say no to the idea. Cover is $15 and worth it: if magically enveloping, dreamy music is your thing, go to this show and get lost in it.
Truthfully, Dingman could probably write a catchy radio theme in his sleep. For this project, he’s assembled a crew of cutting-edge New York talent – Loren Stillman on alto sax, Fabian Almazan on piano, Linda Oh on bass, Ryan Ferreira on guitar and Justin Brown on drums – to play a warmly nocturnal series of longform compositions that in a previous century could be spliced into familiar tv themes, or film sequences. The opening track, Tectonic Plates works off a resonant, simple, echoing melody built by bowing the vibraphone, rising from the quietest, shifting shades to a balmy sax passage. Ferreira’s guitar switches from ambience to chords only as it ends.
The epic Voices of the Ancient is a throwback to the late 70s with its wavelike, dynamically shifting rhythm, Stillman taking centerstage judiciously. Much of Dingman’s work has a saturnine ambience, and this seventeen minute-plus piece is a prime example. From the intro, bassist Linda Oh manages to be both an anchor and a marionette simultaneously, Dingman and Almazan supplying a hypnotic glitter and then backing away as a 70s neon-jazz theme coalesces and then takes a long trajectory upward, Ferreira’s pinging guitar leading the way. They take it out with a long, gentle, steady postlude worthy of any Times Square documentary circa 1977.
The album’s gently but insistently cinematic centerpiece, The Pinnacles, rises from an intricately below-the-surface piano-and-vibraphone confluence of currents, making way for Stillman’s balmy sax. Dingman’s judiciously resonant lines bring to mind Milt Jackson, Stillman following a more offcenter tangent as Brown pushes the group to transcend 70s hippie tedium. And suddenly, just when you least expect it, there’s a long, pulsing moment of terror.
The lingering, expansive outro makes a comfortable segue into the album’s conclusion, All Flows Forth, with its gentle syncopation, insistent alternating rhythmic accents and interlocking, pointillistic polyrhythms. On the way out, the band swings it and sways it, emphatically and memorably. In an era where the Bush family, their collaborators and apologists are buying up global water assets, Dingman’s wary naturalistic themes makes more sense than ever.
What’s the likelihood of seeing both the ICP Orchestra and Dave Douglas on the same night? If you’re at the Rotterdam Jazz Festival, that’s hardly out of the question. And that’s why, despite its many issues, Winter Jazzfest is always worth coming out for.
“We’re the Instant Composers Pool, from Amsterdam,” bassist Ernst Glerum almost gleefully told the crowd who’d gathered close to the stage yesterday evening at le Poisson Rouge for a rare US appearance by the ten-piece surrealistic swing unit. That pun is intentional: their closest US counterpart is the Microscopic Septet, although where the two groups share an irrepressible wit, the Instant Composers are heftier and a lot trippier, given to absurdist call-and-response, round robin hijinks that can either be deadpan or completely over the top, and long dissociative interludes. There was plenty of that in their all-too-brief, roughly 45-minute set, but there was also a lingering, disquieted, crepuscular quality as well.
When he wasn’t dancing around the stage and directing split-second bursts from the horns and the reeeds, cellist Tristan Honsinger traded incisively airy lines with violinist Mary Oliver. Pianist Uri Caine, subbing for octogenarian legend Misha Mengelberg – chilling back in Holland – stayed pretty much within himself while the horns pulsed and sputtered and then pulled together with a wistfully ambered gleam. Extrovert drummer Han Bennink – who has more than a little Mel Taylor in him – threw elbows and jabs on his toms to keep the audience on their toes, especially in the most trad moments. What distinguishes this crew from the other satirical acts out there is their command of swing, and the gravitas that was in as full effect as the comedic bits. The audience screamed for an encore and were treated to a tantalizingly austere, string-driven miniature.
Douglas is another guy who infuses his music with plenty of wit, if it’s more on the dry side. On a night where a lot of the best acts were off limits, interminable lines stretching down the sidewalk outside several venues, what a treat it was to go up the stairs into Judson Church to see the trumpeter doing his usual mix of melodic splendor along with the pastoral soul that’s become part and parcel for him lately. Pianist Matt Mitchell colored both the Americana and the spiritual-based material with an upper-register, reflecting-pool gleam as Douglas and tenor saxophonist Troy Roberts ranged from homespun reflection to judiciously placed flurries of bop. Both bassist Linda Oh and drummer Rudy Royston kept their cards close to the vest as the rhythms would stray outside and then return to within the lines. And how cool was it to watch Royston feel the room, letting its natural reverb do the heavy lifting throughout his shuffles and spirals? Extremely. The highlight of the set was JFK: The Airport – “Not an endorsement,” Douglas said emphatically – a bristling, hypercaffeinated clave-cinema theme whose understated exasperation, channeled by Douglas and guest trumpeter Avishai Cohen, was characteristically spot-on.
Because Winter Jazzfest has such an embarrasment of riches to choose from, it’s hard not to be greedy: when an enticing set is sold out, as many tend to be, you have to be resourceful and willing to roll with the punches. Marc Ribot’s set with a string section at one of the off-Broadway theatres had a ridiculously long line of hopefuls waiting in vain to get in. But back at the church, Battle Trance were more than an impromptu Plan B: what a revelation the tenor sax quartet – Travis Laplante, Matthew Nelson, Jeremy Viner and Patrick Breiner – turned out to be. Beginning with barely a whisper, negotiating their way calmly and envelopingly through a baroque-tinged, cleverly polyrhythmic, interlocking minimalist sonic lattice, they rose to a mighty exchange of glisses (Coltrane would call them arpeggios), an understated display of extended technique and circular breathing. Throughout their set, they literally breathed as a single entity. In its most vigorous moments, their performance had the same raw power and chops that bass saxophonist Colin Stetson showed off at last year’s festival.
As for the rest of the night, there seemed to be more non-jazz acts than usual on the bill. An ensemble playing a Donald Byrd tribute opened for the ICPs, vamping on a chord or two, one of the jams sounding like a bluesier take on Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky. Which wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t jazz either. Up the block, Brandee Younger – who’s made a lot of waves at her recent slate of shows at Minton’s uptown, being heralded as the next Dorothy Ashby – shared the stage with a tightly swinging if generic funk band whose own vamps subsumed the jazz harpist’s tersely ringing, starkly blues-drenched phrasing. There was no small irony in the fact that even such a stereotypically Bleecker Street band would have probably had a hard time getting a gig there under usual circumstances, considering their slightly unorthodox instrumentation. Perish the thought that the Jersey tourists would have to contend with something they’d never heard before. “Is that a hwawp?”
Winter Jazzfest continues tonight, Saturday, Jan 10 starting a little after six PM: ticket pickup starts a half-hour beforehand at Judson Church. If you’re going you’d best get there on time.
Saturday night in the sonically exquisite downstairs digs at SubCulture, vibraphonist Chris Dingman‘s The Subliminal and Sublime previewed what might be the best album of 2014. It takes a lot of nerve (or cluelessness) to characterize your music as sublime, but Dingman’s obviously aware that he’s caught magic in a bottle with his new five-part suite commissioned by Chamber Music America. “You’re going to have to figure out where one part ends and the next one begins,” he told the crowd before giving it a Manhattan premiere. The band – Fabian Almazan on piano, Ryan Ferreira on guitar, Loren Stillman on alto sax, Linda Oh on bass and Justin Brown on drums – was clearly amped to begin recording the following day. In about an hour onstage, dynamics rose and fell in glistening, twilit waves with echoes of Brian Eno, Pat Metheny and the Claudia Quintet as well as Bryan and the Aardvarks, a group that Dingman contributes to as memorably as this one.
The suite began with lingering, airy motives, Dingman bowing his notes, Ferreira deftly twisting his volume knob, a still, spacious wash of minimalist high harmonies. Tempos varied from spacious and seemingly rubato, to straight-up four-on-the-floor, to more knotty, as the arrangements rose and fell through cinematic, anthemic themes fueled by Brown’s majestically emphatic cymbal and tom-tom work, back to hypnotic, minimalist washes of sound. The conversational rapport between Almazan and Dingman mirrored their approach in Bryan & the Aardvarks – half the time, it was hard to tell who was playing what, making that distinction pretty much beside the point. Oh’s one solo of the night was was an elegantly precise, tensely climbing lattice; later in the night, she kicked off a thematic shift with a plaintive series of bell tones that the rest of the band picked up hauntingly. Ferreira alternated between lingering, airy motives and precise, minimalist picking as Dingman – one of this era’s most consistently interesting and individualistic vibraphonists – spun a richly echoey vortex illuminated with glistening cascades, insistent two-handed rhythmic figures and poignantly whispering passages that at least seemed to be natural markers between segments. The sheer hummability and bittersweetly resonant quality of the melodies are signature Dingman traits. It was good to see this show being filmed; let’s hope that at least some of it makes it to the web.
Everyone talks about Steve Coleman (who’s got yet another good new album due out, by the way) as being a major influence on the current generation of up-and-coming jazz players, but let’s hope that Dave Douglas is as much of an inspiration. Douglas’ genius is not only as a composer and a player but as a bandleader. Consider the cast he assembled for his most recent two albums. The new one, Time Travel, is missing Aiofe O’Donovan but otherwise the core remains the same: Jon Irabagon on tenor sax; Linda Oh on bass; Rudy Royston on drums, and Matt Mitchell being the one up-and-coming player on piano and immediately elevating himself to the level of the rest of the group. The music here is considerably more exuberant than on Be Still, but it’s just as eclectic, and melodic. Douglas sets a good example with his terseness and focus: the refreshing absence of wasted notes is all the more enjoyable considering that this is rhythmically tricky stuff with plenty of room for expansive soloing.
Oh reconfirims her status as one of the most consistently interesting and purposeful bassists in jazz – she’s always searching, never willing to settle for cliches or a comfortable repetition. Irabagon gets to indulge his various personas, both good cop and bad cop but not mohawk-headed psycho cop or gasp-I’ve-been-wailing-for-ten-minutes-where-now cop. Royston does the Royston Rumble a little less than usual, but that ramps up the suspense. Likewise, Mitchell’s role here is sort of akin to the rhythm guitarist in a rock band, a perfectly executed and architecturally essential if sometimes almost invisible presence.
The opening track, Bridge to Nowhere starts out as a pretty standard postbop swing tune and then adds subtle elements like Irabagon’s microtonal japes, offcenter close harmonies between trumpet and sax and a sotto voce piano solo as the horns drop out. The richly uneasy title cut manages to stagger and be steady at the same time, no mean feat, winding down to a creepy circular piano riff over tense syncopation, Royston kicking off a skittish Mitchell sprint. The real stunner here is Law of Historical Memory with its tense pedalpoint, cumulo-nimbus ambience and brooding anthemic arc, Douglas shadowed by Irabagon, Mitchell and Royston teaming up for an unexpectedly delicious misterioso groove.
Beware of Doug is a fantastic song. It’s inspired by dixieland, but not reverential, a goodnatured slide-step stroll, Oh keeping her solo short and sweet, Royston edging wryly toward surf music. Little Feet gives Douglas a launching pad for some triumphant spiraling over Royston’s judiciously crescendoing clusters and a long, similarly exuberant, swinging statement from Mitchell.
Garden State works a bustling Mad Men era groove. There’s a point early on where Royston hits a clenched-teeth four-bar run of sixteenth notes that makes this whole album worthwhile: the point seems to be that there’s always something in Jersey that makes it impossible to finish the job, and it’s the efforts of everybody involved (especially Oh) that keep it entertaining. The final track is The Pigeon & the Pie, a mini-suite that seemingly could go anywhere and ends up hitting an absolutely gorgeous, lyrical yet bitingly funky Mitchell solo enhanced by Royston’s nimbly jaunty toms and cymbals. On one hand, this album is old news: the world is buzzing about it. On the other hand, this is why.
Winter Jazzfest, the annual festival where some of the cheesy Bleecker Street clubs turn into an astonishingly eclectic jazz mecca for a couple of nights, has come to dovetail with the annual booking agents’ convention otherwise known as APAP. That’s a great thing for the artists, who get a chance to turn their shows into auditions for at least potentially lucrative gigs; it’s a less auspicious development for the general public. More on that later. Friday’s lineup actually looked at first glance to be more enticing than Saturday’s, but Friday night there was an even better concert at Alwan for the Arts.
Once Jazzfest day two began, it was clear that the night had the potential to be an embarrassment of riches. From this particular perspective, the evening began and ended with familiar sounds – the pleasantly melodic, creatively orchestrated, occasionally modal postbop of pianist Laurence Hobgood and his sextet at le Poisson Rouge to kick things off – and ended with the high-energy, solo-centric psychedelic funk-bop of trumpeter Wallace Roney and his group at Sullivan Hall. In between, there were seemingly unlimited choices, many of them Hobson’s Choices: the best way to approach this festival is to bring a friend, see a completely different series of shows, record everything and then exchange recordings afterward. There’s literally something for every taste here, from the most mainstream to the most exciting.
As Hobgood’s set was winding down, bassist Jason Ajemian’s Highlife were launching into their possibly satirical, assaultive no wave funk at Kenny’s Castaways. Down the block at the Bitter End, bassist Stephan Crump led his Rosetta Trio with guitarists Liberty Ellman on acoustic and Jamie Fox on electric, through a series of jazzed-up Grateful Dead-style vamps and big-sky themes. Then, back at Kenny’s Castaways, the pyrotechnics began with Herculaneum: what a great find that Chicago band is. With a blazing four-horn frontline, hypnotically catchy, repetitive bass and a remarkably terse, creative drummer in Dylan Ryan, they groove with a ferocity seldom seen in this part of town. Where in New York do they typically play? For starters, Zebulon and Cake Shop. They opened with their best number, the horns agitatedly but smoothly trading off in lushly interwoven counterpoint, tenor saxophonist Nate Lepine – who seems to be one of the ringleaders of this crew – sailing intensely yet tunefully through a couple of long solos before handing it over to trombonist Nick Broste, who brought in an unexpectedly suspenseful noir vibe before the towering, vivid chart that ended it on a high note. Wow! The rest of the set included syncopated, Ethiopian-tinged funk that wouldn’t be out of place in the recent Either/Orchestra catalog; a wryly catchy, swaying midtempo number that reminded a little of Moisturizer, with Lepine wandering warily into noir territory before David McDonnell’s alto sax swirled in to save everything; an Indian-inflected flute tune; a delicious 11/4 clave piece with some tricky, microtonal playing by Lepine; and a memorably psychedelic shuffle that sounded like a beefed-up version of Moon Hooch. Fans of more traditional jazz might be wondering who the hell those bands are, but to a younger generation of New Yorkers, they’re very popular, even iconic. It was good to see Herculaneum get the chance to represent the future of jazz so auspiciously here.
And it was an unexpected treat to be able to get a seat to see their set; by ten PM, that was no longer in the cards. For that matter, neither was seeing Vijay Iyer and his trio, or for that matter Matt Wilson with his quartet and a string section, unless you were already in the club, because both le Poisson Rouge and the Bitter End were sold out, lines reaching halfway down the block. It was nice to see a young, scruffy crowd that doesn’t usually spend much time in the pricier jazz clubs come out and testify to the fact that Matt Wilson is worth standing in line for; it would have been nicer to have actually seen him play.
But there was still space over at Sullivan Hall to see pianist Fabian Almazan and his rhythm section, with bassist Linda Oh playing terrifically vivid, horn-inflected lines as he showed off his dazzling technique. Then he brought up an all-star string section of violinists Megan Gould (who’d just stunned the crowd the night before at Maqamfest with Maeandros) and Jenny Scheinman, the Roulette Sisters’ Karen Waltuch on viola and Noah Hoffeld (who has a great new album of Jewish music with pianist Lee Feldman) playing his cello with a vibrato you could drive a truck through, tackling a jazz arrangement of a Shostakovich string quartet and making it look easy without losing any of the original’s haunting quality. Which was especially good for Almazan, because it made him slow down, focus and make his notes count: it’s a no-brainer that he can do it, but it’s good to see that he actually enjoys doing it. Then they followed with an equally captivating, brooding third-stream arrangement of a Cuban folk ballad.
Back at Kenny’s Castaways again, “bebop terrorists” Mostly Other People Do the Killing had just wrapped up their set (this club seems to be where the festival hid all the edgiest acts). Bassist Shahzad Ismaily was next, leading a trio with Mat Maneri on violin and Ches Smith on drums. This was the most radically improvisational set of the night and was every bit as fun as Herculaneum had been. Ismaily quickly became a human loop machine, running hypnotic riff after hypnotic riff for minutes on end as Smith colored them with every timbre he could coax from the kit, whether rubbing the drum heads til they hummed or expertly flicking at every piece of metal within reach while Maneri alternated between hammering staccato, ghostly atmospherics and bluesy wails much in the same vein as the late, great Billy Bang. As deliciously atonal and often abrasive as much of the music was, the warm camaraderie between the musicians was obvious, violin and bass at one point involved in an animated conversation fueled by the sheets of feedback screaming from Ismaily’s amp, after which point they kept going at each other but as if from behind a wall, jabbing playfully at each others’ phrases.
By midnight, Sullivan Hall was about to reach critical mass, crowdwise if not exactly musically. Would it make sense to stick around for the 2 AM grooves of Soul Cycle followed by Marc Cary, or to see if there might be any room at the festival’s smallest venue, Zinc Bar, to check out Sharel Cassity’s set with Xavier Davis on piano at one in the morning? After more than five hours worth of music, and not having gotten home until four the previous morning, it was time to call it a night – and then get up and do it all over again one final time at Globalfest on Sunday evening.
And while it’s heartwarming to see such a good turnout of passionate jazz fans, not everyone who was packing the clubs was there for the music. What quickly became obvious as the night wore on is that many of the people there, most noticeably the drunks bellowing at each other over the music, were tourists from the suburbs who make this part of “Green Witch Village” their home on Saturday nights. Initially baffled when they discovered that they couldn’t get inside their usual haunts without a pass, they simply went around the corner to the ticket window at the Theatre for the New City space, pulled out their moms’ credit cards, and you know the rest. A word to the wise for next year: if you really must see one of the ten PM acts, get where they’re playing by nine or risk missing them. And you might want to hang there for the rest of the night as well.
Count this as the best jazz album of this young decade – give it another ten years and it could be one of the best jazz albums of an old decade. Not only is Sarah Manning a fearless and intense player, she’s a fearless and intense composer, shades of another first-class alto saxophonist, Kenny Garrett. Restless, irrepressible, unafraid and unfailingly terse, much of what she does here is transcendent. Like Garrett, she likes a stinging chromatic edge, often taking on a potently modal, Middle Eastern tinge. Like JD Allen, she doesn’t waste notes: she doesn’t waste time making her point and the result reverberates, sometimes because she likes to hit the hook again and again, sometimes because her punches delivers so much wallop. There are plenty of other influences on her new cd Dandelion Clock (Coltrane, obviously), but her voice is uniquely hers. An obviously inspired supporting cast of Art Hirahara on piano, Linda Oh on bass and Kyle Struve on drums do more than just support, they seize the moment as you do when you get the chance to play songs like this. The tracks are originals bookended by a couple of covers (isn’t that what cover are for, anyway?).
The most Coltrane-esque composition, both melodically and architecturally, here is the dark, bracing ballad Marble, Manning’s circular hook giving way to Hirahara’s thoughtfully slinking piano that builds to an insistent staccato crescendo. Oh’s solo follows with similarly relentless insistence as piano and drums prowl around behind her. The title track contemplates the concept of time as children see it – it’s not finite. The song is pensive and uneasy, as if to say that Manning knows something the kids don’t and this is her rather oblique way of telling them. Bernard Herrmann-esque piano builds expansively to a tense rhythm that ticks like a bomb, Manning emerging off-center, circling her way down to a simple but brutally effective crescendo and an ominous diminuendo from there. Crossing, Waiting is an even more potently intense exercise in how to build tension, beginning with Oh’s marvelously laconic, pointed solo, Manning eventually adding raw little phraselets over Struve’s equally incisive rattle. The high point of the album is The Owls Are on the March, something of an epic. Hirahara’s haunted-attic righthand is the icing on Manning’s plaintively circling phrases. The way she builds and finally sails her way out of an expansive Hirahara solo, turns on a dime and finally brings up the lights, then winds them down mournfully again is one of the most exquisite moments on any jazz album in the last few years.
There’s also the aptly titled Phoenix Song, Manning’s easygoing congeniality a bright contrast with the brooding band arrangement until she goes otherworldly with them at the end; the equally otherworldly tone poem Through the Keyhole and the after-dark scenario Habersham St. The two covers are strikingly original, a defiantly unsettling post-bop interpretation of Jimmy Rowles’ The Peacocks, and Michel Legrand’s The Windmills of Your Mind, taken with a murky tango feel to the back streets of Paris – prime Piaf territory – and then out to Toulouse. Manning is somebody to get to know now – the album’s just out on Posi-Tone.