Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Ellingtonian Depth and Purpose from Christian McBride

On one hand, to spend time on Christian McBride and Inside Straight’s new Mack Avenue album People Music here, when it’s already been out for two weeks and most everybody who wants it probably already has it, might not make a lot of sense. On the other hand, this is an important album for 2013. To call it Ellingtonian wouldn’t be off the mark. Deeply rooted in the blues, with strong hooks, gritty tunesmithing and a purposeful, workmanlike performance from an inspired cast of A-listers (slightly subsumed in the crisp digital production), it’s one of the best albums of the year. The concept of People Music is music for the people: tunes and a beat. Obviously, it’s not that simple. McBride’s mix of brisk, matter-of-fact swing and expansive balladry leans toward the dark side and mixes up the metrics: it’s a long way from being a pop record. Everybody’s on the same page: besides McBride, most of the album features Steve Wilson on alto and soprano sax, Carl Allen on drums, Peter Martin on piano and Warren Wolf on vibes, with Christian Sands and Ulysses Owens switching in on piano and drums on two tracks.

Sands’ steely-eyed lyricism drives the memorable opening track, the minor-key swing blues Listen to the Heroes Cry, handing off to an understatedly plaintive McBride bass solo. The bright, Brazilian-tinged Fair Hope Theme is a Wolf feature: it’s a dead ringer for a Behn Gillece tune, which is a compliment to both McBride’s writing and Wolf’s playing. The showstopper here is Gang Gang with its rolling, Indian-inflected rhythm, a biting piano vamp (Sands again) teaming with the vibraphone for a creepy carnivalesque crescendo, Allen’s deft cymbals peppering the rewarding final ascent.

Maya Angelou gets a ballad that portrays her with a nonchalant majesty, Wilson’s balmy soprano sax handing off to a tender Wolf spot that  builds to an unexpected clave groove and then winds down again. The Movement has an agitated, flurrying Mingus bustle, the whole band’s no-nonsense, percussive attack making its way methodically to an edgy Wilson alto solo. His alto also serves as a fiery foil to the nonchalantly dancing, staccato pulse of Usual Suspects, while Dream Train works a fast tiptoeing swing groove, Wolf’s rapidfire ripples in a tug-of-war with Martin’s purposeful, tumbling attack. They reprise the New Hope theme at the end as slinky clave soul. Is it any wonder why McBride is so popular?

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May 29, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tia Fuller’s Angelic Warrior: More Weapons Than Wings

Saxophonist Tia Fuller may be best known to jazz listeners these days as a member of Esperanza Spalding’s band. With her new album Angelic Warrior – just out from Mack Avenue – Fuller matches her ferocious, purist chops with an equally formidable, eclectically cerebral approach to postbop composition. Much of this has to do with having grown up in a jazz family as the daughter of bassist father Fred Fuller, singer mom Elthopia Fuller and pianist sister Shamie Royston, who plays on this album along with her husband, this generation’s exemplary extrovert drummer, Rudy Royston. The rest of the cast, sometimes adding up to an all-female band, includes Mimi Jones on bass, John Patitucci playing single-note guitar-style leads on piccolo bass and Shirazette Tinnin on percussion. Terri Lyne Carrington guests on drums on three tracks, and Dianne Reeves adds an aptly misty vocal on Body and Soul, which the band reinvents as an expansive clave soul ballad, somewhat akin to Joe Jackson backing Sade.

On both alto and soprano horn, Fuller plays with a distinctively bright, penetrating tone, considerably more warrior than angel, right from the hard-hitting opening chords of Royston Rumble, the whole fam here united with a purposefulness that pervades this record, with a classic, explosive Rudy Royston solo toward the end. By contrast, Ralphie’s Groove – a Ralph Peterson shout-out, with a tip of the hat to both Ahmad Jamal and Tony Williamas – is the first of several showcases for Fuller’s razorlike precision on soprano. Fuller’s wickedly spiraling solo on the long horn toward the end of the title track is absolutely exquisite, as is her brother-in-law’s artfully shuffling descent to the toms after a bubbly solo by his wife: there’s an easy explanation for the chemistry in this band.

While the catchy ballad Lil Les may have been written as a playful child’s theme, with bright alto and piano solos in turn, it has a memorably uneasy undercurrent. Likewise, the breezy soca allusions in Descend to Barbados have edge and bite, particularly when Fuller ‘s alto nails the end of a casually sailing Pattituci solo toward the end. Their take on So in Love counterintuitively juxtaposes languid balladry with stilletto staccato swing lit up by an animated Jones solo and a clenched-teeth crescendo from the rhythm section. A pretty standard-issue Rhodes funk tune, Tailor Made suddenly dims the lights as Jones solos with a lingering tension before the band takes it back to funk on the heels of another Royston Rumble. They follow that with the catchy, spacious, brooding balllad Core of Me and then the matter-of-factly swinging Simpli-city, deftly spiraling piano in contrast to Fuller’s head-on, almost minimalist alto. And they finally take Cherokee from a suspenseful shuffle driven by Tinnin’s circling percussion to a racewalking swing, Fuller’s clustering alto crescendo keeping a steady eye on the target no matter how far she moves off center. Tunesmithing? Check. Playing? Doublecheck. Not a bad song on this album: a stealth contender for best of 2012.

September 25, 2012 Posted by | latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Hot Club of Detroit Gets to the Junction At Full Speed

Prime movers in the gypsy jazz resurgence, the Hot Club of Detroit’s new album, Junction, features a somewhat revamped lineup since bassist Andrew Kratzat suffered a near-fatal car accident last year. But there’s good news on all fronts: Kratzat and his fiancee continue on their road to recovery, and the band found a capable replacement in Shawn Conley. Otherwise, the original core of accordionist Julien Labro and guitarists Evan Perri and Paul Brady is back, joined this time out by reedmen Jon Irabagon and Andrew Bishop plus chanteuse Cyrille Aimee, with whom they’ve toured extensively. Irabagon’s wit and supersonic chops, Bishop’s eclecticism and ironclad sense of melody and Aimee’s purist charm each contribute to the diversity of the songs here. In the spirit of the band’s previous efforts, this album imaginatively blends jaunty grooves with ideas from all over the musical spectrum, continuing to push beyond traditional gypsy jazz.

That’s apparent right off the bat with a funky Irabagon composition, Goodbye Mr. Anderson (a Matrix reference, in case you might be wondering). It’s basically a two-chord jam with a catchy turnaround: spiraling solos from Labro’s accordion and Perri’s electric guitar set up an even more blistering, adrenalizing one from the composer himself.

They follow that with Song for Gabriel, the first of several Perri/Labro co-writes, bouncy and lyrical with some rich alto sax/accordion harmonies. Aimee sings La Foule over tricky, syncopated gypsy jazz: it’s a mouthful, and rather than trying to outdo Piaf, Aimee takes it in a much more understated direction, Perri adding an aptly wistful, expansive acoustic guitar solo.

An upbeat tune simply titled Hey! makes a launching pad for a wildfire cutting contest between Irabagon and Bishop: after a roller-coaster ride of doublestops, trills, unexpected hesitations and gritty microtones, they take it down to a cool accordion/bass/guitar pulse. Chutzpah, a John Zorn homage, kicks off with a tongue-in-cheek improvisational intro and then adds a subtle klezmer tinge, Irabagon springboarding off it with microtonal alto sax pyrotechnics. Then they resurrect a rare Django mass (which Reinhardt left unfinished), Messe Gitane, accordion taking the rather morose role of the church organ, Perri’s guitar eventually taking it into warmer terrain and then handing off to Bishop’s crystalline clarinet.

Django Mort, a setting of a Jean Cocteau poem is delivered very low-key by Aimee over a slow, stately sway. The cinematic, pensively swaying title track, with its folk-rock tinges and plaintive accordion, reminds of Montreal eclecticists Sagapool. The most memorable of all the tracks here, Midnight in Detroit is over too soon in just over a couple of minutes, Labro’s Balkan swirls lighting up the guitars’ nocturnal backdrop.

There’s also a George Shearing homage done as an offcenter, pensive ballad; the deliciously original Puck Bunny, a wry mix of country blues,gypsy swing and jump blues that evokes the Microscopic Septet’s take on Thelonious Monk; a vocal take on Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman that far surpasses a similar version by [who???] which was a rock radio hit in the 70s; and a Phish cover which transcends the original simply by not being an embarrassment. It’s out now on Mack Avenue.

August 19, 2012 Posted by | gypsy music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Alfredo Rodriguez Is the Real Deal

A lot of people, this blog along with them, slept on Cuban-American pianist Alfredo Rodriguez’ debut album Sounds of Space when it first came out on Mack Avenue this past spring and that was a mistake. Quincy Jones produced, and has gone to bat for Rodriguez, whose dark, intense third-stream compositions and eclectic playing are auspicious to the point of putting him at the front of the pack for rookie of the year, 2012. Rodriguez’ training is classical; unsurprisingly, he’s just as adept at salsa jazz, but ultimately it’s his compositions that impress the most here.

The album’s most amazing number, Fog, is the only one of its kind here, a towering cinematic noir theme that could be a lost track from The Individualism of Gil Evans, featuring wind ensemble the Santa Cecilia Quartet. With brooding piano and terse bass puncturing the ominous mist of close harmonies, sudden horror cadenzas punctuating its creepy, nocturnal glimmer, it has a visceral power equalled by few other compositions released this year. Let’s hope that Rodriguez has more of these up his sleeve.

That’s the album’s final cut – getting there is an enjoyable and frequently bracing ride. The album opens on a disarmingly playful Carib jazz note lit up by Rodriguez’ balmy melodica phrasing and whispery piano over the suspenseful pulse of bassist Peter Slavov and drummer Francisco Mela, who eventually return to join Rodriguez on the tuneful Oxygen, a vividly Cuban take on late 50s Brubeck, and as it goes on, ragtime. Bassist Gaston Joya and drummer/percussionist Michael Olivera supply the grooves the rest of the way, along with multi-reedman Ernesto Vega, whose soprano sax adds nostalgic lyricism to the second track, Sueno de Paseo. The strangely titled Silence is cinematic to the max, with furtively scurrying piano/bass crescendos leading up to an unexpectedly buoyant soprano sax interlude, Rodriguez veering from dark to light, eventually mingling salsa and gospel tinges into the rhythmic intensity. The genial, tinkling salsa jazz tune Cubop is more Cuban than bop, while the Schumann-esque April sets a chillingly rippling neoromantic mood: for Rodriguez, it’s still winter.

With its distant, uneasy modalities, spaciousness and tricky 9/4 tempo, the title track evokes Christian McBride’s recent work. Crossing the Border is another cinematic narrative, incorporating elements of boogie-woogie as well as salsa and the neoromantic. A Ernesto Lecuona homage has a lilting, Brubeck-ish pulse, juxtaposing biting atonalities with warmer, dancing spirals. The arc of the album reaches higher with the dynamically rich Transculturation, bristling with a succession of suspense motifs, off-center chromatics and biting Middle Eastern clarinet over a brisk clave beat. And then the fog rolls in. If you caught up with this before we did, good for you: if not, don’t miss the boat a second time around.

August 15, 2012 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Auspicious Studio Debut of the Christian McBride Big Band

If you think that kids only have an interest in stuff that’s on the web, talk to students in a jazz program, or just young people who’ve just found their jazz muse. The excitement is visceral – they’ve been waiting patiently for Christian McBride’s first album with his big band, titled The Good Feeling, just out on Mack Avenue. That excitement may be quaint, but it’s inspiring all the same. From the perspective of seeing McBride do some of these tunes live earlier this year, the cool kids are right (they always are) – the album was worth the wait.

Auspiciously, in a lot of places, this evokes nothing less than Mingus. Which makes sense – McBride is to the teens what Mingus was for a couple of decades, simply the most respected jazz bassist around. His approach characteristically balances excitement with gravitas, and occasionally a sly sense of humor. From the gleefully chugging baritone sax-and-bass intro to the opening swing number, Shake N Blake to the closing cut, In a Hurry, it’s a tuneful, meticulously arranged ride. The opening track sets the stage: a long expansive tenor solo cut off by big brass blasts, trumpeter Nicholas Payton being his good-natured self, trombonist Steve Davis taking it into apprehensively fluttering territory, and a cleverly tiptoeing solo by the bandleader himself that eventually starts stomping and brings the band back joyously.

The second track, Broadway, begins with Ron Blake’s understated soprano sax driving against the lush arrangement, with a long, deviously bluesy, literally unstoppable McBride solo. This version of the clave classic Brother Mister (which McBride also covered on his Kind of Brown album) gets a pillowy, staccato brass chart, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson sailing over the impatient rhythm section, with a bracing blast of brass setting off the second chorus as the whole band spins in a vortex. Live in concert in Manhattan earlier this summer, the song was every bit the casual showstopper it is here. The album’s centerpiece is a genuine classic, a titanic, practically twelve-minute version of Science Fiction (from McBride’s 2000 album Sci-Fi). It’s a noir suite straight out of Mingus: conspiratorial chatter over a clave beat; a blistering, fast swing shuffle with a bracing Todd Bashore alto sax solo; a chilling low-register bridge that goes straight to the murder scene, Xavier Davis’ piano fueling a riff that evokes Ennio Morricone’s Taxi Driver Theme.

The Shade of the Cedar Tree makes its way through to a clever false ending with Payton’s cool, bluesy vibe, Blake’s tenor interpolated judiciously against the towering ambience. Nat Cole’s I Should Care shifts from practically ethereal to surprisingly brooding, but Payton picks it up wryly and Blake keeps it going in that direction. They do A Taste of Honey as a jazz waltz – that one will resonate more with those who prefer the Herb Alpert version over the Beatles’. With its blazing crescendos and gingerly pointillistic bass/piano tradeoffs, Blues in Alphabet City vividly evokes the days when the Lower East Side New York neighborhood was interesting, before it turned into a wasteland of suburban conspicuous consumption. The album closes with the rapidfire swing of In a Hurry, Payton taking his time before he goes absolutely ballistic, McBride balancing intensity with a dark wit as he bows his solo, drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. bringing in a thinly disguised, jaunty second line rhythm

The rest of the orchestra deserves a shout-out as well: Todd Williams on tenor and flute; Loren Schoenberg (maestro of the Jazz Museum in Harlem) on tenor on two tunes; Carl Maraghi on baritone sax and bass clarinet; Frank Greene, Freddie Hendrix and Nabate Isles on trumpets; Michael Dease and James Burton on trombones; Douglas Purviance on bass trombone; and Melissa Walker on vocals. When uploading to your phone or your pod, you may want to omit the vocal tunes: it’s not that Walker doesn’t sing them well, it’s just that trying to squeeze substance out of material like When I Fall in Love is like getting getting blood from a stone.

September 25, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New Gary Burton Quartet: Smashingly Successful

At this point in his career, jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton is entitled to do whatever he wants – which in this case means yet another great, tuneful album with a terrific band. His latest, Common Ground, assembles a set of roomy, expansive recordings with plenty of space for each individual personality. The easy chemistry here attests to Burton choosing wisely when bringing this band together. Specifically, this New Gary Burton Quartet includes Julian Lage on guitar, Scott Colley on bass and Antonio Sanchez on drums. Dating from even before his days with Larry Coryell back in the 60s, Burton has been a fan of guitar/vibraphone textures, and this album testifies to the kind of magic frequencies those instruments can create together. Lage has been riding a well-deserved wave of buzz for his latest album Gladwell, and here he plays bad cop to Burton’s melodic, often majestic lines, slashing and biting – he’s an edgy player in general, even more so here. Colley’s rock-solid runs and steps often anchor the rhythm as Sanchez gets to explore the perimeter and add all kinds of subtle shades.

The opening cut, Late Night Sunrise has an easygoing later-than-wee-hours feel, Colley’s brief, suspenseful bass a perfect lead-in to Lage’s spot-on, blithe but biting solo. Never the Same Way gives Burton a chance to invent new ways to work a simple modal vamp, Lage mimicking him and tossing off sparks before Colley adds wry humor. With its rippling vaudevillian hook, the title track is somewhat tongue-in-cheek: we dare you to listen to this without imaging a tenor sax line in the early going. It’s the space here that makes it, notwithstanding a deliciously bluesy Burton solo and some nimbly slashing lines from Lage. The real stunner here is Was It So Long Ago, atmospheric with an understated ache, totally noir without being the least bit cliched. As it goes on, it hints at the tango work that Burton so memorably explored a few years ago. When Lage’s guitar starts smoldering with just a tinge of natural distortion, it’s the perfect setup for Burton’s lingering ambience – and it’s not the only genuinely transcendent moment here.

Etude pairs off playful embellishments on a circular baroque figure with flamenco tinges; Last Snow follows a memorable, narrative trajectory from pensive to brighter and then back down again, courtesy of Colley. Sanchez livens up Did You Get It, a buoyant, witty jump blues. They reinvent My Funny Valentine – maybe the best-ever version of that moldy oldie – with lengthy, warily allusive solo guitar passages and then swing it with darkly bluesy touches. The album ends with the wickedly catchy Banksy, a noirish theme with a Get Carter ambience, switching artfully to a creepy jazz waltz midway through, and then the ballad In Your Place which begins as a pop song but gets interesting quickly. This is Burton’s debut on the Mack Avenue label. He had heart surgery last year, but it’s impossible to tell: still sounds like the same old heart to us, a very good thing.

June 8, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The New Gary Burton Quartet: Smashingly Successful