Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Marc Cary Delivers Depth and Gravitas and Redemptive Fun at a Harlem Jazz Shrine

Pianist Marc Cary and his Focus Trio – Rashaan Carter on bass and Sameer Gupta on drums.- played their opening set at Minton’s uptown last night like a suite. It was as if they felt the cold and the snow flurries outside – not to mention the tension and grief this city’s endured in the last couple of weeks – and decided to welcome everyone and warm them up with a healthy dose of hot pepper. But they eschewed jalapeno jump for a lingering, resonant bhut jolokia burn. That Indian pepper reference is deliberate, and makes sense since Cary draws so deeply on Indian classical music, plunging in and savoring its otherworldly qualities to a greater degree than most western musicians.

Gupta’s relentless, restless energy, implied clave and wry repartee maintained a livewire energy as Cary mined the low registers for pitchblende atmosphere, with long, pedaled choral phrases, suspenseful modalities, minimalistic, rhythmic motives and the occasional droll phrase or two on an old analog synth perched above the piano keys. Although he got more animated and threw in rippling, bluesy riffage and runs toward the end of the set, most of it was lowlit, dark and mystical.

The rhythm section got to expand throughout a catchy number inspired by a transcontinental flight sitting next to Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal, who used his time on the plane to write a brand new tune. Betty’s Waltz, a stirring, bittersweetly assertive Betty Carter homage from Cary’s latest album Four Directions, became a platform for brooding, Satie-esque resonance. Cary hit a peak by reinventing his mentor Abbey Lincoln’s Throw It Away as a bitterly ambered mood piece – it was there that he chilled out on the synth, adding only some eerily echoey blues phrases that brought the song toward a corporate idiom, but in an out-of-focus and sardonic way. No doubt Lincoln would have loved that.

Meanwhile, it fell to Carter to hold the center as he added subtle colors when he wasn’t underpinning the songs with a muscularly slinky pulse to match Gupta’s clenched-teeth, tersely rapidfire volleys. Cary’s next NYC gig is at the Cell Theatre, 338 W 23rd St (8th & 9th Aves) on Jan 10.

A word about the vemue: Cary told the crowd that of all the false starts that various owners have taken in the Minton’s space over the past couple of decades, this version of the club is the best yet. He’s right. It’s a cross between the Vanguard and a swanky soul food emporium like Sylvia’s: plush ambience, inobtrusive but attentive service, expertly tricked-out sonics channeling the ghosts of history. Bebop was invented on this very same stage (or at least a significant piece of it) back in the late 30s, when the Ellington band held their famous cutting contests here. This incarnation of the club seems to draw a late crowd, and party people: it’s a Harlem jazz shrine that ought to be a must-see destination for anyone who cares about the music.

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December 22, 2014 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, NYC Live Music Calendar, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Arun Ramamurthy Radically Reinvents Ragas

Although violinist Arun Ramamurthy has extensive training in Indian carnatic music, he’s also a jazz guy. He’s got a lively, intriguing, cross-pollinating new album, Jazz Carnatica,streaming at Bandcamp. It’s an attempt to radically reinvent ragas with his trio, Perry Wortman on bass and Sameer Gupta – leader of Indian jazz band Namaskar, who reinvent old Bollywood themes – on drums. What does this music sound like? Because all but one of the tracks are based on classic ragas, it’s Indian classical music first and foremost. But the rhythms are lithe and dancing and full of pulsing energy, and far more terse than the frequently expansive, slowly unwinding themes of sitar music. If you’ve got friends who might confide something like, “Sure, I like Indian music ok, but it’s so meeeelllllllloooooowwwwww…” play this the next time you see them and they’ll have a change of heart. The trio are playing the album release show on Nov 1 at 8 PM at at Greenwich House Music School, 46 Barrow St. in the West Village; cover is $15.

As much as Ramamurthy’s violin moves around, and it’s always in motion, even when he’s at his most energetic he doesn’t stray far from a central tone. That tension fuels a lot of understated mystery here. The opening track starts out surprisingly funky, with a catchy turnaround and a very cleverly implied two-chord (or two-mode, if you must) vamp. The elegant intro of the second number quickly gives way to a dancing but hypnotic theme, which the band vamps on – Wortman often doubles Ramamurthy’s lines, providing a staccato contrast to Ramamurthy’s lingering sustain.

Marc Cary – who also plays with Gupta in Namaskar – guests on the album’s three central tracks. The first also features another cross-pollinating violinist, Trina Basu – it’s the closest thing here to a psychedelically rustic, Ravi Shankar-style raga, but built around a riff that’s pure blues. The second has Cary adding a little calypso jazz flair and the most traditional jazz vernacular of the tracks here.

The next two tracks build out of moody atmospherics to more lively interplay. Likewise, the seventh track – the one Ramamurthy original, and the best of them all – expands outward from a broodingly chromatic tune to a bouncy bass solo. As the album goes along, Ramamurthy goes deeper into the microtones, his rather severe, intense tone contrasting with Wortman’s bubbly bass on the eight number here. The final one is the closest to the kind of modal jazz that Gupta plays in Namaskar, Ramamurthy choosing his spots. All of the tracks clock in at more than five minutes, sometimes considerably more. Onstage, they’ll probably take them out even further into more psychedelic territory. This is an album that will grab a lot of people: Indian music fans in search of a shot of adrenaline, and jazz fans who thrive on the space between the notes.

October 29, 2014 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Best Jazz Albums of 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Cary Electrifies the Jazz Standard

Marc Cary‘s Focus Trio is well-named. The pyrotechnic, perennially soulful pianist and his longtime drummer Sameer Gupta share a close cameraderie – Gupta’s reliance on toms where other drummers would use cymbals underscores Cary’s relentlessly rhythmic drive and gravitas. Yet for all Cary’s hard-hitting, magisterial intensity, he has an unexpectedly wry wit. Wednesday night at the Jazz Standard he juxtaposed that good-natured humor with the spine-tingling power he’s best known for. Despite the gloomy skies overhead, it was strange to see that the club wasn’t sold out, although there were plenty of A-listers who’d come out to enjoy the ride, Joe Locke and Renee Rosnes among them.

It didn’t take Cary long to go deep into the music and get completely lost in it, to the extent of forgetting song titles and losing track of time. At the end of the early set, realizing he’d gone past curfew, he did a closing number anyway, a characteristic blend of grit and blues-infused lyricism in 10/4 which he said was inspired by repeated visits to the Chappaquiddick Indian reservation in Massachusetts: “Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!”

Getting to that point was a rich and stormy experience. Most of the trio’s material drew on the group’s new Four Directions album, bassist Rashaan Carter sometimes locking with Cary’s piledriver lefthand, other times – especially when Carter switched to Fender bass – coloring the material with a dancing, trebly timbre. Cary’s fiery volleys of block chords alternated with spacious passages where the pianist would back off a bit and then add a little texture or a gentle phrase from the synth he’d perched on top of the piano. And most of the time the effect, whether a wash of strings or a hint of organ, enhanced the intensity rather than adding a comedic effect – although there were a few moments like that, one where Carter took the idea and flew with it on the Fender through a long series of woozy, tremoloing chords.

Cary prefaced a Jackie McLean tune with an anecdote about eavesdropping on McLean and Arthur Taylor grousing about how to get their new-jack supporting cast to take their game to the next level. He brought up rising star alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin to guest on a raga, a tough assignment since she was limited to jamming out on a single mode, but she signaled in on Gupta’s elegantly flurrying tabla and added a jaunty, crystalline-toned flair. They turbocharged He Who Hops Around – which nicks the bassline from Dizzy Gillespie’s Manteca – juxtaposing lickety-split swing with leaping piano and bass motives and then an unexpected clave groove from Gupta, and also ramped up the energy on Betty’s Waltz, a stirring, bittersweetly assertive Betty Carter homage from the new album. Cary’s steely chordal assault anchoring an expanding melody that was as plaintive as it was powerful. It is never safe to say that any one player is the best on any particular instrument, but this show left the undeniable feeling that there is no other pianist who employs virtuoso chops to deliver emotional impact more effectively than Marc Cary. One final thought: have he and Kenny Garrett ever shared a stage? That could be really electrifying.

December 10, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Marc Cary Expands His Sonic Spectrum with His New Focus Trio Album

While Marc Cary is one of the most distinctive pianists in jazz, he’s also one of the more eclectic. His new album Four Directions with his Focus Trio features longtime drummer Sameer Gupta, with the bass chair being shared, sometimes jointly, by Burniss Earl Travis and Rashaan Carter. Some of this is Cary at his steely, darkly majestic best, in the same vein as his richly vivid solo Abbey Lincoln homage, For the Love of Abbey, which came out earlier this year. But Cary is also a funkmeister, and there are slightly more lighthearted moments here too. But even the most off-the-cuff track, Todi Blues – which is basically a one-chord jam with layers of various electronic keys and twin basses – has a distant, nocturnally glimmering unease.

Waltz Betty Waltz, a Betty Carter tribute, is characteristically purist, broodingly magisterial Cary, a syncopated bounce that sets biting chromatics against Ellingtonian blues. Open Baby brings an Angelo Badalementi-esque apprehension to a disarmingly simple Rhodes tune.  He Who Hops Around might just as well be called He Who Hops Around Forever, working gingerly wary allusions against a droll pogo-stick octave riff.

Terreon Gully’s Tanktified captures both the sternness and propulsiveness of gospel music, with a wry Bill Withers quote. Boom, one of the best tracks here, lets Cary hold the center much of the time with his hard-hitting block chords underpinning a slasher righthand attack, further spiced by polyrhythmic bass/drums conversations and a surprisingly calm outro.  Ready or Not makes a good segue, the bass finally succeeding in pulling Cary out of the murk and getting  him to bounce around, up to some wry rhythmic jousting.

John McLaughlin’s  Spectrum gets remade as a pretty straight-up swing tune, albeit with Cary on  Rhodes, and it works surprisingly well. They pick up the raging energy again with the swaying, hypnotically rhythmic Indigenous and close with Outside My Window, a sense of menace gradually and vividly emerging from the one extended passage where Cary indulges his well-known fondness for Indian classical music. It’s deep, it’s enigmatic and it’s everything you would expect from this lyrical powerhouse and his sympatico supporting cast.

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

John Funkhouser’s Darkly Glimmering New Album: One of 2013’s Best

Pianist John Funkhouser’s previous album, Time, was a rhythmically challenging but tunefully Brubeckian trio effort. His new one, Still, puts more of an emphasis on the tunesmithing, with potently dynamic results: it’s one of this year’s best piano jazz albums. Two of the top players in the Boston scene, Greg Loughman and Mike Connors, play bass and drums, respectively, along with guest appearances from guitarist Phil Sargent and chanteuse Aubrey Johnson.

The opening narrative, Indigo Montoya’s Great Escape sounds like Marc Cary’s Focus Trio burning through a Kenny Garrett tune, rippling its way quickly to a percussive latin vamp, its back-and-forth variations from murky and minimal tracing a memorably moody upward trajectory. The band practically segues out of it with a dirgey version of House of the Rising Sun, a feature for Loughman’s tersely mournful bowed lines juxtaposed with the bandleader’s similarly terse piano and an expansive gravel-pit of a drum solo that makes an understatedly potent coda. One of Funkhouser’s standout compositions here, The Deep contrasts his stygian, judiciously spaced block chords and Sargent’s atmospherics with Loughman and Connors’ increasingly funky polyrhythms, psychedelic funk up against warmly Frisellian pastoral colors…..and then a boogie?!?

Funkhouser and Loughman reinvent Rodgers and Hart’s My Romance as a duet with a lyrical third-stream glimmer, Connors finally roaming in from the perimeter and introducing some unexpected metric shifts. By contrast, Monk’s Little Rootie Tootie is a dancing, wryly syncopated feature for Sargent’s reverb-drenched, methodical, crescendoingly insistent lines. Leda coalesces from a gothically catchy neoromantic theme to a dark waltz, Johnson working the eerie/calm atmosphere with her icily opaque, literally bone-chilling upper-register vocalese, Loughman’s balletesque solo echoing her later on. Then they pick up the pace with Shakedown, a witty, richly nuanced noir stroll that’s essentially a Monk homage. The concluding, title track is Funkhouser’s Middle Eastern noir piece de resistance, echoing both Vijay Iyer as well as Cary’s take on the Erik Satie book with its resonant, hauntingly allusive midrange piano, Loughman and Connors in turn working the mysterioso depths and then rising in tandem with Funkhouser as the other solos. It’s too slow and haunting to be dizzying; Krysztof Komeda (whose darker themes Funkhouser sometimes evokes here) might well have called it astigmatic.

October 14, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Riveting, Majestic Abbey Lincoln Tribute from Marc Cary

Marc Cary is probably the most Ellingtonian pianist out there right now. That may be the highest praise anyone can confer on a pianist, but Cary reaffims that trait over and over on his new album For the Love of Abbey, a collection of highly improvised solo versions of Abbey Lincoln songs. It’s stormy and ferociously articulate, like Lincoln – Cary should know, considering that he was her music director through the end of her career. It’s intense, hard-hitting but elegant to a fault. Without the constraints of having a band behind him, Cary seizes the opporutunity to play the changes rubato, taking his time over low, lingering, frequently explosive lefthand pedal notes. That this simple game plan would work as impactfully as it does throughout most of the songs here testifies to his power as an improviser: there’s not a single cliche on this album. Cary’s fluency in so many different vernaculars never ceases to amaze: irony-infused blues, menacing modalities, third-stream glimmer and gleam.

Cary opens by taking Music Is the Magic to a towering intensity  a bluesy scramble and then back. Down Here below begins with a low-register rumble and rises to an epic majesty, from blues to hard-hitting block chords and a chillingly modal ending. One of only three tracks here not written by Lincoln, Ellington’s Melancholia is less melancholy than a rich exploration of Debussyesque colors and nebulously Asian tinges. Cary’s own For Moseka works cleverly out of a circular lefthand riff to a pensive jazz waltz that he sends spiraling.

Who Used to Dance gets a bitterly reflective poignancy; it’s over too soon. Should’ve Been is spaciously moody, but with bite, ending on an elegantly bitter downward run. My Love Is You is a study in suspense: Cary introduces what seem for a second to be familiar phrases, but then takes everything on unexected but purposeful tangents, a litle Asian, a little vaudevillian. Love Evolves makes a good segue from there, hypnotic and brooding, finally livened with a couple of rapidfire righthand flourishes before its final descent into Chopinesque, haunting austerity.

Throw It Away potently pairs chromatically crushing, eerie lefthand against a gospel-tinged, dynamically shifting melody. Another World provides a sense of relief from the severity yet doesn’t leave it completely behind; Cary throws a clock-chime motif into the works, a neat touch. A rapt, saturnine When I’m Called Home brings back hints of Asian melody and an unexpected ragtime-flavored jauntiness, seemingly a segue with Conversations with a Baby, which grows from tender to emphatic: it’s time to talk sense to that kid! Cary closes the album with a brief modal introduction of his own into Down Here Below the Horizon, a summation of sorts with its glittering, anguished waves, from Romantic rigor to a familiar blues trope that he turns utterly chilling. If you love Abbey Lincoln, as Cary very obviously still does, you will find the way he ends this absolutely shattering. It’ll bring tears to your eyes. As solo piano albums go, the only one from this year that remotely compares to this is Bobby Avey‘s murky Be Not So Long to Speak. Look for this high on the best albums of 2013 page here in December if we make it that far.

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

Jonathan Finlayson’s Debut As a Bandleader Is Everything You Would Expect

Jonathan Finlayson may have grown up as the teenage wunderkind in Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, but he has a distinctive, lyrical voice as both a trumpeter and composer. Moment & the Message, his debut with his ensemble Sicilian Defense – pianist David Virelles, guitarist Miles Okazaki, bassist Keith Witty and drummer Damion Reid – is one of the most auspicious in recent memory. This album resonates on an emotional and intellectual level, packed with melody, depth and ideas worth stealing. The Coleman influence is there, no question, especially as far as counterpoint and a more or less continuously dancing rhythm is concerned. Finlayson’s tone is more bronze than brass: lively as this music is, there’s a lot of gravitas here. Verelles gets the enviable task of nailing that dark riffage, sometimes with echoes of another dark but irrepressibly funky pianist, Marc Cary (who has a phenomenal Abbey Lincoln tribute out recently).

The opening track, Circus, is a diptych, a playfully dancing, bouncy theme with a long series of eighths from Finlayson, followed by a brooding, almost stalking modal march anchored by Witty’s sepulchral washes. Bad segue, good music. (WARNING – SPOILER ALERT) Lo Haze works a very clever trajectory: it takes the old trope of stating the head and then messing with it and works it backwards. By the end, this majestic, shuffling march has become a gritty, minimalist soul theme, coalescing methodically through many divergences. Ruy Lopez segues out of it with nonchalant conversations between Finlayson and Okazaki, and later Reid and Virelles. Carthage is portrayed as a vibrant if somewhat ominous place, fueled by Virelles’ emphatic, hard-hitting lefthand.

Tensegrity shifts from an artful, baroque-tinged acoustic guitar intro to a wry scramble between Virelles and Reid, in contrast to the serioso melody. Le Bas-Fond also leaps out of an impressionistic intro, this time from Virelles – it’s the most trad, solos-around-the-horn type thing here. Okazaki’s nimble, spot-on vintage 60s staccato soul guitar spices the insistent chords and tersely pulsing trumpet melody of Tyre.

The big epic here is Fives and Pennies, a tone poem that slowly emerges out from under the piano lid – literally – to a long, methodically wary Finlayson solo and finally some unleashed menace from Virelles on the way out. They return to animated and somewhat more relaxed form to wind up the album with Scaean Gates. Pi Recordings, home base for many of the Coleman posse, gets credit for this one.

July 6, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vijay Iyer’s Accelerando from a Distance

Why cover Vijay Iyer’s Accelerando now, in the wake of all the acclaim, the unprecedented sweep of the Downbeat critics’ poll, ad infinitum? For one, to assess how much of the hype is justified. And from a blogger’s perspective, it never hurts to step out of the magic, secret corners that we and sometimes we alone seem to know about, and venture out into the so-called mainstream to lure traffic off the wider expanses of the world wide web into those magic, secret corners. So consider this both a ploy and an unvarnished attempt to make sense of Iyer’s soaring popularity.

Which is well-deserved. Let’s get the punchline out of the way: he has a rare gift for melody as well as a fearlessness that extends from the political to his choice of material. Iyer will literally cover anything. Yet as much as has been written about how he’s bringing cutting-edge concepts into what’s left of any kind of jazz mainstream – which doesn’t seem to exist any more than it does in rock or any other style of music these days – what’s been surprisingly absent from the discussion is how much gravitas amd depth Iyer brings to the equation. Sometimes a single note – here, for example, a lingering, quiet low lefthand accent after a briskly dissociative take of Herbie Nichols’ Wildflower has ended and is fading out – is all he needs to drive the mood home. Long ago, Dave Brubeck began working that magisterial territory with the same kind of rhythmic authority that Iyer does here with his trio, Stephan Crump and Marcus Gilmore. More recently, Marc Cary, and to some extent, Gerald Clayton have roamed with the same kind of understated drama and majesty without losing the pulse of the music. Ultimately, that’s what gives Iyer’s work (and Brubeck’s, and Cary’s, and Clayton’s) lasting value.

In case you missed it elsewhere, the theme of Accelerando is dance rhythms, and all the fun that can be had with them. As usual, the compositions are a mix of originals and covers from across the musical spectrum, from the sublimely avant to the ridiculously commercial. Much as the rhythms are jaunty, the moods tend to be brooding, sometimes verging on menace. Bode, the Satie-esque modal piece that opens the album, builds to a Cary-esque rumble. The modal intensity is maintained on the nimbly dancing, somewhat ironically titled Optimism, a blend of grace and gravitas, Gilmore shadowing and then driving the long upward arc. Similarly, Iyer engages the drums in the muddled, off-center rhythms of a radical reinvention of The Star of a Story – a semi-hit by the 70s disco band Heatwave – moving from pretty straightforward funk into the smoke above the embers, and then back out.

Iyer’s attempt to reduce a rather frantic, largescale Henry Threadgill Very Very Circus piece, Little Pocket Size Demons, to its essence is wildly successful, with creepy, aching bowed bass over a piano loop, Gilmore’s right foot steady as the rhythm expands, Iyer more allusive than outright menacing. The wryly titled Lude is a somewhat more subdued adventure in the push-pull of action versus pensive stasis, fueled irrepressibly and funkily by Crump and Gilmore. The title track rises with a McCoy Tyner-esque stomp over a hypnotic major sixth vamp and goes phantasmagorical, while Actions Speak bounces variations off an agitated piano cluster, from dizzy apprehension to matter-of-fact rippling throughout pretty much the entirety of the keys. The album concludes with a surprisingly terse, gospel-drenched take of The Village of the Virgins, an Ellington ballet number:

There are also a couple of tracks here that add nothing to the album, both of them covers. Mmmhmm – credited to Flying Lotus, a purveyor of insipid electronic dancefloor beats – gets an atmospheric trip-hop backbone, Crump’s agile bowed lines over Iyer’s lushly sustained low lefthand that eventually expands by leaps and bounds. It’s attractive, and moody – and nothing that Lisa Hilton couldn’t have pulled off. Michael Jackson’s Human Nature syncopates and caches the melody in polyrhythms, then finally gets hit head on. The choice of this song in particular is a mystery: the hook isn’t very strong to begin with, and it has baggage, a cloying, schlocky top 40 ballad recorded by someone who will ultimately be remembered, if at all, for his crimes against children rather than for anything he did in showbiz. If there’s anything to take from this, it’s that the richness and intensity that defines Iyer’s compositions is sometimes lost when he tackles inferior composers – and compared to Iyer, most composers are.

October 9, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kenny Garrett – Back with More Great Tunes

Here in the blogosphere we’re supposed to stay on top of what’s new, and up-and-coming, and fill in the umpteen gaps where the corporate media fears to tread. By the same token, that sometimes means overlooking established artists, which can be a faux pas – some artists are established because they’re good. Case in point: Kenny Garrett, who’s got a new album out, Seeds from the Underground, his second for Mack Avenue. This one is a gem: it finds him reaching the same levels of intensity and majesty he conjured up in the 90s during his period with Kenny Kirkland. If you were lucky enough to catch those two back in the day, no further explanation is necessary. From the looks of this lineup – Benito Gonzalez on piano, Nat Reeves on bass, Ronald Bruner on drums and Rudy Bird on bata – at first glance you might think it’s a latin thing, and although there are some near-equatorial rhythms here, it’s very eclectic.

The opening cut is Boogety Boogety, an upbeat, catchy salsa jazz number inspired by the sounds Garrett’s dad would make while watching western movies. J. Mac Here is where the fun really begins. It’s pure vintage Garrett, a signature intense modal piece where he goes rip-roaring out into the bop-osphere but somehow manages not to lose his grip on a melodic anchor. It’s a dedication to Jackie McLean, eighth-note volleys rising to an anguish/ecstasy dichotomy. Wiggins, for Garrett’s high school band teacher, is funky and catchy but with bite, hints at a ballad and then brings back the funk. Boisterously propulsive, part blues elegy, part joyous singalong, Haynes Here is for Roy Haynes, with whom Garrett enjoyed a long association. Bruner gets a chance to flex yet handles the tempo changes elegantly; Gonzalez contributes an absolutely gorgeous, Marc Cary-esque modal solo.

They follow that with a peaceful, slow alto-and-piano homage to both trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and to Garrett’s hometown of Detroit. The title cut, a classic Garrett mini-epic, sets acidically tuneful soprano sax against moody, incisive piano and a take-charge bass/drums attack – Gonzalez again shines on this one. A joint dedication to Ellington, Monk and Woody Shaw, Du-Wo-Mo follows the same trajectory but takes a little more time to peak out, with several coy allusions to all three jazz masters, alternating insistent intensity with jaunty swing. The tropically percussive Welcome Earth Song takes a long time to get going but finally finds an unselfconsciously beautiful groove carried at first by Gonzalez, who passes it off to Garrett, who then takes it down with a rare warmth for all those low notes. The album ends with the self-explanatory Ballad Jarrett, an understatedly stellar showcase for Gonzalez, and Lavisa, i Bon?, a dedication to Guadalupean guitarist Christian Laviso. Melody, excitement, swing: it’s all here, another notch on the belt for one of this era’s major talents.

May 4, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment