Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Perennially Vital, Poignant, Epic Grandeur From the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble

In the history of jazz, is there a greater drummer/composer than John Hollenbeck?

Paul Motian wrote some great songs. And so has Tain Watts. Beyond that, it’s a short list. This past evening at the Poisson Rouge Hollenbeck and his long-running Large Ensemble validated his place on it with a lush, constantly shifting, uneasily enveloping set to celebrate the release of their latest album All Can Work.

As with the album, the centerpiece of the show was the title track, a dedication to his longtime collaborator, the late great Laurie Frink. Hollenbeck interpolated both brief, pithy phrases inspired by Frink’s trumpet etudes as well as excerpts from her similarly terse emails. Like Mozart but with infinitely more interesting rhythms, those phrases percolated and changed shape among subsets of the sixteen-piece ensemble as singer Theo Bleckmann’s voice loomed and eventually soared. “I will miss you all, and the music,” was the final mantra. The trumpet section, including but not limited to Tony Kadleck and Matt Holman, put their precision in the spotlight. This was a song, and a show about tunesmithing and narratives rather than displays of sizzling chops.

They’d opened with Elf, which takes its title and thematic grist from the Strayhorn piece that Ellington eventually appropriated for Isfahan. As the group’s tectonic sheets slowly built a lavish mosaic, alto saxophonist Anna Webber rose methodically to broodingly modal, Middle Eastern-tinged intensity while Hollenbeck did a somewhat more vigorous take on the kind of pointillism he likes to explore in the Claudia Quintet.

The night’s most lavishly shapeshifting number was Hollenbeck’s muscular arrangement of Kenny Wheeler’s Heyoke: among its several solos, a bittersweet couple of turns from tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and some deliciously deadpan piano voicings from vibraphonist Patricia Brennan stood out the most brightly. From Trees, inspired by a Mondrian triptych, rose out of a swirl of disembodied voices to emphatic variations on a series of rather stark riffs, down to a twisted, low-register corkscrew facsimile of boogie-woogie from pianist Matt Mitchell: it was the most unexpectedly stunning solo of the night.

Long Swing Dream, the one song to date that Hollenbeck has found in a dream, had a similar minmalism alternating between individual voices, Bleckmann providing an amusing bit of narration by reading Cary Grant commentary about LSD (Long Swing Dream, get it?). The final observation, “You can’t judge the day until the night,” became simply “You can’t judge,” which drew plenty of chuckles. Hollenbeck copped to never having tried the stuff – hey, there’s still time. You can’t judge the perception from the doors.

The final tune was Hollenbeck’s tongue-in-cheek, impressively swinging new arrangement of Kraftwerk’s motorik instrumental The Model. Again, Bleckmann got to entertain the crowd, this time simply by striking a pose or five as the group channeled a more subtle take on what German live techno crew the Jazzrausch Bigband might have done with it. Hollenbeck’s next gig is with the Claudia Quintet on March 24 at 8 PM at the Miller Theatre; tix as affordable as $20 are still available.

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January 30, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Weekend Jazz Gallery Stand and a Killer, Funny New Album by the Dan Weiss Large Ensemble

Drummer-led bands tend to be excellent. And they should be. Good drummers are more in demand than any other musicians: consequently, they tend to have enormous address books. So it was hardly difficult for Dan Weiss to pull together his Large Ensemble, which includes singers Jen Shyu and Judith Berkson, harpist Katie Andrews, bassist Thomas Morgan, alto saxophonist David Binney, tenor saxophonist Ohad Talmor, guitarist Miles Okazaki, pianists Jacob Sacks and Matt Mitchell, trombonists Jacob Garchik and Ben Gerstein,

Their latest album Sixteen: Drummers Suite (due out momentarily from Pi Recordings, hence no streaming link yet) celebrates the work of some of the greatest names in jazz drumming, with original conpositions springboarding off a series of the bandleader’s favorite riffs from across the ages. It’s an awful lot of fun. The band moves between jaunty interplay, frequent droll/serioso contrasts and playful echo phrases, relying heavily on Shyu and Berkson’s ghost-girl vocalese. It’s indie classical with more complex rhythms and what sounds like purposeful improvisation, although it could be completely composed. The AACM’s album with Fontella Bass could be an influence. Weiss and the group are celebrating the album’s release with a weekend stand, sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM on February 12-13 at the Jazz Gallery. Cover is $22

Weiss kicks off the album solo with a terse series of licks that the ensemble will build on later. The compositions’ titles all refer to iconic jazz drummers: Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Tony Williams, Philly Joe Jones and so on. The arrangements very seldom have the full orchestra going all at once, instead relying on momentary handoffs, slowly rising trajectories and frequent pairings or conversations. Those can be downright hilarious. The interlude during Max where it sounds like John Zorn doing P-Funk, Weiss’ abrupt WTF reaction to increasingly cacaphonous sax chatter in Tony and the many, many, many trick endings in Philly Joe are some of the best. There are plenty more.

In their most hectic moments, the band evoke the Claudia Quintet on crank; in their most ornately lustrous, Karl Berger joining forces with Roomful of Teeth. Most of the seven tracks here are partitas, shifting completely from one theme to a seemingly unrelated one. Although the segues are a little off-kilter, the music is consistently interesting. Elvin has jaunty wafts of vocalese from Shyu to Berkson and come-hither fingersnaps. Max features tongue-in-cheek juxtapositions between faux-metal fuzzbox guitar and Berkson’s arioso vocalese…and then takadimi drum language taking over in the drollery department.

For all its hijinks, the creepy piano riffage early on in Tony foreshadows a lot of what’s to come. There are echoes of Missy Mazzoli in a rare carefree mood throughout the vocal swoops and dives in Philly Joe. Klook features an enigmatic, starlit interlude amidst its circling, indie classical-influenced riffage, as does Ed. That passage is a stark, desolate one with acoustic guitar, glockenspiel and tinkly piano, straight out of the Iron Maiden playbook. Even for those who don’t get all the references and insider jokes here, this is still an awfully fun ride.

February 11, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rudresh Mahanthappa Brings His Sizzling Indian-Flavored Take on Charlie Parker to the Jazz Standard

Alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa is one of the world’s most individualistic and thrilling musicians, a wide-ranging scholar of jazz as well as Indian music. His latest album, Bird Calls – streaming at Spotify – is a characteristically unconventional effort, heavily influenced by Charlie Parker, although not a tribute album per se. His performance with the quintet on the album at this year’s Winter Jazzfest was a spine-tingling display of chops, ideas, and high-voltage banter between the musicians. He’s doing it again, playing the album release show at the Jazz Standard on March 24 with sets at 7:30 and 10 PM with a slightly different crew: trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, pianist Bobby Avey, bassist François Moutin and drummer Jordan Perlson. Cover is $25.

Musicians have been highfiving each other in song for eons. The shout-outs to Bird on this album are all over the place, some as simple as Mahanthappa playing his own tune over Parker’s changes, to switching up the rhythm of a Bird melody or solo, along with more artfully concealed passages. Whatever the case, it’s classic Mahanthappa, ancient-sounding, often majestic Indian motifs within a somewhat harder bop framework than usual.

The album juxtaposes brief interludes with larger-scale numbers. Bird Calls #1, which opens it, is a brief, murkily suspenseful modal platform for the first of many animated sax-trumpet conversation (at Winter Jazzfest, they really took their time and had a ball with this). On the DL (a reference to Bird’s Donna Lee) opens with the same interplay at triplespeed or more – how firebrand young trumpeter Adam O’Farrill (son of latin jazz maven Arturo) matches Mahanthappa’s silken, precise intonation is stunning. At Winter Jazzfest, Indian percussion master Vish, of dancefloor groove instrumentalists SuKhush commented that if this was a sine wave, it would be completely flat [thanks for the company and the erudite insights, guys!].

Sax and trumpet join in a tightly rhythmic duet with echoes of Indian bhangra brass music, followed by Chillin’, referencing Bird’s Relaxin’ at the Camarillo in bubbly, joyous trumpet/sax eschanges, graceful melismas from O’Farrill and long, elusive flights from Mahanthappa. They follow a playful, masterful solo sax passage replete with overtones and subtle rhythmic shifts with Talin Is Thinking, inspired equally by Parker’s Mood and Mahanthappa’s young son. A pensive march that rises to majestic, fiery heights, pianist Matt Mitchell’s resonant, hard-hitting but surgically precise pedalpoint enhances the shadowy Indian-tinged mystery underneath.  Moutin’s dancing, kinetic lines blend with and then leap from drummer Rudy Royston’s steady, subtle rat-a-tat drive: who knew he could channel an intricate tabla rhythm yet bring it into the 21st century, thousands of miles away?

Both Hands (based on Dexterity) is another showcase for clarity and rapidfire precision from sax and trumpet, hard bop over a briskly rumbling, hypnotic backdrop, Mitchell nimbly choosing his spots. A rustling Moutin solo leads into the wryly tiltled Gopuram (referencing Steeplechase – in India, a gopur is a temple tower), a tersely simmering, modally-charged number that reminds of Marc Cary (has he played with Mahanthappa? What a collaboration that would be!).

Maybe Later (drawing on Now’s the Time) contrasts lively, upbeat postbop horn riffage with a sternly rhythmic underpinning, with an acidically rippling Mitchell solo over Royston’s tumbling aggression and jabs. An expansive Mitchell solo sets the stage for Sure Why Not? (a shout-out to Confirmation and Barbados), the album’s least Indian-flavored and most lightheartedly pulsing track. The album winds up much the way it started, but with a staccato pulse, referencing Bird’s Anthropology with all hands on deck, blistering spirals from Mitchell and a hard-charging sax/trumpet debate. In case you haven’t figured out, there’s no one on earth who sounds remotely like Rudresh Mahanthappa, and he’s a force of nature live. This show promises to be amazing, get there early.

March 21, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Winter Jazzfest 2015, Night One: More and Less Transcendent Moments

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.

January 10, 2015 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dave Douglas’ Highly Anticipated New Time Travel Hits the Street

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.

April 9, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment