Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Multi-Reedman Scott Robinson Releases a Vividly Trippy Sun Ra Tribute

When booking a jazz group for a European tour, conventional wisdom is the weirder the better. Audiences there have had a voracious appetite for improvised music for decades. On this side of the pond, some of us forget that American crowds also have a history of being open to creative music: back in the 1960s, Charles Lloyd once sold out the immense New York Ethical Culture Society auditorium for an evening of free improvisation. So the Jazz Standard booking Scott Robinson’s sextet the Heliotones, with drummer Matt Wilson, trombonist Frank Lacy and Gary Versace on piano and organ, might actually be less brave than it is plain old good business sense. They’re there tonight playing the release show for their new Sun Ra-inspired album Heliosonic Toneways, Vol. 1, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $25.

Whether you see Sun Ra’s 1965 album Heliocentric Worlds as paradigm-shifting creative jazz or  sixties stoner excess, it’s one psychedelic record. Robinson’s purpose in making the new album was not to replicate it but to use the same unorthodox instrumentation. The result is very entertaining: imagine Esquivel conducting the AACM. It says a lot about this band that they’d have the sense of fun to tackle this at all. The lineup is killer: Sun Ra Arkestra leader Marshall Allen opens it with a ghostly murmur on the original bass marimba his Saturnine bandleader played on the original album. The rest of the band comprises his longtime Sun Ra bandmate Danny Thompson on tenor sax, with Lacy on trombone, Wilson on drums, trumpeter Philip Harper, bassist Pat O’Leary, saxophonist Yosvany Terry, bass trombonist Tim Newman, drummer Matt Wilson and bass clarinetist JD Parran. It’s hard to figure out what Robinson is playing: one of the world’s most sought-after multi-reedmen, the list of what he doesn’t play is probably a lot shorter than the list of what he does. For verisimilitude, he even brought in recording engineer Richard Alderson, who helmed the original Sun Ra session more than a half-century ago,

The music is best appreciated as a suite, with lots of high/low pairings, conversations that range from the droll to the frantic, and slowly massing, microtonal tectonic shifts. Wilson plays timpani for extra grandeur as the reeds chatter and scatter. There’s the rustle of a passing train and oscillations toward the top of the beanstalk, acid Lynchian swing. indignant squalls over subterranean rumble, a coy wolf whistle or two, innumerable echo effects and valves popping every which way. Warpiness exudes from Allen’s EWI (electronic wind instrument), or a vintage Clavioline synth. Dazed Frankenstein piano anchors reeds fluttering like a clothesline in the wind. It helps to understand this stuff – or try to, anyway – if you close your eyes.  And no going out with this in your earbuds unless you have shades on.

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October 31, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Winter Jazzfest 2012: Good Times at Day Two

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.

January 11, 2012 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Falkner Evans’ New Album Blends Smarts and Accessibility

The arrangements on jazz pianist/composer Falkner Evans’ new album The Point of the Moon sound bigger than they are. This little band – a quartet, mostly – often delivers the anthemic grandeur of a group twice their size or even larger. That’s an especially impressive achievement for Evans, considering that much of his recent work has been in a trio setting. In addition to a rhythm section including Belden Bullock on bass and the ubiquitously counterintuitive Matt Wilson on drums, there’s the horn section of Greg Tardy on tenor sax and Ron Horton on trumpet, with Gary Versace joining the mix on the final two tracks.

The brightness and accessibility of the tunes often masks their depth and complexity: this is hummable stuff, but it’s also not shallow. The album gets off to something of a false start: if the undeniably pretty opening cut, Altered Soul, has you thinking “lounge-ola,” hang in there, they’re not phoning it in, they’re just warming up. The second track, Drawing In, is a gently and deftly syncopated wee hours ballad. An elusive Tardy line gives way to what’s as close to a lush chart for two voices as you can possibly imagine, then hands it off to both sax and trumpet in turn, with a playfully pointillistic bass solo, Horton spinning and dipping gracefully out of it.

Dorsoduro manages to swing blithely without being cloying, Tardy taking his time and exploring both the upper and lower registers, Evans maintaining the nocturnal congeniality. The most energetic track here, Cheer Up briskly scurries out of a tricky intro with a high-flying Tardy bop solo. The fun is contagious, and the whole band gets into it, especially Wilson. By contrast, Jobim’s O Grande Amor gets a welcome dose of gravitas, the whole rhythm section leaving it to another one of those juicy horn charts, Horton going long and blues-infused, Evans keeping it terse, playing it close to his vest, a little wounded.

Slightest Movement follows practically as a segue, reverting to the saloon-jazz warmth of the earlier part of the album. The standard While We’re Young is done as a Mad Men era jazz waltz. Off the Top, a swing tune, has the feel of a standard, something you can’t quite put your finger on and that’s because it’s an original. With Versace’s lush organ work, it’s like a 50s/60s Ellington combo and Procol Harum hanging out all together at the hotel bar after the show. The album closes on a potent note with the gorgeously plaintive, tango-infused title cut, lowlit by Versace’s accordion and another one of those big/little horn charts. As a whole, it’s a very successful blend of catchy tunesmithing, inspired writing and playing.

August 9, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Noah Preminger Gets Meticulous at the Jazz Standard

If Noah Preminger was a painter, he wouldn’t be Pollock: he’d be Paul Klee, maybe. Last night, in his Jazz Standard debut as a bandleader, what the tenor saxophonist left unsaid wasn’t as interesting as what he played, but it created many, many moments of suspense, most of them brief, some more lingering. It’s impressive enough not to overplay, but Preminger’s use of space is pretty extraordinary. His playing on his new album Before the Rain – whose release he was celebrating last night – is judicious, but onstage he chose his spots with an artful gambler’s resolve. Figuring out what was composed and what he was making made up on the spot was often impossible to tell. And for a relatively young guy (he’s a couple of years out of conservatory) to get a band of veterans as good as the crew he has on the album to back him speaks more than any review could. Early on, he pitched a few riffs that pianist Frank Kimbrough playfully swatted at, but otherwise this was less a clinic in interplay than simply good listening. During his bandmates’ solos, Preminger watched intently, but not with anticipation – he was picking up ideas.

And what the group ran out there was every bit as interesting as what Preminger did himself. Drummer Matt Wilson is always inspiring to watch, but this time out he had the counterintuitivity meter pinned in the red. On the blithely catchy Quickening, a Kimbrough tune from the new record, he took a solo that began as a fugue of sorts, morphed into clave and then a winkingly circular riff that he looped over and over. Otherwise, he’d introduce an unexpected shuffle, prowl around rubato while bassist John Hebert held the rhythm, or the one time that Hebert finally veered off the end of the runway, Wilson pounced and saved the song from a certain dip in the Hudson.

Hebert’s lines were every bit as invigorating, and invigorated, as Wilson’s. On the set’s next-to-last number, catchy but wary with a distant bolero feel, he worked the fringes from a pedal note to a percussive yet tuneful frenzy where it looked like he might break a string. As the band wound their way with an unselfconscious casualness into the warmly inviting first song, a Preminger composition simply titled K, he held the center while Wilson and Preminger slipped around in search of a firm footing; later, when the moment called for it, he’d slip a chord or two into a lull, the effect being as if he’d hit an overdrive pedal. And Kimbrough was his usual lyrical, expressive self, whether playing hide-and-seek with the inner Mexican folk song hidden within Ornette Coleman’s Toy Dance, adding bracing phantasmagorical touches on the next-to-last song of the set or artfully evading any kind of resolution on an otherwise surprisingly straight-up version of the vivid Preminger ballad Before the Rain. They closed the set with a gently lyrical, meticulous version of Rodgers and Hart’s Where or When that brought to mind Brubeck’s calm, bucolic version of Georgia on My Mind, a comfortable landing that drew raucous applause from what looked to be a sold-out room. Preminger is back at the Jazz Standard with Fred Hersch (who has a very captivating solo album recorded at the Vanguard, just out) on March 4-5.

February 17, 2011 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Noah Preminger’s Before the Rain Is a Quiet Knockout

Tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger’s 2008 cd Dry Bridge Road made a lot of waves, to the point where he’s becoming a perennial nominee for “best up-and-coming jazz artist.” Believe the hype: he is the real deal. This quartet album brings back bassist John Hebert – whose performance backing Jen Shyu at Winter Jazzfest was stunningly purposeful – and pianist Frank Kimbrough along with Matt Wilson, whose drums have anchored so many good jazz albums lately it’s absurd. This is basically a suite that alternates light and dark, emphasis on the dark. There are no gratuitous displays of chops here: the entire band’s understatement is such that they leave plenty on the table. In its own deliberate way, as a statement, an expression of emotion, it is a knockout.

It opens deceptively with a brief, comfortably balmy, drum-less preamble through a couple of minutes of Rodgers and Hart’s Where or When. Then they take the lightheartedness up a notch with Kimbrough’s catchy, jovial Quickening. Methodically prowling beneath the buoyancy, Wilson absolutely owns this track, Hebert taking it to an unselfconsciously joyous, playful crescendo on his solo. Then they bring the lights down for some indoor fireworks, which is where it gets really interesting. The title track, a Preminger original, takes awhile to emerge, Hebert’s lento pulse against the piano: it’s a clinic in effective minimalism, Preminger’s wary lines slowly rising and falling,Wilson finally establishing a gingerly funky bounce before they take it back into the depths again. For lack of a better word, this is a deep song on a deep album.

They maintain the hushed suspense on the next track, Abreaction, even as Hebert and Wilson sync up for a bustling shuffle beneath Preminger’s austere, judicious intensity, Kimbrough finally tackling the darkness head-on with a masterfully developed, slowly expanding series of variations on a simple chromatic riff. Sammy Cahn’s Until the Real Thing Comes Along reverts to the casual optimism of the opening track, with lyrical solos from Kimbrough and Preminger.

They follow with a brief, rubato fragment into a lively version of Ornette Coleman’s Toy Dance, done here with a striking similarity to the earlier Kimbrough tune. November, also by Kimbrough, is where the band glimmers most intensely: following a perfectly stately, gradually unwinding piano solo, Wilson’s slow crescendo that finally caps off with a series of calmly majestic cymbal splashes is the most exquisite moment in an album filled with many. They close with an apprehensively optimistic Preminger ballad, Jamie, an apt way to end this strikingly well thought-out and emotionally resonant album. Look for it on a lot of “best of” lists at the end of the year. It’s out today on the Palmetto label.

January 18, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Marty Ehrlich and Ray Anderson Pretty Much Bring Down the House

Reedman Marty Ehrlich and trombonist Ray Anderson first joined forces in Anthony Braxton’s band, but they bring a more trad sense of melody to the somewhat loose configurations on their new quartet album Live in Willisau. Recorded last year for Swiss radio, they’re playing to the crowd here, liberally quoting from the classics in a boisterous, good-natured performance anchored by the estimable Brad Jones on bass and Matt Wilson on drums. This is a fun, tuneful set: it’s not always full-throttle, but the chemistry in the band is contagious. There’s some New Orleans, a little latin, some funk and a single ballad, My Wish, which starts sparely as a tone poem of sorts before growing wistful and wary, Anderson’s trombone adding a shadowy touch in tandem with the rhythm section.

The opening cut is a fond portrait of the late violinist Leroy Jenkins, a lively duet that goes a little dixieland and then pulses nimbly on a clave beat with Ehrlich circling as Anderson bobs and splashes – the contrast is genuinely delightful. Hot Crab Pot, the most overtly N’Awlins number here is a showcase for Anderson, first terse and percussive, then wandering way out until Ehrlich reins it in with a wary chromatic approach. As often happens here, Jones holds it together when everybody else is off doing his thing, this time with some tastily booming chords. And then they’re back into it with an Ellington quote.

The Lion’s Tanz is a real crowd-pleaser, Ehrlich balancing Anderson’s staccato sputter before everybody goes off on a carnivalesque swirl that goes off the hinges, Ehrlich again bringing it back with a quote, this time from Coltrane. The Git Go has Ehrlich again playing serioso on the heels of Anderson’s droll ostentations, pulling a hook out of the air to nimbly shift the song from funk to swing. More southern than latin, Alligatory Rhumba could be a bar at happy hour, the conversational circle moving gradually further off-topic to the point that nobody remembers it…and then everybody takes a long break, leaving Wilson to mess with the crowd via a series of pregnant pauses and rimshot solos. The final track, Hear You Say floats a catchy funk hook over an almost reggae rhythm, almost being the operative word here: it’s tricky, the two horns playing hide and seek with it, all the way to a crashing, metalesque outro. At this point, the producer lets the applause ring out – they’ve earned it.

November 24, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Brandon Wright – Boiling Point

Good title. Tenor sax player Brandon Wright’s new album is fearless, aggressive and fun, ablaze with a catchy tunefulness that sets up a lot of memorable solo work of his own along with trumpeter Alex Sipiagin, pianist David Kikoski, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Matt Wilson propelling things with a joyous groove. Yet for all the firepower, the band is equally adept at ballads, with a couple of real surprises here. A Maria Schneider, Mingus Big Band and Chico O’Farrill alum and current Chuck Mangione sideman, Wright is a hookmeister: his big band experience has served him well.

Wright sets the tone right off the bat with Free Man, joyously shifting from one mode to another. Sipiagin follows him more bluesily, then Kikoski intensely with some clever quotes in a shifting series of runs down the scale. The second cut, Drift is a casually lyrical 6/8 number, Kikoski weaving incisively beneath Wright’s gently buoyant flights, Sipiagin taking a more pensive tone. Track three, Odd Man Out has an understated swing that picks up once Wright starts sailing after the first verse, Kikoski choosing his spots with spot-on precision. Again Sipiagin gets to play bad cop to Wright’s good cop, bringing in the clouds. The title track matches subtle chordal shifts to an upbeat vibe all the way through to a blazing conclusion, Wright just about jumping out of his shoes, he’s having such a good time. Kikoski’s solo is a clinic in how to work a simple vamp, subtly yet ebulliently ornamenting it. And the swaying, latin-tinged Castaway is a showcase for robust Sipiagin flights and cartwheels, Wright taking it down a bit before Kikoski’s sparkling solo leads it to an ambitiously staggered horn raveup at the end.

There are also three covers here. Jimmy Van Heusen’s Here’s That Rainy Day is just sax and piano, a comfortably medicated dialogue. Interstate Love Song rearranges the country-flavored Stone Temple Pilots original to the point of being unrecognizable (good thing, actually, especially when the piano solos). They close with a warmly convivial, bluesy take of Nat King Cole’s You’re My Everything. The album is just out on Posi-Tone.

April 26, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment