Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Fiery Gem From Pianist Chris McCarthy

No doubt pianist Chris McCarthy was hoping for better days when he put out his most recent album Still Time to Quit – streaming at Bandcamp – in the fall of 2020. Like so many other vinyl records from that horrible year, it didn’t get the attention it deserved and that’s too bad because this is a beast of an album. McCarthy is a hard-charging, intense, colorful player with a cynical sense of humor, a sophisticated and sometimes explosive tunesmith, and has assembled a brilliant band to interact with.

He opens with the brief, pummeling trio piece That’s All You Get, packed with crisply rapidfire McCoy Tyner-esque riffs over the scramble of bassist Sam Minaie and drummer Jongkuk Kim. The horns – trumpeter Takuya Kuroda and tenor saxophonist Michael Blake – punch in over uneasily circling, modally-charged piano in Ready Steady Here You Go, McCarthy’s phantasmagorical splashes triggering a rapidfire trumpet solo. From there, Blake leads the group through momentary, ominous lulls and victoriously bluesy trajectories.

They open Shockingly Effective with stairstepping, syncopated harmonies, McCarthy busting loose with careening quasi-ragtime around a sailing Blake solo, Kuroda playing good cop to the pianist’s fanged New Orleans spectre.

McCarthy blends lingering, gospel-flavored contentment and enigmatic, Debussyesque gleam over Kim’s judicious polyrhythms in Toasty, the horns adding hazy harmonies before diverging in a series of soulful, increasingly driving exchanges. Valedictorian Driver is an energetic, rhythmically shifting take on what would otherwise be a classic soul ballad from the 70s, McCarthy fueling an increasingly funky drive, Kuroda choosing his spots as Kim matches him flurry for flurry up to a lively horn duel out.

Wryly expectant horn riffs interchange with McCarthy’s persistently uneasy undercurrent in Happy Tired, Minaie’s spring-loaded solo triggering the album’s most warmly nocturnal piano interlude. The big epic here is The Nightmare, no surprise considering when the album came out. Dissociative flickers from the bass and Blake’s flute give way to spare, portentous resonance from McCarthy, sax and trumpet ratcheting in tandem in a Wadada Leo Smith vein. McCarthy’s regal cascades and Blake’s throaty lines evoke more muscular bustle than night terror.

The final cut is Bury Me in Times Square (Underneath the M&M Store), which sounds like a genuine nightmare. Is there such a place? Duckduckgo says it’s on Broadway. Over an implied clave, the group blend gospel, latin soul and a little New Orleans into cheery, glittery contentment but also agitation, heavier on the caffeine than the sugar.

McCarthy doesn’t have any gigs coming up, but Blake is playing a rare, auspicious chordless trio show tonight, March 16 at 7:30 PM at Smalls with Tony Scherr on bass and Allan Mednard on drums, and you know Scherr is going to dig in for this one. Smalls is back open with no restrictions; cover is $25 cash at the door. You might want to get there early.

March 16, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vijay Iyer Pushes Some Hot Buttons on His Latest Album

“With this collection of uneasy pieces, composed over a span of twenty years, we pay tribute to both the loud and the soft, the quick flurry and the slow rise, the hurricane and its eye, the uprising and its steady dream of abolition,” Vijay Iyer explains in the liner notes to his latest album Uneasy, streaming at Spotify. The guy who’s arguably this era’s foremost jazz pianist doesn’t specify what needs to be abolished, but it’s a fair bet that like a growing majority of us, he sees a window of opportunity to put an end to a multitude of evils.

And those evils go back millennia. One relatively recent one is memorialized in the understated power and portents of the opening number, Children of Flint, where Iyer begins by setting playfully cascading figures within a much more somber context. Bassist Linda May Han Oh takes a dancing turn as the piano takes the melody to the glimmering upper registers, drummer Tyshawn Sorey moving from a lithe understatement to aggressively embracing the rhythm as Iyer romps over stern modalities. But pointillistic insistence soon enough evaporates into the gloom.

There’s a somber oldtime gospel melody lurking close to the surface in Combat Breathing, Iyer’s clenched-teeth opening scrambles over hard-hitting pedalpoint recalling McCoy Tyner. It takes a glissando and a random crash or two to momentarily throw off the shackles, but even as the music calms and then the dance begins, the claustrophobia remains. There’s an even more persistent, brooding modal sensibility in the methodically swaying Touba, a little later on.

There are two covers here. The offbeat syncopation of Night and Day is clever: it quickly becomes more of a vampy launching pad for Iyer’s emphatic chords and Oh’s contrastingly effervescent solo. The circularities of Drummer’s Song, by Geri Allen shift from twinkling to jaunty and then just short of a piledriver assault as Sorey prowls the perimeter, Oh again in the good-cop role. Iyer has seldom hit harder than he does throughout most of this album.

Augury, a grimly hammering solo Iyer tone poem of sorts, is the album’s creepiest track: if anything here was written after the lockdown, this has to be it. Rivulets flow from the highs over Iyer’s hard-hitting lefthand in Configurations, as Oh dances in between the hailstones, finally embracing the darkness.

Likewise, her tantalizingly furtive, tiptoeing solo after Iyer and Sorey set the stage with ominous modes and roundhouse cymbal crashes in the album’s title track, Iyer interrupting his bounding attack momentarily to let a devious, flickering poltergeist in. It doesn’t end as you might expect.

Sorey holds a casual, steady clave even while the beats stagger around him as Retrofit gathers steam, then it’s Oh’s turn to hold the center. Iyer’s disquietingly strobing riffage is catchy despite the lack of solid ground underneath. The trio close the album with the saturnine, distantly raga-flavored Entrustment, pulling away and then back toward a turbulent but guardedly hopeful center.

Iyer has made a lot of good records but this is one of his best, and darkest. And for those wondering why on earth this blog would wait until now to give it a spin, after pretty much everybody else has, the answer is simple. The year-end jazz polls are going up right now, and it would be pretty ignorant to leave this one off the best-of-2021 list!

December 18, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

East Village Free Jazz Pioneers Celebrate the Cutting Edge on Their Home Turf

Francisco Mela has been a prime mover in the New York free jazz scene for decades. And free improvisation remains one of the East Village’s most durably entrenched musical demimondes. So it only makes sense that the popular drummer would be part of this year’s LUNGS festival. He’s playing with a killer trio including tenor saxophonists Steve Wirts and George Garzone at 3 PM on Sept 25 at the 11BC Garden on 11th St between Ave. B and C.

Mela’s latest release in a career that only gets more and more prolific is Music Frees Our Souls, a trio set with two longtime collaborators, bassist William Parker and pianist Matthew Shipp, dedicated to the late, great McCoy Tyner and streaming at Bandcamp.

Mela and Parker quickly build a floating swing for Shipp to color in the epic, twenty-minute first track, Light of Mind, opening with insistent variations around a center. The conversationality of the trio immediately makes itself known when Shipp hits his first big, stabbing peak, and the bass and drums are right there with him. From there the variations range from stern and insistent to scrambles in the upper registers. Shipp limits his emulation of Tyner to frequent stormy lower lefthand intensity. When Mela gets the pot boiling, the other two guys punch in hard with a modal bristle, a feeling that persists in the lulls. Shipp’s stygian, regal exit is spot-on beyond words.

Track two, Dark Light, is much briefer and has more spacious, lingering moments and judicious chordal work from Parker. This being Mela’s session, he opens the last number with an amusing solo that hints at oldschool disco before he expands outward. Who would have expected a salsa woodblock beat over Shipp’s flurries and Parker’s stabbing polyrhythms? The triangulation is a little looser here, everybody on a longer rhythmic leash, although Mela and Parker seemed to be joined closer to the hip. The point where the bass signals a creepily twinkling Twilight Zone transmission from Shipp will give you goosebumps.

Who needs jazz clubs with owners too cowardly and shortsighted to stand up to apartheid orders from the Mayor’s office when we have musicians of this caliber playing outdoors? No doubt somewhere McCoy Tyner is smiling.

September 20, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

One Mighty Showstopper After Another on the JCA Orchestra’s Latest Live Album

The JCA Orchestra are the Boston counterpart to Miho Hazama’s rotating cast of big band jazz talent, whose home until the lockdown was the Jazz Gallery. But the JCA Orchestra have been championing the work of lesser-known composers since before Hazama was born. These days the Jazz Gallery has been repurposed as a web tv studio – temporarily, let’s hope – and the JCA Orchestra are on ice, at least for the time being. But they have a brilliant, wildly diverse and entertaining new album, Live at the BPC streaming at Spotify..

A couple of extremely colorful compositions by violinist Mimi Rabson open and then close this concert from early October, 2018. The former, Romanople, imagines a Turkish entourage journeying to ancient Rome, only to be drafted into the army and killed in battle. The Strings Theory Trio – Rabson, cellist Junko Fujiwara and violinist Helen Sherrah-Davies – slink along on a cantering Near Eastern theme, turning it over to the brass for a boisterous Balkan dance with a simmering Phil Scharff clarinet solo. The orchestra’s eerie nebulosity as the two themes mingle is deliciously disquieting; Fujiwara’s similarly bracing solo is tantalizingly brief. Everything falls apart, as empires tend to do, a ghost of a melody undulating into the sunset.

The closing number, Super Eyes – Private Heroes is a sort of big band take on Spy vs. Spy-era John Zorn, a bustling swing tune with an incisively bluesy Sherrah-Davies solo over a halfspeed breakdown, trombonist David Harris’ tongue-in-cheek solo triggering an irresistibly funny coda.

The middle of the set is every bit as entertaining. The slow, enigmatic swells that introduce The Latest, the first of two Harris compositions, don’t hint at the electra-glide latin groove that follows, Melanie Howell-Brooks’ crystalline bass clarinet solo over a catchy theme that looks back to McCoy Tyner’s orchestrated 1976 classic, Fly With the Wind. Subtle variations on Thai-influenced pentatonics and a fanged, prowling Norm Zocher guitar solo raise the energy from there.

Harris’ conduction on his other tune here, Yellow, Orange, Blue, blends Butch Morris-style massed clusters and bursts with a catchy, allusively Middle Eastern clave theme, strongly bringing to mind Amir ElSaffar‘s adventures in largescale improvisation. Trombonist Jason Camelio’s invigorating solo as drummer Tony “Thunder” Smith drives this beast doublespeed and then cuts loose himself is one of the album’s tastiest interludes.

Trombonist Bob Pilkington’s epic The Sixth Snake sheds its skin more times than you can count, from suspenseful atmosphere puncuated by Vessela Stoyanova’s vibraphone, to Darcy James Argue-like insistence, to an eerie, spacious Maxim Lubarsky solo piano break. The composer follows with a sagacious solo as the rhythm edges toward a funky sway; Lihi Haruvi’s sailing soprano sax narrowly averts a collision with Scharff and draws an explosion of applause before the funky romp out.

Uneasy microtones filter through the airy introduction of another equally epic number, Darrell Katz’s A Wallflower in the Amazon, a setting of text by his late wife, poet Paula Tatarunis. Soprano Rebecca Shrimpton gives velvety, soaring affirmation to an embattled individualist finally finding her footing in an unexpected milieu, the band reaching from a lustrous sway, to a bubbling waltz, to a tropical duel between the string section and Hiro Honshuko’s EWI. Rick Stone’s agitated alto sax fuels a shivering massed coda; Shrimpton pulls the volume down and the intensity back up to all-stops-out squall. They take it out elegantly.

A richly conceived accomplishment by a group that also includes trumpeters Mike Peipman, Dan Rosenthal and Jerry Sabatini, horn player Jim Mosher, percussionist Gilbert Mansour and bassist Jesse Williams.

March 23, 2021 Posted by | gypsy music, jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Top-Quality, Sonically Pristine, Previously Unreleased John Coltrane

Here’s a special treat: the new John Coltrane record. That’s kind of a joke: over the years, there have been many “new” John Coltrane records, most of them field recordings of varying quality, some where the iconic saxophonist was little more than a special guest. But Blue World – streaming at Spotify – is the real deal, the classic quartet with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums laying down tracks for a 1964 Canadian film soundtrack that ended up never being used. The sound quality is excellent, heavy on the reverb. Although there’s nothing earth-shattering or new here, the performance is every bit what you would expect.

Trane plays exclusively tenor on this album. As with so many rare archival recordings from jazz’s golden age, there are multiple takes of the same song here. Is it worth sticking with three different versions of Village Blues? The band’s uncanny tightness reveals itself in the fact that they’re all almost identical in length. The variations in Jones’ deviously counterintuitive offbeats are as delicious as usual, the bandleader taking his time in purist blues mode. The first time around, with Tyner launching into a more majestically relaxed approach, Jones implying rather than shuffling the tune’s 6/8 groove, seems to be the charm. Still, it’s a lot of fun to see how these guys would tweak the material.

There are also two takes of Naima. Both are absolutely gorgeous; the second one’s more dynamic. The exchanges of roles between bandmates, from timekeeper to colorist, are a clinic in teamwork. The album’s tersely modal “title track” is so tight that it ticks; the bandleader is smokier and everybody cuts loose more, maybe because that’s what you have to do to keep what’s more or less a one-chord jam interesting. Jones’ thunderous rolls at the end are the funnest part of the record.

Like Sonny is a bossa-tinged platform for Trane’s playful Sonny Rollins-ish, mordent-like riffage. Garrison’s jaunty, solo second-line bubbles and chords introduce Traneing In, Tyner instantly turning it more circumspect and ambiguous as the band comes in, the bandleader’s uneasy blues and biting intensity reaffirming that almost sixty years later, these guys are still the gold standard.

January 28, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

High Voltage Latin Jazz with Dayramir Gonzalez & Cuba enTRANCe at Lincoln Center

It would probably be overhype to call pianist Dayramir Gonzalez the missing link between Eddie Palmieri and McCoy Tyner. But at his thundering, intense show last week Lincoln Center, Gonzalez and his booming ensemble Cuba enTRANCe strongly brought to mind both of those two icons. With a crushing lefthand attack, stampeding the entire length of the keys, Gonzalez’s intensity never relented. Nobody knows better than he does that the piano is a percussion instrument.

If that wasn’t enough, Gonzalez made sure he had plenty more torrential beats on hand, with both drums and congas in the band: each player got plenty of time in the spotlight and used it explosively. Contrastingly, Gonzalez’s bassist – playing a five-string model with an extra B on the low end – held the center, tersely and calmly, with his judicious, resonant slides and the occasional chord to drive a big crash home.

The quartet opened with a shapeshifting, majestic jazz waltz, introducing the calm/frenetic bass/piano dynamic that would last the duration of the night. The second number, Moving Foward, was a bristling, modally-charged epic, the thunder punctuated by Gonzalez’s glistening cascades and a couple of more moody, suspenseful interludes where the rhythm dropped back.

He explained that as a kid, he’d followed his mom’s advice that “Una sonrisa abre puertas,” building on that idea with Smiling, a more pointillistic, leaping number. He brought it down afterward with a solo ballad from his debut album, Grand Concourse, which was party salsa jazz and part late Beatles. The rest of the set was just as dynamic: loopy, catchy riffage over polyrhythms; more glistening, darkly vamping tableaux that were part salsa and part Chopin; sad boleroish balladry and pouncing, carnaval-esque party themes. Gonzalez spoke eloquently to the similarities between the refugee crisis in Europe and the one further south on this continent; he even sang a little. The crowd clapped along, hitting a salsa groove without any prompting. Right now, Gonzalez seems to be better known in Europe than he is here, and that’s a crime. His next gig is on Dec 4 at 8 PM at Vibrato Grill Jazz, 2930 N Beverly Glen Cir in Los Angeles; cover is $30.

The series of free concerts at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues tonight, Dec 2, with an earlier, 7 PM show featuring Strings & Skins, who combine Colombian and Haitian dance grooves. There are also many other performances in the neighborhood until 9; if you can handle the cold, follow the sound.

December 2, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Newly Unearthed John Coltrane Rarities For Your Listening Pleasure

Is the new John Coltrane album Both Directions At Once the holy grail of jazz? No. That would be the Queen’s Suite, or Mingus’ Epitaph.

Furthermore, this new Trane record isn’t a full-fledged album. Minus the seven alternate takes recorded by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder at a marathon March 6, 1963 studio session, it’s more of an ep.

By one of the greatest bands in the history of jazz, at the top of their game, painstakingly immortalized on analog tape. More than anything else, it captures these artists completely in their element, catching magic in a bottle and then trying to sort it out. Which they never got to finish, which is why we haven’t heard it til now. And we all should. It’s streaming at Spotify.

Every track here that has a name has already seen the light of day, whether on live recordings or posthumous compilations. The big story is that there are three previously unreleased, untitled originals along with what are essentially a couple of covers. Considering the glut of dodgy field recordings and soundboard tapes from forgotten European radio broadcasts and such, this is a more significant find than it might seem.

The first of the originals finds Coltrane on soprano sax,running a bitingly catchy, allusively Middle Eastern modal cluster and variations, Elvin Jones’ jubilantly decisive cymbal flares and tom-tom tumbles anchoring Jimmy Garrison’s supple swing and McCoy Tyner’s emphatically expanding web of piano chords.The bassist methodically bows the blues by himself, then leaps back in as the band dances it out. The bandleader’s bracing, woody tone and the occasional effortless whirlwind arpeggio leave no doubt which hall of famer is playing the horn here.

The second untitled original, another soprano tune, is even catchier and is the one that thousands of bands will be covering in the next couple of years. The quartet push the borders of a simple ascending progression, with a haphazardly tasty sax-and-drums interlude midway through. Tyner’s scampering righthand echoes Coltrane’s approach over what less adventurous fingers could have turned into a predictable blues resolution, and Garrison’s muted chords and syncopation add levity as Jones gets tantalizingly brief time motoring down the launching pad.

The final original, called “Slow Blues,” is neither. It’s a subtly polyrhythmic epic over a floating swing, Garrison’s muted insistence shadowing the sax as Jones holds the center. Coltrane delivers more aching overtones, squalls and squeals than anywhere else here as he searches around for a foothold: you can draw a straight line to today’s most purposeful sax voices, from JD Allen to Noah Preminger. Tyner finally takes over from the sax and that’s where the blues kicks in, at least as much as it does at all. Listening to Coltrane construct and then deconstruct his intricate latticework as the full quartet winds the piece out is a rare treat.

The brief, loose-limbed take of Nature Boy here is a fade up from a mutedly jubilant, Bahia-tinged bass-and-drums groove, Coltrane choosing his spots, riding the chromatic escalator and then sliding down with a sage effortlessness. He plays alto here, going for smoke and grit. Tyner has either decided to sit the whole thing out, or he’s done by the time the band get to this edit.

The version of Villa – a Franz Lehar number first released in 1965 – shuffles along genially. Even on this otherwise pretty generic swing tune, the chemistry between Jones’ ride cymbal and Tyner’s lefthand is stunning. The early trio version of Impressions – which Coltrane would later use later that year as an album title track- has a carefree, exploratory feel, Garrison reaching up to stab holes in the clouds as the bandleader unravels and then rips at the easygoing central theme, Jones building to a deviously vaudevillian, retro 30s attack.

The version of One Up One Down here is a real sizzler, Tyner just short of frantic while Coltrane pulls out the stops with his insistent clusters and Jones does the same with his machinegunning volleys. Tyner’s coy, charming righthand runs offer unexpected contrast. Coltrane would later release it on what album.

The seven alternate takes here all have their moments. Plenty of other artists would have seen fit to release them; this group obviously held themselves to a higher standard. A somewhat more feathery take of Villa, a hard-charging, abbreviated first take of Impressions, a similarly electric, longer second one, and a relaxed, more tropical version of the first untitled original are the highlights and transcend mere marginality.

It’ll be very interesting to see if Tyner pulls out any of this material for his shows at the Blue Note, where he’ll be on July 30 and 31 with sets at 8 and 10:30 PM. You can get in for $30.

July 8, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ageless Jazz Icons Battle With the Rain and Then Stop It at Central Park Summerstage

“I made the rain stop,” McCoy Tyner grinned, and the couple hundred or so diehards who’d stood patiently through three torrential hours at Central Park Summerstage last night roared in appreciation. As if by magic, the downpour finally abated at practically the second that the jazz piano icon and his quartet took the stage. Before the skies burst, there had been a couple thousand others, at the very least, who’d crammed themselves between the labyrinth of wire fences or stood longingly outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Coltrane collaborator as well as sets by a couple of other elder jazz statesmen, the slightly younger Ron Carter and his quintet, and an even older one, the ageless 91-year-old Roy Haynes and his Fountain of Youth Band.

Carter opened the show while the celestial drainpipe overhead got busy. There’s no press tent at Summerstage anymore, so pretty much everybody who went there to write about it went home afterward soaked to the bone. But the show was worth it. Intentionally or not, Carter set the tone for the night, segueing from one number into another, pushing an almost omnipresent clave groove with his dancing basslines as the group winkingly shifted from one meter into the next, holding the remaining crowd pretty much rapt in the process. Pianist Renee Rosnes distinguished herself with nimble, pointillistic cascades and thoughtful, lyrical pirouettes when she wasn’t finding deep blues in a slow, ambered, darkly latin-flavored take of My Funny Valentine. Carter’s percussionist took a droll talking-drum solo, later adding tongue-in-cheek flourishes on his timbales while the bandleader went deep into the murk. Trumpeter Wallace Roney joined them and spun through purposeful volleys of postbop as the rhythm section swung harder. At the end, they went back to the clave, a beat that’s typically associated with latin music but actually dates from the first civilizations in Ethiopia, a simple human heartbeat, tense and expectant and ultimately joyous.

Haynes was next on the bill. By this time, the rain was really out of control. Jazz Police‘s astute reporter and Shakespeare scholar Sheila Horne Mason dryly observed that most of the people who’d left actually had umbrellas; most of us who remained didn’t. The nonagenarian drummer is literally none the worse for the years, playing with the effortless vigor of a man a quarter his age, showing off some of his signature moves – lefthand-versus-righthand bicoastal time zone variations, and others – as he swung his brushes with a regal thwack. They opened with a sunny, upbeat trip to Bahia and made their way the golden age postbop the bandleader’s best known for after that. Out in front of the group, Jaleel Shaw played jaunty, spiraling soprano sax, then switching to alto as the groove grew more gritty. As Carter did, they began where they left off.

Tyner flipped the script with his misterioso modalities. His mighty left hand has lost none of its crushing drive; this time out, he began with a judicious chordal approach and as the groove loosened, his right hand went further into exploratory glimmer. Like Dave Brubeck before him, Tyner has always been more about melody and trajectory rather than blinding speed, although his attack is a lot harder. The set seemed to go by in a flash, although he got a full fifty or so minutes onstage. Uneasily vamping, circular passages moved purposefully, almost imperceptively toward majestic, otherworldly Northern African terrain, an area Tyner has explored more than anybody except maybe Randy Weston. He took the crowd to church with a blues and finally swung hard at the end. The crowd roared for an encore: considering overall exhaustion throughout the venue for crew and musicians as well as audueince, there wasn’t any.

Central Park Summerstage programs a wide variety of music, with the occasional jazz show. The next one is a hot swing triplebill on June 25 starting at 3 PM with trumpeter. Bria Skonberg and the NY Hot Jazz Festival All-Stars including Anat Cohen, Vince Giordano, Joe Saylor and Dalton Ridenhour, cosmopolitan female-fronted swing combo the Hot Sardines, and irrepressible slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s big blazing New Orleans-flavored piano-based nonet, Butler, Bernstein and the Hot 9. Bring a sun hat, sunscreen and a big umbrella – in the age of global warming, you never know.

June 5, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, 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

Album of the Day 4/17/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #653:

McCoy Tyner – Sahara

Conventional wisdom is that this 1972 album is the renowned John Coltrane Quartet pianist’s best solo effort, and it’s hard to argue with that: it’s adrenaline in a bottle. The most powerful left hand in jazz is in full effect here, along with a bunch of mighty melodies to match it, alongside Sonny Fortune on alto sax and flutes, Calvin Hill on bass and reeds and Alphonse Mouzon on drums. Ebony Queen might capsulize Tyner’s intense, chordal style better than anything he ever did, followed by the blistering, beautiful, rippling solo piece A Prayer For My Family, the Asian-flavored Valley of Life, with Tyner on koto, and the lickety-split Rebirth. Side two is the epic, cinematic, 23-minute title rack, simply one of the greatest pieces of jazz ever written, with its suspenseful flute/percussion intro, rampaging cascades and Fortune’s darkly acidic lines. That one’s up on youtube in three segments, here, here and here. Here’s a random torrent.

April 17, 2011 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment