Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Rich Halley 4 Mess With Each Other…And With Your Ears

The Rich Halley 4’s previous album Requiem for a Pit Viper, from last year, hit hard with a frequently noir postbop vibe. Their new one, Back from Beyond, is considerably different. It might be even more improvisational, the tempos are considerably slower and the playing is more expansive. And it’s imbued with great wit. On one level, the operative question is if the listener’s going to have as much fun as the players – Halley on tenor sax and flute, his son Carson on drums, sparring partner Michael Vlatkovich on trombone and redoubtable bassist Clyde Reed holding it all together – obviously had making it. This is more of an album of ideas than melodies: with the exception of a couple of tracks, the quartet alludes to them much more often than they hit anything head-on for more than a few bars at a clip.

There are a handful of recurrent themes here, most notably an insistent pedal note interlude that makes for levity but also anchors the album’s most memorable number, Basalt. Bookended by terse minor-key funk, it’s a long modal piece featuring Halley’s most intense solo here, some tongue-in-cheek conversing with Vlatkovich, and a showcase for Reed’s ability to keep the suspense going as long as he can via hypnotically resonant chords that he veers away from just enough to ramp it up even further. That’s as dark as it gets on this album.

The opening track, Spuds, takes awhile to come together out of syncopated bop swing, Vlatkovich setting up a punchline with a phony fanfare introduction that becomes a recurrent jape for the horn players as the rhythm section rumbles and then the drums get in on the fun as well. Track two, Section Three morphs slowly from clave, to a hint of a jazz waltz, to reggae and then funk, packed with wry conversational jousting and and attempt by Vlatkovich to push the sax off the page just as Halley had done to him one track earlier. Reorbiting, a Sun Ra dedication, kicks off with a coy bass/trombone conversation, the sax hinting, as the rhythm coalesces, at Marshall Allen ozone-seeking blippiness but never going there. The longest cut, Solarium interweaves trombone and sax, sometimes shadowing each other, sometimes agitated, with more insistent, tongue-in-cheek pedalpoint. The freest and loosest, and maybe the funniest piece here is Continental Drift, which takes that idea to its most comedic level.

Or maybe the most entertaining composition here could be Broken Ground, Vlatkovich’s sirening trombone a centerpiece amidst deadpan alternate voicings, an almost too-casual-to-be-true Rich Halley solo and finally an interlude where trombone, bass and drum all line up on the head on the same pin. Track eight, The Mountain’s Edge is a jape kicked off by a flute call eventually answered by elephantine drums – cavemen in the Alps, or the Sierra Nevadas? The album ends with what appears to be an almost totally straight-up arrangement of the Burning Spear roots reggae classic Man in the Hills. Whether it falls apart, as it subtly threatens to do, is an ending that deserves not to be spoiled. Cerebral? Without a doubt. Funny? Absolutely. Who is the audience for this? Besides those who play this kind of music, anyone who perceives jazz as being just plain fun. Because that’s what this is.

August 10, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Idea-Packed Big Band Improvisation from Michael Vlatkovich’s Ensemblio

Trombonist Michael Vlatkovich’s Ensemblio has an intriguingly original album, Autobiography of a Pronoun, out now: the concept is improvisational big band jazz. This isn’t the waves of tunefulness followed by controlled chaos that Butch Morris champions, nor is it slowly shifting Greg Tate-style long-tone improvisation. What fuels this is a good sense of humor and artful orchestration: there are times when the whole ten-piece ensemble is cooking, but more often than not it’s a series of subgroups exploring a particular idea, so when the entire band gets in on it, the upward dynamics pack more of a punch. Most of this music is defiantly atonal, alluding to but seldom hitting a catchy hook head-on, the sixth track’s hypnotically syncopated Ethiopiques being the most memorable melody here in the conventional sense of the word. The presence of both Harry Scorzo’s violin and Jonathan Golove’s cello along with Anders Swanson’s frequently bowed bass add sonics that range from austere to occasionally lush and sweeping. It pretty much goes without saying that those who need a catchy tune to sing along to, or a steady beat to follow, will need to look elsewhere. But for jazz fans with an ear for the unconventional, this can be as much fun as it obviously was for the band to record.

Sample song title: Leg Belly Neon Kill Climb Unaware Pride, the ten-minute opening track. Surrealism reigns, from the pensive third-stream string ensemble introduction, a clave theme with vivid murky/airy contrasts between violin and ambience behind it, wry microtonalisms from Vlatkovich and a tasty Twin Peaks-ian interlude with legato piano leading spacious bass accents. It ends on an ominously agitated note.

The second track is more overtly improvisational, like early ELO on acid, anchored by drummer Michael Burdon’s funky shuffle, with tense strings-versus-horns contrasts, a free interlude that weaves from comedic to apprehensive and a lively, dancing bass solo out. Like the first cut, it has a persistent sense of unease. A three-part suite titled JMZ follows: its first section a rather chilling, twilit conversation between the bass and Wayne Peet’s piano, the second a blues ballad in heavy disguise contrasting rumbling, tumbling rhythms with terse piano and trombone motifs and the final an unexpectedly comic, increasingly rhythmic interlude led by William Roper’s tuba.

A jaggedly swinging large-ensemble piece, the wry Explain Why I Can’t Drive Faster Than the Car in Front of Me builds tension right from the big, lush opening chart, through a jarringly dissonant trombone/violin passage, to Peet’s piano going agitatedly off the edge into biting bop. Brian Walsh’s clarinet holds the funky Queen Dynamo together as the violin swirls and dips acidically before passing off to Jeff Kaiser’s muted trumpet and the trombone. The final piece, Memories Hold My Hand, is a sad, stately, Russian-flavored baroque requiem driven by somber tuba/trombone harmonies over flickering percussion. Those are just the highlights: other elements that are no less interesting emerge with repeated listening. Kick back with this if you’re up for getting swept into what can be an intense, inspiring, entertaining ride.

March 12, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rich Halley’s Requiem for a Pit Viper: More of a Party Than a Funeral

Catchy, robust and often boisterous but also extremely erudite, the Rich Halley Quartet’s Requiem for a Pit Viper is one of the most dynamic, entertaining albums of the year in any style of music. It doesn’t sound much like a requiem, either. It references many different eras in jazz, sometimes goes deep into noir and packs a wallop whatever the band is doing. This is one of those albums where it’s obvious how much fun the musicians are having – a close listen reveals two teams at work here, sometimes pulling away from each other to ratchet up the tension. The front line of Halley and trombonist Michael Vlatkovich conspires and banters while the mighty rhythm section of Clyde Reed on bass and Carson Halley (Rich’s son) on drums often takes over center stage. With its fat low end, the production of the album perfectly matches the players. Reed is a muscular, intense, melodic presence in the John Hebert mold, every bit as much a part of the propulsion as the drums. Carson Halley manages to be simultaneously intuitive and counterintuitive: maybe from working with his dad, he’s honed his sense of the unexpected, and an ability to nail a bullseye when the opportunity appears. One current-day ensemble this group resembles is deviously improvisational Bostonians Gypsy Schaeffer. Both bands are completely unpredictable – you never know where their jams are going to end up – and all of this works because these guys have so much fun together.

The title track is a funky, noir, Mingus-esque piece, a couple of chase scenes fueled by the punishing rhythm section, trombone conversing animatedly with whoever/whenever. They get slinky and lowdown on the second track, breezily meandering sax contrasting with ominous drums, a fat bass groove and an irresistibly droll ending. View from the Underpass coalesces slowly out of a crazed, blustery intro, bass figuring heavily in all the tradeoffs. As with the previous track, they can’t resist taking it out on a comedic note. They follow it with the aptly titled, playfully allusive Circumambulation, which hints at everything from a jazz waltz, to swing, to a bolero, Vlatkovich’s brightly terse trombone contrasting with tarpit bass and drums.

Reed rumbles between the horns’ raindrops on a pretty ballad titled Maj, Halley’s smoky, casually warm lines holding down the center as Vlatkovich rides the shoulder warily. They go back to noir with the cinematic swing shuffle Wake Up Line, Halley ambushing Vlatkovich memorably before they finally join forces – and then give way to Reed’s relentless detective work, which finally turns up all the evidence he needs. Squeaker is basically a reggae song carried by the sax, with a brief bass-and-drums break and a trippy, circular bass hook.

A deftly staggered ensemble piece and one of the most entertaining songs here, Subterranean Strut works its way into an approximation of a second line march, quotes a cheesy old disco hit, sends Halley swirling up as the rhythm section very subtly goes doubletime (when’s the last time you ever heard subtle doubletime?) and finally lands in the murk with moody atmospherics. They closed with Afternoon in June, driven by a neat series of bass riffs, and a long sax/trombone conversation that barely hints at the unselfconscious buffoonery the trombone and bass will descend into later on. It’s a fitting way to end this very smart, very amusing album.

September 6, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment