Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Characteristically Dark, Cinematic New Album and a Smalls Gig from Phillip Johnston

Best known as a co-founder of the irrepressibly cinematic Microscopic Septet, saxophonist Phillip Johnston has also unsurprisingly done a lot of film work in addition to a bunch of smaller-group projects over the years. He’s playing with the celluloid-oriented Silent Six tonight, Nov 27 at 7:30 PM at Smalls, although his latest project is with a smaller group, the darkly picturesque organ quartet the Coolerators.

Their new album, Diggin’ Bones, is streaming at Bandcamp. As the bandname indicates, the Thelonious Monk influence that informs so much of what Johnston has done throughout his career is front and center here. The tunes are a mix of older material rearranged for organ quartet plus some deliciously menacing new material which gives new meaning to the term “gutbucket organ music.”

The opening track, Frankly, sets the stage, a carnivalesque strut juxtaposing Alister Spence’s smoky, menacing organ against Johnston’s more lighthearted riffage, bassist Lloyd Swanton and drummer Nic Cecire light on their feet. Further back in the mirror but just as present is a certain cover of Pictures at an Exhibition.

What Is Real?, a catchy number that dates back to the 80s, expands out of a syncopated Lou Donaldson-tinged soul-jazz tune, the bandleader sailing uneasily overhead. The title track blends elements of Monk, klezmer and latin noir, Spence raising the suspense with his blend of marionettish staccato and funereal swirl that loosens and lightens, Johnston’s biting modalisms bringing it full circle.

Temporary Blindness is a more latin-flavored take on the album’s opening track: the macabre duet between Spence’s stabbing organ and Swanton’s bowed riffage is one of the album’s high points. Later, which dates from Johnston’s days as a busker in San Francisco in the 70s, is an altered waltz with a surreal, enveloping blend of Monk, the Middle East and psychedelic rock. It’s the album’s most epic and strongest track out of many.

The lone cover is The Revenant, by 70s folk noir icon Michael Hurley, reinvented as a wistful, sparsely arranged shuffle groove with an aptly ghostly, tiptoeing Swanton solo. Legs Yet is the group at their slinkiest and most modally improvisational – and the most traditional, funky organ jazz tune here. Trial By Error – which Johnston had originally recorded with accordion wizard Guy Klucevsek – has a brisk, brightly pulsing klezmer influence fueled by Johnston’s acerbic yet balmy soprano sax attack.

Regrets #17, another number that dates from the 80s, works tight variations on a bluesy chromatic swing theme: here and throughout the album, Spence’s smoky ripples bring to mind the great expat New York organist Jordan Shapiro. The final cut, Ducket Got a Whole In It brings the album full circle with a creepy circus flair. This is arguably the best band Johnston has worked with outside of the Micros, and this album is one of the best and most tuneful of 2018.

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November 27, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Miho Hazama Reinvents Thelonious Monk

More about that Big Heart Machine show tonight, Aug 16 at the Jazz Gallery: Miho Hazama is conducting. Of all the major big band jazz artists right now who would be right for the job, Hazama is at the top of the list for this gig (along with Darcy James Argue, who produced the cinematic group’s killer debut album). Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30; cover is cheap by this venue’s standards at $15.

While Hazama’s own music is lush, wildly inventive and among the most exciting large ensemble work being written these days, she’s also in demand as an arranger and conductor. One prime example is The Monk: Live at Bimhuis, her forthcoming live album with the Metropole Orkest Big Band due to be streaming at Sunnyside Records this month. It’s a great opportunity to hear Hazama doing somebody else’s material, having what was obviously a great time in the process.

This is as close to a period piece as you’ll ever hear from her. She clearly gets the quirkiness, creepiness and also the deep blues in Monk’s music, right from the droll, pulsing opening of Thelonious, which seems to offer a nod to the similarly clever Monk interpretations of the Microscopic Septet. The group swing it with a brassy drive,Hans Vrooman getting the impossible task of playing the Monk role, and true to form he keeps things simple and proper. Trumpeter Rik Moi, tenor saxophonist Sjoerd Dijkhuizen and clarinetist Leo Janssen supply purposefully bluesy solos as the orchestra digs in and swings up to a jaunty dixieland crescendo.

Hazama’s charts here are often based on solo Monk piano recordings. Her take on Ruby My Dear begins with lingering, ambered Ellingtonian lustre, Moi contributing terse spirals as the rhythm section kicks in. Hazama’s deft, momentary exchanges of voicings throughout the ensemble are tantalizingly tasty, as is the return back to spare, sober glimmer.

Hazama’s most iconoclastic reinvention here bookends an otherwise gorgeous Friday the 13th with a cha-cha that borders on cartoonish  – not that Monk was necessarily opposed to that. Marc Scholten bubbles and leaps on clarinet, up to a nifty, suspenseful interlude centered around circling riffs by Vroomans and guitarist Peter Teihuis. Moi adds a bittersweet flugelhorn solo over a steady pulsing backdrop

The orchestra have a ball with Hazama’s Jersey noir allusions and contrasting swing blaze in Hackensack. Scholten and Teihuis go spinning through the blues, backed by big swells, brass glissandos and then a wry round robin of dixieland.

Round Midnight opens with a raptly muted moroseness, Moi’s flugelhorn carrying that legendary, brooding bolero riff over Vroomans’ judicious backing. Hazama’s cuisinart chart gives just about everybody a flickering moment in the spotlight as the voices shift like holiday lights about to go haywire.

With Hazama’s latin-inspired polyrhythms, taut close harmonies and blazing intensity, Epistrophy is the album’s big showstopper. Trombonist Louk Boudenstejn takes the long way around the launching pad, while Janssen is more low key, up to a triumphant coda. The night’s final number is a subtle, muted take of Crepuscule With Nellie, both Vroomans and the rest of the group matching Hazama’s terseness and clever polyrhythms.

It’s a triumph for the ensemble, which also includes Paul van der Feen and Max Boeree on saxes and clarinet, Ray Bruinsma, Nico Schepers and Martijn de Laat on trumpets, Jan Oosting, Jan Bastiani and Martin van den Berg on trombones, Aram Kershbergen on bass and Marcel Serierse on drums.

August 16, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Small Subset of the Great Microscopic Septet Plays the Lower East Side Saturday Afternoon

There are few more definitively New York outfits than the Microscopic Septet – notwithstanding that a co-founder of this “surrealistic swing” crew is Australian. They predated the swing jazz revival here, but they’re not the least bit retro. They come out of the late 70s/early 80s punk jazz scene, but they’re not the least bit skronky. And pianist Joel Forrester foreshadowed this year’s avalanche of protest jazz by writing the theme for NPR’s Fresh Air as a brooding broadside against Bush I’s Gulf War. Beyond their substantial back catalog, they reputedly have a couple hundred more compositions they’ve played live over the decades but have never recorded. Their latest album, Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me: The Micros Play the Blues is streaming at Cuneiform Records.

The Micros typically reunite for an annual Manhattan show or two. They haven’t done that this year, but their two lowest-register members, baritone saxophonist Dave Sewelson and bassist Dave Hofstra are playing a real 80s throwback kind of gig, a duo improvisation on Sept 9 in the community garden at Stanton and Norfolk at around 3. Avant garde cult favorite multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore – a big influence on Mara Rosenbloom – duets with bassist William Parker to start the afternoon at 2; afterward at 4, trombone wizard Steve Swell joins with William Parker and TA Thompson.

The Micros’ album is a about as serious as they get – which isn’t totally dead serious, considering how much of their catalog is sort of the Spinal Tap of classic jazz (and in that sense, they predated Mostly Other People Do the Killing by a couple of decades). The album opens with Cat Toys, a slinky horror film theme theme with the occasional wry piano flourish, a smoky Don Davis alto solo and Hofstra’s more coy strut over drummer Richard Dworkin’s sotto-voce rimshots. Blues Cubistico is full of tongue-in-cheek stop-and-starts and gives Sewelson a vehicle for his genial wit. He does the same thing in the slowly swaying Dark Blue, with plenty of droll echo tradeoffs with the rest of the band and a similarly sardonic outro where the four-horn frontline finally coalesces.

Don’t Mind If I Do is a rare departure for the band into straight-ahead, blithe, New Orleans-tinged territory with a slithery solo from tenor saxophonist Mike Hashin (who’s also the not-so-secret weapon in Svetlana & the Delancey Five). Likewise, another of soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston’s tunes here, Migraine Blues has a comfortable wee-hours strut, but with contrasting, shivery solos from Davis and Sewelson.

PJ in the 60s, a catchy, triumphant swing shuffle, is Forrester’s shout-out to his bandmate Johnston, building out of a surprisingly messy sax cauldron and featuring a balmy Johnston trading off with the rest of the horns. When It’s Getting Dark is basically variations on the Peter Gunne theme, Forrester’s sardonic piano contrasting with Dworkin’s emphatic drumming and some cartoonish chartwork from the horns. Simple-Minded Blues, dedicated to Spectrum impresario Glenn Cornett, is anything but simple, a cheery exercise in dressing up the blues in all kinds of strange voicings, but with a purist Forrester solo as a sweet caramel center.

After You, Joel, dedicated by Forrester to painter Joel Goldstein, brings back the shuffle groove and Looney Tunes exchanges of voices. 12 Angry Birds, a low-key, marching Ellington homage by Johnston, reaches for Mood Indigo lustre, with a brooding soprano sax solo that’s arguably the album’s most riveting moment.

Quizzical, Johnston’s salute to his bandmate and Micros co-founder Forrester, threatens to get satirical early on but straightens out with a purposeful Monk influence and plenty of room for the pianist to channel that. The album winds up with a blues version of a xmas carol – which should have been left at the curb for the trash truck beside that moldy Simon & Garfunkel album  – and a hefty cover of Joe Liggins and the Honeydrippers’ 1950 R&B hit I’ve Got a Right to Cry, sung with gritty passion by Sewelson. It’s unlikely that he and Hofstra will do much of anything this composed at the Saturday show in the garden…but you never know with any of these guys.

September 8, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Microscopic Septet Bring Their Wry, Irresistibly Fun Surrealistic Swing to Town

Soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston was a mainstay of this city’s edgy downtown jazz scene throughout the 80s and into the 90s, most prominently as co-founder of wryly cinematic, sardonically entertaining “surrealistic swing” band the Microscopic Septet. Johnston returns to town for a week at the Stone from March 3 through 8, with a variety of ensembles and sets at 8 and 10 PM; cover is $15.

Since the late zeros, the Microscopic Septet have reunited frequently for albums and tours, and the full group will be playing the 10 PM set on March 5 (possibly their first-ever nighr of free improvisation), then airing out their vast back catalog of songs at 9:30 PM on March 19 at Smalls. The group’s four-man sax line will also be making their debut as an unaccompanied quartet at the Stone on March 7 at 8 PM. And another very auspicious set concludes the stand there at 10 PM on March 8, with Johnston leading an eleven-piece improvisational unit playing his utterly macabre score to the Japanese cult film Page of Madness.

On one hand, the Micros could be credited with being forerunners of the Gatsby jazz revival because they were swinging their collective asses off a good fifteen years before the new moldy fig crowd started doing it. On the other hand, the Micros’ music actually isn’t retro at all. Mashing up droll cartoonish themes and eerie Monkish blues with an unselfconsciously joyous dixieland flair (along with more brooding tunes, like the one that’s served as the theme for NPR’s Fresh Air since the 90s), there’s no other band out there who sound like them. Their latest album, Manhattan Moonrise, comprises both new and older, previously unreleased material – click the links below for what little of it is online, a frustrating issue with a lot of cult acts who go as far back as these guys do.

The opening track, When You Get In Over Your Head is a brisk, blustery, noir-tinged stroll, the reeds – Johnston (soprano sax); Don Davis (alto); Mike Hashim (tenor); Dave Sewelson (baritone) – teaming up for some Ellingtonian indigo. No Time has lustrously shifting, late summer shades as Hashim pulls if further into a latin groove over bassist Dave Hofstra, pianist Joel Forrester and drummer Richard Dworkin. The band revisits that tangent a bit later on with Hang It on a Line, this time shifting out of a rustic campfire gospel theme. Forrester’s sly, low-key stride piano gets the album’s title cut motoring along – and he can’t resist throwing a spitball or two at Hofstra’s dead-serious, racewalking bass solo.

Johnston explains Obeying the Chemicals as an attempt to merge funk and boogie-woogie: Sewelson’s gruff rhythm gives it a second-line feel. A Snapshot of the Soul juxtaposes an uneasily staggered Monk-ish theme with a lively, bubbly, straight-up swing. Star Turn turns a genial, Doc Pomus-style saloon blues tune into a springboard for a long, brightly sailing Davis solo, the longest one on the album

Let’s Coolerate One, Johnston’s theme song for another band of his, the Coolerators, brings the noir back over a lushly swirling swing shuffle, Sewelson and Hashin romping above it. Good-natured solos by Forrester and Sewelson light up the boogie-tinged nocturne Suspended Animation, while Blue hints briefly at melancholy balladry before going all out-of-focus and outside.

You Got That Right! mixes droll stop-and-starts with a jaunty Crescent City swing and lively, tongue-in-cheek conversations among the reeds. The album winds up with Occupy Your Life, which makes an enigmatic cha-cha out of Beethoven – it’s the band’s first-ever number with vocals. Because Johnston decamped for his native Australia awhile back, the Micros don’t play as much as they used to, so if you’ve been thinking of seeing them, now’s as good a time as any.

March 3, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Hot Club of Detroit Gets to the Junction At Full Speed

Prime movers in the gypsy jazz resurgence, the Hot Club of Detroit’s new album, Junction, features a somewhat revamped lineup since bassist Andrew Kratzat suffered a near-fatal car accident last year. But there’s good news on all fronts: Kratzat and his fiancee continue on their road to recovery, and the band found a capable replacement in Shawn Conley. Otherwise, the original core of accordionist Julien Labro and guitarists Evan Perri and Paul Brady is back, joined this time out by reedmen Jon Irabagon and Andrew Bishop plus chanteuse Cyrille Aimee, with whom they’ve toured extensively. Irabagon’s wit and supersonic chops, Bishop’s eclecticism and ironclad sense of melody and Aimee’s purist charm each contribute to the diversity of the songs here. In the spirit of the band’s previous efforts, this album imaginatively blends jaunty grooves with ideas from all over the musical spectrum, continuing to push beyond traditional gypsy jazz.

That’s apparent right off the bat with a funky Irabagon composition, Goodbye Mr. Anderson (a Matrix reference, in case you might be wondering). It’s basically a two-chord jam with a catchy turnaround: spiraling solos from Labro’s accordion and Perri’s electric guitar set up an even more blistering, adrenalizing one from the composer himself.

They follow that with Song for Gabriel, the first of several Perri/Labro co-writes, bouncy and lyrical with some rich alto sax/accordion harmonies. Aimee sings La Foule over tricky, syncopated gypsy jazz: it’s a mouthful, and rather than trying to outdo Piaf, Aimee takes it in a much more understated direction, Perri adding an aptly wistful, expansive acoustic guitar solo.

An upbeat tune simply titled Hey! makes a launching pad for a wildfire cutting contest between Irabagon and Bishop: after a roller-coaster ride of doublestops, trills, unexpected hesitations and gritty microtones, they take it down to a cool accordion/bass/guitar pulse. Chutzpah, a John Zorn homage, kicks off with a tongue-in-cheek improvisational intro and then adds a subtle klezmer tinge, Irabagon springboarding off it with microtonal alto sax pyrotechnics. Then they resurrect a rare Django mass (which Reinhardt left unfinished), Messe Gitane, accordion taking the rather morose role of the church organ, Perri’s guitar eventually taking it into warmer terrain and then handing off to Bishop’s crystalline clarinet.

Django Mort, a setting of a Jean Cocteau poem is delivered very low-key by Aimee over a slow, stately sway. The cinematic, pensively swaying title track, with its folk-rock tinges and plaintive accordion, reminds of Montreal eclecticists Sagapool. The most memorable of all the tracks here, Midnight in Detroit is over too soon in just over a couple of minutes, Labro’s Balkan swirls lighting up the guitars’ nocturnal backdrop.

There’s also a George Shearing homage done as an offcenter, pensive ballad; the deliciously original Puck Bunny, a wry mix of country blues,gypsy swing and jump blues that evokes the Microscopic Septet’s take on Thelonious Monk; a vocal take on Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman that far surpasses a similar version by [who???] which was a rock radio hit in the 70s; and a Phish cover which transcends the original simply by not being an embarrassment. It’s out now on Mack Avenue.

August 19, 2012 Posted by | gypsy music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fun Stuff from Steve Horowitz’s New Monsters

Funny jazz – there just isn’t enough of it. Happily, there’s bass guitarist Steve Horowitz’s recent New Monsters album, which follows an often comedic trajectory into the future of where melodic jazz is going. It seems to be Posi-Tone’s entry in the youngish eclectic kitchen-sink combo sweepstakes, and it is a winner. Hijinks aside, it’s an elegant blend of purist postbop, irreverently wry Microscopic Septet-ish narratives and funky Ethiopian-tinged excursions that would be at home in the Either/Orchestra catalog. While the album is credited to Horowitz, the composer here is tenor saxophonist Dan Plonsey, a brilliantly eclectic, witty and consistently surprising talent, playing alongside Steve Adams on alto and soprano saxes and also flute, with Scott Looney on piano and Jim Bove on drums.

The humor here runs the gamut, from subtle – the opening track, Imperfect Life, a casually insistent study in jauntily biting un-resolutions – to vaudevillian, culminating in the closing cut, Cylinder, a swinging Looney Tunes march punctuated by the most amusing drum break in recent memory. Not everything here is comedic, either. For example, there’s Mirror Earth, a swinging Micros-in-Ethiopia groove bookending a glittery free interlude for piano and alto sax. There’s also Journey to the East, a distantly south Asian-inflected, echoey, swirling microtonal overture that sets up a jauntily delicious romp through Coltrane and Dolphy’s India/The Red Planet with vividly biting, jagged saxes and spot-on modal piano. The title track artfully switches its galloping Ethiopiques bounce from bass to piano, after an unexpected swing interlude capped off by swirling tenor sax over machinegunning drums. And Miracle Melancholy juxtaposes bittersweet Dave Valentin-inflected flute against wary Ethiopian modalities, with a twinkly, minimalist piano interlude that rises as an unexpected joke.

The rest of the record is a lot of fun. There are a couple of sly strolling numbers: Vision Pyramid Collapse, with prepared piano mimicking a violin’s pizzicato, and the faux New Orleans march Dragon of Roses, featuring satirically conspiratorial, increasingly off-center twin saxes. There’s also New Boots for Bigfoot, a reggae tune with scurrying, Monty Alexander-style piano and what seems to be an interminable bass solo that turns out to have multiple levels of meaning – intentionally or not, it works. And Herald of Zombies marches up to where Plonsey and Looney threaten to raid the horror film cliche cupboard. This Bay Area crew sounds like they’d be a ton of fun live.

May 9, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Old Friends Hang Out and Play a Little Monk

The reason to own this album is because it has a lot of hard-to-find Joel Forrester material. Pianist Forrester and saxophonist Phillip Johnston have performed together as far back as the mid-70s, both as duo and more famously as ringleaders of the Microscopic Septet, the cleverly shapeshifting, frequently satirical swing unit that emerged during the punk era and is still as irrepressibly vital today as it was then. To promote the Micros’ excellent Friday the 13th album, a Thelonious Monk collection, the two went on a brief west coast tour at the end of last year. This one, Live at the Hillside Club, was recorded in Berkeley last November. It’s a warm, engaging performance, as imbued with the two’s signature wits as much as you’d expect; while there are Monk tunes here, the emphasis is on original material. The chemistry that comes from playing together for the better part of 35 years is all over this disc, right off the bat with the wry, catchy opening track, Bunny Boy, Johnston taking it from echoes of ragtime to echoes of dixieland before Forrester brings it back with a characteristically goodnatured bite. As the title gives away, the song is at least partially a dig at someone.

But Forrester’s titles aren’t always nearly as direct. Some Things Don’t Work Out is not a lament, but a lyrical jazz waltz which then goes straight-up 4/4 and even more jaunty before it winds down: in this case, maybe it was a good thing whatever it was ended when it did. Your Little Dog, a requiem for a mutt, has a cinematic (some might say sentimental) quality, with an artful handoff from Forrester to Johnston before the piano finally takes it out for one last stroll. Dark whimsicality hits a peak here with Loser’s Blues: when Johnston swirls his way to the top of the crescendo before the final chorus, it’s bliss, at least bliss among the down and out. The Forrester compositions here also include the bucolic Did You Ever Want to Cry – based on an old spiritual – and Second Nature, a solo piano piece dating from the early 70s that sounds like Philip Glass (did Forrester know who Glass was at the time? One can only wonder).

Johnston’s only composition here is a Splat, solo soprano sax piece, bright but subtle variations on a simple descending motif with some unexpected ragtime allusions. The Monk stuff is done true to form: Monk’s genius was that he took the surreal for granted and made the most of it, and that’s these guys do. Well You Needn’t is creepy fun expertly done, Pannonica direct yet relaxed and unselfconsciously beautiful, and with Epistrophy, they let its carnivalesque quality speak for itself rather than being caricaturish. Happily, throughout this album audience noise is almost completely absent. More concert recordings should be like this, not just because of the quality of the music.

December 5, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dead Cat Bounce’s Chance Episodes Work Out Better Than Just OK

With their four-saxophone frontline, Dead Cat Bounce create the kind of music that sends toy soldiers sinking fast into a mug of hot chocolate – ok, that’s the most surreal of the cd booklet images, but it’s a good one. Their latest album Chance Episodes dispels any demons you can imagine. Who knew that a commission from Chamber Music America could yield such amusing and entertaining results? With their eclecticism, relentlessly droll, usually spot-on sense of humor and counterintuitive charts, the obvious comparison is the Microscopic Septet. When composer/bandleader Matt Steckler is in a more straight-ahead mood, some of the material here evokes the World Saxophone Quartet. But their sound is completely original and often absolutely delightful. The group also includes Jared Sims, Terry Goss and Charlie Kohlhase on saxes and other reeds along with Dave Ambrosio on bass and Bill Carbone on drums. As a Cuneiform Records band, they’re playing their label’s two-week extravaganza at the Stone on Nov 25 at 10 PM.

As you would expect from a band this irreverent, the song titles match the music. Take the opening track, Food Blogger: this guy is a madman! Steckler’s arrangements are meticulous, and pretty hilarious, all helter-skelter scurrying and big sarcastic crescendos with Goss gone OCD, Kohlhase (one of the great wits in jazz) climbing wryly and knowingly with his baritone before Steckler scurries and tiptoes on soprano sax.

Tourvan Confessional goes in an even more wry direction, its funky/bluesy charts lit up by cheery Kohlhase accents. A bright, bustling rush-hour scenario, Far From the Matty Crowd highlights Ambrosio’s hard-hitting, tuneful bass, Carbone’s out-of-nowhere bursts and then a completely unanticipated descent into hallucinatory quietness where Carbone once again gets to play ham and makes the most of it.

Likewise, Salon Sound Journal shifts from funky to swinging and then to an austere, semi-fugal wind ensemble passage. Bio Dyno Man – a mellow superhero who sounds like a Kohlhase creation – has Steckler’s soprano defiantly resisting any kind of resolution, an unexpected whirlwind with the whole ensemble and then Ambrosio matter-of-factly bringing back the slink. A cinematic mini-suite, Silent Movie, Russia 1995 morps from staggered march, to bolero, then to clave, with a laid-back Sims tenor solo with a playful Dexter Gordon quote. Watkins Glen – a racetrack, so those alto accents might be car horns – gives Ambrosio, who’s the secret star of this thing, a chance to air out his classical side, Steckler’s flute rising in contrast.

A blithely swaying, latin-inflected number, Salvation and Doubt evokes the western hemisphere of Either/Orchestra with Gil Evans-inflected swells and some deviously unfocused alto from Goss. There’s also Township Jive Revisited, a lively mbaqanga-flavored tune that eventually brings in a genially pulsing New Orleans vibe; Madame Bonsilene, contrasting astringent atonalities with Kohlhase’s solid, strolling underpinning; and Living the Dream, a funk song with a long, intricately joyous crescendo to take the album out on a high note.

Another cool thing about this record: the cd back cover includes credits for solos. That’s not an ego thing – it makes a lot easier for a listener to figure out who’s playing what, and how.

November 12, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 7/5/11

The core crew here are back from vacation and badly need a vacation from that vacation…but there’s no time for that. Lots of new stuff tomorrow. In the meantime, as we do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #574:

The Microscopic Septet – Take the Z Train

Drawing as deeply from punk esthetics as from Monk and Ellington, the Microscopic Septet’s playful, often satirical, always swinging charts have tickled jazz fans since their inception in 1981: in a sense, they’re sort of the Spinal Tap of jazz. This is their debut from two years later. Imagine the Lounge Lizards if they’d showed off their chops and you get some idea of what this sounds like (pianist Joel Forrester, one of the group’s two main writers, would later come up with the theme for NPR’s Fresh Air). Soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston is responsible for the spy narrative Mr. Bradley, Mr. Martin, the breathless, bustling Pack the Ermines, Mary, and the latin swing of I Didn’t Do It. Johnston’s compositions here include Chinese Twilight Zone (the album was recorded in New York’s Chinatown utilizing a piano that had once reputedly belonged to Eubie Blake), as well as the tongue-in-cheek title track, the coy Wishful Thinking and the psychedelic closing cut, A Strange Thought Entered My Head, the band’s four-sax frontline blazing through one devious, tricky chart after another. Here’s a random torrent; repackaged as a twofer on the absolutely dynamite 2006 double-disc Seven Men in Neckties, it’s still available from Cuneiform.

July 5, 2011 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Microscopic Septet Play Monk to a Tie

It makes sense that the Microscopic Septet would do a Thelonious Monk cover album. Their new album Friday the 13th is a mix of unselfconsciously joyous, sometimes devious new arrangements of tuneful toe-tapping gutbucket jazz. Monk can be weird and offputting sometimes – not that those traits are necessarily a bad thing in music – but he can also be great fun, and this is mostly the fun Monk. In their thirty-year career, the Micros have lived off their reputation as one of the alltime great witty jazz bands, to the point of being something of the Spinal Tap of the genre. They’ve never met a style they couldn’t lovingly satirize, but this isn’t satire: it’s part homage, part using the compositions as a stepping-off point for their trademark “did you hear that?” moments.

Monk is also very specific: there’s no mistaking him for anyone else. So covering such an individual artist is a potential minefield: when the originals are perfectly good as they are, the obvious question arises, why bother? Unless of course you do them completely differently, and then run the risk of losing the very quality that made them appealing to begin with. How sanitized is this? How slick and how digital is this album, compared to the originals? The good news is that it’s not particularly slick, the production is bright but not obtrusive and and the arrangements are as unpredictably entertaining as you would expect from this crew – which is a lot. Co-founder and pianist Joel Forrester knew Monk personally, and it’s obvious that they’re kindred spirits in a lot of ways. For Forrester in particular, this is a tough gig – although he’s played Monk for decades, comparisons will inevitably spring up, and it’s safe to say that he gets it, letting the new charts speak for themselves. Was it alto sax player Charlie Rouse who said that “Monk keeps it simple and proper”? Forrester does exactly that. The songs here are a mix of iconic standards along with a couple of unexpected treats: an off-kilter, martial version of the extremely obscure Gallop’s Gallop that comes thisclose to galloping off the cliff, and a fluid, relaxed take of the vacation tableau Worry Later, one of several numbers to feature a stripped-down arrangement, in this case mostly for rhythm section and sax. In that sense, they adhere closely to Monk’s tendency to pare down segments of the songs, especially for solos, even when he was working in a setting larger than a quartet.

The opening track, Brilliant Corners establishes another very effective arrangement strategy here, portioning out pieces of the melody to individual voices, one by one. The title track gets a slightly more straight-up swing treatment than the original, soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston contributing spot-on, blithely wary atmospherics. By contrast, Teo gets a bizarrely effective trio arrangement – most of it, anyway – with boomy surf drums and scurrying Don Davis alto sax. Pannonica maintains the lyrical feel of the original while adding a long, deliciously swirling, lush outro; Evidence substitutes dual and trio sax riffage in place of the suspiciously blithe latinisms of Monk’s version.

We See is redone as a funky shuffle with big grinning solos by Davis and bassist Dave Hofstra; likewise, Bye-Ya also funks up the original without losing any of its catchiness. The single most gripping arrangement here, Off Minor, finds its inner noir core and dives deeply into it with a spine-tingling series of handoffs as the saxes go up the register in turn, one by one. Likewise, Mysterioso goes cinematic with big sax swells, syncopated duo voicings and a creepy march out. The album winds up with a neat version that makes short work of Epistrophy: originally a boogie blues, they turn it into a little diptych, moving from echoes of Coltrane to a smooth swing with more of the tasty soprano/baritone tradeoffs that occur throughout this almost infinitely surprising album.

February 8, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment