Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Hall of Fame-Caliber Band Tackles the Entirety of Jazz History at Birdland This Week

Who knew that the estimable Carl Allen could play a Philly soul shuffle with the best of them? Or that saxophonist James Carter had a thing for 20s hot jazz? If he doesn’t, he sure fooled everybody last night as a member of alto saxophonist Vincent Herring’s ten-piece ensemble, who were playing the first night of their weeklong stand at Birdland. The concept, The Story of Jazz: 100 Years, is ambitious – sets continue nightly at 8:30 and 11 PM through Jan 27.

In a marathon hour and a half onstage last night to open the stand, they made it from 1917 to the late 70s. On one hand, that’s not as much of a challenge for this particular hall of fame crew as it would be for a less seasoned cast. This is an allstar band to rival any other one, anywhere. Sharing the stage with Herring, Allen and Carter were Eric Alexander on tenor sax, Jon Faddis and Jeremy Pelt on trumpets, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Mike LeDonne on piano and organ, Kenny Davis on bass and Nicolas Bearde on vocals and also reading from a script that offered a surface overview of jazz history.

Through the decade of the 60s, the group’s charts were fascinating; the playing was as sage and thrilling as you would expect from artists of this caliber. Herring and Alexander shared Coltrane riffs judiciously and soulfully. Faddis and Pelt threatened to pop valves, then shifted into resonant, peak-era Miles mode. Carter clearly saw this as a cutting contest, and he’d come to slay, whether mining unexpectedly low richness from his clarinet, spiraling and flurrying with his usual white-hot intensity on soprano sax, saving his most exhilarating volleys for his tenor sax.

As this particular narrative acknowledged, jazz first bubbled up in the melting pot of New Orleans in the 1890s but didn’t reach critical mass until around World War 1 with Jelly Roll Morton and his contemporaries. The group began there, blazed through dixieland and then a balmy take of Summertime, sung with august restraint by Bearde.

By now, it was obvious that this was going to be a greatest-hits survey. Basie got a nod, as did the Ellington band via a blistering charge through one machinegunning solo after another. Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ got a only slightly less boisterous doublespeed coda. Bearde particularly excelled with his post-opiated interpretation of Straighten Up and Fly Right as the band barreled and bounced behind him.

The 50s, a decade the band spent plenty of time in and could have stayed in for even longer, were most vividly represented by Take Five and its balmy, unexpectedly plush chart, and So What, an apt vehicle for Pelt. For whatever reason, the group saved Caravan and its whirlwind of round-the-horn solos for the 60s. Was Eubanks going to get one, as a shout to Juan Tizol? Yes – he ended up playing it pretty close to the vest.

They reinvented The Girl From Ipanema as a boogaloo: did anybody catch that wicked moment where Davis fired off a neat series of doublestops in response to a similarly slinky LeDonne organ phrase? Allen did. It was just as cool to hear them run a couple of impassioned verses of Les McCann’s protest-jazz anthem Compared to What.

It was in the decade after that where the band lost focus and phoned it in. You would have, too, if you’d been onstage. These guys all have substantial individual catalogs, and they cut their teeth on the classics, so vamping their collective way through one cheesy 70s fusion hit after another seemed rote – and unfamiliar terrain. Has anyone in this ensemble ever had to fake their way through a Chuck Mangione number? Doubtful. At least they did the club’s theme song – Weather Report were responsible for that one. Did anybody notice? The staff did.

Conventional wisdom among diehard jazz fans is that the 70s were a dead decade, and that’s far from true. This group could have had a ball with something by Ruben Blades, or Tito Puente – latin jazz was underrepresented in this particular set. An AACM interlude, like the group’s detours into dixieland and early bop, would have been appropriate. There’s got to be something by, say, Anthony Braxton or Henry Threadgill from that era that’s translucent enough to resonate with the tourists.

Devil’s advocate says that tourists have no idea who Braxton or Threadgill are. And that’s not true either – the Europeans often know them better than an American audience would. All this is not to criticize the band’s achievements last night – everybody is busy with their own projects, and there’s only so much time to come up with charts for a group this size. They’re there for the rest of the week for fans of history and pure adrenaline.

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January 24, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gary Smulyan Goes Where Nobody Else Has Since About 1970

Isn’t it funny how the Hammond B3 organ and the baritone sax have complemented each other so well in funk music and ska for decades…yet hardly ever in jazz? For that matter has there EVER been a B3 jazz groove record featuring baritone sax? According to the liner notes for Gary Smulyan’s new album Smul’s Paradise (just out on Capri Records), the answer is yes: bari player Ronnie Cuber did several sessions with Lonnie Smith in the 60s, and is featured on Smith’s 1970 Live at Club Mozambique album. But in the past four decades? There doesn’t appear to be anything else! So this new album is especially welcome, an animated, warmly congenial, wee-hours collection of brilliant obscurities and originals originally conceived as a tribute to underrated 60s organist Don Patterson that quickly took on a life of its own.

Smulyan gets props everywhere, most recently as a winner of the 2011 DownBeat critics poll. This album is typical, in that it features his methodically aggressive, frequently wry, witty attack and smoky tone: Smulyan knows that there’s always a potential for humor in his instrument, and he’s not afraid to go there. Organist Mike LeDonne and guitarist Peter Bernstein have a comfortable rapport that stems from their long-running collaboration as the core of the house band at Harlem’s Smoke Jazz Club. Kenny Washington – Smulyan’s favorite drummer, and a lot of other peoples’ – propels this unit with his usual blend of scholarly erudition and counterintuitive verve.

The opening track is a radically reinvented version Bobby Hebb’s 60s pop hit Sunny- is this a staggered bolero? A jazz waltz? Either way, it’s a long launching pad for methodical, steady 8th-note runs by Smulyan and Bernstein. Patterson’s Up in Betty’s Room is a ridiculously catchy stripper theme of sorts, Smulyan in confidently deadpan mode, LeDonne enhancing the vintage soul/blues vibe with his bubbly, animated lines. Pistaccio, by another unfairly neglected 60s organ talent, Rhoda Scott, sails along on Washington’s blissfully subtle bossa-tinged groove. Similarly, Washington shakes up the shuffle on the catchy title track, capped off by a high-spirited round of call-and-response, everyone getting a word in with the drums.

George Coleman’s Little Miss Half Steps gets a bright, unselfconsciously fun treatment with some artful syncopation from Smulyan, organ and guitar again interspersed between the drum breaks (many of the tracks here were completed in a single take; this sounds like one of them). The most memorable number here is Patterson and Sonny Stitt’s soul song Aires, Bernstein channeling vintage George Benson, LeDonne’s lush washes of chords taking it up several notches. The album closes with the swinging, insistent Blues for D.P., a Patterson homage by Smulyan, and Heavenly Hours, a mashup of Seven Steps to Heaven and My Shining Hour. Amusingly (and maybe intentionally), the hook sounds like Diablo’s Dance (which incidentally is the opening cut on the highly anticipated new album of early Wes Montgomery recordings out soon on Resonance). As party music, this is awfully hard to beat: it’s the perfect soundtrack to 4 AM get-togethers when nobody cares anymore whether the people down the hall are awake or not.

February 9, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Peppe Merolla – Stick with Me

Jazz falls into a lot of categories: boudoir jazz, solace-after-a-rough-day jazz, late night sleepy jazz, drunk jazz, fake jazz. Drummer Peppe Merolla’s debut as a bandleader, Stick with Me, is party jazz. It’s the kind of album you can actually put on repeat and not get sick of and it’s our favorite so far this year. Tunes leap from the grooves (ok, the, um, bitmap) of this one with a joyous exuberance that occasionally mellows out into warmly expansive reflection, contentment with a job well done. Merolla is a no-nonsense player with considerable wit, and the tone he sets is contagious. They’re off with a genial rumble from the toms and a characteristically playful yet ethereal Steve Turre shell motif into a modified latin groove (a vibe they’ll bring back again and again here) with casually blazing solos from Jim Rotondi’s trumpet and Turre’s trombone, tenor player John Farnsworth offhandedly quoting Trane, Mike LeDonne (on piano here) introducing some otherworldly tones before joining in the bounce. The fun continues on Ferris Wheel (a tongue-in-cheek title for sure – Bumper Cars would be more like it) with an insistent New Orleans horn riff, a buoyant Farnsworth solo and speeds up as Lee Smith walks the bass and the trombone plays deadpan staccato. A second consecutive Farnsworth tune, Junior, swings genially with a cinematic 70s New York flair, right down to LeDonne’s judiciously summery Rhodes piano. Yet another Farnsworth track builds from pensive, Coltrane-style majesty to irrepressible swing. And the everybody’s-invited after-hours vibe of their version of Willie Nelson’s  Crazy has the melody making the rounds of the band with a joyous directness and simplicity before more contemplative turns from everybody.

There’s also the deliriously circling latin jazz of Mozzin’ (yet another tasty Farnsworth tune), the snaky Marbella with its characteristically boisterous, tuneful Turre trombone, the vividly anthemic Princess of the Mountain and the spiritedly bluesy, high-energy Bud Powell homage One for Bud, a counterintuitive showcase for horns rather than the piano. The small handful of solos Merolla takes here actually sound composed, with a definite trajectory and a punch line. Put this on when the party’s been going for a few hours and soon even your “I hate music that doesn’t have singing” crowd will be humming along. It may be only February, but this is one is likely to end up on a lot of best-of lists this year. And it’s also reason to look forward to what Farnsworth may have up his sleeve next time out.

Merolla has an interesting backstory. A drummer from the age of five, he toured with his parents, the actors Gino Morelli and Tina Barone. After opening for Sinatra at a New York City concert, Sinatra was so impressed that he re-christened the teenage Merolla as “Little Joe” and arranged a three-album record deal for him.

February 27, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments