Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Jeff Holmes Quartet Gets Tuneful and Thoughtful

Calling a jazz album “mellow” is usually the kiss of death. But consider: Birth of the Cool is a mellow album. So is Kind of Blue. For that matter, so is a lot of Time Out. The Jeff Holmes Quartet’s new Miles High release Of One’s Own follows in that tradition: tuneful and laid-back, with a nonchalant, warm camaraderie between the musicians. Though there are many subtle shades here, it’s a reminder that darkness isn’t a prerequisite for depth.

As lively as some of the music becomes, the band plays singlemindedly: pianist Holmes, reedman Adam Kolker, bassist James Cammack and drummer Steve Johns lock into the vibe, always on top of the moment when it’s time to chill. Holmes has a gift for writing lyrical songs without words: every one of his originals here is strong. The best of them is One for C.J., a deliciously catchy, understated cha-cha jazz hit, Kolker evoking his best work with Ray Baretto’s band with his swirling, smoky, chromatically fueled bass clarinet. Another standout is Rose on Driftwood , Kolker again on bass clarinet, Cammack and Johns artfully shifting the rhythm from a circular Ethiopian groove to a latin funk vibe while Holmes works vivid light/dark dichotomies.

That kind of slow, almost imperceptible trajectory to an unexpected crescendo happens again and again throughout the album. They take Toby Holmes’ Waltz #3 from warm ballad mode to more pensive, fueled by Kolker’s thoughtful, allusively bluesy tenor sax and then Cammack’s spacious bass solo, but then go up and out on a high note. It makes a good setup for Holmes’ title track, a clinic in judicious crescendos that winds up with a much more minimalist, goodnaturedly wry outro.

Macaroons reaches for a Bill Frisell/Jeremy Udden Americana jazz catchiness, building toward a ragtime-inspired feel, while The Senses Delight, a gentle ballad, stays far enough aloft to escape the tender trap, both Holmes and Kolker (on tenor here) both careful not to overstate their case. By contrast, they play Poinciana with a surreal, midsummer balminess, spacious and suspenseful – it’s a great song to begin with, and they really nail it, Holmes’ careful precision echoed by Cammack while Johns casually develops a slow samba pace. A carefree take of John Abercrombie’s Labour Day and a rather triumphant version of the Rodgers/Hammerstein standard So Long, Farewell complete the picture, an attractive one in every sense of the word.

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November 14, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Something Old, Something New, a Lot That’s Borrowed and Plenty of Blues

A couple of noteworthy recent releases under the big broad banner of Ellingtonia: a welcome digital reissue of the 1963 Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins album (distributed by Harmonia Mundi) as well as Dan Block’s new From His World to Mine: Dan Block Plays the Music of Duke Ellington. The first isn’t the summit meeting between legends that the title implies. A more apt description would be Hawk Plays Ellington: the Duke is strictly a member of the supporting cast here, generously giving the tenor player – whose style he clearly dug – a lot of space, and Hawkins seizes the moment. 47 years later, the album retains the wee-hours vibe of the original because that’s what it was, a couple of busy guys squeezing in a one-off session which ultimately would be the only one they would do together. Although by this point Ellington had become a bluesy classical composer and Hawkins still had bop tendencies, they found common ground with a bunch of jump blues tunes, many of them in the Black and Tan Fantasy mold: eerie minor themes that eventually smooth out into genial swing. It’s nicely remastered – drummer Sam Woodyard’s deft rimshots and cymbal hits enjoy improved clarity compared to the original, as does Aaron Bell’s bass. The most offhanded moments here are the best. Limbo Jazz, clearly not meant as a take, has Woodyard audibly singing along, but Hawk’s casual tradeoffs with baritone man Harry Carney perfectly complete the picture. Likewise, Mood Indigo makes a long launching pad for a single Hawkins solo that just keeps going, and going, and going, Ellington waving him to take another verse, and then a chorus, knowing that the guy was on his game. And Ellington’s song specifically for Hawkins, Self-Portrait of Bean, leans in stately and serious, verging on noir. What’s stunning after all these years is that everything here is basically a pop song, albeit a very sophisticated, often dark-tinged one.

Reedman Dan Block realizes that covering the classics requires some reinvention: otherwise, why bother? With painstaking purism but also considerable joy, he alternates between radical reinterpretation and a bluesy geniality very similar to the Hawkins album, in a set of mostly brilliant obscurities. It’s just as much a triumph of smart archivism as it is of inventive playing and arranging. The late 30s showstopper Are You Stickin’? becomes a latin number, Block’s sailing clarinet interspersed with Mark Sherman’s marvelously terse vibraphone lines, while a late 40s vocal tune, The Beautiful Indians grows from atmospherics to a pulsing tango. Playing tenor sax, Block brings out every bit of subtle, wide-eyed satire in Suburbanites, a 1947 Al Sears showcase, then switches to bass clarinet for a gypsy-tinged, bluesy take of an early one of Ellington’s “portraits,” Portrait of Bert Williams (a popular black vaudevillian of the era). Mt. Harrissa, which is the slightly altered version of Take the A Train from the vastly underrated Far East Suite, is done as a noir bossa with vibes – harrissa may be the hot sauce of choice at falafel stands around the world, but this one’s minty, with balmy Block tenor and guitar from James Chirillo. Block’s love for all things Ellingtonian is contagious, bringing out an inspired performance from the entire cast, the rest of whom include Catherine Russell’s rhythm section of Lee Hudson on bass and Brian Grice on drums plus Mike Kanan on piano and Pat O’Leary on cello. It’s out now on Miles High Records.

December 20, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments