Guitarist Jon Lundbom is one of the Hot Cup Records crew, associated with notorious/uproarious jazz parodists Mostly Other People Do the Killing. As you might expect, his music shares that group’s corrosive sarcasm, but that’s only part of the picture. For Jeremiah, his seventh album with his long-running band Big Five Chord, he’s brought back the usual suspects – Jon Irabagon on soprano sax, Bryan Murray on tenor and balto (hybrid baritone/alto) saxes, Moppa Elliott on bass and Dan Monaghan on drums along with Sam Kulik on trombone and Justin Wood on alto sax and flute. They’re playing the album release show next Wednesday, Feb 4 at 10 PM at Cornelia Street Café; cover is $10 plus a $10 minimum.
As the title implies, the album is an instrumental jeremiad, more or less. The bustling energy and keenly focused improvisation of Lundbom’s previous live album, Liverevil, take a backseat here to disquiet, anger and cynicism. In a city where the elite jazz players who still remain are often forced to take cheesy folk club gigs backing wannabe American Idol girls just to be able to make rent for another month, that anger shouldn’t come as any surprise.
And yet, the horn charts throughout the album have an unselfconscious, understated poignancy and bittersweet beauty. The opening track, The Bottle is not the Gil Scott-Heron classic but a Lundbom original named after a town in Alabama (he stole the concept from Elliott, whose repertoire is littered with Pennsylvania place names). And it’s full of sarcasm – although Alabama doesn’t seem to factor into it. It sways and shuffles, with snide, offcenter horns, a busily bubbling, more-or-less atonal solo from Lundbom and some neat contrasts between Murray’s squall and the rhythm section’s hypnotically waterfalling drive.
The next Alabama song (these compositions are about as Alabaman as Kurt Weill) is Frog Eye, with its lustrous, majestic if uneasy horn arrangement punctuated by chirpy pairings between Irabagon and Elliott, Lundbom lurking in the shadows before emerging with a smirk. The third one, Scratch Ankle opens somewhat the same before conversations between the horns go their separate ways.
Lick Skillet, which may or may not be a Tennnessee reference, pairs an irresistibly funny, Spike Jones-ish intro from Kulik with another astigmatically glistening horn chart and a spoof on latin flute funk. First Harvest, a wiccan song recorded on Lundbom’s previous album, gets a morosely terse new arrangement by Wood that Murray and Irabagon take up a notch. By contrast, W.P.S.M. takes a jauntily shuffling New Orleans-inspired strut outward, agitatedly..but then Elliott rescues it with some classic comic relief. The album winds up with Screamer, a loose, easygoing jam that seems tacked on for the hell of it. Who is the audience for this? People who like edgy sounds, and jazz with a vernacular that relies less on tunesmithing than creating and maintaining mood. This isn’t an album to lull you to sleep or dull your hangover but it sure as hell will make you feel something. It’s not officially out yet, although the first tune is up at Soundcloud.
Sara Serpa is one of the most distinctive voices in any style of music, and widely regarded as the most original vocalist in jazz. A protegee of legendary noir pianist Ran Blake, vocalese is her thing. She doesn’t often sing lyrics, preferring the role of instrumentalist. But what an instrumentalist! Her hauntingly clear, crystalline soprano made the Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra’s debut album one of the most arresting releases of this past year. She’s got a new duo album, Primavera, with her partner, guitarist/tunesmith Andre Matos and an album release show May 22 at 8 PM at Greenwich House Music School, 46 Barrow St. in the west village on an excellent doublebill with the similarly inclined Emilie Weibel, who’s releasing her playfully quirky oMoO solo vocal project.
Serpa’s earlier compositions are meticulously constructed, and more shapeshifting and longscale than the terse pieces here. The album opens with the title track, a loopy vocal phrase underpinned by uneasy guitar, down to a lull and then up with a dancing crescendo. Tempo, the first of Matos’ compositions here, is a guarded waltz, a horror film theme minus the strings. It’s good to see Serpa asserting herself as a pianist – on this track, on Fender Rhodes – as well a a singer.
Rios, another Matos number, is a catchy waltz, the opposite of the previous number, but just as catchy, lit up by some frenetic melodica from Leo Genovese. Choro, also by Matos, juxtaposes flitty guitar and Greg Osby soprano sax against Serpa’s resolute vocals. A Serpa original, Kubana is just plain amazing, her soaring, multitracked vocals harmonizing with Matos’ understatedly gorgeous, jangly chords all the way up to a haunting, anthemic conclusion.
Another Serpa original, Song for a Sister is a warm, springlike number, Matos’ spacious, methodical interlude giving way to gently dreamy, shimmery vocals. Caminho, by Matos, brings back a brooding, waltzing theme, a Lynchian summer theme that darkens as it goes along.
Matos and Serpa join for restrained, almost skeletal settings of Alberto Caeiro poems, then Serpa’s Novem works a circular theme that goes swinging with a hypnotic piano/guitar vamp – it’s Wes Montgomery noir, if such a thing can exist. They reinvent the Ran Blake/Jeanne Lee classic, Vanguard, as a spaciously unwinding, uneasily matter-of-fact theme, expanding beyond the luminous mystery of the original. Gardening, by Matos, cleverly morphs from a canon to a dance over a catchy, nonchalant guitar loop. They do Guillermo Klein’s Se Me Va La Luz as an insistent anthem fueled by Matos’ percussive chords and close with a bluesy Serpa setting of an E.E. Cummings [Ha Ha, So There] poem in the same spare, resonant vein as Tin Hat’s versions of that poet’s stuff from a couple of years ago. Up to this point, intensity has been Serpa’s great shining quality; as spare, and sometimes low-key, and fun as this album is, she hasn’t relented, and Matos keeps pace all the way.
Guitarist Marc Ribot‘s intense, brilliant new Live at the Village Vanguard album (due out May 13 from Pi Recordings) is all about tension and suspense, fueled by his fondness for noise and assault on one hand, and his laserlike sense of melody on the other. To say that Ribot is at the peak of his powers right now is pretty amazing, considering that about 25 years ago he was hyped as being something that no living, breathing musician could possibly live up to. In the years since, he’s come to integrate his squalling, shredding centerstage persona with a stunning command of idioms from across the musical spectrum. Who knew that Ribot was a genius country player? Tift Merritt did, and that’s why she hired him. Even by Ribot’s standards, he’s got a hectic series of shows coming up starting on May 11 at 8 PM with his Ceramic Dog trio (with bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Ches Smith) at Rough Trade on an edgy twinbill with Chris Cochrane’s Collapsible Shoulder with Brian Chase, Mike Duclos and Kevin Bud Jones. The next day Ribot is at le Poisson Rouge with this album’s brilliant, cross-generational rhythm section, Henry Grimes on bass and Chad Taylor on drums. Then on May 13 at 8 Ribot plays a live score to Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Kid’ at Anthology Film Archives, 32 2nd Ave. And on May 16 his group Los Cubanos Postizos is back at the Poisson Rouge at 7:30ish.
This is a characteristically ambitious effort, recorded during Ribot’s first stand as a bandleader at the Vanguard. It starts with a fifteen-minute one-chord jam and ends with a surprisingly straight-ahead, bluesmetal-tinged romp with a long, suspensefully shuffling drum solo. A lot of it is twisted, evil black magic. But there’s also a gentle, sincere, straight-up trad version of I’m Confessin worthy of Jim Hall. While that testifies to Ribot’s legendary mutability, it’s his signature stuff here that stuns a noisy crowd, beginning with the night’s first number, Coltrane’s Dearly Beloved, Grimes opening it with a neatly shifting, bowed introduction that takes them by surprise. From there, Ribot pulls purposefully and then frenetically against the center, through rises and dips, a brief, haunting, nebulously Middle Eastern interlude, skronk-funk, unimpeded squall and a grimly lowlit drum solo to which Ribot adds eerie blue-light flickers. It’s as much psychedelic art-rock as it is jazz, and it’s riveting.
They segue into Albert Ayler’s The Wizard, done essentially as a boogie with similar dynamic shifts, Ribot holding the center throughout Grimes’ utterly unexpected, marvelously spacious solo before wailing back into goodnatured bluesmetal tempered with downtown grit. By contrast, Old Man River is a clinic in restraint: you can tell that everybody, especially Taylor – who, with his restless rolls and jabs, absolutely owns this number – wants to cut loose but knows they have to chill. Again, Grimes chooses his spots with a spare majesty: it’s a treat to hear somebody as out-there as he can be playing with such a dark, austere intensity. They start Coltrane’s Sun Ship pretty straight-up – if you can call Ribot’s sunbaked, distorted tone straight-up – before taking it into jagged, sidestepping ferocity and then some boisterous leapfrogging from Taylor. The album’s longest track is Bells, skirting a low-key ballad theme, like Bill Frisell feeling around for some steady footing, negotiating circular, hypnotic spirals, Grimes’ focus anchoring Ribot’s jagged let’s-peel-the-walls shards, droll Stephen Foster quotes and a second-line tinged solo from Taylor. The subtext here is Albert Ayler, with whom Grimes played at the Vanguard the last time he was onstage there prior to his show – almost half a century ago. You can expect all this and much more at any of Ribot’s upcoming shows, especially at the Poisson Rouge gig on the 12th.
Danielle Spradley‘s cd cover illustration on the Danny Fox Trio‘s new album Wide Eyed is a woodcut in the style of Paul Klee. In the lower righthand corner, there’s a guy with an accordion – or is it a piano? – strapped to his back, facing a vortex. In some ways, Fox is a smart guy surrounded by idiots – but obviously not in his regular band, featuring bassist Chris van Voorst van Beest and drummer Max Goldman. They’re playing the album release show on May 9 at 8 PM at Subculture; cover is $15.
Much as there’s plenty of good jazz coming out of New York, the annoying affectations of indie rock have filtered into some of it. Spastic, burp-and-fart jazz has been around a long time, but there’s a Brooklyn clique who’ve taken it to new levels of awkwardness. Fox, who can conjure melody and meaning out of thin air, is a refreshing antidote to that. He has a distinctive, instantly recognizable voice on the piano, his shapeshifting, neoromantically-infused melodies with an almost ADD restlessness coupled with a wit that’s sometimes devious and sometimes gives way to exasperation and anger. The compositions here are more labyrinthine than those on Fox’s previous album, 2012′s cinematic The One Constant: it’s almost as if he decided to take everything in his tunebook and get it all in the can.
Although the idiom here is jazz, there’s an interweave of themes here that draws a straight line back to Beethoven and Haydn. The opening track, Sterling, is characteristic: impatient circular riffage gives way to rippling neoromantics and then a mathrock stroll that Fox finally leaves with an unexpectedly bluesy warmth, followed by a cleverly implied modal theme and then back to variations on the mathrock. That’s a lot to digest, but the band makes it look easy.
Bonkers circles around a rather petulant theme that Fox ends by enlisting his bandmates in a valiant attempt to make rhythmic sense of it. All Tolled takes a bell-like, Mompou-esque hook and builds to wry, sardonic, dynamically charged variations, bringing to mind the satire of Mostly Other People Do the Killing. The catchy, scurrying Drone – maybe about a drone zeroing in on its target? – peaks out with a rippling, circular piano hook. The wounded but undeterred title track is the closest thing here to the moody elegance of Fox’s previous album, while Confederates brings back the sarcasm, from a judiciously spacious intro to an exuberant march that’s too exuberant by half.
Short Al in Brooklyn – a shout-out to a notorious WFAN caller – starts as laid-back summery groove that never really finds its center notwithstanding Fox’s jaunty phrasing. Could it be that Short Al is short something else maybe? Fox follows that with Patriot Daze, a contemplative neoromantic mood piece and then Punches, a rippling departure into water music fueled by Goldman’s wavelike cymbals, dancing bass and a couple of droll ascents on the piano. Funhouse Memory is a mini-suite, loopy phrasing making way for an unexpectedly otherworldly, outer-space interlude, Fox’s aggressive block chords hitting a bluesy groove and then more neoromanticisms. Tumble Quiet, which Goldman drives from moody, echoey spaciousness to a prowling, loopy vamp, ends suddenly and enigmatically, as Fox often does here. Endings can be messy and Fox isn’t afraid to hit them head-on. There’s a lot to sink your ears into here.
Trombonist/singer Frank Lacy is the extrovert star of the Mingus bands. He also leads his own groups. His latest album, Live at Smalls captures him with an inspired, straight-ahead postbop band – Josh Evans on trumpet, Stacy Dillard on tenor sax, Theo Hill on piano, Rashaan Carter on bass and Kush Abadey, this unit’s not-so-secret weapon, on drums – on parts of two hot nights in mid-October, 2012 on their home turf. Lacy can be much more avant garde than he is here: this is a showcase for lively interplay, pitch-and-follow and blazing gutbucket jazz-lounge entertainment. You can feel the heat: Ben Rubin’s engineering on this record puts you right there in the room. They celebrate the album’s release at the club on May 6 at 10:30 PM; cover is $20 which includes a beverage.
For Lacy, this is more of a showcase for leading a band than it is for blazing solos (after all, he can do that anytime he wants). And he’s a generous leader: the two most electrifying solos on the album belong to Evans – choosing his spots up to a series of wickedly rapidfire spirals on a steady, briskly strolling take of Charles Fambrough’s Alicia – and Dillard, soaring and sliding and throwing in some shivery doublestops on soprano sax on Lacy’s own gospel-infleced Spirit Monitor. Lacy also gives a characteristically witty clinic in how to pull the band out of a lull a little earlier during that tune.
Lacy’s also a distinctive singer, with a gritty falsetto that’s just as powerful as his lower register. It’s too bad that there’s only one vocal number here, Carolyn’s Dance, a series of long crescendos for the band members as Abadey rides the traps with all sorts of neat, unexpected jabs and crashes.
Dilllard’s boisterous bluesiness contrasts with Lacy’s more judicious attack on the summery, funky sway of Joe Bonner’s Sunbath. Lacy’s opening track, Stranded, works a catchy, chromatically-charged altered latin groove up to a tireless swing, a launching pad for everybody in the band. They follow that with a lustrous take of George Cables’ bossa-tinged Think on Me. They wind up the album with a good choice of closer, Freddie Hubbard’s The Intrepid Fox where Evans predictably gets called on to deliver the firepower and makes it look easy as the band swings it breathlessly. It’s surprising that more venues don’t do what Smalls does, recording all their shows (they have a subscription service for that) and releasing the creme de la creme on their Smalls Live label. Then again, Smalls takes the idea of community more seriously than most venues.
Multi-keyboardist Brad Whiteley got his start as a classical organist while still in his teens. Since his precocious years in that demimonde in upstate New York, he’s branched out about as far as a musician can go. He still keeps a foot in the door with a regular position as a church organist, all the while immersing himself in jazz and doing some rock sideman gigs as well. His debut album Pathless Land is out and streaming at Destiny Records’ Bandcamp page.
It opens with a jaunty, anthemic organ shuffle, Winsome Excursion, a swinging, terse, soul-infused number that’s one of ten originals. This one, as well as the nimbly bouncy, lushly crescendoing, Jimmy Smith-influenced stroll Bass Instincts, and the album’s lone cover, a joyously uninhibited roller-rink take of Come Rain or Come Shine, feature the trio of Whiteley alongside guitarist Andrew Lim and drummer Kenneth Salters.
The first of the piano numbers, Erika’s Song (a warmly cantabile, resonant yet rhythmic ballad, dedicated to Whiteley’s wife and bandmate Erika Lloyd) also features Salters in the drum chair along with bassist Daniel Foose. Whiteley puts his knack for emotionally vivid third-stream piano on display with Suite: Contemplation, anchoring Lloyd’s crystalline, deep-sky vocalese with brooding block chords and steady, eerily Satie-esque figures over Salters’ misterioso mallet and cymbal work. Likewise, Suite: Resolve mingles darkly latin-tinged phrases and uneasy chromatics over a restless drive punctuated by an elegantly insistent Foose solo and a relentless, shamanic, otherworldly spirit duel between the piano and the drums.
The purposeful yet enigmatic, modally-tinged No Regrets throws a nod in the direction of Thelonious Monk over a spring-loaded rhythm that the band eventually takes triumphantly swinging up to a lively Foose bass solo, then back into moody terrain as Salters rumbles around the perimeter. Whiteley returns to the organ for Nostalgiastic, a slinky, clave-driven homage to the soul sounds of the sixties, with a judiciously sunny Lim guitar solo at the center.
The album’s title track, a swinging song without words, sets Whiteley’s precise upper-midrange melodies and lefthand/righthand exchanges over a brisk, skintight rhythm, Foose again contributing a dancing, kinetic bass solo. The album concludes with the organ tune Brooklyn Hustle, building suspense until the band finally breaks free with a lickety-split swing and purposefully bluesy solos by Lim and Whiteley, each player choosing his spots. The eclecticism of these compositions testifies to Whiteley’s long view of music from Bach to the B3. Yet in the end, Whiteley’s translucent, melodic sound is uniquely his own. He’s got plenty of gigs coming up: a couple that look especially choice are on April 21 at 9 in a duo with Michael Eaton at Something Jazz Club, then the next night, April 22 at 9 he’s at Tomi Jazz with excellent, hard-hitting Texas saxophonist Stan Killian.
Sarah Manning is to the alto sax what JD Allen is to the tenor: even in a world of rugged individualists, she stands out. Lots of artists doll themselves up, tone themselves down and smile sweetly for the camera for an album cover shot. Manning scowls at you from the inside of the cd booklet for her new Posi-tone album, Harmonious Creature. Her bright, defenestrating, Jackie McLean-esque tone, angst-fueled crescendos and stunningly uneasy tunesmithing also set her a step ahead of the pack. Her previous 2010 Posi-Tone release, Dandelion Clock, was that year’s underrated gem. It may be early in the year, but her new album Harmonious Creature threatens to be the best of 2014. Her chromatically-fueled edge brings to mind Kenny Garrett; her moody compositions compare with Garrett and Allen as well. This new quintet session is an ambitious and slashingly successful move into the increasingly crowded chamber jazz arena with Eyvind Kang on viola, Jonathan Goldberger on guitar, Rene Hart on bass and Jerome Jennings on drums. Manning is playing the album release show at I-Beam at 8 PM on Jan 25 with a slightly altered lineup featuring the reliably electrifying Alli Miller on drums.
The opening track, Copland On Cornelia Street, starts as stately waltz, brings the guitar in, lingers on the turnaround and then Manning works some morose magic over Goldberger’s brooding resonance. It picks up with a sunbaked Goldberger solo over a dancing, whirling rhythm. Did Aaron Copland find his epiphany in the West Village? He was a Queens guy – it’s not out of the question.
Tune Of Cats echoes a famous Coltrane riff before the group takes it over Jennings’ careful, tumbling pulse, Manning’s utterly casual phrasing contrasting with the relentless intensity of the melody, her tone more smoky than usual. Floating Bridge, an austerely bright jazz waltz, has Kang echoing Manning’s kinetic lines, the bandleader teasing the listener with flitting motives over Jennings’ imperturbible washes….and then sax and viola go back at it.
Reharmonized jazz versions of rock and country tunes can leave you gasping for oxygen, but Manning’s cover of Gillian Welch’s I Dream A Highway stakes out atmospheric, Frisellian big-sky territory. Goldberger’s pointillisms against gently unfolding sax and viola fill the vast expanse up to a ridiculously psychedelic, ambient outro that pans the speakers. Later in the album, they take a similar approach to Neil Young’s On the Beach, but at a glacial tempo that Manning finally cuts loose and blasts straight through once the final “get out of town” verse hits, the band following her searing lead to the point where any atttempt to get back into ballad mode would be pointless.
The naturalistic Grey Dawn, Red Fox blends allusions to the baroque and simmering exchanges of voices into a precarious narrative that grows more anthemic as it shifts course: this animal is on the lookout for something far more dangerous. If Manning is to be believed, the Radish Spirit guards its ground closely, with a tight, somewhat frosty cameraderie from the whole group, Manning and Goldberger taking it into the shadows before Hart rises to the foreground and pulls it back. The enigmatically titled Three Chords For Jessica emerges from Hart’s solo chromatics to a haunting, elegaic, gorgeously Middle Eastern-tinged grey-sky theme. Don’t Answer To The Question returns to waltz tempo with some understatedly wicked push-pull between Goldberger, Jennings and Kang. The album ends with a counterintuitively warm guitar feature, What the Blues Left Behind.
Vancouver-based guitarist/oudist Gordon Grdina has a deliciously edgy, smartly constructed, tuneful album, No Difference, out recently from Songlines. He’s joined by his longtime drummer Kenton Loewen along with Mark Helias on bass and Tony Malaby on tenor sax.
There are two duo pieces for oud and bass here, both recorded in concert at Shapeshifter Lab this past summer. The first, Hope in Being opens with an incisive, broodingly modal oud taqsim which coalesces into a remarkably catchy, swaying theme that Helias doubles with a similar stately precision and dynamic interaction with Grdina’s spirals and fades. The other, sardonically titled Fast Times, works a spare, spacious but slashing call-and-response, again with a Middle Eastern-flavored modal intensity.
The first of the guitar tracks, Limbo, is an enigmatic distantly ominous guitar/bass duo. Grdina builds to a Frisellian grey-sky theme, punching up the bass response and reverb for a rhythmic, exploratory solo over Helias’ judicious, dynamically rich climbs, eerily resonant chords and dancing motives, mingling with Grdina’s blurry, disquieted chordal ambience. The Throes makes a great segue as it brings up the levels, Grdina’s long, reverbtoned, misterioso intro building to a matter-of-fact swing with bolero and Romany allusions, Malaby’s nebulous alto at first a calming contrast to the biting, incisive drive of the guitar but then joining the melee.
Leisure Park, a trio piece, quickly expands on a snarling, emphatic descending progression. Grdina’s growling, sputtering guitar solo evokes Jim Hall spun through the prism of Marc Ribot, maybe; Helias picks up his bow and fires off one of his own in a similarly biting vein.
The guitar/bass duo Nayeli Joon, a sparkling but moody waltz dedicated to Grdina’s daughter, blends a British folk edge into Grdina’s carefully articulated, almost baroque arpeggiation, Helias taking full advantage of the chance to shift the song into the shadows and then back. Cluster sets a brooding, rather severe theme and improvisation for oud and bass over echoey, increasingly agitated deep-space washes of bowed guitar.
Fierce Point begins as the most free piece here, Loewen driving the morass upward, Grdina chopping furiously at his strings, Malaby and Helias blippy and surreal as Grdina wanders through this wilderness all alone, his creepy oud-flavored lines morphing into a wry early 70s-style metal-jazz vamp. The final number, Visceral Voices, shuffles genially with the most trad postbop flavor here, Grdina spicing it with the occasional menacing, reverberating, lingering riff against Malaby’s nonchalantly burred lines and Helias’ hard-hitting attack. Another triumph of intense, straightforward tunesmithing and agile, inspired interplay from one of this era’s most distinctive voices on the guitar.
Is the Claudia Quintet the most influential band in jazz over the past ten years? They’re unquestionably one of them. With their unorthodox lineup, they didn’t invent pastoral jazz, but they opened up the floodgates for an onslaught of it. Their new album September finds the group – drummer/composer/bandleader John Hollenbeck with bassist Chris Tordini, tenor saxophonist Chris Speed, vibraphonist Matt Moran and accordionist Ted Reichman – trying to “rework and transform the traumatic residue” of 9/11. Being a New Yorker, Hollenbeck was directly affected and obviously scarred by the experience. The result of what was obviously an emotionally charged inner dialogue turns out to be a highly improvised, persistently uneasy, enigmatically enveloping series of themes, each assigned a date from that fateful September. The eleventh is not one of them.
The album opens with the September 20 piece, titled Soterius Lakshmi. It’s hypnotic and insistent, a one-chord jam portraying something incessant or at least repetitive to the extreme. It’s also a lot closer to indie classical than jazz. By contrast, September 9, Wayne Phases (a Shorter shout-out?) is a dynamically rich, shapeshifting piece; Reichman’s rapidfire runs hand off to Moran’s lingering resonance, up to a through-the-looking-glass vibes interlude and then a fullscale onslaught based a fusiony 80s-style hook that has the suspicious ring of sarcasm. A somewhat vexing look back at the days right before 9/11?
Hollenbeck portrays Sepember 25 as a Somber Blanket: it captures the emotionally depleted, horror-stricken atmosphere two weeks after the twin towers were detonated better than most anything written about that time, musically or otherwise. A morose march slowly coalesces out of a whispery shuffle lit with simple, macabre-tinged vibraphone, Reichman warming it and threatening to take it in a swing direction that it resists. The great coming together that this city experienced hadn’t happened yet: we weren’t ready.
September 19 is memorialized with “We Warn You,” a fluttery, loopy tone poem of sorts into which Hollenbeck has cut and pasted a series of quotes from a crushingly sarcastic 1936 Franklin D. Roosevelt speech mocking the era’s Republican response to the New Deal. Historically speaking, it’s stunning that Roosevelt would dare to expect people to get the subtext: to think that any President in recent years would try to make a point with an audience that way, or, sadly, could do that without being misunderstood, is hard to imagine. At the end of the piece, the group picks up the pace to a tense scamper, Speed’s brooding lines against an opaque drum-and-accordion backdrop before the bass goes leaping and they start it all over again.
The September 22 piece, Love Is Its Own Eternity sets simple, bittersweet motives, individual voices paired against the vibraphone, over an almost trip-hop groove. Lemons, the September 18 song, takes the simplest two-note phrase off on kaleidescopic but precisely articulated tangents, sort of an airier take on Philip Glass. A syncopated minor groove develops out of a circular theme; creepy upper-register divergences generate the most free interlude on the album before the bass pulls everything together again. The aptly tiltled Loop Piece – assigned to September 17 – has a coldly mathematical distance, spacious vibraphone phrases joined by and then intermingling with simple, direct sax and accordion…and then that trip-hop vamp starts up again.
9/24 is represented by Interval Dig – an ominous 9/11 reference if there ever was one – yet this is the liveliest number here, Tordini’s leaping, pulsing drive leading to dizzying polyrhythms. Mystic Klang, the 9/16 segment, reminds of Satie’s interminably creepy Vexations, or Messiaen, with washes from accordion and vibes over looplike, prowling drums. The album concludes with Coping Soon, its troubled rainy-day ambience warming as Hollenbeck takes it halfspeed, Reichman adding brighter colors and a hint of Romany jazz as the rhythm loops and then drops out altogether. It ends nebulous and unresolved. And it leaves a lot to digest, not to mention to think back on for anyone who lived through those horrible days. We need music like this, grounded in reality, inescapably political, brilliantly musical: this is one of best albums of the year, right up there with Darcy James Argue’s equally relevant and genre-resistant Brooklyn Babylon. The Claudia Quintet plays Cornelia St. Cafe on Jan 9 at, 8:30 PM and Jan 10 at 9 and 10:30. The following night, Jan 11 at 8:30, Hollenbeck leads a different ensemble there where he’s joined by crooner Theo Bleckmann for some vocal covers from the Songs I Like a Lot covers album from early this year.
Trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar‘s paradigm-shifting career blurs the boundaries between jazz and traditions from across the Middle East, both ancient and in the here-and-now. His new quintet album, Alchemy, stays within the jazz idiom while pushing the envelope with Middle Eastern themes, melodies and technique as well as employing western classical architecture. This is a sonata of sorts, two central themes with many variations and plenty of room for thoughtfully crafted individual contributions and solos from Ole Mathisen on saxes, John Escreet on piano, Francois Moutin on bass and Dan Weiss on drums. Echoes of the traditional Iraqi melodies that ElSaffar plays in his Safafir project are plentiful throughout the album, mingling with boisterous postbop improvisation as well as ElSaffar’s signature steely focus and sharp, vivid tunesmithing. And as much as this is cutting-edge to the extreme, ElSaffar being a generally very serious guy, both the playing and compositions here have an unexpected amount of sardonic wit. Whether serious or less so, what’s here has a lot in common with recent work by Vijay Iyer, a frequent ElSaffar collaborator.
The opening track, Ishtarun, introduces a stately, chromatic, flamenco-tinged canon that the ensemble explores through a misterioso piano-and-bass interlude, ElSaffar circling uneasily around the tonic as the band blusters. Nid Qablitum sets the rhythm loose and livens it, a rippling piano solo kicking off a series of jaunty, wryly puddle-jumping variations. The triptych Embubum – Ishtarun – Pitum returns with a Miles Davis-esque gravitas, its purposeful stroll serving as a launchpad for ElSaffar’s unexpectedly bluesy solos and then a return to hypnotic yet biting, chromatically-fueled insistence before a big crescendo and some jousting between trumpet and sax.
12 Cycles builds a series of loops, in more of an indie classical than a jazz vein: ElSaffar’s circling trumpet artfully expands them, Escreet again adding a suspenseful edge along with eerie close harmonies from the horns. Quartal opens with those close harmonies but quickly swings hard with Mathisen’s refusenik sax edging toward microtonality yet without the slightest reference to any Orientalisms, Escreet defiantly echoing it, Moutin intertwining with the piano and then Weiss’ rustling, furtive drumwork. Balad brings back a stately, somber ambience with creepy, neoromantic microtonalisms from pretty much everybody over moody, prowling rhythm – it’s one of the album’s many high points.
5 Phases reworks the circular, Steve Reichian theme while adding a microtonal edge and a more dancing rhythmic drive, soprano sax shadowing the trumpet over a sotto vocce cymbal shuffle that builds to a sardonic faux-martial theme and variations. Athar Kurd brings back the briskly walking hardbop, a feature for more spiraling, stairstepping sax and a deviously scurrying Moutin solo. Miniature #1 hardly qualifies as one: it’s about a four-minute reprise of that dancing, circular riff with a cool boomy/whooshy drum/cymbal dialectic and tensely agitated, quietly chattering horns. Ending Piece is the summation where the themes come together: lively, dancing, looped motives followed by more straight-ahead bluesy riffage; a delightfully messy sax/trumpet conversation; droll hints of funk from the bass and eerie close harmonies from the horns as Escreet chooses his spots. It’s one of the most successfully ambitious albums of recent months, full of disquieting energy and a contender for best of 2013. Pi Records gets a shout-out for yet another important, doubtlessly influential release.