Who’s the funniest person in jazz? Wycliffe always knows when to go for the punchline. Jon Irabagon probably plays more musical jokes than anybody else, and Moppa Elliott is right there with him. Put those two together in Mostly Other People Do the Killing – who have a typically killer new album – and look out. Mary Halvorson can be devastatingly funny when she wants; ditto Brian Charette. Another guy with an endless supply of pretty hilarious ideas is Boston-based reedman Daniel Bennett, who has a characteristically devious new album, Sinking Houseboat Confusion streaming at Spotify. He and his long-running four-piece group with guitarist Nat Janoff, bassist Eddy Khaimovich and drummer Matthew Feick have a St. Paddy’s Day gig coming up at 8:30 PM at the third stage at the Rockwood. Cover is $10, the club wasn’t enforcing that annoying drink minimum the last time this blog was in the house there, and if you must be out on March 17, this show should be amateur-free.
The album’s first track is a steady, motoring guitar theme, John Lizard Comes Home: Janoff’s deadpan purposefulness brings to mind Jon Lundbom in sardonically carefree mode. Bennett plays his usual alto sax and also flute on the second number, Andrew Variations, an upbeat, pastorally-tinged tune with a serpentine lattice of voices (and amusing electronic patches) akin to Tom Csatari’s most humorous work.
Bobby Brick Sent Me Daniel Bennett has a purposefully vamping, modal groove and a no-nonsense alto attack from the bandleader, in the same vein as JD Allen’s “jukebox jazz.” The title cut brings back the album’s opening motorik beat, endless success of growling, distorted rock guitar changes and some wry alto/flute multitracks. Bennett sticks with the flute on Paint the Fence, with its woozy guitar sonics and surrealistic Jethro Tull jazz vibe: fans of Prague jamband weirdos Jull Dajen will love this.
Doctor Duck Builds a Patio – gotta love those titles, huh? – is a sort of syncopated take on the opening number: again, it’s like Csatari, but even more surreal and a lot more shreddy. We Are OK! opens ominously, Bennett playing eerily rippling cimbalom-like lines on piano as the tune comes together, a series of echoey long-tone phrases over a steady rhythm and then a stampeding free-for-all.
Poet Michele Herman recites her wry Little Disappointments of Modern Life over Bennett’s solo alto waves and echoes. Then he switches to clarinet for Animals Discussing Life Changes, a waltz, the most cartoonish number here. The album winds up with a spacy, vertiginous, suspiciously blithe reprise of the title theme, Bennett back on alto and joined by Mark Cocheo on guitar.
Although this is fun, colorful music, Bennett has a serious side. He came down strongly on the side of the good guys in that recent social media kerfluffle where Robert Glasper alleged that women jazz fans (“Fine European women,” to be specific) hear with their lower extremities and don’t have the brains to understand solos.
The Mary Halvorson Octet‘s new album Away with You – streaming at Bandcamp – is the latest and most epically entertaining chapter in the career of arguably the most important, and inarguably most individualistic guitarist in jazz since Bill Frisell. As dark and enigmatic as Ilusionary Sea, her previous release with this unit was, this one is 180 degrees the opposite. Halvorson has a devastating sense of humor, and this is the funniest album she’s ever made. She unleashes the most vaudevillian stuff right off the bat. Much of the rest of this suite is as cruelly cynical or subtle as anything she’s ever recorded. Even drummer Ches Smith gets some – in fact, a lot more than drummers get, and drummers are sometimes funny despite themselves.
The opening number could be described as Mostly Other People Do the Killing mashed up with an Anthony Braxton large ensemble, a tongue-in-cheek, snidely blithe theme rather cruelly dissected midway through before the bandleader slings off one of her signature, sardonic punchlines…and then the snarky fun begins all over again. The presence of the irrepressible Jon Irabagon on tenor sax might have something to do with all this levity. Likewise, the title track – which opens as an upbeat new wave rock anthem of sorts before morphing into an uneasily pointillistic march – is a clinic in how to twist a cheery theme inside out, winding up with a desolate Jonathan Finlayson trumpet solo and then Smith’s misterioso solo passage.
The Absolute Almost is the most desolate thing Halvorson has ever recorded – Susan Alcorn’s lapsteel is every bit as woundedly beautiful as anything Big Lazy has ever released. When the band comes in, the circusy. cinematic theme and variations are priceless – and venomous, at least until the end where the devious web of counterpoint unravels elegantly, a sense of calm and closure after the storm.
Sword Barrel kicks off as an enigmatically attractive, distantly twinkling, Hawaiian-tinged march, but a wistful, pastoral Irabagon solo goes haywire and pulls everyone toward chaos before Finlayson emerges as the voice of reason. Old King Misfit opens with Halvorson and bassist John Hebert kicking the ball around amiably before the band brings that offcenter march theme back, the bandleader playing steady, eerie, watery chords that eventually fly off into the recesses of her pedalboard while everybody else falls away, like one of those blooming onions you find at street fairs.
Halvorson’s moodily terse guitar and Hebert’s bass stroll behind Jacob Garchik’s similarly pensive trombone as Fog Bank gets underway; then Halvorson spirals and flits away, a forest of sprites emerging from the mist! When the march returns, by now it’s unmistakable that Halvorson has a clear view of the direction all this is going in, and it’s not going to be an easy ride. The album’s final number is Safety Orange – the siren motif in the early going makes an apt centerpiece in the post-9/11 era, eventually bringing back the march in an allusively shambling Tom Csatari vein. Be grateful that you’re around to witness this music as it’s coming out: future generations will be jealous.
Other than at the insanely overpriced Bleecker Street festival coming up, Halvorson doesn’t have any octet shows listed on her gig page, but she is playing tonight, Jan 3 at around 9 PM at I-Beam as one third of the Out Louds with drummer Tomas Fujiwara and multi-reedman Ben Goldberg, improvising music inspired by plant species at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Cover is $15.
Isn’t it funny how tourists will drop a hundred bucks at a Manhattan jazz club without blinking an eye when they could just as easily see a killer triplebill at Shapeshifter Lab on Thurs, Feb 19 at 7:30 PM for a tenth of that? And the club’s not that far out – if you can deal with the R train for a couple of stops past Atlantic Avenue, you’re there. Or you can even walk from Atlantic if you’re really brave, in this kind of weather anyway. The lineup is on the tuneful/edgy/punk-inspired tip: the trio of saxophonist Briggan Krauss, guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, then baritone sax guy Charles Evans‘ Quartet – who are just as likely to do haunting Satie-esque scapes as they are free-fall freakouts – followed by the world’s funniest jazz group, Mostly Other People Do the Killing.
Halvorson and Fujiwara have a long and productive chemistry as bandmates; the addition of Sexmob’s Krauss brings both knifes-edge acidity and clarity. There are also a couple of albums tangentially associated with this show which have been poking their little faces out from the stacks here. Last year, Fujiwara and Halvorson joined up with bassist Michael Formanek to form a characteristically edgy, growling trio, Thumbscrew. Their album opens with Cheap Knock Off, a swaying fuzztone early 70s stoner metal groove in disguise that somewhat predictably moves further outside.
As the album goes along, there’s a nonchalantly watery stroll that hints at fullscale menace but resists hitting it head-on, with an ominously/joyously pointillistic guitar-bass duet. There’s a tiptoeing strut like a coyly minimalist take on Big Lazy noir balladry that manages to fall apart gracefully and then reconfigure as skronk. Halvorson leads them with an eerie quaver out of a chattering flutter; from there they hint very distantly at a retro blues ballad as Fujiwara diverges and then reconfigures, Halvorson snarling back all the while. The album wind sup with shuffling sideways downtown funk that goes dark and slashing, an unselfconsciously poignant, descending anthem that’s the strongest and most tuneful track here, and a bouncy number that detours toward noirish swing for awhile. Throughout the compositions, Fujiwara is at the top of his game as colorist, Formanek both holding the center and playing the corners with a gritty, penetrating tone. It’s a treat to hear Halvorson in any context, this one expecially, although she shreds less than she can.That’s probably due to the fact that the trio are more focused here on composed material than on jams.
Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s latest album, Blue, is a note-for-note transcription of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Lest you buy into the conventional wisdom that this is somehow revolutionary or paradigm-shifting, classical organists have been transcribing and then recreating improvisations since the days of the Edison cylinder. And these songs are all staples of the jazz canon anyway. What’s coolest about the album is that just as the musicians on it quickly discovered as the project got underway, it’s a great way for listeners to hear it in a new light. Whether Miles really planned to do something radical or just fell into it since he didn’t have any new material and his record label was screaming for a new album, what everybody agrees on is how fresh it sounds. How fresh are these new versions?
Plenty fresh, yet with a well-worn comfort, which is not to call this easy-listening. Saxophonist Jon Irabagon gets to indulge himself in two home run hitting contests, overdubbing both John Coltrane’s alto and Cannonball Adderley’s tenor, walking the line between two challenging and vastly different styles and ultimately choosing to voice neither, to simply hit the notes straight-on with plenty of help from generous amounts of post-production reverb. How does trumpeter Peter Evans channel Miles? Just as soberly, often with a spot-on, utterly desolate, nocturnal feel: the guy has stupendous technique and can playing anything, so this is obviously a walk in the park for him.
And of course all the little things jump out at you: drummer Kevin Shea doing Philly Joe Jones’ little are-we-done-yet cymbal hits as So What fades out; pianist Ron Stabinsky rippling through Wynton Kelly’s opening riffage on All Blues (where did THAT come from?); bassist Moppa Elliott gamely trying to capture every nuance and almost-crunched note off Paul Chambers’ strings on Blue in Green; and Flamenco Sketches, which reinforces the observation that it’s hard to to imagine a lot of players these days giving each other as much space, and the all the angst and depth that implies, as Miles’ quintet did with the original. What the band ends up with here is pretty much what Miles got: blues-tinged gravitas and spare, rather creepy grooves that are the pure essence of noir.
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.
The lure of Winter Jazzfest over the last decade or so has been the potential for serious bang for the buck: a marathon of jazz festival stars, cult heroes and heroines jammed into two nights on the Bleecker Street strip. Like the best jazz improvisation, Winter Jazzfest can be transcendent. By the same token, recent years have had many maddening moments, lines outside the clubs gowing to ridiculous proportions, especially as crowds armed with ostensibly all-access passes reached critical mass during the Saturday portion of the festival.
Solution: move the bigger draws to bigger venues. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society sure to sell out a Saturday night gig (which they did, no surprise)? Move ‘em to the expansive, sonically exquisite confines of Subculture. Henry Threadgill leading a new ensemble through an American premiere? No problem. Stick ’em in Judson Church, a comfortable stone’s throw from the West 4th Street subway. This may have been a long overdue move on the part of the festival’s producers, but it couldn’t have been more successful. By midnight, a couple of venues were filled to capacity, but although crowds at the other spaces were strong, there was plenty of room for everybody who was still up for more music.
Argue’s big band threatened to upstage everything else on Saturday’s bill. How does the composer/conductor keep so much suspense and intensity going when his changes tend to be so static and often so far between? With endlessly surprising, constantly shifting voices, subtle rhythmic variations and a voracious approach to blending genres: the foundations of his songs may go on for what seems forever, but there are a million tunes wafting overhead. They opened with All In, a steadily strolling, spicily brassy homage to the late trumpeter Laurie Frink, its centerpiece being a thoughtfully energetic Nadje Noordhuis trumpet solo. From there they dove into the opening suite from the ensemble’s latest album Brooklyn Babylon (rated #1 for the year at this blog‘s Best Albums of 2013 page). The whole group reminded how much fun, not to mention aptitude, they have for Balkan music, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen wowing the crowd with her blazing chromatics. From there, Adam Birnbaum’s creepy music box piano kicked off the jackhammer optimism of The Neighborhood, roaring boisterousness juxtaposed with uneasily flitting motives from the reeds. Argue brought that disquiet front and center by fast-forwarding to the brooding Coney Island; they closed with a pastoral Levon Helm dedication, Last Waltz for Levon, featuring a moody, wistful Ryan Keberle trombone solo and a similarly bittersweet duet for Sebastian Noelle’s strummed acoustic guitar and Matt Clohesy’s bass..
Over at Judson Church, the crowd gathered slowly in anticipation of Threadgill’s set and was treated to a magically crepuscular one from pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and violinist Mark Feldman, the duo alternating compositions. He built to a bracing series of glissandos and trills on his opening number over her hypnotic, harplike inside-the-piano brushings; she followed with a resonant, lingering piece that rose to a creepy altered boogie of sorts. They gave a Feldman suite based on the Orpheus/Eurydice myth a dynamic intensity, brooding sostenuto up against angst-fueled swells and ebbs and ended on a quieter, more suspenseful note with a Courvoisier work.
Threadgill was on the bill to conduct the American premiere of his Butch Morris tribute Old Locks and Irregular Verbs with his new Ensemble Double Up. This turned out to be very much like Morris at the top of his game. Rather than playing purely improvised music, Morris’ larger ensembles would develop variations on a theme or two, sometimes utilizing a couple of pages of composition, and this suite had that kind of ring. Pianist Jason Moran opened with a mournfully elegaic, spaciously funereal, bell-like introduction that rose from stygian depths toward the kind of blues/gospel allusions that Morris liked to employ. From there Threadgill introduced a classically-tinged, anticipatory theme that Jose Davila’s tuba propelled upward in methodical stairstepping waves in tandem with Craig Weinrib‘s trap drums, Curtis Macdonald and Roman Filiu’s alto saxes blustery and atmospheric in turn over cellist Christopher Hoffman’s uneasy ambience. The group followed the long first movement with two shorter variations, the first opening with dancing, bubbly reeds and fluid upper-register piano, the second kicking off with glimmering resonance from pianist David Virelles, moving toward a distant overture of sorts and a bittersweetly triumphant if somewhat muted coda. It made for an aptly elegant sendoff for a guy who did so much, so elegantly, for largescale improvisation.
Over in the boomy sonics of Vanderbilt Hall at NYU Law School, Mostly Other People Do The Killing had some of the crowd doubled over laughing and some of the older attendees scratching their heads. New York’s funniest, most entertaining band in any style of music, never mind jazz, have a new album out, Red Hot, which parodies every 20s hot jazz trope ever ground into shellac, and the group aired out several of those tunes with characteristically unstoppable verve. What makes MOPDtK so funny is that they really know their source material. For fifteen-second intervals, it was easy to get into toe-tapping mood…but then the band would do something wry or droll or ridiculous and throw a wrench in the works. Trumpeter Peter Evans built an echoey, reverb-infused vortex with endless swirls of circular breathing early on, which bass trombonist David Taylor took to vastly greater deep-space extremes later in the set.
Pianist Ron Stabinsky got plenty of laughs out of a solo that was mostly pregnant pauses, then got people howling with a medley of licks that began in the jazz pantheon but then spanned from Billy Joel to Foreigner…and then to Bach and Beethoven. Bassist/bandleader Moppa Elliott, drummer Kevin Shea and guest guitarist Jon Lundbom seemed preoccupied with getting the brief period-perfect bits back on track while Evans and alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon (who’d just played tenor and bass clarinet for Argue) engaged in characteristically snide, mealymouthed banter. It wouldn’t be fair to give away the rest of the jokes that continued throughout compositions with titles like Seabrook. Power. Plant. (named after frequent MOPDtK guest Brandon Seabrook’s band as well as three towns in Pennsylvania), the Shickshinny Shimmy, Turkey Foot Corner and King of Prussia.
Eyebone, guitarist Nels Cline’s eclectically assaultive, swirling power trio with drummer Jim Black and pianist Teddy Klausner was next and made a similarly energetic alternative to Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, who were scheduled to hit around the same time at the church up the block. They opened with jarringly percolating, fleetingly leaping phrases from Cline’s loop pedals and then hit a deep-water ominousness, went into atmospherics and then a riff-driven, metalish interlude. Klausner followed a Cline descent into messy, muddy terrain with one of his own, then the band brought it up with a roar, ending their set with an aggressiveness that made a great segue with Elliott Sharp’s Orchestra Carbon.
E-Sharp didn’t even play guitar in this set, but his tenor sax work mirrors what he does on the frets. It was cool to see the man of a million notes and ideas leading the group through a defly animated workout on minimalist chamber themes. His vigorous, emphatic direction and playing were mirrored by the ensemble, heavy on the low end with twin basses and trombones, Jessica Pavone and Judith Insell on violas plus Jenny Lin on piano and Danny Tunick nimbly negotiating between drums, various percussion and vibraphone. They kicked off with a mighty, Zarathustra-ish theme punctured by the occasional squall or shriek, blustery diversion or Braxton-esque atmospheric swell. Sharp carved out lots of pairings: Pavone an anchor to Lin’s rapidfire knuckle-busting octave attack, the trombones channeling a stormy orchestral bustle, filling the sonic picture from bottom to top, the basses doing the same later on. Sharp filled the brief spaces between movements with fleeting, supersonic upper-register passages and frantic flurries of bop, eventually bringing everything full circle with a series of long, suspenseful, almost imperceptibly crescendoing waves upward.
And that’s where the night ended on this end. There was still plenty going on – fusiony funk downstairs at le Poisson Rouge, and was that Craig Handy coincidentally leading that organ groove outfit at Groove? The place was packed; it was hard to see. And the line for the Marc Cary Focus Trio at Zinc Bar stretched around the block – good for him. Matthew Shipp’s trio set back at Judson Church wasn’t scheduled to start yet, but by this time, the prospect of a third consecutive marathon evening of music looming on the horizon and the rain having finally let up, it was time to take advantage of a grace period from the skies and call it an evening. Here’s looking forward to Winter Jazzfest 2015.
Narrowing down the best jazz albums of the year to a couple dozen or so is a cruel task: it’s safe to say that there have been hundred of good ones issued this year. This is an attempt to assemble the creme de la creme of this year’s crop in one easily digestible package: apologies to the many, many artists whose excellent releases aren’t included here.
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society– Brooklyn Babylon
The esteemed big band composer’s latest thematic opus is an important album in New York history, a very uneasy suite of variations illustrating a city in constant flux, often changing for the worse. Cruelly sardonic jackhanmmer rhythms and mechanically industrial circular vamps juxtapose with a resonant angst that peaks at the end. Balkan and circus flourishes, unorthodox instrumentation and quirky, often plaintive miniatures are interspersed amid the relentless pulse. It captures a moment already gone forever, maybe for good.
The Claudia Quintet – September
Drummer/bandleader John Hollenbeck’s attempt to “rework and transform the traumatic residue” of 9/11 resulted in an emotionally charged inner dialogue and 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. Nebulous and opaque, it vividly evokes the stunned, bereaved moment that preceded an outpouring of both wrath and goodwill among the city’s citizens. Maybe Hollenbeck can tackle that moment next.
Sexmob – Cinema Circus & Spaghetti (Sexmob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota)
Trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s irrepressible quartet finds the inner noir in Rota’s vintage Fellini film scores and magnifies it with charactistic ambitiousness and eclecticism. Creeping slinky dirges sit side by side with deep dub interludes, carnivalesque, cinematic and occasionally showing the group’s punk jazz roots. A rousing follow-up of sorts to Hal Wilner’s cult favorite 1981 Amarcord Nino Rota album.
Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge – River Runs
This “concerto for jazz guitar and saxophone” portrays some of the wild rivers of the American south and west in all their fearsome glory, an entire ecosystem with its messy, sometimes awe-inspiring, sometimes opaque, frequently frightening detail. Like Darcy James Argue, Owen delights in unorthodox instruments and voicings, terror just lurking beneath the whitecaps on several of these lush, ambitious numbers.
Ibrahim Maalouf – Wind
This homage to Miles Davis’ soundtrack to Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud. follows the architecture of the Miles record, but not sequentially. The Miles record is drenched in reverb, added post-production; trumpeter Maalouf’s production is as airy and sometimes arid as the old French silent film, for which this serves as a score, would seem to suggest. Overall, the effect of both albums is the same, an unrelenting angst foreshadowing imminent doom despite all distractions to the contrary. Together and separately, both are classics of the noir pantheon, this one with frequent latin tinges amid the gloom.
Michel Sajrawy– Arabop
Romany-flavored Middle Eastern jazz from the Palestinian guitarist and his inspired, polyglot Palestinian-Israeli band, a vividly powerful mix of Middle Eastern and Balkan-tinged romps along with a handful of haunting longer-scale numbers. Sajrawy plays microtonally and very artfully on a standard-issue Strat through an envelope pedal for the blippy tone so common in guitar jazz from east of the Danube – pulsing staccato grooves alternate with intense levantine sax interludes.
Pete Rodriguez – Caminando Con Papi
Salsa themes taken to the highest level of jazz. Trumpeter Rodriguez – son of legendary salsa crooner Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez – fires off some of the year’s most spine-tingling and incisive solos with striking terseness and attention to melodic trajectory throughout this surprisingly eclectic collection. Gritty modalities underpin a relentlessly intensity and Rodriguez’ wickedly precise flights and volleys; pianist Luis Perdomo is an equal part of the fireworks.
Bill Frisell – Big Sur
A quintet jazz suite of sorts commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival, it’s the iconic guitarist in high spirits, throughout a mix of Lynchian allusions, some surf rock, a Neil Young homage, strolling C&W and a Britfolk theme, with plenty of characteristic grit and ambiguity beneath its windswept surface.
Wadada Leo Smith – Occupy the World
This double-disc collection of towering epics picks up where the trumpeter’s magnum opus from last year, Ten Freedom Summers, left off. 21-piece Finnish ensemble Tumo get to judiciously explore and revel in Smith’s gusty new large-ensemble pieces, a mix of airily expansive, spacious, and majestically intense themes, with Smith’s signature social awareness.
Leif Arntzen – Continuous Break
It was a good year for trumpeters, wasn’t it? On his latest quintet release, one of New York’s most distinctive voices on that horn takes a page out of the vintage Miles Davis book: throw the band a few riffs and have them create songs on the spot. Tuneful and diverse to the extreme, it’s got standards, a tone poem, a gritty minor-key soul groove (which may be the album’s best track) and hotwired improvisation recorded completely live in the studio.
The Monika Roscher Big Band – Failure in Wonderland
The guitarist and her German ensemble stalk their way surrealistically through carnivalesque themes that often border on the macabre, with elements of noir cabaret, horror film music and psychedelic rock as well as big band jazz. Nothing is off limits to Roscher: vocoder trip-hop, gothic cinematics, savage tremolopicking, Gil Evans-esque swells and colors and fire-and-brimstone art-rock sonics.
Fernando Otero – Romance
Some might call this indie classical or even nuevo tango, but the Argentine-born pianist’s sonata transcends genre. It’s a series of themes and variations split between instruments, interchanging between time signatures, interwoven like a secret code. Inspired by Argentine writer and clarinetist Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch, it invites the listener to decide on a “modular” sequence of tracks, perhaps a wry nod to the reality of how listeners work in the iphone era. Taken in sequence, just for starters, this is a harrowing ride.
Hee Hawk – s/t
The most stunning debut in recent months blends the pastoral with the noir: imagine Bill Frisell scoring a Roman Polanski film. Bandleader/pianist Adam Lipsky’s compositions embrace Americana as well as Romany and film music, often luridly. A torchy stripper blues, hints of the Balkans, Ethiopia, and noir soundtrack atmosphere mix with irrepressible oldtimey swing and a creepy, shivery bolero.
Amir ElSaffar – Alchemy
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter continues to push the envelope with Middle Eastern themes, melodies and technique while also employing western classical architecture. This is a sonata of sorts, two central themes with many variations. ElSaffar’s quintet deftly and fascinatingly allude to (and sometimes leap headfirst) into otherworldly microtonal modes throughout a series of sometimes stately, sometimes exuberant, hard-swinging explorations.
The Mary Halvorson Septet – Illusionary Sea
Lush but biting, the guitarist maintains a lustrous majesty livened with cold mechanical satire and an intricate, incessantly fascinating counterpoint. While Halvorson sometimes bares her fangs with terse, evilly squirrelly cadenzas, she’s not usually centerstage: she leaves that to the constantly shifting, rich interchange of harmonies.
Mostly Other People Do the Killing – Red Hot
The quartet – expanded to a septet with Brandon Seabrook’s banjo, Ron Stabinsky’s piano and David Taylor’s bass trombone – burn through their most caustic yet accessible album to date. With 20s hot jazz trending hard with the one-percenters, it became obvious that the time was right for the Spinal Tap of jazz to give the genre a vigorous twist to put it out of its misery. MOPDtK claim not to be satirical, but this could be their most aggressive, and wildly successful, spoof yet. What will these guys come up with next?
Jussi Reijonen – Un
A still, spacious, slowly unwinding masterpiece from the Finnish oudist/guitarist and his quartet. Original night-sky themes and a classic Coltrane cover feature lithely intertwining levantine grooves, bittersweetly Egyptian-flavored motifs and Utar Artun’s eerily twinkling chromatic piano.
Bobby Avey – Be Not So Long to Speak
The most Lennie Tristano-influenced album in recent months is this crushingly powerful, glimmering solo piano album. It’s a mix of clenched-teeth articulacy and brooding pools of moonlit, swampy menace, setting an unwaveringly creepy tone throughout brooding tone poems with jackhammer pedalpoint, hints of Erik Satie and Louis Andriessen.
Kenny Garrett – Pushing the World Away
Garrett gets back to what he does best on this mostly-quartet session packed with several latin-tinged grooves plus those menacing modal vamps that this era’s preeminent alto saxophonist loves so much and plays with such an instantly recognizable intensity.
Rudresh Mahanthappa – Gamak
The alto saxophonist expands his singular vernacular with this hard-hitting, rhythmic effort. With a stilletto precision, flurries of postbop liven both the bhangra interludes and sunnier, more pastoral pieces here; guitarist Dave Fiuczynski supplies his signature apprehensive, intense microtonal edge, sometimes veering off toward raw metalfunk.
Dave Douglas – Time Travel
This one doesn’t have Aiofe O’Donovan’s vocals, but Douglas’ translucent tunesmithing doesn’t miss them. The fine-tuned chemistry and interplay between trumpeter Douglas and Jon Irabagon on tenor sax, Linda Oh on bass, Rudy Royston on drums and Matt Mitchell on piano showcases one of the most instantly recognizable working bands of recent years, through anthemic arcs, alternately cumulo-nimbus and cirrus ambience, a slide-step stroll and Mad Men-era grooves.
The Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra – Bloom
Luminous, lush and symphonic in a Maria Schneider vein, the colors at play on this subtly rhythmic, constantly shapeshifting album tend to be bright, summery and vibrant. Translucent motifs shift through the arrangements with an unlikely nimble, assured, fleet-footedness for such majestic music. Sara Serpa’s haunting vocalese is the icing on the cake.
Marc Cary – For the Love of Abbey
Cary was Abbey Lincoln’s pianist and music director through the end of her career, and draws on that gig with a loving but also fierce intensity that does her justice. This highly improvised solo collection of Lincoln songs is stormy and ferociously articulate, like the singer herself. It’s cantabile, elegant and regal but also feral, with a shattering final salute.
Fred Hersch and Julian Lage – Free Flying
This tightly choreographed, swinging performance from pianist Hersch and guitarist Lage is so seamless and tightly fluid that it’s often impossible keep track of who’s playing what. A concert recording from the Kitano from earlier this year, it’s a series of Hersch homages to influences from across the spectrum, with a frequent Brazilian flair – and a throwback to Hersch’s indelible duo album with Bill Frisell about thirteen years ago.
Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra – Book of Rhapsodies
Something of a return to noir form for the trumpeter/bandleader, parsing innovative early third-stream compositions, some with a cinematic or cartoonish tinge, from some familiar and more obscure names from the 30s and 40s: Raymond Scott, Charlie Shavers, Louis Singer and Reginald Foresythe.
John Funkhouser – Still
This trio performance from the third-stream pianist/tunesmith alternates moody and rhythmic tunesmithing, murky dirges and lyrical third-stream glimmer. Brooding latinisms, a gloomy version of House of the Rising Sun and a pitch-black raga-inflected title track make this one of the year’s catchiest, hummable yet darkest releases.
Steve Coleman and Five Elements – Functional Arrythmias
On which the alto saxophonist pays homage to iconic drummer/polymath Milford Graves with a characteristically vivid, bouncily naturalistic series of illustrations of anatomical phenomena. Long, circular rhythmic patterns anchor tight counterpoint between the horns, bass and drums. Riffs are simple, direct and memorable as expected; funk beats morph through tricky time signatures, and nobody wastes notes.
And a shout out to Dan Willis & Velvet Gentlemen’s scary Satie Project Volume 2 album, as well as to Bryan & the Aardvarks, for their glimmering, nocturnal debut, Heroes of Make Believe. Both came out last year but missed the 2012 best-of list here. Since either of those albums could easily top this one, it would be remiss not to mention them here.
Last night at Spectrum, pianist Charity Chan was down from Montreal for an aggressively magical night of improvisation with Mostly Other People Do the Killing trumpeter Peter Evans, bassist Tom Blancarte and drummer Weasel Walter. While everyone on this bill is capable of crushing brutality, this concert was about friendly teamwork, listening, filling in the blanks and turning over all the stones for a richly dynamic sonic mosaic. The fun the band was having onstage, rigorously cerebral as it was, came across powerfully. Evans might be the most precise trumpeter in jazz: his blend of speed and unwavering tonal balance was mind-boggling, throughout one rapidfire ascent after another, all that circular breathing leaving him drenched in sweat after an hour onstage. Immersing himself in Bach has paid off mightily.
He and Chan make a good team: she shares his precision and simultaneous command of minutiae and raw power, with a gymnast’s athleticism when it came to muting the piano strings with an assemblage of felts that she whipped on and then off for unexpectedly subtle timbral adjustments. Blancarte was rock-steady one moment as he held the center and ran circular motives, then looked like he was about to break his strings as he detuned and battered them, first with his fingers and then with his bow, overtones trailing like sparks or looming underneath like smoke rising from a hole in the street. Walter was just as entertaining to watch, whether peppering the sound with nimble runs on woodblocks and muted snare, constantly switching from brushes to sticks to bundles as the waves rose and fell, up to the occasional aghast, cruelly flurrying riff on the toms.
As is often the case with performances like this, it was more about going places with ideas, and rhythms, and camaraderie more than melody. There was lots of pairing and conversations, Chan leaping and bounding as she shadowed Evans’ tireless volleys, yet with a similar nonchalance: she made it look easy. Likewise, Evans followed Blancarte’s murkily resonant atmospherics with whispering, misty, overtone-tinted shades, Walter stepping up in a graceful spit-second when Chan backed away from a matter-of-factly glimmering, judiciously misterioso two-handed conversation of her own. After a dynamically shifting epic that went on for more than a half hour, they took a more percussively staccato, incisive approach for their next two numbers, Blancarte’s wry, groaning bowed attack finally signaling that it was time to take a pause, Walter bringing it down elegantly and enigmatically. It was the kind of concert you walk away from buzzing, inspired and counting all the ideas you’d like to steal.
And apropos of nothing other than global warming-era pain and suffering, scoring a seat in a comfy chair directly under the air conditioner while the band sweated it out up front seemed just plain unfair. Get to Spectrum early and you can sit there.
Drummers aren’t expected to be first-class composers. They don’t have to be: these days, simply being able to swing is enough to make a drummer, or for that matter pretty much any musician, perpetually in demand. And while Alex Wyatt swings, his greatest strength is his tunesmithing. His new sextet album There’s Always Something is jam-packed with as much melody as pulsing rhythm. Wyatt’s role here is equal parts colorist and rhythmic center, leading an inspired band of Chris Tordini on bass, Greg Ruggiero on guitar, Danny Fox on piano, Kyle Wilson on tenor sax and and Masahiro Yamamoto on alto.
Expansively lyrical solos from Fox, Yamamoto and Ruggiero (swinging through a series of slippery hammer-ons) fuel the easygoing but pensively nocturnal and metrically shapeshifting title track. The absolutely gorgeous, rhythmically tricky Clockwork works slightly Ethiopian-tinged riffage, the saxes circling each other over suspensefully chordal guitar pedalpoint that kicks off some terse syncopation from Fox and a judiciously crescendoing, unselfconsciously attractive alto solo. Imperial Chew uses its richly swirling counterpoint between the saxes, guitar and piano as a launching pad for glimmering rivulets from Fox, playfully divergent harmonies from the saxes and some tasty, clenched-teeth cymbal work from Wyatt.
Giraffe works playful, slightly tongue-in-cheek variations on a loping alto-and-drums groove into a balmy jazz waltz. Wyatt’s masterful, sotto-vocce brushwork propels Simple Song until it crescendos and he switches to sticks: it’s a lush bossa tune accentuated by Fox’s warmly twinkling lines and airy sax harmonies that coalesce out of the ether. Cop Party is irresistibly funny and gently over-the-top: think Mostly Other People Do the Killing in a rare, extended lyrical moment, the entire band getting in on the sarcasm, warmly evocative despite themselves.
As the title implies, Words Fail, but its melody doesn’t, an unselfconsciously tender ballad, Ruggiero’s terse spaciousness setting a mood which the band maintains perfectly as they go gently around the horn. Drunkey, a swing tune, has a suspicious, possibly satirical, loungey effervescence. The album winds up with Eugi, a shuffling anthem with a wistful, Americana-flavored bittersweetness that reminds of brilliant Boston ensemble Hee Hawk.
Accessible as all this is, the arrangements are consistently interesting; intuitive as the melodies are, the playing is often considerably less so. As you would expect, Wyatt gets a lot of work: his next gig with this band is at Launchpad, 721 Franklin Ave. in Bed-Stuy on Apr 24 at 8 PM.
Humor is supposely based on cruelty 90% of the time, right? If that’s the case, New York supergroup Mostly Other People Do the Killing are the world’s cruelest jazz band. Since the early zeros they’ve skewered just about every jazz trope: they’re sort of the Spinal Tap of the genre. Ostensibly, their new album Slippery Rock, out on their Hot Cup label on Jan 22, is a parody of 70s and 80s elevator jazz. There are places where the satire is obvious but just as many when it’s not, which is partly because the band stick to their acoustic sax/trumpet/bass/drums format rather than employing synthesizers and drum machines, and partly since there are interludes where the band find themselves shuffling along with an amiable, brightly second-line-tinged flavor, unselfconsciously attractive despite themselves. When the jokes are most vivid, it’s most often when Peter Evans’ trumpet and Jon Irabagon’s alto sax join together for a simpering, cloying hook, fall away from it, turn back on it and then take swipes or rip it to shreds. Bassist Moppa Elliott and drummer Kevin Shea’s satire here is more subtle – no grooves, especially the smooth ones, are safe from parody. The dumber and simpler they are, the dumber and simpler they make them.
The operative question is how many other jokes are here – probably a lot – and who is going to get them. For better or worse, this album is kind of like making fun of wallpaper. People who make it and sell it (and maybe who rip it off the walls and trash it) might get the jokes, but who else? These guys have obviously done their homework, but ask yourself, would someone who claims to like Kenny G actually be able to name song titles, let alone hum you a tune or two?
Be that what it may, there’s still a lot of fun here. The opening track spoofs funk-jazz grooves and romantic slow-jam ambience with a quote that’s too funny to give away. Can’t Tell Shipp from Shohola (a reference to Elliott’s beloved native Pennsylvania) works familiar MOPDtK territory, hinting at an easygoing triplet vamp that nobody’s willing to officially admit exists. Sayre (another Keystone State shout-out) layers bop over a ridiculous bump-BUMP rhythm that hints at reggae, the horns eventually finding it too hard to resist hamming it up.
Irabagon pillories cluelessly ostentatious sax breaks on President Polk; Evans’ nervously rapidfire cameo on Yo, Yeo, Yeough and its altered disco beat is just as funny. Dexter, Wayne and Mobley, a parody of homages, is pretty priceless, its pastiche making no sense whatsoever. Jazzy tv themes get their due on the mealymouthed, chattering Jersey Shore, while Paul’s Journey to Opp reverts to the generalized messing it up of the band’s prior catalog, having fun with dissecting a too-bright-to-be-true vamp. The album closes with Is Granny Spry?, Irabagon and Evans quoting from both the classics and tv over a groove that’s so absurdly artless that it’s impossible not to laugh.
To fully appreciate how entertainingly vicious this band can be, get their 2009 album This Is Our Moosic – although ageless jazz critic Leonardo Featherweight’s liner notes on this one are especially LMFAO, enough to justify the price of a cd. The band are on European tour in February, with a return to New York on Feb 28 at the Cornelia St. Cafe.
Trombonist John Yao’s new quintet album, In the Now – out now from Innova – blends vivid tunefulness, clever composition and inspired teamwork. It’s accessible, but it’s also cerebral, and there’s also considerable wit here, as you would expect from a group including Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s Jon Irabagon on saxes. Although Yao is a versatile stylist with considerable big band experience – notably with Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra – his approach here is typically methodical and precise. He and Irabagon often work a cool/hot dynamic alongside Randy Ingram on piano, Leon Boykins on bass and Will Clark on drums. While there are plenty of echoes of classic 60s postbop tropes, Yao’s arrangements and voicings are original, imaginative and completely in the here and now.
Tersely shifting countermelodies between the horns introduce the opening track, Divisions, Ingram introducing a spaciously lyrical style that he’ll work memorably throughout the album, a succession of solos contrasting Yao’s matter-of-factness with Irabagon’s jaunty, clustering, often flutelike alto work. They take it out unexpectedly quietly. Track two, Funky Sunday, builds a sense of anticipation with intensely focused trombone/sax harmonies, a smartly minimalist rhythm section arrangement that only opens up when the horns diverge and become more carefree, and some very imaginatively textured organ – including a pedal solo – by Ingram. For NDJ, a jazz waltz, is a showcase for Irabagon’s silvery, rapidfire legato versus Yao’s stately insistence, with echoey Rhodes piano from Ingram and a judiciously paced bass solo from Boykins.
The title track alludes to a late 50s style bustle – carried by the piano rather than the horns – over constant rhythmic shifts, from swing to hesitation, Ingram echoing Irabagon’s microtonal attack which rather amusingly shifts back and forth from haphazard to focused and back again. Not Even Close also has a cleverness that may be satirical, right from the start, as the sax and trombone lock in and then the whole band goes off on individual tangents. There’s another series of handoffs between Yao and Irabagon and a defiant refusal to resolve anything: they leave that to Ingram, who takes it from spaciously and warily chromatic to join Boykins’ and Clark’s casual swing.
A bright, funkily syncopated number, Pink Eye follows the same trajectory as the second track here with a series of light/dark and serious/playful dichotomies, Irabagon going as far out on a limb as he can with predictably snarky results. The strongest track here, the slowly swaying Shorter Days, is the only particularly pensive one: Ingram’s moody tonalities suspensefully shadowing Irabagon and Yao slowly turn to Neoromantic and completely turn the tune around, the sax and trombone’s richly lyrical, bucolic harmonies taking it out on an unexpectedly triumphant note.The album ends with Snafu, the most outright amusing track: it’s sort of a Taxi Driver Theme groove, but a wee-hours one without much of a hint at where it’s going. When it starts to fall apart, the band employs a gimmick that’s been used for ages in soul music, and rock, and bluegrass but not so often in jazz: the wait for the whole quintet to throw up their hands and say the hell with it is the most entertaining part.
Yao’s next New York performance with the quintet is October 5 at 8 PM at the Firehouse Space, 246 Frost St. in Williamsburg.