Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Believe It: The Cookers’ New Album Is Amazing

The Cookers’ 2010 album Warriors ranked as one of that year’s top ten jazz albums here: how does their new one, Believe, just out from Motema, stack up alongside it? It’s different, and it’s even better. It’s one of those rare albums that come along a handful of times a year, that will blow you away the first time you give it a close listen. Who would have thought that all but two of the members of this perennially vital, intense veteran septet – saxophonists Billy Harper and Craig Handy, trumpeters Eddie Henderson and David Weiss, pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Billy Hart – are in their sixties or seventies? And who would have imagined that they’d come out with an album that’s mostly midtempo, with a couple of brooding ballads? This one has gravitas, rich melodic beauty and all sorts of deep playing and interplay. Interestingly, much as this band is all about power and fiery chops, it’s the compositions here that absolutely slay. The overall concept seems be something along the lines of “look, this isn’t just a superstar session, we’re a more-or-less fulltime band,” and they reaffirm that many times over.

The album kicks off with Believe, For It Is True, a Harper joint that juxtaposes a rather stern, stark modal piano melody with brighter, genial solos by the composer and then Weiss. It’s a good way to start the album. Temptation(s), by McBee, is a total knockout. From a similarly stark opening, the ensemble rises to an artfully layered, lush vintage 50s (think Miles and Gil) arrangement that fleshes out McBee’s bass riffage. Henderson alternates between warily soulful and swirly, McBee adds rhythmic insistence, then Cables gets nocturnal with the bass and drums and they they’re up and out. Wow!

Ebony Moonbeams, by Cables, is even plusher. Rhythms are hinted at and then Hart subtly establishes the clave, Henderson spirals and splatters, Cables takes the hook to Plaintiveville, Handy scurries over it and then Cables returns with an understated majestic intensity as the rhythm pulls away from the center. The lone cover is Wayne Shorter’s Free for All, moving matter-of-factly from tense restraint to unleashed modal menace. With a judiciously gleeful slasher attack, Hart absolutely owns this one, Henderson bringing in the evening sun for a moment before Handy and Cables join forces and take it into noir territory, all the way through a Hart solo where he somehow never loses the center, with a final mean drum roll to cap it off. Quest, another Harper tune, cleverly develops a wry martial New Orleans “charge” riff into more of the noir stuff, Hart again in richly colorist mode, Cables turning in what’s arguably the most chillingly exhilarating of all the solos here as he swings it with a dark flamenco tinge.

Will there be any respite? Maybe. But He Knows, a jazz waltz by Cables hints at a more carefree atmosphere, but beginning with Henderson’s purist, bluesy muted solo followed upwards by Handy, the shadows grow behind them; by the time they get to the piano solo, Cables can’t pull them back from watching the abyss. Tight Squeeze, by McBee, is exactly that, all suspense and understated chills: Harper broods, Weiss contemplates, Hart amps the mystery up to ten, works a couple of false endings and then lets McBee and Cables join in a surrealistic bounce. The final track, Naaj, a Hart composition, works permutations on a carnavalesque piano motif. Blast this in the car or after a bad day at work, share it with the friends whose lives you want to enrich the most, and if there’s someone very bright and intense that you want to seduce, this might do the trick. Watch for it on the list of best jazz albums of 2012 here in December if we make it that far.

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July 15, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Moving Sound Puts Their Original Spin on Ancient Chinese Music

Taiwanese group A Moving Sound’s music is not deferential or folkloric, at least in the sense that it tries to fossilize a traditional musical style for the same of mass appeal, or for yuppie cultural tourists who assuage their bourgeois guilt by proving to the world how multicultural they are. It’s cutting-edge, entertaining stuff that just happens to be played on instruments that go back several hundred years, using ancient Chinese folk tunes as a springboard for original songs and arrangements that draw on influences as diverse as indie classical and worldbeat. The songs’ lyrics are in native dialects. Frontwoman/singer/dancer Mia Hsieh’s heritage is mainland Chinese: her parents fled the terror of Mao to Taiwan, only to end up under Chiang Kai-Shek’s iron thumb. Hsieh won a Fulbright scholarship, studied with Meredith Monk and then returned home, bringing along multi-instrumentalist Scott Prairie, with whom she founded the group. The members also include Zheng-jun Wu on percussion and erhu (spike fiddle), Tang-hsuan Lo on erhu, Hua-zhou Hsieh on guitar and zhong ruan (four-string lute) along with guest sitarist Yi-chen Chang on one track.

The microtonal erhu adds an acidic bite to many of the songs, notably on the stately, processional opening suite, Silk Road – it’s hard to to tell where the erhu leaves off and Hsieh’s voice takes over, such is the clarity of both the vocals and Lo’s playing here. An instrumental, The First Thunder of Spring takes a graceful walk down the Asian scale and turns it into dramatic, ominous acoustic art-rock with an absolutely wicked chorus. The slowly slinky, joyously minimalist Harvest is followed by The Market Song, sort of like a Taiwanese Pogues tune, memorializing Hsieh’s parents’ hectic days as open-air vendors. At a semi-private mini-concert for bloggers and such earlier today, Hsieh lit into this one with a cheery, animated grace; as a singer, she switched confidently between hushed nuance and the stratospherically high leaps that give away her avant garde background.

Gu Gin, based on an 11th century poem, drolly celebrates playing in the rain, while Flying Dombra moves slowly and deliberately with Prairie’s spaciously placed bass chords. Dynasty has an upbeat, jangly folk-rock feel, nicking an old Allman Brothers lick at one point, followed by Toh Deh Gong, which contrasts Hsieh’s irrepressible vocal swoops and dives with stern, austerely percussive melodies. The album ends with the bouncy Howling Wind and then the aptly titled Ghost Lake, an ancient traditional song reinvented as a long, hypnotic tone poem with a trick ending. It’s out now on Motema; a Moving Sound plays Drom this Friday, Sept 23 at 9:30 PM. $12 advance tickets are still available as of today.

By the way, just in case it’s crossed your mind lately, this music is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the world stands to lose in the wake of Fukushima (Taiwan got hammered by the tailwind from 3/11). Think about that for a minute. Isn’t it time we got rid of nuclear power forever?

September 21, 2011 Posted by | folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Monty Alexander’s New Live Album: Yeah Mon!

In case you haven’t heard, Monty Alexander has a new live album out. More elegant and urbane but no less fun than his ecstatic, paradigm-shaping reggae-jazz albums like 1995’s Yard Movement and 2004’s Rocksteady, this new one, Harlem-Kingston Express Live, is a vivid reminder why artists as diverse as Tony Bennett and Ernest Ranglin have sought him out as a collaborator. Shifting effortlessly between bustling swing and a deep roots reggae groove, the iconic Jamaican jazz pianist is backed by two different bands – a roots reggae unit, as well as a jazz trio with rhythm section and guitar. Recorded both at Dizzy’s Club at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center as well as on tour over the previous few years, the production is remarkably fat for a live performance, particularly perfect for the reggae numbers. For the straight-up jazz tunes, the group here includes Hassan Shakur on bass, Obed Calvaire on drums and Yotam Silberstein on guitar, while the electric reggae unit typically features Andy Bassford on guitar, Hoova Simpson on bass guitar, Karl Wright on drums and Robert Thomas on percussion. Sometimes, though, Alexander flips the script, allowing each group to explore their counterparts’ territory, with surprising and rewarding results.

Strawberry Hill, one of Alexander’s most popular hybrid compositions, is done tersely and not a little suspensefully, big block chords laying the foundation for some tiptoeing lyrical excursions. By contrast, the version of High Heel Sneakers fades up jauntily, Alexander literally leading a charge, leaving the boogie bass to the rhythm section as he gets the piano humming with overtones before diving back into the blues. King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown leaps from the classic drum-n-bass vamp to a sprint, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing after all…and then they’re right back where they started.

Eleuthera, another Alexander signature song, gets a laid-back but lively reggae bounce. They pick up the pace with a lickety-split, surprisingly lighthearted romp through Sweet Georgia Brown, Silberstein taking over where Alexander leaves off, while Freddie Freeloader gets a tongue-in-cheek disco groove. But the gravitas of the solo piano intro to Milt Jackson’s Compassion doesn’t dissipate even as the slinky reggae riddim comes in (that’s Bernard Montgomery on melodica, in case you’re wondering how Alexander can play two keyboards at once).

There are three Bob Marley tunes here, and they’re the real showstoppers. The Heathen reminds why Alexander is equally admired in the jazz and jamband worlds, as it constantly changes shape from brightly lyrical reggae, to a bustling bop interlude…with a little melodica, and stark bowed bas when least expected. Running Away winds in casually but matter-of-factly, Alexander keeping it pointed and biting just like the original. They swing out of it with a silvery Silberstein solo, Alexander firing off a big chromatically-charged climb to take it out on a high note. No Woman No Cry is quite a bit faster than the original, quickly becoming a launching pad for some typically wry Alexander allusions that the band picks up on – his wit’s in rare form, and the fun is contagious. Another album, another victory for Commander Zander. It’s out now on Motéma.

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

Jean-Michel Pilc’s Essential Combines Great Wit and Great Chops

Jazz pianist Jean-Michel Pilc’s new live solo album Essential is just out on Motéma, and it’s a match of astonishing chops and playful wit, in fact, one of Pilc’s best creations. A defiant advocate of pure improvisation, the way Pilc takes both original and classic themes, deconstructs them or reconstructs them, all the while making them up on the spot, is extremely entertaining. As he explains, literally everything here is improvised with the exception of one in a series of fascinating miniatures titled Etude-Tableaux – and that one Pilc came up with only a few days before he recorded this concert. The cd version of this album features features not only live concert material but also a video of a special private performance from the two-night stand where this material was recorded.

Utilizing the entirety of the piano’s range, Pilc will occasionally venture beneath the lid and coax timbres directly from the strings themselves. There’s also evidence here of Pilc’s seemingly ambidextrous two-handed approach which on occasion resembles two separate voices, sometimes conversationally, but more often than not has them working virtually independently of one another. Also in full effect is Pilc’s puckish sense of humor. A delightful version of Caravan becomes a game of hide-and-seek, Pilc interjecting seemingly random fragments of the melody amid low, rumbling, pedaled atmospherics or joyous righthand cascades, practically a mashup of the original with an improvisation. Likewise, Pilc artfully skirts the melody of Take the A Train, a wry contrast between low boogie woogie-tinged lefthand and devious flourishes in the right. Someday My Prince Will Come hints at a darkly suspenseful bluesy ballad approach before flying off into the upper registers; by contrast, Pilc takes Chopin’s A Minor Waltz and turns it into a foundation for alternately bracing and warmly consonant lyrical passages, an utterly original repurposing which begins with pain and poignancy but ends on a hopeful note.

Yet the original improvisations are the pieces de resistance. The title track is a thoughtful, methodical blues ballad shaded grey – it’s slow enough that the listener can think along with Pilc and watch how he does it, finally scurrying off before returning to the source. The series of Etudes-Tableaux begin with a somewhat austere boogie, followed by a deliciously bouncy, fractured pop melody with an amusing series of endings; a starlit ballad that opens the door wide on the kind of riveting intensity Pilc can deliver; another that could be Haydn through the prism of Scott Joplin; a contrasting miniature that evokes both Erik Satie and the Boomtown Rats’ I Don’t Like Mondays; and a Brubeck-esque jazz waltz that plays clever rhythmic tricks. There’s also a judicious, expansive version of I Remember You; an eerie music-box take of Scarborough Fair; an arrestingly brooding, compelling Blue in Green, and Mack the Knife, reinvented as a jester.

Pilc is playing a bunch of festivals this summer including Montreal; his next NewYork dates seem to be Aug 30-31 at the Blue Note with Pilc Moutin Hoenig Potter featuring his longtime rhythm section, bassist François Moutin and drummer Ari Hoenig, plus saxophonist Chris Potter.

May 10, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment