Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Release the Most Rapturously Epic Album of 2017

Trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar’s epic, rapturous new double vinyl album Not Two, with his large ensemble Two Rivers, is a new kind of music. It sounds more composed than improvisational; the reverse is probably true. While the lp – soon to be streaming at New Amsterdam Records – embodies elements of western classical music, free jazz, Iraqi maqams and other styles from both the Middle East and the American jazz tradition, it’s not meant to be cross-cultural. Pan-global is more like it. Haunting, dark and incessantly turbulent, it reflects our time as much as it rivets the listener. The performances shift tectonically, dynamics slowly surging and then falling away. ElSaffar and the ensemble are playing the album release show outdoors at 28 Liberty St. at William in the financial district (irony probably intended) at 6 PM tomorrow night, June 16 as the highlight of this year’s River to River Festival.

The personnel on the album come out of as many traditions as the music, and more. The core of the band comprises ElSaffar’s sister Dena, a first-rate composer herself, who plays viola and oud, joined by multi-instrumentalists Zafer Tawil and Geroges Ziadeh, tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen, oboeist/horn player Mohamed Saleh, multi-reedman JD Parran, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, guitarist Miles Okazaki, cellist Kaseem Alatrash, saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, bassist Carlo DeRosa, percussionist Tim Moore and drummer Nasheet Waits.

That the album was recorded in a single marathon sixteen-hour session, live to analog tape, makes this achievement all the more impressive. The album’s first track, Iftah capsulizes the scope and sweep of ElSaffar’s vision. It slowly coalesces with shivery rhythmic variations on a majestic three-note theme the group slowly expanding on a vast ocean of ripples and rustles both near and distant, drums and cymbals introducing ElSaffar’s towering fanfare. But this is not a celebratory one: it’s a call to beware, or at least to be wary. Ole Mathisen’s meticulously nuanced voice-over-the-prairie sax signals another tectonic shift outward, ripples and rings against brassy echo effects. The result is as psychedelic as any rock music ever written, but deeper. A scampering train interlude with sputtery horns then gives way to the main theme as it slowly winds down.

The second track, Jourjina Over Three follows a lively, spiky groove that rises to an energetic, microtonal Iraqi melody and then takes a sunny drive toward Afrobeat on the wings of a good-natured Abboushi solo, the whole orchestra moving further into the shadows with a shivery intensity as the rhythm falls out.

The groove of Penny Explosion alludes to qawwali, while the melody references India in several places, the stringed instruments taking it more enigmatically into Middle Eastern grandeur that then veers toward what could be a mashup of Afrobeat and the most symphonic, psychedelic side of the Beatles. A Mingus-like urban bustle develops from there, the bandleader leading the charge mutedly from the back.

Saleh’s mournful oboe over a somber dumbek groove opens Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son), plaintively echoed by Mathisen and then the bandleader over a stark, stygian backdrop. Adasiewicz then channels a glimmer, like Bryan & the Aardvarks at their most celestial. How the group unravels it into an eerie abyss of belltones is artful to the extreme.

Layl (Night) is just as slow, more majestic, and looks further south toward Cairo, with its slinky, anticipatory electricity, a mighty, darkly suspenseful title theme. The composer’s impassioned, flamenco-inflected vocals and santoor rivulets drive the group to an elegantly stormy peak. Live, this is a real showstopper.

More belltones and a bristling Andalucian-tinged melody mingle over an implied clave as Hijaz 21 gets underway, the strings building acerbically to a stingingly incisive viola solo, trumpet combining with vibraphone for a Gil Evans-like lustre over a clip-clop rhythm.

The next-to-last number is the titanic diptych Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy, with galloping variations on earlier themes. Its intricately intertwining voices, vertiginous polythythms, conversational pairings and echo effects bring to mind ornately multitracked 70s art-rock bands like Nektar as much as, say, Darcy James Argue or Mohammed Abdel Wahab. The cartoonish pavane that ends it seems very sarcastic.

Bayat Declamation, the album’s most traditional maqam piece and arguably its most austerely beautiful track, makes a richly uneasy coda. Other than saying that this is the most paradigm-shifting album of the year, it’s hard to rate it alongside everything else that’s come over the transom this year because most of that is tame by comparison. There’s no yardstick for measuring this: you need astronomical units. If you’re made it this far you definitely owe it to yourself to immerse yourself in it and make it out to the show tomorrow night.

June 15, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amir ElSaffar’s Intense, Brooding Crisis Transcends Middle Eastern Music, Jazz and Everything Else

“Driving and to the point, Amir ElSaffar’s music is beyond categorization: not jazz, world music or any facile fusion thereof but a world unto its own.” A lot of bravado there, but the Chicago-born, New York-based trumpeter backs it up. His fifth album, Crisis – a suite inspired by his year in Egypt in 2012, as witness to the Arab Spring – is just out from Pi Recordings, and it’s arguably his best yet. Towering, majestic, haunting, dynamically rich, often grim, it might be the best album of 2015 in any style of music. Here ElSaffar – who plays both trumpet and santoor and also sings in Arabic in a resonant, soulful baritone – is joined by brilliant oudist/percussinonist Zaafir Tawil, fiery buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen, bassist Carlo DeRosa and drummer Nasheet Waits. Since the album is just out, it hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet, but three of the tracks are up at ElSaffar’s music page. He’s joined by his entire massive, seventeen-piece Two Rivers Ensemble – comprising all of these players – for the album release show tonight, September 17 at 8 PM at Symphony Space. Cover is $25.

Rumbling, tumbling drums underpin a alow, stately, chromatically edgy trumpet theme distantly echoed by the oud as the introduction, From the Ashes, rises and falls. ElSaffar switches to the eerily rippling santoor for a serioso solo, utilizing the exotic microtones of the Iraqi classical maqam music he’s devoted himself to over the past fifteen years after an auspicious career start bridging the worlds of jazz, latin music and the western classical canon.

Mathisen doubles the reverberating pointillisms of the santoor on The Great Dictator, until a flurrying trumpet riff over distorted electric buzuq, and suddenly it becomes a trickly dancing Middle Eastern art-rock song. Abboushi’s long, slashing solo is one of the most adrenalizing moments committed to record this year, the song moving toward funk as Mathisen sputters and leaps.

After ElSaffar’s plaintive solo trumpet improvisation Taqsim Saba – imbued with the microtones which have become his signature device – the band slinks and bounces their way into El–Sha’ab (The People), which for all its elegantly inspired shadowboxing between the oud and the trumpet is a pretty straight-up funk song. The aptly titled, apprehensively pillowy Love Poem, a variation on the introductory theme, overflows with lyrical interplay between santoor, sax and oud, as well as a graceful pairing between santoor and bass. It takes on an unexpectedly dirgelike quality as it winds out.

The epic Flyover Iraq – as cruelly ironic a title as one could possibly imagine in this century – begins as bright, syncopated stroll, goes back to funk with a lively trumpet/buzuq duet, ElSaffar then taking flight toward hardbop with his trumpet. DeRosa takes it out with a lithe, precise solo. The suite’s most titanic number, Tipping Point introduces an uneasily contrapuntal melody that expands throughout the band, follows an upbeat, funky trajectory toward a fanfare, then vividly voices a theme and variations that literally follow a path of dissolution. ElSaffar’s somber trumpet solo out sets the stage for Aneen (Weeping), Continued, a spare, funereal piece that brings to mind similarly austere material by another brilliant trumpeter with Middle Eastern heritage, Ibrahim Maalouf. The album winds up with Love Poem (Complete), a more somber take on the first one. Clearly, the revolution ElSaffar depicts here has not brought the results that he – or for that matter the rest of the world – were hoping for.

September 17, 2015 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Winter Jazzfest 2013: A Marathon Account

The narrative for Winter Jazzfest 2013 wrote itself. “The festival began and ended with two extraordinary trumpeters from Middle Eastern backgrounds, Ibrahim Maalouf early on Friday evening and then Amir ElSaffar in the wee hours of Sunday morning.” Except that it didn’t happen like that. Maalouf – whose new album Wind is a chillingly spot-on homage to Miles Davis’ noir soundtrack to the film Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud – was conspicuously absent, with visa issues. And by quarter to one Sunday morning, the line of hopefuls outside Zinc Bar, where ElSaffar was scheduled, made a mockery of any hope of getting in to see him play. But a bitingly bluesy, full-bore cadenza earlier in the evening from another trumpeter – Hazmat Modine’s Pam Fleming – had already redeemed the night many times over. In more than fourteen hours of jazz spread across the West Village (and into the East) over two nights, moments of transcendence like that outnumbered disappointments a thousand to one.

A spinoff of the annual APAP booking agents’ convention, the festival has caught on with tourists (the French and Japanese were especially well-represented) along with a young, scruffy, overwhelmingly white crowd like what you might see at Brooklyn spots like Shapeshifter Lab or I-Beam. Those crowds came to listen. Another tourist crowd, this one from New Jersey and Long Island, ponied up the $35 cover for an all-night pass and then did their best to drink like this was any old night on the Bleecker Street strip, oblivious to the music. It was amusing to see them out of their element and clearly nervous about it.

That contingent was largely absent on Friday – and probably because of the rain, attendance was strong but not as overwhelming as it would be the following night. Over at Bowery Electric, drummer Bobby Previte led a trio with baritone saxophonist Fabian Rucker and guitarist Mike Gamble to open the festival on a richly murky, noir note, raising the bar to an impossibly high level that few other acts would be able to match, at least from this perspective (wth scores of groups on the bill, triage is necessary, often a cruel choice between several artists). Watching Rucker build his way matter-of-factly from a minimalistically smoky stripper vamp to fire-and-brimstone clusters of hard bop was like being teleported to the jazz club scene from David Lynch’s Lost Highway.

Over at le Poisson Rouge, chanteuse Catherine Russell delivered a mix of alternately jaunty, devious and poignant swing tunes, none of them from later than 1953, the most recent one a lively drinking song from the Wynonie Harris book. Guitarist and music director Matt Munisteri added his signature purist wit and an expectedly offhand intensity on both guitar and six-stirng banjo as the group – with Ehud Asherie on piano, Lee Hudson on bass and Mark McLean on drums – swung  through the early Ella Fitzgerald catalog as well as on blues by Lil Green and Bessie Smith, riding an arc that finally hit an unselfconsciously joyous note as they wound it up.

Jamaican jazz piano legend Monty Alexander followed, leading his Harlem-Kingston Express as they turned on a dime from pristine swing to a deep and dark roots reggae pulse. Alexander has been having fun with this project – utilizing what are essentially two discrete groups on a single stage, one an acoustic foursome, the other a fullscale reggae band with electric bass, keys and guitar – for a few years now. This was as entertaining as usual, mashing up Uptown and Jamdown and ending with a singalong on Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry. In between, Alexander romped through jump blues and then added biting minor-key riffage to Marley classics like Slave Driver and The Heathen. Alexander was at the top of his game as master of ceremonies  – he even sang a little, making it up as he went along. It’s hard to think of a more likeable ambassador for the Irie Island.

Across the street at the Bitter End, Nels Cline and Julian Lage teamed up for a duo guitar show that was intimate to the extent that you had to watch their fingers to figure out who was playing what. Both guitarists played with clean tones and no effects, meticulous harmonies intertwining over seamless dynamic shifts as the two negotiated blue-sky themes with a distant nod to Bill Friselll…and also to Jerry Garcia, whose goodnaturedly expansive style Lage evoked throughout a handful of bluegrass-tinged explorations. On a couple of tunes, Cline switched to twelve-string and played pointillistic rhythm behind Lage, who was rather graciously given the lion’s share of lead lines and handled them with a refreshing directness – no wasted notes here. The two beefed up a Jim Hall tune and closed with a trickily rhythmic, energetic Chris Potter number.

The Culture Project Theatre, just off Lafayette Street, is where the most improvisationally-inclined, adventurous acts were hidden away – and by the time Boston free jazz legends the Fringe took the stage for a rare New York gig, the place was packed. The trio of tenor saxophonist George Garzone, drummer Bob Gullotti and bassist John Lockwood gave a clinic in friendly interplay, leaving plenty of space for the others’ contributions, each giving the other a long launching pad for adding individual ideas. Gullotti was in a shuffle mood, Lockwood a chordal one, Garzone flirting playfully with familiar themes that he’d take into the bop-osophere in a split second, the rhythm section leaving him to figure out what was happening way out there until he’d give the signal that he was coming back to earth.

Nasheet Waits’ Equality was next on the bill there and was one example of a band that could have used more than the barely forty minutes they got onstage. It wasn’t that they rushed the songs, it was simply that this band is obviously used to stretching out more than they got the oppportunity to do, shifting shape rhythmically as much as melodically, through compositions by both the drummer/bandleader and alto saxophonist Logan Richardson. Warmly lyrical sax found a murky anchor in Vijay Iyer’s insistently hypnotic pedalpoint and block chords, Mark Helias propelling their third tune with careful permutations on a tireless bass loop. They danced out on a biting, latin-tinged vibe.

Seabrook Power Plant, somewhat less lethal and toxic than their name implies, closed out Friday night with a pummelling yet often surprisingly melodic set for the diehards who’d stuck around. Brandon Seabrook – the Dick Dale of the banjo – teamed up with bassist Tom Blancarte and drummer Jared Seabrook for a hard-hitting, heavily syncopated, mathrock-tinged couple of tunes, the bandleader’s right hand a blur as he tremolopicked lightning flurries of chords that were more dreampop than full frontal attack. Then he picked up the guitar, started tapping and suddenly the shadow of Yngwie Malmsteen began to materialize, signaling that it was time to get some rest and get ready for day two.

Word on the street has been that the best strategy for the Saturday portion of the festival is to pick a single venue out of the total of six and camp out there, as one of the organizers sheepishly alluded as the evening got underway. This year that turned out to be gospel truth, validating the decision to become possibly the only person not employed by the Bitter End to spend six consecutive hours there. That choice wasn’t just an easy way out. Right through the witching hour, there were no lulls: the bill was that strong.

Percussionist Pedrito Martinez opened with his group: the sensational, charismatic Araicne Trujillo on piano and vocals, Jhair Sala on cowbell and Alvaro Benavides on five-string bass. Playing congas, Martinez took on the rare role of groovemeister with a subtle sense of dynamics, through a swaying set that was as electrically suspenseful as it was fever-pitched and diverse, slinking through Cuban rhythms from across the waves and the ages. Trujillo was a force of nature, showing off a wistful, bittersweet mezzo-soprano voice in quieter moments and adding fiery harmonies as the music rose. Given a long piano solo, she quoted vigorously and meticulously from Beethoven, Chopin and West Side Story without losing the slinky beat, matching rapidfire precision to an occasionally wild, noisy edge, notably on a long, call-and-response-driven take of Que Palo.

Chilean-American chanteuse Claudia Acuna was next, leading her six-piece band through a raputurous, hypnotic set that drew equally on folk music and classic American soul as well as jazz. Her voice radiates resilience and awareness: one early number broodingly contemplated ecological disaster and other global concerns. Chords and ripples rang from the electric piano, ornamented elegantly by guitarist Mike Moreno over grooves that rose and fell. After sultry tango inflections, a moody departure anthem and a surprisingly succesful shot at jazzing up You Are My Sunshine, they closed with an understated take on Victor Jara’s Adios Mundo Indino.

Of all of these acts, saxophonist Colin Stetson was the most spectacular. Playing solo is the hardest gig of all, notwithstanding that Stetson has made a career out of being a one-man band, one that sounds like he’s using a million effects and loops even though what he’s playing is 100% live. Tapping out a groove on the keys of his bass sax, sustaining a stunning mix of lows and keening overtones via circular breathing, some of what he played might be termed live techno. Holding fast to a rhythm that managed to be motorik and swinging at once, he evoked the angst of screaming in the wilderness – metaphorically speaking. Or being the last (or first) in a line of whales whose pitch is just a hair off from being understandable to others of the species, explaining how he felt a kinship with the “Cryptowhale” recently discovered on US Navy underwater recordings. Switching to alto sax, he delivered his most haunting number, spiked with sometimes menacing, sometimes plaintive chromatics and closed with a slowly and methodically crescendoing piece that built from dusky, otherworldly ambience to a firestorm of overtones and insistent, raw explosiveness. Of all the acts witnessed at this year’s festival, he drew the most applause.

In a smart bit of programming, trumpeter Brian Carpenter’s nine-peice Ghost Train Orchestra was next on the bill. Carpenter’s previous album collected jaunty, pioneering, surprisingly modern-sounding hot 20s proto-swing from the catalogs of bandleaders like Fess Williams and Charlie Johnson, and the band played some of those tunes, adding an unexpected anachronistic edge via biting, aggressive solos from tenor saxophonist Andy Laster and Brandon Seabrook, wailing away on banjo again. As the set went on, a positively noir Cab Calloway hi-de-ho energy set in, apprehensive chromatics pushing bouncy blues to the side, Mazz Swift’s gracefully edgy violin contrasting with Curtis Hasselbring’s terse but forceful trombone lines.

In addition to innumerable jazz flavors, this year’s festival featured a trio of acts who don’t really play jazz at all and the most tantalizing of them, Hazmat Modine, happened to be next on the bill. Frontman Wade Schuman played his chromatic harmonica through a series of effects that made him sound like a hurdy-gurdy on acid…or helium, depending on the song. Lively handoffs and conversations, notably between tuba player Joseph Daly and trombonist Reut Regev but also guitarists Pete Smith and Michael Gomez, Rachelle Garniez on claviola and accordion, Steve Elson on tenor sax, Pam Fleming on trumpet, and Rich Huntley on drums burst out of everywhere. Huntley took an antique field holler rhythm and made a hypnotic mid-70s disco-soul vamp out of it, as well as romping through samba swing, Diddleybeat, calypso or reggae, as on the minor-key but ecstatic opening tune, So Glad. The French have anointed the Hazmats as a blues band (their album Bahamut was the #1 blues album of the year there) even though they interpolate so many different styles into the genre and then jam them into unrecognizability. It was just as well that this set proved to be the final one of the festival – at least from this point of view – because after they’d vamped through a wryly surreal but ecstatic take of the carnivalesque tropicalia of the album’s title track, there was nowhere to go but down.

January 15, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble Explores Love and War

Iraq-born trumpeter Amir ElSaffar has been making extraordinary music for several years, most notably with his sister Dena in eclectic pan-levantine band Salaam,and more recently with saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh . ElSaffar’s latest adventure in east/west cross-pollination, his Two Rivers Ensemble has a new album, Inana, recently out on the adventurous Pi label, that’s a lock for pretty much everybody’s best-of-2011 lists as far as both jazz and Middle Eastern music are concerned. This is ElSaffar’s deepest venture into jazz to date, reminding how well his microtonal quartertone style – which basically doesn’t exist in western music – is suited to American postbop as it is everywhere east of the Nile and many points in between. The album is a thematic suite inspired by the Mesopotamian goddess of love and warfare. The melodies shift seamlessly between Arabic and western jazz modes, and as usual ElSaffar has a sensational band to play them: Shusmo’s Tareq Abboushi on buzuq; Zafer Tawil on oud and percussion; Ole Mathisen on alto sax; Carlo DeRosa on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums. One comparison that springs to mind is Ansambl Mastika, reedman Greg Squared’s deliriously intense pan-Balkan band, which also works many of the same tonalities as this group, although they’re crazier and more improvisational.

The opening track, Dumuzi’s Dream is stunning and intense, ElSaffar’s bright but allusive trumpet contrasting with the suspenseful, rustic, dark levantine groove underneath. Rolling triplets give way to insistence, an otherworldly, spiraling qanun solo, and a biting, pensive oud solo over judicious bass that ElSaffar breaks out of with the Arabic equivalent of major on minor. It’s creepy, and it gives absolutely no idea of how wildly he’s about to take it outside. Meanwhile, Waits proves as comfortably at home moving from one odd (to western ears, anyway) tempo to another, often playing polyrythms against the bass or the rest of the percussion, injecting one counterintuitive, incisive riff after another when he can sneak one in.

That’s sort of a prelude. The suite really gets going with Venus the Evening Star, where the main themes get introduced: this one, a tricky dance with a distinctly Greek shuffle bounce, flutters along amiably until Zawil’s oud solo takes it in a much more ominous direction, DaRosa’s pulse signaling a long, captivating return to the party as ElSaffar casually works his way up to a triumphant note. A suite within a suite, Inna’s Dance coalesces slowly, then sets a catchy, simple trumpet/sax riff over a hypnotic bass vamp, Abboushi adding a thoughtfully energetic sitar-like solo. As it progresses, it takes on a funky edge (that’s Abboushi bringing a little James Brown to the party), Waits and DaRosa’s polyrhythms hypnotic under ElSaffar’s river of microtones.

The warm, stately Lady of Heaven kicks off the most straight-up jazz-oriented section here, simple, sustained trumpet/sax harmonies over clanking buzuq and Waits’ gentle flurries. Infinite Variety picks up the pace, Abboushi reminding that jazz chords are also suited to the buzuq, ElSaffar’s clever arrangement setting up a series of echo permutations against the central bass riff. The big fifteen-minute epic Journey to the Underworld should be Journey Through the Underworld instead: moving from lengthy improvisations for oud and vocals, it reaches unexpectedly upbeat terrain, driven by DeRosa’s insistent bass, then goes murky and rubato until ElSaffar finally signals that the end of the tunnel is in sight, yet almost having to pull the rest of the ensemble out by himself. Those are merely the highlights: it’s an absolutely fascinating, intricately orchestrated performance.

The suite’s concluding segment, Venus the Morning Star, answers the question of what side the goddess will end on: with a return of the simple, supple opening theme, it’s an optimistic, brightly evocative early morning tableau. The final track, Al-Badia, isn’t part of the suite, but it ends the album on the same richly intense note where began, an imaginative blend of oldschool funk and Mohammed Abdel Wahab cinematic hitworthiness, the instruments taking turns nailing the place where the choir would respond as the verse hits a turnaround. The fun the band is having is visceral: count this among the best albums to come over the transom here this year.

November 16, 2011 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Orrin Evans Makes a Party Record for Smart People

Pianist Orrin Evans has been on some kind of a roll lately, as a solo artist, in his mighty Captain Black Big Band,and also the impossibly eclectic, brilliant trio Tarbaby with Eric Revis and Nasheet Waits. His latest album, Freedom, which has been out about a month on Posi-Tone, was recorded about a year ago (right before the Tarbaby record came out), capturing Evans in slightly more relaxed mode. Emphasis on “slightly” – there’s still plenty of his trademark restless intensity here. But it’s also a party record, mostly a trio session with Dwayne Burno on bass and Byron Landham (from Evans’ original 90s trio) on drums, with Anwar Marshall from the big band taking over behind the kit on three tracks, plus tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna guesting on a couple more. Thematically, it’s a tribute to Evans’ friends and mentors – which makes a lot of sense when you hear it.

Charles Fambrough’s One for Honor kicks it off, brisky, catchy, almost scurrying. Essentially, it’s a cleverly ornamented two-chord modal theme, Evans working a lively call-and-response between contrasting two-bar pairs. A simple, memorable blues, Gray’s Ferry, by Burno provides a canvas for soulful McKenna inflections and a typically cerebral Evans solo, with the drums bringing the party atmosphere up. The uninhibited joy of Evans firing off ripples following a particularly inspiring sax motif, and the spirited crash of Landham’s cymbals, is just plain irresistible. The third track, Shades of Green, begins with a gorgeous series of turnaround that defiantly refuse to resolve, Landham’s rumble beneath Evans’ judicious, ringing chords evoking a genuine majesty. That’s a signature style for Evans, one he evokes even more potently on the album’s seventh cut, Oasis, which shifts from samba-inflected soul to rippling restlessness to an electrifying modal intensity, which sadly fades out too soon – it would be awfully nice to see what destination this crew might have been able to find for it.

Evans’ sole original here, Dita, is an expansive, slow ballad with understated grandeur and an apt Burno solo. Hodge Podge features a cool piano/drum interchange over a devious 12/8 beat, and then a heated Marshall solo spot where he still manages to keep the rhythm absolutely front and center. They also romp through Time After Time, with a clever bass-and-drum conversation, give Duane Eubanks’ As Is a bright swing treatment and close with Herbie Hancock’s Just Enough, Evans and the rest of the band letting its quiet gravitas speak for itself. If melodic jazz is your thing and you don’t know this guy, you’re missing out.

August 15, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tarbaby Puts an End to Fear

Intense, enigmatic, often very funny, Tarbaby’s debut album The End of Fear is a jazz power trio of sorts featuring Orrin Evans on piano, Eric Revis on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums along with some welcome guests: JD Allen on tenor, Oliver Lake on alto and Nicholas Payton on trumpet. Darkly melodic, fearlessly spontaneous (hence the title) and bristling with combustible energy, time may judge this a classic. Why? After all, there’ve been a ton of energetic jazz albums this year. Answer: clarity of vision. The group latch onto these compositions, dig deep and find the gems inside, tribute as much to the quality of the songs here as much as the playing. Evans has a well-deserved reputation as a powerhouse player, but his most powerful moments here are in the quietest, gentlest passages. Revis, who’s responsible for some of the best pieces here, is subtle to the extreme, a rare bassist who doesn’t waste a note. Waits adds rare elements of musicality and surprise to everything he touches, and he’s in typical form here. Each of the horn players brings his signature as well: Allen’s terse purism, Lake’s practically iconoclastic flights and Payton’s irrepressibility.

The tracks alternate between miniatures and more expansive works, kicking off with a vignette that pits murky, circular Evans stomp versus Lake’s buoyant explorations. The sardonically titled Brews is the blues after too many drinks – although the sauce hasn’t affected anyone other than the staggering rhythm section. Evans drifts between eloquence and chaos, Revis plays the voice of reason out for a long walk, and then it ends cold. Heads, followed later by Tails, are the freest moments here, brief but potent contrasts between background rumble and Payton going wild shooting targets.

Their best songs are the darkest ones. Evans’ showstopper is Jena 6, a brooding commentary on the recent tragic events in Arkansas that packs a wallop in the darkness, glittering obsidian rivulets growing to a harrowing, gospel-inflected intensity. Hesitation, a long mini-suite of sorts by Waits, grows from funereal, through a bitter chromatic dirge that explodes in freedom and reconfigures with similarly gospel-fueled triumph. Fats Waller’s Lonesome Me is reinvented brilliantly as an austere ballad featuring some warily beautiful, minimalist Allen phrasing. By contrast, the version of Andrew Hill’s Tough Love here is a rapidfire display of deft handoffs and team riffage.

There’s also great humor here. Unity, by Sam Rivers shifts suddenly from the cohesion suggested by the title to a wild battle for the ball between Lake and Payton, Evans a bit later on discovering the song’s inner latin soul while Waits stomps through it in his swim fins. November ’80, by Lake, must have been a hell of a time, Evans reaching to calm things down a bit before handing it over to Revis who cleverly ratchets it up again. And a cover of the Bad Brains’ Sailin’ On establishes these guys as a solid hardcore band, Evans’ furious lefthand maintaining the roar in place of the guitar – and contributing a seriously amusing ending. They close with a rapturous, slowly congealing, starlit version of Paul Motian’s Abacus. Check back here sometime and see where it ends up on our list of the best albums of 2010.

October 17, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Orrin Evans – Faith in Action

We like to mix it up here. The most recent jazz album we reviewed was headphone jazz; the one before that was gypsy jazz. This one is solace-after-a-hard-day jazz. Pianist Orrin Evans leads a trio with bassist Luques Curtis and Nasheet Waits on drums here on his Posi-Tone Records debut, essentially a tribute to Evans’ friend and mentor Bobby Watson. Evans matches a precise articulation to a hard-hitting lefthand attack: his playing is cerebral, intense, sometimes febrile, often uneasy. It will pick you up and straighten your head out even as it plays games with your mind: there’s a lot going on here, as sharply focused as the playing is.

Evans kicks off with an original, the matter-of-factly bluesy Don’t Call Me Wally, switching up the time signature and getting a little march thing going on for awhile. The title track, like many others here a Watson composition has a shuffling My Favorite Things vibe propelled artfully by Waits’ lithe cymbal work. Wheel Within a Wheel has Evans cutting loose amidst lush sheets of cymbals by Rocky Bryant, Waits playfully doing three-on-four behind Curtis’ brief, incisive solo. Another Watson tune, Appointment in Milano has Evans bludgeoning a chromatic vamp a la McCoy Tyner.

The fifth track is essentially a funk song in shifting tempos, chugging bass propelling it as guest Gene Jackson’s drums add color. Beattitudes, by Watson, climbs out of the murk impressionistically and expansively; an Evans original, MAT-Matt prowls around over a hypnotic chromatic riff. The best song on the album is the title cut from Watson’s landmark 1986 album, Love Remains, done here as an understatedly rueful ballad, sustained chords over a matter-of-fact, resigned rhythm section and some deliciously ominous, starlit, upper register work from Evans at the end. The album wraps up with a no-nonsense stride number by Evans that gives Curtis a chance to up the intensity with a defiantly strutting solo, and a straight-up swing tune.

March 15, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Komeda Project – Requiem

To say that an album is as important as it is good could be interpreted many different ways – but the second release by the Komeda Project is in the best sense of the word. Pianist/composer Krzysztof Komeda is not unknown to fans of both jazz and cinema (quick to pick up on Komeda’s trademark cinematic style, Roman Polanski enlisted him to write film music for Knife in the Water and Rosemary’s Baby). But Komeda is overdue for a revival, and fortuitously we have the Komeda Project to renew interest in a figure who is something of a doomed legend in jazz history. Komeda died in 1968 at age 37 from complications of a head injury sustained under mysterious circumstances. Medical malpractice or something even more sinister may also have played a role (the Polish communist regime, not particularly fond of western-inclined jazz musicians, is suspected by some). The Komeda Project’s first album Crazy Girl covered some of Komeda’s more accessible, straight-up compositions – “club music,” as the group puts it. This time around, group leader and pianist Andrzej Winnicki is joined by his powerhouse countryman, saxophonist Krzysztof Medyna, noted New York trumpeter Russ Johnson and an American rhythm section of Scott Colley on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums, working their way with equal parts care and abandon through a selection of Komeda’s darkest works. Much of this sounds like a less jarring Balkan version of Mingus, ranging from moody to outright gloomy. At its best, Komeda’s work is extraordinarily affecting – it refuses to let the listener go, and the band here does justice to the material as well as including two original compositions by Winnicki that often vividly echo Komeda.

The album opens with the three-part Night-time, Daytime Requiem, written for Coltrane. Its Trane influence isn’t felt in its haunting, almost Satie-esque piano but it is very much present in the sax chart, and Medyna attacks it with an aptly rapidfire, inspired aggression. Like much of the rest of the music here, it’s strikingly imagistic and wouldn’t be out of place in an arthouse suspense film, matching wary trills to an uneasy mid 2oth century urban bustle a la Mingus or mid-50s Miles. Ballad for Bernt, from the Knife in the Water score, is sad and beautiful with a particularly poignant Johnson solo. The aptly titled Dirge for Europe is literally a funeral march, Waits and Colley impressively taking it lento but managing to imbue it with an almost reluctant swing.

Astigmatic, which served as something of a signature song for Komeda, gets a clever, playful treatment through its Brubeck-esque opening section, grows insistent with Johnson and Medyna sailing overhead and grows to where Medyna decides to take a full-tilt run for the border with some wild, Turkish-flavored swirls and wails – it’s easily the most adrenalizing moment here. Prayer and Question is the most overtly Mingus-inflected number here, an imploring dialogue between piano and sax that grows to a lengthy, scurrying chase scene. Of the Winnicki originals here, there’s the expressive, expansive ballad Elutka, bass and drums roaming casual and free beneath somewhat rubato piano, and the cd’s concluding cut, Anubis, a pensively shape-shifting Komeda homage that does justice to its main inspiration. Overall, this is an inspired and impressive reintroduction to a great cult artist who would no doubt have transcended that category had he not been cut down before his time.

Happily, the Komeda Project plays the occasional live show as well (they’ve recently made the Cornelia Street Cafe their New York home) – check back for live dates.

October 21, 2009 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments