Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Transcendent Jazz Reinventions of Chopin Classics by the Dead Composers Club

Gotta love the cd cover of the The Chopin Project, the debut album from Noah Preminger and Rob Garcia’s Dead Composers Club. It’s a bluelit nocturnal shot of a bridge across the Central Park Lake: creepy and Romantic, perfectly capsulizing the appeal of this kind of music. Jazz grinches have long made fun of “jazzing up the classics,” but if you were around in the past century and you missed iconoclastic pianist Dorothy Donegan playing Rachmaninoff, that’s tragic. 

And there’s more precedent for the Dead Composers Club’s reinvention of Chopin preludes and nocturnes than there might seem. Chopin didn’t have Romany ancestry, but he drew from the same tradition as  Django Reinhardt. Yet this isn’t Romany jazz. This music is closer to the trio Little Worlds’ shapeshifting spinoffs on Bartok etudes, and guitarist Dan Willis’ chilling Satie Project. it’s not out of the question that Preminger might air some of these out at his gig on May 31 at 7:30 PM at Smalls, where he’s leading his Genuinuity quartet, with Jason Palmer on trumpet, Kim Cass on bass and Dan Weiss on drums. 

Among tenor saxophonist/composers, Preminger is on a roll unrivalled by pretty much anyone these days. When he’s not writing some of the most viscerally affecting protest jazz out there, he’s reinventing Bartok and Chopin – and joining Jason Moran for a recording date early next month. Likewise, Garcia is not only one of the most purposeful, melodic, instantly recognizable drummers in jazz; he’s also a ferocious composer with a fearlessly populist sensibility. Joining the two here are Preminger’s longtime bassist Cass and guitarist Nate Radley.

The new album opens with the Nocturne Op27 Nº1 in C# minor, which gets an uneasily tiptoeing intro before the band expands, Garcia rustling while Preminger holds pretty close to the moody melody, fleshed out by Radley’s terse chords. A rather desolate guitar solo gives Preminger a launching pad to lift the music into somewhat brighter territory over Garcia and Cass’ floating swing.

Similarly, the band work unsettling close harmonies at the edges of the famous Prelude Op28 Nº2 in A minor, Preminger shifting between stark blues and fluttery postbop, Radley adding allusive angst over Garcia’s relentless, echoey suspense. it’s very close to Willis’ haunting take on Satie.

The band make aptly jaunty work of the Nocturne Op9 Nº2 in Eb major, a famously less gloomy piece that plenty of others have drawn on. The closest they get to Django jazz here is the Prelude Op28 Nº24 in D minor, a gorgeously bittersweet, jangly arrangement veering in and out of waltz time – although Radley lingers and clangs rather than hitting anything approaching a Reinhardt minor sixth shuffle. Garcia’s calmly predatory solo as the band vamps alongside him, and then the creepy chromatic outro, are the icing on the cake.

There’s a spare, searching quality to their version of the Etude Op25 Nº7 in C# minor; Radley’s plaintive, incisive solo is one of the album’s high points, Preminger floating in to offer some solace over Cass’ moodily dancing lines. They hint at Vegas noir with the rapidfire intro to the Prelude Op28 Nº8 in F# minor, then go as far outside as they ever do here, Radley clustering over a brisk dub-inflected groove, Garcia’s solo delivering as much foreshadowing as bluster.

The group walk the line between the boudoir and the ledge with the Nocturne Op62 Nº2 in E major: this album may be the high point in Radley’s recording career. Some of these Nocturnes, like the Nocturne Op32 Nº2 in Ab major, were Chopin’s top 40 pieces; the quartet give that one subtle latin and then early Ellingtonian allusions over a casual 6/8 stroll.

They bring back the full-throttle intensity, finding the inner bolero in the Prelude Op28 Nº6 in B minor, hanging in the shadows at the edge of macabre. Giving Cass a chance to move toward the forefront is a genius move, as is Preminger’s purist blues. The album’s final number, the Prelude Op28 Nº9 in E major, rises from a muted sway, propelled by Preminger’s colorful upper-register work and Radley’s unexpectedly sweet, spot-on Memphis flavor. Don’t be surprised to see this on the best jazz albums of 2018 page here at the end of the year.

In the meantime, where can you hear this masterpiece online? For starters, try youtube and Soundcloud, here and here.

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May 25, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Adam Nussbaum Reinvents Leadbelly Classics with Taste and Good Cheer

On one hand, it’s always fun to play the blues – especially if you’re out of material and the crowd of drunks is still screaming for more. On the other, is your version of Got My Mojo Working going to be better than Muddy Waters? Obviously not. Beyond impressing the bartenders with your work ethic, hopefully assuring a return engagement, will anybody remember you played that song? Probably not. That’s a question that drummer Adam Nussbaum’s Leadbelly Project raises.

The premise of the record – streaming at Sunnyside Records  – is to reinvent Leadbelly songs as instrumentals. Beyond the obvious, does the group – which also includes tenor saxophonist Ohad Talmor, with guitarists Steve Cardenas and Nate Radley’s two axes standing in for Mr. Ledbetter’s twelve-string – actually add anything to the Leadbelly canon? Happily, yes. You can see for yourself when they play the Jazz Standard on Feb 27, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $25.

The album is smartly sequenced, like a live set. Playing with brushes, Nussbaum subtly varies a jaunty, New Orleans-tinged shuffle beat, Cardenas supplying burning, syncopated rhythm, Radley’s terse washes and incisions functioning as leads while Talmor’s sax dances in between the raindrops or provides lively, upbeat atmosphere.

A handful of these numbers are essentially one-chord jams; most of them are relatively brief, around the three-minute mark or even shorter. The first two, Old Riley and Green Grass, set the tone and establish the roles that the guitarists will shift back and forth from as the album goes on. Black Girl (Where Did You Sleep Last Night) sure outdoes that infamous grunge version – it’s sort of a Quincy Jones soundtrack piece, a roadhouse at still-sleepy opening time.

Bottle Up and Go is a lot more lighthearted, Nussbaum swinging on the rims before it picks up steam. each guitarist adding what in country music would be called a “strum solo,” staying pretty close to the ground.

It’s Talmor’s turn to get terse and bluesy in Black Betty, over Nussbaum’s second line groove – finally, the two guitars pair off for a a southern-fried jam. They follow that with the brief Grey Goose, built around a series of echo effects, then Bring Me a Little Water Sylvie, where the band finally diverge before slowly coalescing out of individual rhythms. Radley distinguishes himself with some unexpectedly rustic C&W licks.

You Can’t Lose Me Cholly gets recast as a joyous mashup of jump blues and calypso.  Nussbaum’s lone original here, Insight, Enlight gives the band a chance to revisit the dynamics of the first couple of tunes, rubato. They make straight-up swing – with a little choogle – out of Sure Would Baby and close with a warmly waltzing, aptly starry Goodnight Irene.

So is this rock? Well, it rocks – a lot, in places. Is this jazz? Sort of. Is it blues? More or less. Whatever you want to cal lit, it’s like nothing else out there. In less competent hands this project could have turned into a trainwreck; Nussbaum and the rest of the band really distinguish themselves with their collective imagination here.

February 25, 2018 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another Tasty, Catchy, Swinging Vibraphone Album from Behn Gillece

Continuing yesterday’s theme about top-drawer jazz artists playing some unlikely spaces here in town, today’s is vibraphonist Behn Gillece, who’s doing a live rehearsal of sorts, leading a quartet at the Fat Cat on Jan 2 at 9 PM. You can be there to witness it for the three bucks that it takes to get into the pool hall – if you don’t mind the random polyrhythms of sticks hitting balls and some other background noise, you’d be surprised how many quality acts pass through here when they’re not headlining a place like Smalls, which is Gillece’s regular spot when he’s in town.

His 2010 Little Echo album with frequent collaborator Ken Fowser on tenor sax is one of the most tuneful, enjoyable postbop releases of recent years. Gillece’s previous album Mindset was considerably more ambitious, and on the knotty side; his latest one, Dare to Be – streaming at Posi-Tone Records – is a welcome return to form.

The album’s opening track, Camera Eyes begins as a sparkly ballad, shades of early 70s Milt Jackson until the rhythm section – Ugonna Okegwo on bass and Jason Tiemann on drums – kicks in and then they’re off on a brightly shuffling, distantly Brazilian-tinged tangent. Gilllece’s shimmering lines cascade over a similarly brisk shuffle groove in From Your Perspective, Bruce Harris’ trumpet taking a more spacious approach.

Tiemann’s snowstorm cymbals push the 6/8 ballad Amethyst along, gently, Radley channeling some deep blues, Gillece just as judicious and purposeful. The group picks up the pace but keeps the singalong quality going with the lickety-split swing of Signals, Radley and Gillece adding percolating solos: the subtle variations Gillece makes to the head are especially tasty. His intricate intro to Drought’s End hardly gives away how straight-ahead and understatedly triumphant Harris’ trumpet and Radley’s guitar will be as it hits a peak.

The first of the two covers here. Bobby Hutcherson’s Same Shame is done as a crescendoing, enigmatically scrambling quasi-bossa, echoed in the goodnaturedly pulsing, tropical grooves of Gillece’s. Live It. The album’s anthemic title track grooves along on a brisk clave beat: it’s the closest thing to the lush life glimmer of Little Echo here.

The last of Gillece’s originals, Trapezoid is a rapidfire shuffle: Tiemann’s counterintuitively accented drive underneath the bandleader’s precise ripples and Radley’s steady chords is as fun as it is subtle. The album winds up with a gently resonant take of Johnny Mandel’s ballad A Time For Love, looking back to both the Milt Jackson and Buddy Montgomery versions. Fans of engaging, ringing, tuneful music in general, as well as the jazz vibraphone pantheon spanning from those guys, to Hutcherson, to Gary Burton have a lot to enjoy here. If Gillece wasn’t already on this map, this has put him there to stay.

December 27, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Alan Ferber Nonet Bring Their Dynamic, Intense Large Ensemble Sound to the Flatiron District

Considering how time-consuming it is just to keep a big band together and playing, it’s amazing how the likes of Arturo O’Farrill and Maria Schneider manage to do that and keep coming up with fresh and interesting material for their large ensembles, year after year. Count trombonist/composer Alan Ferber among that dedicated elite. His latest album, Roots & Transitions is a suite for an only slightly smaller ensemble, his long-running Nonet with trumpeters Scott Wendholt and Shane Endsley, alto saxophonist Jon Gordon, tenor saxophonist John Ellis, bass clarinetist Charles Pillow, guitarist Nate Radley, pianist Bryn Roberts, bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Mark Ferber. The album hasn’t hit the web yet, but there are a trio of tracks up at Sunnyside Records’ site. The band also have a weekend stand coming up this Friday and Saturday night, May 13 and 14 at the Jazz Gallery, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $22.

The composer bases the suite on a series of variations on a cleverly rhythmic cell-like theme. Ferber’s music tends toward the lustrous and enveloping, and this is no exception. It’s no surprise that his charts give the material might and majesty that seems like it’s being played by a considerably larger group. Ferber’s moody solo trombone opens the first track, Quiet Confidence, a slowly swaying ballad that Roberts’ methodical, slowly spiraling solo takes into brighter territory over a cymbal-fueled scan of the perimeter, setting up the bandleader to take it up on an ebullient upward climb before bringing it full circle. The low, lustrous shifting low brass sheets of the miniature Hourglass segue into the misterioso trombone/guitar intro of Clocks, an alterered fanfare over a tense pulse building to a powerfully dark modal crescendo, Gordon’s nimbly bluesy phrasing throwing some light into the shadows, which Radley then shreds and scatters. It’s the most noirish piece here.

Wayfarer is an amiably buoyant tune, part retro, part Jim McNeely newschool swing with a judiciously low-key Ellis solo at the center. That tricky three-on-four feel really makes itself present throughout Flow, reflecting the tuneful, nonchalant drive of the suite’s opening cut, the bandleader’s imposing trombone contrasting with Radley’s blithe upward flights. And then its Morricone-esque ending brings back the shadowy intensity.

Perspective offers a warmly melodic take on lustrous teens pastoral jazz, a simple, gently modal piano riff underpinning its amiably rustic, syncopated stroll, Ellis adding his usual melodicism when his turn comes up. Echo Calling brings back the distant ominous feel: listen closely and you’ll discover a disquiting fugue underneath. The album winds up with the chatteringly cheerful barnburner Cycles and its gritty, pinpoint-precise staccato phrasing. Much as it’s got one of Ferber’s usual imaginative charts and plenty of high-voltage playing from everybody, it seems tacked on as as way to close this otherwise often gorgeously uneasy collection on an upbeat note. Maybe when the Ferber box set comes out sometime around 2030 (by then, box sets will probably be all vinyl, or who knows, organic vinyl), he can use it as an opening cut.

May 11, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Jon Gordon – Evolution

The jazz saxophonist’s latest album is aptly titled. He’s evolving in all directions, whether in jazz, classical or further toward the avant as the course of his career has recently swung. It wouldn’t be an insult to say that this is the kind of cd that could wean someone off of smooth jazz – it’s melodic, atmospheric and contemplatively subtle. When it’s edgy, it is in a quiet way. This isn’t particularly intense music but it’s very smart. The New York Times positively loves this guy – make of that what you will.

Jon Gordon got hooked on the idea of a large ensemble playing with Alan Ferber’s nonet over the last couple of years, and he’s put that experience to good use here. The cd kicks off with a stark, austere prelude featuring Sara Caswell and Andie Springer on violin, Jody Redhage on cello and Gordon himself on piano – an idea which will recur later on the truthfully titled Contemplation, sans Gordon, which is actually the darkest single cut here. There are also a couple of portraits of Gordon’s kids here, both featuring Bill Charlap’s  characteristically lyrical piano. Shane is illustrated as somewhat moody via a tone poem, Charlap playing inquisitively in a duo setting against Gordon’s wary soprano sax; by contrast, One for Liam is sprightly and full of life, shades of early Spyro Gyra before they went to Lite FM and got stuck there.

The rest of the album is rich with lush arrangements, the title track ambitiously building off a staggered beat to an attractive, breezy theme that smartly pairs off Sean Wayland’s piano with Gordon’s carefree alto. Currents moves from exploratory and then expansive on the wings of Nate Radley’s guitar which sets the stage for bright solo excursions by bassist Matt Clohesy, Gordon (on soprano again) and then vocalese from Kristin Berardi. Bloom benefits from a gorgeous string arrangement and intro that builds to a big crescendo with the horns going full steam, then back down into a verdant Wayland solo and a sweeping outro. The most memorable track here, Veil opens with characteristic directness yet with an undercurrent of suspense (Messiaen comes to mind) with balmy alto, warm Wayland piano and strings. The album winds up with the clever Individuation, an exercise in circumnavigation rather than interplay where the individual voices flutter above the ambient wash of the strings, kicked off with an unabashedly joyous Gordon alto solo. Sneak this into the mix at your parents’ house, if music isn’t their thing, and they’ll never notice. Sneak it into the mix at a friend’s place and halfway through watch the ears perk up: what are we listening to, anyway?

December 8, 2009 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment