Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Auspicious Studio Debut of the Christian McBride Big Band

If you think that kids only have an interest in stuff that’s on the web, talk to students in a jazz program, or just young people who’ve just found their jazz muse. The excitement is visceral – they’ve been waiting patiently for Christian McBride’s first album with his big band, titled The Good Feeling, just out on Mack Avenue. That excitement may be quaint, but it’s inspiring all the same. From the perspective of seeing McBride do some of these tunes live earlier this year, the cool kids are right (they always are) – the album was worth the wait.

Auspiciously, in a lot of places, this evokes nothing less than Mingus. Which makes sense – McBride is to the teens what Mingus was for a couple of decades, simply the most respected jazz bassist around. His approach characteristically balances excitement with gravitas, and occasionally a sly sense of humor. From the gleefully chugging baritone sax-and-bass intro to the opening swing number, Shake N Blake to the closing cut, In a Hurry, it’s a tuneful, meticulously arranged ride. The opening track sets the stage: a long expansive tenor solo cut off by big brass blasts, trumpeter Nicholas Payton being his good-natured self, trombonist Steve Davis taking it into apprehensively fluttering territory, and a cleverly tiptoeing solo by the bandleader himself that eventually starts stomping and brings the band back joyously.

The second track, Broadway, begins with Ron Blake’s understated soprano sax driving against the lush arrangement, with a long, deviously bluesy, literally unstoppable McBride solo. This version of the clave classic Brother Mister (which McBride also covered on his Kind of Brown album) gets a pillowy, staccato brass chart, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson sailing over the impatient rhythm section, with a bracing blast of brass setting off the second chorus as the whole band spins in a vortex. Live in concert in Manhattan earlier this summer, the song was every bit the casual showstopper it is here. The album’s centerpiece is a genuine classic, a titanic, practically twelve-minute version of Science Fiction (from McBride’s 2000 album Sci-Fi). It’s a noir suite straight out of Mingus: conspiratorial chatter over a clave beat; a blistering, fast swing shuffle with a bracing Todd Bashore alto sax solo; a chilling low-register bridge that goes straight to the murder scene, Xavier Davis’ piano fueling a riff that evokes Ennio Morricone’s Taxi Driver Theme.

The Shade of the Cedar Tree makes its way through to a clever false ending with Payton’s cool, bluesy vibe, Blake’s tenor interpolated judiciously against the towering ambience. Nat Cole’s I Should Care shifts from practically ethereal to surprisingly brooding, but Payton picks it up wryly and Blake keeps it going in that direction. They do A Taste of Honey as a jazz waltz – that one will resonate more with those who prefer the Herb Alpert version over the Beatles’. With its blazing crescendos and gingerly pointillistic bass/piano tradeoffs, Blues in Alphabet City vividly evokes the days when the Lower East Side New York neighborhood was interesting, before it turned into a wasteland of suburban conspicuous consumption. The album closes with the rapidfire swing of In a Hurry, Payton taking his time before he goes absolutely ballistic, McBride balancing intensity with a dark wit as he bows his solo, drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. bringing in a thinly disguised, jaunty second line rhythm

The rest of the orchestra deserves a shout-out as well: Todd Williams on tenor and flute; Loren Schoenberg (maestro of the Jazz Museum in Harlem) on tenor on two tunes; Carl Maraghi on baritone sax and bass clarinet; Frank Greene, Freddie Hendrix and Nabate Isles on trumpets; Michael Dease and James Burton on trombones; Douglas Purviance on bass trombone; and Melissa Walker on vocals. When uploading to your phone or your pod, you may want to omit the vocal tunes: it’s not that Walker doesn’t sing them well, it’s just that trying to squeeze substance out of material like When I Fall in Love is like getting getting blood from a stone.

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September 25, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a 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

Concert Review: Jeff “Tain” Watts 4 + 1 at the Jazz Standard, NYC 6/30/09

Longtime Marsalis brothers associate Jeff “Tain” Watts’ stand with his 4+1 group featuring Nicholas Payton on trumpet continues through this coming July 3 at the Jazz Standard. The fabled drummer – some would say the heir to Elvin Jones’ throne – is playing bandleader this time around, which other than the compositions doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. Watts pretty much runs the show whether it’s his group or not, and this was a characteristically intense night: what took it to the next level is that he got to do his own stuff, which is uniformly excellent. As fiery a composer as he is a player, he’s never shied away from controversy or apt social commentary. The high point of this set was The Devil’s Ringtone, Watts’ update on the Mingus classic Fables of Faubus (named after notorious segregationist Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus) transformed into a commentary on the Bush regime’s failure with (or deliberate neglect of) what happened in New Orleans. The band left off the conversation between a certain Mr.  W and “Devlin” that’s on the landmark Watts cd but the sarcastic second line march that ended it was every bit as biting. On the way there, pianist Lawrence Fields and bassist Chris Smith built murky ambience over a crime movie motif for some blazing work from tenor saxist Marcus Strickland and trumpeter Payton, flying over Watts’ booming crescendoing apprehension – cymbals to this guy are more or less the icing on the cake. It’s hard to think of another drummer (Rudy Royston, maybe) who gets the boom going as powerfully and propulsively as Watts.

The requiem theme was recurrent. Katrina James mourned both the loss of James Brown and New Orleans, beginning as eerie chromatic funk, Strickland bringing in the rage with an offhandedly vicious swipe at the end of a Payton solo, Fields’ persistently chordal attack against a Watts solo growing hypnotic against the impatient, anguished flail of the drums. The soulful, bluesy swing of A Wreath for John T. Smith – an especially poignant new number – gave Strickland and Fields the opportunity to contribute vividly bitter remorse in memory of a fellow Berklee student and drummer of Watts’ acquaintance who died young.

Watts is especially adept with latin beats, moving in and out of them, starting the first song of the set, Mr. JJ (a tribute to his dead canine friend) with a salsa feel that Fields eventually came around to. Mr. JJ must have been one crazy dog, considering how much everything had been chewed up by the time the group scampered off on the final chorus, Smith getting quite the workout climbing scales for the better part of ten frenetic minutes. The whole show only reinforced the relevance, fearless intensity and emotional depth of both Watts’ writing and his playing, and the new levels to which a first-class drummer can elevate a talented ensemble. You have several chances to see this crew through Friday, after which Watts is off to Europe again.

July 1, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment