Trumpeter Brian Carpenter‘s Ghost Train Orchestra has most recently capitalized on the nuevo moldy fig jazz market; their 2011 album Hothouse Stomp was an irresistibly frantic romp through the books of obscure hot jazz bandleaders Charlie Johnson, Tiny Parham and Fess Williams. But Carpenter has roots in noir music, from his days with Boston band Beat Circus in the early 90s, so the Ghost Train Orchestra’s new album Book of Rhapsodies is something of a return to form. When it’s not, it’s a mix of early third-stream compositions, some with a cinematic or cartoonish tinge, from some familiar and more obscure names from the 30s and 40s. There will be some listeners who see the cd sleeve art or the Raymond Scott compositions and assume that this is kitsch, or will misuse the word “ironic” in describing it, both of which would be a mistake
Beyond the frequent noir, there’s a winking, sotto vocce “see if they get it” to many of these compositions, but that’s less musician-insiderness than simply tongue-in-cheek fun. The album opens with Charlie’s Prelude, by Louis Singer (who wrote charts for the pioneering cult favorite John Kirby Sextet in the 30s), turning the immortal Chopin E Minor Prelude into a borrowed Black & Tan Fantasy with a bluesy slink and a broodingly resonant trombone lead from Curtis Hasselbring. Beethoven Riffs On, also by Singer, swings a theme from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony with a latin-tinged hi-de-ho bounce. Carpenter and ensemble rescue British composer Reginald Foresythe’s Volcanic (Eruption for Orchestra) from obscurity with a dixieland scamper spiced with the occasional eerie flourish from Dennis Lichtman’s clarinet. And Carpenter’s arrangement of another Foresythe track, Revolt of the Yes Men gives banjoist Brandon Seabrook a chance to buzz and be a tremolo-picking thorn in the side of the orchestra and their intricate exchange of voices; it’s more revolutionary than simply having been ahead of its 1936 era.
Dawn on the Desert, by Kirby Sextet trumpeter Charlie Shavers, does Gershwin’s Summertime as a Hollywood hijaz nocturne, Carpenter’s moody trumpet exchanging with Avi Bortnick’s ominously tremoloing guitar, then morphs into a skronky march reminscent of late 80s John Zorn. The album’s centerpieces, more or less, come from the Alec Wilder catalog: the lushly orchestrated, suspiciously deadpan Dance Man Buys a Farm (an apt juxtaposition with Raymond Scott’s The Happy Farmer); the more moody, tensely pulsing It’s Silk, Feel It; The Children Meet the Train, which is Old Man River thinly disguised at doublespeed; and Her Old Man Was (At Times) Suspicious, which with its sudden jump-cut phrasing is the closest thing here to Scott’s Looney Tunes soundtracks.
There are also a couple additional, absolutely killer tracks from the Scott catalog. At An Arabian House Party works a creepy noir swing fueled by Bortnick’s jagged, Steve Ulrich-esque guitar in place of the original harpsichord part, like Beninghove’s Hangmen playing it very close to the vest. And Celebration on the Planet Mars, with its surreal, atmospheric swells and fades, serves as a magic carpet for the rest of the ensemble to take for an unselfconsciously joyous, vaudevillian ride. The rest of this edition of the band includes Andy Laster on alto sax; Petr Cancura on tenor sax and clarinet; Tanya Kalmanovitch on viola; Mazz Swift on violin and vocals; Brandon Seabrook on banjo; Ron Caswell on tuba, Michael Bates on bass and Rob Garcia on drums. Their previous album spent a long time at the top of the Billboard jazz charts; one suspects this will do the same. They play the album release show at Subculture at 8 PM on Oct 26.
Dan Willis and Velvet Gentlemen’s second Satie Project album is arguably the best jazz album of 2013. That is, if you buy the idea that there could be such a thing as a single top album among this year’s best releases, or that twisted covers of proto-minimalist late Romantic/early Modernist music should be allowed to count alongside original compositions. Willis’ new arrangements of Satie pieces might as well be originals, considering how gleefully and evilly he reimagines them. Most of Erik Satie’s repertoire was actually much more upbeat than the macabre pieces Willis has selected for inclusion here, but it’s the macabre that has stood the test of time far better than the clever and often droll ragtime hits Satie wrote to pay the bills. Willis plays pretty much every reed instrument ever invented here, including but not limited to oboe, alto, tenor and baritone saxes, clarinet, bass clarinet, and contrabass clarinet. Ron Oswanski gets many of the choicest moments here, on B3 organ, Wurlitzer and accordion, alongside Pete McCann on guitar, Kermit Driscoll on bass and the Claudia Quintet’s John Hollenbeck on drums.
Gnossienne No. 7 gets reinvented as murderously twinkling, shuffling Isaac Hayes wah funk, Gnossienne No. 6 as jaunty swing tune driven by Entcho Todorov’s suspiciously carefree violin. Although the versions of Pieces Froide No. 1 and the first of three takes of the main theme of Vexations (Satie’s famous eighteen-hour loop) here follow a steady beat, the way the band completely veers off center while keeping steady and totally deadpan is as amusing as it is disconcerting – this music literally makes you dizzy.
Gnossienne No. 5, a pensively atmospheric oboe feature, is the closest thing to the original here. Gnossienne No. 3 gets whispery noir vocals and a slippery, icy lead line that might be a slide guitar, or Willis’ EWI (electronic wind instrument). Pieces Froide No. 7 is redone as a chamber work that also doesn’t deviate far from the source, while the second alternate take of the Vexations theme goes completely off the rails as the organ and alto sax, and then the rest of the band diverge.
Gnossienne No. 4 gets a creepy crime jazz interpretation with plaintive soprano sax over lingering, red-neon tremolo guitar arpeggios. Gnossienne No. 2 follows a similarly noir trajectory up to a lurid if more energetic ba-BUMP organ groove. Pieces Froide No. 2 brings back a stately chamber jazz ambience; the album winds up with its longest number, the Vexations theme revisited with a wicked, diabolically surreallist microtonal flair that the composer would no doubt love if he was still with us. For Satie fans, this is a must-own; for that matter, this is a feast for any fan of dark, creepy music. Forget just about any other Halloween soundtrack you might have: this is the real deal.
A number station is a Cold War artifact, a mechanical voice broadcasting seemingly random words and numbers for spy networks around the world to decode. Curtis Hasselbring’s latest album, Number Stations works a deviously ambitious spy-versus-spy battle between his two main bands: the long-running New Mellow Edwards with Chris Speed on tenor sax and clarinet, Trevor Dunn on acoustic and electric bass and Ches Smith on drums and marimba, along with his quartet Decoupage with guitarist Mary Halvorson, vibraphonist Matt Moran and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi. Hasselbring is one of the great wits in jazz: that and an ever-present element of suspense take centerstage here. The whole ensemble has a ball with this. Ostensibly there are secret messages embedded in the music: the whole thing – gorgeously recorded by Hugh Pool at Excello – is streaming at Cuneiform Records’ Bandcamp page, fire it up and see what you can decipher!
Takeishi’s faux Morse code sets the stage for Halvorson and Moran teaming up with a mysterioso insistence on the opening track, First Bus to Bismarck, whose eerie swing brings to mind the early Lounge Lizards. Hasselbring’s moody trombone signals a loosening with an almost shamanistic, hypnotically percussive ambience. Tux Is Traitor anchors spiraling vibraphone in more insistent pedalpoint, an offcenter Speed tenor solo and some deliciously warped Halvorson lines, a spy theme on acid. Warped cinematics hit a high point with the droll, period-perfect kitchen-sink bossa and faux-shortwave flutters of Make Anchor Babies, inspired by Bernard Herrmann’s score to the 1956 Hitchcock film The Wrong Man.
With its no wave cinematics, punk rhythm and skronky guitar harmonies mingling with the vibes, Green Dress, Maryland Welcome Center 95 NB evokes mid-80s John Zorn. It’s Not a Bunny (how about these enigmatic titles, huh?) builds to a pretty standard funk groove, Halvorson adding background menace, Moran’s long, pensive solo signaling a woozy cross-pollination between the two ensembles. It’s the first example of the free, easygoing improvisation that the group builds on the following track, Stereo Jack’s, Bluegrass J’s, a playfully jousting round-robin.
The brief, coyly titled Avoid Sprinter brings back the punk stomp juxtaposed with lively ripples. The album winds up with a slyly uptight little gremlin theme: Hasselbring should sell this to the Simpsons or South Park folks for their Halloween episodes. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2013 page here at the end of the year if we make it that far
What’s the likelihood of seeing two of the most consistently interesting, individualistic drummers in jazz on a doublebill at a soon-to-be-closed black box bar in Tribeca? It happened Wednesday night at the 92YTribeca at the next-to-last gig there booked by Josh Jackson of WBGO’s The Checkout, Kenny Wollesen propelling Sexmob through a deep, dynamically charged series of reinvented Nino Rota themes from Fellini films, followed by Allison Miller’s high-octane but equally eclectic quartet, Boom Tic Boom. Both drummers could not be more alike yet more dissimilar: mighty swingers with an ever-present sense of humor and a flair for the counterintuitive. Wollesen epitomizes downtown noir cool, slinking through brooding nocturnal interludes before exploding in cascades of raw, aching noise, then switching in a split second to deadpan Bad Brains-style 2/4 hardcore as bandleader Steven Bernstein blew haunted elephantine microtones on his slide trumpet. Miller’s steely focus through an endless series of OMG-we’re-going-off-the-cliff-NOW moments matched a jaw-dropping, athletic precision to her quick intellect, constantly on the prowl for where she could take the music next. Although she is generous in putting her bandmates – pianist Myra Melford, bassist Todd Sickafoose and cornetist Kirk Knuffke – in the spotlight, she likes being centerstage. Wollesen seems not to care whether anyone other than the rest of the band is paying attention to him, even though he knows everyone is.
Sexmob’s new album Cinema Circus & Spaghetti (Sexmob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota) is just out and one of the year’s best; this was an opportunity for them to air out mini-suites from individual films, beginning with a brooding sonata of sorts comprised of themes from Amarcord, going deep into the underlying angst in Juliet of the Spirits and then alternately bleakly atmospheric and furiously agitated passages from La Strada. Bassist Tony Scherr got the more lively, dancing parts, one of them completely solo: by rubatoing them, he stripped off any kitsch factor without losing the hooks. After all, what is noir without hooks to come back and haunt you?
Saxophonist Briggan Krauss began on alto, joining in cagy harmonies with Bernstein, then moving to baritone for some of the set’s darkest moments before switching back again. Bernstein took his time, choosing his spots, contrasting long, mournful sostenuto passages with animated hardbop flurries, often utilizing an echo effect and misty microtones from a second mic that did double duty as a mute, as he enveloped it with the bell of his horn.
Miller’s set featured similar dynamic contrasts, alternating catchy, syncopated funk vamps with spacious, vividly moody neoromantic ballads fueled by Melford’s darkly mjaestic, resonant, often gospel-tinged lines. On the absolutely gorgeous Waiting, Sickafoose followed Melford’s hypnotic lyricism with a long, incisive, stalking solo; Knuffke’s fluttering chromo-bop on the equally hypnotic, funky opening number set the stage for many of the highlights to come. At one point Miller came out of blistering, pummeling riffage on the toms with a lickety-split, pinpoint-precise circular motif on the cymbals that took the suspense to redline as the band pummeled along with her: was she going to be able to maintain this perfect, Bach-like meticulousness with the storm raging all around? As it turned out, yes.
Other standout numbers included the funky, New Orleans flavored The Itch; a surrealistically moody vocal number sung with an affecting longing by a guest soprano, musing about memories of a childhood home bulldozed for stripmalls and pre-packaged dreams. and the straight-up funk tune Big and Lovely (dedicated to Miller’s pal Toshi Reagon) which gave Melford a platform for some no-nonsense, hard-hitting blues. The set ended counterintuitively with an elegaic tone poem of sorts that had Knuffke channeling what Bernstein had been doing earlier – within seconds, Bernstein, who had been hanging at the merch table, went up front and watched intently.
What’s the likelihood of both of these acts having excellent new albums, both available on delicious vinyl along with the usual digital formats, out from Royal Potato Family? Whatever the case, it’s true. And the concert was simulcast on WBGO and it’s available for streaming here.
And speaking of drummers, it wouldn’t be fair to let the week go by without a mention of Fukushi Tainaka (Lou Donaldson’s longtime man behind the kit) leading his own playful trio at Cleopatra’s Needle the following night. Tainaka, bassist Hide Tanaka and pianist Miki Yamanaka engaged each other in a constant exchange of wry jousts and push-and-pull that breathed new life into tired old standards like All the Things You Are and Girl from Ipanema. They teased the audience as they entertained themselves with false starts for solos, Tainaka deviously hinting and foreshadowing tempo shifts, the bass adding an unexpected somberness late in the set, Yamanaka backing away from lyrical to minimalistic as the bass and drums dove and bobbed through the space she’d elbowed out for them.
The New England Conservatory’s New York celebration of forty years of their contemporary improvisation program wound up Saturday night at Symphony Space with Ran Blake alone at the piano. It seemed that the stage lights had gone cobalt blue by then – or maybe that was just synesthesia. The concert’s concluding number was Memphis, a somber Martin Luther King elegy on which Blake intermingled gospel allusions and otherworldly close harmonies, both foreshadowed and then cruelly cut short by a gunshot staccato. It was the essence of noir, both a celebration of life and a grim reminder of everything that threatens what we hold dear. It made a fitting ending for an often exhilaratingly eclectic, emotionally vivid bill featuring NEC alumni and their bandmates from across the generations.
Frank Carlberg and his vocalist wife Christine Correa got the night started with a downtown take on Abbey Lincoln. The Claudia Quintet – drummer John Hollenbeck with bassist Chris Tordini, saxophonist Chris Speed, vibraphonist Matt Moran and accordionist Ted Reichman slowly coalesced into a brightly sweeping, occasionally carnivalesque groove. Their set, the night’s longest, moved from a loping Ethiopian rhythm through lowlit Twin Peaks vibraphone/accordion interludes, niftily polyrhythmic shuffles and finally an animatedly squonking crescendo from Speed. Fiddler Eden MacAdam-Somer romped solo through an Appalachian flatfoot dance as well as more eclectic, technically dazzling original settings of Rumi poems that sometimes reminded of Carla Kihlstedt’s work.
Pianist Anthony Coleman led a quartet with Ashley Paul on sax and clarinet, Sean Conly on bass and Brian Chase on drums through a partita that alternated between brooding, cantorially-tinged stillness a la Sexmob, and variations on a persistent, uneasily rhythmic circular vamp. Clawhammer banjoist Sarah Jarosz followed with an aptly austere version of a Gillian Welch tune and then teamed up Blake for some playfully biting push-pull on an absolutely lurid version of Abbey Lincoln’s Tender As a Rose, leaving absolutely no doubt that this was a murder ballad.
In what could easily have been a cruel stroke of programming, John Medeski was handed the impossible task of following Blake solo on piano: that he managed not only to not be anticlimactic but to keep the intensity at such a towering peak speaks to how much he’s grown in the past ten years, beginning with an icily otherworldly salute to Blake’s misterioso style and then charging through an expansive, defiantly individualistic, hard-hitting, sometimes wryly messy blend of purist blues, hypnotic eastern resonance, gospel and stride piano. It seemed to sum up everywhere Medeski has been other than with his wildly popular early zeros jamband: he’s at the high point of a career that probably hasn’t reached its summit yet.
Dominique Eade then took the stage solo and swung fearlessly through a number that lept from a torchy nuance to wryly animated, scatting leaps and bounds before being joined by Blake, in a second taking the energy to redline with a mini-set highlighted by a gleaming, rain-drenched, hauntingly cinematic take of The Thrill Is Gone (from their transcendent duo album from a couple of years ago). Christelle Durandy then made the most of her cameo on an unexpectedly verdant, breathily dynamic duo with the iconic pianist who never met a song or a a singer he couldn’t elevate to new levels of white-knuckle intensity. That he ran the NEC improvation program for so long – and still takes part in it – speaks for itself and for the institution.
[Editor's note - when New York Music Daily spun off from this blog, they took the rock and reggae and most of the global sounds with them....and also just about everything that falls under the rubric of noir music. So they took this one too. Once in awhile we'll throw them something jazzy - today they're throwing this repost back to us.]
Does it make sense to try to listen to a jazz homage out of context, or – in the case of this particular album – is it inseparable from the its legendary predecessor? Would it be fair to call this homage the best album of the year? Lebanese/French trumpeter/composer Ibrahim Maalouf’s brilliant new new score to the 1927 Rene Clair silent film La Proie Du Vent (Prey to the Wind) takes it its inspiration from Miles Davis’ immortal noir soundtrack to the 1958 Louis Malle film Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows). Maalouf follows the architecture of the Miles record, but not sequentially. As Davis did, when Maalouf gets the chance, he focuses in hard on lighter moments, both to offset and accentuate the relentless darkness of the rest of the soundtrack.
Davis recorded his album haphazardly in a couple of days in a Paris studio with a pickup band, employing the same modal system used for the improvisations on Kind of Blue, with equally powerful results. Maalouf recorded this one in a couple of days in a New York studio, but carefully chose the players – pianist Frank Woeste, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Clarence Penn - since he felt they’d be comfortable with his use of Middle Eastern scales. The Miles record is drenched in reverb, added post-production; Maalouf’s production is as airy and sometimes arid as the film would seem to suggest. Overall, the effect of both albums is the same, an unrelenting unease foreshadowing imminent doom despite all distractions to the contrary. Together and separately, both are classics of the noir pantheon.
Woeste’s icy, Ran Blake-esque flourish introducing Maalouf’s resonant lines over Grenadier’s tersely staggeried syncopation immediately establishes the claustrophobic atmosphere that will resound crushingly throughout most of the score. Clear as this recording is, it feels as if the band is playing from behind a wall, Maalouf tentatively reaching upwards just as Davis did with his title theme. Davis offered temporary reprieves with bass solos, chase scenes and convivial, conspiratorial interludes; Maalouf employs the latter but none of the former, choosing to liven his own score with reggae and clave. But while the latin groove motors along comfortably and expansively, the reggae all too soon gives way to a crypto-waltz, ushering in the somber main theme.
To call the rest of this album Lynchian would be ironic, considering that David Lynch and his frequent soundtrack collaborator Angelo Badalamenti – and others – have drawn so heavily on Miles Davis. Maalouf matches Davis’ restraint, even though he often digresses into Middle Eastern modalites, which the supporting cast let resonate from a distance, leaving plenty of room for the trumpet’s eerie microtones. Yet Maalouf’s attack doesn’t mimic Davis, as the themes build with an expansive, sometimes breathy, sometimes ironic balminess. Turner often plays good cop to Maalouf’s brooding bad one, working the dichotomy for all it’s worth on the aptly titled Excitement, soaring over the band’s uneven pulse before Maalouf takes it down into shadowy noir cabaret. The final three tableaux – chillingly tense variations on a Gallic ballad, a morose wee-hours nocturne and the suspenseful closing theme, propelled by Penn’s judicious hitman tom-tom work – drive this masterpiece home through the mist with a quietly determined wallop. It’s out now from Harmonia Mundi; and here’s an enticing clip of Suspicions, one of the score’s most chilling interludes.
Last night bassist Lukas Kranzelbinder’s Lukas im Dorf quartet made their powerful, darkly tuneful New York debut at the Austrian Cultural Forum in midtown. With a hard-hitting, frequently noir sensibility, they blend terse Steven Bernstein-esque cinematics with slinky latin rhythms and out-of-the-box improvisation and turn that into a style that you might not think would be unique but that this group makes indelibly their own. Kranzelbinder is the melodic and often rhythmic anchor of this project, holding the center, often tirelessly looping his motifs while tenor saxophonist Jure Pukl, trombonist Phil Yaeger and drummer Max Andrzejewski colored and warped the themes with verve and biting elegance. Anyone who might offhandedly dismiss European jazz should be tied to a bank of Marshall stacks and forced to listen to this group for twelve hours straight.
They manage to work a familiar formula – catchy hook followed by long, methodical solos that push the melodic boundaries, hard – to produce unexpected results. Except in the case that a piece is particularly dark, which at this concert it frequently was, and in that case they maintained a brooding focus.
Over a hypnotic bass notif, the night’s first song – from the band’s Very Live! album from last year – built to a bustling, distantly Mingus-esque intensity, Pukl’s fiery bop runs contrasting withi Yaeger’s more spacious, blues-infused solo. It brought to mind some of Tomasz Stanko’s more direct, melodic work from the 60s. Their second number juxtaposed intense horn harmonies and tightly resonant, pedaled bass chords against a woozy, swirly interlude lit up by a nimble, rather wry Andrzejewski solo, mainly on hardware and rims. The drummer also has a background in surf rock, which served him extremely well in this instance. At other times, his clattery, occasionally vaudevillian approach evoked Ches Smith in his most focused moments: what a pleasant surprise to discover a drummer so interesting and yet with such a viselike grip on the songs’ swing.
The best material came after a brief, airily bucolic interlude inspired by an Austrian big-sky theme of sorts, when they took it deep into the noir. Pukl built a blue-flame menace with his creepily modal solo in the tune that followed, while the best song of the night blended sustained Sex Mob minimalism with macabre cinematics evocative of Beninghove’s Hangmen. They encored with a tight, hypnotically Lynchian clave groove lit up by Pukl’s jaggedly spiraling tenor lines and a warmer, more terse Yaeger solo with a wry Gershwin quote: much as this music is in the here and now, you can also follow a straight line from this band all the way back to Mingus – or to Bernard Herrmann in places. Let’s hope they make it back to Manhattan sometime sooner than later.
Old paradigm: albums get buried in the stack or maybe get stolen. New paradigm: albums get lost on the server or accidentally deleted. Los Angeles jazz quartet Slumgum definitely belong to the new paradigm, so it’s only fitting that’s what happened here as far as their album Qardboard Flavored Fiber is concerned (it came over the transom almost a year ago). But good records stand the test of time, and this one’s no less fun or paradigm-shifting now than it was then.
Slumgum defies categorization. Aware of jazz history but not constrained by it, committed to improvisation but not constrained by that either, the band mixes an impressively eclectic series of clever cross-genre tropes with vivid cinematics that often venture into totally noir territory: Sam Fuller movie themes in color for a new century. A suite titled Big Fun, which ranges from apprehensive free improvisation, to latin, to third-stream themes, runs through the album and opens it on a chilly, spacious note, Rory Cowal’s icy, Ran Blake-inflected piano mingling with Dave Tranchina’s terse bass incisions and scraping ambience, Jon Armstrong’s tenor sax adding wary atmospherics. They follow that with the Lynchian Hancho Pancho, Cowal’s echoey Rhodes intertwining with Armstrong, who builds to a smoky, terrified crescendo over Tranchina’s molten pitchblende chords. The way they manage to take it out with an unexpected grace is one of the high points of the album.
Big Fun (New Ruckus) is a warped salsa jazz tune that coalesces slowly and then falls apart twice as fast, the band leaving everything to the bass and drummer Trevor Anderies’ unexpectedly blithe rimshots. A mini-epic, Eshu’s Trick morphs playfully from a clave groove to darkly Ethiopian-tinged sonics with striking light/dark contrasts between sax and drums – and is Armstrong playing baritone and alto at the same time, or is that an overdub? Either way, the harmonies are an unexpected treat. They end it with a very cool, psychedelic reggae-jazz interlude that turns nebulous and polyrhythmic. Big Fun (Street Puddle Rainbow), which follows, is a pretty, third-stream after-the-rain vignette, making a good segue with Afternoon, the most trad piece here, driven by Cowal’s expansively warm, stately melodicism.
Big Fun (Liberation) is surprisingly tentative and gentle, Tranchina’s judicious solo bass bookending quiet, pensive sax and piano incisions. The high point of the album, and one of the most stunning jazz compositions of recent years, is the title track, a rollercoaster ride that alternates a devious, baritone sax funk riff with Cowal’s rippling, Schumannesque arpeggios and runs up and then all the way down the piano, adding brooding chromatics and shortening the distance between horror and comedy as the song goes on. It ends unresolved. Big Fun (Buzzsaw Flower Blossom) reverts to slowly crescendoing, Ran Blake-ish intensity, also mining a pretty/ugly dichotomy but with considerably more humor. A rather cruel lounge-jazz satire, Puce over Pumpkin with a Hint of Lime builds from a tricky circular piano/sax circularity to a coldly suspenseful, martial interlude before they swing it, Cowal going totally noir, Armstrong leading the band all the way up before the wheels all fall off, one by one. Cowal ends it on an especially lurid/icy note. And that’s how they end the album, with the creepy tone poem Big Fun (The Bellows), Anderies’ whispery cymbals growing to a succession of waves as the sax and bass rise tectonically against it – a call for help in a storm, maybe? Whatever the case, count this as one of the most entertainingly intense jazz albums of recent months, irrespective of when it might have come out.
Thin Air Tango is Jeff Covell on piano and Ed Fiorenza on saxophones, playing compositions and improvisations on outer space themes. Their new album is out now on Original Copy Records. Covell’s graceful short works lean toward third-stream minimalism: Fiorenza’s crystalline tone memorably enhances Covell’s steady but distant, intriguingly off-center walks and chordal clusters. The opening Nebula Suite is aptly titled, a suite of nocturnes that move from spacious, simple, matter-of-fact solo piano, embellish it rhythmically and then finally bring in soprano sax, casually coalescing a couple of intriguing verse/chorus patterns before bringing it to an end. This could have gone longer and still maintained interest – and maybe it does, when the two play it live.
The Sakura Suite begins with Elegy for Joe Viola, mostly just vividly wistful soprano sax, Covell adding a somewhat ominous, murky chordal undercurrent as the piece winds out. Tango di Callisto is sort of a tango in outer space, avoiding resolution, the casual chill of Fiorenza’s nebulously acidic lines vivid against Covell’s increasingly insistent, magnetic piano. Sakura, Sakura begins absolutely inaudibly, to the point where the question of whether the cd is still playing arises. But then stately piano and Fiorenza’s elegaic lines join together in an absolutely gorgeous, plaintive rendition of the Japanese folk song with a handful of clever quotes that work marvelously.
Named after one of the moons of Jupiter, the Europa Suite, a free improvisation, picks up the pace. It’s long, almost forty minutes, and as intense as it gets, the warm camaraderie between the two musicians remains strong. Covell intimates danger with his solo intro, then the two exploring a dark, Ran Blake-esque gospel-tinged theme that Covell expands with a furtive intensity as Fiorenza’s tenor sax holds the center while matter-of-factly reaching for higher velocity and tonal contrasts. The sax takes over the eerie chromatics for awhile, Covell leapfrogging them judiciously before taking it into viscerally icy terrain with a macabre, David Lynchian edge. All in all, this makes for great late-night listening: kill the lights and set your sonic sights on Jupiter.
Ran Blake and Dominique Eade’s new album Whirlpool couldn’t have come out at a more appropriate time. It’s the perfect autumn record: its dark clarity is absolutely chilling, and absolutely exhilarating. It makes you glad to be alive. Eade has never sung better; at 76, Blake’s at the top of his game, absolutely undiminished, the indomitable master of noir piano menace and magic. Despite the fact that he’s an incorrigible improviser who never does anything remotely the same way twice, singers love working with him: he takes everyone to the next level. As always with Blake, this is a counterintuitive album. Not only because takes the lead where a singer often would; or because he shifts so confidently between ideas and idoms; or because the two completely reinvent everything they touch, with a rubato-fueled tension and sense of anticipation, but because Eade is right there with him, spot-on, every single time. With every lyric, she’s a different person. That all this would work so well is testament to the enduring friendship between the two – despite a longstanding collaboration, this is their first album together.
In terms of pure chops, she’s probably the best singer he’s ever worked with, which is not meant as disrespect to either the immortal Jeanne Lee – whose presence on her iconic 1961 album with Blake, The Newest Sound Around, is completely shattering – or more recently, Sara Serpa, with whom he recorded 2010′s extraordinary Camera Obscura. But Eade doesn’t let her range, and ability to shade a phrase or a lyric with the most minute shades of volume, or pull off or turn up an effortless powerglide vibrato, obscure her commitment to pulling (and occasionally wrenching) the meaning out of the words.
My Foolish Heart sets the stage with icy/lurid ambience from Blake and a stunningly nuanced approach by Eade – it’s a wounded, gentle knockout. Gospel and noir form an uneasy partnership in the first version of Jerome Kern’s Deadly Beloved here – the second offers a look at how radically Blake will reinent a tune, this time awash in big, crashing chords, a bit of boogie-woogie and Eade amping up the power alongside him. Picking right up where Blake and Serpa left off, Eade begins Russell Freeman and Jerry Gladstone’s The Wind low and chilly over Blake’s icicle minimalism: the crystalline clarity and matter-of-factness of her delivery is devastating. A smartly chosen Eade original, Go Gently to the Water hints mysteriously at gospel-flavored pop but elects for hypnotic ambience instead, Blake providing a warmly gleaming, surface-of-the-water backdrop.
Eade gives Old Devil Moon a genuinely scary edge to complement Blake’s subtle slasher piano. They scamper through it almost breathlessly: the intensity is such that they’re always trying to catch up, Blake’s purist bluesiness falling off the edge back into the creepy shadows. Pinky, by Alfred Newman, is done as a tone poem of sorts, just vocalese and a radically rearranged tune edging toward the macabre. Zan Overall’s Falling has Eade leading this time and Blake has to scurry, holding fast to a central note as he methodically fills in the scary areas encircling all around. By contrast, on Harold Adamson and Jimmy McHugh’s Where Are You, they give each other all kinds of space. “Where are you?” is definitely the question here!
Harold Arlen’s Out of This World alludes to but never embraces a casual saloon sway, and Quincy Jones’ The Pawnbroker is all lucid anxiety. At the end of the album, the two let down their hair a little and have some fun: Eade pulls Blake along on The Thrill Is Gone (the Ray Henderson standard, not the B.B. King blues) and Blake lingers – is it really over, he wants to know. And After the Ball evokes Daria Grace’s wonderfully misty version, Blake taking the jaunty waltz tune and then adding just enough warp to give you goosebumps. Is this the best jazz album of the year? It’s one of them, no question. Check back here in the next few weeks when we put up our year-end list and see how close to the top it is.
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