Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Amir ElSaffar Strikes Gold with Alchemy

Trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar‘s paradigm-shifting career blurs the boundaries between jazz and traditions from across the Middle East, both ancient and in the here-and-now. His new quintet album, Alchemy, stays within the jazz idiom while pushing the envelope with Middle Eastern themes, melodies and technique as well as employing western classical architecture. This is a sonata of sorts, two central themes with many variations and plenty of room for thoughtfully crafted individual contributions and solos from Ole Mathisen on saxes, John Escreet on piano, Francois Moutin on bass and Dan Weiss on drums.  Echoes of the traditional Iraqi melodies that ElSaffar plays in his Safafir project are plentiful throughout the album, mingling with boisterous postbop improvisation as well as ElSaffar’s signature steely focus and sharp, vivid tunesmithing. And as much as this is cutting-edge to the extreme, ElSaffar being a generally very serious guy, both the playing and compositions here have an unexpected amount of sardonic wit. Whether serious or less so, what’s here has a lot in common with recent work by Vijay Iyer, a frequent ElSaffar collaborator.

The opening track, Ishtarun, introduces a stately, chromatic, flamenco-tinged canon that the ensemble explores through a misterioso piano-and-bass interlude, ElSaffar circling uneasily around the tonic as the band blusters. Nid Qablitum sets the rhythm loose and livens it, a rippling piano solo kicking off a series of jaunty, wryly puddle-jumping variations. The triptych Embubum – Ishtarun – Pitum returns with a Miles Davis-esque gravitas, its purposeful stroll serving as a launchpad for ElSaffar’s unexpectedly bluesy solos and then a return to hypnotic yet biting, chromatically-fueled insistence before a big crescendo and some jousting between trumpet and sax.

12 Cycles builds a series of loops, in more of an indie classical than a jazz vein: ElSaffar’s circling trumpet artfully expands them, Escreet again adding a suspenseful edge along with eerie close harmonies from the horns. Quartal opens with those close harmonies but quickly swings hard with Mathisen’s refusenik sax edging toward microtonality yet without the slightest reference to any Orientalisms, Escreet defiantly echoing it, Moutin intertwining with the piano and then Weiss’ rustling, furtive drumwork. Balad brings back a stately, somber ambience with creepy, neoromantic microtonalisms from pretty much everybody over moody, prowling rhythm – it’s one of the album’s many high points.

5 Phases reworks the circular, Steve Reichian theme while adding a microtonal edge and a more dancing rhythmic drive, soprano sax shadowing the trumpet over a sotto vocce cymbal shuffle that builds to a sardonic faux-martial theme and variations.  Athar Kurd brings back the briskly walking hardbop, a feature for more spiraling, stairstepping sax and a deviously scurrying Moutin solo. Miniature #1 hardly qualifies as one: it’s about a four-minute reprise of that dancing, circular riff with a cool boomy/whooshy drum/cymbal dialectic and tensely agitated, quietly chattering horns. Ending Piece is the summation where the themes come together: lively, dancing, looped motives followed by more straight-ahead bluesy riffage; a delightfully messy sax/trumpet conversation; droll hints of funk from the bass and eerie close harmonies from the horns as Escreet chooses his spots. It’s one of the most successfully ambitious albums of recent months, full of disquieting energy and a contender for best of 2013. Pi Records gets a shout-out for yet another important, doubtlessly influential release.

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December 21, 2013 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jonathan Finlayson’s Debut As a Bandleader Is Everything You Would Expect

Jonathan Finlayson may have grown up as the teenage wunderkind in Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, but he has a distinctive, lyrical voice as both a trumpeter and composer. Moment & the Message, his debut with his ensemble Sicilian Defense – pianist David Virelles, guitarist Miles Okazaki, bassist Keith Witty and drummer Damion Reid – is one of the most auspicious in recent memory. This album resonates on an emotional and intellectual level, packed with melody, depth and ideas worth stealing. The Coleman influence is there, no question, especially as far as counterpoint and a more or less continuously dancing rhythm is concerned. Finlayson’s tone is more bronze than brass: lively as this music is, there’s a lot of gravitas here. Verelles gets the enviable task of nailing that dark riffage, sometimes with echoes of another dark but irrepressibly funky pianist, Marc Cary (who has a phenomenal Abbey Lincoln tribute out recently).

The opening track, Circus, is a diptych, a playfully dancing, bouncy theme with a long series of eighths from Finlayson, followed by a brooding, almost stalking modal march anchored by Witty’s sepulchral washes. Bad segue, good music. (WARNING – SPOILER ALERT) Lo Haze works a very clever trajectory: it takes the old trope of stating the head and then messing with it and works it backwards. By the end, this majestic, shuffling march has become a gritty, minimalist soul theme, coalescing methodically through many divergences. Ruy Lopez segues out of it with nonchalant conversations between Finlayson and Okazaki, and later Reid and Virelles. Carthage is portrayed as a vibrant if somewhat ominous place, fueled by Virelles’ emphatic, hard-hitting lefthand.

Tensegrity shifts from an artful, baroque-tinged acoustic guitar intro to a wry scramble between Virelles and Reid, in contrast to the serioso melody. Le Bas-Fond also leaps out of an impressionistic intro, this time from Virelles – it’s the most trad, solos-around-the-horn type thing here. Okazaki’s nimble, spot-on vintage 60s staccato soul guitar spices the insistent chords and tersely pulsing trumpet melody of Tyre.

The big epic here is Fives and Pennies, a tone poem that slowly emerges out from under the piano lid – literally – to a long, methodically wary Finlayson solo and finally some unleashed menace from Virelles on the way out. They return to animated and somewhat more relaxed form to wind up the album with Scaean Gates. Pi Recordings, home base for many of the Coleman posse, gets credit for this one.

July 6, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hafez Modirzadeh Makes Jazz History

Hafez Modirzadeh’s latest album Post-Chromodal Out!, out now from Pi Records, is every bit as radical as it’s been billed, a paradigm-shifting work. It is important to the point of simply saying, go out and get it and let it take you away to a magical place where nobody’s ever really gone before.

In many ways, this is a continuation of the path Modirzadeh began on his equally groundbreaking 2010 Radif Suite. For the piano here, the Persian-American saxophonist has devised a scale of his very own, interpolating microtones within standard tuning to free the musicians from the limitations of western intonation. Vijay Iyer plays it – it might be the best thing Iyer’s ever done, which says a lot. It’s certainly the most difficult thing he’s ever done. Modirzadeh plays tenor and soprano sax alongside fellow paradigm-shifter Amir ElSaffar on trumpet, with Ken Filiano on bass and Royal Hartigan on drums, plus contributions from Danongan Kalanduyan on kulintang, Faraz Minooei on santoor and Timothy Volpicella on guitar. The album itself comprises two heavily improvised suites, Modirzadeh’s seventeen-part Weft Facets and Jim Norton’s eleven-part Wolf and Warp.

This is hardly the first time a musician has devised his own harmonic language. While Modirzadeh’s work has obviously been inspired by both Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman, it doesn’t sound much like either of them: his voice as both a composer and a sax player is unique and distinctive. Given the piano’s use of three-quarter tones – which in the western scale sound either a little flat or a little on the sharp side, depending on the interval – fans of Iranian music might think at first that Iyer is playing a santoor. By the same token, the piano doesn’t sound the least bit out of tune since a truly out-of-tune piano is randomly pitched and, unless it’s a total mess, is usually just far enough off key to sound jarring. Ironically, Iyer’s signature chromatics when applied to this scale have the opposite effect of the horror-movie cadences they create in western tuning: here, the effect reaches toward a resolution that’s actually quite consonant, even soothing.

What’s most striking about this album is how articulate the band is. This isn’t some tentative adventure in exoticism: their comfort level is as if this was their native tongue. Modirzadeh plays with a richly tuneful precision, eschewing the usual reliance on effects like blue notes, squalling and wailing as means of introducing microtones. ElSaffar is an extraordinary musician – anyone who’s seen him play santoor might tell you that trumpet isn’t even his best instrument. His approach is similar to Modirzadeh’s if a little more rapidfire and energetic. The only noticeable difference between Iyer’s work in this context and elsewhere is that here he employs fewer chords. Filiano swings the beat, walks and embellishes the melody with a rewarding matter-of-factness, Hartigan adding equal amounts propulsion and counterintuitive color.

At its most upbeat, parts of Modirzadeh’s suite evoke an evocatively surreal hybrid of New Orleans and Moroccan sounds. The santoor is employed during the most recognizable Middle Eastern interludes; likewise, the kulintang for most of the hypnotically enveloping, gamelanesque segments. Conversations between santoor and piano, sax and trumpet abound; the composer’s use of echo phrases enhances the otherworldliness of much of this. Iyer’s triumphant cascades, flourishes and judiciously emphatic accents provide the icing on the cake. Lusciously strange as the tonalities here are, much of the architecture is straight-up postbop: there’s plenty of brisk swing with bright hooks to open followed by thematic variations, cleverly orchestrated rhythmic shifts and an unselfconscious joy in the interplay. The electric guitar doesn’t make an appearance until the suite is almost done but adds a terse suspense and then grandeur that sets up the final, lush swell.

Norton’s composition is a quartet piece for tenor, trumpet, bass and drums that draws heavily on more modern jazz tropes: a head followed by variations and free improvisation with divergent voices, beginning slower and less rhythmic but eventually taking the energy up a notch higher than in Modirzadeh’s work. Terse, often minimalist exchanges build to wry shuffles, with solo spots for piano, drums and bass. Filiano is much more present here than in the first suite, digging into the melody with a memorably growly tone, sometimes employing a bow. Melodically, this also hews closer to the west than the east: the more cohesive and upbeat segments seem almost as if they’ve simply been transposed to this scale rather than having been written for it. Here it’s ElSaffar who finally seizes the chance to raise the ante with moody microtones and bring the atmosphere full circle to where it originated. Iyer’s phantasmagorically funky lines as it builds toward a final crescendo wouldn’t be out of place in the Frank Carlberg songbook. It ends with an unexpectedly macabre, rain-drenched, funereally hypnotic reprise of one of the initial themes.

On one hand, this is one of those rare moments in jazz history that will change the way a lot of people hear music – and the way they play it. On the other, there’s a sizeable contingent, most of them on one side of the globe, who will be saying, “Big deal, so you’re playing Middle Eastern jazz now. What took you guys so long to catch up?”

November 19, 2012 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Sam Rivers Trio’s Last Show: An Immortal Performance

In many respects, this is a creepy album. Both a triumphant return to greatness and a swan song, Pi Records’ recent, posthumous release of multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers’ Reunion: Live in New York captures one of the most thrilling jazz trios of the 70s picking up like they’d never left off, at a one-off reunion concert at New York’s famed Miller Theatre in May of 2007. Rivers, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Barry Altschul were in a swinging mood that night, but they were also feeling mysterious, three of the world’s foremost improvisers making up songs on the spot in front of a sold-out audience just as they’d done 35 years earlier as stars of New York’s loft jazz scene. It’s free jazz like you never imagined it.

What’s most impressive is that Rivers, who died late last year, was 85 at the time. Which may contribute to the starkly saturnine energy of several of the interludes here. Although the album is divided up into discrete tracks, the concert, included in its entirety here, is simply two long jams. Yet intermingled amidst over ninety minutes of improvisational ebb-and-flow, conversation, call-and-response and pitch-and-follow is a stunning amount of genuine tunesmithing. While in keeping with the trio’s tradition, there was no rehearsal or pre-concert discussion of potential themes, it’s amazing how through-composed much of this music seems to be.

The group relies more on signals than cues, a casual “come over here” wave rather than a directive to jump in at any particular spot. Everybody in the band gets his chance to kick something off, or kick it to the curb. Holland is at the absolute peak of his game as darkly emphatic melody maker. Early on, he picks up on Rivers’ rather sepulchral, eerie chromatic mindset and locks in with it: to call this a telepathic performance wouldn’t be an overstatement. Altschul, one of the most consistently interesting and individual drummers of the last thirty-plus years, colors the music as much as he propels it, often relying on the cymbals more than the rest of the kit. Through straight-up swing shuffles, dark prowls around the perimeter, a couple of ominous, suspensefully minimalist monsterwalks on the toms, unexpectedly funky interludes and wry martial riffage, he’s obviously having the time of his life.

Rivers begins the show on tenor sax. Within a minute of some lively clustering around, the three have a nimble swing shuffle going. There’s push and pull and then a neat, almost twenty-minute Night in Tunisia-esque interlude that Rivers explores with a casual, modally-charged intensity that sometimes veers into outright menace. Rivers then switches to piano, exhibiting both neoromantic glimmer as well as a haunting, Satie-inflected, otherworldly angst. The trio eventually lock into a misterioso clave groove, turn Holland loose to go low and quiet and haunt the crowd by himself, Rivers moving to soprano sax and suddenly night becomes day. They end the first set with the most chilling interlude of the night, fueled by Holland’s chromatics and Altschul’s magnetic pulse, moving further and further from the center but always holding it steady.

Holland kicks off the second set on a darkly majestic note. Rivers, now on flute, feels around for his footing and eventually they take this one swinging as well but quickly give the rhythm section time to explore the ominous depths below. In many respects, this is a towering moment for Holland, and he knows it, particularly as he builds broodingly into a dark soul/gospel groove at the end of the second “track.” After a spacious, tense drum/bass exchange, Holland again moving toward a bitter exhaltation with stark bowed lines, tensely boomy chords and rippling descending runs, Rivers returns to the tenor for a racewalk in the direction of the finish line: nobody sees it coming.

Not everything here is so intense. There’s humor, too: momentary vaccillation over where to shut an idea down (which is how the concert eventually will end), wait-I’m-not-finished, can-I-keep-going-I’m-really-onto-something, those type of knowing moments that only exist within the kind of warm camaraderie that these players are relishing, knowing that it will probably be their last time together. It’s criminal that this trio wasn’t better documented on record – although one can only imagine how many prized cassette recordings might be stashed away in personal collections throughout the five boroughs of New York. So this pristinely recorded document takes on an even more important hstorical significance. Simply one of the best, most exhilarating, and most tantalizing recordings of the year.

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

Bass and Vocals Like Never Before

Jen Shyu and Mark Dresser’s Synastry album came out this past August on the enterprising Pi Records label, and it’s a stealth contender for best jazz album of 2011. Both artists have worked the outer margins of jazz under the lights, Shyu with Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, Dresser with innumerable others, most famously Anthony Braxton (who’s got a new opera in the can – watch this space). Shyu’s claim to fame is that she mingles her languages (along with her native English, she speaks many others from both Europe and Asia) into a style of vocalese where she’ll drop actual words or phrases in if she sees fit. And when she does this, she sings in what appears to be perfect accent, a difficult task that literally stretches her ability to turn a phrase and is one of the reasons why she is such a distinctive vocalist. Few other singers in jazz, or for that matter any other style of music, are as unselfconsciously graceful as Jen Shyu, whether dipping gently for a throaty blue note or flying high, clear and unadorned, employing timbres that seldom occur in western music. Dresser’s fondness for utilizing the entire sonic spectrum that can be conjured from a bass makes him a perfect complement to the vocals here, providing some striking textural contrasts, but also some unexpectedly fascinating harmonies further up the scale: the two make a good team. Unsurprisingly, on this album, they share composition credits on every track, and a commitment to melody that’s unusual for artists who can be at home as far outside as these two can go. And as much as Shyu’s style gravitates toward the bracing and otherworldly, they cover a surprising expanse of emotional terrain.

The opening track, Slope a Dope, sets the tone for most of what’s to come: Dresser works a methodically propulsive, deceptively simple, in this case circular groove as Shyu casually vocalises a warmly bossa-flavored, buoyant melody over it. A simple, modal theme that Dresser stakes out incisively gives Shyu the chance to color the following track much more brightly than its title, Quietness of Memory – Recovery, would suggest. The third cut, Mauger has Shyu reaching for a sometimes whispery insistence as Dresser alternates between a hypnotic bounce and a tersely exploratory attack before they join forces and go off animatedly in a more tropical direction.

The title track is the most traditionally free piece here. Shyu leans toward a pensive torchiness while Dresser plays it very spacious, minimalist and tongue-in-cheek, taking out his bow between beats for textures that range from ghostly to abrasive. Floods, Flame, Blades takes on a slinkily anthemic, remotely Brazilian feel, rather than a direct evocation of any of the title’s menaces, while Mattress on a Stick is a funny song, Shyu airing out her upper register and stream-of-consciousness over Dresser’s overtone-drenched, rhythmic bowed chords. By contrast, Chant for Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, a tribute to the Korean-American novelist/performance artist who was murdered at age 30, is understatedly apprehensive. It’s pretty rubato for a chant, and the most overtly avant piece here. Dresser shadows her rhythmically as Shyu works outward and around a central octave motif a la Amy X Neuburg.

The rest of the album reaches back for bits and pieces of tradition as it follows an individualistic tangent. Lunation is just plain hilarious – Shyu gets going with some very clever “-ation” rhymes before a double entendre that will have you keeling over. Kind of Nine has hints of Bollywood over a staggered groove and Shyu’s trademark mishmash of phonemes, while Telemotion alludes to a swaying blues ambience but deliberately never gets past first base (almost said “first bass”…this is the kind of album that’ll do that to you). The duo close on a wary note with Night Thoughts, driven by Dresser’s dark chords. Imagine what Joni Mitchell and Charles Mingus might have been able to pull off had he lived, and you get a sense of what Shyu and Dresser have done here.

November 30, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment