In any style of music, singers who are also formidable instrumentalists are rare. In jazz, that usually boils down to players who can carry a tune – Frank Lacy and Wycliffe Gordon, for starters- rather than vocalists with instrumental prowess. By any standard, Diana Krall is a strong pianist; Karrin Allyson is vastly underrated on the 88s, and Alicyn Yaffee is a fantastic guitar player. Then there’s Champian Fulton, who’s even more ambitious. Her latest album, wryly titled Speechless, has no vocals on it. It’ll be up at Posi-Tone Records; bookmark this page and check back for a link.
Although Fulton is best known as a singer with deep, blues-informed roots and a fondness for reinventing Dinah Washington classics, this daring move pays off, through a mix of originals and a coyly dynamic take of Someone Stole My Gal. She’s leading a trio at Mezzrow on March 7 at 8 PM, which no doubt will be a mix of instrumental and vocal numbers. Cover is $20.
This is jazz as party music and entertainment: it’s anything but rote or slick. There’s a jubiliant, fearlessly improvisational quality to these songs. Fulton obviously approached this album as she would a live gig, throwing caution to the wind and having an exuberantly good time with it.
Fulton plays and writes with a singer’s nuance. In the New York City Jazz Record, Scott Yanow compared the album’s opening number, Day’s End, to Errol Garner, and that’s on the money: one of Fulton’s signature devices is winding up a phrase or a turnaround with a trill or grace note-like lightness, just as she’ll pull back from the mic to lure the listener in. She also does that a lot with rhythm: throughout the album, bassist Adi Meyerson and drummer Ben Zweig anchor the swing while Fulton carves out a comfortable envelope for lyrical expression.
Lullaby for Art, an Art Blakey homage, is both a showcase for Fulton’s sublty ironic humor – it’s hardly a lullaby – and also for her scampering but spacious hi-de-ho swing chops. The ballad Dark Blue, based on the changes to Woody ’n’ You, is more tenderly dark: the way she essentially scats her way through the final verse on the keys, encompassing a century’s worth of stylistic devices, is the high point of the album.
Tea and Tangerines is a wryly waltzing mashup of Tea for Two and Tangerine, Later Gator, a shout-out to Fulton’s longtime pal Lou Donaldson, follows a loose-limbed soul-jazz tangent, spiced with Zweig’s tersely exuberant syncopation. Pergola is a peacefully lyrical Shelter Island vacation tableau, Fulton’s lingering upper-register chords paired against Meyerson’s dancing bass. Then the two switch roles.
Fulton cites Horace Silver as a stepping-off point for Happy Camper, the album’s most hard-charging number; Dizzy Gillespie in bracingly latin mode also seems to be an influence. That’s Not Your Donut – #BestSongTitleEver, or what? – returns to the jaunty charm of the album’s opening track. Fulton winds up with Carondeleto’s, a salute to her important early influence, Clark Terry and his Missouri hometown. It’s a bustling, rapidfire swing shuffle that’s the closest thing to hardbop here.
Mara Rosenbloom‘s first two albums showcase an elegance and melodicism that compares to Sylvie Courvoisier. Where Courvoisier veers off toward the avant garde, Rosenbloom is more likely to edge toward hard bop, no surprise considering that she has Darius Jones on alto sax as a member of her long-running quartet. But her new trio album, Prairie Burn, with bassist Sean Conly and drummer Chad Taylor – streaming at Spotify – is her quantum leap into greatness. An absoutely feral, largely improvisational suite, it’s essentially about playing with fire, something Rosenbloom turns out to be very, very good at. She and the trio will be setting a few things ablaze at her birthday show on Dec 15 at around 9 at Greenwich House Music School. As a bonus, Conly opens the night at 7:30 with his Re:Action+1 with Michaël Attias and Tony Malaby on saxes, Kris Davis on piano and Gerald Cleaver on drums. Cover is $15/$12 stud/srs.
Controlled burns of pastures and plains are nothing new: take the coastal route to Boston in the fall and you may see one or two in progress. But they’re a lot more dramatic at the edge of the Great Plains where the Wisconsin-born Rosenbloom grew up than they are here…and obviously left a mark on her Recorded in a single four-hour session at Brooklyn’s legendary Systems Two, the album captures both an unbridled ferocity and a remarkable chemistry honed in concert over the course of a year’s worth of gigs.
The result is a fearless, often feral yet extremely intimate and highly improvised performance. What might be most impressive about this is that it’s a true trio effort. Just as JD Allen does with Gregg August and Rudy Royston, Rosenbloom puts her rhythm section on equal footing with her own instrument. Taylor is just as much a colorist, and Conly as much a part of the melody as the rhythm – and Rosenbloom completes that rhythm section as much as she drives the harmonic balance. The opening number, Brush Fire (An Improvised Overture) rises apprehensively with bowed bass in tandem with Taylor’s increasingly tense, spiraling drums, then calms, Conly steady at the center as the band converges and diverges, Rosenbloom’s dynamic attack embodying elements of 70s ECM, dusky 20s blues, percussive Jason Moran-style insistence, spare gospel-tinged chords and glistening melody. Taylor’s bristling, sparely snare-driven pulse indicate that this is a fire that won’t go out anytime soon
The four-part Prairie Burn suite opens with Red-Winged Blackbird, a jaunty, balletesque pastoral jazz theme based on a popular, playfully joshing rhyme from Rosenbloom’s childhood. The trio expands it to a similar percussive intensity with stairstepping crescendos that sometimes allude to and sometimes directly channel the deep blues that Rosenbloom has immersed herself in most recently. Her cleverly vamping interlude gives Taylor a chance to cut loose, and then turn it over to Conly for some solo comic relief
From there the trio segues into the second segment, aptly titled Turbulence, a tightly bustlning opening interlude giving way to harder-hiting pastoral variations. Conly picks up Rosenbloom’s looping triplets as the pianist’s methodical, kinetically chordal drive shifts around the center. After they wind down to a murky, allusively ominous solo piano interlude, the bandleader springboards off it for terse, ruggedly ambered blues, her uneasily looping lefthand anchoring sternly balletesque, Russian-tinged varations.
Part 3, Work! begins with ruggedly cyclical spin on the earlier triplet theme, Taylor giving it a wry clave, descending to a stern, Monk-like solo interlude and then a long, slow upward drive. The suite concludes with its fourth segment, Songs from the Ground, slowly coalescing from a darkly lingering nocturnal solo piano intro to a spare, resonant gospel-tinged 6/8 riff and moves outward from there, Taylor prowling around the border with increased agitation and driving it upward. Conly’s spare, wistfully bowed phrases deliver to Rosenbloom, who ends it on a note of hope and renewal.
The album’s two final tracks are a blues and a standard. The first is Rosenbloom’s epic take of John Lee Hooker’s I Rolled and I Tumbled. Like Hooker, Rosenbloom takes her time, slowly developing a terse lefthand groove, building intensity with her judicious but assertive righthand chordal attack. She concludes the album by reinventing There Will Never Be Another You as a blues-infused, angst-fueled lament. Mirroring her approach to her own suite here, she chooses to end it sweetly. Count this as one of the ten best jazz albums of the year (you can see all of this blog’s picks when they’re published by NPR).
Pianist Orrin Evans is in the midst of a weekend stand at the Jazz Standard, with shows tonight and tomorrow night, Nov 19 nnd 20 at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $25.. The captain of the epic Captain Black Big Band also has a fantastic new album, Knowing Is Half the Battle, just out and streaming at Spotify. What’s new is that it’s a two-guitar record, Kevin Eubanks and Kurt Rosenwinkel joining Evans,bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr. And what’s most impressive about it is that even though it’s one of the most highly improvisational albums of Evans’ career, nobody gets in anybody’s way. The twin-guitar attack follows much the same bad cop/good cop dichotomy as Marc Ribot’s live album with Mary Halvorson – Eubanks employing a round, sustained tone with frequent EFX, Rosenwinkel with more of a clean tube amp sound that burns with distortion when he wails on his chords. Although Eubanks’ most woozy textures hark back to fusion, this isn’t a fusion record
Don’t let the weird, trippy, techy intro put you off: it’s the setup to the punchilne that ends the album, which is way too good to give away. It opens slowly as Calls coalesces – one of the freest numbers here, it’s a floating platform for carefree exploraion that sets the stage for the guitar dynamic. The way Whitfield just blasts through the stoplight and keeps going is one of the album’s most irresistible moments.
When Jen Came In is a cool modal latin thing, romping along in 6/8 with Evans and Whitfield throwing elbows in the paint, the guitars shadowing each other up to one of those lustrously poignant peaks that has become an Evans trademark. The pensive, expansive jazz waltz Chiara (Italian for “clear”) – gets a purposeful belltone chord intro from Rosenwinkel, Eubanks taking a horn role; then it goes in a similarly impactful, moody direction fueled by Evans’ sunshower lines. These two numbes make a good diptych.
The take of David Bowie’s Kooks rises out of peekaboo piano-drums drollery toward tropicalia, with a soulful vocal by songbird M’Balia, who makes a return on a trip-hop ballad toward the end of the record. The funky, pulsing You Don’t Need a License to Drive gives Rosenwinkel a launching pad for some of the album’s most bristling work, Evans working a more playful tip. Whitfield’s insistent cymbals and prowling attack on the toms fuel Half the Battle, much like he does on most of the other numbers: it’s a classic hard-hitting Evans mood piece brightened with Eubanks’ high-flying, sustained lines.
Heavy Hangs the Head That Wears the Crown, a tone poem awash in keening guitar textures, builds toward uneasy, clustering chaos and then back. The considerably more upbeat Doc’s Holida, opens with guest saxophonist Caleb Wheeler Curtis in unison with the guitars and then goes strolling, one of ghe few instances where the bandleader takes the spotlight, his restlessly crescendoing intensity over Curtis’ leaping, growly bass.
The swinging Slife is a vehicle for some deliciously slippery, slamming guitar from Rosenwinkel and contrastingly tight, jaunty piano from Evans. The final cut is a gently funky lullaby of sorts. It says a lot that what’s probably the most lighthearted album of Evans’ career is anything but lightweight.
August in New York: what a beautiful time to be here, isn’t it? Sure, it’s hot, but the hordes of recent invaders have all gone off to the Hamptons, or wherever they stash their inheritances – or simply back to mom and dad in Bloomfield Hills or Lake Oswego. It didn’t used to be this way; then again, it didn’t used to be this hot. Let’s enjoy it while we can, shall we? For those of us in the mood to revel in a cosmopolitan Old New York experience, pianist Fred Hersch is winding up his stand at the Village Vanguard tonight, August 21 with his long-running trio, bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson. Sets are at 8:30 and 10:30 PM; cover is $30 and includes a drink; today being Sunday, there won’t be the usual crowds of tourists making their pilgrimage here
Hersch’s aptly titled latest album is Sunday Night at the Vanguard (due out momentarily and therefore not yet at Spotify). It’s a similarly lyrical follow-up to his lavish 2012 Alive at the Vanguard double album. This one is as perennially fresh, and bursting with joie de vivre, and spontaneity, and erudition as anything the guy’s ever recorded. Even in the most rigorous, uppermost echelons of jazz, Hersch’s craftsmanship stands out. Is he a NEA Jazz Master yet? OK, he’s still a little young for that.
That this album is a typical Hersch performance, not just in terms of the track-by-track, speaks to that. Hersch’s trio has a rare chemistry that reflects years of long nights on the road as well as its interweave of personalities, Hersch both sage and wit, Hebert the freewheeling groovemeister and McPherson the king of subtlety. The three ease their way in with a midtempo take of a rare Rodgers and Hammerstein number, A Cockeyed Optimist; McPherson’s almost impreceptibly crescendoing shuffle drive is fascinating to hear unfolding. Likewise, his misterioso cymbal bell intro, in tandem with Hersch’s minimalist misterioso approach, ramps up the suspense on the evening’s first original, Serpentine, an intricately interwoven portrait of an enigmatic Ornette Coleman associate, part Monk, part baroque, with a ghostly bass-and-drums interlude at the center..
The Optimum Thing also echoes Monk, Hersch putting an uneasily playful spin on a series of Irving Berlin changes, an acerbically swinging blend of quaint and off-center; how well the pianist manages to disguise what his bandmates are up to is pricelessly funny. Calligram (for Benoit Delbecq), a shout-out to his individualistic French colleague pairs the steady, starlit anchor of the bass and drums against Herseh’s occasionally wry, deep-space explorations. Then the three pick up the pace again with the tersely catchy, allusively latin-tinged postbop of Blackwing Palomino.
Hersch slows down the Beatles’ For No One to reveal its inner cavatina, then makes an eerily stairstepping music-box theme out of it. The three do Kenny Wheeler’s Everybody’s Song But My Own as a jaunty, pointillistic, altered cha-cha, then give Jimmy Rowles’ gothic jazz favorite The Peacocks an epic, dynamically shifting intensity, from the bandleader’s moody solo intro to a white-knuckle intensity over Hebert’s stern pulse. The trio close the set by swinging through the almost cruel, knowing ironies of Monk’s We See. The encore is a solo take of Hersch’s favorite closing. bemedictine ballad, Valentine. If there’s anybody who can be canonized as the rightful heir to Thelonious Monk – in terms of purposefulness, shadowy tunefulness and just plain fun – Hersch is as good a choice as any.
It’s hard to imagine a more darkly distinctive pianist than Sylvie Courvoisier. She’s a longtime member of John Zorn’s inner circle, which makes sense considering her blend of moodily resonant neoromanticism, jazz squall and fondness for extended technique….not to mention the often noirish sensibility and rich vein of sardonic, sometimes grim humor that runs through her work. She can sell out the Stone whenever she feels like playing there; it was good to see a much larger crowd than the Stone can hold watching her raptly last night at Roulette, in a vividly conversational set with her long-running trio, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Kenny Wollesen. The latter didn’t bring his gongs, but he often used his ride cymbal in tandem with mallets on the toms for the same lingering, otherworldly effect. Gress didn’t walk the changes as much as he danced them, when he wasn’t supplying ambered washes with his bow, or trading off jauntily with the bandleader.
When she wasn’t inside the piano, Courvoisier alternated between carnivalesque, dancing lines, grittily insistent minimalism, broodingly lyrical, resonantly chordal passages, and the occasional flight into frenetic hard bop. When she went under the lid, she muted the strings, then played them with her fingers, with the keys and with mallets, like a vibraphone. Other times she’d rub the strings for a resonance similar to what Wollesen did when he got a keening ring out of a cymbal or two, scraping them with his sticks. The best number of the night was a lengthy, suspenseful triptych incorporating all of those tropes.
Most of the humor involved good-natured jousting, although Gress’ “are we really going to take this to the very top of the fingerboard” jape was a lot of fun. Courvoisier threw elbows at her rhythm section and they threw back; the cleverest of these moments was when Gress hit a minimalist, pedal passage and Courvoisier doubled him….but with her strings muted, adding a ninth interval for extra creepiness. It would have been one thing just to play it on the keys, but the muted effect really drove the sinister effect home.
Qawwali-like, tensely circling low-register riffage expanded into austerely steady, coldly biting Louis Andriesssen-esque bell-tones, then stygian low lefthand pools, then a Lynchian ba-bump roadhouse theme. A sad minor-key waltz awash in cymbals decayed to a muted, mimimalist deep-space pulse that became a clenched-teeth Mission Impossible. Hushed, dusky, misterioso minimalism gave way to upper-register icicles. Phantasmagorical Frank Carlberg-like tumbles sandwiched a defiantly clustering Wollesen solo, followed by flitting, sepulchral piano motives rising to an agitated vortex. Name another pianist who does all of this in about an hour and fifteen minutes onstage.
Courvoisier’s next show is back at the Stone at 8 PM on April 22 in a duo performance with reedman Ned Rothenberg.
Cuban-born pianist and Quincy Jones protege Alfredo Rodriguez made waves with his 2012 debut album Sounds of Space, His latest and third release, Tocororo – streaming at Spotify – is a welcome return to that record’s juxtaposition of terse Afro-Cuban and broodingly lustrous third-stream sounds. Rodriguez is leading a trio with bassist Peter Slavov and drummer Henry Cole plus chanteuse Ganavya Doraiswamy through a three-night stand at the Jazz Standard starting on March 3, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $30, which may seem steep, but remember, the Jazz Standard has no minimums (although they do have good food if you feel like splurging).
The album takes its name from the Cuban national bird, which does not survive in captivity: subtext, anyone? Rodriguez opens it with Chan Chan, a gorgeously creepy George Crumb-like inside-the-piano theme lowlit by some absolutely bloodcurdling bass clarinet. Yemaya veers elegantly between jaggedly insistent Afro-Caribbean intenstiy and enveloping lushness,building with soaring vocalese from Doraiswamy and the duo Ibeyi. Rodriguez’s hard-hitting, music-box-like precision livens bassist Richard Bona’s generically vampy Raices; the bassist also contributes an easygoing cha-cha that they reprise at the end of the album.
Ginaterias spirals with a wickedly catchy intensity that’s part flamenco, part suspenseful phantasmagoria and part Bach. Speaking of which, there’s a wryly syncopated version of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring a bit later on.
The album’s title track mashes up jackhammer latin swing, brooding neoromanticism and anxious Indian classical motives, sung with an aptly dynamic, meticulous intenstiy by Doraiswamy. There are two numbers by haunting Lebanese-French trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf here: the first, Venga La Esperanza is a wistful title theme of sorts. The second, Kaleidoscope, is the album’s best track, a propulsively dynamic blend of Middle Eastern classical, Indian carnatic, neoromantic and balmy cinematic styles featuring some strikingly ominous microtonal trumpet from its composer.
Sabanas Blanca is a surreal, unexpected departure into an avant garde take on trip-hop. Adios Nonino, the classic Piazzolla elegy, rocks a lot harder than other artists typically do it, at least to begin, which underscores the plaintiveness that follows. And Meteorite turns on a dime from breathless cinematics to lively pointillisms, then a crushing, angst-fueled dirge. The not-so-subtle message here, other than “Free my people!” seems to be, what can’t this guy play? Answer? Probably nothing. It’ll be fun to see where he lands when he eventually sorts all this out.
Pianist Lou Rainone keeps a busy schedule in the New York scene, playing regularly with the master of polytonal sax, George Braith and also with intriguingly enigmatic chanteuse Dorian Devins, among others. As a composer, he likes latin rhythms and mines a melodic postbop style; in the same vein as Brad Mehldau, he hangs out mostly in the piano’s midrange. Rainone’s latest album, Sky Dance is just out, and not yet up at the usual places online yet, although the clips up at cdbaby offer a hint of the unselfconsciously glimmering melodicism and postbop chops that characterize his work. Most of the tracks feature a quintet with trombonist Larry Farrell, trumpeter Richie Vitale, bassist Tom Dicarlo and drummer Taro Okamoto. Rainone leads this ensemble on November 29 at 9 PM at the Fat Cat.
The title track, with its shuffling, latin-tinged groove opens the album on a catchy, vintage Frank Foster-ish note; Dicarlo bubbles and percolates and the rest of the band follows in turn, spaciously. Rainone anchoring it with an artful staccato that alludes to a bustling milieu more than it actually depicts one. Little Dipper the first of the jazz waltzes here, creates a similarly lingering, distantly wistful atmosphere, everyone choosing their spots. Sweet Tooth, a trio piece with the rhythm section, brings back the shuffling latin inflections and adds wry wit, Dicarlo echoing the composer’s sardonic, Monk-ish figures.
The clave rhythm moves closer to centerstage in Aqua, Rainone’s majestic, ringing chords leading up to a carbonated Vitale solo, Farrell adding splashes of cool. A Late Arrival works slow, woundedly muted terrain, with hints of Asian tonalities and a rainswept gleam that slowly brightens; Rainone and the horns take it out on a lustrous note.
Devins’ vividly wintry vocals are a quiet knockout in Shifting, another jazz waltz, Dicarlo’s darkly dancing solo at the center. Cross Current brings back the bustling energy that opens the album; with Farrell’s purposeful solo, it’s the most straight-up swing tune here. Fly Away, a trio piece and the last of the jazz waltzes, is Rainone’s most expansive number. Devins takes the bandstand again on Time Is a Friend, her subtle gallows humor set to an irrepressible clave beat over Rainone’s judicious chords and Farrell’s similarly considered lines. The album ends with Rsvp, a lively, solo-centric swing shuffle and a synthesis of pretty much everything on this album. Rainone is a guy who should be vastly better known as a bandleader and this album should go a long way toward further establishing that.
It’s autumn in New York. Finally, in this overheated age, we’ve made it there. And what better way to conclude Halloween week than with the latest album by the definitive noir pianist of our era, Ran Blake, which opens and then after fifteen additional tracks, concludes with that song? The cd, Ghost Tones, a tribute to Blake’s old pal George Russell, sadly isn’t streaming anywhere on the web, but you can get a sense of its magically shadowy gravitas from the momentary clips up at cdbaby.
Throughout the record, the saturnine majesty of Blake’s playing is undiminished. Like Dave Brubeck at age eighty, he’s never played with more depth or poignancy. The album is a mix of pieces by Russell – one of the great individualists of the last half-century, an underrated but vastly influential composer who shares Blake’s dark sensibility – alongside Blake originals and a handful of chilly, sepulchral reinventions of jazz standards. The album’s opening track is a clinic in how Blake, playing solo, uses his signature, Messiaen-esque close harmonies to take a moody ballad far deeper into the night than its composer ever dreamed. Then, to wind up the album, Blake offers a spare, guardedly optimistic, far more straight-up take that hews much more closely to the original.
Alice Norbury (Blake’s shout-out to Russell’s wife) opens stately and stern, but then the clouds lift a bit, Blake multitracking his piano with string synth, broadening his usual noir cinematic sweep. As becomes crystal clear, this is a portrait of a profound and formidable personality. Drunmer Charles Burchell’s clave drives the first Russell composition, Living Time, with a white-knuckle tension as bassist Brad Barrett bubbles, Blake swirls and ripples and the horns – Peter Kenagy on trumpet, Aaron Hartley on trombone – punch in, Doug Pet’s tenor sax soaring like a vulture overhead. It’s 70s noir Morricone taken to the next level.
Blake’s solo piano miniature, Paris, perfectly captures that city’s twilit, rain-drenched angst amid the ghosts of centuries past as it rises to an insistent peak, again recalling Messiaen. Telegram From Gunther, a tongue-in-cheek miniature by Blake and another old third-stream pal, Gunther Schuller, makes an intro to the cumulo-nimbus electroacoustic industrial decay of Biography.
The best-known Russell number here, Stratusphunk, gets stripped to its austere, rust-tinged chassis as a solo piano piece. Another, Jack’s Blues rises artfully from a wary foghorn fanfare to an alllusive stroll through a desolate South Street Seaport or Boston Wharf of the mind, lowlit by Kenagy’s Miles-like muted trumpet. Then Blake makes a good segue with a solo take of Rodger & Hart’s Manhattan, taking that same tangent to its logical, briskly walking conclusion. After that, Russell’s Ballad of Hix Blewitt marks a return to plaintive, cinematic sweep with strings and Dave Fabris’ resonant pedal steel.
One of the most dynamically menacing Blake solo numbers here is his Cincinnati Express, building to twisted ragtime and then back. With its bell-like multi-keys,Vertical Form VI shows just how far into the avant garde – think Louis Andriessen – Russell could go and includes a sample from a 1998 London big band concert recording by the Living Time Orchestra. After Blake’s ominoulsy swaying solo version of Jacques Crawls, a spare, spacious take of Russell’s Lonely Place makes a brilliantly apt segue, Pet’s desolate, wee-hours upper-Broadway sax and Hartley’s trombone enhancing the ambience. Another well-covered Russell tune, Ess-Thetic, gets an insistent, menacingly circular solo piano treatment; there’s also an austerely reinvented take of You Are My Sunshine introduced by vertigo-inducing strings and steel. It’s noir music in its most brooding, bittersweet, distantly heartbreaking perfection, and ought to help introduce the brilliance and individualism of Russell to a new audience.
Blake gets a likely star-studded 80th birthday tribute at Jordan Hall, 290 Huntington Ave in Boston, his longtime New England Conservatory stomping ground, on November 13 at 7:30 PM.
“When I first heard gnawa music, I heard the blues, and jazz, and the Black church,” Randy Weston explained to the sold-out crowd at the New School Tuesday night. The ageless piano sage has made a career of taking jazz back to its ancient African roots and then reinventing them, first inspired by his father and later while living in Morocco, where he immersed himself in innumerable North African folk and classical music styles. Currently artist-in-residence at the university, he brought along his pal Abdellah El Gourd along with a trio of energetic, impressively athletic dancer-percussionists from his group Dar Gnawa of Tanger for an insightful, sometimes trance-inducing, sometimes raptly transcendent performance of both traditional material and some of Weston’s best-loved compositions.
The percussionists supplied a hypnotically polyrhythmic clickety-clack backdrop with their pairs of cast-metal qraqab castanets while El Gourd grounded the music in low, circling, propulsive phrases on his three-string gimbri lute – one of the earliest ancestors of the funk bass. While Weston didn’t mention that particular lineage, he took care to explain that the qraqabs are a descendant of something considerably more disturbing: handcuffs. Centuries ago, in the Berber lands, prisoners in chains would use them to communicate in code.
Since gnawa music continues to serve several roles in the community – as rhythmic backdrop for mass celebration, spiritual ritual and physical healing, among other things – it’s no surprise that the vocals, delivered robustly by El Gourd an the rest of the group, have a mantra-like quality. In conversation with El Gourd along with a younger countryman and New School student, Weston revealed that the music also has a synesthetic connection – different individuals, different songs and even riffs are associated with different colors. Weston took some obvious relish in being someone whose color, predictably, turned out to be blue.
And the blues, along with their ancient, more lingering and slowly unwinding roots, were everywhere in Weston’s solo pieces, which he played in between numbers by the Moroccans. Night in Medina, he told the crowd, was inspired by a trip to the bustling Tangiers marketplace he frequented during the day but hesitated to visit after dark: “You know, bring from Bed-Stuy!” he joked. Awash in hushed, low-register, moonlit resonance, saturnine modes and allusive Middle Eastern phases, Weston slowly pulled good-natured postbop out of it. Likewise, he closed the performance with a regal, judiciously crescendoing take of Blue Moses, joined slowly and then joyously by the rest of the group as it unwound out of a gently rhythmic trance groove.
Speaking of the blues, tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger has a connection with them that goes deeper than most. His brand-new live album, Pivot, comprises two lengthy explorations of Bukka White classics. Last night at Smalls, he made another live recording with his quartet, Jason Palmer on trumpet, Kim Cass on bass and Ian Froman on drums. After Preminger and the group had stayed pretty much within themselves, playing their cards close to the vest, very puristically as they do on Pivot, it was a real rush to watch them finally jump and spiral out of control with a pretty wild free interlude late in the set. They went back to dusky and evocative and tersely melodic with their closing number, Mississippi John Hurt’s I Shall Not Be Moved, Palmer anchoring the sound as Froman built toward a steady hailstorm, Preminger finally cutting loose and wailing to the rafters, making the song’s title all the more ironic. Let’s hope this one makes it onto the record as a pure, unedited thrill.
Is it fair to call pianist Myra Melford a cult artist? Her music is so full of life, and tunes, and ideas and color that spans the emotional spectrum. In the NYC downtown jazz scene, she’s iconic, a status she earned in the 90s before she hightailed it for a UC/Berkeley professorship. She’s got a weeklong stand at the Stone starting this Tuesday, March 24 with sets at 8 and 10 PM and continuing through the 29th; cover is $15. There are too many enticing sets to list here: the 8 PM duo shows with whirlwind drummer Allison Miller on the 24th and then with clarinetist Ben Goldberg on the 25th ought to be especially good for completely different reasons. There’s also a reunion of her playful Be Bread sextet on the 26th at 10 and a quintet show with trumpet luminary Dave Douglas the following night, also at 10 – and that’s just for starters.
Melford’s latest album, due out on the 24th, is Snowy Egret with the band of the same name: Ron Miles on cornet, Liberty Ellman on guitar, Stomu Takeishi on acoustic bass guitar and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. For a taste of the album – since it’s not out yet – give a listen to the final cut, The Strawberry, which hints that it’s going to be a boogie-woogie number before Melford takes it to Havana – and Sorey’s drumming is funny beyond words in places. Ellman’s biting circularities kickstart a series of divergences before Melford pulls everybody back on the rails.
As for the rest? There’s humor and irony, and a frequently dancing pulse. A handful of numbers seem to allude to the first age of imperialism in the Americas and the centuries of havoc in its wake. The first track, Language, pulses along as shuffling variations on a fanfare riff bookending a typically soulful, clear-as-the-Denver-sky Miles solo. An expansively spiky, spare Ellman solo opens Night of Sorrow, the band plaintively filling in around Melford’s spaciously elegaic, bluesy motives. Promised Land delivers some wry shout-and-response and divergent tangents within its syncopated staccato bounce.
Ching Ching For Love of Fruit – a slot machine reference, it seems – moves from a mournful muted trumpet/melodica duet between Miles and Melford to an unexpectedly carnivalesque theme, Takeishi mimicking a tuba and Sorey rattling his hardware. Likewise, The Kitchen opens with picturesque pots-and-pans drollery from Sorey, Miles and Ellman having lots of fun spinning plates and such before Takeishi makes it funky, then Melford takes it on a clenched-teeth, uh-oh trajectory.
Takeishi’s growling attack and Ellman’s fluttery unease pair with Melford’s lingering foreshadowing and Miles’ resonance throughout Times of Sleep and Fate, a tone poem of sorts that builds to a brooding, AACM-inflected majesty. Little Pockets – Everybody Pays Taxes sees the band taking some aptly squirrelly cinematics in a considerably more ominous, insistent direction: whatever you do, don’t answer the door!
First Protest works a rhythmically dizzying marionette theme, Sorey and Ellman leading the charge along a twisted second line parade route. The Virgin of Guadalupe, the album’s most expansive and moodiest track, pairs Miles’ funereal lines with Melford’s understatedly plaintive neoromantic precision, building toward a bitter bolero. Of all the cuts here, it comes closest to being the definitive one, spacious and pensive and quietly packing a wallop.