Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Charlie Parker Jazz Festival 2010: Day Two

When this year’s Charlie Parker Jazz Festival was first announced, the JD Allen Trio was listed for day two. The game plan here was to get back from vacation in time to catch Sunday’s concert at Tompkins Square Park: however, by the time the lineup was finalized, Allen had been moved to Saturday, with Little Jimmy Scott taking his place (more about him later: from the NY Times’ account, Allen turned in a characteristically gripping set).

Torchy singer (and NPR fave) Catherine Russell opened. Her band is capable of transcendence in pretty much any situation. In a set of familiar standards, this time out they didn’t, but considering the crushing heat and humidity, not to mention the early hour, that was almost to be expected. That they played as well as they did was an achievement. Maybe the festival’s producers should take that into account and schedule performers from Mali or Jamaica, or from anywhere this kind of climactic torture is an everyday thing, for the first part of the show.

The Cookers have a new album, Warriors, just out. Billy Harper and Craig Handy on tenor, Eddie Henderson and David Weiss on trumpet, George Cables on piano, Cecil McBee on bass and Billy Hart on drums have about a millennium of jazz experience among them and turned in a joyously expansive, mid 60s-flavored set that gave each performer a chance to pitch a tent front and center and pull the crew in his own preferred direction. It wasn’t just solos around the horn: there was push and pull, and conversations, roles and personalities all exerting themselves vividly. Handy answered Harper’s exuberance sauvely, even pensively, while Henderson pushed Weiss to fan the blaze even higher. They opened with a gorgeously murky, modal excursion with rich melodic overlays. Cables led the band through a beautifully lyrical, Brubeck-tinged jazz waltz featuring his own methodically crescendoing, eventually cloudbursting solo. They wound up their set with a number based on an emphatic, bouncy chromatic riff featuring a terse Hart drum solo contrasting with some meandering horn work.

What else could be said about Vijay Iyer that hasn’t been said already? That his originals are better than his covers, maybe. The pianist has gotten accolades here before and is as good as you would expect, live. But the heat was unrelenting, and comfortable, cool Lakeside Lounge around the corner was beckoning. See you somewhere down the line, Vijay.

By the time Little Jimmy Scott rode his little electric scooter onto the stage, it had cooled down a bit. He’s every bit as vital as he was fifty years ago, in fact, probably more so: it’s as if he was born to be 84 years old. He’s always had an otherworldly voice, years older than he was, so it only makes sense that his career would peak so late in life. Word on the street is that it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, and the crowd adored him. Like Siouxsie Sioux, someone he’s probably never heard of, he works his own scale when he’s off in the blue notes, which is a lot, and which is so successful because he’s perfectly in tune with himself. He didn’t exhibit his wide-open, Leslie speaker-style vibrato until the middle of his set but when he did, it was every bit as jaw-dropping as it’s ever been. David Lynch knew what he was doing when he put Scott on the Twin Peaks soundtrack. Scott opened with a Summertime-inspired version of Nothing But Blue Skies, saxophonist TK Blue and pianist Alex Minasian shadowing him with finely attuned phrasing; on Your Turn to Cry, sirens from around the corner joined in with the music almost on cue during the first few bars of the intro, and Scott seized the moment with characteristic, gentle intensity: nobody gets so much out of so little as this guy. The showstopper was an absolutely devastating version of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, Blue’s anguished soprano sax interlude on the way out a perfectly appropriate touch, but as good as it was it was no match for what Scott had just done, silky but raw, nuanced but with a sledgehammer effect. He’s at the Blue Note tomorrow night and worth pretty much whatever they’re charging at the door.

And two big, fat, upraised middle fingers to the NYPD brass who embarrassed the beat cops at the local precinct by instructing them to kick out anyone who dared sit down at the tables with the chessboard markings at the park’s southwest corner if they then didn’t immediately break out a chess or checkers set. This has all the markings of a concession to the neighborhood’s yuppie newcomers who don’t like to be reminded that they live in a world where homeless people actually exist. The rookie cop assigned to do the honors couldn’t hide his boredom or embarrassment, mumbling to tired concertgoers to get up and leave after they’d found what looked like lucky seats in the midst of a sea of people. Police work is hard enough without subjecting members of the force to humiliation like this.

August 31, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Conference Call Doesn’t Phone This One In

You have to give these guys credit, they fly without a net every time. By the time reed player/composer Gebhard Ullmann’s quartet Conference Call played their concert on April 22, 2007 in Krakow, they were a well-oiled machine. As far outside as some of their improvisations go, the chemistry in the band is visceral: at this point, they could just press “record” and go for it, knowing they’d get something worthwhile out of it. And as reliably adventurous as these players are – Ullmann on saxes and bass clarinet, Michael Jefry Stevens on piano, Joe Fonda on bass and George Schuller on drums – there’s far more structure and melody in the performances on this album, What About…? than might seem evident at first listen. It’s a long album, two cds and almost an hour and a quarter’s worth of music, but virtually all of it will hold your attention if you listen closely. Jazz doesn’t get any more psychedelic than this.

A cynic would say that the Europeans always go for the weirdest stuff, and these guys start out weird – a flutter of the sax, a wrinkle of the piano, and eventually they work in tandem, fluttering as the bass and drums do recon. But ultimately Ullmann is the scout here, as he will be for the rest of the night, searching overhead as the piano pounds gently – the two converse briefly and then bass and drums join the agitation. They segue into the next two tracks – a tastily chromatic, minimalist piano rumble with variations and then a slowly pulsing nocturne, overtone-laden bowed bass and sax whistling and weaving out of focus, adding a vertiginous, off-center unease. As with many of the tracks here, they fade out gracefully when everyone’s said all they have to say.

Ullmann frequently goes completely against the central key here, with bracingly effective results, particularly on the fourth track – the first of a loosely connected three-part suite – that blends both classical and funk piano tinges while the sax flies overhead. And the device adds considerable humor on the practically seventeen-minute second part, Ullmann swinging obliviously as the rest of the band prowl around, tentative and ominous until they finally coalesce and take it up to a clever false ending.

The second cd opens with Fonda taking over the obliviously swinging role after a long, tersely played yet expansive intro. Stevens’ sardonically titled Could This Be a Polka is actually one of the most memorably warped tangos ever written, Ullmann’s bass clarinet indignant, insistent and eventually even belligerent as the piano brings it back out of the chaos when least expected. Litmus, by Schuller builds from conspiratorial call-and-response to a long machine-gun vamp; Ullmann’s Translucent Tones is an impressionistic exercise in shadowplay, glimmer versus low thoughtful washes of sound as the piano slowly establishes a camouflaged lento groove. The jauntily amusing title track is basically a swing tune with the rhythm stripped away (a paradox, but that’s what makes it so much fun), piano, bass and drums hinting at it but never quiet going there as Ullmann blithely sways along, completely on his own for almost the entire eight minutes. As intriguingly and surprisingly melodic as this album is, it has legs well beyond the free jazz/outsider jazz crowd who are its primary audience.

August 18, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Steve Swell’s Slammin’ the Infinite – 5000 Poems

This is definitely a team effort, which is what you always want with a band but particularly with a cast of free jazz luminaries like these guys. The fun of this album is akin to improv theatre: everybody has an assigned role, the choicest moments being when the blend – or clash – of personalities results in something combustible or funny. Most, but not all, of the ideas they expand on here are thematic rather than melodic or even rhythmic – in an odd way, it’s a very conversational album, if the conversation itself gets pretty crazy in places. Bandleader/trombonist Steve Swell is the man in the tower – he tells the train when it’s time to go or to hang in the station for awhile. Drummer Klaus Kugel is the gathering storm, always about to rain thunder down on the listener and getting every ounce of suspense out of it since he virtually never does. Bassist Matthew Heyner does the lighting – he’s the guy down the tunnel with the flashlight, which is usually off since the atmospherics he puts into play here are pretty dark. Pianist John Blum gets less time in the spotlight than anyone else here – ironically, he seems to be having the most fun. Reed player Sabir Mateen, alternating between alto and tenor sax, clarinet and alto clarinet, and flute serves as Swell’s sparring partner when he’s not jumping all over the place to keep himself warm and ready for the next volley of notes.

The most coherent cut here, the third track has the bass running a modified latin groove, trombone creating a suspenseful noir mood over a scurrying rhythm section. Mateen eventually shows up and Swell won’t make room for him so he bashes in the door – and then Blum gets involved. And it’s back to the noir. Every now and then, there will be a lull as the band figures out what they’re going to do next, which can be humorous but also very effective as a suspense device: on the album’s opening track, listening to Blum stumble around in the dark, not having the faintest idea of where he is or what to do there, and then finally join in with the drums with a nonchalant robustness, perfectly illustrates the kind of unexpected magic this crew can deliver.

The second track has Heyner hinting at a pensive Middle Eastern mode, fluttery flute contrasting vividly with intense, percussive piano. Kugel absolutely owns the fourth cut, practically fifteen minutes of ominous rumble beneath the squall of the horns. The last number features what might be the quietest section of a drum solo ever recorded, Mateen’s solo following with similar laid-back warmth. The recording enhances the murky vividness of many of these performances – it sounds like it was recorded with a central room mic or two, the piano sometimes a strikingly disembodied, out-of-leftfield presence. It’s out now on Not Two Records.

May 29, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Sarah Manning – Dandelion Clock

Count this as the best jazz album of this young decade – give it another ten years and it could be one of the best jazz albums of an old decade. Not only is Sarah Manning a fearless and intense player, she’s a fearless and intense composer, shades of another first-class alto saxophonist, Kenny Garrett. Restless, irrepressible, unafraid and unfailingly terse, much of what she does here is transcendent. Like Garrett, she likes a stinging chromatic edge, often taking on a potently modal, Middle Eastern tinge. Like JD Allen, she doesn’t waste notes: she doesn’t waste time making her point and the result reverberates, sometimes because she likes to hit the hook again and again, sometimes because her punches delivers so much wallop. There are plenty of other influences on her new cd Dandelion Clock (Coltrane, obviously), but her voice is uniquely hers. An obviously inspired supporting cast of Art Hirahara on piano, Linda Oh on bass and Kyle Struve on drums do more than just support, they seize the moment as you do when you get the chance to play songs like this. The tracks are originals bookended by a couple of covers (isn’t that what cover are for, anyway?).

The most Coltrane-esque composition, both melodically and architecturally, here is the dark, bracing ballad Marble, Manning’s circular hook giving way to Hirahara’s thoughtfully slinking piano that builds to an insistent staccato crescendo. Oh’s solo follows with similarly relentless insistence as piano and drums prowl around behind her. The title track contemplates the concept of time as children see it – it’s not finite. The song is pensive and uneasy, as if to say that Manning knows something the kids don’t and this is her rather oblique way of telling them. Bernard Herrmann-esque piano builds expansively to a tense rhythm that ticks like a bomb, Manning emerging off-center, circling her way down to a simple but brutally effective crescendo and an ominous diminuendo from there. Crossing, Waiting is an even more potently intense exercise in how to build tension, beginning with Oh’s marvelously laconic, pointed solo, Manning eventually adding raw little phraselets over Struve’s equally incisive rattle. The high point of the album is The Owls Are on the March, something of an epic. Hirahara’s haunted-attic righthand is the icing on Manning’s plaintively circling phrases. The way she builds and finally sails her way out of an expansive Hirahara solo, turns on a dime and finally brings up the lights, then winds them down mournfully again is one of the most exquisite moments on any jazz album in the last few years.

There’s also the aptly titled Phoenix Song, Manning’s easygoing congeniality a bright contrast with the brooding band arrangement until she goes otherworldly with them at the end; the equally otherworldly tone poem Through the Keyhole and the after-dark scenario Habersham St. The two covers are strikingly original, a defiantly unsettling post-bop interpretation of Jimmy Rowles’ The Peacocks, and Michel Legrand’s The Windmills of Your Mind, taken with a murky tango feel to the back streets of Paris – prime Piaf territory – and then out to Toulouse. Manning is somebody to get to know now – the album’s just out on Posi-Tone.

May 13, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: The Ullmann/Swell 4 – News? No News

The most recent jazz album we reviewed here was part sleepy bedtime jazz and part solace-after-a-hard-day jazz. The one before that was boudoir jazz. The Ullmann/Swell 4’s debut as a unit together is fun jazz, headphone jazz, the kind of album where it’s obvious from the first few notes what a good time the band is having. You want psychedelic? Wow. The star of the show, at the absolute top of his game here, is veteran drummer Barry Altschul. He refuses to sit still or stop misbehaving, in the process delivering a clinic in how to propel a song on the off-beat. Meanwhile, the group converse and shift shapes, careening joyously between blazing hooks and impressively terse, actually interesting free jazz interplay. They open it up rousingly with Altschul establishing what will be his trademark here, rumbling and crashing around under a circular horn motif, trombonist Steve Swell eventually running amok, then tossing the hot potato to his co-leader, tenor saxist Gebhard Ullmann.

The second track, aptly title New York opens with a swaying vamp and a sly bluesy hook – Swell takes over as the boom turns into more of a crash, bustle alternating with chaos. Like New York, the underpinning is sturdy and stands up to constant use. Track three is similar to two but quieter, morphing into a crashing swing number with Ullmann skirting the melody, resisting it as the drums do the same with the rhythm. They follow that with a more exploratory joint, Ullmann throwing off some high overtones and getting into a casual conversation with Swell.

The next cut takes a pretty, cinematic ballad and pulls the wings off, Ullmann and Swell in turn, and all of a sudden they bring it back but Altschul is still off in cumulo-nimbus land somewhere.The title track gets sandwiched by two artfully constructed improvisations, the first kind of like what happens when four jazz guys walk into a very quiet bar, the second far more invigorated. The song itself percolates along on a catchy bass hook from Hilliard Greene, who plays ringmaster, whether heating it up for a fiery duel between Swell and Ullmann’s bass clarinet, or simply holding it together as Altschul does his thing. The cheery Berlin has Greene’s bouncy pulse again providing the glue as the horns slowly and ineluctably take it outside. The album ends on a high note with the multistylistic showcase Airtight, playfully swoopy bass turning into a funk vamp as Altschul prowls around and swipes at his cymbals to keep the cliches away, Ullmann’s bass clarinet solo all over the place register-wise, trombone fluttering as bass and bass clarinet interlock hypnotically with the drums, finally Greene’s reliable low register signaling the way out of the labyrinth. There’s a lot going on here, headphones absolutely required.

March 6, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Charlie Kohlhase’s Explorer’s Club – Adventures

Rigorously cerebral yet imbued with a clever, carefree humor, this is an album that adventurous jazz fans will find as entertaining as it is cutting-edge. Recorded in 2007, it’s been out for awhile but since it just came over the transom here (thanks guys!) it made sense to give it a spin and, voila, it struck a nerve. Like his mentor Roswell Rudd, saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase pushes the envelope. The septet’s main shtick is that they have two drummers, Miki Matsuki and Chris Punis (whose mightily intelligent, straightforward playing anchors Gypsy Schaeffer’s excellent new cd, just reviewed here). Here, drums as often as not serve as a tonal rather than a rhythmic instrument, rhythm being passed around between Kohlhase’s and Matt Langley’s saxes, Jeff Galindo’s trombone, Eric Hofbauer’s guitar or to Jef Charland’s tastefully tuneful, understated bass. This is a concept album of sorts, playfully riffing on several comic book superhero themes. Superhero Beatdown starts out with starkly strummed guitar and multiple horn conversations, building up to the point where total bedlam ensues: the hero in question no doubt ends up in the emergency room. Then there’s Utensor, out to save the world with ovesize kitchen implements, moving from a satirical opening to a dialogue between logical bass and peeved tenor, the rest of the band eventually joining the argument as the drums rumble ominously underneath: could that be someone doing the dishes?

 

The Alarm Clock Is My Only Kryptonite will resonate wryly with anyone dreading the dawn of a workday, the pain of waking up vividly illustrated in five alternately tortuous and amusing minutes, trombone taking a completely ridiculous, laugh-out-loud funny muted solo over the band’s woozy atmospherics. The amusingly titled Thryllkyll on the Schuyllkyll kicks off with a faux detective theme, baritone sax climbing to a repetitive, Coltrane-esque riff eventually passed to the guitar while the band encircles it ever more tightly. There are also a couple of John Tchicai compositions written specifically for a two-drummer ensemble, the first a diverse exercise in call-and-response dialogues, the second featuring some mighty, somewhat martial ensemble work from the two drummers. The two most accessible cuts here are a tongue-in-cheek stab at a ballad by Charland and the strikingly straightforward James Brown homage that winds up the album. If you’re interested in where jazz is going, or where it’s going to be in ten years, this is for you, as well as for more mainstream listeners looking to broaden their sonic horizons. Don’t let the phrase “post-bop” scare you away – this stuff is fun. All the players here maintain active live schedules, watch this space for New York dates.

April 12, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment