Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Marcus Shelby’s Soul of the Movement: Best Album of the Year So Far?

Majestic, hard-hitting and intense, bassist/composer Marcus Shelby’s new civil rights-era themed big band album Soul of the Movement charges to the front of this year’s crop: it’s neck and neck for top billing with the Roulette Sisters’ new one right now. Shelby calls this a “meditation” on Martin Luther King, which makes sense in that the composer has obviously reflected deeply on King’s impact on his era, and vice versa. Shelby has strongly incorporated a Mingus influence, but also has an individual voice, vividly evoking struggle but also triumphant joy. The orchestra comprises Jeff Marrs on drums; Gabe Eaton and Marcus Stephens on alto sax; Sheldon Brown and Evan Francis on tenor; Fil Lorenz on baritone; Joel Behrman, Rob Ewing and Mike Rinta on trombones; Louis Fasman, Scott Englebright, Mike Olmos, Darren Johnston and Mark Wright on trumpets; Adam Shulman and Sista Kee on piano; Matt Clark on B3 organ and Shelby himself conducting from the bass. Contralto Faye Carol and Kenny Washington deliver passionate gospel vocals on a handful of songs as well.

They turn the gospel standard There Is a Balm in Gilead into a brief, balmy overture with vocalese and then launch into another gospel standard, Amen, ablaze with brass and call-and-response vocals. The first of Shelby’s compositions, Emmett Till, offers unexpected sweltery summer ambience in place of the expected dirge. It’s a feast of strong motifs, a tribute to the man rather than an attempt to evoke his martyrdom, imaginatively propelled and embellished by Marrs’ drums. Black Cab, a boisterous swing blues number sung by Carol, pays tribute to the car pools who drove Montgomery residents around during the 1956-57 Montgomery bus boycott, lit up by a tremendously affecting alto solo from Eaton. A cover of the Mingus classic Fables of Faubus is every bit as defiantly exhilarating as it could be, the band absolutely nailing that dark latin groove that emerges toward the end. Trouble on the Bus continues in a gorgeously brooding vein, building uneasily from Shelby’s ominous series of bass chords and taking flight on the wings of the alto sax.

The epic Birmingham (Project C) potently evokes the 1963 Birmingham marches and clashes with the police: it’s the strongest and most cinematic track here among many strong ones. Shifting from pulse-quickening suspense to frenetic chase scenes, it evokes the same kind of horror that Shostakovich portrayed in his numerous requiems for the victims of Stalin’s terror. The two-part Memphis (I Am a Man) illustrates King’s final act before his murder, in support of striking Memphis sanitation workers. Noirish atmosphere rising over a tense latin beat, Howard Wiley’s soprano sax struggles against its constrictions throughout a long, white-knuckle-intense solo; the second part bustles with ominous Mingus echoes and ends unresolved. The rest of the album includes the rousing organ riffage of the gospel funk song We’re a Winner, an inspired swing jazz version of Go Tell It on the Mountain and a tersely torchy, stripped-down version of Precious Lord, Take My Hand to close on an aptly contemplative note. For maximum impact, you may want to separate out the upbeat gospel-flavored tracks from the stormy big band stuff when uploading to your ipod. It’s out now on Porto Franco Records.

January 27, 2011 Posted by | gospel music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Nathaniel Smith Quartet Puts Out a Memorable Debut

The songs on the Nathaniel Smith Quartet’s debut album are cosmopolitan and often warmly evocative – and they’re songs in the purest sense of the word. Smith’s hooks and tunes are memorable, if not always head-on – there’s plenty of implied melody, and as you would expect from a drummer, he’s got a great feel for the spaces between. In case you might be wondering, this cat plays under the name Nathaniel Smith to avoid confusion with his colleague of the same name who goes by Nate. He’s got a good band: on alto sax, Jon Irabagon hangs closer to the purist melodicism of his Concord Jazz work rather than the bebop terrorism of his more outside projects like Mostly Other People Do the Killing. Mark Anderson holds down the bass smartly and tersely, with Jostein Gulbrandsen – who also contributes two compositions – on guitar.

The opening track, Daybreak and Then Dusk, seems to allude to a day gone in a flash, briskly shuffling, Gulbrandsen feeling around uneasily for his footing, Irabagon running out of gas comedically after a scurrying excursion, Anderson playing the voice of reason and taking it halftime as Smith splashes around, obviously in his element. Tortoise Pendant, a jazz waltz in disguise, gracefully expands from a steady center – in the distance, you can hear an old soul song amid Irabagon’s expansive permutations. The first of Gulbrandsen’s songs, Return of the Bear – a stock market allusion, maybe? – shuffles edgily over a terse central hook, Irabagon bringing it up to a rapidfire swirl and then back, where they hammer it home simply and matter-of-factly. Gulbrandsen’s other one is the largo ballad Tomorrow’s Perfume, a really interesting one, the languidness of the melody making room for artful, judicious coloring from Smith, Irabagon allowing just enough of the tune to emerge that its distant blues ballad ancestry becomes clear.

The last three tunes on the album are Smith originals. Actionable Intelligence is a latin number (a Guantanamo reference?), Irabagon adding another priceless anticlimax, Anderson once again getting the chance to referee and making his call count. Travishamockery is a catchy, swaying, funk-infused number with Irabagon’s most gripping solo, after which he makes a face, saying “I’ve had enough” – it’s impossible not to laugh. Smith knocks out the beat completely deadpan on his ride cymbal toward the end, with a devious trick ending. The final track, Shadow Puppet, another jazz waltz, has Gulbrandsen’s finest moment here, biting and focused as he makes his way out of the upper registers, Smith decisively throwing a jab or two when the moment is right. Although some listeners may find some of the guitar solos on the longish side, for the great majority of the time, this group really makes their notes count for something. The album is out now on Fresh Sound New Talent.

Smith is also a particularly insightful and articulate writer: his blog offers a provocative and inspiring look at the state of jazz today from the point of view of a player who’s come up in the past decade or so.

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