Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The 20 Best Jazz Albums of 2012

Assembling a year-end list that’s going to get a lot of traffic demands a certain degree of responsibility: to be paying attention, and to be keeping an eye on what’s lurking in the shadows because that’s usually where the action is. Gil Evans knew that, and that’s why he’s on this one.

As pretty much everybody knows, the final Dave Brubeck Quartet live show surfaced this year, as did the earliest known Wes Montgomery recordings, a tasty couple of rare Bill Evans live sets and a big box set of previously unreleased Mingus. The reason why they’re not on this list is because they’re on everybody else’s…and because they’re easy picks. This is an attempt to be a little more adventurous, to cast a wider net, to help spread the word about current artists whose work is every bit as transcendent. Obviously, there are going to be glaring omissions here: even the most rabid jazz advocate can only digest a few hundred albums a year at the most. And much as Henry Threadgill’s Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp and the historic Sam Rivers Trio’s Reunion: Live in New York are phenomenal albums, they both fell off the list since each has received plenty of praise elsewhere.

1. Wadada Leo Smith – Ten Freedom Summers
The trumpeter/bandleader’s massive four-cd box set is his magnum opus, as historically important as it is sonically rich, harrowing, cinematic and eclectic, anchored in the blues and gospel and taking flight pretty much everywhere else. Some will say that the string-driven sections of this restless Civil Rights Movement epic are classical music, and they’re probably right: Smith is just as formidable and powerful a composer in that idiom as he is in jazz. With a huge cast of characters, most notably pianist Anthony Davis and drummer Pheeroan AkLaff. This Cuneiform release gets the top spot for 2012.

2. Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans
Conductor/arranger Ryan Truesdell, a leading Evans scholar, unearthed and then recorded ten of the iconic composer’s most obscure big band works and arrangements for the first time, with the blessing of the composer’s family and an inspired cast of players. In a way, to fail to put this lush noir masterpiece at the top of the list is ridiculous, considering how emotionally intense, luminous, haunting and resonant this music is. As with Smith’s album, a huge lineup turns in a chilling performance, including possibly career-defining moments from drummer Lewis Nash, pianist Frank Kimbrough and especially vibraphonist Joe Locke. Truesdell heads up the Gil Evans Project, who put this out.

3. Hafez Modirzadeh – Post-Chromodal Out!
The most radical, paradigm-shifting and sonically intriguing album of the year was the Persian-American saxophonist’s latest adventure in microtonal music. Blue notes have defined jazz from the beginning, but this album is blue flames: and to be hubristic, here’s to the argument that this album is Vijay Iyer’s greatest shining moment so far, as he revels in a piano tuned in three-quarter tones to mimic the tetrachords of the music of Iran. An adventurous cast delivers overtone-fueled, sometimes gamelanesque mystery and menace through two suites, one by Modirzadeh, one by saxophonist Jim Norton. With Amir ElSaffar on trumpet, Ken Filiano on bass, Royal Hartigan on drums, Danongan Kalanduyan on kulintang, Faraz Minooei on santoor and Timothy Volpicella on guitar. Pi Records get credit for this one.

4. Ran Blake & Sara Serpa – Aurora
The second collaboration from the iconic noir pianist and the eclectic singer/composer is every bit as intense and otheworldly as their 2010 collaboration, Camera Obscura, and considerably more diverse. This one’s taken mostly from a concert  in Serpa’s native Portugal, a mix of classics, brilliant obscurities, icy/lurid cinematic themes and a riveting a-cappella take of Strange Fruit. It’s out on Clean Feed.

5. David Fiuczynski – Planet Microjam
A stunningly diverse set by the pioneering microtonal guitarist, joining  forces with Evan Marien on bass, Evgeny Lebedev on piano, David Radley on violin, Takeru Yamazaki on keyboards and a rotating cast of drummers including Kenwood Dennard, Jovol Bell, Jack DeJohnette and Club D’Elf’s Eric Kerr. Alternately otherworldly, wryly sardonic, ferocious and utterly Lynchian, Fiuczynski reinvents Beethoven as well as exploring Asian, Middle Eastern and Indian themes. It’s out from Rare Noise.

6. Neil Welch – Sleeper
The Seattle saxophonist leads a chamber jazz ensemble with Ivan Arteaga on alto and soprano saxes, Jesse Canterbury on bass clarinet, Vincent LaBelle on trombone and David Balatero and Natalie Hall on cellos through a chilling narrative suite about the murder of an Iraqi general, Abdel Hamed Mowhoush, tortured to death in American custody. Shostakovian ambience gives way to a cinematic trajectory laced with sarcasm and terrifying allusiveness. A triumph for Seattle’s Table and Chairs Music.

7. The Fab Trio – History of Jazz in Reverse
The late violin titan Billy Bang with bassist Joe Fonda and drummer Barry Altschul in a deep and casually riveting 2005 session, improvising a gospel-drenched Bea Rivers elegy, an Asian-tinged Don Cherry homage, a salsa vamp and chillingly chromatic funk and swing. Tum Records happily saw fit to pull this one out of the archives.

8. Giacomo Merega – Watch the Walls
The bassist is joined by his Dollshot saxophonist bandmate Noah Kaplan plus Marco Cappelli on guitar, Mauro Pagani on violin and Anthony Coleman on piano for a chillingly sepulchral series of improvisations that range from whispery, to atmospheric, to quietly horrific, to funereal: a bleak black-and-white film noir for the ears. Free jazz doesn’t get any better than this. It’s out on Underwolf Records.

9. Gregg August – Four By Six
The eclectic bassist from JD Allen’s trio (and the Brooklyn Philharmonic) writes intense, pulsing pan-latin themes, often with a brooding Gil Evans luminosity. This one mixes quartet and sextet pieces, with Sam Newsome on soprano sax, Luis Perdomo on piano and E.J. Strickland or Rudy Royston on drums,Yosvany Terry on alto sax, John Bailey on trumpet and  JD Allen on tenor sax.

10. Orrin Evans – Flip the Script
Glistening with gritty melody, wit, plaintiveness and unease, this is the pianist’s most straightforward and impactful small-group release to date (to distinguish it from his work with the mighty Captain Black Big Band), a trio session with bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Donald Edwards. Phantasmagorical blues, chromatic soul and a haunting reinvention of the old disco hit The Sound of Philadelphia are highlights of this Posi-Tone release.

11. The Fred Hersch Trio – Alive at the Vanguard
The pianist’s third live album at this mecca is a charm, like the other two, a lavish and gorgeously melodic double-disc set culled from his February, 2012 stand there with bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson  Mostly slow-to-midtempo with lots nocturnes, interplay, a Paul Motian homage, and happily plenty of Hersch’s lyrical originals. It’s out on Palmetto.

12. Brian Charette – Music for Organ Sextette
Organ jazz doesn’t get any more interesting or cutting-edge than this richly arranged, characteristically witty, high-energy session with Charette on the B3 along with John Ellis taking a turn on bass clarinet, Jay Collins on flute, Joel Frahm on tenor, Mike DiRubbo on alto and Jochen Rueckert on drums. Eclectic themes – a reggae trope gone to extremes, a baroque fugue, jaggedly Messiaenic funk and gospel grooves – make a launching pad for witty repartee.

13. Tia Fuller – Angelic Warrior
The saxophonist shows off her sizzilng postbop chops on both soprano and alto sax on a fiery mix of mostly original compositions with a warm camaderie among the band: Shamie Royston on piano, Rudy Royston on drums, Mimi Jones on bass, John Patitucci playing single-note guitar-style leads on piccolo bass, Shirazette Tinnin on percussion. Terri Lyne Carrington on drums on three tracks, and Dianne Reeves adding an aptly misty vocal on Body and Soul  It’s a Mack Avenue release.

14. Guy Klucevsek –  The Multiple Personality Reunion Tour
The irrepressible accordionist teams up with members of novoya polka stars Brave Combo for this playful, brightly entertaining, characteristically devious romp through waltzes, cinematic themes, and reinventions of Erik Satie. With Marcus Rojas on tuba, Jo Lawry on vocals, John Hollenbeck on drums, Dave Douglas on trumpet, Brandon Seabrook on guitar, Steve Elson on tenor sax and many others. It’s out on Innova.

15. Old Time Musketry – Different Times
On their auspicious debut, multi-reedman Adam Schneit and multi-keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch lead this quartet with bassist Phil Rowan and drummer Max Goldman through a moody yet rhythmically intense mix of wintry, pensive, Americana-tinged themes in the same vein as the best work of Bill Frisell or Jeremy Udden.

16. Endemic Ensemble – Lunar
For some reason, Seattle has put out a ton of good music this year and this is yet another example, a tuneful mix of swing, droll minatures and a darkly majestic clave tune, all with bright and distinct horn charts. With Steve Messick on bass, Ken French on drums, David Franklin on piano, Matso Limtiaco on baritoine saxes amd Travis Ranney on saxes

17. The Danny Fox Trio – The One Constant
We may have lost Brubeck, but lyrical third-stream composition is in good hands with guys like pianist Danny Fox, gritting his teeth here with bassist Chris van Voorst van Beest and drummer Max Goldman throughout this edgy, bitingly vivid, occasionally sardonic set of mood pieces and cruelly amusing narratives

18. Slumgum – Quardboard Flavored Fiber
Rainy-day improvisation, noirish third-stream themes, latin and funk interludes, Sam Fuller-style cinematic themes for a new century and playful satire from this fearless LA quartet: Rory Cowal on piano, Joe Armstrong on tenor sax, Dave Tranchina on bass and Trevor Anderies on drums.

19. Catherine Russell – Strictly Romancin’
Guitarist Matt Munisteri is the svengali behind this historically rich, expansive, soulful Louis Armstrong homage from the chanteuse whose multi-instrumentalist dad played with Satchmo for many years. With Mark Shane on piano, Lee Hudson on bass, Mark McClean on drums; Joey Barbato on accordion; Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; John Allred on trombone, and Dan Block and Andy Farber on reeds. From Harmonia Mundi.

20. Juhani Aaltonen and Heikki Sarmanto – Conversations
Two old lions of Nordic jazz, Finnish tenor saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen and pianist Heikki Sarmanto trade on and off lush, nocturnal modal themes throughout this lavish, casually vivid double-disc set. Notes linger and are never wasted, the two take their time and leave a mark that’s either warmly resonant or broodingly ominous. A Tum Records release.

21. Bass X3 – Transatlantic
For anyone who might think that this is a joke, or a novelty record – Chris Dahlgren and Clayton Thomas’ basses blending with Gebhard Ullmann’s bass clarinet – you have to hear it. For fans of low tonalities, it’s sonic bliss, the centerpiece being a roughly 45-minute drone improvisation broken up into three parts, spiced with playfully ghostly embellishments amidst brooding desolation and hypnotic, suspenseful rumbles. A Leo Records release.

December 25, 2012 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another Landmark Collaboration From Sara Serpa and Ran Blake

For a singer, recording a live album with Ran Blake is a potential minefield. The iconic noir pianist is no mere accompanist: he’s a bandmate. To say that he’s hard to follow is an understatement to the extreme. What is there about Blake that hasn’t been said already? That he is to improvisation what Schoenberg was to composition, maybe? Other pianists would kill to be able to command the kind of otherworldly menace that Blake goes up onstage and pulls out of thin air. And while there’s more often than not a rigorous logic to his melodic sensibility, there’s no telling where he might go with it.

This past May, Sara Serpa took fate in her hands and recorded a live piano-and-vocal album with Blake, titled Aurora and just released on Clean Feed. Adventurous as this may seem at face value, Serpa and Blake have the advantage of being old friends: she’s been a protegee of his since their days together at the New England Conservatory. Which comes as no surprise: they’re peas in a pod, rugged individualists and formidable intellects who share a fondness for third-stream eclecticism and a fear of absolutely nothing. This new album builds on the often shattering camaraderie they shared on their initial duo recording, 2010’s Camera Obscura.

What’s not news is that this is Blake being Blake, chilling, unpredictable yet at the same time giving the songs here plenty of wit, sometimes cruel, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes surprisingly droll. What’s news is how much Serpa, already a distinctive singer, has grown. The disarming quality of her completely unadorned, crystalline, reflecting-pool mezzo-soprano pairs off memorably and not a little hauntingly with Blake’s broodingly opaque, occasionally savage tonalities. Although her approach to a song has every bit as much rigorous precision as Blake’s, she’s back at her old Lisbon stomping ground here (at the sonically superb Auditorio da Culturgest, recorded both in concert and live in the hall the following day) and is clearly feeding off a triumphant homecoming of sorts.

The first song is Saturday, a ballad recorded by Sarah Vaughn early in her career. From its defiantly icy intro, “Saturday…just a doesn’t matter day” becomes a coolly poignant lament. When Autumn Sings, the first of two R.B. Lynch/Abbey Lincoln compositions, finds Blake doing an offhandedly creepy waltz up against Serpa’s surprisingly bluesy melismatics. And yet, by the end, he’s lured her deep into the shadows.

The duo veer between phantasmagorical ragtime and various shades of macabre on a piano-and-vocalese improvisation on Konrad Elfers’ Dr. Mabuse, from the film soundtrack – it’s one of the album’s high points. From there they segue into Cansaco, a 1958 hit for fado icon Amalia Rodriguez. It opens with a moonlit mournfulness, Blake and Serpa exchanging motifs, always understating the song’s lovelorn drama

They follow that with a jauntily carnivalesque take on the bizarre 1950s space-travel relic Moonride, inspired by the Chris Connor version. Serpa sings Strange Fruit a-cappella with a chilling nonchalance, only digging into the melody when the imagery becomes grisly. Blake’s solo spot, titled Mahler Noir, defamiliaizes a couple of late Romantic theme with a tersely crystallized, crepuscular menace that wouldn’t be out of place in peak-era Pink Floyd. Then they romp twistedly through The Band Played On, chosen since the song appears on the soundtrack to Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.

Love Lament, another Lynch/Lincoln song, gets a broodingly spacious understatement, Serpa matching Blake ellipsis for loaded ellipsis. They keep the snowswept angst going with Wende: the way Serpa sings “pressing so deep into my soul” will rip your face off. By contrast, Fine and Dandy juxtaposes wry Van Morrison allusions with Serpa’s utterly trad, completely deadpan acrobatics. They close the show with a ballad Serpa selected, Last Night When We Were Young, underscoring this ode to defeat with an absinthe hush that’s as quietly powerful as anything these two artists can conjure. Like their previous collaboration, this album makes a mockery of any attempt to rank it against others from this year or for that matter any year. This is music for eternity, a bleak yet sometimes unexpectedly amusing antidote to the shadows encroaching around us.

November 14, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The 25 Best Jazz Albums of 2011

If there’s one thing this page tries to avoid, it’s redundancy: if you’ve been here before, you’ve noticed that coverage here typically focuses on talent flying under the radar. That’s not to imply that the Marsalises, Vijay Iyers and Christian McBrides of the world aren’t valid artists, only that you probably already know about them. And there’s actually an album by a Marsalis (although not one who might immediately spring to mind) on this list.

Another thing to keep in mind is that even the most dedicated listener only has the opportunity to hear, at the most, a few hundred out of the thousands of jazz albums released every year. Then there’s the big can of worms that spills over with every attempt to rank them. How do you compare a big band with a stark bass-and-voice duo? How does a recording of sepulchral flute-and-percussion improvisations weigh up against a collection of intricate, politically fueled, narrative compositions? Isn’t all that just apples and oranges? Consider this a perhaps misguided stab at tackling all of the above, keeping in mind that the difference quality-wise between #1 and #25 here is infinitesimally small – all the albums here are worth your time.

Most years, trying to decide just which jazz album is the year’s best is a crapshoot. This year, however, there’s one that stands out over the rest of a very strong crop, and that’s the Curtis Brothers’ Completion of Proof. Written by pianist Zaccai Curtis as the Bush regime was finally coming to an end, it’s a towering, sometimes wrathful, cruelly sarcastic concept album that explores the effects of fascism and those who perpetrate it, from the school hall monitor to heads of state. As political art, it ranks with Mingus and Shostakovich for its insight and bleak, ironic wit: as music, it’s hard-hitting, ambitious but searingly melodic, as political music has to be. Drummer Ralph Peterson (who also put out a dynamite album of his own this year, Outer Reaches, a Larry Young tribute) gets special mention for propelling this monster: the rest of the cast includes Luques Curtis, Jimmy Greene, Brian Lynch, Donald Harrison and Pedrito Martinez.

JD Allen, who topped the charts here with I Am I Am in 2007, gets the #2 spot for VICTORY!, his elegant and equally hard-hitting trio sonata album with Gregg August and Rudy Royston. The tenor saxophonist’s laser-beam sense of melody, his majestic and fearlessly brooding, chromatically-charged themes, his artful use of his rhythm section and imaginative employment of duo arrangements have never been more impactful than they are here. There’s no other composer in jazz who’s ahead of this guy right now.

#3 goes to a group you may have never heard of, the self-titled debut by Beninghove’s Hangmen, who take Marc Ribot-style noir themes to all sorts of genuinely menacing places. Noir can become a cliche, but not with this band – veering from Mingus bustle to noisy, macabre surf rock, they breathe fresh air into every dark cinematic style you’ve ever heard. With Bryan Beninghove, Rick Parker, Eyal Maoz, Dane Johnson, Kellen Harrison and Shawn Baltazor.

4. Ran Blake and Dominique Eade – Whirlpool. To put the definitive noir pianist of our time anywhere other than #1 is hubris: at 76, he’s never been more counterintuitive or moodily interesting. Eade brings her equally restless chops to a mix of vocal standards, all of which they radically reinvent – and the best song here might be Eade’s original.

5. Ralph Bowen – Power Play. The tenor saxophonist is just as much about precision as he is power, but where he excels most is as a composer. Leading a quartet with Orrin Evans, Kenny Davis and Donald Edwards, his fiery, vividly uneasy melodicism was unsurpassed by anyone else this year.

6. Billy Bang Bill Cole. A 2009 concert performance with the late, great violinist/improviser – whom we sadly lost this year – inventing new elements with the noted multi-reedman. It’s essentially a series of tone poems, some rising with an astringent airiness, sometimes uncoiling with an unrestrained ferocity. There are some scary albums on this list: this is probably the scariest.

7. Delfeayo Marsalis – Suite Thunder. As with the Mingus Orchestra’s Live at Jazz Standard album last year, it probably isn’t even fair to include this album, which has the trombonist leading a big band that revisits the legendary Ellington suite with an A-list of players including but not limited to Branford Marsalis, Red Atkins, Victor Goines, Jason Marshall, Mark Gross, Tiger Okoshi and Mulgrew Miller.

8. Sara Serpa – Mobile. Serpa’s claim to fame is vocalese – imagine the purest, most crystalline soprano sax that could possibly exist, then add mega-amounts of soul, determination, originality and frequent existential angst along with moody, intense, counterintuitively crescendoing, sometimes third-stream themes inspired by writing about travel and migration. With Kris Davis, Andre Matos, Ben Street and Ted Poor.

9. The Captain Black Big Band. This was ticket that everybody wanted, and nobody could get this year, pianist Orrin Evans’ mighty, swinging steamroller. Evans is a cerebral guy, but this group is a pure raw adrenaline rush. With a huge cast frequently including Rob Landham, Gianluca Renzi, Todd Marcus, Ralph Bowen, Jim Holton, Anwar Marshall, Tatum Greenblatt, Mark Allen, Jaleel Shaw and Neil Podgurski.

10. Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra – Hothouse Stomp. The trumpeter resurrects blazing, barely three-minute gems from Harlem and Chicago in the 20s by Tiny Parham, Charles Johnson and Fess Williams. With Dennis Lichtman, Andy Laster, Matt Bauder, Curtis Hasselbring, Jordan Voelker, Mazz Swift, Brandon Seabrook and Rob Garcia.

11. Iconoclast – Dirty Jazz. Technically, this came out at the very tail end of 2010, but who’s counting? Julie Joslyn’s liquid mercury alto sax (and snarling violin) and Leo Ciesa’s slasher drums (and icily melodic piano) are in full noir effect on this uncompromising, smartly aware, assaultively lurid effort.

12. Brian Landrus – Traverse. Much like Gerry Mulligan fifty years ago, the baritone saxophonist pushes the limits of where his instrument can go, with a warm melodicism to match, over grooves that range from latin to reggae to a jazz waltz to hypnotic ambience. With Michael Cain, Lonnie Plaxico and Billy Hart.

13. Rich Halley – Requiem for a Viper. A raw, powerhouse, sometimes explosive, sometimes deviously witty improvisationally-driven collection of intense originals, more of a party than a funeral, the saxophonist backed by a mighty rhythm section of bassist Clyde Reed and drummer Carson Halley along with trombonist Michael Vlatkovich.

14. Jen Shyu and Mark Dresser – Synastry. Just bass and vocals have never sounded more interesting than they do here on these two improvisers’ stunningly diverse, sometimes unexpectedly amusing and tuneful duos.

15. Monty Alexander – Harlem-Kingston Express Live. Where the preeminent Jamaican pianist of our era lyrically, genially and triumphantly explores both his jazz and reggae roots: it’s only a tad less exhilarating than his 1995 Yard Movement effort. With Hassan Shakur, Obed Calvaire,Yotam Silberstein, Andy Bassford, Hoova Simpson, Karl Wright and Robert Thomas.

16. Bad Luck – Two. Like Iconoclast, this is basically sax and percussion, with electronic effects that add a creepy edge to the compositions and improvisations on this white-knuckle-intense double-disc set from drummer/percussionist Christopher Icasiano and saxophonist Neil Welch.

17. Michel Camilo – Mano a Mano. Where the Dominican pianist teams up with his longtime bassist Charles Flores and percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo for an intimate but often exhilarating blend of third-stream and Afro-Cuban themes.

18. Patrick Cornelius – Maybe Steps. The alto saxophonist’s artful, shapeshifting compositions mine rich veins of modalities, murky noir themes and nocturnal melody: although this is a studio recording, it has the unleashed energy of a stage show. With Gerald Clayton, Peter Slavov, Kendrick Scott, Miles Okazaki and Assen Doykin.

19. The Phil Dwyer Orchestra – Changing Seasons. The Canadian saxophonist/bandleader’s take on a four-seasons suite is lushly tuneful and sweepingly orchestrated, and ends on a surprisingly effective, upbeat note. With a huge cast of characters including a full string section as well as contributions from Mark Fewer, Chris Gestrin, Jon Wikan and Ingrid Jensen.

20. Benjamin Drazen – Inner Flights. The saxophonist has speed and power, and even more impressively, a restless intensity when it comes to songwriting. Alternating between pensive, edgy modes and big swing anthems, he leads a first-class band featuring Jon Davis in particularly scorching mode on piano along with Carlo De Rosa on bass and Eric McPherson on drums.

21. Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble – Inana. This time out, the innovative Iraqi-American quartertone trumpeter brings Middle Eastern themes into American jazz rather than the other way around in this bracing, fascinating suite inspired by the Mesopotamian goddess of love and war. With Tareq Abboushi, Zafer Tawil, Ole Mathisen, Carlo DeRosa and Nasheet Waits.

22. David Gibson – End of the Tunnel. The trombonist’s late-night Memphis style 60s soul groove album that imaginatively adds rhythmic complexity to Booker T. and Stax/Volt B3 organ vamps. With Julius Tolentino, Jared Gold and Quincy Davis.

23. Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica – Third River Rangoon. It’s amazing how lush and hypnotic Brian O’Neill a.k.a. Mr. Ho gets a flute, marimba, bass and percussion to sound on this utterly narcotic collection of nocturnes, many of which playfully pilfer well-known classical themes. It’s by far the most psychedelic album on this list.

24. Carlo Costa – Crepuscular Activity. The drummer’s sepulchral duo improvisations with bass flutist Yukari make an excellent segue with #23 above, 27 whispery, creepy minutes of shadowy furtiveness and sometimes pure chill.

25. Dave Juarez – Round Red Light. Juarez is a guitarist who doesn’t play like one, favoring terseness and melody every time over flash and ostentation; this album’s nocturnes, boleros, waltzes and a couple of barn-burners have a vivid, sometimes wary European flavor. With Seamus Blake, John Escreet, Lauren Falls and Bastian Weinhold.

December 18, 2011 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Sara Serpa’s Mobile Puts the World on Notice

In this era where full-length albums are becoming noticeably scarcer, they still make a handy way to follow the careers of the musicians and composers who continue to record them. Notable example: Sara Serpa. Her debut, Praya, was an aptly titled, beachy, enjoyably quirky collection that introduced her as a unique new voice. The singer/composer’s speciality is vocalese: she doesn’t often use lyrics, and she doesn’t scat, per se. She simply performs as an instrument within a group, whether out front or as a member of the supporting cast. Her clear, unadorned, disarming voice has an extraordinary directness, and honesty, and depth of feeling: if it was possible to look a mile down and see the bottom of the ocean with perfect clarity, Serpa would be the instrument to make that happen.

Her second album Camera Obscura, a collaboration with legendary noir pianist Ran Blake, established her as one of the great singers of her time: the album is a hushed, haunting thrill ride. Her latest one, Mobile, solidifies that rep and also puts her on the map as a first-rate composer. Every track here is solid. Serpa may play mostly jazz clubs with musicians from that community, but her style transcends genre. Academics would call it third stream: lately, she’s let some influences from her home country show themselves; she also happens to be unsurpassed at torchily brooding blues ballads.

As emotionally impactful as her music tends to be, it’s also rigorously cerebral. This album includes ten tracks, each inspired by a different book. Its central theme is travel: Serpa is Portuguese, based in New York when she’s not on tour, and obviously no stranger to new surroundings. The compositions follow a clear narrative: to call them cinematic would be an understatement. Ironically, Serpa’s presence here takes a back seat to the band sometimes – and wow, what a band. Pianist Kris Davis makes a perfect choice to channel Serpa’s uneasy yet resolute minor keys, austerely glimmering chordlets and the occasional rippling cadenza. Bassist Ben Street and drummer Ted Poor have a casual but incisive chemistry as they work their way up and down again, while guitarist Andre Matos also contributes.

The opening track, Sequoia Gigantis, begins with her quoting from Travels with Charley by Steinbeck: “The trees are an ambassador from another time.” Building toward an otherworldly ambience, she balances spaciously impressionistic piano and a couple of contrastingly off-kilter guitar excursions right up to a tremendously effective tradeoff to the vocals: it’s almost impossible to tell where the guitar leaves off and Serpa takes over, with an increasing sense of wonder. Ulysses’ Costume is a funk-infused number, Davis and Poor maintaining a dark undercurrent with some creepy Monk-inflected clockwork architecture as Serpa alludes to the hero recalling his journey’s ups and downs. Inspired by V.S. Naipaul’s Area of Darkness – a chronicle of the author’s 1962 trip to India to explore his roots there – Pilgrimage to Armanath sets wary vocalese over austerely spacious electric piano and acoustic guitar, working methodically toward something approaching an epiphany.

Ahab’s Lament – a Moby Dick reference – begins creepy and grows triumphant. As Matos’ guitar climbs judiciously toward a big crescendo, this could be the Grateful Dead in 1969, with a good singer. From there they practically segue straight into If, a chilling return to Serpa’s noir days with Blake. E.e. cummings never sounded so plaintive or torn up, Matos’ chromatics enhancing the wounded ambience. Inspired by Ryszard Kapuscinski’s 2001 African memoir Shadow of the Sun, the next track remains pensive, although it has the most improvisational feel of anything here, Serpa holding the center after the band all climbs together and then goes their separate ways, rustling and scurrying.

Serpa does the Amalia Rodrigues fado hit Sem Razao (No Reason) as rainy day jazz lit up by Davis’ piano behind the clouds, then takes the last verse pretty straight up. Gold Digging Ants, an image from Herodotus, is chilly, insistent and mechanical, most likely a deliberate choice, Serpa offering deadpan menace over apprehensive modalities. Corto (drawing on a Hugo Pratt graphic novel) stays dark and picturesque, an evocation of ocean waves. They end it with City of Light, City of Darkness, influenced by Portuguese writer Jose Rodrigues Migueis’ Gente da Terceira Clase (The People in Third Class), a series of interwoven vignettes including what could be bustling subway and street scenes. As one would expect from Serpa, it ends unresolved. There’s an enormous amount to sink your ears into here: count this among the half-dozen best albums of the year in any style of music. Serpa plays the album release show for this one tomorrow night, the 13th at 8:30 at the Cornelia St. Cafe here in town and then on the 15th at the Lily Pad in Boston with Davis, Matos and a similarly solid rhythm section.

October 12, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 5/14/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #626:

Ran Blake & Jeanne Lee – The Newest Sound Around

Pianist Blake and singer Lee were just out of Bard College when they recorded this in 1961. Her debut recording, fifty years later, remains the definitive noir jazz album. Mostly just piano and vocals, it’s shattering and intense, Lee’s quietly otherworldly, understated alto matching Blake’s often gleefully macabre cascades for a chemistry that has seldom existed anywhere between a singer and instrumentalist. They’re off with a menacing flourish and a couple of icy blood droplets as Blake launches into Laura, Lee deadpan and chilling against the relentless suspense. The chill factor goes up a notch higher on the spacious, doomed Where Flamingos Fly and the quietly anguished vocalese of Vanguard. Love Isn’t Everything also understates its case, potently, and Lee’s a-cappella version of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child is heartbreaking. Yet not everything here is sad: there’s also the cynically funny Season in the Sun, the distantly gospel-tinged Church on Russel St. and a luridly sexy cover of Willie Dixon’s Evil. Forty-nine years later, Blake would recreate this mood with another another extraordinary singer, Sara Serpa, on their collaboration Camera Obscura. Here’s a random torrent.

May 14, 2011 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sara Serpa Transcends Everything

The theme of jazz singer/composer Sara Serpa’s show last night at the Cornelia St. Cafe was travel. It was all about loneliness, and quiet determination, and ultimately transcendence, something every true adventurer inevitably finds when confronted with challenges they’d never have met if they’d stayed in their comfort zone. Originally from Portugal, now making her home in New York, Serpa obviously knows a lot about that firsthand. Her stage presence is demure bordering on shy: her band intros and announcements between songs didn’t often reach the back of the room. But her vocals were as vivid as her stunningly original, memorable songs, most of them without words. Many of them went on for ten minutes or more, in a somewhat marathon set that literally heated up the room: one can only imagine how hot it must have been onstage. In an unadorned, vibratoless, crystalline delivery with a clarity so pure it was scary, Serpa sang mostly carefully chosen and stunningly nuanced vocalese, backed by an inspired cast including Andre Matos on guitar, Marcus Gilmore on drums, Ben Street on bass and Kris Davis on piano.

Most of the set was new material. The first song, Serpa explained, was inspired by John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie: “The music suits the landscape,” she explained, specifically, a San Francisco park. Over bass and guitar, she delivered a brief spoken-word interlude, her vocalese matter-of-fact and persevering with Davis’ stark block chords and Street’s pulsing bass, finally reaching up and parting the clouds triumphantly. The second number moved from variations on Davis’ pensive, terse broken chords to a gorgeously warm, swirling section featuring some gently incisive, vintage Jerry Garcia-inflected guitar from Matos into slowly fading, circular piano. A moodily syncopated, brilliantly understated number in Portuguese was the most trad moment of the night; the next song hinted at bossa nova, through murky, subterranean shifts in the low registers to an unexpectedly jaunty Serpa climb out of the morass, a cleverly circling drum solo and a sudden, cold ending.

Serpa’s new album Camera Obscura, with Ran Blake, is rich with noir ambience (and arguably the year’s best), and as much as there were tinges of this all night, they took it to the next level with a long partita, Gilmore’s artful cymbal work lowlighting Davis’ macabre music-box piano, Serpa maintaining an air of mystery all the way up to Gilmore’s decision to thump around and move the corpse. From the audience’s response, the most stunning moment of the night was a wrenchingly intense, barely three-minute version of Meaning of the Blues, vividly evoking Julie London’s wounded resignation but taking it to a logical, defeated extreme, Serpa’s careful enunciation leaving no doubt as to how badly it would end. At the end, there was a good five seconds of silence before the crowd exploded in applause. The show closed with Ten Long Days of Rain, from Serpa’s 2008 album Praia, an expansive, Radiohead-inflected pop-jazz showcase for her more playful, witty side, notably a cheerfully winking vocalese solo with bluesy soprano sax inflections. Serpa’s next NYC gig is on 10/4 at 9 at Tea Lounge in Park Slope with the Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra.

September 22, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ran Blake and Sara Serpa Make the Ultimate Noir Vocal Jazz Album

This is what David Lynch was going for with Angelo Badalementi and Julee Cruise but never quite managed to nail. Sara Serpa’s expertise is vocalese, a style at which the Portuguese-born chanteuse is ideally suited, yet it’s something she only utilizes on a couple of numbers on her new album Camera Obscura. Her English accent may not be perfect yet but her interpretation of the arrangements here, and her teamwork with her former New England Conservatory teacher, the legendary noir jazz pianist Ran Blake, is extraordinary. She approaches these songs with a devastating clarity and vulnerability: her delivery is completely unadorned, yet absolutely resolute and ultimately fearless. This is arguably the best album so far this year in jazz, or for that matter any style of music, every bit as original as Blake’s landmark 1961 collaboration with Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound Around. A cynic might say that it’s what Hilary Kole should have done on her album with Brubeck and Hank Jones and all those other legends but didn’t.

Nat King Cole’s When Sunny Gets Blue gets a characteristically understated, minimalist treatment. As she does throughout the album, Serpa brings the most minute details of the lyrics vividly to life, particularly the disquieting ones. When she sings, “She lost her smile, changed her style, somehow she’s not the same,” a subtle downturn takes on the weight of an earthquake. Janet McFadden’s playful Our Fair Cat introduces a furry friend who is a murderer in theory – and in practice as well, Blake juxtaposing a blithe bounce with a grim gleam, Serpa taking it solo all the way up to the top of her range, completely deadpan, then Blake launches into a twisted little waltz. Folhas (Leaves), an original setting of a poem by Eugenio de Andrade offers something of a respite from the brooding intensity.

The Short Life of Barbara Monk is a spellbinding noir jazz waltz by Blake. Serpa’s wounded vocalese makes a chill-inducing contrast with Blake’s sinister music-box tinges – and takes the anguish up a notch when Blake turns on a dime and shifts into a fast Mingus-esque swing groove. A second Nat Cole cover, I Should Care, clocks in at a brief minute forty-two, dedicated to Monk and as to the point as it can be considering its murky ambience. A tune by Monk himself, Nutty has Serpa carrying the rhythm over jagged incisions by Blake. Driftwood is a terrifically apt Chris Connor homage, Serpa warmly remembering the beach in summer – and suddenly Blake hits an ominous chord, then leaves her out to dry, and the result is spine-tingling. The version of Cole Porter’s Get Out of Town follows in the same vein. “I care for you much too much” is laden with regret rather than a celebration, Serpa’s voice taking on a desperate tinge as the piano picks up the pace. “Be good to me please -” she stops just short of imploring. “We touch too much,” she asserts with a knowing roll of the eyes. They end the album with April in Paris, which starts out more like the dead of winter and stays like that most of the way, a far cry from the conventionality of the Sinatra hit. Together these two have raised the bar for jazz singing – and accompaniment – to an absurdly high level.

September 1, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Joel Yennior Trio’s Smart, Entertaining Debut

Trombonist Joel Yennior is best known for his work with Either/Orchestra, but he’s also a composer and bandleader with an often deviously witty signature sound. His free jazz quartet Gypsy Schaeffer’s most recent album, from last year, was an absolute delight. So is his latest project, the Joel Yennior Trio’s debut cd, Big City Circus. And it’s more diverse than the wickedly playful improvisations that he excels at: his dark, pensive central suite here is just as compelling as the more upbeat compositions. This group has an interesting configuration: Yennior is joined here by Eric Hofbauer on guitar and Gary Feldman on drums: as a bassless outfit, the trio deftly switch around to provide a low-register pulse, whether the guitar is pedaling a chord or a low note on the beat, Yennior pulls his slide all the way out, or the drums rumble around. And it makes the arrangements interesting, particularly on Monk’s Gallop’s Gallop, Yennior and Hofbauer switching roles, Hofbauer doing subtly spot-on rhythm and bass at once during the first verse.

The genial original swing tune Dancing Dave sets a warmly melodic tone that remains throughout the album. Burt Bacharach’s A House Is Not a Home is a showcase for gently swaying, warmly tuneful upper-register work from Yennior as the guitar and drums swing tersely underneath. A shapeshifting Ran Blake ballad, Breakthru is closer to Gypsy Schaeffer’s unpredictable jams than anything else here, Hofbauer and Feldman prowling around, waiting for the moment when they all pull it together at the end.

Another original, Postcard to Dorothy is a vividly expressive, wistful jazz waltz. Yennior goes low and outside as Hofbauer solos gently up to a simple Coltrane-esque hook, some deft drum accents and then back. The centerpiece of the album is the practically sixteen-minute three-part suite Justice Lost, inspired by a dispiriting turn Yennior took as a jury member (it was a murder trial: they didn’t convict). They kick it off with a big, cynical intro, liberally quoting the Godfather theme, Feldman’s cymbals and eventually Hofbauer’s guitar chords resounding memorably beneath Yennior’s protesting trombone. The second part is a mournful Ellingtonian blues with some bitterly rustic muted playing by Yennior and a couple of pointedly ironic passages where guitar and trombone go off on completely different tracks but then lock back in a split second. It winds up with a staccato tango that hints at collapse, which it does after a bright solo by Yennior. Feldman gets marvelously suspenseful and whispery, trombone and guitar diverge further and further from any kind of resolution, and then it’s over. The album closes with a brightly tuneful, shuffling version of Estrellita, a Mexican pop song from the 1950s popularized by Charlie Parker. It’s a stealth candidate for best jazz album of 2010.

August 11, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ran Blake and Christine Correa Create New Elements

Here’s one for the nonconformists’ club. As has been the case in recent years, the perennially individualistic Ran Blake doesn’t go so much for the noir sound for which he’s best known: instead, the pianist mines a terse, often minimalist third-stream sensibility – Toru Takamitsu’s more recent work comes to mind. Christine Correa works a constant series of unexpected shifts with her low soprano/alto. It’s an interesting voice with an original delivery. She dips down to the bottom of her range where the real soul is, a la Nina Simone, unafraid to let a blue note slide a little further than most jazz stylists; seconds later, she might surprise you with a chirpy swoop like Anita O’Day in her prime. Although these two have done it before, Blake isn’t the first pianist you might think would collaborate with a singer (although his work with Jeanne Lee is pretty extraordinary). In fact, Blake and Correa’s new album Out of the Shadows isn’t so much a matter of chemistry as it is that each complements the other in welcome and unexpected ways. Although she’ll bend a melody to suit her needs, Correa is often the anchor here, Blake the colorist and essentially the lead on a lot of the songs. And the cd is aptly titled: menace often takes a back seat and even disappears.

The title track is a rarity, originally recorded in an orchestral version by June Christy, done here with masterfully terse suspense (and inspired, Blake takes care to mention, by the Richard Siodmak film The Spiral Staircase). Their version of The Thrill Is Gone isn’t the B.B. King classic but a song from an early talkie circa 1931, redone with icy sostenuto chords that only hint at ragtime. Deep Song – a Billie Holiday tune dating from one of her early troubled periods has voice and piano holding a rubato conversation, vividly and poignantly, a device they use to equally potent effect on the segue between The Band Played On and Goodbye Yellow Bird. Fine and Dandy and When Malindy Says are swing number deconstructed and playfully reassembled as Dave Brubeck might do. And Goodbye (which Blake learned from Jimmy Guiffre, and plays solo here) is a brightly terse reminiscence that, as is the case so much on this album, only alludes to being a requiem.

Correa uses Una Matica de Ruda as a showcase for unbridled, imploring, Middle Eastern-tinged a-cappella intensity. By contrast, she delivers Max Roach’s Mendacity – a favorite of Blake’s – with a bitter cynicism rather than trying to match the abrasiveness of the original political broadside. And she does Jon Hendricks’ Social Call with an off-guard woundedness that does justice to the version popularized by Betty Carter. Intense and cerebral yet unselfconsciously raw and soulful, this album – and this collaboration – will resonate with anyone who appreciates those qualities, beyond the jazz idiom where these two artists are typically pigeonholed, for better or worse.

July 20, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New England Conservatory Jazz All Star Concert at B.B. King’s, NYC 3/27/10

The New England Conservatory is celebrating its jazz program’s fortieth year – if memory serves right, they were the first established conservatory in the United States to give jazz their official imprimatur, so it would only make sense that by now their alumni list would boast some of the world’s greatest players. Their faculty got to show off their chops (and welcome sense of humor) at the Jazz Standard on the 24th (reviewed here); this particular celebration was a counterintuitively eclectic bill that literally had something for everyone, a series of nonchronological flashbacks between present and various moments from the past, both in terms of the history of jazz as well as that of the conservatory. Ironically, the youngest act on the bill was also the most rustic. Lake Street Dive hark back to the early swing era, a style more vogue in the steampunk scene than mainstream jazz (which is also considerably ironic since their style would have fit in perfectly alongside hitmakers of that era). Rachael Price’s warmhearted, somewhat chirpy vocals blended in perfectly with bandleader/bassist Bridget Kearney’s charmingly aphoristic, period-perfect songs, Mike Olson’s balmy trumpet and Mike Calabrese’s deftly terse drums. Another recent alum, singer Sarah Jarosz (who also proved to be a fine mandolinist) benefited from Kearney and Calabrese’s supple rhythm on a similar original of hers. And Dominique Eade, whose own style runs closer to pop than anyone else on the bill, impressed with a torchy a-capella number.

The piano jazz of the early part of the evening was equally captivating. Jason Moran – who’d joined the faculty just minutes previously – served up an expansive, appropriately lyrical tribute to Jaki Byard, followed by Ran Blake’s purist takes of Abbey Lincoln and Gershwin and a rapturously melodic, hypnotically nocturnal improvisation by Matthew Shipp and guitarist Joe Morris.

And it sure would have been nice to have been able to stick around for Bernie Worrell, one of the NEC’s best-known alums – but we were needed elsewhere (a special shout-out to the young quartet – rhythm section, electric piano and guitar – who played tasteful fusion throughout the press party beforehand at the adjacent Lucille’s Bar).

March 28, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment