Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Colorful, Entertaining Reinventions of Famous Classical Themes From the Mike Fahie Jazz Orchestra

The Mike Fahie Jazz Orchestra‘s new album Urban(e) – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most genuinely orchestral jazz records ever made. On one level, it’s all about imaginative, outside-the-box arranging and playing. On another, it’s part of a long tradition of musicians appropriating tunes from every style imaginable: Bach writing variations on country dances; southern preachers making hymns out of old blues songs; the Electric Light Orchestra making surf rock out of a Grieg piano concerto. Here, Fahie takes a bunch of mostly-famous classical themes to places most people would never dare. It’s closer to ELO than, say, the NY Philharmonic.

Is this hubristic? Sure. Fahie addresses that issue in the album’s liner notes, assuring listeners he’s tried to be true to the intrinsic mood of each particular piece. The group’s reinvention of the third movement from Bartok’s String Quartet No. 1 – from when the composer was still more or less a Late Romantic – is a trip. Guitarist Jeff Miles gets to have fun with a few savage flares before Fahie makes chugging art-punk out of it, trombonist Daniel Linden’s blitheness offering no hint of how much further out the group are going to from there, through Vegas noir, a deliciously sinister Brad Mason trumpet solo, and more. It’s fun beyond belief.

To open the record, the group tackle Chopin’s iconic C minor prelude, beginning with a somber, massed lustre, bassist Pedro Giraudo and pianist Randy Ingram offering the first hints of revelry, Miles adding a word of caution. From there Fahie expands the harmonies many times over and the group make a latin-tinged romp out of it.

Tenor saxophonist Chet Doxas steps into the aria role in an easygoing remake of a piece from Puccini’s opera. There’s plenty of tasty suspense as Fahie’s epic suite of themes from Stravinsky’s Firebird coalesces from lush swells and glittery piano, through more carefree terrain, to a pensive yet technically daunting duet between the bandleader’s euphonium and Jennifer Wharton’s tuba.

Hearing Fahie play the opening riff from Debussy’s La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin on trombone is a revelation: that’s Pictures at an Exhibition! So much for musical appropriation, right? The rest of Fahie’s punchy, lustrous arrangement comes across as vintage, orchestral Moody Blues with brass instead of mellotron.

Fahie turns the second movement from Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony into a jaunty Swan Lake set piece, with a wistful solo from alto sax player Aaron Irwin and a more sobering one from trombonist Nick Grinder.

The group close the record with a lavish, nocturnal take of a brooding section of Bach’s Cantata, BWV 21. The theme is basically “troubles, troubles, troubles” – from Fahie’s clear-eyed opening solo, the counterpoint grows more envelopingly somber, up to some neat rhythmic inventions and a return back. This inspired cast also includes saxophonists Anton Denner, Quinsin Nachoff and Carl Maraghi; trumpeters Brian Pareschi, David Smith and Sam Hoyt; tombonist Matthew McDonald and drummer Jeff Davis.

September 7, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Gorgeously Haunting New Album and a Queens Residency from Lyrical Trombonist John Yao

Trombonist John Yao thinks big. His music is incredibly catchy, often cinematic, with epic sweep and abundant humor, whether he’s leading his 17-Piece Instrument big band or his quintet. But his latest quintet album, Presence – streaming at Bandcamp – is a radical departure. A distantly haunting, persistent sense of loss pervades the compositions. The central theme seems to be how to maintain a sense of continuity when everything goes horribly awry, in the wake of losing a good friend. It’s one of the half-dozen best jazz releases of 2018 so far.

On one hand, this is a new direction for the typically extroverted Yao. On the other, the frequent latin grooves here are familiar territory, considering his longtime association with Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. Yao has a monthly residency at Terraza 7 in Queens, where he’s playing tonight, May 16 at 9 PM with a slightly different lineup than usual: Billy Drewes on saxes, Jon Irabagon on tenor, Peter Brendler on bass and Jeremy Noller on drums. Cover is $10.

The album opens with Tight Rope, an uneasy psychedelic latin funk number, Randy Ingram’s lingering Rhodes holding the center as Iragabon’s soprano sax methodically and enigmatically leaps around, the bandleader introducing an unexpected calm. It wouldn’t be out of place in the early 70s Eddie Palmieri songbook.

The title track is more contemplative, drummer Shawn Baltazor working subtle permutations on a simple clave, around the kit, Ingram and Yao finding closure with concise solos. Baltazor ushers in the third number, the broodingly starry ballad M. Howard with muted polyrhythms beneath Yao’s sober foghorn riffs and Ingram’s moody piano, Brendler holding close to the center, up to a pensively spacious solo. The horn harmonies rising behind Ingram’s angst-fueled modal piano solo are a high point out of many on this album.

Over the Line has a funky sway and more of the gorgeously muted melodicism that pervades the record, Yao making his way through the album’s most enigmatic yet haunting solo, then hands off to Irabagon’s flickering ghost of a sopranino sax solo as Ingram glimmers eerily in the upper registers. Baltazor’s rise from sepulchral to resigned and energetic caps off one of Yao’s best compositions. 

The tumbling, altered New Orleans-isms and chattering individual voices of the free interlude Fuzzy Logic are suspiciously joyous. The shadowy, blues-tinged modalities of Nightfall make a stark contrast, Yao reaching down into the well to pull up some sustenance over a nimble, crescendoing, syncopated drive.

He opens 1247 Chestnut, a tone poem of sorts, with a goodnaturedly terse theme over muted, rubato tom-toms, Irabagon’s soprano further lightening the mood, Ingram branching outward with rustling neoromanticisms. The album’s final number is the aptly titled Bouncy’s Bounce, which has a triumphant Louis Armstrong-ish swing, a celebration of getting back in the groove to stay.

May 16, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Imaginative, Witty New Jazz from the John Yao Quintet

Trombonist John Yao’s new quintet album, In the Now – out now from Innova – blends vivid tunefulness, clever composition and inspired teamwork. It’s accessible, but it’s also cerebral, and there’s also considerable wit here, as you would expect from a group including Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s Jon Irabagon on saxes. Although Yao is a versatile stylist with considerable big band experience – notably with Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra – his approach here is typically methodical and precise. He and Irabagon often work a cool/hot dynamic alongside Randy Ingram on piano, Leon Boykins on bass and Will Clark on drums. While there are plenty of echoes of classic 60s postbop tropes, Yao’s arrangements and voicings are original, imaginative and completely in the here and now.

Tersely shifting countermelodies between the horns introduce the opening track, Divisions, Ingram introducing a spaciously lyrical style that he’ll work memorably throughout the album, a succession of solos contrasting Yao’s matter-of-factness with Irabagon’s jaunty, clustering, often flutelike alto work. They take it out unexpectedly quietly. Track two, Funky Sunday, builds a sense of anticipation with intensely focused trombone/sax harmonies, a smartly minimalist rhythm section arrangement that only opens up when the horns diverge and become more carefree, and some very imaginatively textured organ – including a pedal solo – by Ingram. For NDJ, a jazz waltz, is a showcase for Irabagon’s silvery, rapidfire legato versus Yao’s stately insistence, with echoey Rhodes piano from Ingram and a judiciously paced bass solo from Boykins.

The title track alludes to a late 50s style bustle – carried by the piano rather than the horns – over constant rhythmic shifts, from swing to hesitation, Ingram echoing Irabagon’s microtonal attack which rather amusingly shifts back and forth from haphazard to focused and back again. Not Even Close also has a cleverness that may be satirical, right from the start, as the sax and trombone lock in and then the whole band goes off on individual tangents. There’s another series of handoffs between Yao and Irabagon and a defiant refusal to resolve anything: they leave that to Ingram, who takes it from spaciously and warily chromatic to join Boykins’ and Clark’s casual swing.

A bright, funkily syncopated number, Pink Eye follows the same trajectory as the second track here with a series of light/dark and serious/playful dichotomies, Irabagon going as far out on a limb as he can with predictably snarky results. The strongest track here, the slowly swaying Shorter Days, is the only particularly pensive one: Ingram’s moody tonalities suspensefully shadowing Irabagon and Yao slowly turn to Neoromantic and completely turn the tune around, the sax and trombone’s richly lyrical, bucolic harmonies taking it out on an unexpectedly triumphant note.The album ends with Snafu, the most outright amusing track: it’s sort of a Taxi Driver Theme groove, but a wee-hours one without much of a hint at where it’s going. When it starts to fall apart, the band employs a gimmick that’s been used for ages in soul music, and rock, and bluegrass but not so often in jazz: the wait for the whole quintet to throw up their hands and say the hell with it is the most entertaining part.

Yao’s next New York performance with the quintet is October 5 at 8 PM at the Firehouse Space, 246 Frost St. in Williamsburg.

July 21, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment