Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Zem Audu Makes a Dynamic Blue Note Debut

In his Blue Note debut as a bandleader Saturday night, tenor saxophonist Zem Audu showed off a terse, purposeful sensibility, a smokily nuanced tone and compositional fluency in styles ranging from Monty Alexander-style Jamdown jazz, to colorful postbop, funk and more. Much as this guy is used to working a crowd, as a touring and recording member of what’s left of the iconic Skatalites, he saves the sizzle for when he really needs it. Along for the ride and dazzling the crowd with his signature blend of vivid, lushly lyrical neoromantic glimmer, erudite blues and the occasional triumphant detour into Afro-Cuban sounds was powerhouse pianist Benito Gonzalez, anchored by drummer Corey Rawls and six-string bassist Teymur Phell.

The band eased their way into the opening number, Biologique, a vampy, Bahian-tinged thing, Gonzalez elevating it in a split-second with a long, sabretoothed solo, part glistening river of angst, part blues. Rawls opened Posi-Vibes with a hypnotically insistent Nyabinghi drum solo: as the band took it deeper into straight-up reggae, Gonzalez pushed at the edges with disarmingly clever close harmonic variations. Layers began as a strut, then the group shifted it almost imperceptibly toward an implied clave groove.

The night’s showstopper was Shining. Audu opened it as slinky, airconditioned LA boudoir noir, something straight out of the Bob Belden post-Miles catalog. But then the bandleader pushed it on the wings of a little feral valve-torturing and a swirling series of lickety-split Coltrane-esque spirals into more jaunty postbop, teaming with Gonzalez to end it on a triumphant note. After that, the funky intro of Flow didn’t exactly telegraph excitement…until Rawls hit a second line-tinged groove and then everybody got on the gospel bus to New Orleans. The night’s final number was also the most trad, a catchy Frank Foster-ish riff-driven tune bookended by some unexpectedly gentle, sepulchral work from Audu and Gonzalez. Audu and his quartet are at Club Bonafide (the old Something Jazz Club), 212 E 52nd St. on April 22 at 7 PM. Cover is $15.

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March 15, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Legendary Jamaican Guitarist Ernest Ranglin Returns with Another Great Album

[republished from Lucid Culture’s sister blog New York Music Daily]

You don’t ordinarily expect octogenarians to make great albums. If they do, they usually revisit their earlier work, a victory lap. Count Ernest Ranglin among the rare exceptions. The greatest guitarist ever to come out of Jamaica has a new album, Bless Up (streaming online), which is one of his best, and he’s made a whole bunch of them. It’s has a lot more straight-up reggae than the elegant reggae jazz he’s known for (and basically invented all by himself). It also has a more lush, full sound than his previous album, Avila. That one was recorded on the fly during a break from a reggae festival; this one has more tunesmithing than vamping jams, drawing on the seven decades of Jamaican music that in many ways Ranglin has defined.

Organ – played by either Jonathan Korty or Eric Levy – holds the center on many of the tracks here, Ranglin adding judicious solos, alternating between his signature, just-short-of-unhinged tremolo-picked chords, sinewy harmonies with the keys, nimbly fluttering leaps to the high frets and references to the better part of a century’s worth of jazz guitar. The songs transcend simple, rootsy two-chord vamps. Darkly majestic, emphatic minor-key horn arrangements evocative of mid-70s Burning Spear carry the melody on several of the numbers: Bond Street Express, the opening tune; Jones Pen, which recreates the classic 60s Skatalites sound but with digital production values; and Rock Me Steady, the most dub-flavored track, driven by some neat trap drumming.

Mystic Blue evokes both the Burning Spear classic Man in the Hills and the Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry. The bubbly Sivan also sounds like Jah Spear, but from a decade or so later. The title track is a swing tune, more or less, Ranglin’s upstroke guitar over a close-to-the-ground snare-and-kick groove giving away its Caribbean origins. Likewise, the band mutates the bolero El Mescalero with a distinctly Jamaican beat that adds a surreal dimension of fun tempered by an unexpectedly desolate Charlie Wilson trombone solo.

Ranglin plays with a deeper, more resonant tone – and a shout-out to Wes Montgomery – on Follow On. Blues for a Hip King works a stately gospel groove up to a long, organ-fueled crescendo that contrasts with Ranglin’s spare, incisive lines. Ska Renzo, the most straight-up ska tune here, works all kinds of neat up/down shifts with reverb-toned melodica, carbonated Rhodes piano and a sharpshooter horn riff. You Too starts out like a balmy Marley ballad but quickly goes in a darker direction, Michael Peloquin’s restless tenor sax giving way to tersely moody solos from trombone and piano, Yossi Fine’s bass holding it down with a fat pulse. There’s also a pretty trad version of the jazz standard Good Friends and the simple gospel vamp Bra Joe from Kilimanjaro, reprised at the end as a long Grateful Dead-like jam. Clearly Jimmy Cliff’s longtime musical director in the years after The Harder They Come hasn’t lost a step since then.

June 25, 2014 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, reggae music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Yet Another Sunny, Enjoyable Ernest Ranglin Album

Bassist Yossi Fine asserts that Ernest Ranglin is the world’s greatest living guitarist. And why not? Ranglin might not have singlehandedly invented reggae, but he was there in the studio the day that Skatalites drummer Lloyd Knibb came up with the one-drop. And he most certainly invented reggae jazz. Since then, Jamaica’s preeminent guitarist has made a career out of many other first-ever moments (including Bob Marley’s first studio session). One function of always seeming to pop up at the right place is that Ranglin is always on the road, the consummate live musician. As a result, much of his solo catalog has been recorded on the fly (and sounds that way, for better or for worse), as is the case with his new album Avila, recorded to dovetail with a one-off California reggae festival gig. It’s a throwback to Ranglin’s late 70s instrumental sessions as bandleader: backing the guitarist, and pretty much staying chill and out of the way, are Fine, plus the Mickey Hart Band’s Ian Inx Herman on drums, Jonathan Korty on piano and keyboards plus trumpeter Ryan Scott and saxophonist Alex Baky of the Monophonics.

It’s hard to believe that Ranglin will turn eighty this year, considering how fast and precise his fingers are on the fretboard after all these years. This is a particularly joyous session, a mix of originals plus inspired takes of compositions brought in by individual band members. Bookending those songs are a pulsing versions of Abdullah Ibrahim’s Manenberg and Return to Manenberg, full of good-natured call-and-response between Korty’s piano and Ranglin’s playful, bouncy pointillisms. Ranglin’s rhythmically tricky Memories of Senegal works a circular West African riff on the bass, the guitar’s modal waves strikingly evocative of Jerry Garcia at the top of his game during the 80s. Ernossi, a reggae jazz homage by Fine, gradually grows from an easygoing, funky organ-fueled sway as Ranglin adds an insistent staccato bite alternating with gently ascending runs. Ranglin’s own Ska Rango also follows a carefree arc up, down and back again, from ringing, sustained chords to a casually swing lit up with the occasional slithery filigree, quicksilver descending run, or the fluttering, rapidfire flourishes that have come to define Ranglin’s work as a jazz musician.

The unexpectedly wary Uncle Funky, by Korty contrasts pensive Wes Montgomeryisms, voodoo staccato and watery Leslie speaker tonalities over an echoey Rhodes piano groove. The other Ranglin composition here, Swaziland, kicks off with an insistent minor-key horn chorus that the guitarist follows with a characteristically expansive, thoughful solo, big bright chords mingling with biting single-note phrases. The album’s title track, by producer Tony Mindel brings back the mellowness, Ranglin once again reaching into his bottomless bag of island jazz riffs, warmly and judiciously. This isn’t heavy, intense music by a long shot: it’s a good-time collection of smart grooves and terse playing, a perfect soundtrack for the end of summer. It’s a worthwhile addition alongside the literally hundreds of good albums that Ranglin has played on.

August 9, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, reggae music, review, Reviews, ska music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Monty Alexander’s New Live Album: Yeah Mon!

In case you haven’t heard, Monty Alexander has a new live album out. More elegant and urbane but no less fun than his ecstatic, paradigm-shaping reggae-jazz albums like 1995’s Yard Movement and 2004’s Rocksteady, this new one, Harlem-Kingston Express Live, is a vivid reminder why artists as diverse as Tony Bennett and Ernest Ranglin have sought him out as a collaborator. Shifting effortlessly between bustling swing and a deep roots reggae groove, the iconic Jamaican jazz pianist is backed by two different bands – a roots reggae unit, as well as a jazz trio with rhythm section and guitar. Recorded both at Dizzy’s Club at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center as well as on tour over the previous few years, the production is remarkably fat for a live performance, particularly perfect for the reggae numbers. For the straight-up jazz tunes, the group here includes Hassan Shakur on bass, Obed Calvaire on drums and Yotam Silberstein on guitar, while the electric reggae unit typically features Andy Bassford on guitar, Hoova Simpson on bass guitar, Karl Wright on drums and Robert Thomas on percussion. Sometimes, though, Alexander flips the script, allowing each group to explore their counterparts’ territory, with surprising and rewarding results.

Strawberry Hill, one of Alexander’s most popular hybrid compositions, is done tersely and not a little suspensefully, big block chords laying the foundation for some tiptoeing lyrical excursions. By contrast, the version of High Heel Sneakers fades up jauntily, Alexander literally leading a charge, leaving the boogie bass to the rhythm section as he gets the piano humming with overtones before diving back into the blues. King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown leaps from the classic drum-n-bass vamp to a sprint, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing after all…and then they’re right back where they started.

Eleuthera, another Alexander signature song, gets a laid-back but lively reggae bounce. They pick up the pace with a lickety-split, surprisingly lighthearted romp through Sweet Georgia Brown, Silberstein taking over where Alexander leaves off, while Freddie Freeloader gets a tongue-in-cheek disco groove. But the gravitas of the solo piano intro to Milt Jackson’s Compassion doesn’t dissipate even as the slinky reggae riddim comes in (that’s Bernard Montgomery on melodica, in case you’re wondering how Alexander can play two keyboards at once).

There are three Bob Marley tunes here, and they’re the real showstoppers. The Heathen reminds why Alexander is equally admired in the jazz and jamband worlds, as it constantly changes shape from brightly lyrical reggae, to a bustling bop interlude…with a little melodica, and stark bowed bas when least expected. Running Away winds in casually but matter-of-factly, Alexander keeping it pointed and biting just like the original. They swing out of it with a silvery Silberstein solo, Alexander firing off a big chromatically-charged climb to take it out on a high note. No Woman No Cry is quite a bit faster than the original, quickly becoming a launching pad for some typically wry Alexander allusions that the band picks up on – his wit’s in rare form, and the fun is contagious. Another album, another victory for Commander Zander. It’s out now on Motéma.

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

Album of the Day 8/10/10

Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #903:

Ernest Ranglin – Wranglin’

The preeminent Jamaican guitarist, Ernest Ranglin had led probably hundreds if not thousands of calypso and ska sessions by the time he recorded this album, only the second where he’d been credited as a bandleader. The original 1964 Island Records lp did not sell well and has been out of print for decades, but is happily still available as a bootleg, if a somewhat dodgy sounding one. Ranglin’s career began almost fifty years, during the age of calypso yard sessions (and the birth of what would become hip-hop twenty-five years later). He was probably in the studio, maybe playing, when Lloyd Knibb of the Skatalites invented the one-drop, which would transform ska into rocksteady and then into reggae. Ranglin served as Jimmy Cliff’s musical director throughout his 70s heyday, then mined a frequently transcendent reggae-jazz collaboration with pianist Monty Alexander in the 80s and 90s. Now almost eighty, he retains the vigor and vitality of a player fifty years younger. This album shows how developed his jazzy, Les Paul-influenced style had become by the early sixties, replete with whispery, lightning-fast filigrees that switch in a split-second into frenetic tremolo chords and then back again. Here he sticks with a straight-up 4/4 beat, taking British bassist Malcolm Cecil and drummer Alan Ganley into the Caribbean sun for a characteristically warm, expansive jaunt through a mix of originals and old mento standards like Linstead Market and Angelina. You can download it here.

August 10, 2010 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment