Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Believe the Hype About Donald Vega

Memo to jazz bloggers: if somebody sends you a great album and you sit on it, you might just get scooped by the New York Times. Well, not that often – but it could happen, just as it did when the folks at Resonance sent over a copy of pianist Donald Vega’s new album, Spiritual Nature. Not that it needs the Times’ imprimatur (although he deserves the press): the album stands on its own merits as one of 2012’s most memorable. The Nicaraguan-born, California-educated Vega, a protege of John Clayton and Ron Carter, has listened deeply and absorbed much of the best postbop from the 60s forward along with plenty of salsa jazz and classical, influences he blends with equal parts power and subtlety, gravitas and grace. He has a veteran’s touch and a bag of licks to match, so it’s hard to think of another player of his generation that he resembles. One comparison from an earlier era, who continues to blend melodicism and improvisational latin-flavored bite as a member of the Cookers, is George Cables.

Vega is also a strong composer, as evidenced right off the bat with the album’s hard-hitting opening cut, Scorpion, from its no-nonsense horn hook (Bob Sheppard on alto sax, Gilbert Castellanos on trumpet and Bob McChesney on trombone) to Christian McBride’s tersely walking pulse, Lewis Nash’s counterintuitive drum attack and Vega’s lyrical, richly blues-tinged solos. Just the presence of that rhythm section signals how purist and auspicious this session became. The second cut, Ron Carter’s First Trip, interchanges balletesque syncopation and oldschool swing; they follow that with a balmy take on Monty Alexander’s River, featuring gossamer violin from Christian Howes, McBride anchoring Vega’s delicate blend of neoromanticism and the blues firmly in the earth. A second Alexander composition, Accompong, gets a considerably brighter, more bouncy interpretation, crescendoing with Anthony Wilson’s bubbly guitar work trading with Vega’s more spiky phrasing.

With its alternately light and dark modal dichotomy, swaying clave pulse and relentlessly crescendoing intensity from Vega, the title track – another Vega composition – is a standout here. Vega amps up the ambuiguity and suspense on a Neils Henning-Orsted Pedersen jazz waltz, Future Child, before taking it in a more genial yet restrained direction, as he does a little later with his ballad Contemplation, moving from spare and wary and then relaxing as an artfully arranged series of distinct horn voices emerges. Makato Ozone’s You Never Tell Me Anything gets a straight-up jump blues treatment: Vega’s exuberant flurries leaping onto the tail end of a bustling Nash drum break are one of the album’s most characteristic examples of the rich, purist interplay here.

Vega’s arrangement of Scriabin’s Etude, Op. 8., No. 2 is both lyrical and great fun, incorporating both Ethiopian melodic tropes and rhythms, a jazz waltz, and an absolutely gorgeous piano solo that Vega sends spiraling downward to darker terrain. A Jobim diptych, Falando de Amor; Tema de Amor gets a similarly third-stream, expansive take, while Vega’s Child’s Play has the feel of a jazzed-up Caribbean folk song, with its carefree violin and Nash’s playful conga-flavored groove. The album ends with Benny Golson’s Clifford Brown homage I Remember Clifford, building slowly and methodically to become more of a fond wee-hours reminiscence than an elegy. As far as both the compositions and the playing here are concerned, this album is head and shoulders above 99% of what’s come out this year. It’s deep stuff. It takes a long time to get to know and all of that is a pleasure.

Advertisements

August 18, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Believe the Hype: the New Live Bill Evans Trio Album Is the Real Deal

Here’s Gary Burton on Bill Evans: Live at the Top of the Gate, due out June 10 from Resonance – “When I first learned of the existence of a never-released Bill Evans recording, a double-cd set no less, I admit I had mixed emotions. Bill was one of the most influential musicians of all time and a new recording would be major news to all serious jazz fans. On the other hand, so often in these cases when tracks surface decades later, it turns out to be something taped on a home recorder from the back of a club and the quality of both playing and recording is inferior.” You might as well know that the punchline is that Burton was blown away by this album, and he’s right, serious jazz fans will want to get their hands on this.

How to describe Evans to someone who’s not familiar with his music? His playing has a luminous, singing quality. As a player of ballads, he has few equals. His chops were wickedly precise, but he didn’t take gratuitous solos, preferring to inhabit the songs with a nitty-gritty, clustering, chordal approach that invited the bass to participate, and so many bassists did. The emotional resonance of his music gives away his fondness for Ravel and Debussy. There’s so much implied melody in his playing that half the time what you’re hearing doesn’t actually exist – and nobody played hipper chord substitutions. If you want to learn to play jazz piano, there’s no better place to start than with Bill Evans.

So why didn’t this album see the light of day until now? Maybe because nobody knew it existed other than the guy who made it. Resonance’s George Klabin recorded two sets of Evans with his trio – a young, hungry Eddie Gomez on bass and Marty Morell on drums – at the restaurant above the Village Gate on October 23, 1968 for Brooklyn radio station WKCR. And then it sat in an archive for four decades. But unlike the bootlegs that Burton alludes to, this is a professional recording. It’s not pristine – the piano is noticeably if not painfully out of tune, and occasional crowd noise pops up here and there. But it beats anything you can make with your phone – and most everybody who grew up in the mp3 age won’t be able to tell the difference, or care. As far as the quality of the playing is concerned, this could just as easily be called Bill Evans Live at the Top of His Game.

It gets off to false start with the first of two versions of Emily. On this one, the phrase “Em-I-Lee, Em-I-Lee” becomes incessant and cloying: the song hasn’t aged well, and the album wouldn’t be compromised without it. Although by the time the considerably more adventurous second set comes around, Evans gives it a far more spacious, laid-back interpretation, Gomez taking over with one of several vigorously tuneful solos. By the time Evans has made his way through tightly unwinding, gleaming takes on Witchcraft and Yesterday, he’s found a groove and launches into a marvelously low-key, purist version of Round Midnight, then takes My Funny Valentine so far from its origins that when he finally hits the vocal hook, it sounds he’s quoting from another song. The set ends with a a slow, richly bittersweet, suspenseful take on Burt Bacharach’s Alfie, and then the lone Evans original here (awwwww!), Turn Out the Stars, steady and quietly triumphant.

The second set is looser, and more playful: Evans quite likely was high by now, and he lets Gomez take centerstage on a second version of Yesterdays and a bit later bounces energetically into In a Sentimental Mood, engaging the bass as sparring partner as was his trademark. Meanwhile, Morell, whose deftly terse, swinging brushwork is key to everything that’s good about the first set, moves deeper into the backseat. The intricate interplay between Evans and Gomez picks up with a second, more brisk Round Midnight, a propulsive Autumn Leaves and then Someday My Prince Will Come, Gomez wailing on his chords for a deliciously strange, banjolike tone. The highlight of the night is Earl Zindars’ gorgeously bluesy Mother of Earl, which comes across here as something like Cole Porter’s Too Darn Hot as Scott Joplin might have written it – and might be the first trio recording of the song that Evans ever made. The band winds up the night with a literally wee-hours Here’s That Rainy Day. As emotionally impactful, cerebral piano jazz goes, it doesn’t get much better than this.

June 3, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Two Sides of Brazil

Here’s an interesting case of how two groups can cover a lot of the same territory and come up with results that are equally compelling but completely different. Basically, Grupo Falso Baiano’s Simplicidade: Live at Yoshi’s is the party; Claudio Roditti’s Bons Amigos is the afterparty. They both play bossa nova jazz, for the most part anyway, and keep the rhythm simple and in the pocket – no hypnotic volleys of booming Bahian beats here. Both represent the classic Brazilian songbook, yet don’t neglect current-day composers. Otherwise, the albums are like two sides of the same coin.

Grupo Falso Baiano – that’s tongue-in-cheek Portuguese for “fake Bahian band” – have Jesse Appelman’s mandolin as a lead instrument, other than when guest Jovino Santos Neto isn’t playing electric piano or flute, which gives their sound a bright, rustic bite. Appelman gets a deliciously resonant, slightly watery tone out of it, much like a Portuguese guitar, alongside Brian Moran on 7-string acoustic guitar, Zack Pitt-Smith on reeds and Ami Molinelli on terse, purist percussion. Their opener here, Caminhando, is typical, a happy samba but with bite, Pitt-Smith’s balmy solo contrasting with Appelman’s spikily caffeinated lead lines. They do the same thing with Jacobo de Bandolim’s bossa nova title track, shifting methodically from pensive to triumphant, Appelman finally ringing out joyously over the final verse.

The thicket of textures from piano, guitar and mando get lush but aggressive on Pixinguinha’s Cheguei – they way they do it, it’s two steps from being a surf song. A trio of Santos Neto compositions follow: first, Feira Livre, scurrying warily with extra thump on the low end from guest percussionist Brian Rice, lit up by an animated Pitt-Smith alto sax solo. Kenne E Voce starts out as a jam with the two flutes floating overhead but then gets a welcome shot of adrenaline as Santos Neto switches back to keys. The third of his tracks is a beautifully expansive ballad, with affectingly starlit piano and pensive alto sax work.

Altamiro Carrilho’s Bem Brasil is done somewhat coyly, with constant rhythmic shifts and a surprisingly slamming outro; Sivuca’s Deixa O Breque amps up its balmy tropicalisms, while Bandolim’s Doce De Coco gets a cinematic, Henry Mancini-ish treatment, building from Santos Neto’s solo piano intro to Appelman’s ragtimish solo. They close with a joyously romping take on Sivuca’s Forro Na Penha.

Where Grupo Falso Baiano work a fast dance vibe elegantly, trumpeter Claudio Roditi reaches for a slightly slower, more cosmopolitan one alongside Donald Vega on piano, Marco Panascia on bass, Romero Lubambo on guitars and Mauricio Zottarelli on drums. Egberto Gismonti’s O Sonho – a prototype for many pop songs, most famously Joe Jackson’s Steppin’ Out – opens the album as a full-band study in dynamic shifts, rising and falling, Roditi taking it out on a surprisingly moody note with a characteristically crystalline solo. They raid a more recent era for Eliane Elias’ bittersweet Para Nade, followed by Roditi’s Bossa De Monk, done simple and proper with the trumpeter emulating a Charlie Rouse-style fluttery/calm diptpych. The title track, a Toninho Horta ballad, gets a warm, wee-hours treatment; after that, they swing Roditi’s own, clever composition Levitation – an artful arrangement of two shifting two-chord vamps – with a carefree, bluesy vibe.

Roditi’s most effortlessly stunning track here, Fantasia (Stella), has the trumpeter holding the center after Vega’s memorably murky solo intro, through wary banks of chromatics and a similarly apprehensive bass solo, Lubambo finally spiraling free of the tension. They end the album with another Elias tune, Amandamada, a playfully syncopated showcase for Lubambo, and then a high-spirited original, Roditi’s own piccolo samba, where he plays animated flutelike cadences on piccolo trumpet.

Both releases have been out since last year, Grupo Falso Baiano on Massaroca Records and Roditi on Resonance.

January 15, 2012 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Christian Howes Puts a Bluesy Spin on Violin Jazz

Calling your new album Out of the Blue, especially if you’re a string player, is pretty much akin to calling it A Love Supreme if you play sax. But no matter: jazz violinist Christian Howes plays it with an admirably purist sensibility, other than the occasions when he really digs in and delivers what sounds like a distorted guitar solo. And he does it with his own signature, melodic style. Jazz violinists inevitably get compared to either Stephane Grappelli or Jean-Luc Ponty, and to his credit Howes seldom sounds much like either one. You have to go back in time for guys like Stuff Smith, a bluesman, a style Howes reaches for more frequently than not here. The band behind him includes Robben Ford on guitars, Bobby Floyd (who wrote Knock on Wood) on organ and piano, Tamir Hendelman taking over on piano on several tracks, bass duties split between Kevin Axt on upright bass and Ric Fierabracci on bass guitar, with Joel Rosenblatt on drums.

The opening track, Fingerprints, is Wayne Shorter’s Footprints (via Chick Corea), moving from propulsive funk to astringently sweeping swing and a rippling Hendelman piano solo, Ford maintaining the vibe marvelously. A swinging version of Fats Domino’s I’m Walking is the one place where Grappelli comes to mind, Floyd going deep into the blues, Ford shifting from incisive to spiraling, with a soaring solo out. And was that a Hank Williams quote? Horace Silver’s Cape Verdean Blues emphasizes sway, syncopation, and straight-up bluesiness, Howes building to a graceful spiral down and deep into the shadows after Hendelman’s graceful cascades. Nicking a phrase from the Sister Sledge kitschfest Tell Me Something Good, Gumbo Klomp works a funk vamp, the Crusaders as done with violin, Ford reminding of his early glory days with Jimmy Witherspoon. The title track, a Jeff Lynne classic (just kidding – it’s an original) is warmly gospel-flavored, a feast of shifting textures, Rosenblatt playfully impatient and bustling underneath.

Sharon Hendrix guests on vocals on the torchy soul/blues Seek and Ye Shall Find. A shuffling, fusiony funk groove, Bobby’s Bad is a vehicle for some colorful Floyd work and a metallic solo out by Howes. Hendelman and then Ford turn a purist version of Sing Me Softly of the Blues over to Howes, who scurries and then shoots it across the bar to Floyd, who’s only too glad to join the fun. They wind up the album with the rhythmically tricky When Will the Blues Leave and a minimalistic, distantly ragtime piano-and-violin duo version of Sweet Lorraine. Blues fans may enjoy this as much as the jazz crowd. It’s out now on Resonance.

September 16, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tamir Hendelman’s New Album Packs a Punch

Tamir Hendelman is the pianist in the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. His hard-hitting, intense new album Destinations firmly establishes him as a force to be reckoned with as one of this era’s cutting-edge jazz piano stars: Vijay Iyer, Gerald Clayton, Dred Scott and Marc Cary. Like Clayton, he can go deep into the blues; like Scott, he sometimes exhibits a vivid late-Romantic streak, but his style is ultimately his own. Marco Panascia plays bass here, a terse and frequently incisive presence, with the reliably stellar Lewis Nash on drums.

The opening track, Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams gets an inspired, no-nonsense, purist bluesy treatment. Passarim, by Antonio Carlos Jobim begins as a tight, spring-loaded ballad that picks up and takes on increasing shades of irony and grit, with some marvelous interplay between insistent bass and piano shadowing it about four minutes in. Fletcher Henderson’s Soft Winds has Hendelman scouting around aggressively for a comfort zone, eventually launching into a purposeful swing on the second verse, with an equally purposeful, to-the-point conversation between Panascia and Nash following. A radical reworking of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin takes on an insistent rippling intensity: the band grab it by its tail and swing it around a little – and then they take it to Brazil. Keith Jarrett’s My Song quickly shifts from its lullaby intro to the tightly wound precision of the second track, a vibe they maintain on their expansively Oscar Peterson-inflected cover of You Stepped Out of a Dream, Panascia getting to cut loose a little and bounce some horn voicings around.

Auspiciously, the two strongest performances here are both originals: the brooding, Brubeck-esque Israeli Waltz, and the haunting, elegaic Babushka, both of which pick up with a clenched-teeth resolve. There’s also a brisk and satisfying version of Bird’s Anthropology; On the Street Where You Live, which takes on not a wee hours vibe but a happy hour swing; Makoto Ozone’s BQE, a well-chosen springboard for both Hendelman’s blues and Romantic sensibilities; and a lyrical version of Fred Hersch’s Valentine, which begs the question of which came first, Paul McCartney’s Blackbird or this? It’s just out on Resonance Records.

August 20, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment