Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Broodingly Catchy, Lithely Orchestrated Album and a Week at the Vanguard by Pianist Edward Simon

Duke Ellington liked suites. So does Edward Simon. Likewise, the jazz icon and the Venezuelan pianist share classical roots, a genius for orchestration and a completely outside-the box sensibility. Simon’s latest album Sorrows and Triumphs – streaming at Bandcamp – reaffirms his darkly eclectic sensibility, interspersing material from two suites. The first is the broodingly orchestrated title suite, the second is his more rhythm-centered House of Numbers suite. The result is as lavishly hypnotic as it is incisive and edgy. Simon is bringing a stripped-down version of the band on the album – his Steel House trio with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade – to a stand at the Vanguard that runs from Jan 8 through the 13th, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30 PM; cover is $35.

The album’s epic opening track, Incessant Desires begins with a misterioso rustle, chamber quartet the Imani Winds wafting over a tersely enigmatic series of hooks, alto saxophonist David Binney adding spaciously placed colors. Singer Gretchen Parlato joins them as the music rises joyously, guitarist Adam Rogers leading a pensive return downward. Darcy James Argue at his most plaintively lyrical is a strong reference point; Binney’s moody modal solo over Simon’s tense, distantly menacing glimmer as the wind ensemble circle around behind them could be the high point of the album.

The group keep the eerily dancing glimmer going with the circling counterpoint of Uninvited Thoughts, with piano that’s both carnivalesque and carnaval-esque. Once again, Binney adds judicious riffage, this time throughout a lively exchange with the wind ensemble.

The shadowy interweave between piano, guitar and Parlato’s tender yet assertive vocalese as Equanimity gets underway slowly reaches toward anthemic proportions. This time it’s Rogers who gets to take centerstage in the ongoing enigma: the sense of mystery throughout this album is pretty relentless.

With its persistently uneasy, often hypnotic piano chromatics, the winds weaving in and out, Triangle is equal parts Bernard Herrmann suspense film theme and Darcy James Argue altered blues. It’s the key to the album.

The balmiest, most atmospheric track is Chant, anchored by Rogers’ tremoloing guitar waves and Parlato’s gentle, encouraging vocals. Colley’s minimalist solo echoes Simon – and is that an organ, back in the mix, or just Rogers using a pedal?

Venezuela Unida, a shout-out to Simon’s home turf, has most of the band running a warily dancing melody together, then diverging into clever, tightly clustered polyrhythms. The sparse/ornate dichotomies and moody/ebullient contrasts as it winds up and out wouldn’t be out of place in the Maria Schneider playbook.

Triumphs is part circling indie classical, part terse latin jazz, Parlato’s misty mantras and Rogers’ wry oscillations at the center. The album’s slowly pulsing closing cut, Rebirth, is even more envelopingly stripped down. If this otherwise jauntily orchestrated masterpiece slipped under the radar for you in the past year’s deluge of albums, now’s as good a time to immerse yourself in Simon’s dark melodic splendor.

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January 4, 2019 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Mighty, Majestic Big Band Debut from Christopher Zuar

Let’s say you want to start your career with a real bang. You don’t just want to slip in via the back door – you want to smash a grand slam on the first pitch you see in the majors. That’s pretty much what Christopher Zuar did with his debut recording, Musings, which hasn’t hit Spotify yet although there are a few tracks up at Sunnyside Records’ page. With the aid of producer Mike Holober, the young-ish (20s) composer assembled a titanic nineteen-piece crew of some of this era’s most distinguished names in big band jazz to play his lavish, lyrical charts. The result is the year’s best jazz debut – nothing else comes close. They’re playing Symphony Space on Dec 15 at 7:30 PM; cover is $22. If large ensemble jazz is your thing, you’d be crazy to miss this.

Zuar comes out of the Jim McNeely school of lush jazz orchestration, and there are echoes of the serpentine sweep of Maria Schneider as well here. But ultimately, this a toweringly individualistic statement. For all the epic gramdeur, there’s purpose, and drive, and eclectic influences as diverse as latin, Brazilian and baroque music.The opening track, Remembrance, springboards off a very simple octave riff and builds tension around a root note, in a Marc Ribot vein. At the center is a long, expressively nuanced Dave Pietro alto sax solo.

Frank Carlberg’s austere piano opens the steady, Bach-inspired Chaconne with a sly allusion to an infamous Led Zep riff, drummer Mark Ferber’s misterioso brushwork and bassist John Hebert’s minimalistic punches grounding the bright, brassy swells overhead as Zuar works another famous tune into the equation. Disquieting echo phrases mingle and flutter as Vulnerable States opens, Jo Lawry’s crystalline vocalese sailing over an uneasy, latin-tinged bustle: Zuar employs that superb voice as impactfully as Asuka Kakitani did with Sara Serpa on her similar blockbuster of a debut a couple of years ago.

Ha! (The Joke’s On You) – a shout-out to Zuar’s bubbe – references the baroque with its call-and-response along with a fiery, horn-driven vaudevillian funk surrealism driven by Pete McCann’s frenetically crescendoing wah guitar. Artfully fragmented voices intersperse, converge and then join forces as the ballad So Close Yet So Far Away coalesces, tenor player Jason Rigby’s turn from wistful to gritty triumph taking centerstage, down to a long, suspenseful outro.

Anthem has chattering Brazilian tinges, a dancing bass solo and a big vocal hook from Lawry,. Lonely Road, a reflection on the systematic destruction of Zuar’s beloved West Village in the ongoing blitzkrieg of gentrification, is a gem of a miniature rich with elegaic counterpoint: it quietly screams out for the composer to make a big wrecking ball out of it like the other numbers here.

The album winds up with its lone cover, a lithely bittersweet take of Egberto Gismonti’s 7 Anéis,  a striking, nebulously furtive interlude punctuated by swirly soprano sax at its center. This album is genuinely spectacular effort that also comprises the inspired, energetic work of woodwind players Ben Kono, Lucas Pino and Brian Landrus, trumpeters Tony Kadleck, Jon Owens, Mat Jodrell and Matt Holman, trombonists Tim Albright, Matt McDonald, Alan Ferber and Max Seigel. You’ll see this as this blog’s pick for best jazz debut of 2016 when the full list is published at NPR next week.

December 10, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Maria Schneider Orchestra Bring a Luminous, Relevant New Album to a Stand at Birdland

To pigeonhole the Maria Schneider Orchestra‘s latest magnum opus, The Thompson Fields. as pastoral jazz downplays its genuinely extraordinary beauty and epic sweep. But a musicologist would probably consider how much the vast expanses of the Minnesota prairie where Schneider grew up have influenced her writing. To call Schneider this era’s paradigmatic big band jazz composer would also be just part of a larger picture: among this era’s composers in any style of music, only Kayhan Kalhor and Darcy James Argue reach such ambitious and transcendent peaks. She’s bringing her Orchestra to a stand at Birdland this week, June 2 through 6 with sets at 8:30 and 11 PM.

As is her custom, Schneider’s compositions go far, far beyond mere vehicles for extended solos, although the solos here are exquisite and serve as the high points they ought to be. Scott Robinson’s alto clarinet dipping between heartfelt lows and airily triumphant swells on the opening number, a newly reorchestrated take of the early-morning nocturne Walking by Flashlight – from Schneider’s previous album Winter Morning Walks – sets the stage.

That number is the shortest one here: the rest of the album builds an expansive, dynamically rich Midwestern panorama. All of Schneider’s familiar tropes are in top form: her use of every inch of the sonic spectrum in the spirit of her mentor Gil Evans; endless twists and turns that give way to long, lushly enveloping, slow upward climbs; and her signature, translucent, neoromantically-influenced tunesmithing. Marshall Gilkes’ looming trombone and Greg Gisbert’s achingly vivid flugelhorn illuminate The Monarch and the Milkweed, a pensively summery meditation on the beauty of symmetry and nature. Robinson’s baritone and Donny McCaslin’s tenor sax take to the sky in Arbiters of Evolution, a labyrinthine, pulsing, slowly unwinding portrait of birds in flight (perhaps for their lives – as in much of Schneider’s work, there’s a wary environmentalist point of view in full effect here).

Frank Kimbrough’s piano and Lage Lund’s guitar carry the title track from its gentle, plainspoken intro through an unexpectedly icy interlude to gracefully dancing motives over lush waves of brass. The most pastoral of all the cuts here is Home, graced by Rich Perry’s calm, warmly meditatitve tenor sax. Then the orchestra picks up with a literally breathtaking pulse, inducing g-forces as Nimbus reaches its stormy heights, Steve Wilson’s alto sax swirling as the cinematics unfold. As a portrait of awe-inspiring Midwestern storm power, it’s pretty much unrivalled.

Gary Versace’s plaintive accordion takes centerstage amidst a rich, ominously brooding brass chart in the intense, elegaic A Potter’s Song, dedicated to the late, great trumpeter and longtime Schneider associate Laurie Frink. The album winds up on a joyously Brazilian-flavored note with Lembranca, inspired by a pivotal moment in Schneider’s life, spellbound by a carnival drum orchestra, Ryan Keberle’s trombone and Jay Anderson’s bass adding color and bouncy energy.

The album, a crowdfunded endeavor comprising newly commissioned works, comes in a gorgeously illustrated full-color digipak with extensive and articulate liner notes from the composer. Like a couple other pantheonic artists, Richard Thompson and Olivier Messiaen, Schneider is also a birder, and her commentary on current environmental crises affecting the avian world and her beloved prairie home turf are spot-on. Where does this fall in the Schneider catalog? It’s hard to say: there’s the ambition and scope of, say, Concert in the Garden, but also the saturnine majesty of Winter Morning Walks. It’s a new direction for her, no surprise considering how often she’s reinvented herself. And while it doesn’t seem to be up at the usual spots, i.e. Spotify and such, you can get completely lost in the radio feature at Schneider’s webpage. It’s the best possible advertising this album, and her work as a whole, could possibly have.

May 30, 2015 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Paul Bollenback Airs Out His Animated Tropical Guitar Songbook at le Poisson Rouge

Longtime Joey DeFrancesco guitarist Paul Bollenback played the release show for his latest album as a leader, Brazilian-flavored new album, the Brazilian-tinged Portraits in Space and Time (just out from Mayimba Music)  at the Poisson Rouge Saturday night. The big drawing card was Jeff “Tain” Watts being his usual charismatic and occasionally explosive self behind the drums, but the whole lineup, including tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland, bassist Joseph LePore and percussionist Rogerio Boccato all delivered plenty of riveting moments. There was a point early in the set where Strickland fired off a searing volley of minor-key blues and then handed off to Bollenback, who took it all the way up with a lightning flurry of his own. But that was the exception rather than the rule – and all the more intense considering that Bollenback took his time getitng there. He’s the rare guitarist who’d rather build a mood or spin a good story rather than indulging in fireworks.

The album is a very intimate one, just a trio session with LePore and Boccato, so this was an opportunity to give those conversational compositions more room to expand. Bollenback and Strickland immediately introduced a bop vernacular to open the show: from the first beats, Boccato and Watts became a four-handed beast, their commitment to the clave was so singleminded. It was especially interesting to watch Boccato – who plays drumset as well as percussion on the album – sitting on his cajon behind his congas, rattling his chekere and assortment of playful devices, and playing it all like a regular kit. Meanwhile, Watts would grinningly shift from the latin groove to swinging funk and a couple of triumphant New Orleans street-beat interludes, with the expected firepower coming front and center when he finally cut loose with a solo about two-thirds of the way through the show. With this much rhythm going on, LePore was all smiles and kinetic energy, supplying the occasional muscular, dancing solo.

Bollenback peppered his animatedly reflective trajectories with frequent references to Muscle Shoals soul and the blues, much in the same vein as his work with DeFrancesco, along with an enlightened survey of much of postbop jazz guitar from Gene Bertoncini on forward. It wasn’t long before he put down his electric for an acoustic-electric model which he played through a volume pedal, which somewhat paradoxically worked to raise the energy while expanding the dynamic range on the quiet, sustained side. Most of the material was drawn from the new album, one number segueing into the next via graceful guitar lead-ins. An early tune worked some unexpected and vastly enjoyable, bracingly nocturnal modes. Homecoming, its elegant chord sequences sandwiching some lively teamwork from Strickland and Bollenback, and a later ballad with starlit guitar intro and slinky tropical ambience courtesy of the rhythm section, were two of the highlights. Bollenback is so tasteful and gets so much work as a sideman that he doesn’t get as many chances to lead as he deserves, so this was a rare treat.

October 1, 2014 Posted by | concert, jazz, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Paul Bollenback Brings Tropical-Tinged Tunefulness to le Poisson Rouge

Guitarist Paul Bollenback has gotten a lot of props for his long association with organist Joey DeFrancesco. But he’s a composer and bandleader in his own right, and with an intriguing, Brazilian-flavored new album, Portraits in Space and Time (streaming at Spotify) and an album release show coming up at 7:30 PM this Saturday, Sept 27 at le Poisson Rouge with a phenomenal lineup including Marcus Strickland, Joseph LePore, Rogerio Boccato and Jeff “Tain” Watts. A show by a group of this caliber for ten bucks in advance is not to be missed!

The album is an intimate trio session with Lepore on bass and Sao Paolo’s Boccato on drums and percussion. It seems to be more of an attempt to bottle the magic of a live set rather than simply to document a new set of compositions: segues are front and center here, and they’re good. The music moves fluidly with lively interaction and spontaneity: there’s a lot of good chemistry here.

Bollenback’s signature translucence and knack for melodic hooks also takes centerstage throughout the compositions, a mix of acoustic and electric numbers. The opening track, Calling the Spirits, works a steadily rising Indian-tinged theme that draws on Bollenback’s longtime fondness for exotic sounds and sets the stage, thematically, for the rest of the album: virtually everything here follows a matter-of-fact, often almost imperceptible upward trajectory. Homecoming artfully blends hints of Americana and bossa nova, beginning like a more carbonated take on Bill Frisell, Bollenback animatedly shifting chords in a Peter Bernstein-like vein before Lepore’s chugging but pointillistic solo. The trio follow that with Three Days, a slowly unwinding jazz waltz set to Boccato’s low-key but lithe brushwork and Lepore’s similarly graceful pulse.

One of a handful of miniatures interspersed between the longer numbers, Collective pairs Lepore’s dancing bass with Boccato’s animated rimshots and Bollenback’s spare, lingering, bossa-tinged lines. Another, Jungle, pairs brightly incisive harmonics from the guitar with Boccato’s wryly scurrying percussion. Bollenback works his way methodically up to a spiky, incisive solo on Sunset, the most album’s most straight-up bossa nova number. Little Island has Bollenback’s acoustic guitar building the tune with equal parts Jobim breeziness and a contrasting chromatic bite, Boccato alternating between emphatic cymbal work and a suspenseful prowl around the edges of the drumkit.

They follow that with Bird in the Sky, a vivid, methodically crescendoing acoustic ballad that nimbly alternates between tenderness and wariness. Bollenback’s airy washes anchor Lepore’s balletesque leaps as Open Hand gets going, then the guitar and drums take it in the direction of early 70s psychedelic funk before Bollenback airs out a series of wry quotes and tongue-in-cheek riffs.

Subtle metric shifts underpinned by a persistent, graceful groove liven the graceful Dance Delicious. Lepore contributes a starkly swirling, baroque-flavored, bowed solo before Boccato kicks in with an understated clave beat for Dance of Hands, lit up by Bollenback’s alternately judicious chordal phrasing and spiraling solos. Lights, another jazz waltz, juxtaposes Bollenback’s vigorous, incancescent wee-hours theme with a nonchalant swing and a spacious Lepore solo. The album winds up with Swinging at Capone’s, a shapeshifting mix of elements from wee-hours blues to noir funk to straight-ahead swing.

September 21, 2014 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Erik Charlston’s JazzBrasil Pays Joyously Complex Homage to a Great Composer

Bright and carnavalesque but also hypnotic and constantly shapeshifting, vibraphonist Erik Charlston’s new album Essentially Hermeto more than does justice to legendary Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal. Pascoal’s work is incredibly lively and kinetic, but it’s also deep, and Charlston absolutely gets that. But it’s more than just a tribute: this is a mostly brisk, fascinating ride through a whole bunch of diverse Brazilian styles. The band here behind Charlston is choice: multi-reedman Ted Nash; Mark Soskin on piano; Jay Anderson on bass; Rogerio Boccato on drums and Cafe (Edson da Silva) on percussion. They’re at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Monday night, Nov 7 at 7:30 and 9:30 PM, and if Brazilian sounds are your thing, you should go see them.

The album kicks off kinetically with Vale de Ribiera. Inspired by a rainforest sunrise, it’s an apt musical portrayal of what the world stands to lose if the tropics get deforested. Boccato cleverly disguises a disco beat and the vibes scurry while the reeds play hide and seek. The second track is a jazzed-up choro tune, Charlston masterfully working every single tonality available, especially the low, moody ones, taking it up at the end with a surreal edge. It’s a fitting theme for the land of magic realism.

The summery San Antonio is meant to evoke a family at a Saint Anthony festival, but it seems much more than that: there’s an obvious elegaic aspect, and Charlston plays that up to the fullest, walking a wire between suspense and balminess, Nash’s alto sax contrasting intensely with a waltz theme that disappears quickly in favor of Soskin bringing it into vivid focus – and then it ends ethereally.

Cafe opens the following tune with more suspense, a scrapy berimbau solo that introduces a stately but cheery midtempo maracatu slink. Between joyous “beep beep”crescendos, Charlston defiantly avoids resolution with a pensive solo that Anderson follows tersely and intensely. Charlston wavers between pointillism and echoey mysterioso ambience on the next track, a fascinating diptych, Nash adding a wary bossa edge over the lush tropicality of the melody, Soskin and then Charlston taking it to an understatedly insistent, intense crescendo out. The album winds with a vocal tune that’s sort of a dixieland/soca hybrid and another partita, a richly dark frevo composition that the ensemble shifts effortlessly between lively swing, apprehensively clustering crescendos and finally an irresistibly wry series of birdcalls that the band becomes finds just as hard to put away. Like his inspiration, Charlston has a clear passion for Brazilian themes, and the band rises to to the occasion: count this among the best jazz albums to come over the transom here this year.

November 4, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Magos Herrera’s Mexico Azul Reinvents Classic Film Music

Singer Magos Herrera’s latest effort Mexico Azul is a jazz (and occasionally jazz-pop) album first and foremost, using classic Mexican film themes from the 1940s through the 60s as a stepping-off point rather than trying to recapture the originals’ magically lo-fi yet towering ambience. Herrera’s unadorned, carefully modulated contralto is in full force here, yet she also shows off an impressively soaring upper register. This was obviously a labor of love for the chanteuse, who’s been outspoken about how this album is a celebration of the “Africanness” of Mexico and Mexican culture – an admirable goal, considering what a melting pot the country has been throughout history. The group behind her is first-class, with Luis Perdomo on piano, John Patitucci on bass, Alex Kautz on drums, Rogerio Boccato on percussion, Tim Hagans on trumpet and Adam Rogers (of Randy Brecker’s band) on guitars.

The opening track, Alvaro Carrillo’s Luz de Luna is much more terse than the lush ranchera original, with a spiky Rogers acoustic solo. Herrera’s version of Noche Criolla falls somewhere between the furtiveness of the original and the ecstatic Celia Cruz version, featuring more nicely slinky work from Rogers. Interestingly, Herrera’s version of Agustin Lara’s Azul is a lot more moody and expansive, Hagans’ occasional trumpet accents the only concession to the boisterousness of the original. Angelitos Negros, an orchestrated Pedro Infante bolero hit from the 1948 movie of the same name gets a smartly smoky treatment with Hagans mining that vein memorably. The airy, atmospheric intro to Alvaro Carrillo’s Seguire Mi Viaje’s leads into judiciously hushed clave jazz lowlit by Perdomo’s careful phrasing and an artfully tiptoeing Patitucci solo. It’s catchy and accessible without being the least bit cliched.

An original composition, Voz Antigua (A Mi Tierra) works an understatedly plaintive ambience and a gingerly shapeshifting piano groove. The cover of Lamento Jarocho distantly echoes the suspensefully pensive bounce of the Agustin Lara original, while another Alvaro Carrillo number, Que Sea Para Mi gets a gentle, nocturnal bossa bounce. Everybody from Javier Solis to Luis Miguel has covered Tres Palabras: Herrera and band reinvent it as a coyly understated romp, from the scatting on the intro to Hagans’ jauntily retro, bluesy muted solo. The most radical, and deliciously successful reinterpretation on the album, Puerto Rican composer Pedro Flores’ Obsesion is so slow that it’s creepy, Hagans lurking behind Perdomo and Rogers’ brooding, incisive lines. The album ends up with marvelously original take of Dos Gardenias, considerably darker and more suspenseful than the Antonio Machin tango from the 40s. This album works on a lot of levels, as jazz and also as pop music – the one thing this isn’t is nostalgia. For that you’ll have to go to youtube: many of the original versions of these songs are there.

July 22, 2011 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cool Vibes from Ted Piltzecker & Company

The vibraphone has a hard time escaping its associations: you hear it, and you think real neon, and tail fins, and scotch on the rocks – or you think noir. Or you might confuse it with a Fender Rhodes. On his new album Steppe Forward, jazz vibraphonist Ted Piltzecker evokes all three, but he also adds his own ingenuity. The band here includes Sam Dillon on saxophones, Nick Llerandi on guitar, Mike Kujawski on bass, Rogerio Boccato on percussion and Jerad Lippi on drums.

The title track works a breezy circular theme that hints at Middle Eastern-tinged apprehension, with neatly interlocking acoustic guitar and vibes. Flight Following is a carefree dance with swaying, energetic alto and gritty acoustic guitar, evoking early Spyro Gyra in the days before they were played in elevators. A slow 6/8 soul/blues ballad with a vintage 50s feel, He Sent an Angel has Piltzecker’s tersely chordal piano pulling the song back from a clever 4/4 interlude. Their version of Wes Montgomery’s Nica’s Dream has an understated swing, with solo spots for incisive soprano sax and expansively spiky guitar. The real gem here is Kalunga, an ominously modal bossa number, matter-of-fact yet otherworldly. The bluesy ballad Why So Long has Dillon alternating fluid 8th-note runs with balmy ambience, followed by a dreamy Piltzecker solo. The album winds up with the lickety-split Reunion Blues, bass taking it unexpectedly halfspeed and then back, the band revving it up and out from there with gusto. Yet further proof that some of the most original and interesting jazz out there lies somewhere beyond the confines of the big city club circuit.

September 13, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment