Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Ambitious, Counterintuitive Tunefulness from Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill’s Stranger Days

Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill didn’t exactly burst onto the Manhattan scene – he eased into it, mentored by his father, the brilliant pianist/composer/activist Arturo O’Farrill. The trumpeter’s big splash was when Vijay Iyer enlisted him while barely out of his teens. His technique is astonishing, from the top to the bottom of his register, and with amazing subtlety for someone with such fearsome chops. He’s also a very soulful and playful composer, which takes some people by surprise, which it shouldn’t. Depth isn’t a quality that necessarily comes with age. Think about it: were you stupid when you were in your early twenties? If you’re reading this, probably not.

Adam O’Farrill’s second album with his chordless quartet, Stranger Days – with Chad Lefkowitz-Brown on tenor sax, Walter Stinson on bass and similarly brilliant older brother Zack on drums – is titled El Maquech. It’s a step forward for an already talented bandleader, who’s bringing his crew to the album release show at 55 Bar tomorrow night, June 13 at 10 PM. Much as the club is a rare remaining fortress of (very) oldschool West Village cool, this is the kind of show that really ought to happen at, say, Lincoln Center. If the late, great Lorraine Gordon was still with us, she unquestionably would have given this guy a week at the Vanguard.

The album’s opening number, Siiva Moiiva – which you can hear on Bandcamp along with the rest of the tracks – is a reinvented Mexican folk tune, both a showcase for shivery, allusively Arabic extended technique and some jubilant New Orleans rhythms, veering back and forth between the two. Stinson’s wryly syncopated groove underscores horn harmonies that shift from carefree to defiantly haggard in Verboten Chant, inspired by the dilemma faced by Japanese monks who were prohibited from chanting.

The title cut – named after a Mexican beetle depicted in ancient Mayan jewelry – is a darkly blazing, gorgeous New Orleans/bolero mashup, trumpet soaring, sax smoking, drums adding innumerable colorful textures and cadenzas. Erroneous Love – based on Thelonious Monk’s Eronel – blends Rudresh Mahanthappa-inspired bhangra riffage balanced by Lefkowitz-Brown’s tongue-in-cheek, Jon Iragabon-ish microtones.

LIkewise, Shall We (If You Really Must Insist) is a phostbop bhangra fanfare, done as a a brightly stripped-down trumpet-and-drums duo. Irving Berlin’s Get Thee Behind Me Satan – originally a lushly orchestrated Ella Fitzgerald vehicle from the trumpeter’s favorite film, The Master – gets reinvented as an expansively bittersweet, semi-rubato solo piece.

Henry Ford Hospital – inspired by the Frida Kahlo painting – shifts between strolling and frantic meters, matched by the horns’ pounces and shrieks. Pointilllistic cymbals contrast with foghorn harmonies as the album’s final cut, Gabriel Garzon-Montano’s Pour Maman, gets underway, edging between astigmatic Krzysztof Komeda-esque noir and mariachi majesty. Many flavors to savor here.

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June 12, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 20 Best Jazz Albums of 2017

The single most riveting jazz album, and arguably the most important album of the year in any style of music was Fukushima, by the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York. A narrative of personal terror rather than a depiction of the horrific events of March 11, 2011, its tension is relentless. Fujii, who conducts the orchestra, alternates several harrowing themes within ominous cloudbanks of improvisation, poignantly lyrical solos and segments which shift from stately and elegaic to withering, chattering satire. That’s the bandleader’s response to the greed-fueled attempts to cover up the disaster. As Fukushima reactor number three continues to leak its deadly contents into the Pacific, it’s a shock that more artists haven’t addressed the ongoing environmental crisis. As Fujii succinctly said after leading the group in the world premiere of the suite in 2016, it’s not over.

Whittling this list down to another nineteen albums out of the hundreds of releases that deserve to be credited here was almost painful. It makes no sense to try to rank them: if an album’s good enough to make this list, you ought to hear it.

Ran Blake & Dominique Eade – Town & Country
Protest jazz, icy Messiaenic miniatures, reinvented standards and luminous nocturnes from the noir piano icon and his brilliant longtime singer collaborator. Listen at Spotify 

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound – Not Two
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s latest large-ensemble recording, blending elements of Middle Eastern, Indian music and jazz is an album for our time: turbulent, restless and packed with poignant solos from a global lineup. Listen at New Amsterdam Records 

Anouar Brahem – Blue Maqams
The oudist teams up with bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Django Bates for some of the year’s most haunting themes, drawing evenly from the Middle East, the tropics and the west. Listen at Spotify 

JD Allen – Radio Flyer
This era’s preeminent tenor saxophonist/composer expands on his usual terse, three-to-four-minute “jukebox jazz,” biting irony and ironic humor by bringing guitarist Liberty Ellman in to join the longtime ace rhythm section of bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. Listen to a little bit at Soundcloud 

The Mary Halvorson Octet – Away with You
The world’s foremost under-forty jazz guitarist has never written more plaintively, or more amusingly. Even more caustic sarcasm than Allen, not quite as many jokes as Mostly Other People Do the Killing (see below). Haunting pedal steel ace Susan Alcorn is the not-so-secret weapon here. Listen at Bandcamp 

Vijay Iyer – Far From Over
Like Allen, Iyer beefs up his sound, in this case bolstering his trio with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey by adding cornetist Graham Haynes, Steve Lehman on alto sax and Mark Shim on tenor. Fearlessly political, constantly uneasy, bustling with urban noir tableaux, a requiem and smoking bhangra jazz. Listen at Spotify 

Greg Lewis – The Breathe Suite
The organist best known for reinventing Monk tunes dedicates each track on this often shattering, sometimes acidic collection to black men murdered by police. Angst, horror and slashing solos from guitarists Marc Ribot or Ron Jackson take centerstage as the bandleader builds relentless ambience. There’s never been an organ jazz record anything like this. Listen at Spotify 

Doug Wieselman‘s Trio S – Somewhere Glimmer
The multi-reedman (who also plays banjo here, more than competently) joins forces with drummer Kenny Wollesen and cellist Jane Scarpantoni for broodingly cinematic themes on a smaller scale than his legendary, carnivalesque Kamikaze Ground Crew have typically tackled. Listen at Bandcamp 

Guy Mintus – A Home In Between
With his long-running trio, bassist Tamir Shmerling and drummer Philippe Lemm, the pensive, incisive Israeli-born pianist cascades through dark cinematic tableaux with moody Middle Eastern and angst-fueled neoromantic interludes. This is one restless album. Listen at Spotify 

Shahin Novrasli – Emanation
Eerily rustling, acerbically modal postbop and more Middle Eastern-flavored themes from the Azeri pianist (an Ahmad Jamal protege) with bassist James Cammack and drummer André Ceccarelli plus Georgian percussionist Irakli Koiava. Violinst Didier Lockwood proves perfect for this uneasy project. Listen at Spotify 

The Jihye Lee Orchestra – April Wind
The singer/composer makes some serious waves with her first big band recording, a lustrously blustery, suspensefully cinematic, dynamic suite inspired by a ferry disaster off the Korean coast. Listen at her music page 

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan – Small Town
The iconically  lyrical guitarist and his sympatico bassist bandmate intimately reinvent bluegrass, Lee Konitz, Paul Motian and some Frisell standbys in a return to the format he first recorded with thirty-five years ago. Listen at Spotify 

Tomas Fujiwara – Triple Double
Two horns (Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and Ralph Alessi on trumpet), two guitars (Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook) and two drummers, Gerald Cleaver holding down the second chair through variations, and frequent sparring, over one bitingly catchy theme after another. Drummers always lead the best bands, don’t they? Listen at Bandcamp  

Josh Green & the Cyborg Orchestra  – Telepathy & Bop
Composer/conductor Green ambitiously makes his debut with an irrepressibly theatrical, sometimes vaudevillian, lavishly cinematic big band album that rivals Esquivel for outside-the-box creativity and bizarro orchestration. One of the funnest and most irreverent albums of the year. Listen at Spotify 

Sam Bardfeld – The Great Enthusiasms
In this fearlessly political collection, the violinist takes each of the song titles from speeches by Richard Nixon. Pianist Kris Davis and drummer Michael Sarin join in the rich irony, bristling with energy. If Thelonious Monk had been a violinist, he would have made this record. Listen at Bandcamp 

Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge – Whispers on the Wind
The follow-up to the composer/conductor’s titanically gripping, picturesque River Runs suite isn’t quite as intense, but it’s just as dark, inspired by Larry McMurtry, Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy. Unorthodox instrumentation to rival Darcy James Argue; twisted cowboy themes; southwestern gothic; brassy solar flares and the most counterintuitive, smart jazz guitar solo of the year: that’s LaRue Nickelson on acoustic. Listen at Spotify 

Fabian Almazan – Alcanza
The Cuban-born pianist has done some memorable work with strings and orchestration; here, the Shostakovich-inspired bandleader fully realizes that epic vision, with Camila Meza centerstage on vocals and guitar. Plaintive ballads, vertigo-inducing overlays, glistening melodicism that’s equal parts latin and classical, and a grandeur unmatched by any other album this year. Listen at Spotify 

Rudresh Mahanthappa & the Indo-Pak Coalition – Agrima
The alto saxophonist’s wind-tunnel control and technique are as breathtaking as always. The themes are more distinctly Indian, and darker, and more ambitious. Guitarist Rez Abbasi takes his tunefulness to new levels. And let’s not stop with the music: let’s say the hell with imperialist historical smog and unite India with Pakistan. Listen a little at Soundcloud

Jen Shyu – Song of Silver Geese
The esteemed singer and multi-instrumentalist peppers this surreal, envelopingly lush nocturnal suite with moon lute and piano, mingling with strings and vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s Jade Tongue ensemble. Singing in Timorese, Korean, Chinese and other languages, she gives voice to individuals real and mythical impacted by or lost to tragedy.  Listen at Pi Recordings

Mostly Other People Do the Killing  – Loafer’s Hollow
Packed with both inside jokes and irresistibly cartoonish humor, the world’s funniest jazz group give the gasface to Count Basie and his innumerable imitators in 30s style swing. They can spot a cliche a mile away and never miss their target. Satire doesn’t any broader, more spot-on or more hilarious than this. Listen at Spotify 

December 30, 2017 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Considering the Prospects For Adam O’Farrill’s Daunting Technique and Compositional Chops

Even if trumpeter Adam O’Farrill hadn’t made such a big splash as a twenty-year-old phenom in Rudresh Mahanthappa’s band, or if he wasn’t heir to a brilliant jazz legacy that goes back three generations to his grandfather Chico O’Farrill, he’d still be one of his era’s most in-demand players. When pianist Chris Pattishall got a gig to livescore the debut of visual artist Kambui’s new video project, Where Does the Time Go this coming Weds, Nov 15 at 7:30 at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd Street, he immediately brought in O’Farrill as a sparring partner. Which testifies to his reputation as an improviser as well as a sideman. Pattishall is no slouch as an improviser, either: this performance could school a lot of players.

O’Farrill is also a composer, with several tracks to his credit on his debut album Stranger Days, streaming at Sunnyside Records. It’s a lot of fun, and the lineup is somewhat unorthodox for a debut – two horns, bass and drums. Not to be disrespectful to young composers, but there are plenty of guys twice O’Farrill’s age who can’t write tunes as purposeful as the numbers here. Being a bigtime movie fan probably has a lot to do with the vividness of his sonic narratives.

The album title is a pun, and it’s apt, referencing both the Camus novel as well as our surreal times. The album opens with the optimistically waltzing harmonies of A & R Italian Eatery, O’Farriull and tenor saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown bantering like a couple of garrulous oldtimers in the neighborhood pizza joint. O’Farrill’s similarly brliliant brother Zack adds sparkle and spatter against Walter Stinson’s sinuous bass.

A fluttery solo trumpet approximation of waves licking the beach opens the epic The Stranger, then the bandleader takes an allusively North African tangent as a shout to the novel’s enigmatic protagonist. From there the band shuffle, then march with a Mingus-inspired grit, the brothers in the band messing with the time and pushing their instruments’ outer edges: the fun these guys are having is contagious. Long, exploratory, unresolved solos from each horn player give way to moody minimalism from the bass and drums before the procession resumes. Does anybody get shot? No spoilers here.

Stinson’s terse solo base interchange with moody horn harmonies peppered by latin-tinged rimshots in Survival Instincts. Why She Loves, by Stinson, begins with low-key, amiable solo sax; slinky syncopation and tense close harmonies follow until the brothers in the band bust through the clouds, clearing a path for the bass to bop around.

Aligator Got the Blues rises from moody, blues-infused atmospherics to a latin slink and then a strut as the sax bobs and weaves; they take it out with argumentative New Orleans horns and wind it back somberly. Another Stinson tune, Forget Everything You’ve Learned At School follows a byzantine if ultimately triumphant path out of frustration with routine and repetition: no wonder everybody can’t wait til the school day is over!

The album’s most ambitious point is a triptych that begins with The Cows and Their Farmer Walt, inspired by the famous 1935 Mickey Mouse cartoon The Band Concert, with the satirical, buffoonish feel of a Mostly Other People Do the Killing parody piece: everybody chews the scenery, with irresistibly amusing results. The Courtroom keeps this silly, conversational narrative going “as a judge (bass), a politician (sax), and an environmental scientist (trumpet) try to come to terms with what happened after this natural disaster, not to mention what happened to the cows and their farmer.” It concludes with the funky math of Building the Metamorphosen Bridge

The album closes with Lower Brooklyn Botanical Union, a jaunty swing shuffle and joint shout-out to Strayhorn and the brothers’ pioneering latin jazz composer grandfather. It’s impressively eclectic stuff from a guy whose ceiling seems to be pretty unlimited – and a good indication of what he might pull out of thin air at the Lincoln Center gig on Wednesday.

November 9, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tenor Saxophonist Tom Tallitsch Puts Out His Best, Most Darkly Intense Album

Tom Tallitsch is one of the major composers in jazz right now and a dynamic force on the tenor sax as well. As a radio host, he’s also advocated for under-the-radar artists from the New York jazz scene. His latest, excellent album Gratitude is streaming at Posi-Tone Records; he’s leading a quartet this Saturday night, May 6 at Minton’s, with sets at 7 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $10; if you want a table, there’s a two-item minimum.

This is a very emotionally charged record; the unifying theme is sad departures and welcome arrivals. The opening track, Terrain, is a sonic road trip. Jon Davis’ piano anchors an allusively Middle Eastern intensity as drummer Rudy Royston flurries and spirals, the bandleader leading the charge into a more-or-less free interlude that this era’s great extrovert behind the kit pulls back onto the rails,

Tallitsch and bassist Peter Brendler double the melody as the tricky metrics of Kindred Spirit sway along over an implied clave, the bandleader’s bristling, smoke-tinged solo giving way to a deliciously suspenseful one from Davis and then a broodingly modal one from the bass.

The group’s reinvention of a generic old Fleetwood Mac song isn’t even recognizable until the first chorus; the wayDavis’ gold dust piano spins into blues, eerie passing tones and then back is a revelation, as is Talitsch’s magically dynamic, shivery, nuanced solo that follows as guest Brian Charette’s organ swells behind him.

The briskly swinging Refuge brings to mind Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Charlie Parker-fixated material, Davis’ scampering solo at the center. The uneasily modal Northeast is just plain one of the best jazz songs released in recent months, fueled by Tallitsch’s soberly cinematic drive, Davis’ masterful fugal tradeoffs and Brendler’s aching bends as Royston rattles the traps.

The album’s most epic track, Alternate Side is a rapdifire swing shuffle, a long launching pad for Tallitsch chromatics and a scurryingly droll Davis solo. More bands should cover the Beatles’ Because (you should hear Svetlana & the Delancey Five play Rob Garcia’s New Orleans funeral march chart for it). These guys’ version is similarly elegaic but more spare.

The broodingly funky, swaying Rust Belt aptly evokes a gritty post-industrial milieu with more tasty Tallitsch modalities, echoed by Davis and Brendler as Royston puts the torch to the remaining brickwork. The album’s title track is a gospel-infused pastoral jazz waltz and arguably its catchiest number. It’s definitely a new style for Tallitsch, but he nails it.

Oblivion isn’t anywhere near as disconsolate (or intoxicated) as the title would imply, but it’s got bite, Royston’s fierce drive straightening it out as Davis and the bandleader parse its modalities for anger and irony. The album winds up with a comfortably, loosely swinging take of Led Zep’s Thank You, Charette and Davis taking the band to church. Not only is this Tallitsch’s best album, iIt’s hard to think of a more ceaselessly interesting, tuneful jazz release over the last few months.

May 3, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rudresh Mahanthappa Brings His Sizzling Indian-Flavored Take on Charlie Parker to the Jazz Standard

Alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa is one of the world’s most individualistic and thrilling musicians, a wide-ranging scholar of jazz as well as Indian music. His latest album, Bird Calls – streaming at Spotify – is a characteristically unconventional effort, heavily influenced by Charlie Parker, although not a tribute album per se. His performance with the quintet on the album at this year’s Winter Jazzfest was a spine-tingling display of chops, ideas, and high-voltage banter between the musicians. He’s doing it again, playing the album release show at the Jazz Standard on March 24 with sets at 7:30 and 10 PM with a slightly different crew: trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, pianist Bobby Avey, bassist François Moutin and drummer Jordan Perlson. Cover is $25.

Musicians have been highfiving each other in song for eons. The shout-outs to Bird on this album are all over the place, some as simple as Mahanthappa playing his own tune over Parker’s changes, to switching up the rhythm of a Bird melody or solo, along with more artfully concealed passages. Whatever the case, it’s classic Mahanthappa, ancient-sounding, often majestic Indian motifs within a somewhat harder bop framework than usual.

The album juxtaposes brief interludes with larger-scale numbers. Bird Calls #1, which opens it, is a brief, murkily suspenseful modal platform for the first of many animated sax-trumpet conversation (at Winter Jazzfest, they really took their time and had a ball with this). On the DL (a reference to Bird’s Donna Lee) opens with the same interplay at triplespeed or more – how firebrand young trumpeter Adam O’Farrill (son of latin jazz maven Arturo) matches Mahanthappa’s silken, precise intonation is stunning. At Winter Jazzfest, Indian percussion master Vish, of dancefloor groove instrumentalists SuKhush commented that if this was a sine wave, it would be completely flat [thanks for the company and the erudite insights, guys!].

Sax and trumpet join in a tightly rhythmic duet with echoes of Indian bhangra brass music, followed by Chillin’, referencing Bird’s Relaxin’ at the Camarillo in bubbly, joyous trumpet/sax eschanges, graceful melismas from O’Farrill and long, elusive flights from Mahanthappa. They follow a playful, masterful solo sax passage replete with overtones and subtle rhythmic shifts with Talin Is Thinking, inspired equally by Parker’s Mood and Mahanthappa’s young son. A pensive march that rises to majestic, fiery heights, pianist Matt Mitchell’s resonant, hard-hitting but surgically precise pedalpoint enhances the shadowy Indian-tinged mystery underneath.  Moutin’s dancing, kinetic lines blend with and then leap from drummer Rudy Royston’s steady, subtle rat-a-tat drive: who knew he could channel an intricate tabla rhythm yet bring it into the 21st century, thousands of miles away?

Both Hands (based on Dexterity) is another showcase for clarity and rapidfire precision from sax and trumpet, hard bop over a briskly rumbling, hypnotic backdrop, Mitchell nimbly choosing his spots. A rustling Moutin solo leads into the wryly tiltled Gopuram (referencing Steeplechase – in India, a gopur is a temple tower), a tersely simmering, modally-charged number that reminds of Marc Cary (has he played with Mahanthappa? What a collaboration that would be!).

Maybe Later (drawing on Now’s the Time) contrasts lively, upbeat postbop horn riffage with a sternly rhythmic underpinning, with an acidically rippling Mitchell solo over Royston’s tumbling aggression and jabs. An expansive Mitchell solo sets the stage for Sure Why Not? (a shout-out to Confirmation and Barbados), the album’s least Indian-flavored and most lightheartedly pulsing track. The album winds up much the way it started, but with a staccato pulse, referencing Bird’s Anthropology with all hands on deck, blistering spirals from Mitchell and a hard-charging sax/trumpet debate. In case you haven’t figured out, there’s no one on earth who sounds remotely like Rudresh Mahanthappa, and he’s a force of nature live. This show promises to be amazing, get there early.

March 21, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Best Jazz Albums of 2013

Narrowing down the best jazz albums of the year to a couple dozen or so is a cruel task: it’s safe to say that there have been hundred of good ones issued this year. This is an attempt to assemble the creme de la creme of this year’s crop in one easily digestible package: apologies to the many, many artists whose excellent releases aren’t included here.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society– Brooklyn Babylon
The esteemed big band composer’s latest thematic opus is an important album in New York history, a very uneasy suite of variations illustrating a city in constant flux, often changing for the worse. Cruelly sardonic jackhanmmer rhythms and mechanically industrial circular vamps juxtapose with a resonant angst that peaks at the end. Balkan and circus flourishes, unorthodox instrumentation and quirky, often plaintive miniatures are interspersed amid the relentless pulse. It captures a moment already gone forever, maybe for good.

The Claudia Quintet – September
Drummer/bandleader John Hollenbeck’s attempt to “rework and transform the traumatic residue” of 9/11 resulted in an emotionally charged inner dialogue and a highly improvised, persistently uneasy, enigmatically enveloping series of themes, each assigned a date from that fateful September. The eleventh is not one of them. Nebulous and opaque, it vividly evokes the stunned, bereaved moment that preceded an outpouring of both wrath and goodwill among the city’s citizens. Maybe Hollenbeck can tackle that moment next.

Sexmob – Cinema Circus & Spaghetti (Sexmob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota)
Trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s irrepressible quartet finds the inner noir in Rota’s vintage Fellini film scores and magnifies it with charactistic ambitiousness and eclecticism. Creeping slinky dirges sit side by side with deep dub interludes, carnivalesque, cinematic and occasionally showing the group’s punk jazz roots. A rousing follow-up of sorts to Hal Wilner’s cult favorite 1981 Amarcord Nino Rota album.

Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge – River Runs
This “concerto for jazz guitar and saxophone” portrays some of the wild rivers of the American south and west in all their fearsome glory, an entire ecosystem with its messy, sometimes awe-inspiring, sometimes opaque, frequently frightening detail. Like Darcy James Argue, Owen delights in unorthodox instruments and voicings, terror just lurking beneath the whitecaps on several of these lush, ambitious numbers.

Ibrahim Maalouf – Wind
This homage to Miles Davis’ soundtrack to Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud. follows the architecture of the Miles record, but not sequentially. The Miles record is drenched in reverb, added post-production; trumpeter Maalouf’s production is as airy and sometimes arid as the old French silent film, for which this serves as a score, would seem to suggest. Overall, the effect of both albums is the same, an unrelenting angst foreshadowing imminent doom despite all distractions to the contrary. Together and separately, both are classics of the noir pantheon, this one with frequent latin tinges amid the gloom.

Michel Sajrawy– Arabop
Romany-flavored Middle Eastern jazz from the Palestinian guitarist and his inspired, polyglot Palestinian-Israeli band, a vividly powerful mix of Middle Eastern and Balkan-tinged romps along with a handful of haunting longer-scale numbers. Sajrawy plays microtonally and very artfully on a standard-issue Strat through an envelope pedal for the blippy tone so common in guitar jazz from east of the Danube – pulsing staccato grooves alternate with intense levantine sax interludes.

Pete Rodriguez – Caminando Con Papi
Salsa themes taken to the highest level of jazz. Trumpeter Rodriguez – son of legendary salsa crooner Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez – fires off some of the year’s most spine-tingling and incisive solos with striking terseness and attention to melodic trajectory throughout this surprisingly eclectic collection. Gritty modalities underpin a relentlessly intensity and Rodriguez’ wickedly precise flights and volleys; pianist Luis Perdomo is an equal part of the fireworks.

Bill Frisell – Big Sur
A quintet jazz suite of sorts commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival, it’s the iconic guitarist in high spirits, throughout a mix of Lynchian allusions, some surf rock, a Neil Young homage, strolling C&W and a Britfolk theme, with plenty of characteristic grit and ambiguity beneath its windswept surface.

Wadada Leo Smith – Occupy the World
This double-disc collection of towering epics picks up where the trumpeter’s magnum opus from last year, Ten Freedom Summers, left off. 21-piece Finnish ensemble Tumo get to judiciously explore and revel in Smith’s gusty new large-ensemble pieces, a mix of airily expansive, spacious, and majestically intense themes, with Smith’s signature social awareness.

Leif Arntzen – Continuous Break
It was a good year for trumpeters, wasn’t it? On his latest quintet release, one of New York’s most distinctive voices on that horn takes a page out of the vintage Miles Davis book: throw the band a few riffs and have them create songs on the spot. Tuneful and diverse to the extreme, it’s got standards, a tone poem, a gritty minor-key soul groove (which may be the album’s best track) and hotwired improvisation recorded completely live in the studio.

The Monika Roscher Big Band – Failure in Wonderland
The guitarist and her German ensemble stalk their way surrealistically through carnivalesque themes that often border on the macabre, with elements of noir cabaret, horror film music and psychedelic rock as well as big band jazz. Nothing is off limits to Roscher: vocoder trip-hop, gothic cinematics, savage tremolopicking, Gil Evans-esque swells and colors and fire-and-brimstone art-rock sonics.

Fernando Otero – Romance
Some might call this indie classical or even nuevo tango, but the Argentine-born pianist’s sonata transcends genre. It’s a series of themes and variations split between instruments, interchanging between time signatures, interwoven like a secret code. Inspired by Argentine writer and clarinetist Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch, it invites the listener to decide on a “modular” sequence of tracks, perhaps a wry nod to the reality of how listeners work in the iphone era. Taken in sequence, just for starters, this is a harrowing ride.

Hee Hawk – s/t
The most stunning debut in recent months blends the pastoral with the noir: imagine Bill Frisell scoring a Roman Polanski film. Bandleader/pianist Adam Lipsky’s compositions embrace Americana as well as Romany and film music, often luridly. A torchy stripper blues, hints of the Balkans, Ethiopia, and noir soundtrack atmosphere mix with irrepressible oldtimey swing and a creepy, shivery bolero.

Amir ElSaffar – Alchemy
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter continues to push the envelope with Middle Eastern themes, melodies and technique while also employing western classical architecture. This is a sonata of sorts, two central themes with many variations. ElSaffar’s quintet deftly and fascinatingly allude to (and sometimes leap headfirst) into otherworldly microtonal modes throughout a series of sometimes stately, sometimes exuberant, hard-swinging explorations.

The Mary Halvorson Septet – Illusionary Sea
Lush but biting, the guitarist maintains a lustrous majesty livened with cold mechanical satire and an intricate, incessantly fascinating counterpoint. While Halvorson sometimes bares her fangs with terse, evilly squirrelly cadenzas, she’s not usually centerstage: she leaves that to the constantly shifting, rich interchange of harmonies.

Mostly Other People Do the Killing – Red Hot
The quartet – expanded to a septet with Brandon Seabrook’s banjo, Ron Stabinsky’s piano and David Taylor’s bass trombone – burn through their most caustic yet accessible album to date. With 20s hot jazz trending hard with the one-percenters, it became obvious that the time was right for the Spinal Tap of jazz to give the genre a vigorous twist to put it out of its misery. MOPDtK claim not to be satirical, but this could be their most aggressive, and wildly successful, spoof yet. What will these guys come up with next?

Jussi Reijonen – Un
A still, spacious, slowly unwinding masterpiece from the Finnish oudist/guitarist and his quartet. Original night-sky themes and a classic Coltrane cover feature lithely intertwining levantine grooves, bittersweetly Egyptian-flavored motifs and Utar Artun’s eerily twinkling chromatic piano.

Bobby Avey – Be Not So Long to Speak
The most Lennie Tristano-influenced album in recent months is this crushingly powerful, glimmering solo piano album. It’s a mix of clenched-teeth articulacy and brooding pools of moonlit, swampy menace, setting an unwaveringly creepy tone throughout brooding tone poems with jackhammer pedalpoint, hints of Erik Satie and Louis Andriessen.

Kenny Garrett – Pushing the World Away
Garrett gets back to what he does best on this mostly-quartet session packed with several latin-tinged grooves plus those menacing modal vamps that this era’s preeminent alto saxophonist loves so much and plays with such an instantly recognizable intensity.

Rudresh Mahanthappa – Gamak
The alto saxophonist expands his singular vernacular with this hard-hitting, rhythmic effort. With a stilletto precision, flurries of postbop liven both the bhangra interludes and sunnier, more pastoral pieces here; guitarist Dave Fiuczynski supplies his signature apprehensive, intense microtonal edge, sometimes veering off toward raw metalfunk.

Dave Douglas – Time Travel
This one doesn’t have Aiofe O’Donovan’s vocals, but Douglas’ translucent tunesmithing doesn’t miss them. The fine-tuned chemistry and interplay between trumpeter Douglas and Jon Irabagon on tenor sax, Linda Oh on bass, Rudy Royston on drums and Matt Mitchell on piano showcases one of the most instantly recognizable working bands of recent years, through anthemic arcs, alternately cumulo-nimbus and cirrus ambience, a slide-step stroll and Mad Men-era grooves.

The Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra – Bloom
Luminous, lush and symphonic in a Maria Schneider vein, the colors at play on this subtly rhythmic, constantly shapeshifting album tend to be bright, summery and vibrant. Translucent motifs shift through the arrangements with an unlikely nimble, assured, fleet-footedness for such majestic music. Sara Serpa’s haunting vocalese is the icing on the cake.

Marc Cary – For the Love of Abbey
Cary was Abbey Lincoln’s pianist and music director through the end of her career, and draws on that gig with a loving but also fierce intensity that does her justice. This highly improvised solo collection of Lincoln songs is stormy and ferociously articulate, like the singer herself. It’s cantabile, elegant and regal but also feral, with a shattering final salute.

Fred Hersch and Julian Lage – Free Flying
This tightly choreographed, swinging performance from pianist Hersch and guitarist Lage is so seamless and tightly fluid that it’s often impossible keep track of who’s playing what. A concert recording from the Kitano from earlier this year, it’s a series of Hersch homages to influences from across the spectrum, with a frequent Brazilian flair – and a throwback to Hersch’s indelible duo album with Bill Frisell about thirteen years ago.

Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra – Book of Rhapsodies
Something of a return to noir form for the trumpeter/bandleader, parsing innovative early third-stream compositions, some with a cinematic or cartoonish tinge, from some familiar and more obscure names from the 30s and 40s: Raymond Scott, Charlie Shavers, Louis Singer and Reginald Foresythe.

John Funkhouser – Still
This trio performance from the third-stream pianist/tunesmith alternates moody and rhythmic tunesmithing, murky dirges and lyrical third-stream glimmer. Brooding latinisms, a gloomy version of House of the Rising Sun and a pitch-black raga-inflected title track make this one of the year’s catchiest, hummable yet darkest releases.

Steve Coleman and Five Elements – Functional Arrythmias
On which the alto saxophonist pays homage to iconic drummer/polymath Milford Graves with a characteristically vivid, bouncily naturalistic series of illustrations of anatomical phenomena. Long, circular rhythmic patterns anchor tight counterpoint between the horns, bass and drums. Riffs are simple, direct and memorable as expected; funk beats morph through tricky time signatures, and nobody wastes notes.

And a shout out to Dan Willis & Velvet Gentlemen’s scary Satie Project Volume 2 album, as well as to Bryan & the Aardvarks, for their glimmering, nocturnal debut, Heroes of Make Believe. Both came out last year but missed the 2012 best-of list here. Since either of those albums could easily top this one, it would be remiss not to mention them here.

December 30, 2013 Posted by | jazz, lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Clinic in Smart Jazz Collaboration

Saxophonist Jason Robinson and pianist Anthony Davis have a new duo cd, Cerulean Landscape, out on Clean Feed, their first full-length album together. Richly melodic and often majestic, it’s simply one of the year’s best. The interplay and chemistry here are comfortably intuitive and strikingly collaborative, as you would expect from a couple of good listeners who’ve worked together frequently in the past. It’s less conversational than it is an exchange of ideas. The two share reconnaissance, intelligence and tactics, Davis’ piano sometimes taking on sax voicings with trills and glissandos of its own. Robinson’s aggression sometimes contrasts intensely with Davis’ judicious lyricism; sometimes it’s the other way around. Despite the title, there’s next to no blues here.

The opening track, by Davis, balances soprano sax stretching to break free, Davis’ signature third-stream elegance underneath. Finally Davis gets to cut loose himself and chase the demons away, then they end it on a quietly triumphant note. Someday I’ll Know, a ballad by Jason Sherbundy, lets Robinson flutter around, eventually ushering in a glimmering, terse solo passage from Davis, who takes it down to a modal-tinged apprehension that will recur memorably in places later on here. A study in contrasts, the third track, Viscissitudes, is something of a delayed-reaction call-and-response, frenetic circling sax over deft incisions that Davis eventually abandons and then follows with a similar apprehension. The musicians reverse roles on the unaffectedly magnificent Translucence, Davis’ alto flute treading gingerly while Davis glimmers darkly and insistently, Robinson leaping for a scampering run when Davis finally introduces some rhythm about three-quarters of the way through.

Robinson again plays good cop to Davis’ distantly moody menace on Of Blues and Dreams, complete with overtones flying from the soprano sax and Davis plucking and muting the piano strings. Davis’ shadow-and-surprise sniper attack late in the piece is arguably the high point of the album. After that, a swing tune without bass or drums – neither which seem necessary here, given the robust camaraderie – finally sees Davis taking a page out of Robinson’s bop book and cutting loose. The album winds up much the way it began, Robinson’s tangents extrapolating wildly from Davis’ mysterious home base, the circle expanding as Davis carefully maps out an increasingly playful series of puddlejumps.

Robinson also has two new other albums worth checking out. Cerberus Reigning is the second part of his ongoing solo Cerberus trilogy: it’s just Robinson, his saxes, some loops and a whole slew of effects. Don’t let the Dungeons ‘n Dragons song titles fool you – it’s soulful, lyrical, often very amusingly playful stuff. And his combo album The Two Faces of Janus with a cast including George Schuller, Marty Ehrlich and Rudresh Mahanthappa reaches for the occasional grit that surfaces on Cerberus and takes it up several notches.

December 15, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment