Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Blazing Big Band Album and a Low-Key Trio Show From Pianist Steven Feifke

If you’re interested in checking out a musician in an intimate setting, why would you want to listen to his big band album? Because it shows how far he can take an idea and keep it interesting. Steven Feifke’s first big band album, Kinetic – streaming at Spotify – was one of those thousands of releases which were on track to come out in 2020 but didn’t hit the web until a year later…and still pretty much went down the memory hole. And that’s too bad, because Feifke’s compositions are ambitiously tuneful, colorful and have a sly sense of humor. For now, you can catch the pianist leading a trio on August 10 at Mezzrow, where he’s doing two sets at 7:30 and a little after 9; cover is $25 cash at the door.

The band – a revolving cast of characters – open the album with the title track, the bandleader spiraling and stabbing right off the bat with a chromatic snarl echoed by blasts from the brass. Leading a frenetically bluesy drive, he sets up a hard-hitting solo from trumpeter Gabriel King Medd followed by a vaudevillian couple of breaks from drummer Ulysses Owens.

Trumpeter Benny Benack III’s smoky muted lines kick off the cinematic, noir-tinged Unveiling of a Mirror, baritone saxophonist Andrew Gutauskas handing off briefly to Alexa Tarantino’s flute. After Benack takes his plunger out, the group hit a brassy swing, dip into some gorgeously gusty Ellingtonian harmonies, then tenor saxophonist Sam Dillon picks it up again. The intro is 180 degrees from what you might think.

Misterioso rising energy also pervades The Sphinx, although there is a good, long joke early on. Alto saxophonist Lucas Pino chooses his spots, sometimes coyly during a lull; the tensely pulsing, Mingus-esque drive toward to another counterintuitive coda is one of the album’s high points. Veronica Swift sings the first of the standards, Until the Real Thing Comes Along, anchored by ambered shades of low brass, more black-and-tan reed harmonies and a sotto-voce swing from bassist Dan Chmielinski. Alto saxophonist Andrew Gould’s flurries against shifting banks of brass and reeds brings the tune to cruising altitude.

Feifke takes a tantalizingly brief, McCoy Tyner-esque opening solo in Word Travels Fast, a playful latin-tinged shuffle, spiced with devious quotes and animated solos from Medd, Pino and drummer Jimmy Macbride through to the album’s most anthemic coda.

Bright brass, shifting meters, a soaring Gould solo and a fiery flurry of individual voices over Feifke’s stern forward drive threaten to go off the rails but never quite do in the next track, Woolongong, It also has the album’s best joke.

Feifke’s big band version of Nica’s Dream is brisk and latinized; Benack goes from goofy to gruff as Tarantino shadows him. Swift returns to the mic over a hypnotic pedalpoint as a gorgeously dynamic stride through On the Street Where You Live gets underway. Trombonist Robert Edwards’ good cheer sets up Gutauskas’ ruminative solo as the blaze flares and flickers behind him.

The goofiest number here is Midnight Beat, which seems to be a satirically beefed-up take on cheesy 80s funk-fusion. Dillon takes centerstage in the warmly benedictory finale, Closure. It’s a memorable project from a cast that also includes trumpeters Max Darché and John Lake, trombonists Jeffery Miller, Armando Vergara and Jennifer Wharton, guitarist Alex Wintz, drummers Joe Peri and Bryan Carter.

August 6, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 8-Bit Big Band Can’t Stop Playing Mighty, Orchestral Versions of Video Game Themes

The 8-Bit Big Band are one of the most improbably successful brands in music. They own the franchise on lavishly orchestrated, jazz-oriented arrangements of video game themes. They have more of a following in the video game world than in jazz circles, maybe because much of what they play is closer to action film scores than, say, Miles Davis. But it sure is a lot of fun. Their frequently hilarious latest album Backwards Compatible is streaming at Bandcamp.

Between the horns, and reeds, and string orchestra, and singers, there are so many people among the group’s rotating cast of characters that they would take up more space than there is on this page. After a bit of a lush intro, they launch into the album with the main theme from Chrono Trigger, pianist Steven Feifke scrambling over a fusiony backdrop that descends to a dreamy string interlude. Take out those piano breaks and this could be an early 80s Earth Wind and Fire number.

The Gourmet Race from Kirby Super Star is basically a beefed-up hot 20s tune, tenor saxophonist Sam Dillon soloing lickety-split over a racewalking pulse as the strings swell behind him. They do Hydrocity Zone, a Sonic the Hedgehog 3 theme, as beefed-up funk with Grace Kelly adding a gritty alto solo.

Benny Benack III croons a silly lyric, Rat Pack style, then raises his trumpet in a blustery 50s-style orchestral pop reinvention of Want You Gone, from the Portal 2 soundtrack. Metaknights Revenge, a Kirby Super Star theme has a clever interweave of horns in place of motorik synth and a trio of wry synth solos from the mysterious “Buttonmasher.”

The first Mario theme here is the killer, irresistibly amusing, quote-laden tarantella Super Mario Land Underground, from Super Mario 64, with Balkan-tinged baritone sax from another mystery soloist,  “Leo P.”  It’s the best track on the album. Dire Dire Docks, also from that soundtrack, features bassist and bandleader Charlie Rosen burbling around way up the fretboard over a pillowy ballad backdrop.

It’s hard to resist singing “That’s the way of the world, yeow,” as Birdman, from Pilot Wings 64, gets underway. Zac Zinger emulates a woozy synth through his EWI while the music edges closer toward Alan Parsons Project territory. Choral group Accent’s contribution to the floating Lost in Thoughts All Alone, from Fire Emblem Fates, will have you reaching for fast forward to get away from the autotune, ruining an otherwise clever Rosen chart.

Bassist Adam Neely goes up the scale and noodles in Saria’s Song, a cheerily symphonic remake from the Zelda: Ocarina of Time score. Tiffany Mann sings on a sweeping 70s soul version of Snake Eater, found on the Metal Gear Solid 3 soundtrack.

The group close with a couple of additional Mario themes. Kelly returns, this time on the mic, for a ridiculously amusing, vaudevillian reinvention of Jump Up Super Star, from Super Mario Odyssey. The orchestra close appropriately enough with a brassy take of the Super Mario World End Theme, complete with shivery strings and a ragtime piano solo. This is a great party record and obviously a labor of love. The amount of work Rosen spent reworking all these tunes is staggering, and the huge crew here seem to be having just as much fun with it.

January 13, 2021 Posted by | funk music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Shelter in Place with Some Smartly Assembled, Tuneful Jazz Camaraderie

Beginning in the late 90s, Posi-Tone Records honcho Marc Free picked an unlikely moment to launch a jazz record label, started with the core of the Smalls scene and branched out to the point where he not only found success, but also got a handle on who works best with who else. So lately he’s been assembling specific groups for specific records. The most appropriate one for this particular moment in American history is Idle Hands’ lively, relentlessly catchy debut – and probably only album – Solid Moments, streaming at the Posi-Tone site. For all out-of-work musicians, this one’s for you!

Vibraphone Behn Gillece contributes the opening track, Barreling Through, a gorgeously bittersweet, shuffling late 50s-style rain-on-the-store-windows tableau. Tenor saxophonist Sam Dillon and guitarist Will Bernard pierce the mist; pianist Art Hirahara, bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Donald Edwards nimbly negotiate the droplets.

Bernard’s first track here, the clave-jazz tune Silver Bullet, is a showcase for Dillon’s nebulous, uneasy intensity. Kozlov’s Over the Fence has a characteristically Russian, sly bluesiness. Edwards may not be known as a composer, but that perception should change after people hear the briskly swinging Snow Child, with unsettled chromatics from Gillece and tightly conspiratorial chugging from Hirahara and Bernard.

Hirahara’s matter-of-factly crescendoing Event Horizon begins as an easygoing, vampy late 70s style groove and continues until Dillon’s flurries push it into darker territory. Gillece’s second number, Maxwell Street has a stern, blues-infused undercurrent driven by spiky work from Bernard and Hirahara, seemingly a shout-out to the legendary Chicago busker scene that lasted into the 60s.

The first of only two covers here, Stevie Wonder’s You And I translates decently to a samba. Bernard’s second tune, The Move has a briskly catchy tiptoe swing and lots of cool offbeat riffs from Hirahara and Edwards, plus similarly spiraling solos from guitar and vibes. Ashes, by Kozlov is the album’s most gorgeous track, Hirahara kicking it off with an angst-fueled, glittering solo, the rest of the band joining in a hazy, slinky, moody intensity.

Edwards’ second number, Dock’s House shifts between swaying funk and steady swing: it’s intriguingly bizarre that way. Dillon’s lone composition here is Motion, a pensive jazz waltz with a wry Coltrane paraphrase. They close the album with a lickety-split take of Freddie Hubbard’s Theme For Kareem, which beats Grover Washington Jr.’s Dr. J in the NBA hall-of-famer game of horse. Grab someone energetic you love and snuggle up with this album.

March 28, 2020 Posted by | jazz, 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