Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Lithely Orchestral New Album From Guitarist Dave Stryker

Dave Stryker is known for being one of the most purposeful guitarists in jazz, and much of that is due to the deep blues influence that runs through his music. His latest album As We Are – streaming at Bandcamp – is his first with a string section, and interestingly the blues takes a backseat to more tropical inflections here. It’s the rare lean orchestral jazz album, 180 degrees from those Wes Montgomery records that were needlessly gunked up with unimaginative string arrangements. Pianist Julian Shore’s charts for the quartet of violinists Sara Caswell and Monica K.Davis, violist Benni von Gutzeit and cellist Marika Hughes are sleek yet biting, often adding disquiet rather than expected pillowy atmosphere. Bassist John Patitucci and Brian Blade provide understated, lithe propulsion.

There’s a brief, wistfully crescendoing string quartet overture to introduce the first full-band number, Lanes, beginning as a lean quasi-bossa. The rest of the band match Stryker’s economy of notes through his solo. Shore takes a rippling solo as the strings rise with a distantly wafting unease.

The album’s lone cover is a radical reinvention of Nick Drake’s River Man. Stryker’s somber, skeletal phrasing anchors wispy, stratospheric ambience from the strings until Patittucci’s lithe riffage draws the rest of the band in. Caswell sails and dips with a stiletto grace, handing off to Stryker’s similarly nimble, raindrop-dodging solo as the strings mist the windows. No doubt Drake would be satisfied (happy might be too strong a word for that gloomy guy) with the group as they sepulchrally wind their way down and out.

The catchy, tropically vamping Hope is pretty much 180 degrees from that, anchored by Patitucci’s terse pulse. Saudade is a similarly translucent, bittersweet song without words: imagine a mashup of Jimmy Giuffre pastoralia as played by a young George Benson.

The group shift from a moody, altered waltz through flickers of phantasmagoria to a spare, scrambling Shore solo in One Thing At a Time, written by the pianist. Patittucci clusters and romps, up to a long, shivery orchestral interlude; it would be nice to hear more Stryker here.

As We Were is a diptych, an acidically enveloping string intro giving way to a slow, fond, spacious ballad, the high strings contrasting with Stryker and Pattitucci’s genial lines. Dreams Are Real is the album’s catchiest number, Stryker subtly negotiating between a lyrical ballad, darker flamenco echoes, nocturnal lustre that winds up with an anxious ending, and a starry interlude with Shore and the strings.

The final cut is Soul Friend, a lush blend of oldtime gospel rusticity and a reflective sway, Caswell reaching for the sky, Stryker methodically bringing the band in for a bluesy landing. His next free-world gig is with saxophonist Jack Wilkins’ USF Quartet on March 6 at 3 PM at the Tampa Jazz Club, 1411 E 11th St. in Tampa, Florida. Cover is $20; students get in half price.

March 2, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Transcendence and Thrills From a Great Florida Big Band

One of the best large jazz ensembles in the country hails from Florida. So it’s possible that Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge‘s new album Within Us – streaming at Spotify – is the first big band album to be recorded in a convivial, energetic studio setting here in the US since live music and free assembly in general were criminalized throughout most of the country in March of 2020.

Tellingly, the bandleader takes the album title from Albert Camus’ essay Return to Tipasa, about finding hope and joy even in the darkest times. There’s a jubilant sway but also a dark undercurrent to the opening number, Chick Corea’s Chelsea Shuffle. The late pianist was slated to record this with the band, but tragically never got that opportunity. Soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson brightens the atmosphere with a bubbling solo, passes the baton to vibraphonist Warren Wolf and then a triumphant strut from bassist Mark Neuenschwander before a swaying, brass-fueled outro. It’s a refreshingly optimistic way to kick off the album.

Trail of the Ancients is classic Owen, a colorful, imagistic epic rising from a suspenseful intro with a Sara Caswell violin solo, to tensely pulsing brass counterpoint. If Pete Townshend is aware of the LaRue Nickelson guitar break announcing Caswell’s flurrying second solo, no doubt he’s laughing. But the mood turns 180 degrees from there with the pairing of Nickelson with steel guitarist Corey Christiansen. Caswell – who turns out to be the star of this record – returns for a cheery series of exchanges with Nickelson, over an understated latin pulse. It’s a Maria Schneider-class composition.

With its unabashed political theme, American Noir begins subdued and moody, trombonist Jerald Shynett over a somber guitar-and-piano backdrop, the orchestra looming in. But suddenly alto saxophonist Tami Danielsson cirlicues around, and there’s a break in the clouds waiting for Shynett’s return. From there it’s a colorful, bracing ride, through a piercing peak to a sudden, mysterious false ending.

The second cover here is Miles Davis’ Milestones, reinvented first with a funky bounce and playful bursts from the horns, tenor saxophonist Jack Wilkins and trumpeter Clay Jenkins offering sagacious cheer over drummer Danny Gottlieb’s muted New Orleans beat. Owen’s choice to detour into the noir makes a stunning contrast, considering how he brings the tune full circle.

The album’s second big epic is Apalachicola, reflecting the ecological devastation of eastern Florida’s oyster industry. Pensive overlays and counterpoint interchange with cries and flurries from Caswell’s violin. Christiansen’s over-the-top blues seems satirical, and spot-on as a portrait of greed, or at least cluelessness. Likewise, Brantley’s garrulous if somewhat subtler trombone solo. And Caswell’s closing solo drives home the cruel toll that pollution takes on our coastlines.

During the recording of Sparks Fly, the local fire department evacuated the band from the studio since sparks had been spotted on the roof – that’s what happens when you get musicians who haven’t played in awhile in the same room all together, for the first time in months! The group rise from a lithe, balletesque pulse on the wings of Caswell’s flights and then back for a jaunty conversation between Wilkins and Wilson, the latter on alto this time.

The Better Claim, first released on Owen’s landmark 2013 epic River Runs, is considerably less turbulent, from the subdued duet between Wolf’s lingering vibes and Jenkins’ wistful trumpet, to bright, brassy crescendos, contrasts between a delicate Wolf solo and the trumpeter’s bluesy sagacity.

The band wind up the record with the title track (subtitled, aptly, An Invincible Summer). In the liner notes, Owen cites Camus’ text as an inspiration: “No matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.” Airy suspense from Wolf and Caswell introduces pianist Per Danielsson’s spare, solo lyricism, interchanging with resonant hope and surprising tenderness from the ensemble. Rex Wertz echoes that gentle resolve on tenor sax,

Owen’s most symphonically successful album to date is River Runs, a surging portrait of American waterways, but this one is a joy and an inspiration, hands-down one of the top ten jazz albums of the year. May there be many more of these in the years to come.

November 8, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Revisiting a Lavish, Exquisitely Textured, Symphonic Big Band Album by Brian Landrus

Listening to one Brian Landrus album makes you want to hear more. It’s impossible to think of another baritone saxophonist from this era , or for that matter any other, who’s a more colorful composer. Landrus’ masterpiece so far is his titanic Generations big band album, which hit the web about four years ago and is streaming at Spotify. A grand total of 25 players go deep into its lavish, meticulously layered, completely outside-the-box charts .

It opens with The Jeru Concerto, equally inspired by the patron saint of baritone sax big band composition, Gerry Mulligan, as well as Landrus’ young son. Right off the bat, the band hit a cantering rhythm with distant echoes of hip-hop, but also symphonic lustre, the bandleader entering suavely over starry orchestration. He ripples and clusters and eventually leads the group to a catchy, soul-infused theme that could be Earth Wind and Fire at their most symphonic and organic.

A tightly spiraling solo baritone interlude introduces the second segment on the wings of the string section, Landrus’ soulful curlicues and spacious phrasing mingling with the increasingly ambered atmosphere and an unexpected, cleverly shifting pulse. The third movement calms again: watch lights fade from every room, until a more-or-less steady sway resumes. The textures, with harpist Brandee Younger and vibraphonist Joe Locke peeking up as bustling counterpoint develops throughout the group, are exquisite.

The conclusion begins with an altered latin groove, the bandleader shifting toward a more wary theme, neatly echoed in places by the orchestra, ornate yet incredibly purposeful. Landrus moves between a balmy ballad and anxious full-ensemble syncopation, cleverly intertwining the themes up to a casually triumphant final baritone solo.

Orchids, a surreal reggae tune, opens with a starry duet between Younger and Locke and rises to a big sax-fueled peak. Arise is even more playfully surreal, a haphazardly optimistic mashup of Kool and the Gang and Gershwin at his most orchestrally blustery. The Warrior has a Holst-like expanse underpinned by a subtle forward drive from the bass (that’s either Jay Anderson or Lonnie Plaxico) as well as incisive trumpet and violin solos and a triumphant march out.

Arrow in the Night is a comfortably nocturnal prelude with a dark undercurrent: things are not always as they seem. With its persistent, top-to-bottom light/dark contrasts, Human Nature comes across as a busier yet vampier take on classic Gil Evans.

Ruby, dedicated to Landrus’ daughter, has as much gentle playfulness as balminess, with puckish accents, a lyrical baritone solo and an undulating rhythm: this kid is fun, but she’s got a plan and she sticks to it. The ensemble close with Every Time I Dream, a catchy, dancingly orchestrated hip-hop theme akin to a more lavish take on Yaasin Bey’s adventures in new classical music, flurrying trumpet pulling the orchestra out of a momentary reverie.

An epic performance from a rotating cast that also includes drummers Billy Hart andJustin Brown, Jamie Baum, Tom Christensen, Darryl Harper, Michael Rabinowitz and Alden Banta among the reeds; Debbie Schmidt, Ralph Alessi, Igmar Thomas, Alan Ferber and Marcus Rojas as the brass; and a string section of Sara Caswell, Mark Feldman, Joyce Hammann, Meg Okura, Lois Martin, Nora Krohn, Jody Redhage and Maria Jeffers.

March 29, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment