Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Bassist Rufus Reid Brings His Stunningly Intense Big Band to the Jazz Standard

One of the most exciting and highly anticipated stands by any jazz group in recent months is coming up at the Jazz Standard starting this Thursday, Feb 26 when venerable bassist Rufus Reid and his big band air out the songs on his magnificent latest album, Quiet Pride: The Elizabeth Catlett Project (streaming at Spotify). They’re at the club through March 1, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30; cover is $30 ($35 on the weekend). Even more auspiciously, pretty much everybody among the album’s all-star cast will be onstage for all the shows.

The album is a lush, ambitious suite inspired by the striking, historically and politically-themed sculptures of Elizabeth Catlett. An inspiration to the civil rights movement, Catlett’s work embodies traditions and themes from both Africa and the west: her images are uncluttered, often very stark and while often optimistic, also have a withering subtext. Like Catlett’s sculptures, Reid’s music here – which draws directly on six of them – has a frequently persistent unease. The sophistication and acerbic colors of his compositions and arrangements are all the more impressive considering that this is his first adventure in writing for large ensemble – and that he is still best known as a sideman. That perception has definitely changed in the past year!

Although ostensibly divided into individual pieces, the album is best appreciated as a whole: a jazz symphony, essentially. A big, ominous, cinematically sweeping theme that will recur throughout the suite kicks it off, gives way to a broodingly vamping jazz waltz that picks up with a turbulently funky groove and blustery brass, then down to the rhythm section, Freddie Hendrix’ muted trumpet bringing it full circle. Reid utilizes Charenee Wade’s lustrous vocalese much like Asuka Kakitani did with Sara Serpa on her album a couple of years ago; the addition of two french horns adds both brightness and heft.

Throughout the rest of the album, Reid himself adds the occasional soberly dancing interlude. Guitarist Vic Juris plays both incisive flamenco lines on acoustic as well as adding bubbly electric textures. The brass section rises dramatically with a majestically ambered, blues-infused gravitas, Wade often changed with hitting the top of the peaks as well as supplying nebulous washes to the quieter sections. Reid allows for animated free interludes, pairing brass and piano or drums, then swings his way back to a precise theme. Trumpeter Tim Hagans and trombonist Ryan Keberle get to take it to the top of the mountain as a triumphant coda develops. It’s everything big band jazz can be: towering, majestic, unselfconsciously powerful and cutting-edge. Catlett, who died three years ago, would no doubt be proud.

February 24, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Matt Ulery Brings His Cinematically Sweeping, Richly Melodic Art-Rock and Instrumentals to Littlefield

If bassist/composer Matt Ulery‘s lavishly cinematic new album, In the Ivory was in fact the soundtrack to a film – which it really ought to be – it would be an Orson Welles epic. That, or a Victorian horror film. Devil in the White City, maybe? Ulery’s elegantly aching theme and variations draw on both neoromanticism and mimimalism – Philip Glass in particular – as well as the ripe rises and falls of Hollywood film music from the 30s and 40s. It’s an unselfconsciously beautiful, poignant, lavish double-cd suite – streaming at Bandcamp – and one of the best albums of the year. Ulery and the ensemble from the album are playing the release show on Oct 14 at 8 PM at Littlefield; cover is $12, dirt-cheap for music this meticulously composed and played.

The initial theme, Gave Proof pretty much capsulizes what’s in store the rest of the way: a rippling piano tune that more than alludes to Glass’s Dracula soundtrack; velvety strings; acerbic woodwinds, and a pervasive angst amidst the sweep and grandeur. Ulery is also a solid lyricist: Grazyna Augusczik sings his allusively imagistic, sometimes crushingly embittered songs with wounded clarity that at its most affecting evokes Sara Serpa. The ensemble plays with grace and sensitivity: the core group includes Rob Clearfield on piano; Zach Brock and Yvonne Lamb on violins; Dominic Johnson on viola; Nicholas Photinos on cello; Timothy Munro on alto flute; Michael Maccaferri on clarinets; Gregory Beyer on vibraphone, marimba and percussion and Jon Deietemyer on drums.

The second track, There’s a Reason and a Thousand Ways brings to mind My Brightest Diamond in low-key ballad mode, then morphs into a pensive pastorale. Ulery works nimbly dancing permutations throughout the ensemble, from tense pizzicato strings to big rises and falls and finally a hint of jazz from the piano.

From there the bittersweetness builds to a peak: lush strings, a moody waltz, washes of jazz and a purposeful, swinging, hard-hitting stroll. The hero, or heroine hit their stride. Singer Sarah Marie Young joins Auguszik to deliver the first disc’s concluding chamber pop number, The Farm, with a lively flair, understating its corrosive portrayal of rural hell:

Faintly qualified
Restituted rise
Lapidary interlay
Confident decry
All for nothing nearly by…

The second disc contemplates mortality and the hope for something better in the interim. The Dracula-like theme returns and picks up with a dancing intensity. Augusczik sings the mutedly kinetic but hypnotically circular When Everything Is Just the Same, her distant angst matching its tightly wound ache to break free. A big, crescendoing overture and another waltz eventually wind their way to Visceral, where Ulery manages to mash up the horror movie cinematics, balletesque minimalism and an unexpectedly bubbly parade theme from the winds.

The drums fuel a Chopinesque piano concerto interlude; after a suspenseful lull, Brock and Deietemyer hit a biting, dancing peak. The group winds its way out with a blend of towering, anthemic orchestration, switching up creepy Glassine circularity and stark strings. The sonics at Littlefield are especially suited to this kind of thing.

October 12, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vivid Melodies, Nimbly Negotiated by the Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra

The Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra’s debut album, Bloom is luminous, lush and symphonic in a Maria Schneider vein. Although there are many different colors at play here, they tend to be bright, summery and vibrant. Translucent motifs shift through the arrangements with an unlikely nimble, assured, fleet-footedness for such majestic music: both the composer/conductor and her nineteen-piece ensemble deserve credit for manuevering through so many intricate turns. One particularly luminous timbre among many is singer Sara Serpa, whose wordless vocals add either brightness or opacity, depending on context. She’s a particularly good addition considering how singable Kakitani’s themes are. Throughout the album’s eight tracks, there are allusions to Brazil, the Romantic and late 70s Weather Report in the more amplified moments, but ultimately she has a singular voice.

The title track opens, a clinic in almost imperceptible crescendos, syncopated, suspenseful swells making way for an expansive John Bailey trumpet solo and then spiraling Jason Rigby tenor sax over Mark Ferber’s energetically dancing drums. As it reaches final altitude, Rigby builds to rapidfire clusters as the banks of clouds coalesce and move around him.

Electric Images moves around a lot; hazy ambience becomes a bright jazz waltz, bubbly Mike Eckroth Rhodes piano signals a tempo shift that slowly rises with Serpa’s guardedly hopeful lines, then lushness alternates with austerity all the way through a jaunty series of exchanges with the drums. Nobody gets stung in the Bumblebee Garden; rather, it’s a serene place for reverie from Serpa, trombonist Matt McDonald adding bluesiness to a decidedly non-bluesy atmosphere that builds to some tremendously interesting counterpoint between orchestra subgroups.

Dance One, inspired by the Matisse portrait of dancers in mid-stride, kicks off at full steam, working a tune evocative of the Police’s King of Pain, rich with countermelodies, smartly crescendoing John O’Gallagher alto sax and a nifty series of trick endings. Opened Opened , the first of two pieces from Kakitani’s suite Reimagining My Childhood, expands a traditional Japanese folk melody with a bluesy minor-key edge fueled by serioso Serpa vocalese, smoldering Kenny Berger bass clarinet and fiery dynamics that turn the low brass loose with an unexpected ferocity in what at first appeared to be such a gentle piece of music. The second song from that suite, Dragonfly’s Glasses is basically a segue and considerably brighter, lit up by a casual, airy Ben Kono alto sax solo as it sways up to another false ending.

Islands in the Stream is not the Kenny Rogers schlockfest but an original (Kakitani may not have been born yet when that monstrosity hit the airwaves). That too makes a good segue: Afrobeat allusions give way to a jazz waltz, Berger’s baritone sax handing off to Pete McCann’s bell-like solo guitar, trumpeter Matt Holman building from wary to carefree before tenor saxophonist Mark Small darkens it again…and then McCann takes it up, unleashed and screaming. The final track, Skip, takes a gentle ballad melody, syncopates it in 9/4 up to a dancing Eckroth piano solo, lets trombonist Mark Patterson heat up the warm lyricism and takes it out with a joyous Weather Report pulse. Other contributors to this disarmingly attractive album include Jeff Wilfore and David Spier on trumpets, Jacob Garchik on trombone, Jeff Nelson on bass trombone and Dave Ambrosio on acoustic and electric bass.

The Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra plays the cd release show on Feb 11 at 7:15 PM at Drom; advance tix are only $10. They’re also playing Shapeshifte Lab on Feb 28 at 8 for the same deal.

January 31, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 20 Best Jazz Albums of 2012

Assembling a year-end list that’s going to get a lot of traffic demands a certain degree of responsibility: to be paying attention, and to be keeping an eye on what’s lurking in the shadows because that’s usually where the action is. Gil Evans knew that, and that’s why he’s on this one.

As pretty much everybody knows, the final Dave Brubeck Quartet live show surfaced this year, as did the earliest known Wes Montgomery recordings, a tasty couple of rare Bill Evans live sets and a big box set of previously unreleased Mingus. The reason why they’re not on this list is because they’re on everybody else’s…and because they’re easy picks. This is an attempt to be a little more adventurous, to cast a wider net, to help spread the word about current artists whose work is every bit as transcendent. Obviously, there are going to be glaring omissions here: even the most rabid jazz advocate can only digest a few hundred albums a year at the most. And much as Henry Threadgill’s Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp and the historic Sam Rivers Trio’s Reunion: Live in New York are phenomenal albums, they both fell off the list since each has received plenty of praise elsewhere.

1. Wadada Leo Smith – Ten Freedom Summers
The trumpeter/bandleader’s massive four-cd box set is his magnum opus, as historically important as it is sonically rich, harrowing, cinematic and eclectic, anchored in the blues and gospel and taking flight pretty much everywhere else. Some will say that the string-driven sections of this restless Civil Rights Movement epic are classical music, and they’re probably right: Smith is just as formidable and powerful a composer in that idiom as he is in jazz. With a huge cast of characters, most notably pianist Anthony Davis and drummer Pheeroan AkLaff. This Cuneiform release gets the top spot for 2012.

2. Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans
Conductor/arranger Ryan Truesdell, a leading Evans scholar, unearthed and then recorded ten of the iconic composer’s most obscure big band works and arrangements for the first time, with the blessing of the composer’s family and an inspired cast of players. In a way, to fail to put this lush noir masterpiece at the top of the list is ridiculous, considering how emotionally intense, luminous, haunting and resonant this music is. As with Smith’s album, a huge lineup turns in a chilling performance, including possibly career-defining moments from drummer Lewis Nash, pianist Frank Kimbrough and especially vibraphonist Joe Locke. Truesdell heads up the Gil Evans Project, who put this out.

3. Hafez Modirzadeh – Post-Chromodal Out!
The most radical, paradigm-shifting and sonically intriguing album of the year was the Persian-American saxophonist’s latest adventure in microtonal music. Blue notes have defined jazz from the beginning, but this album is blue flames: and to be hubristic, here’s to the argument that this album is Vijay Iyer’s greatest shining moment so far, as he revels in a piano tuned in three-quarter tones to mimic the tetrachords of the music of Iran. An adventurous cast delivers overtone-fueled, sometimes gamelanesque mystery and menace through two suites, one by Modirzadeh, one by saxophonist Jim Norton. With Amir ElSaffar on trumpet, Ken Filiano on bass, Royal Hartigan on drums, Danongan Kalanduyan on kulintang, Faraz Minooei on santoor and Timothy Volpicella on guitar. Pi Records get credit for this one.

4. Ran Blake & Sara Serpa – Aurora
The second collaboration from the iconic noir pianist and the eclectic singer/composer is every bit as intense and otheworldly as their 2010 collaboration, Camera Obscura, and considerably more diverse. This one’s taken mostly from a concert  in Serpa’s native Portugal, a mix of classics, brilliant obscurities, icy/lurid cinematic themes and a riveting a-cappella take of Strange Fruit. It’s out on Clean Feed.

5. David Fiuczynski – Planet Microjam
A stunningly diverse set by the pioneering microtonal guitarist, joining  forces with Evan Marien on bass, Evgeny Lebedev on piano, David Radley on violin, Takeru Yamazaki on keyboards and a rotating cast of drummers including Kenwood Dennard, Jovol Bell, Jack DeJohnette and Club D’Elf’s Eric Kerr. Alternately otherworldly, wryly sardonic, ferocious and utterly Lynchian, Fiuczynski reinvents Beethoven as well as exploring Asian, Middle Eastern and Indian themes. It’s out from Rare Noise.

6. Neil Welch – Sleeper
The Seattle saxophonist leads a chamber jazz ensemble with Ivan Arteaga on alto and soprano saxes, Jesse Canterbury on bass clarinet, Vincent LaBelle on trombone and David Balatero and Natalie Hall on cellos through a chilling narrative suite about the murder of an Iraqi general, Abdel Hamed Mowhoush, tortured to death in American custody. Shostakovian ambience gives way to a cinematic trajectory laced with sarcasm and terrifying allusiveness. A triumph for Seattle’s Table and Chairs Music.

7. The Fab Trio – History of Jazz in Reverse
The late violin titan Billy Bang with bassist Joe Fonda and drummer Barry Altschul in a deep and casually riveting 2005 session, improvising a gospel-drenched Bea Rivers elegy, an Asian-tinged Don Cherry homage, a salsa vamp and chillingly chromatic funk and swing. Tum Records happily saw fit to pull this one out of the archives.

8. Giacomo Merega – Watch the Walls
The bassist is joined by his Dollshot saxophonist bandmate Noah Kaplan plus Marco Cappelli on guitar, Mauro Pagani on violin and Anthony Coleman on piano for a chillingly sepulchral series of improvisations that range from whispery, to atmospheric, to quietly horrific, to funereal: a bleak black-and-white film noir for the ears. Free jazz doesn’t get any better than this. It’s out on Underwolf Records.

9. Gregg August – Four By Six
The eclectic bassist from JD Allen’s trio (and the Brooklyn Philharmonic) writes intense, pulsing pan-latin themes, often with a brooding Gil Evans luminosity. This one mixes quartet and sextet pieces, with Sam Newsome on soprano sax, Luis Perdomo on piano and E.J. Strickland or Rudy Royston on drums,Yosvany Terry on alto sax, John Bailey on trumpet and  JD Allen on tenor sax.

10. Orrin Evans – Flip the Script
Glistening with gritty melody, wit, plaintiveness and unease, this is the pianist’s most straightforward and impactful small-group release to date (to distinguish it from his work with the mighty Captain Black Big Band), a trio session with bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Donald Edwards. Phantasmagorical blues, chromatic soul and a haunting reinvention of the old disco hit The Sound of Philadelphia are highlights of this Posi-Tone release.

11. The Fred Hersch Trio – Alive at the Vanguard
The pianist’s third live album at this mecca is a charm, like the other two, a lavish and gorgeously melodic double-disc set culled from his February, 2012 stand there with bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson  Mostly slow-to-midtempo with lots nocturnes, interplay, a Paul Motian homage, and happily plenty of Hersch’s lyrical originals. It’s out on Palmetto.

12. Brian Charette – Music for Organ Sextette
Organ jazz doesn’t get any more interesting or cutting-edge than this richly arranged, characteristically witty, high-energy session with Charette on the B3 along with John Ellis taking a turn on bass clarinet, Jay Collins on flute, Joel Frahm on tenor, Mike DiRubbo on alto and Jochen Rueckert on drums. Eclectic themes – a reggae trope gone to extremes, a baroque fugue, jaggedly Messiaenic funk and gospel grooves – make a launching pad for witty repartee.

13. Tia Fuller – Angelic Warrior
The saxophonist shows off her sizzilng postbop chops on both soprano and alto sax on a fiery mix of mostly original compositions with a warm camaderie among the band: Shamie Royston on piano, Rudy Royston on drums, Mimi Jones on bass, John Patitucci playing single-note guitar-style leads on piccolo bass, Shirazette Tinnin on percussion. Terri Lyne Carrington on drums on three tracks, and Dianne Reeves adding an aptly misty vocal on Body and Soul  It’s a Mack Avenue release.

14. Guy Klucevsek –  The Multiple Personality Reunion Tour
The irrepressible accordionist teams up with members of novoya polka stars Brave Combo for this playful, brightly entertaining, characteristically devious romp through waltzes, cinematic themes, and reinventions of Erik Satie. With Marcus Rojas on tuba, Jo Lawry on vocals, John Hollenbeck on drums, Dave Douglas on trumpet, Brandon Seabrook on guitar, Steve Elson on tenor sax and many others. It’s out on Innova.

15. Old Time Musketry – Different Times
On their auspicious debut, multi-reedman Adam Schneit and multi-keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch lead this quartet with bassist Phil Rowan and drummer Max Goldman through a moody yet rhythmically intense mix of wintry, pensive, Americana-tinged themes in the same vein as the best work of Bill Frisell or Jeremy Udden.

16. Endemic Ensemble – Lunar
For some reason, Seattle has put out a ton of good music this year and this is yet another example, a tuneful mix of swing, droll minatures and a darkly majestic clave tune, all with bright and distinct horn charts. With Steve Messick on bass, Ken French on drums, David Franklin on piano, Matso Limtiaco on baritoine saxes amd Travis Ranney on saxes

17. The Danny Fox Trio – The One Constant
We may have lost Brubeck, but lyrical third-stream composition is in good hands with guys like pianist Danny Fox, gritting his teeth here with bassist Chris van Voorst van Beest and drummer Max Goldman throughout this edgy, bitingly vivid, occasionally sardonic set of mood pieces and cruelly amusing narratives

18. Slumgum – Quardboard Flavored Fiber
Rainy-day improvisation, noirish third-stream themes, latin and funk interludes, Sam Fuller-style cinematic themes for a new century and playful satire from this fearless LA quartet: Rory Cowal on piano, Joe Armstrong on tenor sax, Dave Tranchina on bass and Trevor Anderies on drums.

19. Catherine Russell – Strictly Romancin’
Guitarist Matt Munisteri is the svengali behind this historically rich, expansive, soulful Louis Armstrong homage from the chanteuse whose multi-instrumentalist dad played with Satchmo for many years. With Mark Shane on piano, Lee Hudson on bass, Mark McClean on drums; Joey Barbato on accordion; Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; John Allred on trombone, and Dan Block and Andy Farber on reeds. From Harmonia Mundi.

20. Juhani Aaltonen and Heikki Sarmanto – Conversations
Two old lions of Nordic jazz, Finnish tenor saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen and pianist Heikki Sarmanto trade on and off lush, nocturnal modal themes throughout this lavish, casually vivid double-disc set. Notes linger and are never wasted, the two take their time and leave a mark that’s either warmly resonant or broodingly ominous. A Tum Records release.

21. Bass X3 – Transatlantic
For anyone who might think that this is a joke, or a novelty record – Chris Dahlgren and Clayton Thomas’ basses blending with Gebhard Ullmann’s bass clarinet – you have to hear it. For fans of low tonalities, it’s sonic bliss, the centerpiece being a roughly 45-minute drone improvisation broken up into three parts, spiced with playfully ghostly embellishments amidst brooding desolation and hypnotic, suspenseful rumbles. A Leo Records release.

December 25, 2012 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another Landmark Collaboration From Sara Serpa and Ran Blake

For a singer, recording a live album with Ran Blake is a potential minefield. The iconic noir pianist is no mere accompanist: he’s a bandmate. To say that he’s hard to follow is an understatement to the extreme. What is there about Blake that hasn’t been said already? That he is to improvisation what Schoenberg was to composition, maybe? Other pianists would kill to be able to command the kind of otherworldly menace that Blake goes up onstage and pulls out of thin air. And while there’s more often than not a rigorous logic to his melodic sensibility, there’s no telling where he might go with it.

This past May, Sara Serpa took fate in her hands and recorded a live piano-and-vocal album with Blake, titled Aurora and just released on Clean Feed. Adventurous as this may seem at face value, Serpa and Blake have the advantage of being old friends: she’s been a protegee of his since their days together at the New England Conservatory. Which comes as no surprise: they’re peas in a pod, rugged individualists and formidable intellects who share a fondness for third-stream eclecticism and a fear of absolutely nothing. This new album builds on the often shattering camaraderie they shared on their initial duo recording, 2010’s Camera Obscura.

What’s not news is that this is Blake being Blake, chilling, unpredictable yet at the same time giving the songs here plenty of wit, sometimes cruel, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes surprisingly droll. What’s news is how much Serpa, already a distinctive singer, has grown. The disarming quality of her completely unadorned, crystalline, reflecting-pool mezzo-soprano pairs off memorably and not a little hauntingly with Blake’s broodingly opaque, occasionally savage tonalities. Although her approach to a song has every bit as much rigorous precision as Blake’s, she’s back at her old Lisbon stomping ground here (at the sonically superb Auditorio da Culturgest, recorded both in concert and live in the hall the following day) and is clearly feeding off a triumphant homecoming of sorts.

The first song is Saturday, a ballad recorded by Sarah Vaughn early in her career. From its defiantly icy intro, “Saturday…just a doesn’t matter day” becomes a coolly poignant lament. When Autumn Sings, the first of two R.B. Lynch/Abbey Lincoln compositions, finds Blake doing an offhandedly creepy waltz up against Serpa’s surprisingly bluesy melismatics. And yet, by the end, he’s lured her deep into the shadows.

The duo veer between phantasmagorical ragtime and various shades of macabre on a piano-and-vocalese improvisation on Konrad Elfers’ Dr. Mabuse, from the film soundtrack – it’s one of the album’s high points. From there they segue into Cansaco, a 1958 hit for fado icon Amalia Rodriguez. It opens with a moonlit mournfulness, Blake and Serpa exchanging motifs, always understating the song’s lovelorn drama

They follow that with a jauntily carnivalesque take on the bizarre 1950s space-travel relic Moonride, inspired by the Chris Connor version. Serpa sings Strange Fruit a-cappella with a chilling nonchalance, only digging into the melody when the imagery becomes grisly. Blake’s solo spot, titled Mahler Noir, defamiliaizes a couple of late Romantic theme with a tersely crystallized, crepuscular menace that wouldn’t be out of place in peak-era Pink Floyd. Then they romp twistedly through The Band Played On, chosen since the song appears on the soundtrack to Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.

Love Lament, another Lynch/Lincoln song, gets a broodingly spacious understatement, Serpa matching Blake ellipsis for loaded ellipsis. They keep the snowswept angst going with Wende: the way Serpa sings “pressing so deep into my soul” will rip your face off. By contrast, Fine and Dandy juxtaposes wry Van Morrison allusions with Serpa’s utterly trad, completely deadpan acrobatics. They close the show with a ballad Serpa selected, Last Night When We Were Young, underscoring this ode to defeat with an absinthe hush that’s as quietly powerful as anything these two artists can conjure. Like their previous collaboration, this album makes a mockery of any attempt to rank it against others from this year or for that matter any year. This is music for eternity, a bleak yet sometimes unexpectedly amusing antidote to the shadows encroaching around us.

November 14, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The 25 Best Jazz Albums of 2011

If there’s one thing this page tries to avoid, it’s redundancy: if you’ve been here before, you’ve noticed that coverage here typically focuses on talent flying under the radar. That’s not to imply that the Marsalises, Vijay Iyers and Christian McBrides of the world aren’t valid artists, only that you probably already know about them. And there’s actually an album by a Marsalis (although not one who might immediately spring to mind) on this list.

Another thing to keep in mind is that even the most dedicated listener only has the opportunity to hear, at the most, a few hundred out of the thousands of jazz albums released every year. Then there’s the big can of worms that spills over with every attempt to rank them. How do you compare a big band with a stark bass-and-voice duo? How does a recording of sepulchral flute-and-percussion improvisations weigh up against a collection of intricate, politically fueled, narrative compositions? Isn’t all that just apples and oranges? Consider this a perhaps misguided stab at tackling all of the above, keeping in mind that the difference quality-wise between #1 and #25 here is infinitesimally small – all the albums here are worth your time.

Most years, trying to decide just which jazz album is the year’s best is a crapshoot. This year, however, there’s one that stands out over the rest of a very strong crop, and that’s the Curtis Brothers’ Completion of Proof. Written by pianist Zaccai Curtis as the Bush regime was finally coming to an end, it’s a towering, sometimes wrathful, cruelly sarcastic concept album that explores the effects of fascism and those who perpetrate it, from the school hall monitor to heads of state. As political art, it ranks with Mingus and Shostakovich for its insight and bleak, ironic wit: as music, it’s hard-hitting, ambitious but searingly melodic, as political music has to be. Drummer Ralph Peterson (who also put out a dynamite album of his own this year, Outer Reaches, a Larry Young tribute) gets special mention for propelling this monster: the rest of the cast includes Luques Curtis, Jimmy Greene, Brian Lynch, Donald Harrison and Pedrito Martinez.

JD Allen, who topped the charts here with I Am I Am in 2007, gets the #2 spot for VICTORY!, his elegant and equally hard-hitting trio sonata album with Gregg August and Rudy Royston. The tenor saxophonist’s laser-beam sense of melody, his majestic and fearlessly brooding, chromatically-charged themes, his artful use of his rhythm section and imaginative employment of duo arrangements have never been more impactful than they are here. There’s no other composer in jazz who’s ahead of this guy right now.

#3 goes to a group you may have never heard of, the self-titled debut by Beninghove’s Hangmen, who take Marc Ribot-style noir themes to all sorts of genuinely menacing places. Noir can become a cliche, but not with this band – veering from Mingus bustle to noisy, macabre surf rock, they breathe fresh air into every dark cinematic style you’ve ever heard. With Bryan Beninghove, Rick Parker, Eyal Maoz, Dane Johnson, Kellen Harrison and Shawn Baltazor.

4. Ran Blake and Dominique Eade – Whirlpool. To put the definitive noir pianist of our time anywhere other than #1 is hubris: at 76, he’s never been more counterintuitive or moodily interesting. Eade brings her equally restless chops to a mix of vocal standards, all of which they radically reinvent – and the best song here might be Eade’s original.

5. Ralph Bowen – Power Play. The tenor saxophonist is just as much about precision as he is power, but where he excels most is as a composer. Leading a quartet with Orrin Evans, Kenny Davis and Donald Edwards, his fiery, vividly uneasy melodicism was unsurpassed by anyone else this year.

6. Billy Bang Bill Cole. A 2009 concert performance with the late, great violinist/improviser – whom we sadly lost this year – inventing new elements with the noted multi-reedman. It’s essentially a series of tone poems, some rising with an astringent airiness, sometimes uncoiling with an unrestrained ferocity. There are some scary albums on this list: this is probably the scariest.

7. Delfeayo Marsalis – Suite Thunder. As with the Mingus Orchestra’s Live at Jazz Standard album last year, it probably isn’t even fair to include this album, which has the trombonist leading a big band that revisits the legendary Ellington suite with an A-list of players including but not limited to Branford Marsalis, Red Atkins, Victor Goines, Jason Marshall, Mark Gross, Tiger Okoshi and Mulgrew Miller.

8. Sara Serpa – Mobile. Serpa’s claim to fame is vocalese – imagine the purest, most crystalline soprano sax that could possibly exist, then add mega-amounts of soul, determination, originality and frequent existential angst along with moody, intense, counterintuitively crescendoing, sometimes third-stream themes inspired by writing about travel and migration. With Kris Davis, Andre Matos, Ben Street and Ted Poor.

9. The Captain Black Big Band. This was ticket that everybody wanted, and nobody could get this year, pianist Orrin Evans’ mighty, swinging steamroller. Evans is a cerebral guy, but this group is a pure raw adrenaline rush. With a huge cast frequently including Rob Landham, Gianluca Renzi, Todd Marcus, Ralph Bowen, Jim Holton, Anwar Marshall, Tatum Greenblatt, Mark Allen, Jaleel Shaw and Neil Podgurski.

10. Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra – Hothouse Stomp. The trumpeter resurrects blazing, barely three-minute gems from Harlem and Chicago in the 20s by Tiny Parham, Charles Johnson and Fess Williams. With Dennis Lichtman, Andy Laster, Matt Bauder, Curtis Hasselbring, Jordan Voelker, Mazz Swift, Brandon Seabrook and Rob Garcia.

11. Iconoclast – Dirty Jazz. Technically, this came out at the very tail end of 2010, but who’s counting? Julie Joslyn’s liquid mercury alto sax (and snarling violin) and Leo Ciesa’s slasher drums (and icily melodic piano) are in full noir effect on this uncompromising, smartly aware, assaultively lurid effort.

12. Brian Landrus – Traverse. Much like Gerry Mulligan fifty years ago, the baritone saxophonist pushes the limits of where his instrument can go, with a warm melodicism to match, over grooves that range from latin to reggae to a jazz waltz to hypnotic ambience. With Michael Cain, Lonnie Plaxico and Billy Hart.

13. Rich Halley – Requiem for a Viper. A raw, powerhouse, sometimes explosive, sometimes deviously witty improvisationally-driven collection of intense originals, more of a party than a funeral, the saxophonist backed by a mighty rhythm section of bassist Clyde Reed and drummer Carson Halley along with trombonist Michael Vlatkovich.

14. Jen Shyu and Mark Dresser – Synastry. Just bass and vocals have never sounded more interesting than they do here on these two improvisers’ stunningly diverse, sometimes unexpectedly amusing and tuneful duos.

15. Monty Alexander – Harlem-Kingston Express Live. Where the preeminent Jamaican pianist of our era lyrically, genially and triumphantly explores both his jazz and reggae roots: it’s only a tad less exhilarating than his 1995 Yard Movement effort. With Hassan Shakur, Obed Calvaire,Yotam Silberstein, Andy Bassford, Hoova Simpson, Karl Wright and Robert Thomas.

16. Bad Luck – Two. Like Iconoclast, this is basically sax and percussion, with electronic effects that add a creepy edge to the compositions and improvisations on this white-knuckle-intense double-disc set from drummer/percussionist Christopher Icasiano and saxophonist Neil Welch.

17. Michel Camilo – Mano a Mano. Where the Dominican pianist teams up with his longtime bassist Charles Flores and percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo for an intimate but often exhilarating blend of third-stream and Afro-Cuban themes.

18. Patrick Cornelius – Maybe Steps. The alto saxophonist’s artful, shapeshifting compositions mine rich veins of modalities, murky noir themes and nocturnal melody: although this is a studio recording, it has the unleashed energy of a stage show. With Gerald Clayton, Peter Slavov, Kendrick Scott, Miles Okazaki and Assen Doykin.

19. The Phil Dwyer Orchestra – Changing Seasons. The Canadian saxophonist/bandleader’s take on a four-seasons suite is lushly tuneful and sweepingly orchestrated, and ends on a surprisingly effective, upbeat note. With a huge cast of characters including a full string section as well as contributions from Mark Fewer, Chris Gestrin, Jon Wikan and Ingrid Jensen.

20. Benjamin Drazen – Inner Flights. The saxophonist has speed and power, and even more impressively, a restless intensity when it comes to songwriting. Alternating between pensive, edgy modes and big swing anthems, he leads a first-class band featuring Jon Davis in particularly scorching mode on piano along with Carlo De Rosa on bass and Eric McPherson on drums.

21. Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble – Inana. This time out, the innovative Iraqi-American quartertone trumpeter brings Middle Eastern themes into American jazz rather than the other way around in this bracing, fascinating suite inspired by the Mesopotamian goddess of love and war. With Tareq Abboushi, Zafer Tawil, Ole Mathisen, Carlo DeRosa and Nasheet Waits.

22. David Gibson – End of the Tunnel. The trombonist’s late-night Memphis style 60s soul groove album that imaginatively adds rhythmic complexity to Booker T. and Stax/Volt B3 organ vamps. With Julius Tolentino, Jared Gold and Quincy Davis.

23. Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica – Third River Rangoon. It’s amazing how lush and hypnotic Brian O’Neill a.k.a. Mr. Ho gets a flute, marimba, bass and percussion to sound on this utterly narcotic collection of nocturnes, many of which playfully pilfer well-known classical themes. It’s by far the most psychedelic album on this list.

24. Carlo Costa – Crepuscular Activity. The drummer’s sepulchral duo improvisations with bass flutist Yukari make an excellent segue with #23 above, 27 whispery, creepy minutes of shadowy furtiveness and sometimes pure chill.

25. Dave Juarez – Round Red Light. Juarez is a guitarist who doesn’t play like one, favoring terseness and melody every time over flash and ostentation; this album’s nocturnes, boleros, waltzes and a couple of barn-burners have a vivid, sometimes wary European flavor. With Seamus Blake, John Escreet, Lauren Falls and Bastian Weinhold.

December 18, 2011 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Ran Blake and Dominique Eade Make a Mesmerizingly Dark Album

Ran Blake and Dominique Eade’s new album Whirlpool couldn’t have come out at a more appropriate time. It’s the perfect autumn record: its dark clarity is absolutely chilling, and absolutely exhilarating. It makes you glad to be alive. Eade has never sung better; at 76, Blake’s at the top of his game, absolutely undiminished, the indomitable master of noir piano menace and magic. Despite the fact that he’s an incorrigible improviser who never does anything remotely the same way twice, singers love working with him: he takes everyone to the next level. As always with Blake, this is a counterintuitive album. Not only because takes the lead where a singer often would; or because he shifts so confidently between ideas and idoms; or because the two completely reinvent everything they touch, with a rubato-fueled tension and sense of anticipation, but because Eade is right there with him, spot-on, every single time. With every lyric, she’s a different person. That all this would work so well is testament to the enduring friendship between the two – despite a longstanding collaboration, this is their first album together.

In terms of pure chops, she’s probably the best singer he’s ever worked with, which is not meant as disrespect to either the immortal Jeanne Lee – whose presence on her iconic 1961 album with Blake, The Newest Sound Around, is completely shattering – or more recently, Sara Serpa, with whom he recorded 2010’s extraordinary Camera Obscura. But Eade doesn’t let her range, and ability to shade a phrase or a lyric with the most minute shades of volume, or pull off or turn up an effortless powerglide vibrato, obscure her commitment to pulling (and occasionally wrenching) the meaning out of the words.

My Foolish Heart sets the stage with icy/lurid ambience from Blake and a stunningly nuanced approach by Eade – it’s a wounded, gentle knockout. Gospel and noir form an uneasy partnership in the first version of Jerome Kern’s Deadly Beloved here – the second offers a look at how radically Blake will reinent a tune, this time awash in big, crashing chords, a bit of boogie-woogie and Eade amping up the power alongside him. Picking right up where Blake and Serpa left off, Eade begins Russell Freeman and Jerry Gladstone’s The Wind low and chilly over Blake’s icicle minimalism: the crystalline clarity and matter-of-factness of her delivery is devastating. A smartly chosen Eade original, Go Gently to the Water hints mysteriously at gospel-flavored pop but elects for hypnotic ambience instead, Blake providing a warmly gleaming, surface-of-the-water backdrop.

Eade gives Old Devil Moon a genuinely scary edge to complement Blake’s subtle slasher piano. They scamper through it almost breathlessly: the intensity is such that they’re always trying to catch up, Blake’s purist bluesiness falling off the edge back into the creepy shadows. Pinky, by Alfred Newman, is done as a tone poem of sorts, just vocalese and a radically rearranged tune edging toward the macabre. Zan Overall’s Falling has Eade leading this time and Blake has to scurry, holding fast to a central note as he methodically fills in the scary areas encircling all around. By contrast, on Harold Adamson and Jimmy McHugh’s Where Are You, they give each other all kinds of space. “Where are you?” is definitely the question here!

Harold Arlen’s Out of This World alludes to but never embraces a casual saloon sway, and Quincy Jones’ The Pawnbroker is all lucid anxiety. At the end of the album, the two let down their hair a little and have some fun: Eade pulls Blake along on The Thrill Is Gone (the Ray Henderson standard, not the B.B. King blues) and Blake lingers – is it really over, he wants to know. And After the Ball evokes Daria Grace’s wonderfully misty version, Blake taking the jaunty waltz tune and then adding just enough warp to give you goosebumps. Is this the best jazz album of the year? It’s one of them, no question. Check back here in the next few weeks when we put up our year-end list and see how close to the top it is.

November 5, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sara Serpa’s Mobile Puts the World on Notice

In this era where full-length albums are becoming noticeably scarcer, they still make a handy way to follow the careers of the musicians and composers who continue to record them. Notable example: Sara Serpa. Her debut, Praya, was an aptly titled, beachy, enjoyably quirky collection that introduced her as a unique new voice. The singer/composer’s speciality is vocalese: she doesn’t often use lyrics, and she doesn’t scat, per se. She simply performs as an instrument within a group, whether out front or as a member of the supporting cast. Her clear, unadorned, disarming voice has an extraordinary directness, and honesty, and depth of feeling: if it was possible to look a mile down and see the bottom of the ocean with perfect clarity, Serpa would be the instrument to make that happen.

Her second album Camera Obscura, a collaboration with legendary noir pianist Ran Blake, established her as one of the great singers of her time: the album is a hushed, haunting thrill ride. Her latest one, Mobile, solidifies that rep and also puts her on the map as a first-rate composer. Every track here is solid. Serpa may play mostly jazz clubs with musicians from that community, but her style transcends genre. Academics would call it third stream: lately, she’s let some influences from her home country show themselves; she also happens to be unsurpassed at torchily brooding blues ballads.

As emotionally impactful as her music tends to be, it’s also rigorously cerebral. This album includes ten tracks, each inspired by a different book. Its central theme is travel: Serpa is Portuguese, based in New York when she’s not on tour, and obviously no stranger to new surroundings. The compositions follow a clear narrative: to call them cinematic would be an understatement. Ironically, Serpa’s presence here takes a back seat to the band sometimes – and wow, what a band. Pianist Kris Davis makes a perfect choice to channel Serpa’s uneasy yet resolute minor keys, austerely glimmering chordlets and the occasional rippling cadenza. Bassist Ben Street and drummer Ted Poor have a casual but incisive chemistry as they work their way up and down again, while guitarist Andre Matos also contributes.

The opening track, Sequoia Gigantis, begins with her quoting from Travels with Charley by Steinbeck: “The trees are an ambassador from another time.” Building toward an otherworldly ambience, she balances spaciously impressionistic piano and a couple of contrastingly off-kilter guitar excursions right up to a tremendously effective tradeoff to the vocals: it’s almost impossible to tell where the guitar leaves off and Serpa takes over, with an increasing sense of wonder. Ulysses’ Costume is a funk-infused number, Davis and Poor maintaining a dark undercurrent with some creepy Monk-inflected clockwork architecture as Serpa alludes to the hero recalling his journey’s ups and downs. Inspired by V.S. Naipaul’s Area of Darkness – a chronicle of the author’s 1962 trip to India to explore his roots there – Pilgrimage to Armanath sets wary vocalese over austerely spacious electric piano and acoustic guitar, working methodically toward something approaching an epiphany.

Ahab’s Lament – a Moby Dick reference – begins creepy and grows triumphant. As Matos’ guitar climbs judiciously toward a big crescendo, this could be the Grateful Dead in 1969, with a good singer. From there they practically segue straight into If, a chilling return to Serpa’s noir days with Blake. E.e. cummings never sounded so plaintive or torn up, Matos’ chromatics enhancing the wounded ambience. Inspired by Ryszard Kapuscinski’s 2001 African memoir Shadow of the Sun, the next track remains pensive, although it has the most improvisational feel of anything here, Serpa holding the center after the band all climbs together and then goes their separate ways, rustling and scurrying.

Serpa does the Amalia Rodrigues fado hit Sem Razao (No Reason) as rainy day jazz lit up by Davis’ piano behind the clouds, then takes the last verse pretty straight up. Gold Digging Ants, an image from Herodotus, is chilly, insistent and mechanical, most likely a deliberate choice, Serpa offering deadpan menace over apprehensive modalities. Corto (drawing on a Hugo Pratt graphic novel) stays dark and picturesque, an evocation of ocean waves. They end it with City of Light, City of Darkness, influenced by Portuguese writer Jose Rodrigues Migueis’ Gente da Terceira Clase (The People in Third Class), a series of interwoven vignettes including what could be bustling subway and street scenes. As one would expect from Serpa, it ends unresolved. There’s an enormous amount to sink your ears into here: count this among the half-dozen best albums of the year in any style of music. Serpa plays the album release show for this one tomorrow night, the 13th at 8:30 at the Cornelia St. Cafe here in town and then on the 15th at the Lily Pad in Boston with Davis, Matos and a similarly solid rhythm section.

October 12, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sara Serpa Transcends Everything

The theme of jazz singer/composer Sara Serpa’s show last night at the Cornelia St. Cafe was travel. It was all about loneliness, and quiet determination, and ultimately transcendence, something every true adventurer inevitably finds when confronted with challenges they’d never have met if they’d stayed in their comfort zone. Originally from Portugal, now making her home in New York, Serpa obviously knows a lot about that firsthand. Her stage presence is demure bordering on shy: her band intros and announcements between songs didn’t often reach the back of the room. But her vocals were as vivid as her stunningly original, memorable songs, most of them without words. Many of them went on for ten minutes or more, in a somewhat marathon set that literally heated up the room: one can only imagine how hot it must have been onstage. In an unadorned, vibratoless, crystalline delivery with a clarity so pure it was scary, Serpa sang mostly carefully chosen and stunningly nuanced vocalese, backed by an inspired cast including Andre Matos on guitar, Marcus Gilmore on drums, Ben Street on bass and Kris Davis on piano.

Most of the set was new material. The first song, Serpa explained, was inspired by John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie: “The music suits the landscape,” she explained, specifically, a San Francisco park. Over bass and guitar, she delivered a brief spoken-word interlude, her vocalese matter-of-fact and persevering with Davis’ stark block chords and Street’s pulsing bass, finally reaching up and parting the clouds triumphantly. The second number moved from variations on Davis’ pensive, terse broken chords to a gorgeously warm, swirling section featuring some gently incisive, vintage Jerry Garcia-inflected guitar from Matos into slowly fading, circular piano. A moodily syncopated, brilliantly understated number in Portuguese was the most trad moment of the night; the next song hinted at bossa nova, through murky, subterranean shifts in the low registers to an unexpectedly jaunty Serpa climb out of the morass, a cleverly circling drum solo and a sudden, cold ending.

Serpa’s new album Camera Obscura, with Ran Blake, is rich with noir ambience (and arguably the year’s best), and as much as there were tinges of this all night, they took it to the next level with a long partita, Gilmore’s artful cymbal work lowlighting Davis’ macabre music-box piano, Serpa maintaining an air of mystery all the way up to Gilmore’s decision to thump around and move the corpse. From the audience’s response, the most stunning moment of the night was a wrenchingly intense, barely three-minute version of Meaning of the Blues, vividly evoking Julie London’s wounded resignation but taking it to a logical, defeated extreme, Serpa’s careful enunciation leaving no doubt as to how badly it would end. At the end, there was a good five seconds of silence before the crowd exploded in applause. The show closed with Ten Long Days of Rain, from Serpa’s 2008 album Praia, an expansive, Radiohead-inflected pop-jazz showcase for her more playful, witty side, notably a cheerfully winking vocalese solo with bluesy soprano sax inflections. Serpa’s next NYC gig is on 10/4 at 9 at Tea Lounge in Park Slope with the Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra.

September 22, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ran Blake and Sara Serpa Make the Ultimate Noir Vocal Jazz Album

This is what David Lynch was going for with Angelo Badalementi and Julee Cruise but never quite managed to nail. Sara Serpa’s expertise is vocalese, a style at which the Portuguese-born chanteuse is ideally suited, yet it’s something she only utilizes on a couple of numbers on her new album Camera Obscura. Her English accent may not be perfect yet but her interpretation of the arrangements here, and her teamwork with her former New England Conservatory teacher, the legendary noir jazz pianist Ran Blake, is extraordinary. She approaches these songs with a devastating clarity and vulnerability: her delivery is completely unadorned, yet absolutely resolute and ultimately fearless. This is arguably the best album so far this year in jazz, or for that matter any style of music, every bit as original as Blake’s landmark 1961 collaboration with Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound Around. A cynic might say that it’s what Hilary Kole should have done on her album with Brubeck and Hank Jones and all those other legends but didn’t.

Nat King Cole’s When Sunny Gets Blue gets a characteristically understated, minimalist treatment. As she does throughout the album, Serpa brings the most minute details of the lyrics vividly to life, particularly the disquieting ones. When she sings, “She lost her smile, changed her style, somehow she’s not the same,” a subtle downturn takes on the weight of an earthquake. Janet McFadden’s playful Our Fair Cat introduces a furry friend who is a murderer in theory – and in practice as well, Blake juxtaposing a blithe bounce with a grim gleam, Serpa taking it solo all the way up to the top of her range, completely deadpan, then Blake launches into a twisted little waltz. Folhas (Leaves), an original setting of a poem by Eugenio de Andrade offers something of a respite from the brooding intensity.

The Short Life of Barbara Monk is a spellbinding noir jazz waltz by Blake. Serpa’s wounded vocalese makes a chill-inducing contrast with Blake’s sinister music-box tinges – and takes the anguish up a notch when Blake turns on a dime and shifts into a fast Mingus-esque swing groove. A second Nat Cole cover, I Should Care, clocks in at a brief minute forty-two, dedicated to Monk and as to the point as it can be considering its murky ambience. A tune by Monk himself, Nutty has Serpa carrying the rhythm over jagged incisions by Blake. Driftwood is a terrifically apt Chris Connor homage, Serpa warmly remembering the beach in summer – and suddenly Blake hits an ominous chord, then leaves her out to dry, and the result is spine-tingling. The version of Cole Porter’s Get Out of Town follows in the same vein. “I care for you much too much” is laden with regret rather than a celebration, Serpa’s voice taking on a desperate tinge as the piano picks up the pace. “Be good to me please -” she stops just short of imploring. “We touch too much,” she asserts with a knowing roll of the eyes. They end the album with April in Paris, which starts out more like the dead of winter and stays like that most of the way, a far cry from the conventionality of the Sinatra hit. Together these two have raised the bar for jazz singing – and accompaniment – to an absurdly high level.

September 1, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment