Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Ken Peplowski’s In Search of… Finds a Groove

The cd cover of veteran big-band reedman Ken Peplowski’s new album In Search of… pretty much tells the story. Pictured at the edge of the sidewalk, playing his clarinet in the yellow neon light of a sepia-toned, twilit Downtown Diner in the shadow of downtown Manhattan skyscapers, this is oldschool after-hours music. With all but the final three tracks recorded live in the studio in a single take, there’s a comfortable familiarity here – you can hear the voices of the players as they respond to cues and solos – but also plenty of surprises. For the casual fan, it’s an album of spirited nocturnes; hardcore jazz types will be amazed by the liquid crystal clarity of Peplowski’s legato – what flows from his horn is rivers rather than single notes – and some unexpected tunes. Here he plays clarinet and soprano saxophone, backed by Shelly Berg on piano, Tom Kennedy on bass and John Hamilton (leader of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and his own trio, whose excellent 2009 album we didn’t exactly do justice to here) on drums. There are also three additional tracks with Greg Cohen on bass, Joe Ascione on drums and percussion and Chuck Redd on vibraphone.

They open it with The Thespian, by Freddie Redd, a lyrical ballad that jumps into doublespeed, piano and sax playing a double line before Peplowski’s soprano sax goes out exploring. The strongest tune here is Kennedy’s, Love’s Disguise, Hamilton’s hushed brushwork a clinic in good tast pushing the syncopated Cuban beat – as is Kennedy’s genial, melodic bass solo. More of those suspenseful brushes color an expansive, Romantically tinged version of When Joanna Loved Me; Hamilton’s warm samba groove, Falsa Baiana, gives Peplowsky a long launching pad for some boisterously tropical excursions. The relatively obscure Rodgers/Hart tune, A Ship without a Sail shifts rhythms back and forth to drive up the emotional impact;  the brooding quality of Peplowski’s clarinet elevates another showtune, With Every Breath I Take, far above its origins.

Berg has a couple of tunes here, a warmly summer 6/8 ballad that contrasts vividly with pensive clarinet, and a briskly comedic, almost dixieland dedication to Peplowski, who gamely plays along with the portrait of an irrepressibly good-natured guy who can’t sit still. And then Berg more than matches him for boisterous antics. The album winds up with an unexpectedly poignant take of This Nearly Was Mine, Berg adding suspense with some rubato solo piano as a bridge, and a tight bass/sax duo of No Regrets. The only misses are the Beatles and Professor Longhair cuts that end it; if you’re planning on using this as 4 AM wind-down music (it’s perfect for that time of night/day), either put those tracks somewhere else on your ipod or program the cd differently. Is this album a throwback to a better time and place? From a look at the cd cover, it’s hard to think otherwise. It’s out now on Capri Records.

March 25, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CTI Records Reissues Include Gems by Paul Desmond, Milt Jackson and Ron Carter

Lately Sony Jazz has been emptying out the CTI vaults they inherited: it’s amazing how much good jazz is in there, and how well it’s aged. Conventional wisdom is that Creed Taylor’s California label was primarily a source for fusion, and there’s some truth to that, but not completely. Three delicious new reissues attest to that. First and foremost is Paul Desmond’s exquisite Pure Desmond: it’s such a good album that it would be a contender for the year’s top ten pretty much anytime in the last couple of decades. Desmond was rarely comfortable in the role of bandleader for many reasons, but he seems so on this 1974 gem, and even though it’s a mix of standards by Duke, Jerome Kern, Django and Cole Porter, the group here reinvents them. Desmond never overpowered anybody with his martini tone, and here he gets the chance to let it breathe over some of the smartest jazz rhythm guitar ever recorded, courtesy of the vastly underrated Ed Bickert. Meanwhile, Connie Kay plays an almost invisible beat with brushes, Ron Carter alongside on bass. Lyrical and unselfconsciously poignant, it’s truly Pure Desmond, very close, both tune and vibe-wise to his 1954 quintet session featuring another brilliant guitarist, Barney Kessel.

Another welcome rediscovery is vibraphonist Milt Jackson’s lush, psychedelic 1972 Sunflower album with Herbie Hancock on piano, Carter on bass, Billy Cobham on drums, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and Jay Berliner on acoustic guitar plus a string orchestra. It’s got the flamenco noir sweep of Jackson’s For Someone I Love, a vividly cosmopolitan version of Michel Legrand’s What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life, an understatedly funky, cinematic take of the Stylistics’ People Make the World Go Round plus the absolutely hypnotic title track, a Freddie Hubbard composition, its dreamlike pulse augmented by the strings. Gorgeously otherworldly, it deserves to be better known than it is.

Last but not least, Ron Carter’s All Blues – taking its title from a judicious, practically ten minute version of the Miles classic – is a refreshingly terse session featuring Joe Henderson on tenor, Sir Roland Hanna on piano and Billy Cobham swinging like crazy behind the kit. It sounds little like the kind of stuff Cobham would be playing later in the decade, and much the same applies to Carter: it’s all judicious funk and melody, no rat-on-a-treadmill walking scales. This title in particular stands out for how intelligently it’s been remastered (although that could be said of all of them): the bass, already amplified courtesy of a Fender amp, gets a welcome boost, although the drums remain comfortably back in the mix just as they were on the original vinyl. Highlights include the beautifully modal piano/bass ballad Light Blue, the gentle funk theme 117 Special – a classic showcase for understated Henderson soulfulness – and the playfully tricky Rufus, a shout-out to Rufus Reid.

Also available in the reissue series is George Benson’s White Rabbit – and for fans of long-forgotten synthesizer film scores from the 1970s, Eumir Deodato’s Prelude. All links here are to itunes, although cds are available as well.

February 8, 2011 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

CD Review: Leron Thomas – Around You

Trumpeter/composer Leron Thomas’ new cd is an album of beautiful ballads: it’s tempting to ask, is this a joke? Thomas has a distinctive, sometimes brutally sardonic sense of humor, and a vastly more diverse sensibility than he lets onto here. To see him go in such a traditional jazz direction, so effortlessly and unselfconsciously, it only makes sense to wonder if he has something up his sleeve. This is Blue Note stuff, Newport stuff, accessible yet brimming with inspired contributions from a well-chosen supporting cast: Lage Lund on guitar, Frank LoCrasto on acoustic and electric piano, Burniss Earl Travis on bass and electric bass and Jamire Williams on drums. From the photo on the album cover, Thomas doesn’t look any happier than he would if he was opening for Chris Botti (somebody he’d blow off the bandstand: then again, so would a whole lot of good jazz players). But when he picks up his horn…wow. Vividly lyrical and expressive, the melodies jump out and linger memorably: you can hum this stuff to yourself in the street.

The opening track, Doc Morgan works its way methodically into a slow triplet rhythm which Williams tosses playfully, the rest of the band in turn echoing Thomas’ terse, distantly bluesy explorations with a similar purist touch. The suspiciously titled Conformed Retro mines a subtle, tuneful bossa vibe for all the balminess Thomas can muster, yet for all its trad overtones, the playing isn’t cliched, particularly when he picks up the energy. The contrast between Lund’s eighth-note flights and Williams’ terse, solid snare-and-cymbal is awfully compelling too, as is LoCrasto when he introduces a brisk tectonic shift and the band has no choice but to follow. Wordless Fable, for all its unassuming warmth, hints at a resolution but won’t go there – and then it’s over.

So what is Paycheck Players about? Dudes who are broke all week because they bought so many drinks for girls on Friday night? Or is it a stab at mercenary musicians? LoCrasto’s spritely, tongue-in-cheek electric piano offers a hint. The album closes with the title track, a gorgeous, contemplative song without words that reminds of Harold Arlen, particularly at the end: somebody should give this one lyrics. Who is the audience for this? Your typical Newport/Blue Note jazz crowd. It’s almost as if Thomas is saying, “I can do this as well as anybody in the business, almost without trying.” No joke.

July 20, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment