Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

This Album Kills Fascists

These guys just plain get it. The Curtis Brothers barrel into their new album Completion of Proof with both eyes open, fearless and unintimidated. In the spirit of Mingus, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln during the Civil Rights era, and more recent jazz artists like Howard Wiley and Tain Watts, they take a skeptical and often savage look at the structure of society in the post-9/11 age. Forget that the tunes here have a blazing power: pianist/composer Zaccai Curtis’ liner notes are worth the price of the album all by themselves. Most of these songs – and they are songs, in the purest sense of the word – take their inspiration from the ongoing struggle against encroaching fascism, one way or another. But the Curtis Brothers aren’t simply critiquing – they’re offering solutions. As melodic jazz goes, this might be the best album of the year: it’s as important as it is catchy. While there’s a crowd who might pigeonhole this as latin jazz, and there’s definitely a delicious tropical slink to a lot of this, it defies such an easy categorization. It’s just good.

The opening track, Protestor, is dedicated to the guy who won the staredown with the army tank at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacres. It’s got hard-hitting, insistent piano, imperturbable Brian Lynch trumpet and sailing Donald Harrison alto sax with the powerhouse Ralph Peterson a spot-on choice of drummer for this song, and for that matter, this project. Bright hooks fade out over his tanklike rumble. The edgy, vivid, modally tinged second track is a dedication to Curtis’ niece, Madison, scrambling nimbly with an especially optimistic solo spot for bassist Luques Curtis. Named for the Bay of Bengal islanders whose centuries-old attentiveness to the world around them saved them from the 2008 tsunami, The Onge is a potently cinematic piece, kicking off with pulsing bass and a bustling two-horn attack – and eventually a triumphant if completely hectic run to the hills led by Zaccai Curtis.

The album’s centerpiece is a triptych, the Manifest Destiny Suite. It’s meant to illustrate the psychological and sociological mechanics of fascism: an awfully tall order for an instrumental work, but Zaccai Curtis succeeds with it, brilliantly. Part one, aptly titled The Wrath, underscores how kissing up to tyrants never works: this one’s dedicated to the school hall monitor, but it would work just as well for the Judenrat, or a contestant on the Donald Trump Show. Luques Curtis’ booming bass chords anchor this angry, chromatically-fueled depiction of a bully, Jimmy Greene’s tenor prowling suspiciously, drums and Pedrito Martinez’ percussion pummeling and rattling uneasily as the bandleaders hammer the point home sarcastically, over and over. Part two, Mass Manipulation examines how the corporate media distracts, Balkanizes and disempowers us. Zaccai Curtis works a wickedly sneaky variation on the tyrant theme over a noirish, rolling Afro-Cuban groove, all the way down to a depressing little waltz of sorts and then an absolutely gorgeously interwoven arrangement as the horns carry the tune, the piano ripples and the bass and piano work in tandem, bobbing to the surface. The concluding section is a reminder of the high price of the failure to follow Jefferson’s advice about eternal vigilance, richly illustrated with big, syncopated charts and more intricate but hard-hitting interplay.

The rest of the album balances the upbeat, optimistic son montuno anthem Sol Within against the explosively towering cautionary tale Jazz Conspiracy, a nightmarish portrayal of what happens when the corporations completely take over replete with creepy dissonances, sarcastic faux-martial cadenzas and bleating brass. As a whole, it leaps to the front of the pack of contenders for best jazz album of 2011.

And while it’s nice to see something this edgy and worthwhile getting coverage in a place like the NY Times, it would be an understatement to say that their reviewer didn’t get it. Did he even listen to the album? That seems doubtful.

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November 6, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 3/23/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #678:

Jeff “Tain” Watts – Watts

Most political and social commentary in jazz has been limited to musical portrayals of various types of pain and suffering. Inspired by the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles and the malfeasance of the Bush regime, here’s a rare one that doesn’t limit itself to just the tunes. The iconic, powerhouse drummer and sometime bandleader is joined on this 2009 release, his most recent, by Branford Marsalis on saxes, Terence Blanchard on trumpet and another powerhouse, Christian McBride on bass. It’s a diverse mix of New Orleans second line tunes, funk and bracing improvisation, all imbued with Watts’ signature sense of humor, frequently vicious and satirical. Katrina James, a hurricane reminiscence, is cynical to the extreme; Wry Koln, with its tongue-in-cheek latin groove, isn’t the slightest bit teutonic. There’s also the bitter, intense Dancing 4 Chicken, the playful Monk homage Dingle-Dangle and the eerie atmospherics of M’Buzai. The centerpiece is a brutally funny evisceration of George W. Bush’s legacy, The Devil’s Ring Tone: The Movie – which includes a conversation between the devil and Bush’s attorney, and is reprised as a stand-alone instrumental at the end. This one doesn’t seem to have made it to the sharelockers yet, but most of it is streaming at myspace, and it’s still available from cdbaby.

March 23, 2011 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 11/30/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #791:

Kenny Garrett – Songbook

Who would have thought when he made his debut as an elevator jazz guy back in the 80s that someday he’d be capable of this kind of brilliance? As both a composer and player, alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett was one of the 90s’ and zeros’ most potent forces and remains just as vital today. This one from 1997 really solidified his reputation, a retro, Coltrane-inspired triumph. With relentless energy and intelligence, Garrett locks in with Kenny Kirkland on piano, Nat Reeves on bass and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums, through a diverse collection of cerebral workups and lyrical ballads. The opening track 2 Down & 1 Across opens it lyrically, picking up the pace with the catchy, insistent Wooden Steps and then the magnificently Middle Eastern-inflected, modal epic Sing a Song of Song, the most Coltrane-ish number here and one which became a real crowd-pleaser live. There’s also the funky Freddie Hubbard tribute Brother Hubbard; the boleroish ballad Ms. Baja; the magisterial Nat Adderley homage The House That Nat Built; the darkly syncopated blues She Waits for the New Sun; the pensive, expansive Before It’s Time to Say Goodbye and the warily exuberant Sounds of the Flying Pygmies. Pretty much everything Garrett else has done since 1990 is also worth hearing. Here’s a random torrent.

November 30, 2010 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Mingus Big Band – Live at Jazz Standard

Allowing the new live cd by the Mingus Big Band to qualify as a contender for best album of 2010 isn’t really fair – it’s like sponsoring a home run-hitting contest and then inviting the ghost of Babe Ruth to compete. Every Monday night at New York’s Jazz Standard, the three Mingus repertory bands rotate: the original Mingus Odyssey, the ten-piece Mingus Orchestra, and this unit. Broadcast live and recorded by NPR as 2008 turned into 2009, it captures the Mingus Big Band in particularly exuberant form, blazing through a mix of classics and obscurities. Credit drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts for characteristic breakneck intensity – and also for staying within himself as much as he does. The fun the group is having is visceral – but with this material, who wouldn’t? Mingus’ music leans toward the dark and stormy, but here, when the rains come, the band splashes through the puddles undeterred.

The concert kicks off with the joyously slinky blues of Gunslinging Birds, including brief, incisive breaks by Watts and bassist Boris Kozlov (whose regular gig with this unit is a bass player’s dream come true, especially as he gets to play Mingus’ old lions head bass). New Now Know How (which is a question: New, Now – Know How?, according to arranger Sy Johnson) has an infectious, buoyant enthusiasm that transcends its somewhat sly, swinging atmospherics, trumpeters Randy Brecker and Kenny Rampton getting the chance to shine and making the gleaming most of it (this is the first recording of the song since the original Charles Mingus version). They follow the vivid, gentle Bill Evans-style ballad Self-Portrait in Three Colors with a lickety-split romp through Birdcalls, Wayne Escoffery’s blissfully extroverted, modally tinged tenor sax giving way to Vincent Herring’s alto while bari player Lauren Sevian, altoist Douglas Yates and tenorist Abraham Burton battle for the edges. Then they segue into Hora Decubitus, which is considerably more roughhewn and belligerently ominous than the version by Elvis Costello (who wrote the lyrics). Trombonist Ku’umba Frank Lacy growls them with a knowing wariness, and his solo comes down quickly out of the clouds.

Cryin’ Blues features a tightly restrained muted trumpet solo from Rampton, a deviously whispery one from Kozlov, and one that’s absolutely majestic from Lacy. And the whole ensemble takes the majesty up as far as it will go once they’ve scurried their way into the middle passages of Open Letter to Duke; Sevian and Escoffery segue it deftly and fluidly into an electric, soaring version of Moanin’, lit up by a long, biting, expressionistic David Kikoski piano solo. Lacy brings Goodbye Pork Pie Hat up out of chaos with a soaring vocal, Escoffery taking the spotlight, magisterial and intense. The band wraps up the night with a strikingly terse version of Song with Orange, waiting til the very end to take it out in a big explosive blaze. As good as the performances here are, the album is also remarkably well-produced, with a welcome absence of whooping and hollering – either the Jazz Standard folks managed to convince the New Year’s Eve revelers to keep it down, or the crowd was so blown away by the music that they didn’t make much noise til it was practically over. Nice to see – the man who was arguably the greatest American composer deserves no less.

July 6, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment