Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Elio Villafranca Brings His Blazing Original Afro-Cuban Grooves Back to JALC

Eclectic, intense Cuban pianist Elio Villafranca & the Jass Syncopators have made Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center pretty much their home in NYC. They’ve got another weekend stand coming up June 13-15, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. The lineup is pretty much the same as their last stand here, the notable change being Steve Turre on trombone and his signature conch shells in place of trumpeter Terrell Stafford. Which probably means more time in the spotlight for saxophonist Vincent Herring, always a good sign. Here’s what they sounded like in the room about eighteen months ago:

“You might think from their name that Elio Villafranca & the Jass Syncopators play New Orleans second-line marches, or hot jazz from the 20s. In actuality, that’s just how the word for their music is pronounced in Spanish. Last night at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Cuban pianist and his allstar lineup romped through an expert and exhilarating blend of salsa and hard bop with richly melodic interludes and the occasional plunge into third-stream sounds. That’s been a common trait among Cuban pianists practically since the days of Ernesto Lecuona – at least those evil conquistadors left one good thing on the island, the “classical tinge,” to twist a Jelly Roll Morton phrase. Much as that is one of Villafranca’s signature characteristics, this show was all about the party: watching the couples sit and sway rapturously with the lights of Manhattan glimmering from high across the park, it was surprising that there wasn’t anyone other than guest dancer Mara Garcia undulating up there with the band.

Throughout the night’s early set, Villafranca for the most part eschewed flashy soloing in lieu of an endless groove, whether that be a frequently polyrhythmic salsa slink – Villafranca is one of the most rhythmic pianists anywhere – with straight-ahead swing, a couple of detours into rumbling Puerto Rican bomba and a long, fiery mambo at the end. Locked in with the tumbling piano, tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy alternated between hard-driving flights and warm melodicism and a wryly smoky bourdoir jazz interlude toward the end of the bomba tune. Trumpeter Terrell Stafford blasted through bop grit with rapidfire glissandos and trills…and a descent into genial blues at the end of his last solo, when he’d taken it so high that there was nowhere else to go. Alto saxophonist Vincent Herring served as a powerful foil to all the goodnatured wailing, adding a biting, sometimes haunting, modally-fueled gravitas. Bassist Carlos Henriquez held to a purist, terse groove – and took one of the night’s most memorable solos, voicing a horn. Drummer Lewis Nash seemed to be having the most fun of anyone up there as he swung through conga riffs, artful clave variations that leaned on the off beat, and a jovial bounce that was all the more powerful for its simplicity.

Augmenting the rhythm was an excellent two-man team of congas and bongos, Puerto Rico’s Anthony Carrillo and the Dominican Republic’s Jonathan Troncoso. The attractively lyrical opening number, Incantations, had Villafranca staking his claim to nimble, hair-raising polyrhythms. The band bookended a brightly pouncing, riff-driven tune with dark streetcorner conga breaks, following with a song ‘dedicated to politics,’ A Great Debater, Villafranca driving its insistence to a clamoring crescendo followed by a playful Nash solo. They wound up by taking a new, untitled bomba tune and swinging it with bisected, lyrical/frenetic solos from the horns, and then the big mambo at the end where Villafranca finally took off for the upper registers with a breathtaking tumbao assault: as cruelly as he hit the keys, the groove never wavered. It was every bit as adrenalizing to watch as it must be to dance to.”

June 5, 2014 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tuneful Purist Stuff from the Clayton Brothers

The Clayton Brothers always deliver, pure and simple: they’re kind of like the Adderleys for this decade. You always know they’re going to swing the changes like crazy, the soloing is always focused and emotionally impactful and at the end of the show or the album, you’ll feel something. The first impression that a listener is left with after hearing their new album The Gathering is that it’s a concert recording. Which it’s actually not, but it has that kind of energy. This time out their usual lineup – Jeff Clayton on alto sax and alto flute, brother John Clayton on bass, Terrell Stafford on trumpet and flugelhorn, Jeff’s son Gerald on piano and Obed Calvaire on drums – gets a little bolstering from guests Wycliffe Gordon on trombone and Stefon Harris on vibraphone.

The eagle flies on Friday, and that’s the vibe they leap into with John Clayton’s high-energy, unstoppably swinging opening track, Friday Struttin’ ,with hard-hitting solos all around until Gordon adds a tinge of levity, Stafford putting it back on the fast track with his trademark spirals and trills. Tsunami, a tune by Jeff, reaches toward a towering, majestic feel driven by sax and trumpet, the rhythm digging in deeper as it crescendos.

The tensely nebulous Touch the Fog, another tune by John, is a movie theme waiting to happen with a tersely catchy, central bass hook, lush horns and some nice interplay between the piano and vibraphone. By contrast, Jefff’s This Ain’t Nothing but a Party works a good-time New Orleans theme with grittily bluesy piano and a trick ending.

John’s Stefon Fetchit [ouch] swings hard, Harris choosing his spots judiciously. They do Don’t Explain casually and expansively, solo piano building artfully to a starlit glimmer, then pulling it back into the shadows where the bass bows rather ominously. Then they flip the script with the buffoonish Coupe de Cone, a springboard for Gordon to do his shtick.

Gerald’s ballad Somealways is the most modern thing here, bracing and modally-charged, edgy piano versus balmy horn chart, Calvaire driving a nimbly scrambling return to the starting line. Jeff felt that his alto work on the first take of Benny Carter’s Souvenir was too effusive, but the band insisted they keep it, and it’s a good thing because he pours his soul out, but not melodramatically: this stuff is real.

John’s Blues Gathering is classic postbop, bass pulling the piano back into terse moodiness on the heels of yet another comical Gordon solo. Jeff’s Simple Pleasures is vastly less simple than the title implies, its heavy, humid mid-August ambience slowly lifting as Harris gets underway and then lets it linger suspensefully again. The album closes with another first-rate Jeff tune, The Happiest of Times, its Monk allusions and nonchalant swing lit up by casually expert, pulse-elevating solos by Stafford, Gerald and then the composer. This might be the band’s best studio effort to date, pretty impressive considering the all-star cast involved.

November 19, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Elio Villafranca: Blazing Original Afro-Cuban Grooves at JALC

You might think from their name that Elio Villafranca & the Jass Syncopators play New Orleans second-line marches, or hot jazz from the 20s. In actuality, that’s just how the word for their music is pronounced in Spanish. Last night at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Cuban pianist and his allstar lineup romped through an expert and exhilarating blend of salsa and hard bop with richly melodic interludes and the occasional plunge into third-stream sounds. That’s been a common trait among Cuban pianists practically since the days of Ernesto Lecuona – at least those evil conquistadors left one good thing on the island, the “classical tinge,” to twist a Jelly Roll Morton phrase. Much as that is one of Villafranca’s signature characteristics, this show was all about the party: watching the couples sit and sway rapturously with the lights of Manhattan glimmering from high across the park, it was surprising that there wasn’t anyone other than guest dancer Mara Garcia undulating up there with the band.

Throughout the night’s early set, Villafranca for the most part eschewed flashy soloing in lieu of an endless groove, whether that be a frequently polyrhythmic salsa slink – Villafranca is one of the most rhythmic pianists anywhere – with straight-ahead swing, a couple of detours into rumbling Puerto Rican bomba and a long, fiery mambo at the end. Locked in with the tumbling piano, tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy alternated between hard-driving flights and warm melodicism and a wryly smoky bourdoir jazz interlude toward the end of the bomba tune. Trumpeter Terrell Stafford blasted through bop grit with rapidfire glissandos and trills…and a descent into genial blues at the end of his last solo, when he’d taken it so high that there was nowhere else to go. Alto saxophonist Vincent Herring served as a powerful foil to all the goodnatured wailing, adding a biting, sometimes haunting, modally-fueled gravitas. Bassist Carlos Enrique held to a purist, terse groove – and took one of the night’s most memorable solos, voicing a horn. Drummer Lewis Nash seemed to be having the most fun of anyone up there as he swung through conga riffs, artful clave variations that leaned on the off beat, and a jovial bounce that was all the more powerful for its simplicity.

Augmenting the rhythm was an excellent two-man team of congas and bongos, Puerto Rico’s Anthony Carrillo and the Dominican Republic’s Jonathan Troncoso. The attractively lyrical opening number, Incantations, had Villafranca staking his claim to nimble, hair-raising polyrhythms. The band bookended a brightly pouncing, riff-driven tune with dark streetcorner conga breaks, following with a song “dedicated to politics,” A Great Debater, Villafranca driving its insistence to a clamoring crescendo followed by a playful Nash solo. They wound up by taking a new, untitled bomba tune and swinging it with bisected, lyrical/frenetic solos from the horns, and then the big mambo at the end where Villafranca finally took off for the upper registers with a breathtaking tumbao assault: as cruelly as he hit the keys, the groove never wavered. It was every bit as adrenalizing to watch as it must be to dance to. Villafranca and his “jass” band are back at Dizzy’s Club tonight and tomorrow if you’re in the mood.

October 12, 2012 Posted by | concert, jazz, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Jazz Sax Player Brendan Romaneck’s Auspicious Compositions Memorialized in a Superb New Album

This is the saddest way jazz legends are born. At age 24, sax player Brendan Romaneck was just about to record his first full-length album. Impressively, he’d put together a first-class band including powerhouse trumpeter Terrell Stafford. Tragically, before recording could begin, Romaneck was cut down in an accident. Four years after the composer’s untimely demise, several of the musicians he’d originally assembled came together to record some of his tunes along with a sensitive collection of covers. Without any context, this is a good jazz album; it’s also a reminder of what the world lost in April, 2005. Romaneck’s compositions  are ablaze with life, color and clever rhythms: he was clearly an artist with talent and passion that could have gone much further than what he left behind. What’s here offers more than a glimmer of greatness.

The songs her feature either Chris Potter or Steve Wilson on sax, Romaneck’s teacher and mentor Keith Javors on piano, Stafford on trumpet and flugelhorn and a rhythm section of Delbert Felix on bass and John Davis on drums. Impressively, the originals are the strongest suit. Romaneck obviously listened widely, as evidenced by Dream Behind the Winter, sounding like Donald Fagen gone latin, busy, bustling Javors piano trading off against balmy Potter tenor in a confidently ambitious arrangement. 3 Steps Ahead of the Spider is a catchy Brubeck-style jazz waltz packed with smart, out-of-the-box devices: suspenseful drums breaking up the piece early on; a leaping, agile piano chart played with gusto by Javors and some arrestingly intense, lightning-fast work by Potter.

The title track, Coming Together is a captivating exercise in circular melody with rousing turns by Wilson, Stafford and Javors, the band playfully running the central hook behind Davis when it comes his turn to step out. The catchy swing tune The Vibe runs from brightly wary Javors piano, to a recklessly allusive Wilson solo, to Felix’ jaunty bass. When the horns follow each other, a phalanx of warriors (or partiers) bounding off to wherever they’re going at the end, the arrangement is exquisite.

The best and most adventurous cut is Minion, Stafford and Wilson’s conversation evocative of what Trane and Dolphy were doing forty years previously, taking turns  maintaining a semblance of sanity while the other gets a chance to vent. At the end, there’s another deliciously blazing horn chart with more devious counterpoint. Another original echoes 70s-era Stevie Wonder, illuminated by a characteristically forceful Stafford solo.

What connection the covers had to Romaneck are not clear, but they’re  also well done. Killing Me Softly with His Song is a clinic in how to skirt a melody and make it interesting; Harold Arlen’s My Shining Hour, which kicks off the album, matches conviviality to a portentous suspense. And Nancy with the Laughing Face emphasizes the ballad’s effortlessly pretty, nocturnal vibe, a casual trio performance by Potter, Felix and Javors. Romaneck’s strength, at least as evidenced here, was not ballads – the two on the cd sound like student works and don’t have the strong, individual stamp he put on his more lively pieces. Now that we have this album, it’s time to hear Romaneck playing his own stuff. It’s a fair assumption that in this day and age, there must be at least a few recordings worthy of at least youtube and quite possibly an album of his own.

November 8, 2009 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment