Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Lush, Kinetic, Imaginatively Purist New Big Band Jazz From Dan Pugach’s Nonet Plus One

How do you get the most bang for your buck, to make a handful of musicians sound like a whole orchestra? Composers and arrangers have been using every trick in the book to do that since the Middle Ages. One guy who’s particularly good at it is drummer/bandleader Dan Pugach, whose retro style harks back to the 60s and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band. Over the past couple of years, Pugach’s Nonet Plus One have refined that concept, gigging all over New York. They’re playing the album release show for their debut album tonight, May 18 at 10 PM at their usual hang, 55 Bar.

The opening track, Brooklyn Blues, is definitely bluesy, but with an irrepressible New Orleans flair. Pugach likes short solos to keep things tight and purposeful: tenor saxophonist Jeremy Powell and trombonist Mike Fahie get gritty and lowdown while Jorn Swart’s piano bubbles up occasionally amid lushly brassy flares from the rest of the group.

Coming Here opens with a comfortable, late-night sweep anchored by Carmen Staaf’s glimmering piano, punctuated by gusts from throughout the band, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen soaring triumphantly and lyrically, Powell more pensive against Staaf’s hypnotic, emphatic attack. The tightly chattering outro, held down by bassist Tamir Shmerling, baritone saxophonist Andrew Gutauskas and bass trombonist Jen Hinkle, is a tasty surprise.

You wouldn’t think a big band version of the Dolly Parton classic Jolene would work, but this group’s not-so-secret weapon, singer Nicole Zuraitis, gives it a Laura Nyro-like intensity as the group punch in and out throughout Pugach’s darkly latin-tinged arrangement. Staaf’s spiraling, serioso chromatics are spot on, Jensen taking that intensity to redline.

Andrew Gould’s optimistic alto sax and David Smith’s catchy, fluttering trumpet solo take centerstage in Zelda, a slow, swaying ballad. Individual and group voices burst in and out of Belo’s Bellow over Pugach’s samba-funk groove, bolstered by Bernardo Aguilar’s pandeiro. Then they reinvent Chick Corea’s Crystal Silence as blustery, arioso tropicalia, Zuraitis’ dramatic vocal flights and Gould’s bluesy alto over Swart’s terse, brooding piano and Pugach’s lush chart and cymbals.

Likewise, Pugach’s piano-based arrangement of Quincy Jones’ Love Dance gives it a welcome organic feel. Zuraitis’ Our Blues gets a powerhouse arrangement to match her wry hokum-inspired lyrics and defiant delivery: “You’re much more clever when you shut your mouth,” she advises. Smith’s sudden crescendo, using Swart’s piano as a launching pad early during the subtle syncopations of Discourse This might be the album’s high point. Keeping a large ensemble together is an awful lot of work, but it’s understandable why a cast of musicians of this caliber would relish playing Pugach’s inventively purist charts.

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May 18, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Wild Celebration of 25 Years of Jazz at the New School

The New School’s jazz program turned 25 this year: to celebrate, they threw an eclectic, often transcendent bash last night featuring a mix of jazz legends, alumni, faculty and students, a younger generation practically jumping out of their socks to be playing with icons, the veterans just as psyched to be up there with what could be the next generation of jazz greats. The premise of the night – other than to get more than three hours’ worth of enticing video for students who might be vaccillating between jazz programs – was a tribute to former faculty members Frank Foster and Benny Powell. For whatever reason, the program ended up having more to do with Dizzy Gillespie than the Basie connection those two shared for decades. But what’s unplanned is almost always why jazz is so much fun.

The Foster/Powell tribute kicked off with a blistering version of Foster’s Manhattan Madness. Reggie Workman, as shrewd an observer of talent as there is, introduced the band and told everyone to keep an eye out for pianist Martha Kato, a student. He was right on the money about her: fearless when it came to mining the lowest registers for magisterial power, she showed off a crystalline, bluesy purism that made a perfect match alongside a mix of alums and faculty: Kenyatta Beasley (who conducted the ensemble) ; Cecil Bridgewater on trumpet; Arun Luthra,  Keith Loftis and the Cookers’ Billy Harper on saxes; Christopher Stover on trombone; Rory Stuart and Mike Moreno on guitars; Josh Ginsburg on bass; and the Yellowjackets’ Marcus Baylor clattering up a storm on drums. Their take on a series of swing, Afro-Cuban and bossa nova themes reveled in the tunefulness that defined Foster’s repertoire.

The night’s single most transcendent moment was a rich, gospel-infused blues duet between pianist Junior Mance and violinist Michi Fuji. The two play together in Mance’s trio and share a finely attuned chemistry, Fuji adding an element of mystery with judiciously placed glissandos, Mance mimicking Fuji’s attack with some unexpected flutters of his own before returning to an otherworldly glimmer. The two were done all too soon. Mance plays with his trio most Sundays at Cafe Loup on 13th just west of 6th Ave. in case you might need more of him.

Close behind was an expansive, high-energy yet richly dynamic “trumpet battle” led by the great Jimmy Owens in tandem with Bridgewater, a tribute to Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Gillespie, Thad Jones and also Thelonious Monk. Owens’ straight-ahead, often slyly witty style paired off with Bridgewater’s artfully ornamented attack; Bridgewater’s decision to do Clifford Brown’s Dahoud as a subdued, plaintive ballad was shatteringly successful. Again, it was a student, bassist Tony Lannen, who held the crowd rapt with both his wit – it takes nerve to punctuate your first solo of the night with a joke and make it resound like he did – and then a bristlingly precise, rapidfire spot later on which he played entirely with his bow. Meanwhile, Winard Harper put on a clinic in joyous, counterintuitive, latin-tinged beats: when he finally got a solo, it was all avant garde sticks and hardware and rims, and yet purist in a way that drew a straight line back to Elvin Jones. At one point, Owens wanted to take it all the way down to just his horn, but pianist JoAnne Brackeen wasn’t looking up: she’d become one with the resonant sheets of Monk she was playing at that point. Another up-and-coming talent, Alejandro Berti, joined in a genially crescendoing round-robin of trumpets to wind up the set on a literally high note.

For the night’s second duet, faculty pianist Andy Milne joined forces with Swiss harmonicist Gregoire Maret for a radical, slowly unwinding, atonalist reinterpretation of Body and Soul. The night ended on with the more traditionally ecstatic sounds of the Eyal Vilner Big Band, first backing nonagenarian tenor player Frank Wess and then fellow tenor legend Jimmy Heath, who’s five years his junior. Wess embodied pure soul, matched nuance to energy and got two standing ovations out of it; Heath, eternally youthful, refused to take a seat, cheered on his new bandmates – Mike McGarill, Tom Abbott, Lucas Pino, Asaf Yuria and big baritone guy Jason Marshall on saxes; the explosive Cameron Johnson and Takuya Kuroda on trumpet; Ivan Malespin and John Mosca on trombones; Yonatan Riklis on piano and Mike Karn on bass, with drummer Joe Strasser showing off a nimble originality matched to a power that never quite exploded – clearly, he was feeling the room and played to it perfectly. Chanteuse Brianna Thomas – whom none other than Will Friedwald has anointed as arguably the new generation’s finest straight-ahead jazz singer – joined them and battled a nonresponsive PA to put her message of sass and style across vividly in a rousing take of Lover, Come Back to Me. Otherwise, Vilner’s arrangements of Bud Powell (a potently percussive Un Poco Loco) and Diz nimbly articulated voices throughout the ensemble, Vilner himself taking the occasionally understated bluesy solo spots on alto sax. When they closed with what sounded like a Gillespie reworking of a Louis Jordan jump blues, Heath grinned and looked on deviously before choosing his spot to join in the raucous riffage as it wound out. It was something of a shock to see a handful of empty seats: concerts with the sheer magnitude of this one don’t come along every day.

The New School may not have weekly concerts like they had back in the early days, but those they do have tend to be extraordinary: both Marc Ribot (with his noir soundtrack project) and Ethiopian jazz masters Either/Orchestra have delivered equally sensational concerts here in recent months, something to keep in mind if you’re looking for major live jazz events percolating just under the radar.

April 26, 2012 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

JC Sanford Leads the Brooklyn Big Band Renaissance

Tea Lounge, a cavernous former delivery truck garage in Park Slope, is a somewhat unlikely location to have become Big Band Central in New York, with a series of weekly shows to rival anything that’s playing at the Vanguard or Birdland. JC Sanford – lyrical trombonist, innovative composer, popular big band conductor, and now an impresario – created the Monday series, and recently took some time away from rehearsals and logistics to give us the lowdown:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: People in the know all know that Monday night is the new Saturday – and has been for a long time in New York. Maybe ever since the days of the week were invented. But why don’t you do this, say, on a Saturday?

JC Sanford: Monday night in NYC has historically been “big band night.” Thad Jones and Mel Lewis – now the Vanguard band – Gil Evans at Sweet Basil; Maria Schneider at Visiones; Toshiko Akiyoshi at Birdland, and Howard Williams at the Garage….Obviously most of those situations don’t exist anymore for various reasons, but I wanted to carry on that Monday night big band tradition, but this time in Brooklyn. It does create some conflicts, but it doesn’t look like anybody’s not managed to field a complete band as of yet.

LCC: This month you have the Jeff Fairbanks Jazz Orchestra on September 6, then on the 13th the Javier Arau Jazz Orchestra, your own JC Sanford Orchestra on the 20th, and the Jamie Begian Big Band – whose new cd Big Fat Grin is great fun – on the 27th. Can you give us an insider view of what they sound like, and why it’s worth the shlep out to the Slope if you don’t live there?

JCS: Well, one thing that’s so great about this series is the variety you’ll see and hear from week to week. This month is no different. Jeff Fairbanks’ repertoire is a mix of modern jazz and Asian music, including a suite he wrote about Chinatown. Javier, a Bob Brookmeyer protégé like myself, has a great sense of form and color. I like to think of his works as thematically cinematic. My vibe has long been to push the limits of what is “expected” in a specific musical setting without totally abandoning the essence of the genre, sounding adventurous while remaining “accessible.” I combine a lot of elements of traditional jazz, classical, and pop music. And yes, Jamie’s music is FUN. He can be truly dedicated to an idea or mood or bust out a quirky groove at any point.

LCC: Why the sudden popularity of new jazz for large ensembles? Can we credit Darcy James Argue for springboarding it – or at least being a magnet for it, or is this a scene that’s always been bubbling under the radar?

JCS: I think the existence of so many groups comes from a few different places, actually. Years ago, Bob Brookmeyer and Manny Albam started the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop where burgeoning composers were able to bring in their large ensemble music to be critiqued by master composers and eventually read down by a group of professional players. These days Jim McNeely leads the workshop, and so many writers have been through there. I would say a majority of the bandleaders that have been a part of this series at least spent a few minutes in that program at some point. Also Brookmeyer obviously influenced so many composers through the years, but he also did it tangibly as a teacher at New England Conservatory for several years. So many of his students have graduated, moved to New York, joined the BMI workshop, and their started their own bands. I think Maria Schneider’s popularity and distinctive voice really inspired a lot of folks, too. Luckily some folks like myself, and even more so Darcy, have been lucky enough to have a healthy dose of all three.

But to answer your question directly, I think Darcy is more a representative of the possible future of big bands rather than the present. At this point, his dramatic rise to success has happened too quickly for us to see its effects on other bands yet, as a majority of the bands on this series have been around for several years already. He has figured out a way to generate interest in his product in a way I didn’t think was possible anymore, though. I think we all, as large ensemble leaders, should be inspired by his meteoric rise. It’s encouraging to me, and makes me think that there is hope for us all on some level. Hopefully this series can be an avenue for that kind of exposure.

LCC: This is music you have to absolutely love, to play it live: if you’ve got twenty people in the ensemble, even with a gig at a swanky club, nobody walks away rich afterward. Back in the 30s and 40s, bands would sustain themselves by doing long stands at hotel bars or places like Minton’s. How does a big band sustain itself these days?

JCS: Well, I think you’re seeing that these days it’s pretty rare for any large band to do many long stands at all, even the super-established ones. I mean, that’s a great tradition they’ve established of having Maria Schneider playing all week at the Jazz Standard during Thanksgiving, but even that is only once a year. So, generally big bands sustain themselves by not playing very often and having a leader who’s willing to take a hit to their wallet. Folks like John Hollenbeck have a successful performing career, so he can, from time to time, drop a few dollars on a great gig at le Poisson Rouge or something. Most of the players in these bands know the deal: you’re not going to make much on a big band gig, generally. But they do it because they want to play great music, and there seems to be plenty of opportunities to do that these days.

LCC: Your Sound Assembly album, from 2008, is a real favorite of mine. You’ve got some gems on there: a convolutedly fun tribute to a man and his cat, a crazed, Mingus-esque subway rush hour tableau and an astringent, ambient number influenced by Charles Ives. Any chance you’ll be playing any of them on the 20th?

JCS: Thanks. I’m still sussing out the exact program for the gig, but we will definitely play a few tunes from that record, including the feline foray and the MTA tribute, which will be, unlike the current organization, fast and efficient.

LCC: I get the feeling that if Tea Lounge keeps up doing this, it’ll become a sort of CBGB for the new wave of big bands. What do you think?

JCS: I’m really hoping so – as long as being the CBGBs of anything doesn’t include it sadly closing down, to the severe consternation of its audience. What I am noticing is that in addition to the regular clientele, a lot of musicians are hanging there. They want to check out what other folks are writing and support their fellow strugglers. The Tea Lounge is a really great vibe. Good grub and good drinks – including full bar – and since there’s no cover – just a $5 suggested donation – it’s really easy to just drop in and hang. People bring their kids. It’s mellow and fun. And the sound of the room is pretty good, too, which is more than I can say about a lot of the places big bands are forced to play in this city.

LCC: Can I ask a really obvious question, as far as the venue is concerned: will the September shows start on time? Sometimes what’s advertised as a 9 PM show at this place turns into 11 PM in reality…

JCS: That’s actually a very practical question. I think these folks are pretty prompt. The latest you’ll see anything start there is 9:15. This might be because these are composer/arranger-led bands, they want to get through all the charts they have programmed.

September 1, 2010 Posted by | concert, interview, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Clayton Brothers – Brother to Brother

Beautifully oldschool, golden-age late 50s/early 60s style jazz by this highly regarded mostly family unit. Everybody in the Clayton Brothers has a distinct persona, although they all break character and surprise from time to time. Bandleader/bassist John Clayton is the suave one; his sax-playing brother Jeff is the party animal. Trumpeter Terell Stafford is the hard hitter, drummer Obed Calvaire (John Clayton’s “adopted” son) the no-nonsense purist with a BS detector set to stun, with pianist Gerald Clayton (John’s kid) the clear star of the show, a powerhouse player with a vivid, often plaintive tone and a devious sensibility that really rears its head live but also cuts through the arrangements here from time to time, as if to say, did you just hear me do that? Are you listening? In so doing, he sets the standard here: they’re all pushing each other hard, and having a good time in the process. This is a great ipod album.

 

It’s a concept cd, a tribute to brother combos in jazz throughout the ages: the Joneses (Elvin, Hank and Thad); Cannonball and Nate Adderley; Monty Alexander and his singer brother Larry; Kenny Burrell and his bassist brother Billy, and others. As you’d expect, there’s a chemistry in the playing here which lights a fire under the crew who aren’t actually blood relatives. The first track is an Elvin Jones tribute, Wild Man, a Jeff Clayton tune punctuated by numerous false endings and some marvelously terse playing by Calvaire that spins off plenty of Elvin tropes without seeming derivative. Stafford and Gerald Clayton both put a bright, vivid spin on it.

 

With a marathon swing in its step and a nod to the Nat Adderley classic More Work, John Clayton’s Still More Work lopes along tirelessly for over ten minutes, highlighted by another glistening Gerald Clayton solo. A cover of Nat Adderley’s Jive Samba gets a wickedly suspenseful treatment, driven by hypnotic, pulsing bass and a Jeff Clayton solo that hints at suspense just enough to create an atmosphere of unease; the Jeff Clayton jump blues Big Daddy Adderleys pays tribute to the whole family, buoyed by playful solos by just about everybody. 

 

The best song on the cd is Kenny Burrell’s Bass Face, done here with a gorgeously terse, catchy So What kind of vibe with sax and trumpet in tandem, counterintuitively melodic, chromatic bass and a noir Twin Peaks feel at the end. From the Keter Betts (Ella Fitzgerald’s last bassist) songbook comes the popular comedy number Walking Bass (bassist goes out to tie one along and brings the bass along – lookout world!), then a plaintive, Monty Alexander-inspired version of the old Broadway standard Where Is Love, and a latin-inflected Jeff Clayton tune, the Jones Brothers, wrapping up the cd on a high note with soulful contributions from the whole crew. Get this for your jazz snob friend who thinks the world stopped when we lost Trane; or for your avant-inclined friend who never heard the classic stuff done like this. All of the players in the group maintain busy schedules with and outside of this project: watch this space for New York dates.

 

In the same way that classical composers plied their craft throughout the ages, this ArtistShare cd was put out by a base of fans who backed the production (anybody remember Bowie bonds?): it ought to pay dividends that extend beyond the excellence of the music.

February 19, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment