Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Violinist Meg Okura Brings Her Kaleidoscopic Melodic Sorcery to Jazz at Lincoln Center

Anne Drummond’s flute wafts over Brian Marsella’s uneasily rippling, neoromantic piano as the opening title track on violinist Meg Okura‘s Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble’s new album, Ima Ima gets underway. Then the piano gives way to Riza Printup’s spare harp melody before the rest of the orchestra waltz in elegantly. That kind of fearless eclecticism, love of unorthodox instrumentation and laserlike sense of catchy melodies have defined Okura’s work for over a decade. The new record is streaming at Bandcamp. She and the group are playing the album release show at Dizzy’s Club tomorrow night, August 20, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is steep, $35, but this is an amazing record with a brilliant band.

The lush cinematics of that first number winds up with a shift in tempo, a wistful Sam Newsome soprano sax solo and a big crescendo based on those distantly ominous opening ripples. The epic, practically eleven-minute A Summer in Jerusalem slowly coalesces with suspenseful textures from top to bottom, the high strings of the harp down to Sam Sadigursky’s bass clarinet, surrounded by ghostly flickers. As the piece gets going, it turns into a mighty, shapeshifting Middle Eastern soul tune, more or less. Marsella’s Rhodes piano bubbles enigmatically behind Tom Harrell’s stately Andalucian trumpet and Okura working every texture and microtone you could get out of a violin. Blithe ba-ba vocalese and spiky guitar against Okura’s calm, a gentle harp/trumpet duet and then a big magnificent coda fueled by the bass clarinet offer contrasting vignettes of a time that obviously left a big mark on the bandleader.

Ebullient, bluesy muted trumpet, violin and bass clarinet spice A Night Insomnia, a steady Hollywood hills boudoir funk number that finally picks up steam with a juicy chromatic riff at the end. Birth of Shakyamuni (a.k.a. Buddha) opens with a balletesque, Tschaikovskian flair, then shifts to a Rachmaninovian bolero that brightens and flies down to Bahia on the wings of the guitar and flute. Then Okura shifts gears with an achingly beautiful opening-credits theme of sorts – would it be overkill to add Rimsky-Korsakov to this litany of Russians?

The steady, majestic, velvety Blues in Jade is all about suspense, peppered by judicious violin and vocalese cadenzas, enigmatic microtones floating from individual voices as Pablo Aslan’s bass and Jared Schonig’s drums maintain a tight, muted syncopation. Marsella’s chromatically allusive piano solo leads to a mighty crescendo that falls away when least expected.

Black Rain – a shattered 3/11 reflection from this Tokyo-born composer, maybe? – opens with Okura’s stark erhu soio, then rises with a bittersweet sweep to a more optimistic Marsella piano solo before Okura pulls the music back the shadows, ending with an almost frantically angst-fueled erhu theme.

The album’s concluding number is Tomiya, a wildly surreal mashup of Russian romanticism, vintage swing, Japanese folk themes and samba. This isn’t just one of the best jazz albums of the year – it’s one of the best albums of any kind of music released this year. Who do we have to thank for starting the meme that resulted in so many women of Japanese heritage creating such a vast body of amazing, outside-the-box big band jazz like this? Satoko Fujii, maybe?

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August 19, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Flute Music for People Who Hate It

The Ali Ryerson Jazz Flute Big Band‘s album, just out from Capri, is titled Game Changer. And it is, both in the sense of advocacy for an instrument that’s still considered esoteric in jazz, and for its unexpectedly stunning sonics. Don’t think of this as a flute album – consider this a wind ensemble playing big band jazz, and when you realize that except for the piano, bass and drums, it’s all flutes, you”ll realize how brilliant it is. Ryerson was clearly fed up with being castigated for her choice of jazz instrument, so she rounded up eighteen (18!) other jazz flutists for ten long, lush, nebulously epic arrangements of classics, a couple of Neal Hefti tunes plus a modern bop number and one pilfered from the late Romantic canon. With their Gil Evans-esque colors, these imaginative, ambitious arrangements span the entire spectrum of the flute (the presence of many alto and bass flutes here has a lot to do with the lush sonics), creating a sort of a big band jazz counterpart to famed multi-recorder avant-garde ensemble QNG.

The album’s charts are expansive, pillowy, balmy, and often swoony: intentional or not, much of this is boudoir jazz. Bassist Rufus Reid (whose first solo is way up the scale, wryly consistent with the album theme) and Akira Tana on drums and percussion join with pianist Mark Levine to keep this big pillow on the bed. They open with a scampering Levine arrangement of the Clifford Brown classic Dahoud, with a solo from Paul Liberman; with its many timbral contrasts, it’s amazing that there are no saxes on this. Mike Wofford’s Gil Evans-inspired arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s Ana Maria is moodily orchestral: flute soloist Marc Adler sneaks his way out of a syncopated thicket, choosing his spots as the rhythm section crashes.

Another Wofford arrangement, Oliver Nelson’s Stolen Moments has the best of the solos, from Hubert Laws, who keeps it cool and mentholated as band swings. Steve Rudolph’s chart for Herbie Hancock’s Speak Like a Child has the orchestra doing it as translucent clave, soloist Jamie Baum’s alto flute tersely dancing, Levine tiptoeing over the cloudbanks into unexpected and welcome darkness. A Bill Cunliffe chart for Dizzie Gillespie’s Con Alma alternates between light and lustrous, waltz time and clave; it’s true to its era, with a lively Nestor Torres solo.

Neal Hefti’s Girl Talk is reinvented via a subdued Michael Abene chart with an unexpected moodiness: there’s considerable irony in how all these flutes give this otherwise rather lightweight tune plenty of gravitas, soloist Holly Hoffman maintaining the mood, then handing off to Ryerson (on alto flute) and then Reid. The other Hefti tune, also arranged by Abene, is L’il Darlin, Bob Chadwick’s bass flute seamless with the ensemble on the lower end through a series of clever rhythmic diversions.

Andrea Brachfeld’s long, energetic solo on Coltrane’s Impressions evokes the ebullience of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. There’s also a terse, bolero-ish Wofford arrangement of Tom Harrell’s Sail Away with Ryerson on alto flute, and an imaginative Billy Kerr arrangement of the famous Gabriel Faure Pavane with some nimbly shifting banks of sound throughout the ensemble. One glaring omission: nothing from the Dave Valentin book. Now there’s a guy who transcended any perceived limitations on his instrument! But that’s a minor quibble. Play this for someone who doesn’t like the flute and watch their jaw drop when you tell them what it is.

September 10, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment