Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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

CD Review: The Ellen Rowe Quartet – Wishing Well

The most recent jazz album we reviewed was stylistically all over the place; the one before that maintained a very consistent mood. The Ellen Rowe Quartet’s new one falls somewhere in the middle – this is jazz songwriting. Elegant, richly melodic, often poignant, pianist/composer Rowe’s tunes get the chance to speak for themselves. A brief, hammering staccato passage during a characteristically understated yet heartfelt take of the old standard Alone Together (the only cover on the album) is as loud as she gets. Andrew Bishop, who absolutely gets this music, supplies similarly melodic, frequently pensive lines on tenor and soprano sax. Ingrid Jensen, another terrific choice, guests with characteristic sostenuto soul on flugelhorn; bassist Kurt Krahnke also makes his contributions count, particularly with his solos, and drummer Pete Siers provides terse yet incisive rhythm.

Rowe explores three styles here – ballads, swing and requiems – and makes all of them memorable. The opening cut, inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and dedicated to all the species who’ve been driven to extinction, has a vivid plaintiveness that evokes New York trumpet goddess Pam Fleming. Krahnke follows Jensen’s solo with a series of seamlessly moody horn voicings, all the way up to an evocatively bitter crescendo. Night Sounds, written in memory of Rowe’s brother, glimmers with distant latin allusions. The best song on the album – and it is a song in the purest sense of the word – is the genuinely haunting, modally tinged, thematic title track. But close behind is the swaying, funky Sanity Clause (a Chico Marx reference), written as an attempt to mine a more “modern idiom,” shifting almost imperceptibly from a carefree sway to an insistence that tugs on the listener and will absolutely not let go, courtesy of some gripping Bishop tenor work. It wouldn’t be out of place in the JD Allen songbook.

But all is not so gloomy here. Rowe proves just as adept at jaunty swing with the shuffle Lewisburg Bluesy-oo, an Ellington tribute of sorts driven by some casually expert Siers cymbal accents and named after the Pennsylvania town where the band used to do a stand every year. The ridiculously catchy Tick Tock mines a smoky, 4/4, early Jazz Messengers vibe, Krahnke’s devious bowed bass solo one of several highlights. And Seven Steps to My Yard melds elements of 7 Steps to Heaven and the Yardbird Suite as a showcase for some rhythmic shapeshifting. There’s also the title track, a beautiful ballad with more thoughtful buoyancy from Jensen, and an allusively wistful homage to Donald Walden, a mentor to scores of musicians including Rowe, featuring spot-on, emotionally candid solos from Krahnke and guest Andy Haefner on tenor. Count this among our favorites of 2010.

June 24, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

DVD Review: The Mark Sherman Quintet Live at Sweet Rhythm

The most recent jazz album we reviewed was stoner jazz. The one before that was free jazz. This is straight-up party jazz, as you would imagine you’d get at a live gig by vibraphonist Mark Sherman. He picked a good date to record, in fact at one of the last shows at venerable New York jazz club Sweet Rhythm (formerly Sweet Basil). Sherman is joined here by Joe Magnarelli on trumpet and flugelhorn, Allen Farnham on piano, Dean Johnson on bass and Tim Horner on drums. It’s an interesting configuration, the choice of piano and vibraphone joining to create some especially incisive, percussive textures, especially since Farnham is not limited to simply comping chords while Sherman carries a tune. It’s something akin to having both an acoustic piano and a Rhodes in the band, except that neither ever gets in the other’s way.The crew here typically follow the time-honored formula of stating the melody followed by various solo spotlights; all compositions are originals by Sherman other than the gently soulful ballad Hope, by Farnham, and Monk’s Trinkle Tinkle, where the band look under the hood and discover its inner imp. Sherman is a purist: he goes for melody, doesn’t overreach or overembellish and the band follows suit, delivering smart and inspired improvisations on a lot of memorable hooks. These are expansive performance, most of them clocking in at ten minutes at a clip. And Sherman really loves his triplets – this show has more than any in recent memory.

The strongest track here is the aptly titled The Winning Life, a swinging triplet shuffle where after almost a whole set of terse, thoughtful playing, Sherman finally cuts loose with some lightning-fast runs and Farnham does the same. Piano and drums then have a lot of fun straightening out the rhythm and then letting it go again. The Great Trip is a terrific ensemble showcase, Magnarelli eventually getting to choose his spots judiciously against the sway and crash of the swinging rhythm section. Farnham gets restless; Magnarelli brings the central hook back with majesty and soul. There’s also the slightly Brazilian-tinged Hardship (meaning complexity, it would seem, because it’s absolutely exuberant); the warmly lyrical, briskly shuffling Little Lullaby, with its jauntily bluesy tinges; the catchy, bouncy Ella Bella, another swing shuffle and a couple of ballads. Like the performance, the videography is no-nonsense. Shots of the band pan in during solos: the musicians go about their work in businesslike fashion without any mugging. Happily, the recording is cd quality: if you have your machine hooked up to a good system, you’ll get a clear picture of how good the concert sounded in the club that night.

June 18, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Brandon Wright – Boiling Point

Good title. Tenor sax player Brandon Wright’s new album is fearless, aggressive and fun, ablaze with a catchy tunefulness that sets up a lot of memorable solo work of his own along with trumpeter Alex Sipiagin, pianist David Kikoski, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Matt Wilson propelling things with a joyous groove. Yet for all the firepower, the band is equally adept at ballads, with a couple of real surprises here. A Maria Schneider, Mingus Big Band and Chico O’Farrill alum and current Chuck Mangione sideman, Wright is a hookmeister: his big band experience has served him well.

Wright sets the tone right off the bat with Free Man, joyously shifting from one mode to another. Sipiagin follows him more bluesily, then Kikoski intensely with some clever quotes in a shifting series of runs down the scale. The second cut, Drift is a casually lyrical 6/8 number, Kikoski weaving incisively beneath Wright’s gently buoyant flights, Sipiagin taking a more pensive tone. Track three, Odd Man Out has an understated swing that picks up once Wright starts sailing after the first verse, Kikoski choosing his spots with spot-on precision. Again Sipiagin gets to play bad cop to Wright’s good cop, bringing in the clouds. The title track matches subtle chordal shifts to an upbeat vibe all the way through to a blazing conclusion, Wright just about jumping out of his shoes, he’s having such a good time. Kikoski’s solo is a clinic in how to work a simple vamp, subtly yet ebulliently ornamenting it. And the swaying, latin-tinged Castaway is a showcase for robust Sipiagin flights and cartwheels, Wright taking it down a bit before Kikoski’s sparkling solo leads it to an ambitiously staggered horn raveup at the end.

There are also three covers here. Jimmy Van Heusen’s Here’s That Rainy Day is just sax and piano, a comfortably medicated dialogue. Interstate Love Song rearranges the country-flavored Stone Temple Pilots original to the point of being unrecognizable (good thing, actually, especially when the piano solos). They close with a warmly convivial, bluesy take of Nat King Cole’s You’re My Everything. The album is just out on Posi-Tone.

April 26, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Jim Guttmann – Bessarabian Breakdown

This album is really fun. Klezmer Conservatory Band bassist Jim Guttmann takes a bunch of klezmer and Balkan brass originals and has a great time rearranging them in a whole bunch of different styles, backed by an inspired, like-minded crew including trumpeter Frank London, guitarist Brandon Seabrook, pianist Art Bailey and eight more horns and reeds. Since the early days of the klezmer revival, guys like these have been putting a new spin on haunting, mournful old ideas: Guttmann’s are especially imaginative and playful. The melodies still resonate, but the good time the band is having is contagious – you can actually dance to a lot of this.

The boisterous version of the traditional Philadelphia Sher that kicks off the album has the horns punching hard up against Ted Casher’s soaring clarinet, a striking contrast with the blithely swinging piano trio version of the Johnny Mercer tune And the Angels Sing that they segue into. Guttmann supplies the energy in this one with a genially expansive solo. From there they take it to el Caribe with the slinky mambo Descarga Gitano and its lush, sensual horn chart, a London solo adding considerable cheer, Guttmann – who doesn’t waste a note on this whole album – bringing the sun down with one of his own before Seabrook’s electric guitar goes wild to kick off the night. Cuando El Rey Nimrod is rearranged tersely for just bass, acoustic guitar and percussion with echoes of a levantine oud instrumental, bass deftly carrying the melody over the judicious clatter and sway. Then they take the title track and turn it into a Jimmy McGriff style organ shuffle – and is that a Michael Jackson quote?

Sadegirer Chusidi (Take Off That Shmatte) motors along with Mimi Rabson’s violin on a casual, Balkan bounce. The albun winds up with a straight-up Balkan dance, a vertigo-inducing tangle of interlocking horns, and a stately, pensive solo bass version of Fim di Mekhtonim Aheym. There’s also a rousing suite of three violin-driven dances and another suite rustically enhanced with mandolin and accordion. And no disrespect to this crew’s inspired swing cover of Dark Eyes, but it’s impossible to top the Les Paul version.

March 29, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The NEC Jazz Faculty All-Stars at the Jazz Standard, NYC 3/24/10

To steal a line out of the Jim Macnie fakebook (he gets a shout-out because he’s on the side of the angels), this was the coolest faculty meeting you could imagine. The New England Conservatory’s jazz faculty distinguish themselves in a lot of ways but most of all because they maintain fulltime live performance schedules. As trumpeter John McNeil, the group’s class clown, sardonically told the sold-out house at the Jazz Standard last night, a NEC gig assures that you always have the means to pursue others! Which might explain why this gig was a clinic, if hardly an academic one. The camaraderie between McNeil – whose compositions dominated the set list – alongside tenor titan George Garzone, pianist Frank Carlberg, bassist Cecil McBee and sub drummer Richie Barshay (Billy Hart couldn’t make it) is comfortable and intiutive, facilitating a clinic in effective listening, trusting one’s bandmates and seeing that trust richly rewarded. It’s not likely that anyone shopping music conservatories was in the crowd, but if they had been, they were either sold or holding out for a bargain that doesn’t exist.

They opened with segueing McNeil numbers, Nanotechnology into Alone Together, mysterioso modal into catchy hook into swing featuring the first of several fast, fluid Garzone solos, McBee going in the opposite direction with lots of space. McNeil got a lot of laughs telling the crowd how he’d named another tune, CJ, after a woman he was pursuing. In retrospect, he should have known that you have to try a little harder than just a blues if you want to impress a woman. Something else that McNeil didn’t know when he wrote it thirty-one years ago, almost to the day: you don’t write the blues before the woman, you write the blues after. But it gave Carlberg the first of many foundations to enigmatically warp the time as he would all night, McBee taking it out quietly, tersely and eerily.

A homage to Piaf, whom McNeil had a crush on as a kid, built from plaintive, insistent piano to gently pulsing, Ray Brown-esque bass, Garzone eventually going major on minor to enhance the somber intensity. Frank Carlberg’s composition Consternation (after the Bird tune A Confirmation) driven by some utterly marvelous Barshay cymbal work, saw the band playfully interjecting themselves into the drum solo. The night’s last number was the best, a Dave Liebman composition that nobody could remember the title to, but they played the hell out of it – a murky modal masterpiece with scurrying rhythm section, icy Carlberg minimalism and more rapidfire Garzone sharpshooting, McNeil avoiding the murk at first but eventually plunging right in as the rhythm section took it all the way up with a stomp that built thisclose to complete ferocity, McBee again leading it out on a quietly moody note. This show was part of NEC Jazz Week in NYC, an allstar series of concerts continuing tomorrow through the big blowout at B.B. King’s on the 27th – the complete schedule is here.

March 25, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Ken Peplowski – Noir Blue

Most of what we like to spread the word about here is pretty edgy and intense. This is neither. In fact, veteran jazz reedman Ken Peplowski’s new album is about as far from noir as you can get and not particularly blue either. But it’s very smart – and the obvious fun the band had recording it is absolutely irresistible if you’re into this kind of stuff. Peplowski did his first gigs in a polka band in his native Cleveland, got his start in big band jazz as as teenager in the Tommy Dorsey Band, and was hired by Benny Goodman on tenor sax when Goodman came out of retirement in 1984. Since then he’s put out thirty albums as a bandleader – as he intimates in the liner notes to this one, he’s come to the point where he only does an album when he feels like it, not just because he owes one to the label, so this was inspired right from the git-go. The band on this one is oldschool: Shelley Berg on piano, bassist to the stars Jay Leonhart and drummer Joe La Barbera have a wise yet joyous chemistry that jumps out, track after track.

The album kicks off with a briskly shuffling swing version of Irving Berlin’s The Best Thing for You Is Me, scurrying piano cascades echoed by Peplowski’s boisterously fluid clarinet. A casually sunny take of Berg’s catchy Home with You hints at bossa nova, Peplowski blowing nimble clusters into a genial, laid-back Berg solo. Three of the tracks here come out of the Strayhorn/Ellington archive: Bourbon Street Jingling Jollies breezes along with a staggered tango beat on the pulse of La Barbera’s mallets; Multi-Colored Blue swings comfortably for over eight minutes and then comes up rousingly at the end, the title track the album’s standout number with its brooding, pensive piano matched by Peplowski’s blue-grey waves.

Hoagy Carmichael’s Riverboat Shuffle is reinvented as a sly slinkathon with a buoyant Leonhart solo, the first-call bassist for seemingly every A-list jazz singer out there showing off characteristic terseness but also also a propulsive drive that he doesn’t always get a chance to kick into on all those ballads. Love Locked Out by Ray Noble is a gently bluesy wee-hours ballad with Georgia on My Mind echoes. La Barbera’s If Not for You fits right in with its warmly catchy hook and bright solos from Leonhart and Berg and a briefly boisterous one from its composer, a formula followed on a romping take of Jerome Kern’s Nobody Else but Me. The album winds up on a high note with the considerably contrasting, rousing Peplowski original, Little Dogs driven by some strikingly uneasy tenor sax work. The whole thing makes for upbeat, fun listening for late nights and relaxing Sunday afternoons – if someone you know subjects you to elevator jazz, turn them on to this, they won’t know the difference and you won’t have to suffer anymore. It’s out now on Capri Records.

March 18, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Art-I-Facts: Great Performances from 40 Years of Jazz at NEC

One can only imagine how many treasures might be kicking around in the New England Conservatory’s archive, especially if this new compilation album is any indication. It’s a collection of concert recordings from the forty years since jazz became a standard part of their curriculum. The artists here, all either NEC faculty or alumni, make a formidable allstar cast.

There are two tracks here that stand out as absolutely extraordinary. The first, from 1976, is the hypnotic, otherworldly beautiful Zeibekiko, a confluence of two traditional Greek dance tunes with Rebekah Zak’s piano moving methodically out of just-over-the-horizon starlight into blazing midnight sky, Joe Maneri’s clarinet streaking out of it, then descending with a casual grace. The other is an exquisitely indomitable take of India by Coltrane with George Garzone on tenor, John Lockwood on bass and Bob Moses on drums. Moses’ own composition Reverence is included here, a dizzying, towering 2006 performance by the NEC Jazz Orchestra. From behind the valves of his trombone, Bob Brookmeyer leads the the Jazz Orchestra through a warmly soulful 2005 version of his nocturne, Cameo. That group is also featured on a joyously expansive 2003 version of Jaki Byard’s big, anthemic Aluminum Baby, counterintuitively showcasing the rhythm section.

A 1990 recording of George Russell’s All About Rosie suite by the NEC Big Band opens in a swirling blaze of circularity, followed by a triumphant slow swing blues and a ferocious final movement with a long, suspenseful solo from the bass and an all-too-short, reverb-drenched one by the guitarist (soloists on this one are unfortunately not cited in the liner notes). Guitarist Jimmy Guiffre alternates Bill Frisell-ish tinges of delta blues, funk and country in a trio performance of his composition The Train and the River. Also included here are solo versions of Monk tunes by Byard, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and pianist Ran Blake. The only miss is an easy-listening FM pop ditty stuck right in the middle of the cd which really has no business being here or anywhere else.

Another quibble, and perhaps an unavoidable one – most likely because so much of this material had to be remastered from the original analog tapes – is that the recording levels vary from track to track, a problem that disappears if you adjust the sequence. Fittingly, the NEC is releasing this album to coincide with their 40th anniversary series of concerts around New York from March 20 through 27 (the complete list of shows is here). Now it’s time for Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music to open up their vaults and follow suit.

March 11, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Salvatore Bonafede Trio – Sicilian Opening

Italian jazz pianist Salvatore Bonafede blends diverse classic styles and pensive European melodies along with the occasional rustic Sicilian accent into a strikingly memorable, hummable mix on this new cd. In the style of another eminently catchy current composer, JD Allen, pretty much everything here clocks in at under five minutes, sometimes considerably less. Yet as indelible as the compositions are, the playing is impeccably tasteful and understated – if anything, these guys could cut loose a lot more if they felt like it.

The album opens with a jaunty New Orleans theme, quoting Brubeck liberally early on. According to the liner notes, the second cut is ostensibly Arab-influenced, but it’s basically a swaying, moody two-chord vamp into a catchy, bluesy chorus. Track three, Ideal Standard memorably addresses issues of communication or lack thereof via Bonafede’s tensely judicious minor-key phrasing. Bassist Marco Panascia maintains the vibe, voicing a solo that builds intensity as it follows Bonafede’s lines even as it brings the volume down to the lower registers. The trio follow that with a slow, expressive quasi blues, drummer Marcello Pellitteri deftly bouncing accents off the piano’s bass notes.

The warmly cinematic seventh track paints an Americana-inflected tableau evocative of the late Danny Federici’s solo work. Of the two covers here, Blackbird is a song that should be retired – no matter what Bonafede does with it, which isn’t straying particularly far from the original, you are only waiting for the moment to arrive when it’s over. But with his version of She’s Leaving Home, Bonafede really captures the understated exasperation and unspoken rage in the McCartney original. The other tracks include a tribute to Palermo that builds to the closest approximation of a scream that there is here; a hypnotic Dr. John homage, and a casually swaying number that blends gospel with an updated, martial WC Handy vibe. The album creeps up on you if you’re not paying attention – that’s how strong the melodies are.  The liner notes have an earnestness that’s often hilarious, like they’ve been babelfished backwards and forwards. Somebody get these guys a translator that speaks…that is to say, one with a voice that isn’t computer-generated.

March 5, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

CD Review: Plunge – Dancing on Thin Ice

From New Orleans comes this fun, delightfully smart, somewhat minimalist trio groove jazz project. Plunge doesn’t have a drummer, so bassist James Singleton has to propel the unit by all by himself and does a great job. He swings like crazy and when he cuts loose once in awhile he’s still got a strong grip on the throttle. Composer Mark McGrain uses the full range of his trombone, judiciously, while saxophonist Tim Green adds a wise, knowing, bluesy soulfulness. What hits you right off the bat is what a good time these guys are obviously having – while they’re adding an interesting, original edge to a whole bunch of different styles, this isn’t just art for art’s sake. You can hum along to literally everything here.

The cd’s first track, Friday Night at the Top is a hypnotic groove –  Singleton runs a sinuous bass riff while Green and then McGrain prowl around. The second cut, Life of a Cipher is a slinky spy theme with a rhumba pulse – toward the end Singleton breaks out his bow and delivers some eerie funk while the horns hold down the hook. Yet another groove number, Orion Rising has Singleton walking it with effortless ease while McGrain and then Green offer completely different witness accounts of what’s going on.

On the sludgy Luminata No 257, Singleton holds it down with his bow as the horns take turns peeking up the periscope. The unabashedly silly One Man’s Machine sounds like a P-Funk b-side instrumental, the guys caught unawares messing around with the bass synthesizer. The title track is joyous, bouncy N’Awlins flavor stripped to just the basics, gets woozy and then comes out of it with a bass solo of all things. With a straight-up oldschool southern vibe, the single most striking track here is the gorgeous, pensive jazz waltz Missing Mozambique. The cd’s two concluding cuts maintain that feel, like the nucleus of a second-line band working the subtle underpinnings of what would otherwise be blazing marches. Marketed as a crossover electronic project, the effects on the album are happily limited to the occasional effects-box timbre, like the oscillation quietly swirling beneath the bass on the opening cut. There’s so much melody here that this could become very, very popular.

January 13, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment