Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Joel Yennior Trio’s Smart, Entertaining Debut

Trombonist Joel Yennior is best known for his work with Either/Orchestra, but he’s also a composer and bandleader with an often deviously witty signature sound. His free jazz quartet Gypsy Schaeffer’s most recent album, from last year, was an absolute delight. So is his latest project, the Joel Yennior Trio’s debut cd, Big City Circus. And it’s more diverse than the wickedly playful improvisations that he excels at: his dark, pensive central suite here is just as compelling as the more upbeat compositions. This group has an interesting configuration: Yennior is joined here by Eric Hofbauer on guitar and Gary Feldman on drums: as a bassless outfit, the trio deftly switch around to provide a low-register pulse, whether the guitar is pedaling a chord or a low note on the beat, Yennior pulls his slide all the way out, or the drums rumble around. And it makes the arrangements interesting, particularly on Monk’s Gallop’s Gallop, Yennior and Hofbauer switching roles, Hofbauer doing subtly spot-on rhythm and bass at once during the first verse.

The genial original swing tune Dancing Dave sets a warmly melodic tone that remains throughout the album. Burt Bacharach’s A House Is Not a Home is a showcase for gently swaying, warmly tuneful upper-register work from Yennior as the guitar and drums swing tersely underneath. A shapeshifting Ran Blake ballad, Breakthru is closer to Gypsy Schaeffer’s unpredictable jams than anything else here, Hofbauer and Feldman prowling around, waiting for the moment when they all pull it together at the end.

Another original, Postcard to Dorothy is a vividly expressive, wistful jazz waltz. Yennior goes low and outside as Hofbauer solos gently up to a simple Coltrane-esque hook, some deft drum accents and then back. The centerpiece of the album is the practically sixteen-minute three-part suite Justice Lost, inspired by a dispiriting turn Yennior took as a jury member (it was a murder trial: they didn’t convict). They kick it off with a big, cynical intro, liberally quoting the Godfather theme, Feldman’s cymbals and eventually Hofbauer’s guitar chords resounding memorably beneath Yennior’s protesting trombone. The second part is a mournful Ellingtonian blues with some bitterly rustic muted playing by Yennior and a couple of pointedly ironic passages where guitar and trombone go off on completely different tracks but then lock back in a split second. It winds up with a staccato tango that hints at collapse, which it does after a bright solo by Yennior. Feldman gets marvelously suspenseful and whispery, trombone and guitar diverge further and further from any kind of resolution, and then it’s over. The album closes with a brightly tuneful, shuffling version of Estrellita, a Mexican pop song from the 1950s popularized by Charlie Parker. It’s a stealth candidate for best jazz album of 2010.

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

CD Review: Steve Swell’s Slammin’ the Infinite – 5000 Poems

This is definitely a team effort, which is what you always want with a band but particularly with a cast of free jazz luminaries like these guys. The fun of this album is akin to improv theatre: everybody has an assigned role, the choicest moments being when the blend – or clash – of personalities results in something combustible or funny. Most, but not all, of the ideas they expand on here are thematic rather than melodic or even rhythmic – in an odd way, it’s a very conversational album, if the conversation itself gets pretty crazy in places. Bandleader/trombonist Steve Swell is the man in the tower – he tells the train when it’s time to go or to hang in the station for awhile. Drummer Klaus Kugel is the gathering storm, always about to rain thunder down on the listener and getting every ounce of suspense out of it since he virtually never does. Bassist Matthew Heyner does the lighting – he’s the guy down the tunnel with the flashlight, which is usually off since the atmospherics he puts into play here are pretty dark. Pianist John Blum gets less time in the spotlight than anyone else here – ironically, he seems to be having the most fun. Reed player Sabir Mateen, alternating between alto and tenor sax, clarinet and alto clarinet, and flute serves as Swell’s sparring partner when he’s not jumping all over the place to keep himself warm and ready for the next volley of notes.

The most coherent cut here, the third track has the bass running a modified latin groove, trombone creating a suspenseful noir mood over a scurrying rhythm section. Mateen eventually shows up and Swell won’t make room for him so he bashes in the door – and then Blum gets involved. And it’s back to the noir. Every now and then, there will be a lull as the band figures out what they’re going to do next, which can be humorous but also very effective as a suspense device: on the album’s opening track, listening to Blum stumble around in the dark, not having the faintest idea of where he is or what to do there, and then finally join in with the drums with a nonchalant robustness, perfectly illustrates the kind of unexpected magic this crew can deliver.

The second track has Heyner hinting at a pensive Middle Eastern mode, fluttery flute contrasting vividly with intense, percussive piano. Kugel absolutely owns the fourth cut, practically fifteen minutes of ominous rumble beneath the squall of the horns. The last number features what might be the quietest section of a drum solo ever recorded, Mateen’s solo following with similar laid-back warmth. The recording enhances the murky vividness of many of these performances – it sounds like it was recorded with a central room mic or two, the piano sometimes a strikingly disembodied, out-of-leftfield presence. It’s out now on Not Two Records.

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

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

CD Review: The Samuel Blaser Quartet – Pieces of Old Sky

This is what free jazz ought to sound like. While there’s definitely plenty of composition here, there’s also an extraordinary amount of listening and the smart, thoughtful playing that good musicians do when they’re all tuned into each other. Trombonist Samuel Blaser leads the crew and gets extra props for putting this particular unit together. This is one of those albums that the drummer absolutely owns: Tyshawn Sorey rumbles underneath, methodically like a subway (by turns a steady local train, a work train inching by or an occasional express roaring along) as guitarist Todd Neufeld and bassist Thomas Morgan add shade and color in a stunning display of minimalist precision. No wasted notes here!

Blaser gets the over seventeen-minute title track to work off a stately, thoughtful five-note riff punctuated by stillness and deftly placed accents by Neufeld and Morgan. As with the rest of the tracks here, there’s more following and echoing than there is actual interplay, the musicians taking turns building off a minute, intricate phrase, almost a contest where the winner is he who can say the most with the least. Which with generally quiet music is an admirable goal. On this song, guitar and then bass maintain suspense two steps behind the beat, which at a lento crawl is a lot harder than it sounds. Blaser’s unexpectedly triumphant windup to the song actually adds an undercurrent of unease (that device will recur later to rousing effect).

The second cut, Red Hook scurries without actually scurrying – Blaser’s trombone runs it alone as the rhythm section stays terse and deliberate with vivid washes of sound from Neufeld’s guitar. They follow it with the pensive, plaintive Choral I (which they return to as a concluding theme), and then the aptly titled Mystical Circle, Blaser remaining defiantly casual, even out-of-focus throughout a series of methodical descending progressions. The dark, murky, minor-key Mandala is nothing short of phantasmagorical; by contrast, Speed Game is tongue-in-cheek, more a series of relays than any kind of sprint. This quiet, deft display of talent is nothing short of a stealth contender for one of the best jazz albums of 2009.

October 28, 2009 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment