Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Album of the Day 5/25/11

As we do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #615:

The Amazing Bud Powell Vol. 2

A 1951 recording reissued in 1955 and digitized in the 90s. We picked this one rather than the almost identical Vol. 1 because it doesn’t have that horrid Judy Garland song that everybody knows. Here the certifiably crazy pianist leads a quintet with Fats Navarro, Sonny Rollins, Tommy Potter and Roy Haynes, along with a handful of trio and solo performances. It’s got two takes of his signature song, Un Poco Loco, on one hand absolutely creepy, on the other a welcome example of Afro-Cuban music infiltrating the jazz world. There’s also the similiarly foreboding Dance of the Infidels, the wary nocturnal bustle of Monk’s 52nd St. Theme, the expansive, surprisingly gentle It Could Happen to You and the totally amazing Parisian Thoroughfare, which has echoes of Debussy. And also the popular Bouncing with Bud, Ornithology and A Night in Tunisia (this list must have at least a half a dozen versions of that song on various albums – is 50s jazz great or what?). Here’s a random torrent; if you really want Vol. 1, here’s a random torrent for that one.

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May 25, 2011 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ken Peplowski’s In Search of… Finds a Groove

The cd cover of veteran big-band reedman Ken Peplowski’s new album In Search of… pretty much tells the story. Pictured at the edge of the sidewalk, playing his clarinet in the yellow neon light of a sepia-toned, twilit Downtown Diner in the shadow of downtown Manhattan skyscapers, this is oldschool after-hours music. With all but the final three tracks recorded live in the studio in a single take, there’s a comfortable familiarity here – you can hear the voices of the players as they respond to cues and solos – but also plenty of surprises. For the casual fan, it’s an album of spirited nocturnes; hardcore jazz types will be amazed by the liquid crystal clarity of Peplowski’s legato – what flows from his horn is rivers rather than single notes – and some unexpected tunes. Here he plays clarinet and soprano saxophone, backed by Shelly Berg on piano, Tom Kennedy on bass and John Hamilton (leader of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and his own trio, whose excellent 2009 album we didn’t exactly do justice to here) on drums. There are also three additional tracks with Greg Cohen on bass, Joe Ascione on drums and percussion and Chuck Redd on vibraphone.

They open it with The Thespian, by Freddie Redd, a lyrical ballad that jumps into doublespeed, piano and sax playing a double line before Peplowski’s soprano sax goes out exploring. The strongest tune here is Kennedy’s, Love’s Disguise, Hamilton’s hushed brushwork a clinic in good tast pushing the syncopated Cuban beat – as is Kennedy’s genial, melodic bass solo. More of those suspenseful brushes color an expansive, Romantically tinged version of When Joanna Loved Me; Hamilton’s warm samba groove, Falsa Baiana, gives Peplowsky a long launching pad for some boisterously tropical excursions. The relatively obscure Rodgers/Hart tune, A Ship without a Sail shifts rhythms back and forth to drive up the emotional impact;  the brooding quality of Peplowski’s clarinet elevates another showtune, With Every Breath I Take, far above its origins.

Berg has a couple of tunes here, a warmly summer 6/8 ballad that contrasts vividly with pensive clarinet, and a briskly comedic, almost dixieland dedication to Peplowski, who gamely plays along with the portrait of an irrepressibly good-natured guy who can’t sit still. And then Berg more than matches him for boisterous antics. The album winds up with an unexpectedly poignant take of This Nearly Was Mine, Berg adding suspense with some rubato solo piano as a bridge, and a tight bass/sax duo of No Regrets. The only misses are the Beatles and Professor Longhair cuts that end it; if you’re planning on using this as 4 AM wind-down music (it’s perfect for that time of night/day), either put those tracks somewhere else on your ipod or program the cd differently. Is this album a throwback to a better time and place? From a look at the cd cover, it’s hard to think otherwise. It’s out now on Capri Records.

March 25, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Microscopic Septet Play Monk to a Tie

It makes sense that the Microscopic Septet would do a Thelonious Monk cover album. Their new album Friday the 13th is a mix of unselfconsciously joyous, sometimes devious new arrangements of tuneful toe-tapping gutbucket jazz. Monk can be weird and offputting sometimes – not that those traits are necessarily a bad thing in music – but he can also be great fun, and this is mostly the fun Monk. In their thirty-year career, the Micros have lived off their reputation as one of the alltime great witty jazz bands, to the point of being something of the Spinal Tap of the genre. They’ve never met a style they couldn’t lovingly satirize, but this isn’t satire: it’s part homage, part using the compositions as a stepping-off point for their trademark “did you hear that?” moments.

Monk is also very specific: there’s no mistaking him for anyone else. So covering such an individual artist is a potential minefield: when the originals are perfectly good as they are, the obvious question arises, why bother? Unless of course you do them completely differently, and then run the risk of losing the very quality that made them appealing to begin with. How sanitized is this? How slick and how digital is this album, compared to the originals? The good news is that it’s not particularly slick, the production is bright but not obtrusive and and the arrangements are as unpredictably entertaining as you would expect from this crew – which is a lot. Co-founder and pianist Joel Forrester knew Monk personally, and it’s obvious that they’re kindred spirits in a lot of ways. For Forrester in particular, this is a tough gig – although he’s played Monk for decades, comparisons will inevitably spring up, and it’s safe to say that he gets it, letting the new charts speak for themselves. Was it alto sax player Charlie Rouse who said that “Monk keeps it simple and proper”? Forrester does exactly that. The songs here are a mix of iconic standards along with a couple of unexpected treats: an off-kilter, martial version of the extremely obscure Gallop’s Gallop that comes thisclose to galloping off the cliff, and a fluid, relaxed take of the vacation tableau Worry Later, one of several numbers to feature a stripped-down arrangement, in this case mostly for rhythm section and sax. In that sense, they adhere closely to Monk’s tendency to pare down segments of the songs, especially for solos, even when he was working in a setting larger than a quartet.

The opening track, Brilliant Corners establishes another very effective arrangement strategy here, portioning out pieces of the melody to individual voices, one by one. The title track gets a slightly more straight-up swing treatment than the original, soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston contributing spot-on, blithely wary atmospherics. By contrast, Teo gets a bizarrely effective trio arrangement – most of it, anyway – with boomy surf drums and scurrying Don Davis alto sax. Pannonica maintains the lyrical feel of the original while adding a long, deliciously swirling, lush outro; Evidence substitutes dual and trio sax riffage in place of the suspiciously blithe latinisms of Monk’s version.

We See is redone as a funky shuffle with big grinning solos by Davis and bassist Dave Hofstra; likewise, Bye-Ya also funks up the original without losing any of its catchiness. The single most gripping arrangement here, Off Minor, finds its inner noir core and dives deeply into it with a spine-tingling series of handoffs as the saxes go up the register in turn, one by one. Likewise, Mysterioso goes cinematic with big sax swells, syncopated duo voicings and a creepy march out. The album winds up with a neat version that makes short work of Epistrophy: originally a boogie blues, they turn it into a little diptych, moving from echoes of Coltrane to a smooth swing with more of the tasty soprano/baritone tradeoffs that occur throughout this almost infinitely surprising album.

February 8, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Noah Preminger’s Before the Rain Is a Quiet Knockout

Tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger’s 2008 cd Dry Bridge Road made a lot of waves, to the point where he’s becoming a perennial nominee for “best up-and-coming jazz artist.” Believe the hype: he is the real deal. This quartet album brings back bassist John Hebert – whose performance backing Jen Shyu at Winter Jazzfest was stunningly purposeful – and pianist Frank Kimbrough along with Matt Wilson, whose drums have anchored so many good jazz albums lately it’s absurd. This is basically a suite that alternates light and dark, emphasis on the dark. There are no gratuitous displays of chops here: the entire band’s understatement is such that they leave plenty on the table. In its own deliberate way, as a statement, an expression of emotion, it is a knockout.

It opens deceptively with a brief, comfortably balmy, drum-less preamble through a couple of minutes of Rodgers and Hart’s Where or When. Then they take the lightheartedness up a notch with Kimbrough’s catchy, jovial Quickening. Methodically prowling beneath the buoyancy, Wilson absolutely owns this track, Hebert taking it to an unselfconsciously joyous, playful crescendo on his solo. Then they bring the lights down for some indoor fireworks, which is where it gets really interesting. The title track, a Preminger original, takes awhile to emerge, Hebert’s lento pulse against the piano: it’s a clinic in effective minimalism, Preminger’s wary lines slowly rising and falling,Wilson finally establishing a gingerly funky bounce before they take it back into the depths again. For lack of a better word, this is a deep song on a deep album.

They maintain the hushed suspense on the next track, Abreaction, even as Hebert and Wilson sync up for a bustling shuffle beneath Preminger’s austere, judicious intensity, Kimbrough finally tackling the darkness head-on with a masterfully developed, slowly expanding series of variations on a simple chromatic riff. Sammy Cahn’s Until the Real Thing Comes Along reverts to the casual optimism of the opening track, with lyrical solos from Kimbrough and Preminger.

They follow with a brief, rubato fragment into a lively version of Ornette Coleman’s Toy Dance, done here with a striking similarity to the earlier Kimbrough tune. November, also by Kimbrough, is where the band glimmers most intensely: following a perfectly stately, gradually unwinding piano solo, Wilson’s slow crescendo that finally caps off with a series of calmly majestic cymbal splashes is the most exquisite moment in an album filled with many. They close with an apprehensively optimistic Preminger ballad, Jamie, an apt way to end this strikingly well thought-out and emotionally resonant album. Look for it on a lot of “best of” lists at the end of the year. It’s out today on the Palmetto label.

January 18, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Ear-Regulars Still Rule Sundays

Popularity is never a reliable barometer for quality: would you stand in line with the tourists and the permanent tourists for eight hours just for a hastily grilled burger at that overpriced joint in that midtown park? Not likely. Longevity, on the other hand, is a sign that something good is going on. The Ear-Regulars began their Sunday evening residency at the Ear Inn over three years ago and are still going strong. What they do is sort of the teens equivalent of what Thad Jones and Mel Lewis started at the Vanguard fifty years ago. Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, guitarist Matt Munisteri and the rest of the guys who rotate through the band here get a lot of work, a lot of gigs: this is their fun night out. But it isn’t a gig for messing around. Listeners can get lost in this – but the band doesn’t. The focus they bring to their usual mix of obscurities and mostly obscure classics from the 30s, and sometimes the 20s, is pretty intense, but less so when you realize what a fun time they’re having over there in the corner. This time they had Joel Forbes on bass and Chris Byars on tenor sax, joined by Nathan Botts on trumpet on a couple of numbers. Botts was celebrating his anniversary, so the band ran through a couple of verses of a slow, summery, lyrical ballad of his titled Anna (his wife’s name – she seemed to have no idea that he’d be pulled away from his table to join the band this time out). A little later he joined Kellso, running a couple of warmly bluesy solos on a swinging, warmly familiar midtempo pre-Benny Goodman-style number.

And that’s the vibe they mine. A couple of numbers worked familiar, bluesy changes into chromatic descending progressions on the choruses, a chance for Munisteri to add extra edge and bite to his percussive, incisive playing. He cut his teeth in bluegrass and old hillbilly music, and that influence still rings true, most noticeably during his sinuous bent-note work in one swaying, fluid solo. Solos around the horn is how these guys do it, yet there’s always an element of surprise. Forbes trolled the rich subterranean depths of his bass all night, stickin with a low, rolling groove even when he’d get a verse of his own, Munisteri holding it together with staccato precision as the four-string weaved over the center line and back again. Kellso is a blues guy at heart and brought his usual bluesman’s wry humor and joie de vivre to the songs, whether subtly working the corners with a mute, or casually blazing away over Munisteri’s spiky chordal pulse. Likewise, Byars sailed buoyantly and melodically through the changes. What these guys are playing, after all, are songs – and they keep them that way. The instruments do the singing. By the time they’d wrapped their first set, the crowd had grown to the point that they were backed up all the way to the door: pretty much everyone who didn’t get here by 6:30 didn’t get a seat.

September 20, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Luciano Troja Rediscovers an Important Jazz Composer

This is the kind of album we love best: a rediscovery, a new appreciation of someone who may have slipped under the radar. Sicilian pianist Luciano Troja learned of Earl Zindars (1927-2005) through Bill Evans, who popularized Zindars’ best-known composition, How My Heart Sings, as well as recording and playing many of the Chicago-based composer’s works throughout his career. Troja credits Zindars with being one of the pioneers of using multiple time signatures (in this case, 3/4 and 4/4) in the same piece, something of an overstatement: jazz groups were doing it decades before Dave Brubeck popularized the device. But Zindars has been long overdue for a rediscovery: he was third stream before the term existed. Like Brubeck, he blended impressionistic, sometimes brooding Romantic themes with jazz, utilizing strikingly imagistic melodies that sometimes took on a cinematic sweep. Also recognized within the classical world, his works for orchestra and brass were frequently performed during his lifetime. Troja’s new cd At Home with Zindars isn’t the first Zindars album – pianist Bill Cunliffe did one in 2003 with a sextet, and Zindars himself produced a couple for pianist Don Haas and his trio – but it’s probably the best (Zindars rarely recorded professionally, and it doesn’t appear that he ever released an album of his own). Troja plays solo, with an understatedly cantabile glimmer closely attuned to the nuance and warm emotional immediacy of Zindars’ music. It’s an album of subtleties: as a plus, many of the compositions here have never been previously released.

Many of these songs – and they are songs in the purest sense of the word – are miniatures, possibly designed to offer a comfortable melodic framework for extended improvisation. The casually swinging, Romantically tinged ballad Mother of Earl that opens the album sets the tone for most of the rest of what’s here. The simply titled Nice Place grows majestically out of a memorably Chopinesque architecture; Silverado Trail builds from minimalistic echoes of Debussy to a vivid blue-sky theme. The memorably moody, modally-tinged My Love Is an April Song is the darkest and most overtly jazz-oriented of all the tracks here, followed closely by the wary, apprehensive vignette I Always Think of You. Several others lean in the opposite direction toward pop, most successfully on the blues-infused Four Times Round, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Harold Arlen catalog. Troja’s version of How My Heart Sings gets a rubato treatment that reaches more avidly for the emotional brass ring here than anything else here; Troja’s lone composition here, Earl and Bill so perfectly captures Zindars’ trademark classical/blues blend that it could be Zindars himself. The album closes with its strongest and most intense track, Roses for Annig, which Zindars wrote for his wife shortly before his death. A couple of tracks here lean toward Windham Hill blandness and could have been left out, but all in all, this is an important achievement and a treat for fans of the genial, evocative style that Zindars – and Troja – so successfully mine. The album comes with a very informative, illustrated 44-page booklet in both English and Italian.

August 11, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment