Lucid Culture


Jazz Piano Icon Satoko Fujii Launches Her Ambitious 2018 Album-a-Month Project

What Wadada Leo Smith is to the trumpet, Satoko Fujii is to the piano: one of the most riveting improvisers to ever play the instrument. Like Smith, her themes can be epic and ambitious to the nth degree, yet her playing is meticulous and nuanced. Where a lot of musicians think in short phrases, Fujii thinks in paragraphs. Her most recent big band album, the harrowingly relevant Fukushima suite, topped the Best Albums of 2017 list here. Her latest project is to release an album a month this year to celebrate her sixtieth birthday. In person, beyond the sheer depth of her music, her indomitable joie de vivre, sense of wonder and daunting chops transcend preconceptions about age. The first release in the series is simply titled Satoko Fujii Solo.

Full disclosure: many of these albums seem to already be in the can. This first one was recorded live in concert in the fall of last year in Yawatahama, Japan. From the first magnificent, moody neoromantic chords of her eight-minute opening number, Inori, the way she distills them down to a simple, catchy three-chord riff and variations is a clinic in tunesmithing. Fujii is also a very site-specific pianist: she feels the room, figures out how long the reverb lasts,  then makes it an integral part of the music. She does that here with stabbing chords that build to a series of leaps and bounds. then a starlit outro. Chopin probably worked up a lot of his material this way.

This is a very otherworldly record, bristling with uneasy, insistently modal tangents. Don’t be fooled by the high drone that opens the second number, Geradeaus. That’s not a defect – that’s Fujii bowing and rustling around inside the piano. She finds a low pedal note, expands around it in an emphatic Keith Jarrett way, goes back inside and adjusts the timbre ever so slightly, then lightens a bit and dances around with uneasy chromatics. The few carefree flourishes turn out to be a red herring as this mood piece turns more savage and enigmatic.

As the twelve-minute Ninepin gets underway, Fujii juxtaposes muted gamelanesque taps on the strings…and what sounds like an electric sander on them. Slowly and methodically, she develops what could be a misterioso Indian wee-hours raga…but cuts off the pedal on each phrase suddenly – wherever this is going, we’re not there yet.  Some of it could be Satie, or Lennie Tristano, severity balanced against tongue-in-cheek humor.

The even longer Spring Storm is all about foreshadowing: stygian low torrents rise and then subside, give way to hints of a clearing, but that big black cloud is going to hang awhile! It’s Debussy’s garden in the hailstorm, but feeling the force of the elements row by row instead of the cloudburst simply shredding everything in its path.

In Gen Himmel, Fujii lets her Mompou-esque belltones linger, flits around under the lid, and cuts off phrases sharply, Intimations of gospel enter the picture, only to be elbowed out by funereal motives and restless close harmonies. The wryly titled Up Down Left Right begins as a funny study in how gremlins can pop up all over the keyboard, then morphs into twisted, bellicose quasi-boogie-woogie  Fujii closes the show by reinventing  Jimmy Giuffre’s Moonlight as a distantly menacing, saturnine elegy. “The stars settle slowly, in loneliness they lie,” Phil Ochs sang. Boy, do they ever.

Where does this rank in the immense Fujii catalog (over eighty albums)? Probably in the top ten, alongside her magical, mordant duo album with fellow pianist Myra Melford, for example.

Now where can you find this magical album…other than a Soundcloud page? Stay tuned!


March 2, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rivetingly Fun Set by Aakash Mittal’s Awaz Trio Saturday Night in Brooklyn

Midway through his set Saturday night at the Firehouse Space, alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal explained that the spring-wound, tersely tuneful compositions he’d been playing with his Awaz Trio reflected themes he’d explored during a year’s intense study on scholarship in Calcutta. Which triggered a sonic treasure hunt: where was he hiding the raga riffs? There’d already been a couple of moments where those were obvious, one where guitarist Travis Reuter worked familiar variations against a central note, another where Mittal echoed the otherworldly microtones of one of his mentors, the great Hafez Modirzadeh. Otherwise, the big takeaway from this show was how much fun three outside-the-box thinkers can have using centuries-old Indian classical melodies as a springboard for jazz improvisation.

Mittal represents a newer generation of creative musicians whose work resists categorization – in the same fearless spirit as the older generation of Wadada Leo Smith et al. So this kind of unorthodox lineup – sax, guitar and drums – is right up Mittal’s alley, with Reuter and drummer Alex Ritz on the same page throughout their roughly hourlong set. Interestingly, the bandleader served less as fuel for the fire than calm anchor amidst Reuter’s majestic washes and pointillistic eighth-note volleys, and Ritz’s artfully syncopated attack on the traps. Mittal’s compositions typically came more or less full circle after all sorts of unexpected tangents, to a catchy hook that might or might have been Indian. Classical music from that part of the world owes its perennial popularity to the fact that there’s no harmony, only melody: it makes sense that tunes that survive for millennia are easy to sing along to.

The performance slowly coalesced out of dreamy, rainy-day sonics with a hint of the wary, otherworldly microtones that Mittal would tantalize the crowd with from time to time. The trio hit an irrepressibly riff-driven strut into misty, Messiaenic guitar atmospherics overhead that vanished when Reuter began a long, bubbly series of eighth and sixteenth-note runs, then diverging from straight-up rhythm. Meanwhile, Ritz methodically expanded the perimeter. With his lithely leaping accents, Mittal brought the music all the way back around, running through Reuter’s staggered raindrops against Ritz’s funky, snappy syncopation and surprise solo drum interlude.

Their second number was an artful development from the simplest ingredients: an insistent pedal note, then a vamp and finally a riff, Mittal handing methodically to Reuter and then parsing the rhythm sparsely and judiciously. Reuter echoed that approach with a more spiky attack. Foreshadowing what they’d do later, they took a split-second pause and then brought back the original pulse, Ritz driving it with a methodically crescendoing, altered trip-hop groove.

A darkly ambered blues-based tune built a hauntingly shady atmosphere, in a JD Allen vein, Mittal’s austere minor-key phrases stern and mournful as Reuter provided acidically jangly ambience and Ritz prowled and bulldozed around them. It wasn’t hard to imagine Allen’s trio with Gregg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums doing the exact same thing.

Ritz brought a thunderous rumble from across distant plains to an uneasily enveloping guitar/sax duet. Reuter’s decision to use his sustain pedal to build an awestruck, cathedral-like ambience held the audience rapt and hushed. Then it was Ritz’s turn to open his hi-hat, use his mallets and stir a cauldron of whooshing gong resonance behind Mittal’s pensive, woundedly minimalist blues lines. The night’s final number featured Mittal’s leaping phrases over an acidically circular choral pattern from Reuter as Ritz brought back the shuffling, funk-inflected trap groove that shifted on a dime into a graceful, almost gamelanesque polyrhythms. As a full house of spectators wafted away into the slush and ice outside, the tall, striking raven-haired beauty who’d been sitting in the second row put it best: “We’re all high on the music!”

December 20, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith Haunt the Met Breuer with a Spare, Judicious Duo Show

Last night at the Met Breuer (formerly known as the Whitney), Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith played ECM noir. For those who don’t follow jazz improvisation, ECM is the venerable German label devoted to the spare, classically-influenced kind, and these two have a new album, A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke, out from them. It doesn’t swing: it marinates. And what a marinade the state-of-the-art pianist and iconic trumpeter came up with in front of a sold-out crowd that rewarded them with a couple of standing ovations.

That marinade had acerbity and spice, and if you buy the metaphor, astringency, but also a persistent unease that often drifted into ominousness and desolation. According to Iyer, they drew significantly on the spare, meticulously miniamlistc work of Nasreen Mohamedi currently on display at the museum, which is where the Metropolitan Museum of Art has decided to stash their modern collection. The chemistry and cameraderie between the two players was comfortable to the point of joyous restraint. Each musician played with economy, Iyer with a chilly, airconditioned judiciousness, otherworldly Messiaenic harmonies, bell tones and an incessant, stygian pedalpoint that he finally took into the upper registers. For someone so direct, transparent and dedicated to getting the max out of the min, Smith employed a surprising amount of extended technique, from valve-shivering harmonics to ghostly wisps of breath.

This being a duo improvisation, there was all sorts of repartee, but ultimately the conversation wound down to “I’ve got your back.” Each anchored the other when he’d go out on a limb, Smith often providing calm, steady half-notes while Iyer clustered or insistently chiseled out space, Iyer providing moody reflecting pools and upper-register penlight illumination when Smith would fire off a series of flurries. Including the encore, there seemed to be six discrete pieces, most of them following a segue. Each segment followed a steady series of upward and downward arcs, Smith using his mute when the shadows grew longest, Iyer switching back and forth between piano and Rhodes as well as a mini-synth and mixer which he used for distant atmospherics and, finally, a persistent, looping rhythm. In the end, they came full circle, back to Iyer’s high/low, troubled/guardedly optimistic dialectics, Smith hovering with a magisterial warmth overhead.

And as if to say to the crowd, “You’ve earned it,” the encore was more still, and minimalistic, and rapt than anything they’d done  to that point – but also prayerful and ultimately hopeful. At the end, Smith went way up high for a fleeting two-note phrase and then immediately looked to Iyer with a we-got-it grin. Iyer sat motionless, holding down the keys: he wasn’t going to give anything away until its time. It made for an unexpectedly amusing ending to broodingly rapt night. Iyer and Smith are embarking on a US tour; dates are here.

March 31, 2016 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Best Jazz Albums of 2013

Narrowing down the best jazz albums of the year to a couple dozen or so is a cruel task: it’s safe to say that there have been hundred of good ones issued this year. This is an attempt to assemble the creme de la creme of this year’s crop in one easily digestible package: apologies to the many, many artists whose excellent releases aren’t included here.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society– Brooklyn Babylon
The esteemed big band composer’s latest thematic opus is an important album in New York history, a very uneasy suite of variations illustrating a city in constant flux, often changing for the worse. Cruelly sardonic jackhanmmer rhythms and mechanically industrial circular vamps juxtapose with a resonant angst that peaks at the end. Balkan and circus flourishes, unorthodox instrumentation and quirky, often plaintive miniatures are interspersed amid the relentless pulse. It captures a moment already gone forever, maybe for good.

The Claudia Quintet – September
Drummer/bandleader John Hollenbeck’s attempt to “rework and transform the traumatic residue” of 9/11 resulted in an emotionally charged inner dialogue and a highly improvised, persistently uneasy, enigmatically enveloping series of themes, each assigned a date from that fateful September. The eleventh is not one of them. Nebulous and opaque, it vividly evokes the stunned, bereaved moment that preceded an outpouring of both wrath and goodwill among the city’s citizens. Maybe Hollenbeck can tackle that moment next.

Sexmob – Cinema Circus & Spaghetti (Sexmob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota)
Trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s irrepressible quartet finds the inner noir in Rota’s vintage Fellini film scores and magnifies it with charactistic ambitiousness and eclecticism. Creeping slinky dirges sit side by side with deep dub interludes, carnivalesque, cinematic and occasionally showing the group’s punk jazz roots. A rousing follow-up of sorts to Hal Wilner’s cult favorite 1981 Amarcord Nino Rota album.

Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge – River Runs
This “concerto for jazz guitar and saxophone” portrays some of the wild rivers of the American south and west in all their fearsome glory, an entire ecosystem with its messy, sometimes awe-inspiring, sometimes opaque, frequently frightening detail. Like Darcy James Argue, Owen delights in unorthodox instruments and voicings, terror just lurking beneath the whitecaps on several of these lush, ambitious numbers.

Ibrahim Maalouf – Wind
This homage to Miles Davis’ soundtrack to Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud. follows the architecture of the Miles record, but not sequentially. The Miles record is drenched in reverb, added post-production; trumpeter Maalouf’s production is as airy and sometimes arid as the old French silent film, for which this serves as a score, would seem to suggest. Overall, the effect of both albums is the same, an unrelenting angst foreshadowing imminent doom despite all distractions to the contrary. Together and separately, both are classics of the noir pantheon, this one with frequent latin tinges amid the gloom.

Michel Sajrawy– Arabop
Romany-flavored Middle Eastern jazz from the Palestinian guitarist and his inspired, polyglot Palestinian-Israeli band, a vividly powerful mix of Middle Eastern and Balkan-tinged romps along with a handful of haunting longer-scale numbers. Sajrawy plays microtonally and very artfully on a standard-issue Strat through an envelope pedal for the blippy tone so common in guitar jazz from east of the Danube – pulsing staccato grooves alternate with intense levantine sax interludes.

Pete Rodriguez – Caminando Con Papi
Salsa themes taken to the highest level of jazz. Trumpeter Rodriguez – son of legendary salsa crooner Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez – fires off some of the year’s most spine-tingling and incisive solos with striking terseness and attention to melodic trajectory throughout this surprisingly eclectic collection. Gritty modalities underpin a relentlessly intensity and Rodriguez’ wickedly precise flights and volleys; pianist Luis Perdomo is an equal part of the fireworks.

Bill Frisell – Big Sur
A quintet jazz suite of sorts commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival, it’s the iconic guitarist in high spirits, throughout a mix of Lynchian allusions, some surf rock, a Neil Young homage, strolling C&W and a Britfolk theme, with plenty of characteristic grit and ambiguity beneath its windswept surface.

Wadada Leo Smith – Occupy the World
This double-disc collection of towering epics picks up where the trumpeter’s magnum opus from last year, Ten Freedom Summers, left off. 21-piece Finnish ensemble Tumo get to judiciously explore and revel in Smith’s gusty new large-ensemble pieces, a mix of airily expansive, spacious, and majestically intense themes, with Smith’s signature social awareness.

Leif Arntzen – Continuous Break
It was a good year for trumpeters, wasn’t it? On his latest quintet release, one of New York’s most distinctive voices on that horn takes a page out of the vintage Miles Davis book: throw the band a few riffs and have them create songs on the spot. Tuneful and diverse to the extreme, it’s got standards, a tone poem, a gritty minor-key soul groove (which may be the album’s best track) and hotwired improvisation recorded completely live in the studio.

The Monika Roscher Big Band – Failure in Wonderland
The guitarist and her German ensemble stalk their way surrealistically through carnivalesque themes that often border on the macabre, with elements of noir cabaret, horror film music and psychedelic rock as well as big band jazz. Nothing is off limits to Roscher: vocoder trip-hop, gothic cinematics, savage tremolopicking, Gil Evans-esque swells and colors and fire-and-brimstone art-rock sonics.

Fernando Otero – Romance
Some might call this indie classical or even nuevo tango, but the Argentine-born pianist’s sonata transcends genre. It’s a series of themes and variations split between instruments, interchanging between time signatures, interwoven like a secret code. Inspired by Argentine writer and clarinetist Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch, it invites the listener to decide on a “modular” sequence of tracks, perhaps a wry nod to the reality of how listeners work in the iphone era. Taken in sequence, just for starters, this is a harrowing ride.

Hee Hawk – s/t
The most stunning debut in recent months blends the pastoral with the noir: imagine Bill Frisell scoring a Roman Polanski film. Bandleader/pianist Adam Lipsky’s compositions embrace Americana as well as Romany and film music, often luridly. A torchy stripper blues, hints of the Balkans, Ethiopia, and noir soundtrack atmosphere mix with irrepressible oldtimey swing and a creepy, shivery bolero.

Amir ElSaffar – Alchemy
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter continues to push the envelope with Middle Eastern themes, melodies and technique while also employing western classical architecture. This is a sonata of sorts, two central themes with many variations. ElSaffar’s quintet deftly and fascinatingly allude to (and sometimes leap headfirst) into otherworldly microtonal modes throughout a series of sometimes stately, sometimes exuberant, hard-swinging explorations.

The Mary Halvorson Septet – Illusionary Sea
Lush but biting, the guitarist maintains a lustrous majesty livened with cold mechanical satire and an intricate, incessantly fascinating counterpoint. While Halvorson sometimes bares her fangs with terse, evilly squirrelly cadenzas, she’s not usually centerstage: she leaves that to the constantly shifting, rich interchange of harmonies.

Mostly Other People Do the Killing – Red Hot
The quartet – expanded to a septet with Brandon Seabrook’s banjo, Ron Stabinsky’s piano and David Taylor’s bass trombone – burn through their most caustic yet accessible album to date. With 20s hot jazz trending hard with the one-percenters, it became obvious that the time was right for the Spinal Tap of jazz to give the genre a vigorous twist to put it out of its misery. MOPDtK claim not to be satirical, but this could be their most aggressive, and wildly successful, spoof yet. What will these guys come up with next?

Jussi Reijonen – Un
A still, spacious, slowly unwinding masterpiece from the Finnish oudist/guitarist and his quartet. Original night-sky themes and a classic Coltrane cover feature lithely intertwining levantine grooves, bittersweetly Egyptian-flavored motifs and Utar Artun’s eerily twinkling chromatic piano.

Bobby Avey – Be Not So Long to Speak
The most Lennie Tristano-influenced album in recent months is this crushingly powerful, glimmering solo piano album. It’s a mix of clenched-teeth articulacy and brooding pools of moonlit, swampy menace, setting an unwaveringly creepy tone throughout brooding tone poems with jackhammer pedalpoint, hints of Erik Satie and Louis Andriessen.

Kenny Garrett – Pushing the World Away
Garrett gets back to what he does best on this mostly-quartet session packed with several latin-tinged grooves plus those menacing modal vamps that this era’s preeminent alto saxophonist loves so much and plays with such an instantly recognizable intensity.

Rudresh Mahanthappa – Gamak
The alto saxophonist expands his singular vernacular with this hard-hitting, rhythmic effort. With a stilletto precision, flurries of postbop liven both the bhangra interludes and sunnier, more pastoral pieces here; guitarist Dave Fiuczynski supplies his signature apprehensive, intense microtonal edge, sometimes veering off toward raw metalfunk.

Dave Douglas – Time Travel
This one doesn’t have Aiofe O’Donovan’s vocals, but Douglas’ translucent tunesmithing doesn’t miss them. The fine-tuned chemistry and interplay between trumpeter Douglas and Jon Irabagon on tenor sax, Linda Oh on bass, Rudy Royston on drums and Matt Mitchell on piano showcases one of the most instantly recognizable working bands of recent years, through anthemic arcs, alternately cumulo-nimbus and cirrus ambience, a slide-step stroll and Mad Men-era grooves.

The Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra – Bloom
Luminous, lush and symphonic in a Maria Schneider vein, the colors at play on this subtly rhythmic, constantly shapeshifting album tend to be bright, summery and vibrant. Translucent motifs shift through the arrangements with an unlikely nimble, assured, fleet-footedness for such majestic music. Sara Serpa’s haunting vocalese is the icing on the cake.

Marc Cary – For the Love of Abbey
Cary was Abbey Lincoln’s pianist and music director through the end of her career, and draws on that gig with a loving but also fierce intensity that does her justice. This highly improvised solo collection of Lincoln songs is stormy and ferociously articulate, like the singer herself. It’s cantabile, elegant and regal but also feral, with a shattering final salute.

Fred Hersch and Julian Lage – Free Flying
This tightly choreographed, swinging performance from pianist Hersch and guitarist Lage is so seamless and tightly fluid that it’s often impossible keep track of who’s playing what. A concert recording from the Kitano from earlier this year, it’s a series of Hersch homages to influences from across the spectrum, with a frequent Brazilian flair – and a throwback to Hersch’s indelible duo album with Bill Frisell about thirteen years ago.

Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra – Book of Rhapsodies
Something of a return to noir form for the trumpeter/bandleader, parsing innovative early third-stream compositions, some with a cinematic or cartoonish tinge, from some familiar and more obscure names from the 30s and 40s: Raymond Scott, Charlie Shavers, Louis Singer and Reginald Foresythe.

John Funkhouser – Still
This trio performance from the third-stream pianist/tunesmith alternates moody and rhythmic tunesmithing, murky dirges and lyrical third-stream glimmer. Brooding latinisms, a gloomy version of House of the Rising Sun and a pitch-black raga-inflected title track make this one of the year’s catchiest, hummable yet darkest releases.

Steve Coleman and Five Elements – Functional Arrythmias
On which the alto saxophonist pays homage to iconic drummer/polymath Milford Graves with a characteristically vivid, bouncily naturalistic series of illustrations of anatomical phenomena. Long, circular rhythmic patterns anchor tight counterpoint between the horns, bass and drums. Riffs are simple, direct and memorable as expected; funk beats morph through tricky time signatures, and nobody wastes notes.

And a shout out to Dan Willis & Velvet Gentlemen’s scary Satie Project Volume 2 album, as well as to Bryan & the Aardvarks, for their glimmering, nocturnal debut, Heroes of Make Believe. Both came out last year but missed the 2012 best-of list here. Since either of those albums could easily top this one, it would be remiss not to mention them here.

December 30, 2013 Posted by | jazz, lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Forget Wall Street: Occupy the World!

Wadada Leo Smith is Anthony Braxton, Miles Davis and Gil Evans rolled into one on his new album Occupy the World. It picks up where his magnum opus, last year’s Ten Freedom Summers left off. In the liner notes, Smith optimistically quotes Thoreau in envisioning the possibility of a better society than what the Western democracies have achieved thus far. Joining Smith and his longtime bassist John Lindberg for a set of towering new works for large ensemble is the 21-piece Finnish group Tumo, comprised of many of that scene’s most adventurous players. In many respects, this slightly smaller yet similarly lavish double-disc set echoes Ten Freedom Summers’ most lush, sweepingly atmospheric moments.

The opening composition, Queen Hatshepsut, grows methodically out of a somber, slowly syncopated theme followed by a triptych of group improvisations in the same vein as Smith’s old Chicago pal Anthony Braxton. It’s elegant and airy, with plenty of space for similarly judicious (and occasionally raucous) solo features from saxophones, flute and piano, with Smith’s own regal, resonant trumpet solo as its centerpiece.

The Bell 2 expands on Smith’s quartet composition originally released on Braxton’s 1968 album 3 Compositions of New Jazz, beefed up for large ensemble with a new introduction and a more rhythmic focus. Verneri Pohjola’s spacy electronics and Mikko Iinvanainen’s dark, biting electric guitar help carry it forty-five years from its origins as a lustrous proto Space Odyssey theme.

The first cd’s last track, Mount Kilimanjaro was written as a companion piece to Smith’s 2004 piece The Africana World. That one was a feature for violinist Jenifer Choi; this is a vehicle for Lindberg. It opens with an expansively spacious, majestically intense bowed bass solo, collides with cadenzas from the orchestra. epic drums pairing off against the strings’ fluttery angst.

The second cd opens with the Crossing on a Southern Road (A Memorial for Marion Brown), a sweepingly rapt 25-minute-plus homage to the late saxophonist. Dreamy ambience surrounds tersely dancing bass, an agitated pulse giving way to whispery strings, stately shifting shades, a burnished Smith muted trumpet solo and richly sustained, quiet swells that are suddenly and cruelly cut short.

The title track, perhaps ironically true to its inspiration, was completed in haste shortly before its 2011 premiere by the Oxford Improvisers Orchestra. It clocks in at over half an hour and interpolates portions of two previous works, Smith’s Kosmic Music and the string quartet section of In the Diaspora. And it’s counterintuitive: although there is frequent agitation, driven by biting, tumbling strings, it’s more of a methodically crescendoing tribute to resolute defiance. Again, Smith’s sostenuto trumpet serves as a frequent anchor, through a momentarily explosive duet with electric guitar. giving way to shifting sheets of orchestration and finally a gorgeously luminous full-orchestra coda with echoes of Gil Evans at his most majestic.

With tight and inspired playing, the cast also includes trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, trombonist Jari Hongisto, horn player Kalle Hassinen, tuba player Kenneth Ojutkangas, Seppo Kantonen on piano, Iro Haarla on harp, Kalle Kalima on guitar, Veli Kujala on quartertone accordion, Terhi Pylkkanen and Neils Thorkild Levinsen on violins, Barbora Hilpo on viola, Iida-Vilhelmiina Laine on cello, Ulf Krokfors on bass, and Janne Tuomi, Mika Kallio and Stefan Pasborg on drums. Finnish label Tum Records, recently home to Smith’s small-group projects, gets credit for putting this one out in a lavish package with artwork and extensive, insightful liner notes.

July 12, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Catching Up on Recent Shows by Some Brilliant Usual Suspects

It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without a tip of the hat to some of the groups who’ve received ink here before, and continue to play concerts that range from the rapt to the exhilarating. Self-conducted string ensemble the East Coast Chamber Orchestra (a..k.a. ECCO) seem to have a special place for edgy, emotionally resonant music. Their previous appearance at the wildly popular Upper Westside Music Mondays series featured  Shostakovich’s Sinfonia, Op. 110 (based on the String Quartet No. 8, a requiem for victims of the Holocaust, World War II and fascism in general), along with Ginastera’s Concerto Por Corde, which rose from delicate atmospherics to a scream. Their most recent concert here opened with a matter-of-fact take on Mozart’s Divertimento for Strings in F Major, K. 138. From there they aired out the strikingly forward-looking, modern tonalities in a couple of Purcell fantasias, following with a stormy, slithery, darkly dancing, minutely detailed take of Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. They took it out on a high note with a menacingly dancing, sweepingly intense, enveloping version of Bartok’s Divertimento for String Orchestra, its many voices alternating murmurs within an incessent, brooding tension.

Austria’s Minetti Quartett made a couple of Manhattan stops last month, including one downtown at Trinity Church. While the obvious piece de resistance was a steady but nuanced performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59, No. 3, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major with Andreas Klein at the piano was an unexpected treat. The second movement, reputedly a requiem for Bach, doesn’t make much of a segue with the rest of the piece, but in this group’s hands it got a spacious, vividly intense workout and was arguably the higlight of the concert. It’s always refreshing to see an ensemble go as deeply into a piece of music and pull out as much raw emotion as this group did here.

Wadada Leo Smith has gotten plenty of press here, most recently for his magnum 4-cd Civil Rights era -themed opus Ten Freedom Summers (rated best album of the year for 2012) and for the opening night of his three-night stand at Roulette last week. Having seen all three nights, it’s an understatement to say that this series of concerts was a major moment in New York music history. Smith took considerable pride from the visceral reaction on the part of several key players of the movement to the live debut of these works earlier this year in California, where the Mississippi-born trumpeter and composer now resides. A finalist in this year’s competition for the Pulitzer Prize in music, it’s probably safe to say after seeing this that he has an inside track. Of the other finalists, Aaron Jay Kernis has won before, and there isn’t much precedent for multiple winners, and Caroline Shaw, talented as she may be as a violinist, composer and singer, is still in her twenties. And Smith has almost a half a century on her.

Much as Smith can be playful and great fun in an improvisatory context, his compositions are rigorously thought out. He told the crowd this past Thursday night that “a lot of White-Out” went into the suspensefully sweeping, dynamically rich, spectrally influenced string quartet premiered with a knife’s-edge sensitivity by Shalini Vijayan and Mona Tian on violins, Andrew Macintosh on viola and Ashley Walters on cello. While his suite portrays considerable struggle, the triumphant moments took centerstage on the second and third night of the stand, from the eclectic, spacious. blues and gospel-charged vistas of America, Parts 1, 2 and 3 to the stalking, shatteringly explosive Martin Luther King tableau that wound it up, with alternately soaring and elegaic tributes to the Freedom Riders, Medgar Evers and the crusaders who walked for miles to their voting stations during the early Missisippi voter registration drives. “Freedom isn’t when you’ve strugged and reached here,” he pointed, chest-high. “Freedom is here,” he pointed to his heart, “Knowing that you have the power to act.” The triumph was bittersweet, and as Smith made clear, this struggle is still ongoing after all these years.

May 6, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wadada Leo Smith’s Transcendent Opening Night at Roulette

Wadada Leo Smith isn’t always in a dead serious mood. After his spine-tingling show last night at Roulette, the New York debut of material from his 2012 magnum opus Ten Freedom Summers (rated best album of the year here), the trumpeter/composer treated the audience to a brief Q&A. Smith winkingly related that when a representative from Chamber Music America was scheduled to pay him a visit to finalize a deal for a single commission, he’d made sure to leave “Scores all over the house, on the floor, on…what’s that thing you put on top of the record player?” Three hours later, the CMA rep left, overwhelmed, and Smith had a deal in hand for several additional works.

Smith also explained that he and Emmett Till were both thirteen years old when Till was murdered. Smith was then living in Leland, Mississippi, about 250 miles from the crime scene. “It was kind of a time of fear,” he averred. Ten Freedom Summers traces the history of the civil rights movement through key moments like that – “One that might have something to do with what you call change,” Smith hinted caustically. The idea for the suite, Smith explained, was jumpstarted by his association with August Wilson (Smith’s trumpet was featured in the debut of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). Opening the first night of Smith’s three-night stand that continues here through Friday, Smith’s long-running Golden Quartet was bolstered by the austere, often plaintive strings of Pacifica Red Coral. On one hand, given the gravitas and sheer heft of the suite (a four-cd set recorded mostly during a marathon seventeen-hour session), it was surprising that the show wasn’t completely sold out. Then again, there have been other major moments in jazz – at Massey Hall, for one – that weren’t sold out. When word gets out about how powerful, and intense, and matter-of-factly transcendent this one was, the sets tonight and tomorrow night, both at 8 PM, certainly will be. As of this moment (wee hours of May 2), there are still tickets available.

Smith’s music is grounded in the core values of the blues: economy of notes, a narrative arc and multiple levels of meaning. Even while the ensembles onstage in more than one instance were reinventing the material, it was with a thousand yard stare and a white-knuckle intensity, a common sense of purpose that never wavered. Had Smith schooled them beforehand about the topics the works were written to address? No, Smith told one interested concertgoer. The players simply felt the music. Characteristically, Smith chose his spots judiciously, intently bent over his horn, more inclined to brief resonant accents or tantalizing, allusive hints of chromatic menace than rapidfire cadenzas. Drummer Pheeroan AkLaff shadowed him early on, making rich, emphatic, sometimes portentously ornate, sometimes murderous use of his cymbals and toms. Bassist John Lindberg alternated between tersely incisive accents, stark bowed lines, and a moodily hypnotic blues/gospel groove in the long, increasingly agitated vamp illustrating the Brown vs. Board of Education case.

Pianist Anthony Davis, though he played with a similarly characteristic minimalism, might be the key to the entire unit, maximizing his presence with a glimmering, eerie upper-register resonance balanced by a murkily ominous lefthand. The strings – Shalini Vijayan and Mona Tian on violins, Andrew Macintosh on viola and Ashley Walters on cello – ramped up the intensity and suspense with anxious close harmonies that often fueled a sense of pleading or despair, other times exchanging deftly flitting harmonics or tensely swooping motives. Concert harpist Alison Bjorkedal punctuated the apprehensive opacity with an incisive steadiness, occasionally in tandem with the bass. Interestingly, Smith chose to open his stand by including the suite’s two quietest segments: an airily ghostly tone poem depicting the Washington, DC Vietnam War memorial wall, and what turned out to be an absolutely chilling, morose take of Black Church, an acidic piece for strings that might possibly be meant to evoke the horror in the wake of a church bombing.

Smith explained afterward that his portrait of Emmett Till – which hauntingly recycles a riff from Black Church – drew from how the blues can convey a feeling of simultaneous joy and anguish. The rich, briefly majestic portayal of a fearless young man quickly gave way to a corrosive, frantic string interchange and then a somber, elegaic mood, almost rubato but never left to collapse into chaos. The two ensembles wound up the show with an expansive, revealingly bare-bones version of the final track on the album’s first cd, a dignified, allusively neoromantic depiction of John F. Kennedy’s final ride in a horse-drawn hearse. If just that idea alone doesn’t get you out to the shows tonight or tomorrow night, you obviously have no need for transcendence.

May 2, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 20 Best Jazz Albums of 2012

Assembling a year-end list that’s going to get a lot of traffic demands a certain degree of responsibility: to be paying attention, and to be keeping an eye on what’s lurking in the shadows because that’s usually where the action is. Gil Evans knew that, and that’s why he’s on this one.

As pretty much everybody knows, the final Dave Brubeck Quartet live show surfaced this year, as did the earliest known Wes Montgomery recordings, a tasty couple of rare Bill Evans live sets and a big box set of previously unreleased Mingus. The reason why they’re not on this list is because they’re on everybody else’s…and because they’re easy picks. This is an attempt to be a little more adventurous, to cast a wider net, to help spread the word about current artists whose work is every bit as transcendent. Obviously, there are going to be glaring omissions here: even the most rabid jazz advocate can only digest a few hundred albums a year at the most. And much as Henry Threadgill’s Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp and the historic Sam Rivers Trio’s Reunion: Live in New York are phenomenal albums, they both fell off the list since each has received plenty of praise elsewhere.

1. Wadada Leo Smith – Ten Freedom Summers
The trumpeter/bandleader’s massive four-cd box set is his magnum opus, as historically important as it is sonically rich, harrowing, cinematic and eclectic, anchored in the blues and gospel and taking flight pretty much everywhere else. Some will say that the string-driven sections of this restless Civil Rights Movement epic are classical music, and they’re probably right: Smith is just as formidable and powerful a composer in that idiom as he is in jazz. With a huge cast of characters, most notably pianist Anthony Davis and drummer Pheeroan AkLaff. This Cuneiform release gets the top spot for 2012.

2. Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans
Conductor/arranger Ryan Truesdell, a leading Evans scholar, unearthed and then recorded ten of the iconic composer’s most obscure big band works and arrangements for the first time, with the blessing of the composer’s family and an inspired cast of players. In a way, to fail to put this lush noir masterpiece at the top of the list is ridiculous, considering how emotionally intense, luminous, haunting and resonant this music is. As with Smith’s album, a huge lineup turns in a chilling performance, including possibly career-defining moments from drummer Lewis Nash, pianist Frank Kimbrough and especially vibraphonist Joe Locke. Truesdell heads up the Gil Evans Project, who put this out.

3. Hafez Modirzadeh – Post-Chromodal Out!
The most radical, paradigm-shifting and sonically intriguing album of the year was the Persian-American saxophonist’s latest adventure in microtonal music. Blue notes have defined jazz from the beginning, but this album is blue flames: and to be hubristic, here’s to the argument that this album is Vijay Iyer’s greatest shining moment so far, as he revels in a piano tuned in three-quarter tones to mimic the tetrachords of the music of Iran. An adventurous cast delivers overtone-fueled, sometimes gamelanesque mystery and menace through two suites, one by Modirzadeh, one by saxophonist Jim Norton. With Amir ElSaffar on trumpet, Ken Filiano on bass, Royal Hartigan on drums, Danongan Kalanduyan on kulintang, Faraz Minooei on santoor and Timothy Volpicella on guitar. Pi Records get credit for this one.

4. Ran Blake & Sara Serpa – Aurora
The second collaboration from the iconic noir pianist and the eclectic singer/composer is every bit as intense and otheworldly as their 2010 collaboration, Camera Obscura, and considerably more diverse. This one’s taken mostly from a concert  in Serpa’s native Portugal, a mix of classics, brilliant obscurities, icy/lurid cinematic themes and a riveting a-cappella take of Strange Fruit. It’s out on Clean Feed.

5. David Fiuczynski – Planet Microjam
A stunningly diverse set by the pioneering microtonal guitarist, joining  forces with Evan Marien on bass, Evgeny Lebedev on piano, David Radley on violin, Takeru Yamazaki on keyboards and a rotating cast of drummers including Kenwood Dennard, Jovol Bell, Jack DeJohnette and Club D’Elf’s Eric Kerr. Alternately otherworldly, wryly sardonic, ferocious and utterly Lynchian, Fiuczynski reinvents Beethoven as well as exploring Asian, Middle Eastern and Indian themes. It’s out from Rare Noise.

6. Neil Welch – Sleeper
The Seattle saxophonist leads a chamber jazz ensemble with Ivan Arteaga on alto and soprano saxes, Jesse Canterbury on bass clarinet, Vincent LaBelle on trombone and David Balatero and Natalie Hall on cellos through a chilling narrative suite about the murder of an Iraqi general, Abdel Hamed Mowhoush, tortured to death in American custody. Shostakovian ambience gives way to a cinematic trajectory laced with sarcasm and terrifying allusiveness. A triumph for Seattle’s Table and Chairs Music.

7. The Fab Trio – History of Jazz in Reverse
The late violin titan Billy Bang with bassist Joe Fonda and drummer Barry Altschul in a deep and casually riveting 2005 session, improvising a gospel-drenched Bea Rivers elegy, an Asian-tinged Don Cherry homage, a salsa vamp and chillingly chromatic funk and swing. Tum Records happily saw fit to pull this one out of the archives.

8. Giacomo Merega – Watch the Walls
The bassist is joined by his Dollshot saxophonist bandmate Noah Kaplan plus Marco Cappelli on guitar, Mauro Pagani on violin and Anthony Coleman on piano for a chillingly sepulchral series of improvisations that range from whispery, to atmospheric, to quietly horrific, to funereal: a bleak black-and-white film noir for the ears. Free jazz doesn’t get any better than this. It’s out on Underwolf Records.

9. Gregg August – Four By Six
The eclectic bassist from JD Allen’s trio (and the Brooklyn Philharmonic) writes intense, pulsing pan-latin themes, often with a brooding Gil Evans luminosity. This one mixes quartet and sextet pieces, with Sam Newsome on soprano sax, Luis Perdomo on piano and E.J. Strickland or Rudy Royston on drums,Yosvany Terry on alto sax, John Bailey on trumpet and  JD Allen on tenor sax.

10. Orrin Evans – Flip the Script
Glistening with gritty melody, wit, plaintiveness and unease, this is the pianist’s most straightforward and impactful small-group release to date (to distinguish it from his work with the mighty Captain Black Big Band), a trio session with bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Donald Edwards. Phantasmagorical blues, chromatic soul and a haunting reinvention of the old disco hit The Sound of Philadelphia are highlights of this Posi-Tone release.

11. The Fred Hersch Trio – Alive at the Vanguard
The pianist’s third live album at this mecca is a charm, like the other two, a lavish and gorgeously melodic double-disc set culled from his February, 2012 stand there with bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson  Mostly slow-to-midtempo with lots nocturnes, interplay, a Paul Motian homage, and happily plenty of Hersch’s lyrical originals. It’s out on Palmetto.

12. Brian Charette – Music for Organ Sextette
Organ jazz doesn’t get any more interesting or cutting-edge than this richly arranged, characteristically witty, high-energy session with Charette on the B3 along with John Ellis taking a turn on bass clarinet, Jay Collins on flute, Joel Frahm on tenor, Mike DiRubbo on alto and Jochen Rueckert on drums. Eclectic themes – a reggae trope gone to extremes, a baroque fugue, jaggedly Messiaenic funk and gospel grooves – make a launching pad for witty repartee.

13. Tia Fuller – Angelic Warrior
The saxophonist shows off her sizzilng postbop chops on both soprano and alto sax on a fiery mix of mostly original compositions with a warm camaderie among the band: Shamie Royston on piano, Rudy Royston on drums, Mimi Jones on bass, John Patitucci playing single-note guitar-style leads on piccolo bass, Shirazette Tinnin on percussion. Terri Lyne Carrington on drums on three tracks, and Dianne Reeves adding an aptly misty vocal on Body and Soul  It’s a Mack Avenue release.

14. Guy Klucevsek –  The Multiple Personality Reunion Tour
The irrepressible accordionist teams up with members of novoya polka stars Brave Combo for this playful, brightly entertaining, characteristically devious romp through waltzes, cinematic themes, and reinventions of Erik Satie. With Marcus Rojas on tuba, Jo Lawry on vocals, John Hollenbeck on drums, Dave Douglas on trumpet, Brandon Seabrook on guitar, Steve Elson on tenor sax and many others. It’s out on Innova.

15. Old Time Musketry – Different Times
On their auspicious debut, multi-reedman Adam Schneit and multi-keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch lead this quartet with bassist Phil Rowan and drummer Max Goldman through a moody yet rhythmically intense mix of wintry, pensive, Americana-tinged themes in the same vein as the best work of Bill Frisell or Jeremy Udden.

16. Endemic Ensemble – Lunar
For some reason, Seattle has put out a ton of good music this year and this is yet another example, a tuneful mix of swing, droll minatures and a darkly majestic clave tune, all with bright and distinct horn charts. With Steve Messick on bass, Ken French on drums, David Franklin on piano, Matso Limtiaco on baritoine saxes amd Travis Ranney on saxes

17. The Danny Fox Trio – The One Constant
We may have lost Brubeck, but lyrical third-stream composition is in good hands with guys like pianist Danny Fox, gritting his teeth here with bassist Chris van Voorst van Beest and drummer Max Goldman throughout this edgy, bitingly vivid, occasionally sardonic set of mood pieces and cruelly amusing narratives

18. Slumgum – Quardboard Flavored Fiber
Rainy-day improvisation, noirish third-stream themes, latin and funk interludes, Sam Fuller-style cinematic themes for a new century and playful satire from this fearless LA quartet: Rory Cowal on piano, Joe Armstrong on tenor sax, Dave Tranchina on bass and Trevor Anderies on drums.

19. Catherine Russell – Strictly Romancin’
Guitarist Matt Munisteri is the svengali behind this historically rich, expansive, soulful Louis Armstrong homage from the chanteuse whose multi-instrumentalist dad played with Satchmo for many years. With Mark Shane on piano, Lee Hudson on bass, Mark McClean on drums; Joey Barbato on accordion; Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; John Allred on trombone, and Dan Block and Andy Farber on reeds. From Harmonia Mundi.

20. Juhani Aaltonen and Heikki Sarmanto – Conversations
Two old lions of Nordic jazz, Finnish tenor saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen and pianist Heikki Sarmanto trade on and off lush, nocturnal modal themes throughout this lavish, casually vivid double-disc set. Notes linger and are never wasted, the two take their time and leave a mark that’s either warmly resonant or broodingly ominous. A Tum Records release.

21. Bass X3 – Transatlantic
For anyone who might think that this is a joke, or a novelty record – Chris Dahlgren and Clayton Thomas’ basses blending with Gebhard Ullmann’s bass clarinet – you have to hear it. For fans of low tonalities, it’s sonic bliss, the centerpiece being a roughly 45-minute drone improvisation broken up into three parts, spiced with playfully ghostly embellishments amidst brooding desolation and hypnotic, suspenseful rumbles. A Leo Records release.

December 25, 2012 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers: A Powerful, Shattering Magnum Opus

Without hyperbole, Wadada Leo Smith’s new 4-cd suite Ten Freedom Summers (just released by Cuneiform) is an important moment in jazz history. Thirty years in the making, it’s Smith’s magnum opus, an attempt to not only chronicle the entirety of the civil rights movement but to put it in historical context, beginning in 1857 with the Dred Scott decision and ending on a decidedly unresolved note with September 11, 2001. Smith makes it abundantly clear that this struggle is far from over: while there are many triumphant moments here, ultimately they disappear in a sea of unease. Along with segments here titled Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, 1964, and The Little Rock Nine: A Force for Desegregation in Education, 1957, perhaps Smith will someday follow up with The March from 116th Street: An End to Racial Profiling, or Arizona 2013: The Battle for Immigrant Rights. The suite has two defining qualities: suspense and spaciousness. The terse judiciousness of Smith’s Golden Quartet, Golden Quintet and the 9-piece ensemble Southwest Chamber Music is remarkable by any standard: in over four eclectic hours of music that spans from straight-ahead jazz to what might be considered indie classical music, they simply don’t waste notes. Although the suite is often robust and aggressive, the tempos themselves are usually glacial, underscoring the effect of innumerable pregnant pauses and several long, atmospheric, pianissimo interludes. As free and fluid as much of the interplay here is, the singlemindedness and purposefulness of the playing is stunning. It’s as musically compelling as it is historically important, a triumph for Smith (whose trumpet drives many of the crescendos with an understated majesty) along with pianist Anthony Davis, bassist Jon Lindberg, drummers Pheeroan AkLaff and Susie Ibarra along with the chamber orchestra conducted by Jeff von der Schmidt, with Alison Bjorkedal on harp, Jim Foschia on clarinet, Lorenz Gamma and Shalini Vijayan on violins, Peter Jacobson on cello, Larry Kaplan on flute, Jan Karlin on viola, Tom Peters on bass and Lynn Vartan on a variety of percussion instruments.

The opening contemplation of the Dred Scott decision illustrates a situation where the dam has broken and all hell is breaking loose, a tumbling fanfare with intimations of crowd noise. It rumbles, saws, alludes to a pending victory, circles more warily and ends with a guarded optimism. Malik Al Shabazz and the People of the Shahada (Smith’s titles are not lacking in specificity) balances elegantly spiritual-inflected piano with stately trumpet, low atmospherics and lots of pregnant pauses. The death of Emmett Till – and, as Smith emphasizes, his defiance and fearlessness – is memorialized by the Golden Quintet and orchestra together with a resolute insistence (particularly from Jon Lindberg’s bass) that moves into a warmly bucolic theme, then a series of foreshadowing interludes that culminate with a horrific crescendo, then eventually returns to a cinematic title theme of sorts: it is a shattering piece of music. Thurgood Marshall and the Brown vs. Board of Ed decision is illustrated by the most straightforward theme here, a swaying, funk-infused minor-key gospel/blues vamp anchored by the bass throughout a wildly tangential interlude that gives absolutely no indication of the payoff that Smith’s simple, magisterial trumpet will eventually deliver. The first disc ends with an epic, suspensefully optimistic, 22-minute tone poem on the theme of JFK’s New Frontier and the space age, an endless series of variations on a portentous, understatedly dramatic, optimistic motif that reaches all the way back to Richard Strauss.

Disc 2 begins with Rosa Parks, summery ambience over constantly shifting, expectant rhythms that eventually hit a rumbling crescendo driven by AkLaff. It ends well, and segues into Black Church, a potently brooding, funereal tone poem that may be an illustration of the aftereffects of a church bombing – or a bloodied bunch of protestors raising their voices together – or both. The voter registration drive during the summer of 1964 inspires Smith’s trumpet to rise with a rare carefree feel in contrast to wary, careful piano and bass, slowly swaying with an artful exchange of voices, ending with a moodily disguised funk groove. Even more clever is the on/off, in/out dichotomy as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 comes to fruition, through eerie Twilight Zone orchestration, outer-space piano and expectantly boomy drums, Smith finally pulling a massive theme together and then handing it over to Kaplan, whose flute cadenzas join with the orchestra in a colossal march to a screaming WAKE UP motif from the trumpet. Ambiguously as it ends, Smith leaves no doubt as to its impact.

The third disc’s opening contemplation of Freedom Riders scrambles with optimism and anticipation, bustling yet not cacaphonous, then takes a downturn to sad, resigned ambience before making its way up again, marked by some memorable boogie lefthand from Davis’ piano: it’s a vivid portrayal of dashed hopes and their renewal. The spacious, quietly fluttering meditation on Medgar Evers grows totally noir: the chilling conversation between Kaplan’s flute and Bjorkedal’s harp is one of the album’s high points. The suite’s quietest segment looks at the Washington, DC War Memorial Wall, stillness punctuated by the occasional drum, trumpet or piano accent that finally hits a brief, rather agitated moment that recedes quickly back into contemplation. An understated exasperation dominates Buzzsaw: The Myth of the Free Press, a series of variations on a descending progression that reaches in vain for a resolution and finally is allowed to hit the mark, Lindbolm then handing off to AkLaff, who then never lets it leave his grasp throughout a rustling solo. It segues into a depiction of the Little Rock Nine and their refusal to back down from the segregationists, a biting, minor-key bass motif at the center, Smith soaring and then spiraling over it as a defiant march comes together, as if to say, “We can pull this off!” Like most everything here, it ends opaquely, unresolved.

The final disc begins with a triptych titled America, Parts 1, 2 & 3, a fast, pulsing swing and then rumbling, animated bustle bookending an unselfconsciously beautiful, lyrical piano centerpiece. 9/11 gets both understated foreshadowing and an elegiac, rain-drenched piano-driven march rather than a depiction of the events of that dreadful day; then the Golden Quintet offers a wary, tensely spacious tribute to Fannie Lou Hamer, Smith’s trumpet against somber ambience that eventually takes on a more guardedly hopeful pulse. Democracy, if Smith is to be believed, is pretty much pandemonium, in this case almost fifteen minutes of it, imbued with a constant sense of apprehension: finally, the trumpet offers a weary hint of a conclusion and the rest of the ensemble follows, the twin drums winding it down. The suite ends with both the quintet and the orchestra joining forces for Martin Luther King Jr.: Memphis, the Prophecy, a horrifying, haunting depiction of the events of that fateful day, opening with a majestic, blues-infused theme that quickly gives way to a macabre motif that eventually makes its way from Vartan’s vibraphone to the bass, shifts to Bernard Herrmann-esque otherworldliness and then an ominous scramble that speaks to the confusion on the ledge outside the motel; it ends with a return to the bluesy majesty of the intro.

Like Ryan Truesdell’s recent collection of newly unearthed Gil Evans compositions, this album transcends any consideration of where it might stand by comparison to other albums released this year. Instead, consider this as a jazz counterpart to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, a chronicle with artistic merit equal to its inestimable historical value. It ranks with the best and most important work of Smith’s fellow musical freedom fighters: Shostakovich, Umm Kulthumm, the Dead Kennedys, Max Roach, Marcel Khalife and Bob Marley, to name a few.

August 1, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wadada Leo Smith Does It Again

Forget for a minute that Wadada Leo Smith’s new album Dark Lady of the Sonnets, with his trio Mbira, is a summit meeting of three of the most compelling voices in jazz improvisation. More than anything, it’s a celebration of being alive. An intimately majestic, sometimes exuberant, warmly conversational album, it’s a must-own for fans of free jazz. Then again, that could be said about a lot of the Wadada Leo Smith, Min Xiao-Fen and Pheeroan akLaff catalogs. This particular session, recorded in 2007 in Finland and released worldwide just now on the reliably adventurous Tum Records label, captures the trio exploring Smith’s permutations on ancient Shona melodies from west Africa.

In the liner notes (which include comprehensive bios for each artist), Smith traces a line back from himself to Louis Armstrong, a connection that might not seem evident at first listen, but up close becomes very clear. Steeped in the blues as a child, Smith never lost that idiom’s terse soulfulness. What’s more, this album is remarkably rhythmic for a free jazz session, something that Smith’s cohorts here deserve credit for as well.

But first Smith goes back to a bell-like Miles Davis tone on the first track, Sarah Bell Wallace, a dedication to his mother, trumpet austerely calling for a dutiful response from spiky thickets of pipa plucking and rolling, suspenseful drums in turn. AkLaff’s signature drum sound, playing actual melody rather than simply rhythm, is in vivid effect here. It’s a warily soulful portrait of an indomitable woman who obviously knew suffering but rose above it and brought her family along.

Min Xiao-Fen, who is afraid of nothing and will play anything, is often the wild card here, bringing her signature sense of humor to Blues: Cosmic Beauty, a story of renewal. Peering up through Smith’s alternately flurrying and richly sustained, restrained lines, she swoops, dives and vocalizes a little, finally ceding to the trumpet on the chorus (much as there’s a great deal of improvisation going on, there’s a clearly defined architecture to all these works).

Zulu Water Festival, meant to evoke South Africans dancing on surface of a lake, juxtaposes a festive melody to a stately allusive groove and a strikingly spacious interlude held down by akLaff’s apprehensively nuanced, drony rumble. The title track, a Billie Holiday homage, puts the pipa player to work as a singer again, low and intimate as the conversation between instruments slowly rises, finally reaching bop fervor as Smith takes the trio out rattling and flurrying. The final track is a suite simply titled Mbira, a spiritually-inspired ballet based on Shona thumb piano music, with variations on a hypnotic circular theme. An animated dialogue between the three instruments swells and ebbs, with akLaff almost imperceptibly building to what seems like an inevitable crescendo with gorgeously nebulous washes of cymbals. Pipa, vocals and trumpet move from calm and sustained to agitated, Min finally swooping down coyly to meet Smith’s summoning call and then setting the whole thing ablaze with a forest of tremolo-picking as akLaff rumbles and leapfrogs his way out of it. It ends on an ambiguous note – maybe there’s a sequel lying in wait.

Also recently out on the Cuneiform label is Smith’s considerably more electric, aggressive and compositionally-oriented Heart’s Reflections double cd with his Organic band, featuring akLaff along with guitarists Michael Gregory and Brandon Ross along with a wide assortment of downtown New York types. Smith will be giving both of these bands a workout along with his Golden Quartet, Golden Quintet and Silver Orchestra as he celebrates his 70th birthday at the new Roulette space in Brooklyn on Dec 15 and 16 at 8 PM.

December 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment