Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Live in Europe: Lyrical Piano Icon Fred Hersch’s Funnest Album Ever?

Fred Hersch’s latest album Live in Europe is the new paradigm. The pianist and his long-running trio didn’t even know that their live radio broadcast from Brussels last November had been recorded until the tour was over. When he found out that there was a recording, Hersch listened back and was validated that the band had killed it just as he’d remembered. Instant album! It’s streaming at Spotify; Hersch, bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson kick off a weeklong stand at the Vanguard on July 24, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30.

This is a very fun, playful, even quirky set. Beyond the fact that these three musicians are one of the rare groups in jazz who’ve been together long enough to develop near-telepathic communication, they’re in an exceptionally good mood and the result is contagious. The fact that they were just going out and having a good time onstage rather than officially making a record probably has something to do with that.

Hersch is one of the greatest – maybe the greatest – current interpreter of Monk on the piano, and the way he takes the opening number, We See’s riffs dancing further and further outside, up to a series of ridiculously good jokes, makes for a hell of an opening. Jousting, deadpan straight-up swing and some clever rhythmic shifts beneath the pianist’s increasingly marionettish pulse take it out.

The group work their way animatedly into Snape Matings with hints of a ballad that never coalesces – the fun is leaving that carrot in front of the audience. McPherson’s subtle vaudevillian touches and Hebert’s suggestion of dropping everything for a mighty charge are the icing on the cake. Scuttlers, which follows, is more of an improvisation on a similarly carnivalesque, Frank Carlberg-ish theme, followed by the aptly titled Skipping and its rhythmic shifts, the group reaching toward a jaunty, ragtime-tinged swing.

Bristol Fog -a shout-out to the late British pianist John Taylor – is a plaintively elegaic, lustrous rainy-day jazz waltz and arguably the album’s most affecting track, with a long, mutedly clustering bass solo at the center. Then the group pulse into Newklypso – a Sonny Rollins dedication – Hersch’s lithe righthand and McPherson’s irrepressible offbeat accents held together by Hebert’s funky elasticity.

The Big Easy, a balmy, slowly swaying nocturne, has Ellingtonian gravitas but also the flickering playfulness of the beginning of the show. There’s also a little wry Donald Fagen in there too, which comes further to the forefront and then recedes in favor of fondly regal yet relaxed phrasing in Herbie Hancock’s Miyako.

The group take their time giving Wayne Shorter’s Black Nile a similarly considered launch and then swing it by the tail. Hersch brings the concert full circle with a solo take of Blue Monk as the encore, pulling strings all the way. Bands who have as much sheer fun onstage rarely have this much tightness, let alone the kind of chops these three guys were showing off in Belgium that night.

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July 17, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Flute Music for People Who Hate It

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benny Sharoni’s Retro Jazz Is a Hit

The last jazz album we reviewed was noisy, frenetic and half rock. This one is all melody, laid-back and gorgeously oldschool. It’s one of those sleeper albums that you can put on and fool your snob friends with – just tell them it’s a rare reissue from fifty years ago, and most of them will buy it. Boston-based tenor saxophonist Benny Sharoni assembled a first-rate band to join him in a convivially expansive, purist mood on his new album Eternal Elixir. Joey “Sonny” Barbato (whose 2006 cd Crackerjack is a genuine classic and one of the finest of its rare kind, an accordion jazz album) plays piano here, joined by Barry Ries on trumpet, Mike Mele on guitar, Todd Baker on bass and Steve Langone on drums, with Kyle Aho taking over the 88s on four of the tracks. The vibe here is retro in a refreshing way: it feels like one of those early 60s Impulse albums, driven by camaraderie rather than showboating, the kind of date players record because they have something they think is worth capturing, rather than simply to satisfy the terms of a label deal.

The album opens with Bernstein, Sharoni’s propulsive tribute to the conductor/composer, Barbato’s fluidly precise runs echoed by Sharoni further on. French Spice, a tastily catchy Donald Byrd tune from 1961 that moves deftly from hypnotic pulse to proto-funk to straight-up swing and back again, Sharoni taking his cue from Wayne Shorter’s casually soulful performance on that song (as he does on another Byrd composition here, an understated version of the vampy Pentecostal Feelin’). Barbato’s terse, understated solo turns with a grin from blithe to bluesy in a split second. The version of Estate here mutes its bossa origins, recasting it as slow swing and stripping it down to its inner soul with aptly summery, almost minimalist solos from Barbato and then Sharoni. Likewise, the band breathes new life into Bobby Hebb’s Sunny as a latin jazz number, a launching pad for some lively melismas and trills from Ries and some impressively straight-up blues from Aho.

Benito’s Bossa Bonita, an original gets the same casually comfortable, easy-wearing swing of Estate, with a couple of especially choice, effortlessly congenial solos from Sharoni and a terse conversation between Aho’s piano and Baker’s bass. To Life, based on the 1964 Cannonball Adderley version, maintains the laid-back bluesy mood, Ries (with a mute) and then Sharoni gimlet-eyed and content while Barbato keeps watch with sharp, incisively staccato chords. Another original, Cakes, sways with a distant Donald Fagen feel (Sharoni is a fan, having discovered Steely Dan as solace during his mandatory tour of duty in the Israeli army, a low point in his life), and a moody, reverb-tinged Mele solo. The album winds up with The Thing to Do, a cagy, swinging Blue Mitchell tune from 1964 and Senor Papaya, which takes its title from Sharoni’s papaya-grower father back home in Israel. Sharoni admits it’s quite ironic since Sr. Papaya himself is so laid-back and the song anything but. The Benny Sharoni Quartet plays Fridays in August at 8:30 PM at Winslow’s Tavern in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.

August 5, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Memoriam: Joe Zawinul, 1932-2007

Viennese-born jazz keyboardist Joe Zawinul died September 11 in his hometown after a battle with cancer. He was 75. Zawinul pioneered the use of electronic keyboards in jazz and was a major influence on his fellow musicians, notably Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. While studying at the Berklee School of Music in 1958, Zawinul was hired away by Maynard Ferguson, and later played with Dinah Washington and Cannonball Adderley. While with Adderley in the 1960s he wrote Mercy Mercy Mercy, one of the first jazz songs to use an electric piano. Later in the decade he contributed the title track to the milestone Miles Davis album In a Silent Way, Davis’ first venture into the electric sound that he would expand on and continue to use throughout the remainder of his career.

In 1970 Zawinul founded Weather Report along with sax player Wayne Shorter and bassist Miroslav Vitous. Arguably the most important of the jazz fusion bands of the 70s, Weather Report played a mix of high-energy, funky jams and quieter, more reflective material. Zawinul’s work with the band – which later included legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius – broadened the sonic palette for jazz keyboards, utilizing different electric pianos, synthesizers and effects including wah, reverb, distortion and loops. It is hard to think of a jazz or funk musician since 1970 who was not influenced in some way, directly or indirectly, by Zawinul and Weather Report.

Zawinul’s best-known composition was Birdland, the opening track from Weather Report’s 1977 album Heavy Weather. What Take the A Train or Take Five were to earlier eras, Birdland was to the late 70s and early 80s, the most popular jazz song of its time. Even punk rockers knew the song’s simple, celebratory hook. After Weather Report dissolved in the early 80s, Zawinul led the Zawinul Syndicate, a fusion group that he played in until very shortly before his death, releasing several albums on his own BirdJAM label.

While jazz fusion remains a dirty word in some circles because of its use of rock arrangements and steady 4/4 time (not to mention the fact that fusion was the forerunner of Lite-FM style elevator jazz), there is no denying Zawinul’s pioneering influence, his uncanny sense of melody, his formidable chops and his brilliance as a bandleader.

September 13, 2007 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, obituary | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment