It’s impossible to think of a more apt choice of players to evoke an awestruck deep-space glimmer than vibraphonist Chris Dingman, pianist Fabian Almazan and singer Camila Meza. Back them with the elegantly propulsive drums of Joe Nero and bassist-bandleader Bryan Copeland, and you have most of the crew on Bryan and the Aardvarks’ majestic, mighty new album Sounds from the Deep Field, streaming at Bandcamp. Saxophonist Dayna Stephens adds various shades with his EWI (electronic wind instrument) textures. They’re playing the album release show on April 27 at the Jazz Gallery, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $22.
Over the past few years, the band have made a name for themselves with their bittersweetly gorgeous epics, and this album, inspired by Hubble Telescope images from the furthest reaches of space, is no exception. The opening number, Supernova is much less explosive than the title implies: it’s an expansive, almost imperceptibly crescendoing epic set to a steady, dancing midtempo 4/4 groove, Almazan’s purposeful ripples mingling with subtle wafts from the EWI and Meza’s wordless vocals, setting the stage for Dingman’s raptly glistening coda. Meza doesn’t play guitar on this album: that’s Jesse Lewis’ subtle but rich and constantly shifting textures.
Dingman and Almazan build and then drop back from a hypnotic, pointillistic, uneasily modal interweave as the rhythm of Eagle Nebula circles and circles, subtly fleshed out with Meza’s meteor-shower clarity and the occasional wry wisp from Stephens. Subtle syncopations give the distantly brooding Tiny Skull Sized Kingdom hints of trip-hop, Meza calmly setting the stage for an unexpectedly growling, increasingly ferocious Lewis guitar solo
Echoes of Chopin, a contemporaneous American Protestant hymnal and John Lennon as well echo throughout Soon I’ll Be Leaving This World. Almazan’s gently insistent, stern chords build to a trick turnaround, then Nero and Dingman finally come sweeping in and the lights go up. By the time the warpy electonic effects kick in, it’s obvious that this is not a death trip – at least not yet.
Meza’s tender, poignant vocals rise as the swaying waves of The Sky Turned to Grey build toward Radiohead angst. It’s the first of two numbers here with lyrics and the album’s most straight-ahead rock song, fueled by Lewis’ red-sky guitar solo. By contrast, Nero’s lighthanded, tricky metrics add to the surrealism of Strange New Planet, a disarmingly humorous mashup of Claudia Quintet and Weather Report.
Interestingly, Bright Shimmering Lights isn’t a vehicle for either Dingman or Almazan: it’s a resonant Pat Metheny-ish skyscape that grows more amusing as the timbres cross the line into P-Funk territory. It segues into LV 426, a miniature that recalls Paula Henderson’s recent, irresistibly funny adventures in electronics.
Meza’s balmy, wistful vocals waft through Magnetic Fields, the closest thing to a traditional jazz ballad here, lit up by a lingering Dingman solo. Nero’s dancing traps, Dingman’s shivery shimmers and Almazan’s twinkle mingle with Lewis’ pensive sustain and Almazan’s rapidfire, motorik electric piano in To Gaze Out the Cupola Module. the album’s closing cut.
The next time we launch a deep-space capsule, we should send along a copy of this album. If anybody out there finds it and figures out what it is, and how to play it, and can perceive the sonics, it could be a soundtrack for their own mysterious voyage through the depths.
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.