Who’s the funniest person in jazz? Wycliffe always knows when to go for the punchline. Jon Irabagon probably plays more musical jokes than anybody else, and Moppa Elliott is right there with him. Put those two together in Mostly Other People Do the Killing – who have a typically killer new album – and look out. Mary Halvorson can be devastatingly funny when she wants; ditto Brian Charette. Another guy with an endless supply of pretty hilarious ideas is Boston-based reedman Daniel Bennett, who has a characteristically devious new album, Sinking Houseboat Confusion streaming at Spotify. He and his long-running four-piece group with guitarist Nat Janoff, bassist Eddy Khaimovich and drummer Matthew Feick have a St. Paddy’s Day gig coming up at 8:30 PM at the third stage at the Rockwood. Cover is $10, the club wasn’t enforcing that annoying drink minimum the last time this blog was in the house there, and if you must be out on March 17, this show should be amateur-free.
The album’s first track is a steady, motoring guitar theme, John Lizard Comes Home: Janoff’s deadpan purposefulness brings to mind Jon Lundbom in sardonically carefree mode. Bennett plays his usual alto sax and also flute on the second number, Andrew Variations, an upbeat, pastorally-tinged tune with a serpentine lattice of voices (and amusing electronic patches) akin to Tom Csatari’s most humorous work.
Bobby Brick Sent Me Daniel Bennett has a purposefully vamping, modal groove and a no-nonsense alto attack from the bandleader, in the same vein as JD Allen’s “jukebox jazz.” The title cut brings back the album’s opening motorik beat, endless success of growling, distorted rock guitar changes and some wry alto/flute multitracks. Bennett sticks with the flute on Paint the Fence, with its woozy guitar sonics and surrealistic Jethro Tull jazz vibe: fans of Prague jamband weirdos Jull Dajen will love this.
Doctor Duck Builds a Patio – gotta love those titles, huh? – is a sort of syncopated take on the opening number: again, it’s like Csatari, but even more surreal and a lot more shreddy. We Are OK! opens ominously, Bennett playing eerily rippling cimbalom-like lines on piano as the tune comes together, a series of echoey long-tone phrases over a steady rhythm and then a stampeding free-for-all.
Poet Michele Herman recites her wry Little Disappointments of Modern Life over Bennett’s solo alto waves and echoes. Then he switches to clarinet for Animals Discussing Life Changes, a waltz, the most cartoonish number here. The album winds up with a spacy, vertiginous, suspiciously blithe reprise of the title theme, Bennett back on alto and joined by Mark Cocheo on guitar.
Although this is fun, colorful music, Bennett has a serious side. He came down strongly on the side of the good guys in that recent social media kerfluffle where Robert Glasper alleged that women jazz fans (“Fine European women,” to be specific) hear with their lower extremities and don’t have the brains to understand solos.
In any style of music, singers who are also formidable instrumentalists are rare. In jazz, that usually boils down to players who can carry a tune – Frank Lacy and Wycliffe Gordon, for starters- rather than vocalists with instrumental prowess. By any standard, Diana Krall is a strong pianist; Karrin Allyson is vastly underrated on the 88s, and Alicyn Yaffee is a fantastic guitar player. Then there’s Champian Fulton, who’s even more ambitious. Her latest album, wryly titled Speechless, has no vocals on it. It’ll be up at Posi-Tone Records; bookmark this page and check back for a link.
Although Fulton is best known as a singer with deep, blues-informed roots and a fondness for reinventing Dinah Washington classics, this daring move pays off, through a mix of originals and a coyly dynamic take of Someone Stole My Gal. She’s leading a trio at Mezzrow on March 7 at 8 PM, which no doubt will be a mix of instrumental and vocal numbers. Cover is $20.
This is jazz as party music and entertainment: it’s anything but rote or slick. There’s a jubiliant, fearlessly improvisational quality to these songs. Fulton obviously approached this album as she would a live gig, throwing caution to the wind and having an exuberantly good time with it.
Fulton plays and writes with a singer’s nuance. In the New York City Jazz Record, Scott Yanow compared the album’s opening number, Day’s End, to Errol Garner, and that’s on the money: one of Fulton’s signature devices is winding up a phrase or a turnaround with a trill or grace note-like lightness, just as she’ll pull back from the mic to lure the listener in. She also does that a lot with rhythm: throughout the album, bassist Adi Meyerson and drummer Ben Zweig anchor the swing while Fulton carves out a comfortable envelope for lyrical expression.
Lullaby for Art, an Art Blakey homage, is both a showcase for Fulton’s sublty ironic humor – it’s hardly a lullaby – and also for her scampering but spacious hi-de-ho swing chops. The ballad Dark Blue, based on the changes to Woody ’n’ You, is more tenderly dark: the way she essentially scats her way through the final verse on the keys, encompassing a century’s worth of stylistic devices, is the high point of the album.
Tea and Tangerines is a wryly waltzing mashup of Tea for Two and Tangerine, Later Gator, a shout-out to Fulton’s longtime pal Lou Donaldson, follows a loose-limbed soul-jazz tangent, spiced with Zweig’s tersely exuberant syncopation. Pergola is a peacefully lyrical Shelter Island vacation tableau, Fulton’s lingering upper-register chords paired against Meyerson’s dancing bass. Then the two switch roles.
Fulton cites Horace Silver as a stepping-off point for Happy Camper, the album’s most hard-charging number; Dizzy Gillespie in bracingly latin mode also seems to be an influence. That’s Not Your Donut – #BestSongTitleEver, or what? – returns to the jaunty charm of the album’s opening track. Fulton winds up with Carondeleto’s, a salute to her important early influence, Clark Terry and his Missouri hometown. It’s a bustling, rapidfire swing shuffle that’s the closest thing to hardbop here.
Svetlana and the Delancey Five Salute Ella and Satchmo and Put Their Own Sophisticated Stamp on Classic Swing
It figures that drummer Rob Garcia would grab the opportunity to kick off Svetlana & the Delancey Five‘s show at Lucille’s Friday night with a counterintuitive series of offbeats into a hi-de-ho intro, Mike Sailors’ spiraling trumpet solo rising to carnivalesque heights and foreshadowing a darkly lustrous, unselfconsciously erudite show. Why has swing jazz become so enormously popular again? Sure, you can dance to it, and many couples – as well as an exuberant, octogenarian tapdancer – were cutting a rug at this show. But swing is also escapist, and frontwoman Svetlana Shmulyian makes no secret that this is her her vehicle for finding solace and transcendence, and that everybody is welcome to get onboard. But what differentiates this band from the hundreds of others working territory that’s often been done to death over the years is that this group isn’t just a vehicle for vocals. In over four years together, this semi-revolving cast has built a cohesiveness, a camaraderie and a distinctively sophisticated sound largely unrivalled in their thriving demimonde.
For example, Blue Skies is a swing staple, but Shmulyian didn’t sing it as straight-up exuberance – and essentially warned the crowd that she wasn’t going to. And then made good on that, with an uncluttered, balmy optimism grounded in the sense that there definitely had been a storm before the calm. The rest of the program was thematic, a characteristically ambitious celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the mid-50s Louis Armstrong/Ella Fitzgerald collaborations. A potential minefield, but Shmulyian and special guest trombonist/singer Wycliffe Gordon rose to that challenge, indomitably and with a deeply bluesy edge echoed throughout the band.
Pianist Ben Paterson spiced his purist riffs with the occasional gracefully adrenalizing neoromantic cascade, while Garcia delivered grooves that roamed far south of the border, as well as from Buddy Rich splash, to a more chill, vintage Harlem pulse. And his arrangement of the Beatles’ Because brought out every bit of angst in Paul McCartney’s moody ballad, reinvented as a darkly bristling tango. Bassist Scott Ritchie kept his changes purposeful and low-key, and was having more fun than simply walking the changes. Saxophonist Michael Hashin alternated between sailing soprano and dynamic yet terse leaps and bounds on tenor.
But it was the chemistry between Shmulyian and Gordon that hit the highest points of the night, whether his masterful and deceptively subtle plunger work, or his droll, tongue-in-cheek vocals and effortless shifts into falsetto, or the night’s most hilarious moment, at the end of a solo toward the end of the show. As obvious and vaudevillian as that was, Gordon waited patiently to make that moment as ridiculously amusing as it was. And the reliably dynamic, eclectic Shmulyian was pretty much jumping out of her shoes from the git-go, rising to the very top of her register, vibrato going full blast. Yet it was a simmering take of the midtempo ballad Under a Blanket of Blue that arguably carried the most impact.
Likewise, the best song of the night might well have been a brand-new Shmulyian original, a bittersweetly swaying, guardedly optimistic New York-centric ballad allowing for a flicker of hope in the face of omnipresent bad news. Although she also grinningly acknowledged the results of the Brexit referendum, drawing some pretty wild applause from throughout the club. Grounded in the here and now, Shmulyian and her band played a show to get lost in: not bad for somebody who grew up in Moscow spinning Ella Fitzgerald vinyl on her family’s turntable and arrived in New York without knowing a soul here. The band’s next New York gig is a free show on July 23 at 8 PM at the auditorium at Kingsborough Community College, 2001 Oriental Blvd. in Manhattan Beach; the closest train is the Q to Brighton Beach.
The party at Saturday’s slate of hot jazz bands at Central Park Summerstage was out back, on the lawn behind the arena. The picknickers and snuggling couples who’d made that spot their destination were on to something. There are no sightlines back there, unless you sit on somebody’s shoulders, maybe, but the grass has grown in since the hurricane, making a comfortable return to a time that for awhile seemed gone for good.
Inside, a mostly white, monied, youngish crowd slowly grew, milling around aimlessly, lethargic as the sun beat down oppressively on the astroturf. The bleachers to the left and right were packed, especially in the shade of the trees. The tented spaces directly behind the sound booth – which these days is situated at the back of a wide, fenced-off path to the stage – are paid seats reserved for ticketholders who fork over thousands of dollars to sit there, according to one of the many, many ushers working the show. But those seats remained empty for the duration of a concert that went on for over four hours. Then again, hedge funders are not known for their fondness for dancing, or their taste in music, or for any kind of fun in general. What would have been fun would have been to organize a posse to occupy those seats since all that space was going to waste. Needless to say, plenty of people would have jumped at a chance to do that in, say, 1988, when the arena was funded by taxpayer money rather than hedge funders trying to dodge the IRS. Then again, that was also before antidepressants and post-9/11 security paranoia.
On one hand, this concert was a bunch of familiar faces playing familiar material. Then again, that’s a spoiled New Yorker’s view. Many of the creme de la creme of the New York oldtimey swing jazz scene made their way up to the bandstand as the sun made its way slowly across the sky. Trumpter Bria Skonberg served as emcee for the New York Hot Jazz All-Stars, an aptly named pickup band featuring – in no particular order – Anat Cohen on clarinet, Wycliffe Gordon (who’d just played a raptly fun set with Svetlana and the Delancey Five the previous night) on trombone and vocals, Jerron “Blnd Boy” Paxton on banjo, Dalton Ridenhour on piano, Vince Giordano on bass, vocals and bass sax and Joe Saylor on drums. With dixieland flair and expertly bluesy chops, they made their way through a New Orleans-heavy set, Gordon channeling Louis Jordan with similar erudite, unselfconscious verve.
Hot Sardines frontwoman Elizabeth Bougerol, decked out in a dazzling orange pantssuit, sang the most apt song of the afternoon. The wistfully swinging title track to the band’s new album French Fries and Champagne may speak to those on a beer budget with a taste for bubbly, but it’s as much of a guardedly hopeful anthem for those who’ve weathered the past several years’ blitzkrieg of gentrification. Bougerol didn’t mention the UK’s secession from the European Union – Svetlana did that the previous night, with relish – but that’s the first domino. The real estate bubble can’t last much longer. Meanwhile, the band – musical director Evan Palazzo on piano, Jason Prover on trombone, Mike Sailor on trumpet, plus sax, rhythm section and a full string quartet – partied like it was 1929. Bougerol toyed with the beat in a brassy, sometimes languid, sometimes come-hither mezzo-soprano, through a set composed mostly of original, period-perfect continental 1930s style swing numbers. The best of the standards was Bougerol’s insightful bilingual rendition of an old chestnut, titled Comes Love in English, but whose French chorus translates loosely as “Love Is Fucked Up.” They also took a rather farfetched stab at horn-driven countrypolitan along with a misguided remake of a wretched 1980s cheeseball pop hit. Then again, that song was huge in France, and that’s where Bougerol hails from.
Butler, Bernstein & the Hot 9 headlined. By then, the turf had really soaked up the heat and was throwing it back up, and the band onstage reflected that. This is basically trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s return to his roots playing the lively New Orleans-centric swing and pre-swing repertoire he cut his teeth on in Berkeley and then New York before making his own indelible mark as an avatar of noir, and film music, and Jewish jazz. So it was no surprise to hear him leap and snort and fire off one explosive burst after another as pianist Henry Butler boogied and rumbled and barrelhoused, guitarist Matt Munisteri jangling and clanging through every hip voicing in the book as the horns and strings wove an endlessly joyous lattice of southern-fried revelry. Inside, the crowd’s energy level had picked up to the point where it was hard to find a space out of the sun that wasn’t forbidden. Out back on the lawn, there was plenty of space, and relaxation, a good place for starting over when the time comes. And it will. Bring it on.
The Clayton Brothers always deliver, pure and simple: they’re kind of like the Adderleys for this decade. You always know they’re going to swing the changes like crazy, the soloing is always focused and emotionally impactful and at the end of the show or the album, you’ll feel something. The first impression that a listener is left with after hearing their new album The Gathering is that it’s a concert recording. Which it’s actually not, but it has that kind of energy. This time out their usual lineup – Jeff Clayton on alto sax and alto flute, brother John Clayton on bass, Terrell Stafford on trumpet and flugelhorn, Jeff’s son Gerald on piano and Obed Calvaire on drums – gets a little bolstering from guests Wycliffe Gordon on trombone and Stefon Harris on vibraphone.
The eagle flies on Friday, and that’s the vibe they leap into with John Clayton’s high-energy, unstoppably swinging opening track, Friday Struttin’ ,with hard-hitting solos all around until Gordon adds a tinge of levity, Stafford putting it back on the fast track with his trademark spirals and trills. Tsunami, a tune by Jeff, reaches toward a towering, majestic feel driven by sax and trumpet, the rhythm digging in deeper as it crescendos.
The tensely nebulous Touch the Fog, another tune by John, is a movie theme waiting to happen with a tersely catchy, central bass hook, lush horns and some nice interplay between the piano and vibraphone. By contrast, Jefff’s This Ain’t Nothing but a Party works a good-time New Orleans theme with grittily bluesy piano and a trick ending.
John’s Stefon Fetchit [ouch] swings hard, Harris choosing his spots judiciously. They do Don’t Explain casually and expansively, solo piano building artfully to a starlit glimmer, then pulling it back into the shadows where the bass bows rather ominously. Then they flip the script with the buffoonish Coupe de Cone, a springboard for Gordon to do his shtick.
Gerald’s ballad Somealways is the most modern thing here, bracing and modally-charged, edgy piano versus balmy horn chart, Calvaire driving a nimbly scrambling return to the starting line. Jeff felt that his alto work on the first take of Benny Carter’s Souvenir was too effusive, but the band insisted they keep it, and it’s a good thing because he pours his soul out, but not melodramatically: this stuff is real.
John’s Blues Gathering is classic postbop, bass pulling the piano back into terse moodiness on the heels of yet another comical Gordon solo. Jeff’s Simple Pleasures is vastly less simple than the title implies, its heavy, humid mid-August ambience slowly lifting as Harris gets underway and then lets it linger suspensefully again. The album closes with another first-rate Jeff tune, The Happiest of Times, its Monk allusions and nonchalant swing lit up by casually expert, pulse-elevating solos by Stafford, Gerald and then the composer. This might be the band’s best studio effort to date, pretty impressive considering the all-star cast involved.
This blog doesn’t spend much time in the past these days: if you’re just getting into jazz and discovering the classics for the first time, there are plenty of places to do that and this isn’t usually one of them. For that reason, coverage of recordings here typically focuses on original material by artists who are usually if not always flying a little under the radar. But every so often an album appears that offers a fresh take on older sounds. Tenor saxophonist Virginia Mayhew’s recent quartet album, Mary Lou Williams – The Next 100 Years is a delightful example.
For starters, just the idea of doing a Williams homage without piano is intriguing. But maybe it’s just as well – it saves some piano player from cruel comparisons. This album also gives guitarist Ed Cherry – who explores a whole ‘nother side on his jaunty new B3 record, It’s All Good – a chance to go deep into moody blues. Williams’ long career spanned from the hot jazz era of the 20s to the avant garde of the 70s; like Williams, Mayhew is comfortable in diverse milieus from inside to out. Rounding out the group here are bassist Harvie S and drummer Andy Watson, plus contributions from Wycliffe Gordon on trombone.
The songs here are often disarmingly beautiful: Williams had a rare command of the blues and a laserlike, uncluttered sense of melody, which the band grasps impressively. They take their time getting into J.B.’s Waltz – one of a number of jazz waltzes here – and work there way up to an absolutely gorgeous, chordally-infused Cherry solo. Medi II follows a moody chromatic trajectory to some wry, almost vaudevillian fun from the rhythm section. By contrast, Medi I, a 1973 piece alternately titled Searching for Love is a nonchalantly intense soul/blues tune – it sounds a lot like Doc Pomus’ Lonely Avenue – dark stuff lit up with vivid and spacious Mayhew and Cherry solos.
The 1954 tune O.W., inspired by Don Byas, swings a minor blues with incisive, staccato work from bass, sax and guitar in turn, followed by the richly suspenseful Cancer, from Williams’ 1945 Zodiac Suite, twelve minutes of judicious chromatic intensity and a fleet-footed, terse Mayhew solo. What’s Your Story Morning Glory – the original version of the standard Black Coffee, for which Williams was never credited -sounds here like it’s the prototype for One for My Baby. Mayhew does this as a story for two voices, first wistful in the wee hours with the sax and guitar and ending by contrasting against Gordon’s completely unexpected, comedic lines.
NME – short for New Musical Express – draws inspiration from Byas and also the Ellington band, a vividly flurrying swing tune. The last of the Williams numbers is Waltz Boogie, one of her catchiest. Mayhew also includes two inspired originals. The first is the nebulously Monk-ish One for Mary Lou, which the saxophonist builds to an allusive triumph – to swing it would be too obvious. The album closes with the warmly bluesy, relaxed 5 For Mary Lou. Beyond what they offer musically, albums like this serve other purposes – they make you want to revisit the originals as well as to go deeper into the works of a bandleader who completely gets what this music is all about: soul.
Mayhew is also featured on another soulful recent revisitation of vintage material, the Duke Ellington Legacy’s Single Petal of a Rose.