Bill Frisell has recorded such a slew of albums, it’s easy to let an occasional one go skipping past you.
Or, to put it another way, how the heck did I sleep on “Beautiful Dreamers,” the great guitarist’s 2010 recording with violist Eyvind Kang and drummer Rudy Royston?
Because I hadn’t heard it, I was unprepared for the toughness and rhythmic drive that characterized much of the trio’s Friday set at the Old Town School of Music, though I suspect when I get around to playing the album, I won’t find music with quite the same power or easy intensity – partly a matter of the trio having deepened as a unit over the years, partly a matter of them lifting their game in such a perfect acoustic setting.
As much as you may think you know Frisell, whose rootsy shimmer is one of the signature sounds of the past 20 years, you really don’t. Culminating an amazing week for edgy hypnotic trios – pianist Craig Taborn’s awesome threesome with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Gerald Cleaver dazzled last Sunday at Constellation, another terrific-sounding space – Beautiful Dreamers presented myriad shades of Frisell ranging from fusioneer to avantist. Even for someone as naturally eclectic as him, the set was exquisitely expansive.
The second half was packed with revelations: “Strawberry Fields” as a raga-like epic, Monk’s “Misterioso” as a cowboy tune off “Way Out West,” “Old Man River” with sustaining effects that summoned ghosts. Also in the mix: “Surfer Girl and “Hot House,” on which Royston’s propulsive playing was doubly powerful, coming out of the textural mode in which he spent most of the evening. As for Kang’s walking bass effects: is it enough to say there’s nothing the man can’t pull off, in the most elegantly laid back fashion?
***Introducing a new feature, in which I will wax (get it?) about favorite albums, in some cases reprinting reviews from JazzTimes magazine. I’ll also be writing about live performances and, of course, there will be coffee. For the foreseesable future, Radioville will be on hiatus, its plug pulled after I overcame an extended bout of recession-age journalistic generosity in contributing on a “volunteer” basis to a radio station that wanted to keep that arrangement.***
The following JazzTimes review is one I was dying to write. Sanchez’s new album, a guaranteed Top 10 choice, has been one of this year’s brightest surprises of the year and has lost none of its dazzle after a dozen spins. I’ve been recommending it to everyone in sight.
On his acclaimed 2010 double album, Live in New York, Antonio Sanchez stirred up excitement with a pianoless, two-saxophone quartet that stretched out on songs as long as 20 minutes. Despite such daring, New Life is a bold step forward. With the addition of the brilliant young pianist John Escreet (playing acoustic and electric) and the substitution of a song-oriented approach for a jamming one, the drummer-composer fosters a transformation akin to turning 2D into 3D. One artfully crafted song after another bursts to life, no two of them alike. It’s a breakthrough that establishes this longtime Pat Metheny and Gary Burton sideman as a major artist in his own right.
The tunes, which reflect Sanchez’s drumming with their taut strength and eruptive power, give two of jazz’s hottest saxophonists, altoist David Binney and tenorist Donny McCaslin, all they can handle: soaring melodies, rich harmonies, clever structures, meaty unison parts. After showing off his Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner influences early, Sanchez carves his own animated signature sound with the adrenalized, leaping and loping “Medusa,” the coolly reflective “Air” (featuring standout bassist Matt Brewer), the teasing, hard-bopping “The Real McDaddy” and the open, exuberant “Family Ties,” which boasts charged exchanges between the saxophonists and a dazzling acoustic solo by Escreet.
And then there’s the thematic journey of the one epic number, the 14-minute title track. It has worlds to offer: a pensive opening, lilting Brazilian melody with wordless vocals by Thana Alexa (now Sanchez’s fiancée), an overpowering middle section, a gorgeous piano interlude, a soaring section featuring multiplied vocals, and then, emerging like a hidden track, an eerie coda. In contemplating the passages of existence, “New Life” may have you thinking of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. The film, of course, doesn’t swing nearly as well.
On the 50th anniversary of “A New Perspective,” an appreciation for Donald Byrd’s one-of-a-kind masterpiece.
For many of the people who wrote his obit, Donald Byrd made his deepest mark in the ’70s, as an early proponent of crossover jazz. Byrd, who died earlier this month, certainly achieved his greatest commercial success with his ’73 blockbuster, Black Byrd, and he inspired tons of sampling by the acid jazz generation with that album and subsequent ones. But for a trumpeter who helped write hard-bop history, it would be wrong to regard his soul-jazz and fusion phase as any kind of artistic peak.
A native of Detroit, Byrd was one of the most prolific voices in hard bop, a Clifford Brown disciple who made his mark with the Jazz Messengers, with his own bands including the great one he co-led with Pepper Adams, and on a raft of Blue Note albums as a sideman.
Perhaps the most unusual and striking of his Blue Note albums was his 1963 effort, A New Perspective. A collection of spirituals that recently marked its 50th anniversary, it combined an instrumental septet including Hank Mobley, Kenny Burrell and Herbie Hancock and an eight-voice chorus under the direction of Chicago’s Coleridge Perkinson.
Other jazz albums have employed wordless vocal choruses, but never with the eerie power of this one, which alternates between the heavenly lift of church vocals and the dark urgency of field hollers. With the wordless chants pushing the music, the album takes on an otherwordly – and otherjazzly – quality. The standout track is “Cristo Redentor,” a slow, hymn-like number that features one of Byrd’s most purely beautiful solos and one of his most haunting melodies.
The song was written by the arranger of the album, Blue Note pianist and VIP Duke Pearson, who offsets the dramatic depths on A New Perspective with bursts of joy. With his plump, rounded sound, Byrd provides a kind of frontline home base for his fellow soloists. Like the sports car he stands behind in Reid Miles’ cover photo, A New Perspective is a classic, one that after all these years demands repeated spins.
Radioville: Chris Potter, “The Sirens” (ECM); Jack Mouse Group, “Range of Motion” (Origin) and Dick Reynolds, “Music and Friends” (Origin)
Public Radio WDCB, 90.9 FM, the beacon of beautiful Glen Ellyn, Il., served up yet two more reviews of happening albums by artists you know or need to know. If you missed them live, you can hear them in slightly time-faded form here.
[Craig Taborn, Larry Grenadier, David Virelles, Chris Potter and Eric Harland]
For those of us who were on hand when Chris Potter emerged with Red Rodney’s band, a phenom still in his teens, there was never any doubt the kid could play the tenor saxophone. He was jazz’s answer to the Natural. The only question was where he was going with that talent, and what he was going to do with it.
Potter has recorded prolifically in all kinds of bands on all kinds of saxophones. He’s played electric funk-style jazz with his Underground band, worked as a sideman with Steely Dan, recorded with strings and woodwinds and with the late, great Paul Motian. But for all his skill, and all the people claiming him as the tenor saxophonist of his generation, he’s been a bit of a blank page as an artist, technically great but emotionally lacking. All of which makes his new album, The Sirens, something of a breakthrough. Don’t be put off by the concept, a musical response to Homer’s The Odyssey. This is the most emotionally committed Potter has sounded, and the album is his most compelling in terms of sound, texture and tone.
In an inspired move, Potter employs two great keyboardists: Craig Taborn, who is his usual dazzling self on piano, and omnipresent Cuban-born rising star David Virelles, who adds evocative touches on celeste, harmonium and prepared piano. With Larry Grenadier of Brad Mehldau’s trio on bass and the phenomenal Eric Harland on drums, this is a monster band.
Even if you’re not conversant with The Odyssey, you’ll find yourself carried along by the ebb and flow of The Sirens – by the feelings of yearning and determination and regret expressed through the music. Potter is at his most powerful playing classic, full-bodied, ripping tenor saxophone on “Kalypso,” reflecting the influence of Sonny Rollins. He makes his most tender and moving statement playing soprano saxophone on “Penelope,” and is at his most haunting and mysterious playing both tenor and bass clarinet on the title track. It’s a journey worth taking.
* * *
In jazz, there are times when you can judge a book by its covers, and an artist by the musicians he pays tribute to with his own compositions. That’s the case with veteran drummer Jack Mouse’s new album, Range of Motion, which includes songs written for or dedicated to the great Bunky Green, ’50s innovator John LaPorta, Henry Mancini and Shelley Manne. He also scores points with a dedication to hockey great Bobby Orr, “Hip Check.”
Recording for the first time under his own name, Mouse leads a topnotch quintet including saxophonist Scott Robinson, whose album Bronze Nemesis I reviewed several weeks back, trumpeter Art Davis, he of the beautiful tone and exceptional touch, and guitarist John McLean, whose charged, textured sound gives the music a post-fusion edge.
A drummer of freewheeling strength who has played with the likes of James Moody and Kenny Burrell, Mouse is an old-school guy. But there’s nothing dated about his songs, which range from the New Orleans-fueled “Slow Helen” to the infectious tempo-changing “Mean Streak,” written while he was Bunky Green, to the lovely waltz, “Prairie Dance.”
Range of Motion is being released by the Seattle-based Origin label, along with another album by a Chicago mainstay, Dick Reynolds. Back in the ’60s, he was the house pianist at Mr. Kelly’s, the famous Rush Street club where stars like Sarah Vaughan and held forth. He also was a king of the commercial jingles jungle. Reynolds has been in retirement since 1996, but he doesn’t sound retiring on Music and Friends, a lively, impeccably arranged big band effort whose original compositions range effortlessly from swing to Latin to funk.
With its gathering of standout Windy City players, the album feels like old home week. The soloists include harmonica ace Howard Levy, alto saxophonist Mike Smith and trumpeter Victor Garcia, with a rhythm section that reunites longtime bass and drum partners Kelly Sill and Joel Spencer.
Did I tell you how terrific John Hollenbeck’s new album is, and how happy it will make Jimmy Webb? Oh yeah, I did, on the radio, here.
With his love of Philip Glass-school minimalim and Leonard Bernstein-style maximalism, drummer-composer John Hollenbeck is just as easily filed under new music as jazz. And as he reveals on his wonderful new album, Songs I Like a Lot, he’s a pop guy too. Conducting the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, leaving most of the percussion work to its drummer, he delivers striking extended arrangements of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” and “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” songs you may think you’ve head the last word on.
The album also includes ear-opening covers of Imogen Heap’s “Canvas” and Queen’s “Bicycle Race,” one of Freddy Mercury’s more complicated pieces, on which Hollenbeck gets down to basics by simulating the nostalgic sound of baseball cards flapping across spokes.
For all his influences, Hollenbeck is no eclectic. One of the most distinctive composers now at work, he absorbs styles into a powerful personal voice that thrives on bold coloristic effects, elegant rhythmic turns and bell-like voicings by his soloists, here including a pair of perfectly matched singers, Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckmann, pianist Gary Versace and, among the big band members, guitarist Martin Scales.
Both singers, especially Bleckmann, have been guilty of artiness on certain projects, but here, it’s all about projecting words and melody. The music always keeps you on edge with its surging and swelling orchestrations and quiet interludes. Hollenbeck is after beauty and even transcendence. Speaking of which, the album features an unlikely treatment of Ornette Coleman’s “All My Life,” from the 1971 recording, Science Fiction – which as you may remember featured the Indian singer Asha Puthli – and a bold reworking of the classic folk ballad, “Man of Constant Sorrow.”
As much as the album bursts with life, it holds something back for us to investigate over many listenings. Gotta say I’m having a hard time playing anything else.
It took me a while to find the rental car, which I forgot I had parked on the side in a less obvious illegal spot than the one in front of Caffe Sportiva. But the car wouldn’t start, not so much as a cough. Have I mentioned how much I’ve always loathed Fords, and how I’ve always associated them with Republicans?
A bearded guy wearing an old New York Mets cap and a wrinkled madras sports jacket appeared out of nowhere asking me if I needed help. I’ll spare you the buildup: the guy was a rabbi. His name was Stanley. He looked to be in his late fifties. He had worse posture than me.
“American cars can be a problem, whatever that kook Iakookoo says,” he said, in that sing songy delivery rabbis frequently have, as if they’ve watched “Fiddler on the Roof” too many times.
“You’re a little dated,” I said.
“Why don’t you come inside my miserable excuse for an office and we can call the Shell man? He’s my wife’s cousin. He’ll give you a deal if he isn’t still mad at me for giving him lousy seats for Rosh Hashanah. I’ll give you a fresh cup of coffee.”
I spared him the cappuccino story. What can I say? I’m a sparing kind of guy.
Rabbi Stanley worked out of a storefront synagogue down the block. A letter was missing in the sign out front, so it said Shalo Temple. The place felt like a shoe box inside. He had a dingy office with a buzzing window air conditioner, a scratched old mahogany desk and a collection of bowling trophies. He pushed a stack of newspapers off a cassette desk, pushed Play and “Like a Rolling Stone” came wobbling down from badly hidden ceiling speakers.
He pulled two vintage Mets coffee mugs from a drawer and poured brownish liquid into them from a cracked Mr. Coffee carafe. He placed one mug on the edge of the desk for me and took a loud sip from his. “Chock full o’ Nuts,” he said, actually smacking his lips. “It’s a heavenly coffee. Get the connection?”
I may have grimaced.
“When was the last time you made a connection?” he said, taking another sip.
“You deal drugs?” I said as deadpan as I could.
“No, no,” he said with a roaring laugh. “Not that! I mean when the last time you made a connection with the guy upstairs?”
“Come on,” he said, pulling a serious face.
“Would it be okay if we just connected with the Shell man?” I said.
Rabbi Stanley had trouble getting a signal on his cell phone. I could have let him use mine. I decided to go back to the Italians and do better at losing my religion there.
Radioville: Wayne Shorter Quartet, “Without a Net” (Blue Note); Miles Davis Quintet, “Live in Europe 1969″ (Columbia/Legacy)
My two-minute (or so) WDCB review on a perfectly timed pair of live albums can be heard here.
For the next time capsule, here is a rollable transcript:
For some jazz fans, Wayne Shorter stopped mattering after his stint with the great Miles Davis Quintet of the mid-’60s. That’s not an easy argument to refute, so fierce was Shorter on tenor saxophone back then, as he had been with the Jazz Messengers and on his own Blue Note classics. His subsequent fusion-era albums were spotty, and with its birdsong tonality, his soprano saxophone playing, in acoustic and electric settings, is an acquired taste.
But as is made clear by two new live albums, Shorter hardly left his greatness behind. On both his current quartet’s Without a Net, mostly taken from their 2011 European tour, and the Miles Davis Quintet’s Live in Europe 1969, The Bootleg Series Vol. 2, Shorter plays with galvanic power while thriving on the remarkable interplay of these special units.
Without a Net is a grab bag of Shorter originals, including a 23-minute tone poem, Miles Smiles and Weather Report remakes and an old Hollywood theme. The music is ruled by a bold eccentricity – by oddly shaped narratives and slippery harmonies – and by the brilliant intuition of a quartet including pianist Danilo Perez – never better – bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade.
My favorite track is “Flyin’ Down to Rio,” from the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film, here given a playful treatment with Perez’s charismatic percussive accents and free flowing lines. Recorded in the studio, the tone poem, “Pegasus,” is a work of patchwork ingenuity that holds your interest by continually taking on new shapes.
The Miles Davis set of three CDs and one DVD is the only documentation of the ’69 band including pianist Chick Corea, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette. For my money, this is the most sheerly enjoyable of Miles’ recordings from this period, a wonderfully loose and limber set adrenalized by DeJohnette’s supercharged strokes – and lit by Shorter’s fiery playing. While pushing toward Bitches Brew, the title track of which gets two workouts here, Miles was still playing “Milestones” and “Nefertiti.” What more could you ask for?