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Michele Rosewoman Sings

December 29, 2013

Here is the special enhanced release of  my Washington Post piece on the great Michele Rosewoman and the 30th anni of her New Yor-Uba band, along with a link to NPR’s audio capture of the terrific Christmas concert Rosewoman participated in with fellow pianists Andy Bey, Stanley Cowell and Sullivan Fortner. Included (if it hasn’t been taken down) is a video of their hugely enjoyable round robin performance of “Jingle Bells.” And here is Kevin Whitehead’s Fresh Air review of Rosewoman’s new album, New Yor-Uba: A Musical Celebration of Cuba.

The Return of Jazzespress: Album Reviews

November 3, 2013

I’ve got a bunch of album reviews in the November issue of JazzTimes that I sorta actually like. So what better way to recharge this lonely blog than to offer them free of charge? (No need to go to Bandcamp to view them!)

     

CLAUDIA QUINTET, September (Cuneiform)

John Hollenbeck has fashioned his share of attention-grabbing tunes, but few as compelling as “Sept. 29, 1936: Me Warn You,” a highlight of the Claudia Quintet’s shiveringly good new album. A mash-up of reflective music and sonically sliced and diced excerpts from a Franklin D. Roosevelt speech, it basks in the president’s sarcasm in blowing off the opposition for pretending to back his New Deal programs and claiming “We will do them better.” With ad nauseam repetitions of phrases like that, the piece can drive you to distraction, but through its coiled minimalism and the lucid counter-voices of Matt Moran’s vibes and Chris Speed’s saxophone, the music wins us over by powerfully claiming the human voice as an instrument of its own.

September, strung loosely on the memories and sensations that various days in the month conjure for Hollenbeck, is elsewhere awash in gentler emotion. New accordionist Red Wierenga adds to the tapestry-like richness of the music on such tunes as “September 12: Coping Song,” which affectingly recalls the aftermath of 9/11, and “September 17: Loop Piece,” on which Hollenbeck the drummer is at his most lyrical.

The Claudia Quintet could once sound a bit soft and mannered. But there is nary such a moment here, not with the pronounced, throbbing bass of Drew Gress (or, on four cuts, Chris Tordini) riding over the cool currents and asserting its soulful authority. Hollenbeck’s subtle absorption of ethnic sounds including Indian and Brazilian further adds to the stylistic depth of the album, which for all its artful texture is one of Hollenbeck’s most forceful and immediate efforts.

THE WHAMMIES, Play the Music of Steve Lacy, Vol. 2 (Driff)

The Whammies’ second helping of Steve Lacy interpretations, recorded about a year after the first batch, has a more outwardly exploratory quality than its exuberant predecessor. But the results are equally enjoyable, as you would expect from a superb group of far flung but close-knit Lacey-ites including alto saxophonist Jorrit Dijkstra, pianist Pandelis Karayorgis and bassist Nate McBride (from Boston), drummer Han Bennink and violinist Mary Oliver (from Amsterdam) and trombonist Jeb Bishop (like McBride a key member of the Chicago scene who has moved back to his native soil, in Bishop’s case North Carolina).

Though bookended by the tonally thrusting “Skirts” and a live-sounding take on “Shuffle Boil,” one of many Monk tunes Lacy spent a lifetime investigating, Vol. 2 spends much of its time playing the inner angles of the music. Oliver and Karayorgis engage in an exquisite interlude on “Feline,” and Dijkistra and Karayorgis, both explosive players, create a haunting moment on “Art,” which Lacy based on a Herman Melville poem. The pianist performs “Wickets,” dedicated to Bobby Timmons, unaccompanied, while Dijkstra overdubs saxes to lyrical and hard-hitting effect on “Saxovision.” Bishop’s stirring Ellingtonian solo on “Pregnant Virgin” is another highlight.

Ultimately, the Whammies are more than the sum of their parts, but they would be a very different band without Bennink, whose extroverted personality gives way here to some of his most elegantly restrained work on record. For all the attention he has drawn as the wild man of the drums, no one swings more decisively or majestically. In coming to terms with Lacy’s highly personal rhythmic concept, Bennink is equally unmatched

REMPIS PERCUSSION QUARTET, PhalanxWHEELHOUSE, Boss of the Plains (both Aerophonic)

With these excellent albums, saxophonist Dave Rempis, an important musician-presenter in Chicago, launched his own Aereophonic label in June. The two-disc Phalanx captures wide-open live sets by the long-running Rempis Percussion Quartet featuring bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten and dual drummers Tim Daisy and Frank Rosaly. Boss of the Plains marks the recording debut of Wheelhouse, a drummerless chamber-style trio featuring vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz and bassist Nate McBride.

A onetime protégé of Ken Vandermark, with whom he still performs, Rempis is cut from the same mold as that reed player in terms of his intense blowing style, his debt to European free-jazz pioneers like Peter Brotzmann and his ability to juggle several bands at once, including the Engines and Ballister. But Rempis has developed his own distinctive approach. That’s immediately evident on Boss of the Plains via its coolly atmospheric sound, long sustained tones and the saxophonist’s Ornette-like cries on alto.

Recorded in 2010, Boss of the Plains is an album of contours and spatial effects. But with Rempis’ urgent phrasing, Adasiewicz’s rippling lines and McBride’s tolling bass, the music can spring to life, as it does to boppish effect on “Song For.” As compelling as the interaction between the saxophonist and vibraponist is, it would be a mistake to overlook the contribution of McBride, whose elegant deep tones, beautiful bowed lines and impeccable time both anchor the music and keep it afloat.

Phalanx, which pairs 2012 performances from Milwaukee and Antwerp, is the sixth recording by the Percussion Quartet. The songs are epic  – the first of two Antwerp offerings runs 48 minutes – but with its continual sense of rhythmic and thematic renewal and its sheer propulsive drive, the music never wears out its welcome. As agile as it is rawboned, the band incorporates sounds ranging from the heated folk expression of Ethiopian saxophone legend Getachew Mekuria  to Latin accents to screech effects. The quartet takes its name from its use of two drummers, but Rempis contributes his own percussive effects by biting off notes and varying textures.

The standout piece is the artfully orchestrated “Croatalus Adamantooths” – a playful reference to the venomous pit viper #Crotalus adamenteus#. The song opens with a long, bluesy, unaccompanied solo by Haker Flaten, whose bass is so vividly captured you can hear the strings bend and snap. Entering on sinuous tenor, Rempis settles into a luxuriant ballad mode, gradually steps up into a trotting bop mode and gathers intensity. Halfway through, a lighter-than-air drum duet re-sets the scene for the saxophonist, whose spare voicings lead to a pouring out of energy and a nicely understated conclusion. This is one improvising group that does consistently see the forest for the trees.

HAROLD O’NEAL, Man on the Street (Blueroc)

Harold O’Neal is a tough artist to pin down. Is he the stylish hard bop reviver responsible for the well-received 2010 effort Whirling Mantis? Or the pianist who, on a period instrument, channeled the impressionists on his quirky 2012 solo album, Marvelous Fantasy?

On Man on the Street, he’s mostly a bopper, leading a strong quintet including saxophonist Marcus Strickland, bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Marcus Gilmore through a selection of originals. The songs aren’t terribly original. With Strickland showing off his vertical range on tenor, the John Coltrane influence is prominent on “The Dean of Swing” – on which O’Neal makes like McCoy Tyner with his dark, dancing chords – and the title track, a sweet-tempered modal workout. But however derivative these tunes are, there’s plenty of life in them. The melodies kick in instantly and maintain their grip with a lean efficiency. O’Neal learned how to keep a tight rein on the rhythms from saxophonist Bobby Watson, in whose band he started out, and lets his own freewheeling instincts as a pianist take it from there.

The solo piano piece “Gossamer’s Lilt,” on the other hand, showcases O’Neal’s classical bent – if you can classify this coming together of Ravel and the tremulous keyboard theme from Battlestar Galactica as classical. “Childlike,” a duet with Strickland (on soprano), also combines a soundtrack-like melody and rhapsodic keyboard touches. That the two sides of O’Neals’s talent come together as agreeably as they do on #Man in the Street# is a credit to his likability. If he ever figures out how to synthesize styles, he’ll be that much more impressive.

DR. LONNIE SMITH OCTET, In the Beginning, Volumes 1 & 2  (Pilgrimage)

Dr. Lonnie Smith’s new two-disc album is not only his most invigorating effort in years, it’s also one of the most exciting Hammond B-3 albums in some time. Credit the octet format on several tracks for adding heaps of energy and pizzazz. And credit arranger Ian Hendrickson-Smith for skillfully polishing the various facets of Smith’s style on this collection of originals, which reaches back to the ’60s via the soulful fuss of “Keep Talkin’,” the blues testifying of “Aw Shucks,” the slinky sensuality of “Slow High” and the funky soul of  “Move Your Hand,” featuring a vocal from the good Dr.

Ultimately, though, it’s the exceptional trio at the core of this live recording that matters most. Smith’s command of the organ is remarkable – dig his mesmerizing, multiphonic-like running of separate but equal lines. Onetime Dizzy Gillespie guitarist Ed Cherry’s melodic snap and drummer Johnathan Blake’s adrenalized-in-the-groove strokes – especially on the psychedelic swinger, “Turning Point” – enliven the classic sound. The trio (sometimes joined by conga player Little Johnny Rivero) doesn’t need the horns (saxophonists Hendrickson and John Ellis and trumpeter Andy Gravish) to produce powerhouse moments.

Such are the roaring capabilities of the Hammond that surrounding it with an expanded cast of players can be an exercise in excess. There’s a reason Jimmy Smith, Dr. Lonnie’s great role model, didn’t often return to big-band settings following his early ’60s collaborations with Oliver Nelson and Lalo Schifrin. But Dr. Lonnie and Hendrickson-Smith are less interested in ramping up the sound than in adding harmonic color and depth. As demonstrated on the recent composition, “Falling in Love,” they do that exceptionally well.

Ear Bendings: Kris Davis, “Capricorn Climber;” Paradoxical Frog, “Union” (Both Clean Feed)

May 27, 2013

From the pages of JazzTimes:

Which comes first, the pianist or the composer? Even on Kris Davis’ exceptional 2011 solo album, Aeriol Piano, the answer was elusive, the ingenuity of her writing and arranging seizing as much attention as her playing and improvising. On Davis’ new quintet recording, Capricorn Climber, the Brooklyn-based artist is so geared toward group interplay and an overall group sound, it’s even more difficult to sort out the sides of her individual talent.

Among new-school pianists, Davis is one of the least disposed toward stepping out, as engaging a soloist as she has proved herself to be. And even when she is taking the lead, she largely acts as facilitator, enhancing the sound with sharp accents, classically tinged lines and percussive rumbles. The band boasts two other exceptional soloists in tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, a frequent partner of hers, and viola ace Mat Maneri, who is new to their circle and plays something of a wild card with his wired lyricism. But Laubrock and Maneri also exercise restraint to serve the group aesthetic.

Capricorn Climber is dreamier, more reflective and more playful than #Rye Eclipse#, Davis’ sometimes hard-edged 2008 quartet album. The quintet, featuring bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Tom Rainey, alternates between wide tonal brush strokes and brisk melodies, free-floating effects and knotty inventions. Building on the brilliantly inventive Rainey’s melody statement on glockenspiel, “Trevor’s Luffa Complex” moves in rapid fashion from minimalism to Ornette-ish lines to free expression. Two of the songs, highlighting Laubrock’s ease in shifting from a classic tenor sound to guttural modern outbursts, come off as mini-suites with their sudden shifts in mood and compositional strategy. Our awareness of the power being held in reserve adds to the impression the album makes.

Union is the second album by Paradoxical Frog, the collective trio teaming Davis, Laubrock (featured on soprano saxophone as well as tenor) and another inspired drummer, Tyshawn Sorey. Boasting compositions by all three members, the album is in some ways a stripped-down companion piece to Capricorn Climber. Playing a deeper inside game than they did on their more assertive debut, the trio makes its most compelling statement with the droning minimalism of “First Strike,” a transfixing piece out of the new-music songbook of LaMonte Young and Morton Feldman, on which Laubrock sustains a long single tone on tenor. “Second Strike” achieves power through elegance.

Offsetting such spatial effects, the trio engages in clipped, swinging phrases on the title track and a lively stop-start attack on “Fear the Fairy Dust.” Sorey’s spare use of trombone or melodica adds color and dimension to two tunes. Cerebral music like this isn’t always fun to listen to. That Union is speaks to how much Davis, Laubrock and Sorey enjoy not only their group concept, but playing in each other’s company.

 

Caught in the Act: Bill Frisell’s Beautiful Dreamers at the Old Town School of Folk Music

May 5, 2013

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?

Ear Bendings: Antonio Sanchez, “New Life” (CamJazz)

April 25, 2013

***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.

Radioville: Remembering Donald Byrd and “A New Perspective”

March 3, 2013

On the 50th anniversary of “A New Perspective,” an appreciation for Donald Byrd’s one-of-a-kind masterpiece.

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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)

February 22, 2013

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.

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[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.

* * *

Jack Mouse

Jack Mouse

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.”

Dick Reynolds

Dick Reynolds

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.

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