Sunday, February 12, 2017

Immigrants Songs

In this heightened time of insecurity about immigration in the United States, we often forget why people risk their lives to come here. Whether their reasons include escaping harsh treatment or to follow dreams, mothers, fathers, son and daughters still cross numerous borders to build new existences.

In the instance of Žan Tetičkovič, his is a story of following his dreams from his native Slovenia to study music in New York City. The drummer and composer who goes by the name Jean John has self-released his debut American album.  Titled "The Port of Life", he started creating the 15 track-75 minute program on his arrival in the New World in 2011 to study at The New School.  The handsome booklet includes "The New Colossus" by poet Emma Lazarus which features the lines emblazoned on our minds "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Jean John returned home to  record the album with a septet that includes Alba Nacinovich (vocals), Lenart Crečič (tenor saxophone), Tomaž Gajšt (trumpet, flugelhorn), Jani Moder (guitar), Marko Črnčec (piano - he has an album for Whirlwind Recordings), and Myles Sloniker (acoustic bass) plus the Janus Atelier String Quartet (violinists Matija Crečič and Nejc Avbelj, violist Barbara Grahor, and cellist Zoran Bičanin).

The music tells of the composer's arrival in New York with the first two tracks including the instrumental "The Port of Life, Dusk" followed by "The Narrows Gateway" which is a sonic adventure of landing at Customs.  The first track features the entire ensemble on an uptempo piece that musically tells the story of the immigrant standing on the deck looking at his destination.  With the wordless vocal and uplifting melody, the music has the sound of the Pat Metheny Group as the rhythm section really pulls the band forward with the guitar and voice leading the way while the trumpet, saxophone, and string quartet color the melody.

The next 11 tracks comprise the "Acculturation Suite", a song cycle that blends sounds, voices, short tracks, longer cuts and powerful musicianship.  Opening with "Prelude", an introspective work played by the String Quartet, the Suite follows the drummer through his "Farewell" to the "Euphoria" of following his dream to "Collapse", the realization of how hard it is for someone to uproot himself and how alone he feels. The Strings return for "Intermezzo", a musical real to reflect on the journey and resettlement. The second half of the Suite includes "Alienation" (perhaps a pun) as the composer continues his search.  The music is not as dark as "Collapse", there seems to be light at the end of this tunnel.  Sloniker's powerful and melodic bass introduces "Adjustment"; joined by John's funky drums, the song moves forward on a slinky melody line with the saxophone and guitar leading the way. The leader introduces the last piece in the Suite, "A New Beginning", with a staggering drum solo that slows down and softens for the main melody.  The strings rise in on an circular line played by guitar and piano.  When the rest of the group enters, the music takes off on a celebration of the new "home", the composer nows has his feet on solid ground and his joy rises to the heavens. Once the festivities come to a close, the ensemble returns for the final track, "The Port of Life, Dawn". The voice and piano open as if praying and so does the String Quartet; the music is a reverie that, after five minutes, allows the rhythm section and guitarist to enter. As the music rises to its climax, all the instruments reenter in a triumphant "shout."

Jean John layers certain tracks with sounds and effects plus one particularly strong statement about immigration ("...our origin story") from President Obama, all the more powerful since his presidency ended.  On of the ironies of "The Port of Life" is the composer went back to Slovenia to record the album but the distance from his adopted home makes the music even more powerful.  The ensemble not only interprets the music but imbues much of it with their own desires and their appreciation for John's accomplishments.

Perhaps part of my enjoyment of this album comes from the numerous times I, a second generation American, have attended the Naturalization Ceremony in my home town, a day when immigrants become citizens. It's touching, life-affirming, and it's a bit humbling. "The Port of Life" is an impressive story of determination, of talent, of desire, and of fortitude.  Give it a listen.

For more information, go to www.jean-john.com.

Here's a taste of several tracks:





Vocalist, composer, and arranger Jihye Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea, and came to the United States to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. And study she has done, learning from Ayn Inserto, private lessons from Maria Schneider and Terence Blanchard, and workshops with John Clayton and Robin Eubanks. Since graduation from Berklee, Ms. Lee is completing graduate work at the Manhattan School of Music under the tutelage of Jim McNeely.

With the help of Berklee Professor and trumpeter Greg Hopkins, she assembled a 19-piece orchestra (students and teachers) to record "April" (self-released), her first American album.  Much of the music Ms. Lee created for this project came in response to the sinking of the Korean ferry Sewol which took the lives of over 300 of the 476 passengers and crew; the majority of those who perished were teenage students.  Yet, the songs, while they have elegiac moments, are not filled with anger or long stretches of sadness. The album takes its title from the lovely opening track which is also the month of the tragic event that spurred the composer into action.  But the music, unlike the month T.S. Eliot described in "The Wasteland", as "the cruelest month" is filled with promise, with new life springing out of the earth, days are longer and beginning to be warmer; one hears joy in the dance created by Shannon LeClaire (alto sax) and Allan Chase (soprano sax) and no inkling of the tragedy to follow.

photo: Keith Davis
As this music tells its story, one person's reactions to events happening a world away in her native land, most of the tracks are not centered around solos, save for the longest  on the program.  "Sewol Ho" (12:52) moves away from its opening theme, building to a dissonant climax; then, five "voices" step up to tell their "stories" ranging from the duet of co-producer Hopkins (trumpet) and Jeff Galindo (trombone) to the conversation of Ben Whiting (bass clarinet) with Ms. LeClaire (clarinet) and, finally, Rick DiMuzio (soprano sax) takes the song out. Various instrumental voices move in and out of the melody on "Deep Blue Sea" and, in several instances, it's the sections that carry the melody. DiMuzio solos, this time on tenor sax, and he moves easily over the rhythm section and around the colors provided by the brass and reeds.  He returns to solo on tenor on the following track, "Whirlwind", a piece that is more uptempo and nervous, almost hyper. But he and pianist Alain Mallet are, at turns, calm in this storm as they convey how one can create an emotional oasis in times of heightened tension.

Sean Jones (pictured left) joins the ensemble for the final track, the lovely ballad "You Are Here (Every Time I Think of You)", how flugelhorn carrying both the melody and as the only solo voice.  The song opens with the reeds sans rhythm section playing the initial theme, the flutes frame Jones's melody, dropping away as he moves through the verse into his solo.  The reeds and brass take over for a chorus and Jones returns, this time taking flight as the sections move in and out behind him.  Stick around for the lovely coda - first, Jones goes it alone and then the ensemble, led by the reeds and brass return to take the piece out with Jones moving over the sound in a flurry of notes.

"April" is an impressive introduction to Jihye Lee, a composer and arranger (she studied vocal performance at Berklee and adds wordless vocals to several tracks here) who channeled her emotions to create this music that celebrates life, rarely pausing to mourn. How does one deal with loss of this proportion, a tragedy taking the lives of so many young people?  It's an unanswerable question yet the music serves as a balm.

For more information, go to jihyemusic.com.

Here's the last track from the album:

Monday, February 6, 2017

Ensembles Big & Small (Pt 1

Thelonious Sphere Monk, pianist, composer, and leader, died in 1982 at the age of 64 after a long career that began near the birth of bebop and ended as jazz had splintered into many genres.  His influence is as strong today, if not stronger, as it was in his prime (approximately 1950 - 1970).  Musicians around the world continue to explore his music, digging into the veins of blues and swing that permeated his small yet seemingly infinite repertoire (less than 60 songs).

"Monk Dreams, Hallucinations and Nightmares" (Red Piano Records) is the first full album recorded by the 18-member Frank Carlberg Ensemble (an earlier version of the ensemble recorded two songs for the Fresh Sound New Talent 2003 album "The Sound of the New York Underground").  After listening to the recording on and off for the past several months, I truly believe you will not hear a better big band album this year (maybe its equal but none better). Why?  Well, the band is loaded with first-class musicians (listed below) and Carlberg's pieces (the only Monk work is "Round Midnight") are so intelligent, filled with twists, turns, references to and quotes from the master's work that the music sounds contemporary. The rhythm section - Carlberg (piano, Rhodes), Johannes Weidenmuller (bass), and Michael Sarin (drums) - often stirs the pot but also play in ways that cause the music to move in fascinating directions.  So much happens in this music. There's the rambunctious "Dry Bean Stew" that opens the program on a truly playful (listen to how the rhythms shift from march time to swing to post bop to blues and elsewhere).  "Rhymes", which, after the opening bass solo, features the voice of Paul Lichter reading the poem "Rhymes with Monk" by Clark Coolidge. Jeremy Udden (alto saxophone) and David Smith (trumpet) add atmospheric counterpoint. "A Darker Shade of Light Blue" pits snippets of Monk's melody with several instruments flitting around, not as counterpoint but like birds outside the window curious at the sound.  All but the bass and drums drop out as Brian Landrus solos on bass clarinet until the ensemble returns and the piece takes off with the trumpet of John Carlson rising out over the powerful rhythm section.

Vocalist Christine Correa joins the band on "You Dig!", a piece that takes its inspiration and lyrics from the Monk quote "You've got to dig it to dig, you dig?" Powered by Sarin's rambunctious drums and Weidenmueller's rollicking bass line, the performance an explosive alto sax solo from John O'Gallagher.  Ms. Correa is also featured on "Always Night", it too inspired by a Monk quote, "It's always night or we wouldn't need light". As the vocalist sings, trumpeter Carlson dances around her as the band moans and Carlberg's Rhodes pours notes down like rain.

The program closes with Monk's "Round Midnight"; this impressive arrangement could be subtitled "Concerto for Knuffke" as Kirk Knuffke's expressive cornet is the main voice throughout the 11 minutes.  Listen to how the leader arranges the "voices" in the different sections, looking for lightness from the reeds and depth from the trombones, to how Sarin dances about beneath the rhythm, which is suggested by the piano and bass.  And the solo is just fascinating.  Conversational, angry, playful, emotional, sad, all that and powerful as well.  There are moments when the piece sounds like Miles Davis working with an arrangement by Gil Evans in that genre disappears and it's really pure music (to these ears).

"Monk Dreams, Hallucinations and Nightmares", despite its title, is an uplifting set of music, a 70-minute program that keeps on giving each time you listen.  Frank Carlberg channels the spirit of Thelonious Monk but does not imitate or rearrange his melodies.  This is "inspired" music of the highest order and the Frank Carlberg Large Ensemble fires on all cylinders.  Wow!

For more information, go to www.redpianorecords.com/releases/.

The personnel:
Kirk Knuffke, John Carlson, Dave Smith, Jonathan Powell (trumpet, flugelhorn, cornet)
Alan Ferber, Brian Drye, Chris Washburne, Max Seigal (trombone, bass trombone)
John O'Gallagher, Jeremy Udden, Sam Sadigursky, Adam Kolker, Brian Landrus (saxophones, clarinet, bass clarinet)
Christine Correa (voice)
Frank Carlberg (piano, Rhodes)
Johannes Weidenmueller (bass)
JC Sanford (conductor)
+
Paul Lichter (spoken word)

Here's an introduction to the album:




Drummer and composer Vinnie Sperrazza has a new album; "Juxtaposition" is his ninth as a leader or co-leader and first for Posi-Tone Records.  While known for his powerful playing, Sperrazza also has a gentle, melodic, side and is not afraid to sublimate his power for the sake of melody.  His quartet on this album includes the fine bassist Peter Brendler, the wonderful pianist Bruce Barth, and tenor saxophonist Chris Speed.  While Barth is, perhaps, best known for his impressive "swing" as a leader as well as in bands led by Terence Blanchard, Tom Harrell and Luciana Souza and Speed has played in "modern" settings such as the Claudia Quintet, Jim Black's Axis No Axis, and Michael Formanek's Ensemble Kolossus, here they come together to make a cohesive ensemble dedicated to playing material that challenges as much as soothes the listener.

The 12-song program consists of nine originals and one piece each by James Williams, Tony Williams (no relation), and Leonard Bernstein.  "This Night, This Song" comes from the Tony Williams Lifetime "Turn It Over"; no vocal here as on the original but Speed's tenor leads the way, caressing the melody while the leader gently drives the piece. Pianist William's "Alter Ego" has a sweet blues-soul feel, nobody's in a hurry, and the solos sing, especially Barth's rolling piano lines.  "Somewhere", the beautiful Bernstein melody from "West Side Story", is an emotionally rich ballad with a vulnerable solo from Speed, spare but supportive bass notes and lines, Barth's sparkling piano, and Sperrazza's splendid brush work.

As for the originals, the fun starts with the mid-tempo opener, "Chimes", with its "Big Ben" like opening - it's a good introduction to the sound of this band, with Speed's deliberate sax lines blending well with Barth's chordal playing, sometimes elaborate, sometimes spare (his solo on this tracks is delightfully colored by the blues). Brendler and Sperrazza offer the perfect support, pushing or prodding the soloists and just digging into the groove.  "St. Jerome" is a bouncy song, with the piano gleefully riding atop the bouncy bass and dancing drums.  Barth and Sperrazza lock in on "One Hour" - their interactions during the piano solo are fiery. The drummer really flies beneath Speed's powerful solo. The drums lead in "Warm Winter", a bop-ish piece with a melody that feels like a Charlie Parker riff.  Brander's delightful solo leads into an expansive solo from Barth, one with phrases that swirl like leaves around the driveway.

The ballads Sperrazza created for the project include the country-ish "House on Hoxie Road" (sweet melody and fine brush work) and the impressionistic title track which opens with just Barth and Speed - when the rhythm section enters, the piece moves forward at a slow pace, Brendler acting as counterpoint while Sperrazza skitters around the band. There's an "open" quality to the sound of "Hellenized", no clutter but a gentle swing and smart interaction plus a heartfelt tenor solo.  The gentle touch of the brushes guides Speed through the melody of "Solitary Consumer"; the bassist takes the first solo and once again displays his melodic chops. Barth's solo is short and delightfully conversational as it leads into Speed's more melancholy statement.

This album is a treat from start to finish, which is the best way to listen.  There are moments when the music feels like a John Coltrane date from the late 1950s and a bit like Thelonious Monk in the deliberate way in which the melody is played on several tracks.  The mix of Vinnie Sperrazza, Peter Brendler, Chris Speed, and Bruce Barth works well together, each plays to his strength while also being attentive to the others.  Delightful music that calls for repeated listens, that is the joy of "Juxtaposition."

For more information, go to www.vinniesperrazza.org.

Here's the opening track:

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

CD Release Party & Noted Tenor in Old Lyme

It was 49 weeks ago (give-or-take) that saxophonist Mike Casey (alto and tenor) brought his Trio to The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme to record his debut album.  Joining him onstage was bassist Matt Dwonszyk and drummer Corey Garcia, his "regular unit' for the past three years. The two sets included originals from the saxophonist and drummer plus pieces by "classic" saxophonists Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Jackie McLean (who founded the Institute at the Hartt School of the University of Hartford where Casey studied with Abraham Burton, Rene McLean and Steve Davis, among others).

The album, "The Sound of Surprise: Live at The Side Door" (self-released) comes out on February 7 and the Trio celebrates its release this Friday (2/03) at the very venue where they recorded.  The recording is quite "hot" with the bass and drums on equal sonic footing as the saxophone.  It's obvious this is a working band as one can tell these musicians are conversing, challenging, and supporting each other throughout the performance.  Dwonszyk stands out as quite a melodic player when he solos as well as laying down a solid bottom for his cohorts to build upon.  Garcia is impressive as well; the African rhythms he sets up on the opening track, "Hydraulics" (which the drummer composed), brings to mind Art Blakey's powerful work with his Jazz Messengers. The leader shines as well, with solos that not only push against the sounds produced by the bass and drums but also ride on their flow. Casey's alto solo on McLean's "Little Melonae" is a gem; at one point, his interaction with Dwonszyk features a smart bit of counterpoint amidst the "walking" bass lines. Another highlight is the original "Dagobah", with the tenor suggesting Coltrane as the rhythm section roils below.

Casey has been busy over the last year, not only working on producing the album (crowd-funded) but teaching, playing with the Trio and working with other ensembles.  I like the fact that his debut is a live album, the Trio did not try for perfection in the studio, opting instead to illustrate how a "live" show gives a truer representation of a working group.

The Mike Casey Trio hits the stage at 8:30 p.m. For tickets to the show and more, go to thesidedoorjazz.com.  To learn more about Mr. Casey and get links to purchase the album, go to www.mikecaseyjazz.com.

Give a listen to "Hydraulics":



photo by Erika Nj Allen
I would be tempted to stay overnight at The Old Lyme Inn (which houses The Side Door) because on Saturday, tenor saxophonist and composer J.D. Allen will perform with his Trio. Although neither the venue's website or Mr. Allen's site lists the personnel, he usually plays with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston.  Their latest album together, "Americana: Musings on Jazz and Blues" (Savant Records), was issued in May of last year to great critical acclaim, the latest in a series of recordings that posit Allen as one of the finer contemporary composers and musicians.  His pieces, rooted in the blues, are quite melodic, have flowing rhythms, his sound hearkening back to the approaches of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins without imitating either player (or anyone else, for that fact).

The J.D. Allen Trio will play two sets, the first commencing at 8:30 p.m.  For reservations to the show, go to the website above or call 860-434-2600.

Here's a taste of the Trio's latest recording to get you in the spirit:

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Young Voices & Young Veterans Telling Stories

My interest in "The Twilight Fall", the first full album from saxophonist, composer, lyricist, and conductor Chelsea McBride's Socialist Night School (released on Browntasauras Records), was piqued when reading a review by Peter Hum of the Ottawa Citizen (read it here). Thanks to drummer. composer, and publicist Ernesto Cervini, the CD was waiting when we returned from a short vacation. The 19-member CMSNS is a big band composed of active members of the sprawling Toronto, CA, jazz scene, guided and intellectually fed by the 25-year tenor saxophonist from Vancouver, BC.

The 10 tracks have such disparate influences, from Carla Bley to Steely Dan to Bill Withers (the soulful "Spirits") to Darcy James Argue and more.  The band has fine soloists including guitarist David Riddel, trombonist William Carn, trumpeter/flugelhorn player Brownman Ali (the album is released on his label), alto saxophonist Colleen Allen, tenor saxophonists Patrick Smith and Anthony Rinaldi plus pianist Chris Bruder but the emotional focal point is Alex Samaras (whose voice is heard on six cuts).  His voice dramatically rises out of Ms. McBride's tenor sax melody on the opening ballad, "Ambleside" - the lyrics speak of longing for answers while the music (with echoes of Maria Schneider and Stephen Sondheim) slowly opens only to fade out (the piece returns and resolves later).

Evan Shay photo
The album then takes off on the nervous energy of "Intransitory", the melody, played by the reeds, is colored by the brass and pushed by the rhythm section (great work throughout by bassist Steven Falk and drummer Geoff Bruce) opens up to powerful solos from Ms. Allen, Riddel and the drummer.  The dynamics range from quiet to roaring and the arrangement highlights excellent work of baritone saxophonist Conrad Gluch. The title track is episodic, opening with a melody that sounds, for the life of me, like the theme from the BBC mystery series "Foyle's War" but, with the addition of the brass, moves into a different dimension. There's a Latin feel for the guitar solo which closes on a clash of sounds as Ali's trumpet rises out of the dissonance. The piece stops short, coming back in a waltz tempo while the trumpet, now backed by a vocal choir, flies forward. More changes ensue, the tempo increases then slows down to reveal Ms. Allen's alto and Ali's trumpet improvising over the opening rhythm to the close.  It's such a smart piece, intelligent without trickery.

As one moves through the program, there's the funky "Smooth" and "Spirits", both featuring Samaras's strong vocals and fine arrangements.  The latter track leaves behind its Bill Wither's sound behind to move in several different directions, including an "Aja"-like arrangement of voice, brass, reeds and voice.  Other highlights include the "Arrival of the Pegasus", a tribute to the TV series "Battlestar Galactica", replete with powerful drums and a splendid arrangement for the reeds and brass.  A bluesy sway introduces "Foot In Mouth" but this is a piece with many pleasures tucked inside. The handsome melody, the brass counterpoint, the solid work of Falk and Bruce, the soulful piano triplets, and then there's Rinaldi's powerful tenor solo over a straight-ahead walking bass line and propulsive drums.

It would be easy, and somewhat unfair to the curious listener, to write about every track.  Let's just say there is not a dull moment on "The Twilight Fall", that the blend of jazz, pop, soul, funk and what-have-you is extremely appealing.  There's humor, sadness, introspection, and joy in this music and lyrics.  Chelsea McBride's Socialist Night School might not be a politically correct name in these uncertain times; take heart, Ms. McBride's infectious spirit and music is antidote for the real-life blues.

For more information, go to crymmusic.com.

Here's the title track:


The sisters Jensen - Ingrid (trumpet, electronics, kalimba, melodica) and Christine (alto and soprano saxophones) - are a formidable force in contemporary music.  Ingrid may be best known for her work with the Maria Schneider Orchestra, Terri Lynn Carrington, and her own ensembles while Christine's small and large ensembles (many including her sister) have won numerous awards in their native Canada.  They have recorded together as Nordic Connect and now have a new album, "Infinitude" (Whirlwind Recording) that includes guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Fraser Hollins, and drummer Jon Wikan.  The music reflects their Canadian heritage as well as their willingness to go where the spirit takes them.

The spirit of trumpeter/composer Kenny Wheeler (also a Canadian native) permeates this music; one hears it in the atmospheric sounds, the openness of the melodies and harmonies, and in the ECM-like echo and sustain. The quintet also performs "Old Time", a Wheeler piece that the trumpeter recorded on his final ECM album (2015's "Song for Quintet") - it's a rollicking tribute powered by Wikan's thundering drums.  One of the joys of the album is how the music goes in so many directions from the gentle joyousness of "Blue Yonder" (which builds off the delightful kalimba rhythm in the introduction) to the sound sculpture that Ingrid and Monder create on "Duo Space" (which opens quietly but heats up on the strength on the roaring guitar) to the soulful "Dots and Braids" in which the five voices move in and around each other until Wikan and Hollins lay down a slow tempo for the trumpet and saxophone to interact.  "Hopes Trail" is a lovely ballad, it's handsome melody suggesting a walk on a Spring or early Summer day, the trumpet and soprano sax strolling on the path the rhythm section creates. The energy picks up under Christine's lovely solo as if the walker had gone into the city center from the country.

"Octofolk" also opens in a easy manner; it's simple melody lines lead into bassist Hollin's melodic solo, Monder's gentle rumination, and an energetic alto sax solo.  The interactions of soprano, trumpet (with effects), and guitar (with loops) on "Trio: Garden Hour" have a gentle, classical, feel that also suggests the work of Wayne Shorter in the way the contrapuntal melodies played by the sisters sound like a call-and-response.  Monder's "Echolalia" builds off his finger-picked folk-like rhythm, Wikan's active brush work, the foundation bass lines, the rising melody line that soon leads into a powerful trumpet solo.  The drums really drive this piece, the active snare and cymbals creating an irresistible energy.

"Infinitude" works on so many levels and is easy to listen to all the way through. One hears the comfort the musicians have with each other, not afraid to be challenged by the material and to challenge each other.  Beauty, power, melody, noise, all enter the sonic soundscape and keep our attention.  Ingrid and Christine Jensen also gives us hope in these crazy times.

For more information, go to www.whirlwindrecordings.com/christine-ingrid-jensen-l/.

Here's an inside look at the album:



Tenor saxophonist, clarinetist, and composer Adam Schneit, while not from Vancouver, Canada like the Jensens and Ms. McBride, does hail from the great Northeast of the US, Portland, Maine, to be exact. He first came to critical notice as co-leader of Old Time Musketry, a quartet that combined Americana with a sense of humor as well as one of adventure.  That group released two albums and broke up after the release of the second recording.  Now he has own band, one that features all original compositions and the contributions of Sean Moran (guitar), Eivind Opsvik (bass), and Kenny Wollesen (drums).

The ensemble's debut album, "Light Shines In" (Fresh Sound New Talent),  has music that remind some of Schneit's previous band but also ups the ante with songs that have the power of Ornette Coleman's work with Pat Metheny; you hear that influence on pieces such as the incendiary "Different Times" and the hard-edged "My Secret Hobby", the latter powered by Moran's wailing guitar and forcefulness of the rhythm section.  There's also the lovely title track, the leader's handsome tenor moving easily over the active brush work of Wollesen and Opsvik's counterpoint.  The bassist also takes a splendid melodic solo.  Schneit pays tribute to his previous band with a song bearing their name.  The piece captures the spirit of that ensemble but also has the "pop" leanings of the Daniel Bennett Group.  The tenor solo covers a wide swath of melodic and sonic territory, dancing along atop the splashing cymbals, chunky guitar chords and bouncing bass lines.

Erika Kapin photo
The sweet ballad "Hope for Something More" has a Neil Young feel in its melody and execution.  Schneit moves to clarinet; he's an accomplished player with an attractive woody tone.  The rhythm section work is spare but just right for both the leader and Moran to create substantial solos.  The final track, "Song for Silence", has a similar feel.  It's slow, more languid than lugubrious, with the musical voice of each player standing out.  Opsvik's bass is the foundation while Wollesen pushes the piece forward without forcing the pace.

Creative music is so often a fusion of styles or, better, a blurring of genres. "Light Shines In" has influences in the blues, country, jazz, and folk music, stirs in a generous helping of melody, conversational interaction and  a sympathetic rhythm section, and asks that you just listen.  If you spare the time, the music created by the Adam Schneit Band will give you much pleasure.

For more information, go to adamschneit.com.

Here's the title track:

Monday, January 23, 2017

Storytellers in Song

Pianist and composer Noah Hadiu did not make his first recording as a leader until he reached his late 30s.  That debut -  "Slipstream" (Posi-Tone Records) -  introduced listeners to a musician who is technically impressive yet also has quite a melodic side. He has also recorded three albums with Native Soul, a quartet featuring Peter Brainin (saxophones), Marcus McLaurine (bass), and Steve Johns (drums).

His new recording, "Infinite Distances" (Cellar Live), takes its inspiration from a quote by Rainier Maria Rilke and also from the late Kenny Kirkland's relationship with saxophonist Branford Marsalis. The Rilke quote - read it here - speaks of relationships and that one cannot really know the heart of another person.  For Haidu, he views this music, and the six-part "Infinite Distances" suite, as "a musical reflection on relationships, loss, and self-realization."

This recording features two groups with the major difference being the rhythm section. The first sessions feature a quintet with Sharel Cassity (alto saxophone), Jon Irabagon (tenor and soprano saxophones), Peter Brendler (bass) and Mark Ferber (drums) while the other pairs Ms. Cassity and Mr. Irabagon with the rhythm section of Ariel Alejandro de La Portilla (bass) and John Davis (drums) as well as the occasional appearance of Jeremy Pelt (trumpet and flugelhorn).

The album opens with "The Subversive", a barn-burner of a piece with Brendler and Ferber laying down a torrid pace while the leader and Irabagon create blazing solos.  The latter has really come into his own on soprano sax and this solo absolutely soars.  The "Suite" is next;  initially, one notices the strong melodic element throughout and how Haidu mixes the voices of Ms. Cassity's alto and the soprano sax, especially on the first two parts and the final section.  The intelligent work of Brendler (one of the most melodic of contemporary bassists) and Ferber (splendid cymbal work) set off the piano solo and the raucous tenor solo. Parts 3 - 5 include the lovely ballad "Hanaya" (Pelt's flugelhorn really helps to fill out the melody and harmony parts), "This Great Darkness" (with Irabagon's tenor lines pushing through the fiery rhythms), and "Can We Talk", which moves slowly and has a pretty melody for Ms. Cassity's alto.  The piano solo is opens up in a delicate fashion but soon picks up power.  The final section, "Guardian of Solitude", is another powerful piece, with a rousing piano solo and a fascinating slowdown in the middle that leads into the alto solo.  Listen to how the intensity ratchets up on the strength of the piano chords and driving rhythm section.

The last four tracks on the program include a new version of the title track of Haidu's "Momentum" (whose rapid pace lives up to its name), the slinky rhythms of "They Who??" (which contains excellent solos from Pelt and the leader), and the high-powered "Juicy" (with yet another excellent soprano sax solo).  Irabagon's soprano leads the way once more in the final track, "Serenity", with its handsome melody and lengthy solos.  Heard Irabagon live recently (with Rudy Royston's Orion Trio), I am impressed by his singular playing on the soprano; he shines throughout this recording.  As does Haidu. His solos are emotionally strong as he poured his heart and soul into this project.  These compositions have deep meaning, as the musicians navigate the "infinite distances" between individual and communal work, as they attempt to understand the music, their relationships to each other, and the importance of working together.  Creative music is "about" many things but, for me, the best recordings and live dates are filled with intimate conversations, melodies that stay in your ears and mind, and interactions built upon trust, shared knowledge, and the freedom to explore. All that and more is evident on "Infinite Distances" - Noah Haidu has given listeners much to chew on and you will enjoy this adventure every time you dig into it.

For more information, go to www.noahhaidu.com.

Here's the title track:



With the release of "Piano Song" (Thirsty Ear), pianist and composer Matthew Shipp announces his sabbatical from recording (he has a few projects to finish) but not from performing.  He has been incredibly prolific and consistent for nearly three decades, both as a leader and band member (his excellent work with the late David S. Ware and continuing relationship with saxophonist Ivo Perelman).

The new album features his Trio - bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker - a comfortable yet challenging rhythm section that finds its way through Shipp's compositions by not playing it safe but with a sense of inquisitiveness.  It would be easy to write that this is one of the pianist's most reflective collection with songs such as "Silence Of" and "Void of Sea" with plenty of breathing room as well as the several piano solos - the opening track, "Links", is short (1:48) yet reminds the listener how Shipp can create a song that sounds like poetry.  If you listen closely to the Trio performances, you hear how the composer makes these pieces conversations and not solo after solo.  Bassist Bisio, who possesses a big tone and a melodic heart, is not only supportive but also creates intelligent counterpoint.  Listen to "Cosmopolitan", with its bass line suggestive of Miles Davis's "So What", and pay attention to the fact that rhythm section is an equal.  There's a tinge of funk in Baker's drums at the opening of "Flying Carpet" yet the piece goes in an unexpected direction.  The blend of powerful chords and forceful playing gives way to softer approaches before picking up steam again.

If you have listened to Shipp's music for decades, you know how important the rhythm section is to his music.  Bisio and Baker have their way on "Scrambled Brain", opening with a playful flurry of notes and tapping high-hat, the bassist leading the way into a rapid-fire walking bass line while the drummer adds asides and percussive commentary.  The leader sits this piece out, allowing the duo to have great fun.  And they are equal partners on pieces such as "Gravity Point", a three-way conversation that bristles with energy and, at times, ferocious swing.  Then, there is the hand-held percussion that is the constant focal point of "Blue Desert", even as Bisio adds high-pitched arco bass sounds and the leader plays the chordal melody, soon moving inside the piano.  The impressionistic music has a trance-like feel yet is no simple canvas, the blending of sounds moving in and out of the spectrum.

eyeshotjazz.com
The piano-drums duo "Mind Space" is an interactive joy while the quiet "Void of Sea" feels as if the trio was moving through outer space, each note or sound sustaining, floating in the sonic air, without rhythm but having a sense of direction.  When you get to the title track, the final cut on the album, the music moves deliberately as if the musicians want this song to continue for a long time.

Don't look at or listen to "Piano Song" as a definitive "farewell speech" but as part of Matthew Shipp's impressive timeline. Go back to his earlier recordings, the duos with saxophonist Rob Brown or his work with guitarist/bassist Joe Morris, the David S. Ware Quartet albums as well as his creative work with Thirsty Ear's "Blue Series" - Mr. Shipp is continually searching, always maturing as a musician and composer.  Don't begrudge him his time away; go and catch up on the amazing sounds he has given us to this point.

For more information, go to www.matthewshipp.com.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Presidents, Protests, & Music

In my lifetime, there have been 17 Inauguration Days plus two swearings-in (one after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the other after the resignation of Richard M. Nixon).  These special days are often filled with excitement, the prospect of change, the hope of unity in an often-divided country, and a sigh of relief from many that our democratic process continues to work after two-plus centuries.

Then, there is "politics", a word that, for some, is a epithet for something unseemly and obscene. If one pays attention to the machinations of Washington politics, it can leave you with a sour taste in your mouth.  The press does its best (many would disagree with that statement) to let is know what's going on but there is so much happening at any moment. Yet, it is quite obvious these days that the United States is a divided country, that "conservative" and "liberal" as well as "party politics" is part of what looks like a big game, a game with obscene payouts for the lucky and agony for the losers (think of how healthcare is constantly tossed about in the House of Representatives and the Senate).

How artists look at this nation has, for me, always been a fascination.  From the populist anthems of Irving Berlin to the wide-eyed wonder of George Gershwin to the sly observations of Will Rogers to the dreams of Woody Guthrie to the inequalities reported by Billie Holiday to the satire of Randy Newman to the simmering anger of Nina Simone to the shouts of Public Enemy to the chest-thumping of Toby Keith to the clear-eyed visions of Gil Scott-Heron (and so many others), singers and songwriters speak to social issues by cutting to the emotional core of any situation. During the most recent Presidential election cycle, artists took a stand for or against the candidates with a ferocity one has not seen since 1968 and 1984 (also, the Bush years post 9/11/01 were filled with vitriol as well as unqualified praise).

President-elect Trump (who will be sworn-in just hours from when I am writing this) has certainly polarized this country (in many peoples eyes, President Obama did as well) but many reactions have bordered on the apocalyptic. At least, there was "hope" in the changes his predecessor spoke of but that has been replaced by fear, the fear of moving backwards, that the "great again America" being spoken of is one where women, minority groups, and immigrants will not be treated with the "equality" our Forefathers hoped for (dreamed of) when the United States was in its infancy.  Mobilization against the changes being sought has been swift (we'll wait and see how strong it is) and artist's reactions are beginning to emerge.

Five weeks after Election Day, saxophonist and composer Noah Preminger gathered the other members of his most recent Quartet - trumpeter Jason Palmer, bassist Kim Cass, and drummer Ian Froman - to record his musical reactions to the results. "Meditations on Freedom" (Dry Bridge Records) features melodies by Bob Dylan, Bruce Hornsby, George Harrison, and a particularly handsome reading of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" plus  five originals.  Is this music a call to action, a wake-up call, a lament, a warning shot across the bow or just dreaming out loud?  One could answer "yes" to every part of that question but the album - released today (January 20) - is more than that.  It's a reminder that the musicians are citizens, that creative music is "political" more often than not, that the "freedoms" stitched into these performances are as vital as picket signs and fiery speeches, that the rhythms of these songs are built from the ground up; the formation of this quartet to play this music is really the creation of a community built on shared visions, on trust, on taking risks as musicians, on compromises built from honest discussion.  This is music also built on the belief that "We Shall Overcome", that this country has "overcome" in the past and will again in the future, that we as individuals and communities have the ability to pull ourselves up and face any challenge.  There is no question that the United States faces challenges within and without but also no question if we face these challenges together, the results should be better.

In a future post, I will explore the music one hears on "Meditations on Freedom", especially the original material that grows stronger in my ears on every time I listen. While the impetus for these songs and performances was a reflection on the elections, the album also serves as a call to action, a powerful reminder that we must be ever vigilant and protect the rights of all people who live here, work on our farms, in factories, in our cities, people who raise families and educate them, to all who suffer from illnesses, from poverty, from oppression; in other words, protect the rights of everyone not just a privileged group who can afford it.  It should come as no surprise that this music also has its roots in the "blues", music created out of oppression that spoke of the glory of freedom, music that is both simple and complex, that pushes individual boundaries yet speaks to our humanity.

For more information, go to www.noahpreminger.com.

Here's the Sam Cooke song:


Monday, January 9, 2017

Nat Hentoff

wsj.com
It's is tough to take when one of your "heroes" passes, tougher when you admired the person from afar and never reached out. My problem is that I read Nat Hentoff faithfully in the VILLAGE VOICE and in JazzTimes, continually impressed by his writing, his dedication to American music and to freedom and I never told him so. Yes, he infuriated me with some of his positions but his arguments were always well-researched, thoroughly fact-checked, and smartly written.  His phone number - never an email address - was always listed at the bottom of the JazzTimes columns and I never called.

I never called to thank him for his attempts to teach his readers about music, about freedom, about the fragility of our democracy, about the greed rampant in most political entities, about standing up for those and to those we disagree with.  Know all sides of an argument before you uncap your pen, sit at your keyboard, or open your mouth.

And those CANDID recordings from the 1960s!  From Max Roach to Charles Mingus to Cal Massey to Jaki Byard to Cecil Taylor to Booker Little and others, they set a standard for quality that was as hard to replicate as it was to maintain.  Hentoff was the A & R (artists snd repertoire) director and he made sure to chronicle the music he heard at the forefront of the contemporary jazz scene.  Discovering those albums in the 1970s, just as I was exploring the work of the AACM, gave quite an education on how the music grew from its roots in blues, folk music, bebop, into an indescribable genre all its own.  Think about how important it was to hear these stories at the beginning of the 1960s and throughout (and how this music begat the late 20th and early 21st Century works of the late Fred Ho, Public Enemy, Dave Douglas, Jason Moran, Matthew Shipp, Terence Blanchard, Kamasi Washington, Samora Pinderhughes, Kendrick Lamar, and so many more.

Nat Hentoff never backed down, never shied away from unpopular positions, believed fervently in the First Amendment (and the need to understand the entire Constitution of the United States), and fought complacency nearly every day of his life.  Honesty, unflinching honesty, makes enemies but also friends, real friends not sycophants - I should have called Nat Hentoff but never felt I knew what to say other than "thank you!" Do yourself a favor, read one of his books, dig out interviews, check out the recordings he produced, the liner notes he wrote; pay close attention, even when you do not understand.  Certain segments of our society rail about the "lame stream media" yet Mr. Hentoff, often tagged a liberal, was far from lame but an exemplar of what a journalist should be and do.

Yes, thank you!

Here are links to other articles and obits:

www.artsjournal.com/rifftides/2017/01/nat-hentoff-is-gone.html.

www.nytimes.com/2017/01/07/nyregion/nat-hentoff-dead.html.

www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/01/08/508786884/prolific-author-and-jazz-writer-nat-hentoff-dies-at-91.

www.villagevoice.com/news/nat-hentoff-legendary-voice-journalist-and-critic-dies-at-91-9543103.