Monday, February 24, 2020

Guitars in Many Modes & Moods

Photo: John Rogers
Guitarist and composer Rez Abbasi, born in Pakistan and raised in Southern California, has been entrancing audiences the world over for nearly three decades with his blend of creative music from his native region as well as his adopted homeland.  The results of his studies and experimentation is well-documented as he has released 14 albums as a leader or co-leader plus has appeared on many more.

In late 2019, Abbasi released two new albums, one a session co-led with French harpist Isabelle Olivier and the other a new soundtrack for a classic Indian silent film from 1929.  Both albums are connected in their use of Eastern and Western instruments plus the multi-rhythmic diversity of the musicians.


Olivier Abbasi Sound in Sound, otherwise known as Oasis, features the harpist and guitarist in the studio with Prabhu Edouard (tabla, kanjira) and David Paycha (drums).  The quartet's self-titled debut album (released on ENJA/ Yellowbird) covers a wide swath of musical territory with the program of six originals by the harpist, three by the guitarist, and a fascinating arrangement of of Richard Rodgers's "My Favorite Things." That last piece leads off the album and sets the tone; after a powerful opening, the quartet opens up over the raucous percussion and both Abbasi and Ms. Olivier pushing and prodding each other (shades of the classic John Coltrane version).  The harpist's attack reminds me of the way McCoy Tyner played in the 1970s and beyond.

On the first few listens, the music often has the sound of the cooperative quartet Oregon, especially in the interactions of guitar and tablas. Abbasi's guitar provides both melody and rhythm while the tablas and trap drums bubble underneath. That's apparent on the guitarist's "Lemongrass" and on the harpist's "Road Movie."  The former is quite melodic with sparkling guitar while the latter builds off the fire created by Edouard's blazing tablas.  Ms. Olivier's "Dodeca" is an impressionistic musical painting opening with a guitar and harp statement that also features subtle electronics.  The percussion is understated, the acoustic guitar and harp weave in and around each other never getting on the way.

Photo: Piero Ottavino
Beauty abounds on "Cherry Blossom"and never wavers from the opening guitar harmonics and percussion to the gentle melody Ms. Olivier composed and plays. Images of a Japanese garden merge with the soft drums and frame drum (kanjira). While the piece does pick up in intensity, the melody and improvisations create a hypnotic effect.  Ms. Olivier's "Timeline" follows – it moves steadily forward on the percussive flow but note the harpist's use of tape delay and electronics that lead into a powerful electric guitar solo.

"Oasis" lives up to its name as it provides a wellspring of ideas and musical adventures. One hopes that this is just the first of numerous projects and concerts from Isabelle Olivier and Rez Abbasi, that they continue to blend the myriad influences that each bring to the collaboration.

For more information, go to www.reztone.com and/or isabelleolivier.com.

Here's a short video to introduce you to the music and the musicians:





Rez Abbasi was approached in 2017 to create a new soundtrack for the classic Indian silent film "A Throw of Dice" - it's the third in a trilogy of movies created by German director Franz Osten (1876-1956) and is based on the Sanskrit classic "The Mahābhārata". Osten, enticed to India in 1924 by Himansu Rai, a European-educated businessman with a love of motion pictures. They made a series of silent films and then were in the forefront of "talkies" creating over three dozen movies in the 1930s to sate a growing audience.  Osten returned to Germany as World War II began to rage across Europe; he never made another film but is still famous in India as one of the forefathers of "Bollywood".

For this project, Abbasi created a new quintet – The Silent Ensemble – that is composed of Pawan Benjamin (tenor and soprano saxophones 
bansuri and western flutes ), Jennifer Vincent (acoustic bass, cello), 
Rohan Khrishnamurthy (mridangam, ghatam, khanjira), and Jake Goldbas (drum set) with the leader on acoustic and electric guitars plus electric sitar-guitar).   The group members bring a wealth of experience to this music.  Benjamin has worked with Roscoe Mitchell, bassist Reggie Workman, and choreographer Bill T. Jones while Khrishnamurthy has worked with the Ragmala Dance Company and toured with trumpeter Amir ElSaffar.  Miss Vincent has worked with Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and Jazz at Lincoln Center while Goldbas has also worked with Bill T. Jones, Aretha Franklin, in Broadway pit orchestras for "The Color Purple" and "Dear Evan Hansen" plus is featured in composer-arranger Miho Hazama's large ensemble.   

Because the music is written for a silent film, the results are fundamentally different than they would be for a "talkie." Abbasi takes his cues from the images, the actions of the characters, and the emotions he can see on the screen, thereby making the music "impressionistic" from the start. In interviews, the composer states that 30% of the music is improvised thereby making each performance unique.  In fact, the soundtrack album (issued by Whirlwind Recordings) features a bit over 80% of the music composed for the film (go to the guitarist's website to watch the movie and hear all the music). That stated, the album stands out on its own merits. First and foremost, the music covers a lot of territory, from traditional to contemporary, from acoustic to electric and all combinations.  Since  the ensemble are all multi-instrumentalists (save for Goldbas), Abbasi is writing to so many sonic possibilities.

Opening with "Mystery Rising", the gentle melody rises out of the acoustic guitar and Benjamin's bansuri flute pushed forward by the Indian drums and trap set.  Ms. Vincent's cello is used for both melody and counterpoint as well as rhythm. There's a "other-worldly" feel to the electric sitar opening of "Facing Truth"; dancing atop the insistent bass notes, Abbasi paints a picture that the tenor sax and percussion help to fill out.  One hears a gentle ballad with a "rock" twist on "Blissful Moments" and a folkish twist of cello and acoustic guitar over the harder-edge drums on "Duplicity".  "Moving Forward" starts as if the piece was going to hit hard but steps back for a bass solo while "Changing Worlds" uses a touch of dissonance in the guitar, a long flute and cello melody line, plus a blazing tenor sax solo to makes its point.

The best ways to listen to "A Throw of Dice" is to watch the movie from start to finish or sit down and listen to the recording all the way through.  Rez Abbasi has created quite a set of musical images that work with or without the film because the music is so intelligent and The Silent Ensemble so gifted.  It's quite a journey, one well worth taking!

For more information, go to rezabbasi.bandcamp.com/album/a-throw-of-dice.

Here's the opening track:



Guitarist and composer Alex Goodman, a native of Canada now residing in New York City, is a busy musician. His collegiate studies began in Canada at McGill University and the University of Toronto and culminated in a Master's Degree in Jazz Performance at The Manhattan School of Music. Not only does he leads his own ensembles but also is an active sideman appearing and recording with artists such as Roxy Coss, drummer-composer Mareike Weining, saxophonist Remy Le Boeuf, violinist Tomoko Omura, and Manuel Valera.  He's issued five albums as a leader plus one delightful solo album "Etudes." His music easily moves through classical influences as well as jazz and his sound is often clean with thoughtful solos and excellent background work


"Impressions in Blue and Red" (Outside In Music) is a 2-CD set built upon the artist's understanding that both music and understanding of color can, in his words, "..evokes a response that is processed with language." Goodman does not imply that he's a synesthete ( someone for whom sound waves create colors) but that his music in inspired by the colors certain painters use.  For this collection of originals and other works, the guitarist assembled two different quartets.  The "Blue" group includes Ben Van Gelder (alto saxophone), Martin Nevin (bass), and Jimmy Macbride (drums) while the "Red" features Alex LoRe (alto saxophone), Rick Rosato (bass), and Mark Ferber (drums).  On both CDs, each musician gets a short solo improvisation that introduces a Goodman composition and both disks close with a standard ("I'll Never Be The Same" and "If I Loved You") played solo by the guitarist.

Photo: Desmond White
On initial listening, one cannot detect much difference between the "Blue" album and the "Red". Some pieces swing, several have a classical feel, and none are too long. It certainly feels as if Goodman played with both groups before recording them. There are seven originals and three solo improvs on the first and eight originals plus three solo improvs on the second but "Red" also includes three pieces from other composers (including the standard at the end). Herbie Hancock's "Toys" swings gently and features a delightful bass solo (Rosato), no alto saxophone, plus delightful drumming from Ferber. Goodman's introduction to Johann Rosenmuller's "Sonata No. 12 Adagio" reminds one of the guitarist's classical leanings while the arrangement of the quartet's interpretation of the original piece brings out its Baroque qualities (the composer lived from 1619-1684) with excellent contributions from LoRe (such a singing quality to his alto sax) and strong support from the rhythm section.  There are pieces on both that blend classical and jazz. "Blue" has the delightful "Cobalt Blue" and the compelling "Still Life With Skull" (Macbride's percussion sparkles along with Nevin's powerful bass solos); meanwhile "Red" has the lovely medium tempo ballad "In Heaven Everything Is Fine."  There are also moments on the second disk where LoRe's alto sounds like an an oboe (to my ears on "Like a Fire That Consumes All Before It").

"Impressions in Red and Blue" contains an impressive amount of music and impressive musicianship.  Alex Goodman and his two quartets give the listener plenty to dig into or to let float through the room. There are moments when one hears a touch of the late John Abercrombie in his solos but, overall, this music sounds fresh and exciting.

For more information, go to www.alexgoodmanmusic.com.  Goodman, along with Alex LoRe, Mark Ferber, and Martin Nevin, will play a CD Release Show on March 8, 2020 at The Owl in Brooklyn NY – check out the guitarist's website for more details.

Here's the "Red" Quartet in the recording studio:

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Whirlwind of Saxophone Sounds

Photo: Joao Gonzalez
Alto saxophonist Will Vinson, born in London, England, has been a resident of New York City for over two decades.  He's worked or still is working with groups led by pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, drummer Ari Hoenig, saxophonist Miguel Zenón, and many others.  He's a founding member of the cooperative trio OWL (with bassist Orlando Le Fleming and guitarist Lage Lund) plus has issued five albums as a leader on various labels including Criss Cross Records and Smalls Live.  For "441", his debut on Whirlwind Recordings, Vinson chose to record with four different pianists – Sullivan Fortner, Tiger Hamasyan, Gerald Clayton, Fred Hersch, and the afore-mentioned Rubalcaba – and five different rhythm sections – bassists Matt Brewer, Matt Penman, Rick Rosato, and Larry Grenadier paired with (in order) drummers Obed Calvaire, Billy Hart, Jochen Rueckert, Clarence Penn, and Eric Harland (Brewer also plays with Penn). 


The results are a fascinating blend of styles, ideas, and interactions. 11 tracks, nearly 77 minutes of music, with originals mixed with one standard ("Love Letters" from Edward Heyman and Victor Young) plus songs from Keith Jarrett, Thelonious Monk, Bryn Roberts, and John Lewis. Each pairing opens with a saxophone and piano duet with the following track featuring bass and drums. Fortner is the only pianist with three tracks, the opening two and the delightful duet with Vinson on Lewis's "Milestones" the album closer.  The saxophonist's "Boogaloo" opens the album; it's a sweet blues that rolls along on the full piano chords and Vinson's lithe alto lines.  Brewer and Calvaire, now partners in the current edition of the SF Jazz Collective, have a delightful time pushing and pulling at the rhythms of "Love Letters" while the saxophonist and pianist chase variations of the melody lines throughout.

Photo: Jimmy Katz
There's nary a weak track in the program. Each pianist brings his style and strengths to the music.  Hamasyan is featured on Vinson's "Banal Street" and Jarrett's "Oasis."  The former rolls along pleasingly with both musicians enjoying presenting the melody and then Hoth taking sweet solos.  The quartet captures the European Quartet characteristics of "Oasis" with Vinson even channeling Jan Garbarek's tart alto tone. Matt Penman and Billy Hart sparkle in support.  Clayton and Vinson pair up on two originals, the blues-soaked ballad "I Am James Bond" (powerful solos from both) and another slower original, "Cherry Time."  Also a blues, the ballad gets a strong push from Penn and Brewer who really lock in under the solos, paying close attention to shifts in intensity and lightness.  No surprise that Hersch brings a Monk tune to the party; he and Vinson dance their way through "Work", the subtle blend of richness and minimalism in the pianist's approach meshes well with the alto's jaunty solo.  Vinson turns to soprano sax on Robert's handsome ballad "KW." Composed with Kenny Wheeler in mind, there's plenty of space in the opening sax-piano duo that is enhanced by the addition of bassist Rosato and the splendid brush work of Reuckert.  Rubalcaba caresses the melody of Vinson's "The Way To You" which the saxophonist literally sings through his horn.  They then share the album's longest track (10:18) with Grenadier and Harland – "That Happened" is quite a happening with the pianist and drummer in sync on the rhythms, fine solos from all four, and a breezy quality that builds to an intensity that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Lots and lots of music on "441", an album that invites one in and compels you to stay all the way through.  Will Vinson must have had a ball mixing and matching the five pianists with the material as well as the rhythm sections.  They all inspire his playing and, in turn, are inspired by his adventurousness and desire to have fun while telling these 11 stories.  Take your time and let the music soak in – it's well worth the effort.

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

For purchasing information and to read more about the album, go to willvinson.bandcamp.com/album/four-forty-one.


Here's the opening track featuring pianist Sullivan Fortner:



Slovenian-born and now New York City-based saxophonist (tenor and soprano plus bass clarinet) Jure Pukl is back with his third album for Whirlwind.   "Broken Circles" finds Pukl in the company of a quartet of "young lions" including bassist Matt Brewer, guitarist Charles Altura, and especially vibraphonist Joel Ross (who is on a slew of recordings issued in the past four months), plus drummer Kweku Sumbry (The latter two can be heard on the powerful new Whirlwind release from bassist Harish Rhaghavan - read my review here).

Pukl created this program with this group in mind; the vast majority of the 11 tracks (plus the radio edit of "Separation") are originals with the one exception. "Gloomy Sunday" was composed in 1932 bu Hungarian composer Rezső Seress with the original lyrics plus the English translation linked to multiple suicides. The composer's story is fascinating yet this version is pushed forward by Sumbry's active drums.  The melody is shared by the bass clarinet and vibes with guitar counterpoint.  As an immigrant to the United States, Pukl composes songs that deal with broken families but also pieces that reflect life in a freer environment.  An example of the former is "Separation", a somber ballad in which the tenor sax, guitar, and vibes each have a voice as does Brewer with a fine solo and the drummer taking the piece to its conclusion.

Photo: Aljosa Videtic
The center of the program is ballad-heavy. After the track above, "Compassion" opens with a kalimba melody before dropping into a slow, moody, ballad. Pukl's soprano plays the melody aided by quiet counterpoint from Ross and Brewer.  "The afore-mentioned "Gloomy Sunday" is several tracks later followed by "Empty Words."  There's a sparse quality to the tracking, at times, the rhythm stops. But, listen to how the musicians respond to the melody and to each other, not allowing excess emotion overtake the music.  Near to the end of the program, "Kids" opens with Pukl's child offering a wordless vocal duo with Dad's tenor sax before the band enters with a sweet ballad. Altura's fine solo is a highlight but pay attention to what Brewer and Sumbry are creating beneath the guitar.

There's plenty of high-powered materials as well.  The album kicks off with "Sustained Optimism", with the tenor sax and vibes playing the speedy melody while the drummer kicks everyone Ito gear.  The title track follows; the song has quite a kick tumbling out of the rhythm section and the front line of tenor, vibes and guitar all take advantage to create strong solos. ""Triumph of Society" is also a very optimistic piece, tumbling forward with a delightful flow.  The final track (before the extra radio edit) is the delightful "Sky Is The Limit" – Pukl's soprano sax shares the melody with guitar and then jumps into his solo, his melodic phrases high up in the soprano's range caught up in the powerful rhythmic flow below him.

Listening to "Broken Circles", one hears a quintet of musicians working and playing to create messages that resonate. Jure Pukl has been an impressive player since first coming to critical attention in the early years of the previous decade.  His writing keeps on maturing as does his playing. He's recorded and/or worked with musicians such as pianist Vijay Iyer, drummer Damion Reid, the Vienna Sax Quartet, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, and his wife, saxophonist Melissa Aldana.  This current quintet deserves to be heard in person as each person brings great musical knowledge to the project.  Pay attention!

For more information, go to jure-pukl.com.

Here's the first track on the album:



Been over two decades since saxophonist and NEA Jazz master Dave Liebman began his musical exploration and interpretation of the four Natural Elements. Starting in 1997 with "Water" (featuring Pat Metheny, Billy Hart, and Cecil McBee), then moving on to "Air" (a 2006 duo with computer whiz Walter Quintus), and then 2016's "Fire" (with Kenny Werner, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette.  Liebman brings the cycle to a close with "Earth" (Whaling City Sounds), a 14-piece suite that features his touring and recording group Expansions. The leader brings his signature soprano saxophone plus wooden recorder; the group consists of Matt Vashlishan (Wind synth, reeds), Bobby Avey (piano, keyboards), Alex Ritz (drums), and longtime associate Tony Marino (electric bass).

Liebman constructed this band to be an electro-acoustic outfit and no one exemplifies that more than Vashlishan. having seen the group in concert, it's impressive how he blends the wind synth in the more traditional sounds of piano, bass, and drums.  One can hear that in all its glory on "Volcano/Avalanche" where his instrument creates the former and Liebman's darting soprano lines the other.  Marino's bass and Ritz's drums keep the music from falling apart as well as add to the energy needed to tell the story.  "The Sahara" is introduced by the percussion/ wooden flute "Interlude", complete with wind sounds from the synth and bass. The evocative soprano sax lead then blends with the wind synth to push the song into a different mood. Avey's electric piano solo over the powerful drum playing stands out.

Photo: N Hayashi
There are amazing moments throughout.  The short "Interludes" not only serve as solo spotlights (in the instances above and below, an augmented duo) but also introduce the following track. Avey's piano spot may remind some of a waterfall or a gentle rain outside the window while Vashlishan's seems other-worldly but not unlike  the synth work of the late Joe Zawinul.  Ritz's spot is conversational while Marino plays a chordal riff with the drummer keeping time.  Liebman's soprano solo "Interlude" is evocative of standing on a ridge and leads into "Grand Canyon/ Mt. Everest", a musical appreciation of these natural wonders with each voice stepping forward and then back into the ensemble in a slow procession that compels the listener to sit and let the music unfold, not to rush to move forward but take in the beauty of creation.

Photo: Attila Kleb
The music moves back from its close examination of the natural wonders of "Earth" to its place in the greater Cosmos.  The album closes with "Galaxy", a raucous, funk-driven piece that has the feel of the music Miles Davis created for the "On The Corner".  Marino and Ritz really drive this piece with Avey's chattering keys, Vashlishan's squealing wind synth, and Liebman's  fiery soprano lines fluttering over the top of it.  Midway through the piece, Avey steps out with just Ritz supplying the pulse before Marino reenters and pushes them harder.  The ends then come in and help to take the piece into a short restatement of "Earth Theme", bringing the project back to a close but also serving as an invitation to reenter this music's rich atmosphere.

Photo: N. Hayashi
The pictures that Dave Liebman Expansions creates on "Earth" come into clearer focus each time you listen.  This is music that connects you to the natural world in unexpected ways, asking one to pay closer attention to the majesty of what is all around you, impelling you to go outside away from the daily hustle if only for a short walk in the woods or by a river or near a pond or up to a mountain top.

For more information, go to davidliebman.com/home/new_releases/earth/. Dave Liebman Expansions is appearing at The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme CT on 2/22 and then at Dizzy's Club NYC on 2/28-29.  Click on the names for more information.

Here's "Sahara":

Monday, February 17, 2020

Three by Three for February

Pianist Frank Woeste and trombonist Ryan Keberle first met in 2015 while playing with trumpeter Dave Douglas.  The pianist, born in Germany now based in Paris, France, and the trombonist, born in Spokane, WA, now based in New York City, decided to create a project –  which they named Reverso – that blended 20th Century music with jazz because they felt that certain elements of the two "genres" have influenced composers and performers right up to the present.  They recruited French cellist Vincent Courtois and drummer percussionist Jeff Ballard to work with them.  Composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) served as the influence for the group's 2018 debut album "Suite Ravel" using his six-part "Le Tombeau de Couperin" as a stepping-off point for both revising the piece for four voiced and creating compositions of their own influenced by the great master.

2020 brings Reverso's second album "The Melodic Line."  Released on the leaders's Out Note Records (released through Outhere Music), the ensemble has been pared down to a trio with the subtraction of Ballard. Instead of focussing on one composer, this time the music bears the influence of Les Six, six French composers –  Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, Louis Durey, and Germaine Tailleferre – all of whom were active in the first decades of the 20th Century.  Woeste studied the music of Milhaud, finding influences as varied as American jazz and Brazilian music.  Meanwhile, Keberle spent his time exploring the music of Ms. Tailleferre (1892-1983). Even though she lived a long life, her most successful period of writing was between the two World Wars.

The nine-song program kicks off with Woeste's "Blue Feather", a handsome melody pushed along by the composer's piano and the deep tones Courtois's cello. The piece tunes percussive with clapping supporting the piano solo until the cello br=egins counterpoint and the trombone plays a melodic accompaniment.  Keberle's "Exemplar" is next; again, it's deep tones of the cello in the introduction that first catch your ear. Then, the trombone and cello share the melody over the spare piano accompaniment.  Courtois's lovey solo with piano accompaniment and counterpoint stands out. The trombone solo rises over the melodic piano and pizzicato cello, feeling like the aural equivalent of clouds cutting across the blue daytime sky.

This music is often quite lovely, a fascinating blend of classical, jazz, and folk melodies.  There's a funky feel to Woeste's "Absinthe" (especially in the piano's left hand in tandem with the plucked cello while Keberle's "Major Jack" has an anthemic intro that opens up to a long melody line before a sparkling piano solo.  The album closes with the pianist's lovely "Clara", yet another example of how the various voices work together to not only support the rich melody but to create a sonic flow under the pizzicato cello solo.

Reverso creates music that pushes, albeit gently, at barriers, eschewing genre, creating memorable melodies in an atmosphere of creativity and trust.  The album title – "The Melodic Line" – does give one a good idea of what you're in for.  Ryan Keberle and Frank Woeste, along with the quite impressive Vincent Courtois, make music that will excite and soothe your soul.  Give a long listen!

For more information, go to www.frankwoeste.com and/or www.ryankeberle.com.

Here's "Exemplar":



Pianist and composer Aaron Diehl still seems like he's the "new guy at the keyboard" but he's been playing professionally for, at least, 15 years.  He's worked with a slew of artists, ranging from Wynton Marsalis to Wycliffe Gordon to the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra.  His most high-profile gig is with vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant.  Listening to Diehl is such a treat; he loves melodies, is an excellent improviser, and has absorbed myriad influences into his own articulate statements.  There are certain reviewers and critics who tend to lump him into the musical "Neo-cons" but, truly, he's his own man.  In a trio setting, one hears traces of Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, Herbie Hancock, and even a touch of Memphis Slim in his blues playing; plus, his touch is impeccable.


"The Vagabond" is Diehl's third release for Mack Avenue Records and features his current trio of Paul Sikivie (bass) and Gregory Hutchinson (drums - the picture above features the Trio's former drummer, the late Lawrence Leathers). The program features 11 tracks with seven originals from the leader plus pieces by Sir Roland Hanna, John Lewis, Sergei Prokofiev, and Philip Glass (interesting that those four pieces are the final tracks on the album).  One should notice how quiet many of these pieces are – Diehl and his rhythm section do not need to "shout" to get their musical points across and that allows the listener to really pay attention.  Note the power and classical influences on "Park Slope" as well as the strong bass solo and excellent drum work.  The subtle power of "Lamia" is its quiet yet insistent rhythm and Diehl's superb piano melody and solo.  The whisper-touch of Hutchinson's cymbal work and Sikivie's simple yet powerful bass work allows the leader to range far afield without losing touch with the thematic material.

Photo: Jaime Kahn
This music really captures one's attention. The title track opens with a melody line that seems to keep rising along with impressive counterpoint from the bassist.  Notice how Hutchinson plays beneath the piano solo, toying with the time and accents yet never tripping up his musical partners.  There's also a strong classical feel to the lovely ballad "Treasures Past."  Diehl opens his solo with such a soft touch and, while he does play a bit harder at times, the real power in the piece is how melodic the trio is.

"Prokofiev's March" is the first of the last four tracks. It's a dazzling display of powerful rhythms, martial-sounding piano chords, and intense forward motion. Sir Roland Hanna's "A Story Told, Seldom Heard" is a lovely ballad with a rich chordal melody and one more impressive bass solo.  The unaccompanied piano opening of Lewis's "Milano" leads into a light-hearted, even a bit sentimental, ballad with more gentle cymbal colors and a touching piano solo.  The album closes with Glass's "Piano Etude No. 16" in which the rhythm section gets to work with creating solos while Diehl moves the music forward.  The power of his chordal work near the end of the piece plus its repetitive nature becomes hypnotic over the course of eight-plus minutes.

"The Vagabond" is an often stunning and soothing 65 minutes of music from Aaron Diehl, made all the more powerful and interesting by the work of bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer/ cymbalist Gregory Hutchinson. Even though each member of the Trio is a master of his instrument, this music is rarely about technique and always about the emotional richness of the compositions and the performances.  Take the time to absorb these sounds – it's worth the adventure!

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

Here's the John Lewis piece:



Photo: Chris Drukker
Saxophonist Dayna Stephens (he plays soprano, tenor, and baritone) has been on the creative music scene for the past decade recording eight albums as a leader plus appearing on dates with trumpeter Brian Lynch, guitarist Perry Smith, pianist Theo Hill, and bassist Linda May Han Oh (plus others). Over his career he's also played alongside Fred Hersch, Muhal Richard Abrams, Roy Hargrove, Ambrose Akinmusire, Wayne Shorter, Rufus Reid, John Scofield, Lionel Loueke, and Gretchen Parlato.  He's been much more active since a kidney transplant in 2015 saved his life. After recording for Criss Cross Records and Sunnyside Records, Stephens started his own label in 2017 – Contagious Music – where he released "Gratitude", a quartet date with Brad Melhdau, Julian Late, Larry Grenadier, and Eric Harland.  His saxophone influences are many and varied; he's also an accomplished bass player but has yet to record on the instrument.

His new album, "Liberty" (Contagious Music), is his first trio date.  Featuring Harland and bassist Ben Street, the 11 song program (10 originals plus "Planting Flowers" from Aaron Parks) is filled with intelligent playing, intuitive interactions, fine solos, and Stephens playing with such confidence and joy.  "Liberty" can have several meanings; in this setting, especially without a chordal instrument plus the saxophonist is also talking about creating art in a society that is "free" but those freedoms are under fire from may sides.  Can Stephens's music help by reminding listeners that we music work together to produce positive results, that we each have a say in the world we want to live in but must be cognizant of the needs of others.  No matter what you think the word means, the album "Liberty" is a delight from start to finish.

Photo: Paola Piga
The album, recorded at the Rudy Van Gelder Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, has such an immediate sound as if the trio was in the room with you.  There's an undercurrent of blues that runs through pieces such as the opener "Ran" and the closer "Wil's Way" (dedicated to organist Wil Blades).  Street and Harland set the tone by swinging with a purpose, giving Stephens a delightful cushion of sound to bolster his attack. In his notes, the saxophonist writes that "Faith Leap" is inspired and influenced by John Coltrane's "Giant Steps"  – even more inspiring for Stephens is Harland's funky attack and Street's melodic bass lines.  The leader turns to baritone saxophone for "The Lost and Found", a handsome ballad that is emotionally strong and shows the leader's impressive range on the big horn. He recorded the song on the tenor sax for his 2007 debut "The Timeless Now", a sextet date that also featured this rhythm section.

Photo: Chris Drukker
Give a listen to "Loosy Goosy" down below and you'll hear the closest connection to the classic Sonny Rollins Trio recordings of the 1957-1958. Stephens is now imitating the great tenor innovator but displays a similar confidence and big sound as the elder did on the recordings.  Don't miss the African-influenced "Tarifa" – the city for which the song is named sits at the southernmost end of the Iberian Peninsula, just eight miles from Morocco.  Harland's splendid drumming along with Street's foundational bass lines and Stephen's overdubbed saxophones makes this track irresistible.

"Liberty" sounds great, with musical interactions that will not only keep your attention but also make you move your feet and nod your head.  Dayna Stephens, along with Ben Street and Eric Harland, has made one of the most memorable albums of the past several years, brimming with ideas, melodies, and rhythms, exuding confidence and pleasure. Dig in – dig it!

For more information, go to daynastephens.net. The album will be released on 2/28/2020.

Here's the afore-mentioned "Loosy Goosy" in the studio:




Wednesday, February 12, 2020

History, Their Stories, Our Stories

Here are two more recordings that remind listeners music reflects the society we live in; the messages in these songs, whether overt or subtle, speak to all of us.

Bassist, composer, host of NPR's "Jazz Night in America" and "The Lowdown" on Sirius XM, and so much more, Christian McBride is a musician who makes his presence known.  His list of sideman credits grows longer every month plus he leads a trio, a quartet (New Jahn), a quintet (Inside Straight), and an 18-member big band.  A native of Philadelphia, PA, he is a master of both the acoustic and electric basses.  In 1998, McBride was commissioned by the Portland Maine Historical Society as well as the National Endowment for the Arts to compose "The Movement, Revisited", an episodic work that speaks about the Civil Rights Movement through the words of Rosa Parks, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali. He toured the Northeasten United States with his quartet and a 30-member choir. In 2008, McBride revised the work, adding a section in honor of the election of President Barack Obama and scoring the piece for his Big Band.

McBride did not go into the studio until September of 2013 to record "The Movement, Revisited" and, thanks to Mack Avenue Records, the album is finally being released.  Not sure why it's taken so long but now that the music is in wide release, make sure you listen.  Chances are most people know the stories of these four heroes of the Movement yet, in this time of renewed racist activities, the growth of anti-Semitism, and fear of immigrants, the words one hears have renewed meaning.  Among the highlights are the performances of all the "speakers", especially poet Sonia Sanchez and actor Wendell Pierce.  The former brings great verve to her presentation of Ms. Park's words, tremendous rhythm and passion while the latter's sonorous tones may not match the "preacher's tones" of Dr. King, he brings a gravitas to the words that remind us of all the work that needs to be begun and carried.

Other voices stand out. Alicia Olatuja's impassioned vocal, supported by the Voices of The Flame choir, on "Brother Malcolm" elicits chills. Pay attention to the fine support from pianist Geoff Keezer, drummer Terreon Gully, and Ron Blake's equally passionate tenor sax solo. Warren Wolf's vibraphone and Steve Wilson's soprano saxophone solos on "Sister Rosa" ring out as do the voices of the choir.  "Rumble In The Jungle" is a funky romp for the big band and choir – powered by Gully's thunderous drums, Carl Miraghi's foundational baritone sax locks in with McBride's bass to push the message across while the Choir celebrates the audacity that permeated the personality of Muhammad Ali.

Photo: John Watson
The album closes with "Apotheosis", a celebration of the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Instead of serving as the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement (which it did for many people), his rise to the most powerful office in the United States began a another campaign, one that attempted to discredit the unity that Barack Obama spoke about in his Election Night message.  The four "narrators" (including Dion Graham and Vondie Curtis-Hall) take turns reading the powerful words – the accompanying music, especially the lovely soprano saxophone of Steve Wilson, is quite lovely and begins to intensify as the narrators intone "Yes We Can!"  The music rises to a glorious climax with the choir repeating "Free at last" while the band grooves beneath them, culminating in an equally glorious "Amen."

The positivity that permeates "The Movement, Revisited" seems nostalgic in the light of the present administration's work to dismantle not only FDR's New Deal but the policies that President Barack Obama worked so hard to put place on the environment, voting rights, equal rights, and more. Yet, Christian McBride's music and presentations reminds us of the power that comes from unity, working from the ground up in our communities to make our communities thrive and prejudices again melt into the background.

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

Listen to "Soldiers" (music by Christian McBride, words by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr spoken by Wendell Pierce):




Personnel:

Christian McBride – bass, compositions
Terreon Gully – drums
Warren Wolf – vibraphone, percussion
Ron Blake – tenor and soprano saxophones
Geoffrey Keezer – piano
Steve Wilson – alto saxophone, flute
Todd Bashore – alto saxophone
Loren Schoenberg – tenor saxophone
Carl Maraghi – baritone saxophone
James Burton – trombone
Steve Davis – trombone
Michael Dease – trombone
Doug Purviance - bass trombone
Lew Solo – trumpet
Frank Greene – trumpet
Freddie Hendrix – trumpet
Daryll Shawl – trumpet
Ron Tooley – trumpet

Guests:
Sonia Sanchez – Rosa Parks
Wendell Pierce – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr
Vondie Curtis-Hall – Malcolm X
Dion Graham – Muhammad Ali
Alicia Olatuja – vocal
J.D. Steele – vocal, choral arrangements
Voices of The Flame – vocals



Photo: Randy Cole
I cannot speak for other reviewers but I read a lot of my colleagues writings.  Especially impressive are those writers who are also excellent musicians as they often can get to the heart of the music and how the musicians put the pieces together.  Peter Hum, who is celebrating 20 years as a music and food reviewer for the Ottawa Citizen, is one of those fine writers who, when he puts his pen and sits down at the piano, makes intriguing music that is both inside and outside the "tradition".  

For his third release (his first was issued in 2010, the second in 2015), Hum is in the company of most of the people on the other recordings – they include Kenji Omae (tenor saxophone), Mike Rud (guitar), Ted Warren (drums) plus Alec Walkington (bass on six tracks), and Dave Watts (bass on four tracks).  Brooklyn, NY-based Dave Smith (trumpet) is the "new" member of the group replacing Nathan Cepelinski (alto and soprano saxophones).  Hum, the composer, is on a mission and wants his music to reflect the changes in society over the past four years, i.e., the shift to nationalism, the closing of borders, disrespect for natural resources, and more.  Yet, like some of the best of Charles Mingus's more pointed compositions, the music is neither strident or atonal.  Notice when the band marches into "Rabble Rouser", led by Warren's martial drumming and Smith's trumpet parading on the top – the music has a powerful forward motion, fine supportive bass work (Walkington), and a positive feel. Just check out the groove the rhythm section falls into to usher in Omae's excellent tenor solo.

Photo: Randy Cole
Check out "Fake News Blues"; opening in a Jazz Messengers groove, the melody unfolds gradually thanks to the guitar, tenor sax, and trumpet.  Rud's solo starts out understated but really digs in and raises the intensity. Omae follows – he displays a hard-edged tone without being shrill and this solo gets pushed forward by Warren's excellent drums. Bassist Walkinton and Warren share "fours" before the sextet returns to the theme.  No half-truths here (the blues is always honest).


There are delights scattered throughout the program.  "Tears For the Innocent" was composed after six Muslim worshippers were shot to death in Quebec City in early 2017.  Strong solos from bassist Watts, Rud, and the composer highlight this powerful piece. "Safe Passage" is inspired by refugees fleeing oppression with the hope that they find asylum. The music, to these ears, has the feel of late 60s Herbie Hancock. Strong solos from Hum, Omae, and especially Smith play out over the active rhythm section.  The ballad, "Embers", is a prayer that the"flames of progress" catch fire once again. The handsome melody is introduced by the guitar followed by a compelling statement from Smith. The "octaves" solo (in the stye of Wes Montgomery fthat Rud plays before the return too the theme truly catches the ears.

Photo: Randy Cole
"Ordinary Heroes" closes on the title track. Inspired by a quote from actor/ activist George Takei, the song reminds the listener that he, she, they, and all of us have the power within us to make the world a better place, to bring about positive change.  The gospel and r'n'b feel in the rhythm section is echoed by the stunning guitar solo and heightened by the tenor solo.

Over the course of 73 minutes, Peter Hum and his fine ensemble create a world of possibilities, built on hope and the desire to make positive changes in this time of negativity. The composer and pianist knows there are people all over the world taking similar steps, tuning out the negativity from the majority of politicians and paying closer attention to  their own neighborhoods, towns, cities, and countries.  Music has more power than we think and can be used for good. "Ordinary Heroes" reminds us of the that all the way through.

For more information, go to peterhum.com. To learn more about the album and to purchase, go to peterhum.bandcamp.com/album/ordinary-heroes.

Leave it to a journalist to write a piece titled "Fake News Blues":




Monday, February 10, 2020

Guitar Stories

Ross Hammond, guitarist, composer, entrepreneur, and family man, is based in Sacramento, CA. Much of what you really need to know about as a musician can be found by looking at his discography. He's recorded a slew of solo acoustic tracks, a good number of duo experiments, and earlier in the 2010s, several quartet and quintet albums.  Hammond has recorded in coffeehouses, concert venues, studios, and on his front porch. Over the past few years, he's been switching between acoustic and steel-bodied guitars, creating music that obliterates borders in the manner of the late John Fahey and the very-present Duck Baker.

His latest sonic adventure, "Our Place On The Wheel" (self-released), finds him in the studio with Oliver Lake (alto saxophone) and Mike Pride (drums, percussion) – the program uses the acoustic blues of people like John Lee Hooker, Charlie Patton, Fred McDowell, and others as the stepping-off point for a series of improvisations. They hit the "record" button and 90 minutes later, an album was created.  One might ask "how does this music sound so good when it was just a spontaneous concert"?  Hammond had worked with both but never recorded together.  Yet, his decision to place his love of the blues forms in this setting with these "big-eared" listeners, interpreters, and creators, is deeply impressive.

Press "play", sit back, and listen. Absorb the sounds. Don't worry about song titles or length of the performances, just pay attention. Find your favorites, listen again, listen to how the musicians interact, to how the ageless (77) Mr. Lake plus with verve, fire, and imagination, to how Pride not only pushes his friends but creates a powerful flow beneath them; he swings, pounds, whispers, and creates cushions of sound.  Notice how Hammond not only creates a drone but weaves his way in and around the saxophone, responding to the power of the drums plus the language Mr. Lake creates.  His slide work evokes artists such as Skip James, Ry Cooder, Muddy Waters, and more, without imitating any of them.

In these days of deceit, disease, and unease, lose yourself in the musical landscape of "Our Place On The Wheel" – this music reminds one how friendship and trust, listening and responding, as well as the deep emotions conjured up by the artists who serve as signposts for this adventure, can create magic.  Listen to the title track below and see if you agree.

For more information, go to www.rosshammond.com. Also, you can listen and purchase his music by going to rosshammond.bandcamp.com.

Here is the title cut:



Guitarist, composer, and arranger Jeff Parker puts himself in so many fascinating musical situations.  He's worked and recorded with Chicago Underground, Isotope 217, Tortoise, Dave Douglas, Nicole Mitchell, Meshell Ndegeocello, Brazilian conceptualist Tom Zé, Makaya McCraven, and many more. Spending many years in Chicago, he recorded for the Denmark, Atavastic, and Thrill Jockey labels plus has albums on Clean Feed, Eremite, Rogue Art, and International Anthem.

"Suite for Max Brown" is the first release through the partnership of International Anthem and Nonesuch Records. It's a delightful collection of solo pieces, collaborations, vocals, and instrumentals. There are through-composed pieces, studio "jams", and the  smashing take on John Coltrane's "After The Rain".  That last piece, featuring Paul Bryan (electric bass), Josh Johnson (electric piano), and Jamire Williams (drums), captures the dream-like atmosphere of the original, retaining the emotional power as well. The album opens with "Build a Nest", a funky duo with vocalist Ruby Parker (who is the guitarist's daughter) – the senior Parker builds a background with piano, drums, guitar, backing vocals, and a drum machine yet the simplicity of piece is striking.

This program changes directions on every track.  There's the fiery, Tortoise-like funk of "Fusion Swirl" (another tune with Parker on all instruments), the 70s funk of "Gnarciss" featuring the trumpet of Rob Mazurek and the drumming of Makaya McCraven, and the fiery Brazilian-style fusion of "Go Away" with bassist Bryan, drummer McCraven, and the leader on guitars, sampler, and the occasional shouted song title.  There are several other duos, two with Bryan, the afore-mentioned opening cut, and the slow drag of "3 For L" featuring drummer Jay Bellerose.  That piece features a long and melodic guitar solo, a quiet yet effective synth bass line, a complimentary percussion from the studio vet Bellerose (who has worked closely with singer-songwriter-producer Joe Henry).

Photo: Lee-Anne Schmitt
The album closes with the title track which, at 10:38, is the longest piece.  The song opens with the guitars and synths; soon, alto saxophonist Josh Johnson and trumpeter Nate Walcott take over the melody. Williams's drums enter during Johnson's fine solo. There's a trumpet solo followed by a short guitar interlude and then Johnson takes turns with Walcott in the solo space. Over 2/3rds of the way through, the piece moves into another section with the beat now modified under the guitar and synth. This section acts as a coda; the music takes on a trance-like feel and no one instrumental voice standing out, confining until the fade. Check out the video below and see how the music underscores the images.

"Suite for Max Brown" finds Jeff Parker continuing his creative search, changing the way he puts an album together, paying closer attention to detail and groove.  His solos, as well as those by the various participants, move organically out of the mix, none overstaying their welcome or concerned with technical fanciness.  This "Suite..." feels like a series of short (with a few notable exceptions) "sound poems" – open your ears let the music in.

For more information, go to intlanthem.bandcamp.com/album/suite-for-max-brown where you can listen and purchase the album.

Here's Jeff Parker in the studio:



Here's the video from musician-filmmaker Mikael Patrick Avery: