Saturday, December 16, 2017

2017 - What a Year, Especially for Music! (Part 1 - Voices)

Most years are a blend of happy and sad, chaos and peace, health and illness, loss and gain. 2017 certainly was that way for me. Reading the news from home, from Washington, throughout the country and the world, one is not surprised that our capability for shock is tested every minute our eyes and ears are open.  Music reflects all that and more; often music deflects all that and more.  We have as much a need to be entertained as we do to hear our favorite artists try to speak or sing "truth to power."  No surprise that Kendrick Lamar's recent CD is titled "DAMN" and in all caps.   The lists of favorite television show are peppered with programs ("Handmaid's Tale", "Dark", "Stranger Things") that warn us of dictatorships, of totalitarian governments of the near-future, of women continuing to struggle to be equal.  Are we surprised by the almost daily "sexual harassment" charges levied at movie and television personalities, at producers and directors, at trusted newsmen.  And at government officials.

Music reminds many of us of what can be good, that the creative process brings people and audiences together, if not to change the world than just a small part of it and, maybe, just for two to four hours.

Listed below, and in subsequent posts, are the albums that brought me joy and hope through this year,  created by artists who made me question my beliefs or soothe my spirits.  Step Tempest was quieter than normal this Fall, actually since the end of July.  Not that I wasn't listening to music but, perhaps, I needed it step back to see a bigger picture. True, I was committed to other projects that took more of my time that I expected but, in the past, I found the time to write because the artists who send me their music, the publicists who are kind to hang with me, the people I interact with when I are writing and doing radio interviews appreciate the work I do. No excuses, no apologies. Just thought you should know.

Part one is but 10 of the, possibly, 36 recordings I think deserve recognition.  This list contains albums with voices, many with poetry, some I never had the opportunity to write about.

If you held me down and ordered me to tell which album was my true #1 choice, I would admit to "Matt Wilson's Honey And Salt Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg" (Palmetto).  It's not just because I saw the band live at The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme, CT, and was invited on stage to read with the band ("We Must Be Polite" with the delightful Bo Diddley-beat and more)...well, that was great (I mean, Ron Miles, Jeff Lederer, Dawn Thomson, Martin Wind, and the irrepressible Mr. Wilson....did I mention Ron Miles?) but the album has so much going for it, so much diverse music, pithy poetry, and at the center of its big heart, the need to connect in dark times.  Might not be your cup of joe (or Matt for that fact) but every time I listen to the album or relive the live gig, it brings a smile to my face.

Been a good couple of years for poet Emily Dickinson what with, at least three CDs of her works set to music plus the brilliant 2016 movie "A Quiet Passion."  Jane Ira Bloom connected with Ms. Dickinson when she discovered that poet was a pianist and that her poetry has a sense of improvisation about it.  Ms. Bloom and her brilliant ensemble (bassist Mark Helias, drummer Bobby Previte, and pianist Dawn Clement) created the 2-CD "Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson" (OTL Records); CD One features 14 originals plus the Rodgers-Hart classic "It's Easy to Remember" while the second disk has the same songs plus the voice of actress Deborah Rush reading snippets of the poetry that inspired the songs (save for "It's Easy....")  Ms. Bloom takes a different approach than Matt Wilson, the music is not inspired by Americana but is certainly American music, with swing, with flowing melodic passages, splendid interplay, and soaring improvisations.  What a tribute, what a treat!

"Freedom Highway" is the latest album from Rhiannon Giddens and it posits the racial insecurities rife in the United States in the heart of the music.  For all those people who woke up the morning after the 2016 and saw that our country truly was not united (not that it wasn't obvious during the previous administration and the highly flammable voices raised during the endless election cycle), for those people whose voices were just beginning to be heard in this country, this music hears your concerns and gives you hope.  Perhaps the best way to move forward after being knocked to the ground is to keep telling your stories of hope, of reconciliation, of recognition, of dancing until your body expels the evil spirits, of remembering that battles are rarely won without sacrifice and pain. Yes, there are moments of pure joy, moments of anger, pride, lust, love, of hope.

Trombonist-composer Ryan Keberle & Catharsis looked for hope on "Find The Common, Shine a Light" (Greenleaf Music). Original songs mixed with intelligent covers ("The Times They Are A'Changing", "Fool on The Hill", "Al Otro Lado del Rio") played by a band that enjoys working together including trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, bassist Jorge Roeder, and drummer Eric Doob plus the voice and guitar of Camila Meza.  Also a response to the 2016 election, the music reached out to divergent audiences across this country, reminding people that creative musicians see what's going on in the world they travel through, that they react by playing music to exemplify community, togetherness, showing how men and women from different backgrounds can share a common  vision.

Ms. Meza is also part of pianist-composer Fabian Almazan's album-length suite "Alcanza" (translate to "reach") - the music, released on the pianist's Biophilia Records, speaks to the need of conservation of natural resources, to education, to the proliferation of wars and homelessness and more.  The rhythm section of Linda May Han Oh (bass) and Henry Cole (drums) know when to stoke the fire (and when to hold back) while Almazan's string arrangement are sophisticated and essential.  Note how melodic the solos are, how those arrangements frame and interact with the voice and soloists, and just how powerful the music is.  A shout-out to the string section of violinists Tomoko Omura and Megan Gould, violist Karen Waltuch and cellist Noah Hoffield for their stellar work.  All in all, a splendid recording.

Trumpeter, vocalist, saunter player, composer and arranger Amir elSaffar expands upon his studies of Iraqi maqams with his 2-CD masterwork "Not Two" (New Amsterdam Records). Written for his 17-piece Rivers of Sound Orchestra, the songs flow with grace and elegance, moves on the power of the brilliant rhythm section (drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Carlos de Rosa), and draws on many traditions to create an aural sound painting  that shifts gears all the time. Keeps you on your toes does this music without condescending to popular tastes or being strictly traditional - the more creative composers do that and Amir elSaffar is deserving of all the accolades he has received for his brilliant contributions to music and to educating his listeners to the width and breadth of Arabic culture.

Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, and Melissa Stylianou - collectively known as Duchess - added much-needed brightness to a cold and dark winter (heck, the whole darn year) with "Laughing at Life" (Anzic Records). The group's music, a potent and pleasurable mix of standards from the "Great American Songbook" and beyond.   Each with solo careers and two with young families, they come together to invite listeners out of the ordinary and the humdrum into a world where harmonies, melodies, smart and sassy arrangements (from the fertile mind of Oded Lev-Ari) and sometimes saucy and often sweet lyrics tell delightful stories.  Special guests Wycliffe Gordon (trombone, scat vocal) and Anat Cohen (clarinet) augment the musical trio of Michael Cabe (piano), Matt Aranoff (bass), and Jared Schonig (drums) - guitarist Jesse Lewis and tenor saxophonist Jeff Lederer also add their unique voices to several tunes.  The music can certainly stand on its own but does the sun shine brighter when these three voices step out in front. Whew! What joy!

Ms. Gardner joins forces with pianist Ehud Asherie for "The Late Set" (Anzic Records), an aural evocation of smoky nightclubs, out of the glare of the lights of Broadway, perhaps down a set of stairs, with glasses clinking while the audience sits quietly listening.  Mostly composed of ballads, the performers do not rush through these performances (mostly from well-known composers of the 1920s-1950s. Asherie is the perfect accompanist, framing Ms. Gardner's supple voice with lovely reactions,interactions, and harmonies.  O, and that voice....plenty of emotion, a dash of playfulness, every lyric can be understood, even felt. "The Late Set" is more than the midnight hour at the cabaret - listen to the songs and the you'll hear the fine line between blues, joy, and sadness.

I'm still processing the amazing 2-CD "Dreams and Daggers", the latest album from Cécile McLorin Salvant. Mostly recorded live at The Village Vanguard with her Trio of Aaron Diehl (piano), Paul Sikivie (bass), and Laurence Leathers (drums), this music often shimmies, shakes, struts, slithers, slides, and sashays out of the speakers. Plus don't miss the songs that whisper, sigh, shudder, and sit in wonder. There are also several shorter tracks recorded in the studio where Ms. Salvant's voice is accompanied only by the strings of the Catalyst Quartet and piano - those tracks, arranged by bassist Sikivie, add a classy touch but your brain will be forever rearranged by the torch songs, by the intelligent choice of material from the Great American Songbook and the early blues of Bessie Smith (pianist Sullivan Fortner accompanies the vocalist on "You've Got To Give Some") and Ida Cox.  The multi-sectioned "Somehow I Never Could Believe", composed by Langston Hughes and Kurt Weill for their "American" opera "Street Scenes" (1947), is a certifiable masterpiece as performed by Ms. Savant and the Trio.  So much to behold here.

Vocalist Lizz Wright strikes pay dirt on "Grace", her second album for the Concord Music Group. Produced by Joe Henry, who surrounds this lovely alto voice with the twin guitars of Chris Bruce and Marvin Sewell, the acoustic bass of David Piltch (one great underrated bass player), drummer Jay Bellerose, and the keyboards of Kenny Banks and Patrick Warren plus an occasional choir.  Compare her version of "Stars Fell On Alabama" (first recorded by the Guy Lombardo Orchestra in 1934) to the one on the Duchess CD - two great interpretations with Ms. Wright's dreamy reading displaying her Southern roots (born in Georgia and now living in North Carolina) while Henry's arrangement gives the song a glow of late evening.  Ms. Wright covers tunes from Birds of Chicago, Bob Dylan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Nina Simone, k.d. lang, Ray Charles, and others, making each song her own without losing the beauty, joy, anger, and soul within.

Each one of these albums buoyed my spirit - the next list will feature albums from younger musicians, from veterans, from masters, and several delightful reissues.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Three Ladies in Melody

The Holiday season is upon us, the winter is fast approaching (getting dark in CT by 5 p.m.), and we are continually being assaulted by advertisements plus bombarded by bad news.  This Saturday evening at 8 p.m., one can leave all the negatives behind to "accentuate the positive" with the Duchess Trio.  Duchess - Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, and Melissa Stylianou - is bringing their delightful sounds to the Milford Center for the Arts, 40 Railroad Avenue in Milford CT.  Billed as a "Holiday Show", these delightful songstresses will mix and mingle music from their two Anzic albums with songs of the seasons.  One of the most engaging elements of their music is how they blend songs from the 1930s and 40s, some you may know, many you might not, and make one tap his feet or smile from the emotional tug at the heartstrings.  On top of that, all three are wonderful solo singers and, collectively, create sweet harmonies.

Joining them in concert will be pianist Michael Cabe, guitarist Jesse  Lewis, and bassist Noah Garabedian.  Yes, no drummer, so the music will be on a more intimate level (but it will still swing with glee) plus it's a "cabaret" setting and one might feel as if he/she was sitting in a 1920s jazz club (just maybe).

No matter what, Duchess will brighten your mood, make you laugh (check out their podcast "Harmony & Hijinks" for a healthy taste of the trio's stage banter as well as a closer look into their creative process plus interviews with fellow musicians and producer Oded Lev-Ari) and, ultimately, feel good. Can't ask for more than that!

For ticket information, go to To learn more about this Trio (which, this month, celebrates its fourth anniversary), go to

Here's a taste from the group's second recording:

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Late Notice - Live Music 11/30, 12/01 & 02

This from the Slifka Center, 80 Wall Street, New Haven, CT, an event featuring singer, songwriter, and artist Kathy Kosins. "Art Reception for the Exhibit “Jazz in the Abstract featuring artwork by Kathy Kosins including a live performance. Light refreshments will be served. ASCAP award-winning vocalist Kathy Kosins has won the hearts of critics and fans around the globe with her eclectic musical palette that expands the rich history of Jazz and Soul."

Call 203-432-8523  or write for more information.

Tim Berne's Snakeoil - Berne (alto saxophone), Oscar Noreiga (clarinets), Matt Mitchell (piano, keys), and Ches Smith (drums, percussion) - perform two sets on Friday 12/01 at Firehouse 12, 45 Crown Street in New Haven.  Noisy, challenging, inventive,  dynamic, fast-moving, and so much more, Tim Berne and company have created a sound like no other ensemble on the planet.

The first show begins at 8:30 p.m..  For ticket information, go to or call 203-785-0468.

Saxophonist (tenor and soprano) Dayna Stephens comes to The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme Saturday 12/02. He and excellent Quartet - Aaron Parks (piano), Rick Rosato (bass), and Bill Stewart (drums) - will play music from his latest CD "Gratitude." Stephens has such a sweet tone and composes music that pulls you in on its melodies and fascinates with its power and calmness.  All four of the musicians are excellent soloists yet they also understand interactions and support.

The first set begins at 8:30 p.m.  For more information, go to or call 860-434-2600.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Give The Drummer Some (November '17 Edition)

Drummer, composer, and arranger Ernesto Cervini is quite a busy human. He leads or co-leads eight groups (!), is a publicist for a growing number of Canadian musicians, and is a member of several other ensembles.  His sextet, Ernesto Cervini's Turboprop, has just issued its second album - titled "Rev" (Anzic Records), the ensemble features the mighty rhythm section of Cervini, Adrian Farrugia (piano), and bassist Dan Loomis plus the front line of Joel Frahm (tenor saxophone), Tara Davidson (alto and soprano saxes), and William Carn (trombone). The majority of the program was recorded after the ensemble had finished a tour of Western Canada. The joy and camaraderie that the sextet exudes is obvious from the start and, honestly, the music they create is irresistible.

Farrugia contributes the opening track, "The Libertine": from the solo drums lead-in, the band builds off the sinewy bass and piano lines, playing a handsome melody.  The pianist dances over the active rhythm section. There's an appealing urgency as the music rushes forward. Frahm roars out of the piano solo, pushed by and pushing back against the tumultuous rhythms.

That spirited interplay continues on Cervini's original "Granada Bus."  Again, the bass and drums add the jet fuel to the music while the dance melody opens up for delight-filled solos from Ms. Davidson (soprano), Farrugia, and Frahm.  The title track (also a Cervini composition) is also a fiery exchange between the horns and drums with the alto, tenor, and 'bone "riffing" away while the drummer thunders beneath them.

There are three eclectic "covers" in the program.  "No Rain", a tune by Blind Melon that captivated the leader as a youth, maintains the sprightly melody while getting a powerful rhythmic undercoating.  Carn's dancing solo is a highlight (pay attention to splendid counterpoint created by Loomis) as is the lovely and powerful soprano sax statement.  "The Daily Mail", written, recorded, and released by Radiohead in 2011, is a handsome ballad that opens with a strong melodic bass solo over the simple piano chords before Frahm enters with the melody. When the tenor, soprano, and trombone take off for the combined solo, the songs takes on a gospel feel. The sextet does not overthink the piece but really the capture the power and mystery of the original.  The third standard is "Pennies From Heaven" and the band swings the heck out of the piece.  Frahm plays the theme then joins for the alto and trombone for a delightful romp.  Later on, Loomis steps out in front for a fine melodic solo before the song swings its way out.

The music and the performances invite you into "Rev", keeping your attention throughout and making you want to return again and again.  Sure would be great to see and hear this band live in the U.S. but the upcoming dates are all in Canada.  In the meantime, jump aboard Ernesto Cervini's Turboprop and enjoy the ride!

For more information, go to

Here's the delightful "Granada Bus":

Dylan Jack is a drummer and composer from Massachusetts who has played in a number of rock and fusion bands.  Thanks to a gig that fellow student (bassist Anthony Leva) at Bard College's Longy School of Music in Boston had booked, Jack met and played alongside guitarist Eric Hofbauer and clarinetist Todd Brunel.  The drummer than asked the trio to play for his graduate recital: soon, the band had gelled playing his original material, played more clubs and concert halls, and Hofbauer invited Jack to join his Creative Nation Music label.  The results of a late February 2017 day in the studio is the drummer's debut as a leader.

"Diagrams" is credited to the Dylan Jack Quartet and the music is really a collective affair.  You can hear in the first seconds of the opening track "Are You Made of Coins" how the rhythm and melody are connected.  The high-spirited theme, played by bass clarinet and guitar, has its roots in bop and funk but it's such fun to hear how Jack and Leva change the feel during Brunel's solo (sounds like a touch of bossa nova).  When the guitarist steps out, the three plays a funky riff as Hofbauer digs in with a blend of single-note runs and chordal lines.  The exuberant drum solo during which Jack keeps circling back to the melody really stands out.
The listener might not be able to tell listening to the gentle yet firm feel of the melody that the title of the next track, "Sentenced", was influenced by the trial of the Boston Marathon bomber. After the theme section, Hofbauer steps out over sweet brush work and a genial walking bass line.  The feel changes during Brunel's powerful soprano sax solo with much more energy from the rhythm section - note the interaction between the soloist, drums, and guitar. Leva solos over the impressionistic guitar. The piece has now slowed down and is more reflective before the the guitar, bass, and soprano reintroduce the melody. They drop out, Jack takes over for an intense solo with his brushes - it makes the listener lean in. He switches to sticks yet never overpowers the song, again referring to the melody which invites the band back in for the close.

"Ghost Pal", the longest track (13:58), opens in free time, with much dynamic variation and shifting focus, before the melody is introduced at 3:50. The piece teeters between being a ballad and short, spiky rapid-fire riffs, before Brunel steps out for a powerful clarinet solo. As he quiets down to an eerie moan, Hofbauer steps out. His electrified acoustic sound is quite melodic and percussive: in contrast, Leva plays a bowed bass solo.  Jack's skittering brush work takes center stage as with more clarinet moans, rapid-fire yet quiet guitar riffs, and the occasional bass interjection.  Soon, the band reenters, the "ghost" story continues, with a return to the melody line taking the piece out.

"Diagrams" asks a lot of the listener, as the music shifts and darts, changing direction with glee. Yet, one is rewarded time and again by hearing how this quartet works and plays together, really listening and responding to each other, not just "blowing" over the changes.  The Dylan Jack Quartet creates music worth exploring; let go of your expectations and enjoy this sonic journey.

For more information, go to

Here's a track for you to dig into:

Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Reed Master in Person + Big Band Delight

On Saturday night, The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme welcomes the great clarinetist (and darned good tenor saxophonist) Ken Peplowski for an evening that will illustrate why the Cleveland, Ohio, native is considered one of the best "stickmen" around.  He started off his career playing in polka bands in his home city and discovered jazz in his teens.  While still in college, he was invited by Buddy Morrow to join the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and has been a working musician ever since. His credits include working with Mel Torme, George Shearing, Madonna, Woody Allen, Marianne Faithfull, Benny Goodman, and many others.  He studied tenor saxophone with Sonny Stitt and his style on that instrument reminds many of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster.

For the 11/11 gig at The Side Door, Mr. Peplowski brings a trio of musicians he has played and recorded a number of times in recent, including pianist Ehud Asherie, bassist Martin Wind, and the irrepressible drummer Matt Wilson. It's the band that is on his 2016 Capri CD "Enrapture" (my glowing review is here) so one should expect quite the eclectic repertoire, from Duke Ellington to Lennon & McCartney, from Noel Coward to "Fats" Waller.  It's a classy quartet with a splendid repertoire - chances are very good you will be mesmerized even as you are tapping your feet.

For ticket information, go to or call 860-434-2600.

Here's the title track from the CD mentioned above:

It's been four years since trombonist and composer Alan Ferber released a big band recording (the impressive "March Sublime") but he's not just been sitting around.  As a leader, he released a Nonet CD in 2016 and as a sideman, he's appeared on a slew of recordings with groups led by Darcy James Argue, Frank Carlberg, Brian Landrus, Miguel Zenon, and Paul Simon (among many others).

Late October saw the release of "Jigsaw" (Sunnyside Records), his second recording featuring his 17-member large ensemble.  It's pretty much the same group that recorded the 2013 album except that trombonists John Fedchock and Jacob Garchik replace Josh Roseman, Ryan Keberle, and Tim Albright (the latter two each appear on for tracks) plus trumpeter Alex Norris is the full-time replacement for Taylor Haskins (full lineup below).  Ferber is a such an intelligent arranger, making such creative choices for his sections, utilizing the great dynamic differences between the trombones and the higher reeds as well as Anthony Wilson's electric guitar.  Note how the medium-tempo ballad "She Won't Look Back" (composed by Wilson) builds off of the bluesy guitar intro and Matt Pavolka's melodic bass solo. There are hints of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" in the main melody and the supporting brass and reed phrases.  The solos are spread around from Garchik to John Ellis (tenor sax) to Rob Wilkerson (alto sax) to trumpeter Norris, culminating in a hard-edged solo from Wilson that slow fades with various players in counterpoint to the guitar.

There's something a bit awry at the opening of the title track, with the powerful alto sound of John O'Gallagher flying over the pounding counterpoint of Mark Ferber's drum (he's the leader's twin brother) while there is crazy looping noises in the background (could be guitar or synth).  Pavolka's electric bass begins riffing and, soon, the sections enter and they introduce the main melody.  The body of the piece is made up of the interchanges between the sections before O'Gallagher takes off on an amazing journey with the bass and drums using him higher and higher.  Close to the end of the 10-minute piece, the drummer gets his own spotlight with the reeds and brass riffing behind him.

That power and drive is also an important part of "Get Sassy", another bluesy "shout" that opens with trombonists Ferber and Garchik in conversation.  About two minutes in, the entire band enters with a "down and dirty" melody line played by the reeds and guitar (the brass joins in later on counterpoint).  There is a sense of danger in the chorus; soon, Wilson steps out in front for a raucous solo and, then, all the horns enter one by one to play his or her own solo. It's chaotic yet the rhythm section never loses its direction. One imagines when the band plays this piece live, the audience is u and cheering by the close.

The loveliest performance is "North Rampart", a ballad composed by the leader. It opens with a short brass fugue that signals the emotional depth of what will follow. The main melody is played by the reeds and brass with fine harmonies and counterpoint built in. Wilson takes the first solo; theres a "twang" in his sound but the blend of single-note runs and chordal phrases (played over the rhythm section only). John Ellis enters next. The reeds and brass play the emotional melody while the alto saxophonist swoops and darts around them (but make sure to listen to the excellent drumming).  The brass return at the end with Ellis continuing to rise above them.

One could go on and on about how delightful "Jigsaw" is to listen to.  The music is, at times, challenging yet the ensemble is so alive, the sound is so clear, the melodies rich, ripe with possibilities. If you enjoy the large ensemble music of Stan Kenton, Bob Brookmeyer, Gil Evans, and Maria Schneider, then the Alan Ferber Big Band will brighten your life perceptibly.

For more information, go to

Here's the title track:


John O'Gallagher (alto and soprano saxophones), Rob Wilkerson (alto sax), John Ellis (tenor sax, bass clarinet), Jason Rigby (tenor sax, flute), Chris Cheek (baritone sax), John Fedchock (trombone), Jacob Garchik (trombone), Jennifer Wharton (bass trombone), Tony Kadleck (trumpet, flugelhorn), Scott Wendholt (trumpet, flugelhorn), Alex Norris (trumpet, flugelhorn), Clay Jenkins (trumpet, flugelhorn), Anthony Wilson (guitar), David Cook (piano, keyboards), Matt Pavolka (acoustic and electric basses), Mark Ferber (drums, percussion), Alan Ferber (trombone, composer, arranger) + Rogerio Boccato (percussion on two tracks).

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

One, Two, & Three

In this year of the Thelonious Monk Centennial, there is no more fascinating tribute than "Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk" (Tum Records) from trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. Just trumpet.  Smith, who is a major force on the creative music scene (and has been since the early 1970s), interprets four Monk classics ("Ruby, My Dear", "Reflections", "Crepuscule With Nellie", and "'Round Midnight") plus creates four original "reflections" of his own inspired by his relationship to Monk's music.  Beautifully recorded over three sessions (in November of 2014 and August 2015), the package includes excellent notes by Smith and a fairly extensive bio.

Paul Ryan Photography
So much stands out on this very personal recording. Start with how in this setting, one can hear how the blues infiltrates Monk's music. Note how beautifully the trumpeter blends sounds and silence - there are many moments that the listener hangs on the notes, even after they fade.  One also hears how this music connects with the philosophies of the AACM and with Smith's creative philosophies as well as with the sounds of another creative musician celebrating his 100th birthday, John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie.  The avid Monk fan knows that both Dizzy and Miles Davis recorded "'Round Midnight" yet the performance here apes none of the numerous recordings and live concert versions.  The plaintive melody pours over the listener; Smith takes his time, caressing each note who producing a sound that is so intimate on an instrument that can shake the rafters.

The original pieces range from the intense yet tender "Monk and His Five Point Ring at The Five Spot Café" to the gentle ballad "Adagio: Monkishness - A Cinematic Vision of Monk Playing Solo Piano." That latter track is quiet, with notes that ring out, gently fade, and create a heartfelt melody.  "Adagio: Monk, the Composer in Sepia - A Second Vision" is not only influenced by the blues of a Monk ballad but also by the "muted" tones of old photographs of the pianist. The muted trumpet sounds fragile but sympathetic, with strength in the higher notes.  Following that is a piece inspired by a dream: "Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium - A Mystery" unites the two pianists, great friends, both who dealt with ailments, who were stalked by the police as well as demons, yet who created such vital music. The playful quality that Smith interjects into this piece reflects the creative adventure of the pianists. Still, as the piece comes to its close (it sounds as if the music ends in the middle of a phrase), one can hear both musicians lives were often interrupted.

"Solo" Reflections and Meditations on Monk" is music to savor, to sit and breathe in, to inhabit.   Once you surrender to the sounds, you grow to not only appreciate the immense contributions that Thelonious Monk made to contemporary music but also how Wadada Leo Smith made his explorations of this man and his music personal and universal at the same time.

For more information about this other TUM recordings, go to

In many big cities around the world, there are jazz clubs and other venues that stay open very late, well into darkness of the new day. Even if you have not spent time in one of these often intimate performance spaces, you probably have hear the music created in the last set of the evening can be extremely powerful, personal and, often, quite romantic.

Listening to the nine songs on "The Late Set", the new Anzic Records album from vocalist Hilary Gardner and pianist Ehud Asherie, one is transported to a late-night joint: the tables are close together, almost all of them near the bandstand, with candles burning down to their final moments, and several nearly-empty glasses that the listeners are caressing gently.  The songs were not chosen to spotlight the many talents of the duo but to tell stories that an audience can connect to.  Perhaps it's the loneliness of Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers's "A Ship Without a Sail" or the sweet reverie of "I Never Has Seen Snow" (from the musical "House of Flowers", music by Harold Arlen and words by Truman Capote) but Ms. Gardner and Mr. Asherie caress each tune, making sure the melody is given its due and you can hear every word.

After you've taken in these classic tunes (all composed between 1928 and 1950), then listen to how fine an accompanist and soloist Mr. Asherie in. There are touches of Thelonious Monk on the opening "Shadow Waltz" and Fats Waller on "After You've Gone"; also notice how he sets the mood on pieces such as the tender ballad  "Seems Like Old Times" or the jauntiness he infuses into Irving Berlin's "I Used to Be Color Blind." On the latter tune, he accompanies the vocal with a countermelody that is a perfect match for the joyful vocal.  The duo returns to Hart & Rodgers for the spunky "Everything I've Got", a delightful story of a love-struck but determined woman and her philandering boyfriend.  The joy in both the vocal and the piano are infectious!

If you are not moved by the sassy, sexy, seductive, and swinging version of "Sweet and Slow" (from the prolific team of Al Dubin and Harry Warren), you might want to go to the doctor.  Yes, it's about slow dancing late at night but not only on the dance floor.  Though one of the earliest versions of this song was recorded by Fats Waller, the piano accompaniment displays the influence of George Gershwin.

"The Late Set" is a delight from start to finish. Hilary Gardner has such a mature, honest, and, yes, playful voice while Ehud Asherie is such an intelligent accompanist, partner, and soloist.  If younger listeners want to understand the power of the Great American Songbook and how songs not only captured the hearts of many listeners but also their imaginations, this album is one of the best contemporary showcases of that power.

For more information, go to

Here's a splendid tune from the album:

Violinist and composer Sam Bardfeld graduated from Wesleyan University in 1990. He had studied with a number of people while there including jazz saxophonist Bill Barron.  He played (and still plays) all sorts of music, from Latin and Afro-Cuban to the avant-garde works of Anthony Braxton and John Zorn to the Americana of Bruce Springsteen.  While he has recorded with the likes of Johnny Pacheco, Roy Nathanson & The Jazz Passengers, and Joel Harrison, the arrival of "The Great Enthusiasms" (BJU Records) is a delightful surprise.  It's his first CD as a leader since 2005 and features the dynamic pianist Kris Davis and intelligent yet playful percussionist Michael Sarin.

The opening track, "Fails While Daring Greatly", takes its name from President Richard Nixon's resignation speech and sets the tone for the entire program. The piece has a medium-tempo shuffle beat, a jaunty melody, and delightful interplay.  Ms. Davis lays out while the violinist and drummer dance about, returning to the shuffle rhythm at the close of the solo before stepping out with a Monk-like dancing solo.  Sarin is the glue of the music but also serves as a provocateur throughout.  His "second-line" bounce enlivens "Resignation Rag", a platform for the leader's swooping violin lines.  That beat makes the "resignation" more of a "celebration" (remember that the "second line" shows up on the way home from a New Orleans funeral).  Ms. Davis's unaccompanied solo is a treat; she messes with the tempos, moves from percussive sounds to melodic fragments, and, when the drummer returns, leads hi a chase through the middle of the performance.  The title track manages to combine traces of "country swing" fiddle music and the Teutonic beats of Kurt Weill, leading the listener through challenging yet enjoyable passageways.

BJU Records
Beside the five Bardfeld originals, the trio "covers" two pieces from the 1970s.  Bruce Springsteen's "Because the Night" was a Top 10 "smash" for Patti Smith - here, the melody is deconstructed, made darker and somewhat scarier by the unaccompanied piano solo plus listen to how the violinist leads the trio back into the melody in frenetic fashion. The funky take of Robbie Robertson's "King Harvest Has Surely Come" (the song that closes the classic second album by The Band) rides on the powerful drums and Ms. Davis's left hand.  Bardfeld soars over the rhythm section until he and Sarin drop for an impressionistic and solemn piano solo that takes the piece out (and takes the listener's breath away).

There's plenty of melody, rhythms, interactions, humor, and sadness spread throughout "The Great Enthusiasms"; much of that surprises the listener first time through but, once you return for several more journeys through this daring program, you begin to understand that this music displays the leader's myriad influences without being beholden to any of them.  Kris Davis and Michael Sarin are perfect partners for the"dancing on the edge" approach of this music.  The music of Sam Bardfeld dazzles, delights, and definitely deserves to be heard.

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Check out the title track:

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Brass, Drums, Stories to Tell

photo by Austin Nelson
There are days when it's hard to believe that Dave Douglas has been recording since 1993 as it seems he's been around much longer (I mean that nicely).  As a composer, his music continues to mature and expand. As a bandleader, he continues to take chances and not settle into a routine for long stretches or time. As a soloist, he has a recognizable sound yet eschews cliches in favor of continually challenging himself.  Douglas is one of the more prolific recording artists (perhaps not in the same league as Anthony Braxton and pianist Satoko Fujii) with 47 CDs as leader or co-leader and as many if not more as a "sideman." His work with Myra Melford and John Zorn's Masada also stands out as highlights in his career.

His newest album, "Little Giant Still Life" (Greenleaf Music), is a collaboration with the brass quartet known as The Westerlies (trumpeters Riley Mulkerhar and Zubin Hensler plus trombonists Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch) plus drummer Anwar Marshall.  The music is inspired by painter Stuart Davis (1892-1964), whose work combined Cubism and Early American Modernism to help usher in the age of "pop art."  Take a look of one of his paintings (left) - "Hot Still-Scape for Six Colors - 7th Avenue Style" -  and you might be able to see the influence of jazz music and improvisation on the artist.
The music Douglas composed for this sextet is, at times, as bright as the Davis's canvasses.  "Swing Landscape" evolves into a groove so serious, informed by the blues and funk, it's hard to sit still.  "Percolator" opens not with an imitation of a coffee pot at work but more like a "swing" take of a Steve Reich minimalist melody.  Marshall gooses the band forward, the stop-start rhythm supporting the melody and solos in such a playful manner.  The circular melody line that opens "Colonial Cubism" is played by the trumpets while the trombones create the bottom and the drums dances beneath. Don't bother thinking about the music and the paintings are related; listen instead to the smart interactions, the powerful solos, and fascinating melodies.

Do not overlook the fine ballads such as "Codetta" and "Worlds Beyond the Sky" as each song is a world unto itself. What one notices here (and, honestly, throughout the album) is how the listener cannot and should not try to put this music into categories.  Maybe it's me - we seem to be in a time where the most creative music defies easy categorization. One can imagine that these pieces could be translated to string quartet and trumpet or a trio of guitar, bass, and drums.  One of Dave Douglas's strong points is the malleability of his material and we are the beneficiaries of his hard work and inspiration.

If "Little Giant Still Life" inspired you to seek out the paintings of Stuart Davis or check out other recordings of The Westerlies or check out Anwar Marshall's work with Fresh Cut Orchestra or Kurt Rosenwinkel, then Dave Douglas has accomplished much with ensemble and recording.  The music should not be ignored either - the album is a treat from start to finish.

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Here is the title track:

Pianist and composer Jamie Reynolds has created a compelling new project.  Titled "Grey Mirror" (Fresh Sound New Talent), the Canadian native (now a resident of New York City) blends four pieces by his trio (bassist Orlando LeFleming and drummer Eric Doob), five with The Westerlies brass quartet, four with his Trio plus guitarist Matthew Stevens, and one beautiful piano solo, into a statement about creativity and how music can be seen and heard through various lenses.

The program is bookended by two versions of "The Earliest Ending", the first a short performance by the brass while the second features the trio plus guitar. The latter performance stretches out to 6:11.  It's quite a contrast with the final track having a series of dynamic climaxes and tempo changes, moving into a powerful "rock" beat that roars to a finish before the piano enters by myself to echo the opening melody.

Elsewhere, there are "mirror" versions of "Small Worlds", the first  with the leader on Wurlitzer piano while Stevens and the rhythm section ratchet up the energy.  This piece as well has more of a "prog rock" feel (listen to how LeFleming's electric bass plays the main melody and how Doob drives the track).  The "brass" version is slower, less insistent and more "prayer-like", yet with a darker edge.  Another "mirror" track pairs the Erik Satie-like piano solo "Lake Cycle" with the brass quartet - here the latter version is reminiscent of melodies created by Robin Holcomb.  Both performances are riveting, gentle, musical, and quietly filled with emotion.  Finally, there is the mysterious ballad "Church", the trio version with overdubbed Wurlitzer creating a percussion-like curtain for the solid melody while The Westerlies plays the melody fairly straight-forward over pulsating brass for 1:21.

There is so much variety here, from the high-powered "Sleep" (Stevens guitar loud yet shimmering) to the mysterious interactions on "Green-Wood" (rattling percussion, circular melodies played on the different keyboards) to the powerful stride of "Untitled Interlude" (a trio piece with no overdubs but endowed with a generosity of spirit.)

The concept of playing compositions by two different configurations is intriguing and Jamie Reynolds pulls it off with aplomb.  It does not hurt that there are pieces specifically for each of the ensembles (and the solo piece).  It would have nice to hear more of The Westerlies (they have the bulk of the shorter pieces) and just as nice to hear more trio interactions with Matthew Stevens but "Grey Mirror" is still a worthwhile experience, one that is fun to go back to again and again.

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Most American listeners know bassist Lloyd Swanton (born 1960, Sydney, Australia) from his 30 years as a member of The Necks, a trio (piano, bass, and drums) that is known for its minimalist, long, compositions, often without improvisation. Their live gigs are always improvised. Swanton is also the founder bandleader of The Catholics, a septet that plays music from across the jazz spectrum with nods to music of the Caribbean and Africa (that group is in its 26th year of existence).  Swanton has played with many different leaders and groups from his native land but especially for his work with the late saxophonist Bernie McGann.

Knowing all that probably won't prepare you for his absorbing double CD "Ambon" (Bugle Records).  Named for an island in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), the place was the site for a bloody battle between the Japanese Army, Navy, and Air Force and a group of soldiers from Australia.  Outmatched from the beginning, the island (considered a strategic site in the Pacific theater) fell to the Japanese who used the bases to conduct raids on other combatants, even air raids on Australia.

One of the soldiers captured o the island was Lloyd Swanton's uncle Stuart Mill Swanton. His uncle spent most of his adult life before the joining the Australian Army working with the underprivileged people in the Melbourne area and playing violin. A year after he joined up, his battalion sailed to Ambon.  The older Swanton survived the ferocious battle and spent the rest of his life (3 and 1/2 years) as a prisoner of war (In an ironic twist, he died the day before the Japanese surrendered and his camp liberated - but few people survived).  Amazingly, Stuart Swanton kept a diary of his captivity and it is now part of the Australian War Memorial.

The album is a collection of tunes ranging from gospel tunes that Uncle Stuart composed in the 1930s to songs inspired by the diary to a field recording from Ambon over which a reed and brass quartet plays a hymn.  Swanton organized quite the ensemble, a 12-piece orchestra that includes Paul Cutlan (saxophones, clarinet, recorder), Sandy Evans (tenor and soprano saxophones), James Greening (trombone, cornet, baritone horn, tuba), Alex Silver (trombone), James Eccles (viola), Chuck Morgan (ukulele), Jon Pease (guitar), Michel Rose (pedal steel guitar), Fabian Hevia (cajon, percussion), Ron Reeves (kendang - Southeast Asian two-headed drum, percussion), and Hamish Stuart (drums, percussion) plus Jess Ciampa (glockenspiel on "The Ambon Waltz").

Sydney Morning Herald
There is nearly 109 minutes of music on the two CDs and extensive liner notes that tell the horrific story of life as a prisoner of war.  The captives were treated poorly but still found time to create art, build makeshift instruments, write songs and plays, and take care of each other even as they were starved to death or succumbed to disease.  Yet, the majority of the music is uplifting. On CD 1, the 14+ minute "Ambiont Jungle" blends the kendang drums with the ensemble and the sound of the viola (an instrument that belonged to Stuart Swanton) for a powerful representation of the setting in which the soldiers were dropped.  "Camp Concert I" is a 27 minute suite in three parts that uses the guitars, ukulele, and viola to great effect. Again, the music is quite melodic with no hints of the troubles as if the composer took pieces of the captives dreams, the most positive parts, to create the suite.  The last cut is "Hymn: Blessed Holy Spirit" that opens with excerpts from Uncle Stuart's diary; halfway through, the brass and reeds play the hymn.  The spoken text speaks to the daily horrors of being a prisoner and dealing with cruel captors.

CD 2 continues the powerful description of camp life but, this time, the instruments on "Camp Concert 2: Top Brass" include a tenor saxophone without a mouthpiece, the bell section of a trombone, a flute with a saxophone mouthpiece, a bass clarinet without a reed, and much more, all to symbolize the improvisation prisoners had to do everyday.  Other striking pieces include "Meat Case Bass" and "Big Noise From Hawthorn"; the former is a solo piece also symbolizing the make-shift life in the camp while the latter features the bassist and drummer playing the same instrument. "Work Song: The Long Carry" is a blues dedicated to the extremely hard work the prisoners did every day of the week. The piece includes powerful solos from trombonist Greening and guitarist Pease.  Now, one can feel the men are being systematically drained of their spirit and strength.  Stanton's final original piece, "The Ambon Waltz", celebrates liberation, the happiness of the soldiers who came to bring the freed prisoners back home, but also refers to those who survived and needed to be carried to the boats that brought back them to freedom.

There is great power in this story, one that may not resonate with my fellow Americans but anyone who had a parent, grandparent, relatives or friends who served in the Pacific know the horror stories of the prison camps (if you have read the story of Louis Zamperini related in the book and movie "Unbroken") knows these terrible experiences. In the hands and mind of Lloyd Swanton, "Ambon" is a story of hope, love, resistance, survival, and remembrance.  You need to hear this music, need to read the story of Stuart Mill Swanton, to remind you of the futility of war and the atrocious consequences.

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