Friday, July 29, 2016

Brief Respite: Politics and Creative Music

One can make the argument that music is always political, especially jazz. Musicians and composers such as Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Max Roach, John Coltrane, more recently, Dave Douglas, Jason Moran, Bobby Avey, John Ellis and others have created music that makes you think, maybe even stop you in your track, change your mind, and educate you.  Sometimes it even makes you laugh.

Exhibit #2016 - Bassist/composer Mark Dresser has a new CD coming out in November on the Clean Feed label.  Titled "Sedimental You", Dresser  has assembled quite an impressive lineup of musicians including flutist Nicole Mitchell, bass clarinetist Marty Ehrlich, violinist David Morales Boroff, trombonist Michael Dessen, pianist Joshua White, and drummer Jim Black. One of the tracks has been made available just in time for the rundown to the United States election.  

For your delectation:

A Slew of Trios (Part 1)

Over the past several months, a large amount of recordings by trios have been issued. Not just piano-bass-drums trios but other instrumental configurations of three.  However, for this first of a series of reviews, we'll only look at piano ensembles.

The Fred Hersch Trio, along with the Bill Charlap Trio and the Keith Jarrett - Gary Peacock - Jack DeJohnette ensemble, is a most consistent unit live and on record.  For the past seven years, the pianist along with bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson have played in venues in this country and overseas.  "Sunday Night at The Vanguard" is the group's latest recording (its fourth for Palmetto Records plus there is one on the Japanese Venus Records label) and, like the others, must be described with superlatives for the Trio and its individual members.  The 10-song program is equally split between originals and standards or should-be standards.

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Opening with Richard Rodgers "A Cockeyed Optimist" (from "South Pacific"), one can listen to how these gentlemen work together. Focus on the solo section where you hear pushing the beat which pushes the pianist while the bassist plays melodic counterpoint.  The rhythm section rambles with such ease while Hersch dances, swings, and sings.  Later, there's a beautiful reading of "The Peacocks"; the Jimmy Rowles piece has been recorded by numerous musicians, including three other versions by Hersch. It's on his 1986 "Sarabande" album with Charlie Haden and Joey Baron, a quintet version on 1995's "Point in Time", and a solo version from 2014's "In Amsterdam: Live at The Bimhuis."  Like his continuing fascination with Thelonious Monk, the pianist keeps finding new approaches to the song and all of them are engrossing. Speaking of Monk, there is an ever-so-playful reading of "We See" that is, at turns, funky, swinging, bluesy and features moments of interplay where McPherson "trades 4" with his partners. The emotionally rich reading of Lennon & McCartney's "For No One" and the open-ended joy of Kenny Wheeler's "Everybody's Song But My Own" (the title track of the Venus Records album) give the avid listener a front row seat to brilliance.

Four of the Hersch originals come after the first cut.  They include  "Serpentine", with McPherson's cymbals leading the way into a deliberate melody and a solo section that is reminiscent of Keith Jarrett's original music for his Trio. "The Optimum Thing" flat-out swings, the three musicians dropping into a double-time romp halfway through.  A strong blues introduction on "Calligram" changes direction several times, Hébert's melodic bass dancing around the piano figures and sparkling, shivering, cymbals.  More playfulness can be heard on "Blacking Palomino" which struts atop more impressive drum work.  But, be sure to pay attention to the delightful bass lines as they dance alongside and underneath the piano.

"Sunday Night at The Vanguard" is composed of music from the last night of a six-day run at the venerated New York City landmark. There are artists who record every note of a long engagement and labels who chose to release multi-disk sets but Fred Hersch chose to give listeners what he thought was the "lightning in a bottle" of a night when the band was "in the zone" - this glorious album should make you want to see the band live.  And, do go see and hear them as The Fred Hersch Trio is among the best ensembles of any size playing in this day and age.

For more information, go to www.fredhersch.com. This recording will be released on August 12, 2016.

Born in Venezuela (moving to Philadelphia, PA, at the age of 12), pianist and composer Edward Simon is one of the busiest and most accomplished musicians, one who gracefully moves between small and large ensembles all while creating a body of work that is increasingly more impressive.

"Latin American Songbook" (to be released in late August on Sunnyside Records) is a gracious and highly musical journey to the roots of Edward Simon.  Featuring drummer Adam Cruz and bassist Joe Martin, the pianist has chosen music that helped shape him as a musician and person, pieces he had first explored as a young student or had played behind his father or heard on the radio.Simon has such an articulate way of playing a melody one can hear the words as they flow through his fingers. Pieces such as "Alfonsina Y el Mar" (from Argentinean composer/pianist Ariel Ramírez) and the dramatically solemn "Gracias a la Vida" (by Chilean composer and activist Violeta Parra) showcase the excellent work of Simon and Martin, whose bass solos are often stunning and always melodic.

photo: Scott Chernis
The Trio remakes familiar works by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Astor Piazzola, making the listener not only enjoy the pieces in a a different light but also hear how familiarity with material breeds creative license.  Jobim's "Chega de Saudade" is changed to a hard-bop adventure as interpreted by Bud Powell while Piazzola's "Libertango" is closer to the original, Simon playing the fine melody over a sea of cymbals and with Martin's active underpinning.  Listen how the pianist expands upon that melody during his solo, never leaving the chordal foundation of the song but dancing through the changes with glee.

"Volver" (Return), a lovely tango composed in 1934 by Argentinean actor, composer, and singer Carlos Gardel, moves with grace and urgency, Simon's chordal work and generous improvisation over the pulsating rhythm section (listen closely to ever-changing inventions of Cruz).  The final track, a sublime performance of "En la Orilla del Mundo" (At the End of the World) by Cuban composer Martin Rojaz, is so musical and so emotionally rich.  Simon first heard the piece performed by Charlie Haden and pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba; here, the melody falls like a rain shower over the spare yet melodic bass line and the soft brushes.  It's a masterful finish to an excellent album.

Edward Simon excels in a trio setting and has since his 1990's recordings through his work with John Pattitucci and Brian Blade. "Latin American Songbook" introduces a new ensemble (he has recorded with Adam Cruz for CrissCross but never with Joe Martin) but the intent is the same - make the finest artistic statement one can. This is music that moves and will move you as well.

For more information, go to www.edwardsimon.com and sunnysidezone.com/album/latin-american-songbook-2.

Here's the Trio live playing a song not on the album:



Myriad3 is a the cooperative trio of Chris Donnelly (piano, synth), Dan Fortin (acoustic bass, fretless electric bass, synth), and Ernesto Cervini (drums, glockenspiel). They first played together by accident in 2010, discovering they has similar tastes and goals.  They have toured throughout their native Canada, the United States, and Europe.  "Moons" (ALMA Records) is their third album and, arguably, their best.  Weeks on the road and time in the studio have sharpened this material.  The musicians take more sonic chances yet never abandon their collective beliefs that melody is so important and creative interactions are supreme.

The 11 tracks on "Moon" (four by Cervini, three each by Donnelly and Fortin, and an exciting reading of "Counter of the Cumulus" from the catalog of Disasterpeace), have a great deal of variety. From the throbbing beat of "Skeleton Key" (with its drone-like melodies from piano and bass) to the solemn ballad "Stoner" to the playful stop-start rock of "Brother Dom", this music keeps one interested. The blend of acoustic and electric bass on Fortin's "Peak Fall" and how it enhances and wraps around the piano melody takes the ballad and expands its rhythmic range (listen to the interplay of bass and drums during Fortin's solo).  Cervini's "Ameiliasburg" has an Erik Satie-like simplicity in its unadorned melody and quiet backing - the shortest track on the disc, it is a lovely and emotional tone poem.

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The drama and rising urgency of "Sketch 8" and funky bounce of "Unnamed Cells" (quite a danceable track) shows the versatility of the band. The latter track adds synths and bass effects but not to the detriment of the music.  When the trio gets a head of steam, this music moves with a passion.  When they explore the quieter side, the tracks, such as "Exhausted Clock", allow one to hear how each member contributes to the sound, to the melody, to the movement.  "Counter of the Cumulus" shows they are tuned into the musical world around them and enjoy the opportunity to interpret what they are hearing.

Myriad3, as it continues to mature as an ensemble, are creating its own sound. The various influences (e.g. The Bad Plus, Steve Reich) have been absorbed and the trio exhibits no trepidation as they move forward. Each man is a leader in his own right and each has worked with a wide variety of artists.  "Moons" brings all their influences and experiences together - this is 21st Century piano trio music that is serious fun!

For more information, go to www.myriad3.com.

Have a listen to the opening track:

Monday, July 25, 2016

More Voices and Their Stories

Peter Eldridge has such a wonderful vocal style; he can sing blues with great conviction, swing with great ease, caress a ballad with the best, and seems to have no fear taking chances with his music. "Disappearing Day" (Sunnyside Records) is his fifth solo album; the program is a mix of originals, covers, and standards, poems set to song, smart vocal arrangements, all built from his duo with bassist Matt Aronoff (known as Foolish Hearts) and his long association with drummer/producer Ben Wittman (Paula Cole, Lucy Kaplansky - the three men are pictured below).


There's an intelligent take on Paul McCartney's "Jenny Wren" (from his 2005 album "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard") . Led in by Aronoff's rich bass tone, the voices, cello and violin rise together in the background as Eldridge sings the plaintive melody (the arrangement plays a subtle homage to both "Eleanor Rigby" and "Blackbird"). The leader's handsome piano solo moves the song forward with grace (Eldridge is an intelligent pianist, knowing what his arrangements need and never playing too much). For Luciana Souza's "House" (from her splendid 2004 "Neruda" album), he sings the poem over the masterful bass and active percussion then adds a fine and, ultimately, playful piano solo.

Among the many highlights are the lovely vocal duet with Becca Stevens on the original "Wish You With Me" and the impressionistic "Driving To Town Late to Mail a Letter."  The latter track features a poem by Robert Bly set to an original melody, the piano, bass, drums, guitars (Marc Schulman), cello (Mariel Roberts), and wonderful voices (Jo Lawry, Alan Hampton, and Eldridge) painting the snowy evening to perfection.  For the leader's musical reading of a quote from author James Thurber, Eldridge has the Elm City Girls Choir (of New Haven CT) sing "Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around us in awareness." 

The two "standards" on the disc are given fascinating settings.  The playful "low-fi" intro to "Witchcraft" (by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh) sounds like an outtake from The Beatles' "Let It Be" before breaking into a rapidly paced take with just piano, bass, and brushes supporting the vocal. The album closes with the lovely "Some Other Time" (from the 1944 Broadway show "On The Town", music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolphe Green).  Eldridge captures the inherent sadness and regret in the words while Aronoff and guitarist Jesse Lewis paint the background in a Country-Folk mood.

From the Theo Bleckmann collage on the front cover to the various moods throughout the music, "Disappearing Day" will not easily fade from your mind and heart.  Peter Eldridge, who not only makes music but also teaches voice students at the Berklee College of Music, creates songs that touch us, gently reminding one to enjoy the day, cherish the people around you, and to allow music to push away the darkness. And, he's got such a great command of his voice, a baritone with a big range who never screams at the listener but always invites one in.

For more information, go to petereldridge.com. To listen to and purchase the album, go to sunnysidezone.com/album/disappearing-day.

Here is Mr. Eldridge with Becca Stevens:



Guitarist and composer Alex Goodman, Canadian born and raised, moved to the United States in 2012 after the release of his Quintet album "Bridges".  Since his arrival, Goodman has worked and/or recorded with bassist John Pattitucci, saxophonist Charles Lloyd, and drummer Ari Hoenig (among others).  In 2014, he won the Montreux Jazz Festival International Guitar Competition and recorded an album of "Etudes for Solo Guitar" (self-released).

His new recording, "Border Crossing" (OA2 Records), stays focussed on the "Chamber Music" sounds of his previous two recordings and expands the composer-arranger's musical palette.  He's replaced the saxophone and piano with the voice of Felicity Williams and the vibraphone of Michael Davidson, filling out the ensemble with Andrew Downing (cello, bass), Rogerio Boccato (percussion), and, on three of the seven tracks, Fabio Ragnelli (drums).  Ms. Williams breathy voice blends nicely with the instrumentalists. Right from the opening cut "Acrobat" which starts with just acoustic guitar and percussion (sounding like a Ralph Towner composition), she creates a softer elegance when matched with the guitar, cello and vibraphone.  Her wordless vocal rise above the ensemble on "Family Breakfast", paired with the vibes on the opening melody (reminiscent of the folk-jazz of the British group Pentangle).  The leader, on electric guitar, digs into an exciting solo, pushed by the active percussion and drums of Ragnelli and Boccato.  The pace slows for a restatement of the theme and then moves quietly into a fine vibraphone solo.  Pay attention to how the rhythm section (with Downing on bass) push the piece forward.

A pair of excellent covers are included in the program.  Goodman's delightful arrangement of W.A. Mozart's "Eine Kleine Gigue" captures the playfulness of the original, spreading the melody around the different voices while adding a counterpoint for guitar and vibes plus a cello spotlight. The final track is a wondrous arrangement of "Pure Imagination", the Anthony Newley - Leslie Bricusse song from "Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory."  Again, it's a playful take with the different voices of the ensemble moving in and out of the solo section - when the musicians move back into the lyric section of the song, Goodman does so with a classical (and delightful) flourish.  Listen closely to how the musicians create the "sound of wonder."

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The album is filled with moments that capture your ear, seducing you into really listening closely.  The "conversation" that the vibes and guitar engage in at the start of "Collateral Damage", how the voice moves in-and-out of the forefront on "Style Brisé" (a piece that highlights the brilliance of Boccato's percussion), and the percussive work of Goodman, Boccato and bassist Downinn the opening of "With Thanks", a song that opens wide to feature the guitarist's most impressive solo as well as an animated percussion solo. Ms. Williams also stretches out several times through the piece (which you can watch below).

"Border Crossing" is a major step forward for a young musician with such great promise.  Alex Goodman can certainly play his instrument but, on this new album, it's his songs and arrangements that capture your attention. This is music that makes you want to open the windows and let the breezes clean out the house.  Enjoy!

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

As promised above, here is "With Thanks":

Sunday, July 24, 2016

One Door Closes (for the weekend) & Another Opens (you'll see)

Jan and Ken are taking a well-deserved rest (actually, a busman's holiday) this weekend (7/29-30); therefore, The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme is closed.  Jan Mullen, who searches for and books the talent, is going to the Newport Jazz Festival to scout the talent and hopefully, judging by the lineup (click on the name above), invite artists who have yet to play in the handsome performance space.

When she returns (chances are also good owner Ken Kitchings will be there as well), The Side Door has quite a group of artists scheduled for August through mid-September including trumpeter Dominick Farinacci (8/06), saxophonist Tia Fuller (8/13), vocalist and pianist Champian Fulton (8/26), and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa's "Bird Calls" with trumpeter Adam O'Farrill and (perhaps) pianist Matt Mitchell (9/16). And, there's plenty more!  Go to thesidedoorjazz.com to check to all out.

On the weekend of August 19-20, Jan and Ken welcome back the Black Art Jazz Collective.  The sextet, organized in 2012 by Wayne Escoffery (saxophones), Jeremy Pelt (trumpet), Johnathan Blake (drums) and the late bassist Dwayne Burno, first played in Old Lyme in late November 2014, almost a year after the bassist passed.  Mr. Burno was replaced by Vicente Archer with the other members being James Burton III (trombone) and Xavier Davis (piano).  The band recorded live one night and then, the next day, used the space to record even more.

The results of those sessions can now be heard on the sextet's debut album.  Titled "Black Art Jazz Collective: Presented by The Side Door Jazz Club" (Sunnyside Records), the CD includes eight original compositions (two by Escoffery and Davis plus one each from the rest of the band, including Burno but not Archer). Most, if not all, of the group are bandleaders so this "collective" understands that one puts aside egos and focusses on the music.  The recording starts with two pieces by the saxophonist, the fiery "Double Consciousness" and the forceful "Awaiting Change" - pay attention to the work of Davis, Archer, and, especially Blake. as the music swells, pulsates and flows.  Both Escoffery and Pelt play with great fire on the latter track while Burton III's more mellow approach is an excellent contrast to the blasts of the sax and trumpet on the opener.  Yet, listen to how Blake fires up the band Iand he does so throughout the album.

This album is filled with exciting music with influences from Hank Mobley, Jackie McLean, Wayne Shorter and other creative musicians from the 1960s and 70s. "Salvador Da Bahia", from the pen of Davis, changes tempi with the two-handed piano chords leading the way.  Hints of McCoy Tyner's mid-1970s music enters this track, especially in the interaction of Escoffery with Davis, Blake, and Archer.  The pianist's "No Small Change" is a handsome ballad with the trombonist and bassist taking excellent solos.  Both this song and "Awaiting Change" were inspired by Barack Obama while the trombonist's rollicking "Going Somewhere" cites Sojourner Truth as its inspiration.  Pelt's solo has a bluesy edge but moves forward with great energy.  Both Escoffery and Burton match that energy while Davis dances through his solo with great joy.

The album closes with its longest track (12:16); "The Shadower" (inspired by saxophonist Joe Henderson) is the cut from the "live" show. The enthusiastic audience really enjoys the long solo from Pelt, especially the long moaning drone he plays for 90 seconds before launching into a series of phrases, melodic fragments that romp over the powerful rhythm section. By the end of the solo, (over five minutes) the audience is ecstatic.  Escoffery pours his soul out over the funky drums and bass (sounding like something Miles Davis played before going electric.  The saxophonist also stretches out but leaves room for a fantastic piano solo.  Davis starts out unaccompanied, somewhat introspective, but he soon takes a more rhythmic with Blake and Archer joining as he moves in-and-out of tempo. Everyone returns for the final minute, taking the set out on a rousing note.

Black Art Jazz Collective has the power and intelligence to stir an audience, making music that nods towards its influences yet sounds fresh and refreshing.  The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme, CT, opened in May of 2013 with the mission of not only presenting first-class musicians from around the world but also shining its spotlights on younger musicians, especially those who have gone through the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the Hartt School, the New England Conservatory, Berklee, Manhattan School of Music, and elsewhere.  Ken and Jan's first recording project opens a new door and one hopes that this portal stays off its latch a good long time.

For more information, go to sunnysidezone.com/album/presented-by-the-side-door-jazz-club.  For reservations to the CT show, call 860-434-0886 or go to thesidedoorjazz.com.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Intimacy of Two

Listening to the various interactions of vocalist Sara Gazarek and pianist Josh Nelson on "Dream in the Blue" (Steel Bird Music) is akin to spending an evening with your best friends. Time goes by and you don't feel that happen because you're taking about all sort of "stuff"; whether it's love or the silly things that happen or the sadness when your heart is broken or the realization that, even though today you might be suffering, the sun will rise the next morning.

Thanks to legendary sound engineer Al Schmitt, every second of each song is clear.  One can revel in the fun of "Sunny Side of the Street" when both the vocalist and pianist break into a unison/duo solo. There's joy and playful interactions in the dancing reading of João Gilberto's "O Pato"  The tango tempo take on "Mood Indigo", one that moves from a sprightly rhythmic approach to a series of classical asides. Notice how the pianist's left hand sets the pace and the right interacts with the lyrics.  Their gentle rendition of Laura Mvula's "Father, Father" has echoes of a Randy Newman ballad, spare yet melodic accompaniment and a prayer-like melody.  It's such an emotional piece and both Ms. Gazarek and Mr. Nelson allow the song to breathe yet do not ignore the powerful message of estrangement that is an integral part of the lyrics . The duo give a similar treatment to "I Can't Make You Love Me", truly of one the saddest contemporary love songs.  There are numerous versions of this song, few more powerful than the original 1991 recording by songwriter Mike Reid and Bonnie Raitt's stunning reading from the same year.  It's an easy song to "overdo", to want to overseeing, to stretch out the words in a faux-gospel/blues interpretation. Not here. The emotion sounds real as does the heartbreak, not only in the voice but in the wonderful and gentle piano accompaniment.

The album opens and closes with 2-song medleys (although the digital version has one extra track).  The pairing of Paul McCartney's "Blackbird" with the oft-recorded "Bye Bye Blackbird" (from 1926) makes great senses both songs deal with freedom. The intimate reading of the latter allows the former to take wing. The duo combine Nick Drake's "Cello Song" with the standard "Without a Song" (from 1929) and the introspection of the former blends well with the joy of having a song in your mind and heart throughout one's day (and, for that fact, life).  Nelson's piano solo paints the portrait of that joy.

In the midst of the standards and popular songs are four originals. They fit seamlessly into the program, especially the delightful blues "Petit Papillon" and the introspective "Behind Me."There's a folky lilt to "All Again", a piece that flows easily from Nelson's splendid piano melody. "I Don't Love You Anymore" is a variation on the Mike Reid song, more of a survivor's song than a lament though one can help but hear the heartbreak.  Ms. Gazarek's vocal is stunning, emotionally riveting, with the piano serving as support and a musical representation of moving forward in the face of pain.

"Dream in the Blue" invites the listener in, makes him comfortable, makes him cry and smile and tap his feet and think about how the interactions of two talented people can open up so many possibilities. The lilt in and lift of the voice, the idea that a piano can be an orchestra or a solitary sound in a crowded lifetime, the lyrics that stir the heart, all that and more make this recording by Sara Gazarek and Josh Nelson so special.

For more information, go to saragazarek.com/duo/.

Here's the opening track:

Monday, July 18, 2016

7/21 - 7/23: Picks of the Week Live & Recorded

A generous helping of youth and age is on tap for two CT venues this week.  On Friday July 22, The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme presents saxophonist and composer Jovan Alexandre and Collective Consciousness.  Young Mr. Alexande, a native of Wallingford CT,  is a veteran of the Hartford Jazz scene having first travel to the Insurance City to study at Jackie McLean's Artists Collective and then went on to the McLean Institute of Jazz at the Hartt School of the University of Hartford.  He's had the opportunity to record with drummers Ralph Peterson Jr and Wnard Harper as well as legendary saxophonist Frank Wess.

Collective Consciousness - Andrew Renfroe (guitar), Taber Gable (piano), Matt Dwonszyck (bass), and Jonathan Barber (drums) - has been a unit for several years, releasing its debut self-titled album in February of 2015. The music is powerful and melodic, with its youthful exuberance standing out even as the musicians get more work under their belts.

They'll take The Side Door Stage at 8:30 p.m.  For more information, call 860-434-0886.  To learn about the leader and his music, go to jovanalexandre.com.


Freddy Cole, the younger brother of Nat "King" Cole (who's amazingly been gone for over 5 decades), has built quite a successful career of his own since the early 1950s. To his credit, he's followed own path, creating his own niche as a pianist and vocalist. The younger Mr. Cole does not have that silky, smooth, voice of his elder brother but has a charming stage demeanor, a bluseier approach to his material, and has recorded a wide variety of pieces. For the last decade+, he's recorded for the High Note label with his latest CD "He Was The King" (released this past March), the first time he's recorded a full album dedicated to music associated with his brother.

Freddy Cole and his Quartet, which usually features guitarist Randy Napoleon, bassist Elias Bailey, and drummer Quentin Baxter (the latter two musicians work with vocalist René Marie as well, return to The Side Door Jazz Club for an 8:30 p.m. show this Saturday (7/22) - chances are good that this show will sell out so call 860-434-0886 or go to thesidedoorjazz.com and make your reservation.  This music is well worth the drive to the CT shoreline.

To learn more about Freddy Cole's impressive career, go to freddycolemusic.com.

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This should be a nice weekend to journey up to the Litchfield Hills in northwestern CT.  Sarah's Wine Bar, inside Bernard's Restaurant, 20 West Lane (Route 35) in Litchfield, has started presenting live music. This Sunday evening as part of its Jazz Masters Seies, the venue presents the duo of Dick Hyman (piano) and Ken Peplowski (clarinet, tenor saxophone) - do I have to write anything more? Really?  Mr. Hyman, who is eight months away from his 90th birthday, has been involved with contemporary music as well as music of the 1920s and 30s since the 1940s, has worked with artists such as Charlie Parker, Ruth Brown, Woody Allen, and so many others.  Mr. Peplowski (32 years younger) is one of the finest clarinet players in the world - he can and does play just about every style of  modern music. Together, they probably know several thousand songs.
You'll definitely need reservations so call 203-438-8282 or go to www.bernardsridgefield.com/#/jazz-masters-series/.

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Having recently spent several weeks in Chicago and its environs, I read about and listened to a number of artists from the Midwest (I recommend checking out Peter Margasak at The Chicago Reader (go here) and Howard Reich at The Chicago Tribune (look here). Pianist and composer Bryan Nichols is from Minneapolis, Minnesota. He spent from 2001 - 2005 working, studying, and playing in Chicago but returned home and has been very busy teaching and performing.  His debut CD, "Bright Places", is a quintet album of originals issued in 2011.  His follow-up,
"Looking North" (Shifting Paradigm Records), is a solo piano recording and one of the finer releases of 2016.

The 10-song program includes with originals and 2 fascinating covers.  Nichols plays with drummer/composer Dave King (The Bad Plus) is his Gang Font quartet (not on their 2007 album); here, he performs King's ballad "Lullaby For Sharks" (first recorded by TBP on its debut CD and it's a shimmering work, the melody moving so slowly as it moves up and outwards, never losing its gentle Aaron Copland-inspired melody. The other "cover" is "Lonesome Tremolo Blues" from the Minnesota-based trio The Pines. Nichols creates quite a gentle flow in his left hand, pushing the melody forward with a gospel tinge.

Nichols is no hurry throughout the album, imbuing the music with a contemplative feel.  Several tracks start out energetically, such as  "Act Natural" and, about halfway through, the pianist slows down to build up there solo that goes in such intriguing directions.  The solemnity of "We Live Here", the even-tempered "Fractures", and the poetic "Lake View" treats the listener to the composer's views of Minnesota, allowing nature to enter into the music (not unlike how Maria Schneider has created her autobiographical works).  There's a touch of Erik Satie's minimalist approach on "Very Low Impact", especially the opening melodic section.  Elsewhere on the recording, there are few moments of dissonance but this music just seems to flow out of the speakers.

"Looking North" is music that allows the listener to relax, to listen, to create images, to enter a musical world where melody is much more important than technical prowess.  This is not music for the car but can be played when the sun shines through the window in the morning or as the moon rises in the late winter afternoon. or after the children go to sleep.  If you like solo piano music that forgoes "standards" but has its foundation in folk song, blues, and contemporary music, yet sounds quite original, it's all here in the music of Bryan Nichols.

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

Friday, July 15, 2016

Let's Move It

It's no secret that as a listener and review, I'm drawn to the work of the rhythm section. Not that I don't appreciate a great saxophonist or guitarist but it's the response and the interaction with the people keeping the flow going that often catches my ears first.

"Message In Motion" is bassist and composer Peter Brendler's second release for Posi-Tone Records (my review of the debut is here); happily, the album features the same ensemble as the first including Rich Perry (tenor saxophone), Peter Evans (trumpet) and Vinnie Sperrazza (drums).  Guitarist Ben Monder joins the band on four of the 10 tracks.  One of the more arresting attributes of the debut was how "open" and exploratory the music was and that carries over to this recording as well. The program starts out with a good "blues shuffle", the front line playing a sweet theme that leads into Evans' circular solo and into Perry's romp while the rhythm section keeps the motor running (though pay attention to how Brendler switches for "walking lines" to playing counterpoint.  The playfulness of the bassist's infectiousness "Angelica" and it's a Sonny Rollins-like romp that features smart interactions between the bassist and Sperrazza. You can feel the spirit of playfulness on the swinging "Very Light And Very Sweet" and also on the Clifford Brown-like feel on "Didn't Do Nothing."  While Brendler and Sperrazza "dance" around underneath, Perry and Evans build sparkling solos on both tracks.

The "vocabulary" of the program changes with the deep blues of "Gimme the Numbers." The track features Monder's unique comping underneath the front line and the solos. His subtle solo near the close of the piece really captures the "smoky room" quality of the tune.  He also appears on the cover of Elliot Smith's "Easy Way Out" but not until the bassist - with Sperrazza's fine brush work - introduces the tune with a splendid solo.  Perry and Evan sit this out so Monder gets a longer spotlight.  His "fuzzed" guitar also leads the way on "Lucky In Astoria" combining with Perry to present the theme ; the two then work and weave their lines around each other as the drummer and bassist spur them forward.

The other "non-original" on the album is a playful rendition of Alice Coltrane's "Ptah the El Daoud" - Sperrazza's marching drums and Brendler's "oom-pah" bass lines accompany the front line as they read through the theme.  The piece opens up in subtle ways as the bass expands on its rhythmic approach and the drums interacts with Perry on his expansive explorations.  Evans goes "out" a little further with a series of spurts and sputters in the midst of his  while the rhythm section continues to push forward.  The blend of traditional rhythms and exploratory, even noisy, solos is a highlight of the recording.

Come to "Message In Motion" with open ears and open mind; you will not be disappointed.  The music that Peter Brendler creates with Rich Perry, Peter Evans, Vinnie Sperrazza, and Ben Monder is lively, thoughtful, playful, exciting, and smart.  This fine album makes one wish to see and hear this group live.

To hear some of the music, go to www.posi-tone.com/m-inmotion/m-inmotion.html.  To learn more about this fine bassist-composer, go to www.peterbrendler.com.


For his debut as a leader, bassist and composer Ricky Rodriguez has created a portrait of a musician who understands that the most artistically successful albums feature musicians who enjoy challenges and the opportunity to shine.  Therefore, "Looking Beyond" (Destiny Records Music) is credited to the Ricky Rodriguez Group. The core of the ensemble is the bassist (both electric and acoustic), the first-rate drummer Obed Calvaire, pianist (acoustic and electric) Luis Perdomo, and Myron Walden (alto saxophone, bass clarinet on all but one).  Guitarist Aaron Rogers joins on six of the 10 tracks while the guests include David Sanchez (tenor saxophone), Pete Rodriguez (trumpet, no relation) and Obanilu Allende (barril de bomba).

On first listen, the bassist's music is reminiscent of drummer Brian Blade's Fellowship (and not just because of the presence of Myron Walden).  One can hear the influence in the medium-tempoed "Introspection" (featuring strong solos from Rogers and Perdomo) as the alto saxophone is used to express the melody with the guitar.  The powerful work of Calvaire should not be ignored while the leader's fundamental bass lines give the song its direction and flow.  The title track rises up from the fundamental bass lines played by both Rodriguez and Perdomo's left hand.  Again, the drummer plays with power and intelligence. There is an impressive, melodic, bass solo as well as an immersive trumpet solo. Yet, there is also the lovely ballad "A Quiet Refuge" with the bass clarinet stating the melody and Sanchez playing counterpoint while Rogers plays harmony. The bassist's sparse accompaniment alone with the fine chordal work of Perdomo plus the quiet percussion create the impression of the song's title.  The solo section features short solos from Rodriguez's bowed bass, the bass clarinet, the tenor saxophone, and the electric guitar.

Andrej Pilarczyk
Percussionist Allende leads the Group in a call-and-response on "Stress vs. Relaxation" while piano, trap drums, and bass quietly then dramatically respond - which side is "stress"?  Certainly not Allende and company but the musical trio don't sound stressed as much as released.  "The Real Truth" is also a powerful piece, with a piano figure a la McCoy Tyner and a handsome melody played by guitar, alto and tenor saxophones.  The rhythm section sets a torrid pace, especially on the second melody that opens to strong solos from Walden, Rogers and especially Sanchez.  Perdomo switches between acoustic and electric piano throughout the song.

The album closes on the short (1:34) "And Then..." which fades in to a melodic give-and-take over the two-handed piano chords and the conversational drums.  It's a pleasing coda, serving to remind listeners that "Looking Beyond" is truly a group effort and reinforces the tone of this truly striking recording.  Ricky Rodriguez, who has worked and recorded with vibraphonist Joe Locke, saxophonist Miguel Zenon, and drummers Henry Cole and Roland Vasquez, has created music that excites yet also relaxes, entertains, and gives hope in unsettled times.

For more information, go to destinyrecords.bandcamp.com/album/looking-beyond and www.facebook.com/RickyRodriguezmusic?ref=br_rs.

Here's a tune from the Ricky Rodriguez Group: