Friday, May 20, 2011

Modern Grooves

Alto saxophonist-composer Travis Sullivan is, perhaps, best known for his 18-piece big band, Bjorkestra, an ongoing project in which he reimagines and reshapes the music of the Icelandic singer/songwriter and notorious shape-shifter.   In the midst of that heady project, one might forget that he himself is a strong writer and talented musician.

"New Directions" should and will open eyes and ears to Sullivan's ability to write for a small ensemble.  Joined by Mike Eckroth (piano), Marco Panascia (bass) and Brian Fischler (drums), Sullivan creates music that keeps the listener on his/her toes because not only is there a strong rhythmic pulse on most tracks but also what they play is involving, melodic and seeminglty without artifice.   "Jamia's Dance" opens the program and sets the stage with its handsome melody, shifting rhythms, the leader's sweet tone and Eckroth's piano work that is both powerful and impressionistic. It's the interplay of the rhythm section, the pianist's ability to color the music and Sullivan's vibrant alto saxophone that stands out. Even the sweet take of "Spring Is Here" displays a maturity of thought, no one rushing the beat, the long tones and "singing" quality of the alto and the truly complementary work of the rhythm section. And the emotional content of these pieces make them stand out - these songs are not just exercises in technique. Instead, they tell musical "stories", are constructed so that one can't miss the melodic content but also can hear how the solos grow from the thematic material. The other "cover" tune is a snappy take on "Everybody Wants to Rule The World", the 1985 hit for the British duo Tears for Fears.  This is music that is alive and makes one think how good the quartet must sound in a "live" setting.

One other aspect stands out (for this reviewer) - these 10 songs are so rich with ideas that one does not immediately reach out for comparisons (i.e., Sullivan sounds like "fill-in-the-blank", his writing is influenced by"so-and-so".)  Just listen. Enjoy the lightness of the interactions, the heat of the solos and the quality of the work.  To find out more, go to www.travissullivan.com.
Click below to enjoy the opening track, courtesy of Posi-Tone Records and IODA Promonet.
Jamia's Dance (mp3)


Perhaps the last instrument one would expect on a program dedicated to the music of alto saxophonist is a didgeridoo but trumpeter Mark Rapp adds it to his arsenal on "Good Eats" (Dinemec Records), his 4th release and 1st with his Melting Pot quartet.  One might assume that the tribute would include an alto saxophone but, once again, Rapp surprises the listener by adding guest Don Braden playing tenor saxophone and alto flute 6 of the 11 tracks.  Joe Kaplowitz mans the Hammond B3 organ, Ahmad Mansour adds funky electric guitar and Klemens Marktl supplies the drum work. Another interesting aspect of the program is that Rapp et al don't copy Mr. Donaldson's sound and songs; no, they have a joyous time with it.  Okay, the opening cut, "Alligator Boogaloo", doesn't stray far from the funky strut of the original and "Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky" is a joyful 60's style romp (hot tenor solo from Braden) but moving on to "Brother Soul" and a Middle-Eastern feel creeps into the piece (splendid drum work from Marktl and rich guitar riffs liven the music.) "One Cylinder" transfers Donaldson's tune into "Bitches Brew" territory, with Rapp's muted trumpet (heavy on the echo) and Mansour's rambling guitar lines. There's a heady bebop/blues take of "Spaceman Twist" (great opening Charlie Parker-style riff that is the theme), a sweet laid-back reading of "The Glory of Love" and a funky, danceable, jaunt through "Pot Belly." 

Everyone plays well and they show great respect for what Lou Donaldson has brought to jazz. They do it by tapping into the playful, soulful, side of his music.  Marktl supplies the "serious" beat, Kaplowitz the much-needed organ foundation and Mansour the "chunky" riffs and rippling solo lines. Mark Rapp and Don Braden are, most often, the "main course" and ride the rhythmic tide.  Essential listening?  Perhaps not, but, if you need a hefty serving of "funky fun", dig into "Good Eats."  To find out more, go to www.markrapp.com.

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