Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Spring At The Firehouse! + Descendants of the Art Blakey "Sound"

A sure sign of spring in these parts, besides the temperatures rising, the trees blossoming and the forsythia blooming, is the return of the Spring Concert Series at Firehouse 12, 45 Crown Street in New Haven.  For 13 Fridays, the Elm City recording studio becomes a performance space featuring a panorama of creative artists second-to-none in Connecticut (click here for a look at the entire series. There is one significant change since I posted that column - the Tyler Blanton Quartet, scheduled to appear on 5/25 has been replaced by the ensemble of Pilc/Moutin/Hoenig.)

The series gets off on an experimental foot with Kihnoua.  The quartet, founded by ROVA Sax member Larry Ochs (tenor and sopranino saxophones), creates a fascinating sonic stew with influences from Korean folk music and the "free-jazz" movement of the 1960s and 70s.  In concert, the ensemble features Dohee Lee (voice), Scott Amendola (drums, electronics) and bassist Trevor Dunn (who replaces Wilbert DeJoode, the bassist on the group's new CD, "The Sybil's Whisper", just released on Metalangauge.) The music is episodic, moving in many directions through the course of each song (sometimes from the "whisper" to a scream) -  Ms. Lee's voice is utilized as another instrument and her interaction with Ochs as well as the rhythm section is an important component of the quartet's program.

New Haven is Kihnoua's first stop on a short tour that will take them to Baltimore, Brooklyn, St. Louis, Champaign, IL and Detroit.  They'll play 2 sets -8:30 and 10 p.m. - Tickets are available by calling 203-785-0468 or going to firehouse12.com.

Art Blakey was a dynamic drummer, visionary bandleader and carried the "hard-bop" torch for nearly 4 decades. In 1955, he and pianist Horace Silver formed the Jazz Messengers; a year later, Silver left to go solo and the band plus name belonged to Blakey.  Scores of great musicians passed through the University of Blakey, from Clifford Brown to Jackie McLean to Wayne Shorter to Keith Jarrett to Wynton Marsalis and on. Blakey drove the band, many of the songs featured smart melodies, strong solos and a relentless forward motion. 

Australian-born drummer Andrew Swift moved to New York City in 1988 and has worked steadily ever since.  Amazingly, "Swift Kick" (DClef Records) is his debut as a bandleader and shows a wide-ranging set of influences but always with the "beat" and the melody at the center.  He's organized a fine rhythm section, with George Cables (piano) and Dwayne Burno (bass) featured throughout.   Sharel Cassity, whose band Swift anchors, adds an arsenal of reed instruments while producer Michael Dease is heard on trombones, flugelhorn and tenor saxophone on the majority of the tracks. Guests include trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, trumpeter Ryan Kisor, tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, guitarist Yotam Silberstein and others.

Despite the rotating front lines, Swift's vision for the program never wavers.  The CD opens with the rip-roaring "Kisor the Despiser", with the song's namesake leading the way in tandem with Ms. Cassity on alto saxophone.  At high volumes, one can really enjoy the rhythm section's driving sound, the way the soloists maneuver through the changes and the excellent work of Cables (he's wonderful throughout.)  The next track, "The Rio Dawn", is from the pen of Jimmy Heath (from 2009's "Endurance" recording) and features the fine voice of Vanessa Perea as well as the expressive guitar work of Yotam.  There's a Horace Silver feel on "Soldier", with Kisor, Dease (alto trombone) and crackling guitar leading the way.  Again, pay attention to how the rhythm section pays attention - Cables, Burno and Swift are masterful in their support and knowing when to push. 

Wycliffe Gordon's expressive trombone shadows Ms. Perea on "Alfie" while it's his voice that gets the spotlight on the humorous, if a bit bizarre, "Brandy" (not the Looking Glass "Brandy" from 1972 but a tune from pop songwriters John Vastano and Peter Andreoli.)  

There are 2 interesting "curve balls" in the program, the first being the short (40 seconds) "Slit Drum Interlude"; here the name says it all.  The final track is the other "change".  Not only is "Understanding" the longest cut (9:02) but, with the exception of Ms. Cassity and Dease, features a different bassist (John Lee) and pianist (Jeb Patton).  Violinist Curtis Stewart is front-and-center while Swift also adds electric guitar. The results may remind some of the "fusion" jazz-funk of the 1970s.

"Swift Kick" may not always have the "boom" of hard-bop but the music does have plenty of heart and soul. The solos are, mostly, short but the musicians make the best of the spotlight.  Underneath it, the rhythm section is truly fine.  For more information, go to www.andrewswiftmusic.com

The musicians who make up Opus 5 - Seamus Blake (tenor sax), Alex Sipiagin (trumpet, flugelhorn), David Kikoski (piano, Fender Rhodes), Boris Kozlov (bass) and Donald Edwards (drums) - are no strangers to Gerry Teekens' Criss Cross Jazz label.  Blake and Kikoski have appeared 22 and 20 releases respectively while Sipiagin and Kozlov are represented on 10 and 8. Edwards has been on 2.  Not sure whose idea it was for them to join forces but "Introducing Opus 5" (released in October 2011) is no "superstar jam session" but a well thought-out hour+ of music that ranges from funky, hard-bop. swingers to a Brazilian bossa-nova ballad (Toninho Horto's "Ton To Tom") to a lovely ballad from the drummer ("Asami's Playland").  No need to go over the pedigree of these musicians, each stands out on his respective instrument.  Seamus Blake's tenor is quite expressive throughout, whether relating a story on Edward's ballad and flying over the changes on George Cables' "Think of Me." He can play quickly but it makes sense in the flow of the music.  Sipiagin's tone is crisp and clean; his solos on the faster songs are filled with quick phrases interspersed with longer tones.  He switches to flugelhorn for the Horta tribute to Antonio Carlos Jobim and his mellower tone has the right balance of sadness and grit.  Kikoski can be both understated and decorative, often within the same chorus.  He plays Fender Rhodes on the Cables's tune as well as Kozlov's soulful yet smoldering "Nostalgia In Time" ( a nod to his work with the Mingus Big Band.) Kikoski's Rhodes work has always been impressive; he really understands how to blend the lighter sound into a jazz setting.  "Sokol" is a Russian folk tune that the quintet really opens up on. After a subdued opening featuring a handsome bass solo, the group interprets the theme and takes it a bit "out' before Kikoski (on acoustic piano) takes off on a powerful solo aided by Edward's expressive cymbal work and pounding drums.  After the drum solo, the song returns to the main theme and then a hypnotic electric piano figure brings the piece to a quiet close.

I believe Art Blakey would approve of how these musicians are carrying on his legacy, how they are allowing world music to influence the melodic side while the rhythm section still stokes the fires.  "Introducing Opus 5" may be a new group yet these are 5 musicians who need no introductions - just let them play.  For more information, go to www.crisscrossjazz.com

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