Sunday, June 24, 2012

Gig Alert + CD Pick (CT Connection)

That's bassist Ben Allison on the left of the picture and poet Robert Pinsky on the right.  They have been appearing together intermittently over the past 3 (or so) in a program that combines the spoken word and jazz.  Nothing new about that practice other than it does not happen as much these as it did even 25 years ago.  Jazz fans remember the work of Amiri Baraka with saxophonist David Murray in the 1980s as well as the hard-edged sound of poet Jayne Cortez and the Firespitters.  You dig back further and you will find the jazz poetry of Kenneth Rexroth in the 1950s plus the writing of Langston Hughes and Hart Crane in the 1920s.

Ben Allison is no stranger to the folks of New Haven as he is a native son and has appeared a good number of times over the past 2 decades.  Robert Pinsky, a native of New Jersey, studied at Rutgers then went on to get his PhD from Stanford. "Sadness and Happiness", his first book of poetry, was published in 1975 and he has since published 7 more collections, numerous essays, edited several books by other poets and served as the United States Poet Laureate from 1997-2000.

They'll be performing this coming Wednesday night (June 27) at 8 p.m. in Morse Recital Hall, 470 College Street in New Haven as part of the 2012 International Festival of Arts & Ideas. The Festival website (artidea.org) lists the Ben Allison Band  - the lineup will be percussionist Rogerio Boccato, guitarist Steve Cardenas and guitarist/banjo player Brandon Seabrook. In an email from Mr.Allison about the collaboration with the poet, "We'll be totally improvising our set with Robert.  It's very conversational and interactive music. Lots of dynamics and creative forms."  Sounds like this will be a great gig. 


I have been lax writing about this year's Fest, which began on June 16 and runs through the 30th, closing with a free concert on the New Haven Green featuring Rosanne Cash.  There has not been a lot of jazz in this year's schedule but there have been some excellent free concerts.  Click on the link above to see what great shows are coming up this week. To find out more about Ben Allison (he's quite a busy person), go to www.benallison.com - for an overview of the life and work of Robert Pinsky, go to www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/robert-pinsky.

The first time I heard clarinet player/composer François Houle was his 1998 Songlines CD "Vernacular" - the recording featured trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Mark Dresser, cellist Peggy Lee and drummer Dylan van der Schyff. The interaction of that band was fantastic, the music brimmed with creative energy and it remains one of my favorite recordings.  14 years later, Houle has gathered another larger ensemble, dubbing the group  François Houle 5 +1, and releasing "Genera" (Songlines). This is a band of leaders, including the "Connecticut Connection" Taylor Ho Bynum (Wesleyan graduate and New Haven resident on cornet and flugelhorn), Samuel Blaser (trombone), Michael Bates (bass) and Harris Eisenstadt (drums) - the +1 is Houle's long-time associate Benoit Delbecq (piano, electronics).  The blend of the sounds is intriguing throughout, often pairing Bynum's tart cornet lines with Blaser's buttery trombone work.  Bassist Bates and drummer Eisenstadt generate plenty of power pushing, coaxing and creating a strong foundation for the soloists to work off of.  Delbecq's left hand complements Bates' thick bass lines, offering a "freer" counterpoint.

Houle (who, by way, completed his advanced degree at the Yale School of Music) wrote these pieces with this instrumentation in mind and it offers him quite abroad palette. The frenzied "swing" of "Albatros" suggests both Andrew Hill and New Orleans, the former in the construction of the melody and the solo sections while one can hear the latter in the group's work on the theme section.  Bynum's solo builds off the energy of the rhythms section, adding even more fuel to the musical fire.  Blaser's solo over Eisenstadt's active drumming blends blues with longer tones, cooling down the music but not the interaction.  "Piano Loop (for BD)" opens with barely audible piano lines that coalesce into a classically inspired melody (played by Delbecq) and, one by one, the other musicians enter.  Bynum, Blaser and Houle play variations of the pianist's theme until the cornet and clarinet come together to play the melody then separate into their own own phrases. There is an aura of peaceful interaction until one by one, the musicians depart to leave the pianist in his solemnity.

"Sulfur Dude" meshes (or mashes) several different styles (Latin rhythms and circus music, to name but 2) into a fanciful stew.  Bynum reaches for the stratosphere in his solo while Houle tamps down that fire with a solo that starts quietly then build steadily over Eisenstadt's conversational drumming.  When the group returns to the theme, the pianist plays rapid-fire lines that seen to encourage the other musicians to abandon the melody and interact with him as the piece fades. "Guanara", the longest track on the disk at 12 minutes, has a rhythmic approach reminiscent of Duke Ellington's "Blue Bird of Delhi" (from "The Far East Suite") - Bates and Eisenstadt not only set the tempo but also are entrusted with the shifting dynamics as they interact with the energy of the soloists (Houle takes a fiery solo that leads to a fine bass spotlight.)  The sextet creates a similar musical volcano (in 2:13, no less) on "Old Paradigm", which brings to mind the musical experiments of Muhal Richard Abrams. 

Perhaps the most impressive fact about "Genera" is that the 6 musicians had not played or even rehearsed this music together in a live setting before the March 23, 2012 recording date.  Houle had recorded a "demo" with Bynum, Bates and Eisenstadt in 2011 but had worked on the music, changing arrangements and adding new songs in the months before the session.  It speaks to the professionalism of the musicians, their respect and trust of the composer/arranger, as well as their considerable talents that this music is so good.  On June 25, the 5+1 begin a 12 day-8 city tour in Toronto, Ontario, that takes them back and forth across Canada, as far west as Vancouver (July 1) and back east to St. John's/Newfoundland (July 6).  By the time they finish, this music should be stunning (they should release a "live" version of "Genera" music.) One hopes that François Houle is able to keep writing for these musicians because his initial encounter with them is quite forceful and impressive. For more information, go to www.francoisehoule.ca/.


Here's a download of "Piano Loop (for BD)" courtesy of Songlines Recordings and IODA Promonet:
Piano Loop (for BD) (mp3)

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