Saturday, April 26, 2014

Big & Small Ensembles

Hard to believe it's been just over 3 years since Posi-Tone Reecords released the self-titled debut CD from the Captain Black Big Band. Culled from 3 live dates, the music was hard-hitting, raucous, even fevered at times but filled with soulful melodies, smart arrangements and great solos.

8 months after that release (11/11), pianist, composer, founder and leader Orrin Evans took the band into Systems Two in Brooklyn to record the follow-up.  Partially crowd-funded through United States Artists (find out more about the organization here), "Mother's Touch" is even better.  6 of the 9 tracks are Evans' originals with one each from Eric Revis, Donald Edwards and Wayne Shorter.  6 different arrangers contributed to the program with the 2-part title track (cuts 3 and 8) attributed to the 20-member ensemble made up of approximately 5 trumpeters, 7 reed players, 5 trombonists and a rhythm section.

The opening track, "In My Soul", welcomes the listener with warm reeds and brass, a slow blues featuring excellent solos from Evans and tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland. Gianluca Renzi's arrangement has the flavor of Julius Hemphill in the lush saxophone melody and Thad Jones in the brass.  Trombonist David Gibson arranged Evans' piece "Explain It To Me", a piece that blends a fiery Latin feel with several straight-ahead sections.  Strickland delivers a soaring soprano sax solo while Ralph Peterson drives the band with his usual abandon - it's the drummer's only appearance on the CD with the bulk of the tracks driven by Anwar Marshall.  The pianist's sweet ballad "Dita (for Karyn Warren)" has a lovely melody that Evans delivers in a most deliberate manner and the alto solo from Todd Bashore (who arranged the cut) is short but loaded with soul.  The arrangement calls for clarinets and flute plus a sweeping trumpet counterpoint and low trombones. Edwards' "Tickle" is a straight-ahead "barn burner" that smokes all the way through its 4:06, especially when tenor saxophonist Stacy Dillard flies atop the amazing bass and drum work. Evans follows with his own energetic solo.  Revis, who is the bassist in the trio Tarbaby as well as long-time member of the Branford Marsalis Quartet, penned "Maestra"for the latter group. Here, the handsome ballad gets a funky makeover with a classy arrangement by Laura Kahle Watts (wife of drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts) featuring strong support from Evans plus fine solos from Victor North (tenor sax) and Fabio Morgera (trumpet). Trumpeter Tatum Greenblatt created the arrangement for Wayne Shorter's "Water Babies" with its fine "call-and-response" featuring the soprano sax and muted trumpets at the onset.

The program closes with "Prayer for Columbine", an Orrin Evans composition first recorded with drummer Ralph Peterson on his 2003 "Tests of Time" Criss Cross release (there is also an Evans Quintet live version from 2013 - you can watch it here.) Here, the Todd Marcus arrangement speeds the piece up a bit while creating a sweeping arrangement of the melody line from the trumpets (with saxophone counterpoint and trombone support.)  The tension builds throughout the 4 solos that start with trombonist Conrad Herwig and moves up to baritone saxophonist Mark Allen and then onto a conversation with the alto saxophone of Tim Green and tenor sax of Stacy Dillard. By the climax of the piece, the 2 men are center stage, their sounds converge then take the piece down to its quiet conclusion.

"Mother's Touch" is an excellent recording, from the compositions to the arrangements to the solos.  The sound is stunning, crisp drums and piano stand out as does the way the mix spreads the reeds and brass sections around the spectrum. Orrin Evans makes a positive impression with every project he creates, he questions conformity and makes political statements yet does so with true belief. If you like large ensemble music, you should love the Captain Black Big Band! To make the connection, go to

If you listen to WBGO/NPR's "Live at The Village Vanguard", you may remember the June 27, 2012 edition that featured the Marc Ribot Trio (you can still listen online by going to

3 nights later, the Trio played the music that is featured on its new CD "Live at The Village Vanguard" (Pi Recordings).  Like the earlier performance, the set here includes pieces by Albert Ayler, John Coltrane and 2 standards. They switch the order around, starting the CD set with Coltrane's "Dearly Beloved" (it's the closing piece on the NPR set while the CD's fourth track, "Bells" opens the radio set.) Bassist Henry Grimes goes it alone for the first several minutes with an impressive bowed solo that quietly introduces Ribot and drummer/producer Chad Taylor. Stealthily, they build the intensity over a rubato setting before kicking the piece into a higher gear. As Ribot begins to "wail", Grimes and Taylor create a rhythmic storm.  At the climax of the guitar solo, Taylor takes a powerful solo to the end of the piece with the guitar and bass joining to close the performance. The ensemble then breaks into a "rockabilly" beat for Ayler's "The Wizard" first recorded on the saxophonist's 1965 ESP release "Spiritual Unity".  It's amazing where the Trio takes the piece as one hears echoes of Carlos Santana and Thurston Moore in the guitar solo.  Although the pace slows down for Grimes' energetic solo, the bassist brings such intensity to his work that both Taylor and Ribot pick up on it and then bring the piece up to another roar.

The reading of "Old Man River" (composed by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II for 1927's "Showboat") displays Ribot's fine blues chops, his ability to build a solo off the melody and his intelligent rhythm guitar backing.  The other standard, "I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)" is from 1930 and has been recorded by Louis Armstrong, Les Paul & Mary Ford, Anne Murray and, most recently, Tony Bennett & K.D. Laing.  The Trio really "swings" the tune, with great brush work, a bouncy bass line and a rippling guitar solo.

The musicians have great fun with Ayler's "Bells" over its 19-minute journey.  Starting quietly in a folk vein, the music builds slowly to a long bass solo (more excellent arco work) and, when Ribot re-enters at the 7-minute mark, the music goes through a number of impressive changes, from a "free-form hoedown" to a fiery "free" blast closing on a hearty drum solo. The CD's closing cut, Coltrane's "Sun Ship", caps off the set with a another blazing guitar solo that builds over 5 minutes to a howling climax into a thundering drum solo and a short reiteration of the theme.

Play it loud, play it often!  "The Marc Ribot Trio: Live at The Village Vanguard" will make you sweat, swear, holler, smile and, ultimately, clap your hands at its audacious musicality.  For more information, go to

The duo of Kendra Shank (voice, electronic looper, effects, shaker) and John Stowell (guitars) has worked together on-and-off for over 2 decades.  "New York Conversations" (TCB Records) was recorded in 2 sessions at the guitarist's long-time friend John Stowell's studio in New York City (guitar overdubs were recorded by Stowell in Portland, Oregon.)  The results prove to be one of the more "playful" collaborations heard recently.

The program includes  4 completely improvised tracks plus several that sound spontaneous, such as Stowell's bluesy "Throop."   "Rush Hour" features acoustic guitar and wordless vocals with the duo dancing around each other while "Za-Zoh" finds Ms. Shank setting the pace with her sweet nonsense lyrics, "looped" vocals and long tones.  The rhythmic interactions on "WalkTalk" give way to a vocal hi jinx (thanks to the octave divider and looper).  The final track is also the 4th improvised cut; in 75 seconds, "Glad Mango" is a joyous dance with bright Brazilian overtones.

There are also several standards sprinkled into the program.  The CD opens with a wistful take on Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" - the vocal begins in a straight-forward manner but Stowell's guitar fills push the piece into a more percussive direction.  The Rodgers-Hart classic "My Romance" (from the 1935 musical "Jumbo") is one of the pieces that sounds spontaneous with the wonderful interaction of the wordless vocals with the sprightly acoustic guitar.  Ms. Shank gets to the lyrics after a sweet guitar solo and her playful take meshes nicely with the guitar.  "Like Someone in Love" (from Jimmy van Heusen and Johnny Burke) opens with a lovely vocal but it's Stowell's delightful guitar solo that stands out.  Ms. Shank's stunning vocal reading of "I'll Be Seeing You" (Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal) stands out in its sincerity and honesty.  The medley of Woody Guthrie's "Hard Travelin'" with the traditional "Motherless Child" rises up from Ms. Shank's vocal drone. The voice and the bluesy licks from the guitars give the track its dark feeling.

The title track adds Ms. Shank's lyrical tour of the New York City neighborhoods to Mr. Stowell's original "Lonely Blue Angel" while "Ghost" is a memory of one of the vocalist's close friends who took his own life. The latter piece is suffused with the light of understanding that life is fragile and "..much to short not to"  The gentle feel of both vocal and guitar is buoyant and kind.  "Simple Pleasures" affixes wordless vocals to a handsome Stowell melody; the looped voices give the piece its dreamy quality while the fine acoustic and overdubbed electric guitar work adds a lovely counterpoint.

There is much to digest on "New York Conversations" but one cannot miss the obvious affection that Kendra Shank and John Stowell have for each other and this project.  They do not force the action, the songs move organically, even the "electronic effects" feel just right.  This music might not knock you over but there are a surplus of moments that will give you great comfort.  For more information, go to


  1. Thank you for your insightful review and for sharing our music with your readers!