Sunday, December 24, 2017

2017, What a Year! (Pt 5 - Solo, Group, Historical)

The plan was for 36 of my favorite CDs including reissues or "historical" releases.  The final count for this year is 44! And I missed a few.  In the next few weeks, I'll be "catching up" with releases that came out over the past few months and I did not have the time to write about (and there are a number that deserve your attention).  As I look at other lists created by friends and other reviewers, critics and musicians, one has to reiterate that 2017 was a major step forward for music.  Personal became political became reality and begat artists who felt the need to step up, who could not believe what they were seeing and hearing. Even with several special elections that turned Senate or House seats from red to blue, one cannot see 2018 being any calmer.  If anything, life could get "hotter" as politicos and journalists, pundits and prognosticators, feel no compulsion to compromise - "my way or the highway" has certainly replaced "let's work together" as the national mantra.

Into the fray this year came pianist, composer, and educator Vijay Iyer.  He put together an amazing Sextet - Steve Lehman (alto saxophone), Mark Shim (tenor saxophone), Graham Haynes (cornet, flugelhorn, electronics), Stephan Crump (bass) and the indefatigable Tyshawn Sorey (drums) - and gave them music to really dig into.  There are moments where the fire coming from the rhythm section may overwhelm your speakers but that note how the horns continue to ride those waves.  Note the subtle work of Graham Haynes, the occasional forays into Fender Rhodes (few pieces this year funkier than "Nope"), and how the leader pushes, persuades, and often lets loose with torrents of notes that match the intensity of Crump and Sorey.  It's not all "sturm and drang" but this album, titled "Far From Over" (ECM Records) grabs ahold of the mind, shakes it, and reminds us to stay involved.

Speaking of grabbing ahold of a tiger. alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa self-released his new Indo-Pak Coalition album "Agrima", selling to only as a digital-download from his website. With long-time companions Rez Abbasi (guitar, pedals) and Dan Weiss (tabla, drum kit), the album explores numerous musical motifs that show the influence of nations that give the band its name as well as nodding towards the Mahavishnu Orchestra.  The interactions, the stop-on-a-dime and go in a new direction, the amazing work of Weiss, and the sounds that emanate from the guitar and saxophone (the first time Mahanthappa has recorded with  synths), all that as well as the wonderfully drawn compositions makes "Agrima" a joy to hear. Try and sit still!

Drummer Weiss is also part of the quartet saxophonist and composer David Binney gathered to record "The Time Verses" (CrissCross Records).  Binney has used Weiss, bassist Eivind Opsvik, and pianist Jacob Sacks as his working group in New York City's 55 Bar for a number of years. The narrative of the album is a "day in the life" of a working musician but you do need to know that to really dig into this music. Always a powerful soloist, Binney has quite the ear for melody. There's a poetic feel to pieces such as "Walk", "Seen" (with lovely vocal from guest Jen Shyu), and the episodic "Where Worlds Collide."  Spend time with these "verses" and your spirit will be refreshed.

September of this year was quite a month for pianist, composer, and now author Fred Hersch.  Jazz at Lincoln Center invited him to perform his "Leaves of Grass" suite, his memoir  "Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz" was published to very positive reviews, and his new solo piano album "Open Road" (Palmetto) was released.  What made this album stand out in the Hersch repertoire is not just the excellent interpretations of material by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Benny Golson, Billy Joel (!), and Thelonious Monk (no surprise there) but the three fascinating original pieces.  One piece, "Through The Forest", runs nearly 20 minutes and covers so much territory without getting bogged down in cliches or at a loss for a through-line. In fact, what stands out is how outside of genre the music is (a nice way of saying don't pigeonhole the piece by calling it jazz, classical, or whatever.)  

I am blessed to know pianist and educator Laszlo Gardony, one of the friendliest and most creative musicians one will ever meet.  It makes such good sense to call his new solo piano album "Serious Play" (Sunnyside Records). If you have Professor Gardony in person, you know that he has great technique but never allows that to get in the way of serving the melody or the rhythm (he really knows how to create rhythm in his music).  He also understand the blues so pieces such as "Georgia On My Mind" and "Over The Rainbow" are ripe with honest emotions.  Each track stands out yet the program feel connected from beginning to end.  You can play this album over and over and hear something new each time.

Another person who is a "serious player" is Anat Cohen. If you have ever seen her in person, you know that the clarinetist (she also baritone sax on this CD)  is rarely without a smile, that she can make the most "down-home blues" feel like a revival meeting, and she can genres in a heartbeat. This year saw three new releases including two with a Brazilian and one with her new Tentet.  Arranged by Oded Lev-Ari, the music ranges from klezmer to Brazil to swing to deep ballads and to African balafon music.  Her ensemble -  Rubin Kodheli (cello), Nadje Noordhuis (trumpet, flugelhorn), Nick Finzer (trombone), Owen Broder (baritone saxophone, bass clarinet), James Shipp (vibraphone, percussion), Vitor Gonçalves (piano, accordion), Sheryl Bailey (guitar), Tal Mashiach (bass), and Anthony Pinciotti (drums) - is excellent. One can tell this music is for the concert hall and larger clubs yet much of the time one wants to dance ("Kenedougou Foly" closes the program and I dare you to sit still.

Like the Jen Shyu, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Josh Nelson, and Tomas Fujiwara recordings, the second album from the Marta Sánchez Quintet has been sitting on my desktop for months (and playing while I was doing school work). Retaining  the front line of alto saxophonist Roman Filiu and tenor saxophonist Jerome Sabbagh from her previous CD but with a new rhythm section of bassist Rick Rosato and drummer Daniel Dor, "Danza Imposible" (Fresh Sound New Talent) builds on the promise of her 2015 date titled "Partenika" (Ms. Sánchez has issued two earlier albums on Spanish labels).  There is a "lightness of being" on several tracks where the reeds don't "blow" as much as sing while the rhythm section often has a dancing quality. Meanwhile the leader's piano contains both beauty and muscle - for example, "Flesh" builds off powerful chords yet retains a quiet center, especially in the impressionistic piano solo. The slightly off-kilter saxophones lead the title track and share the melody lines while the piano plays counterpoint with the drums and bass building the tension.  Ms. Sánchez has written music for a group, not for soloists and a rhythm section; it's fun to hear how the different voices in the group play off each other.  There are moments when the mood and freedom of movement reminds this listener of the classic Miles Davis 1965-68 Quintet and that's a good thing. You can really tell that this group enjoys playing together and that joy is contagious.

It took composer and arranger Ed Neumeister over three years, several grants, and an Indiegogo campaign to bring his new album "Wake Up Call" (Meistero Music) to fruition.  Yet, this labor of love is anything but laborious. In fact, much of this music soars. The NeuHat Ensemble is composed of world-class musicians (many of whom have worked or play with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and the Maria Schneider Orchestra), it's so enjoyable when the musicians dig in to the well sculpted melodies and intelligent arrangements.  There's a touch of Duke Ellington in "Locomotion" (the composer writes that the song is based on John Coltrane's "Dear Lord") while it's possible that "Birds of Prey" has some influence from Ms. Schneider's well-known hobby. This music sparkles with inventiveness, wit, and often has a gentler side that is soothing.

Saxophonists Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano came together in 2007 at the request of BBC Radio to celebrate the 40th anniversary of John Coltrane's passing. With a rhythm section of Phil Markowitz (piano), Ron McClure (bass), and Billy Hart (drums), The results of their musical endeavors can be heard on "Compassion: The Music of John Coltrane", beautifully packaged and mastered by Resonance Records.  The six-song program features works for 1958 up until 1967's title track.  Both saxophonists play extremely well, never attempting to imitate the muscular sound that Coltrane mastered yet still having great power. The rhythm section also plays with great fire, especially Hart.  This quintet succeeds unmaking Coltrane's music sound timeless and fresh.

This year, Resonance Records released two albums from pianist Bill Evans featuring the rhythm section of Eddie Gomez (bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums).  Up until now, the only album with that lineup was Evans's Verve Lp "Bill Evans at The Montreux Jazz Festival." That recording won a GRAMMY in 1969 by which time the drummer was in the Miles Davis Group.  "Another Time: The Hilversum Concert" was recorded seven days after Montreux and just two days after "Some Other Time: The Lost Session from the Black Forest", which Resonance released earlier this year. The albums are fairly similar though they have different material. The later recording seems livelier, punchier, as if the trio had a good dinner and were digging each other's company.  Bill Evans remains quite popular 37 years after his passing and there are a lot of albums to choose from. The spark of inventiveness can be heard throughout "Another Time" and that makes the music infectious.

That's a wrap, as they say, for 2017. These albums made me feel good while listening and writing; some even helped my mood get so much better.  I was sick and hospitalized in July and early August so music really made my recuperation time move by.  Thanks to the promoters and the publicists, thanks to my fellow writers for keeping me honest, and thanks to the artists for taking chances and not settling for just good!  Thanks to you for reading and reacting.  Be healthy, be safe, and be generous throughout the Holiday and into 2018.  Change is all around us. We must be ready and resolute and never, ever, lose your sense of humor and love of music.


Saturday, December 23, 2017

2017, What A Year (Pt 4 - Unique Voices)

This "Best of" list is in no order other than coming from the pile of CDs on the desk. Each album holds the power to capture the mind, to ask questions, to illustrate technical prowess but not for the sake of the narrative. I discovered that my original list of 36 did not include reissues or "albums of historical note" plus a pair of delightful solo piano disks so, "Yes Virginia, there will be a Part 5."

Saxophonist and composer Noah Preminger made this album in the heat he felt following the 2016 US Election (as did Ryan Keberle - see "2017..Pt 1"). The songs, originals and selected "covers", speak to the dysfunctional nature of politics and government to be able to see its inherent problems (and its strengths) and do something - anything - that benefits the people.  It's no surprise that the album cover is in black & white because there are days when it seems that there are no shades in between.  Yet, this music is not all "doom and gloom"; feelings of hope enter into pieces such as "Give Me Love", "A Change is Gonna Come", and "We Have A Dream."  Kudos to Preminger, trumpeter Jason Palmer, bassist Kim Cass, and drummer Ian Froman for lighting up the dark nights.

It's been over 10 years since saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón made an album that just featured him with his oft-dazzling quartet of pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig, and drummer Henry Cole.  "Típico" (Miel Music) arrived in February of 2017 and shows just how delightful this "working" band can be.  Friends who attended "live" shows have told me that the ensemble often breathes as one.  In many ways, this quartet reminds me of the  "classic" John Coltrane quartet in that no one voice is more important than any one else, that they share the same goals, that they listen, respond, and are sympathetic. In its finest moments, one can hear how these musicians are in the midst of a most delightful dance, one in which they may go in separate directions but come back together with such delight, spirit, and gentleness.

I did not review or write about "Song of Silver Geese", the splendid new recording by multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Jen Shyu. Honestly, I am not sure what to tell you other than the album is a culmination of Ms. Shyu's years of studying the music and stories of East and West Timor, Taiwan, Indonesia, Korea, and elsewhere in Asia.  Using Eastern and Western instruments (vibraphone, string bass, piano, Taiwanese moon lute, zither, plus a string quartet), this music is truly like nothing you have heard.  To this observer, the main point is human beings around the world share stories, think about our existence in a fragile world, dream of the supernatural yet are aligned with the sun, planets, and stars.  We may not understand the lyrics - read the translations - but the underlying emotions are universal.  Powerful music that deserves not only to be heard but certainly to be seen.

In the space of a week, three separate albums featuring pianist Tal Cohen arrived on my doorstops (physical and digital).  "Gentle Giants" (self-released) emerge quickly as my favorite, the powerful melodies and emotional ballads sparking to a musician who has absorbed his influences and is not afraid to take chances. Add saxophonists Greg Osby (alto) or Jamie Oehlers (tenor) to the rhythm section of Cohen, bassist Robert Hurst, and drummer Nate Winn and the music soars with inventiveness, exhibiting the joy that musicians have when they are playing well together.  Cohen digs into every solo as if it was his last, mining the melodies and harmonies to create cogent statements as well as exciting flights of fancy.

For those of following the career of bassist Linda May Han Oh, her fourth album as as leader "Walk Against Wind" (Biophilia Records) continues to show her development as a composer and soloist.  Written for her "regular" band -  Ben Wendel (tenor saxophone), Matthew Stevens (guitar), and Justin Brown (drums) - and featuring pianist Fabian Almazan (on three tracks) plus percussionist Minji Park (on one track), this music is ever-so-melodic with unexpected turns, fine solos, and Ms. Oh's expressive bass work.  And the more you return, the more you hear.  This artist can certainly hold her own in any rhythm section but you can't help but marvel at how her instrument can help create the sound of a band - that writ, her interactions with Brown really stand out.

Saxophonist Ralph Bowen's self-title Posi-Tone release is, arguably, the most impressive release of his long and varied career.  Recorded with Jim Ridl (piano, Fender Rhodes), Kenny Davis (bass), and Cliff Almond (drums), the bulk of the album's time is dedicated to the saxophonist's (mostly tenor) original work "The Phylogeny Suite" - the 42-minute, six-part, work covers a large amount of musical territory and neither flags or loses its direction. Playful, honest, at times soaked in blues, the program shows a musician at the top of his game and a band that pushes, prods, and fiercely supports his every move.  Kudos as well to Nick O'Toole for a splendid recording and his usual excellent mastering.

Tenor saxophonist, composer, and arranger Paul Jones used several different ensembles in the recording of "Clean" (Inside Out Music) including a sextet with two saxes, guitar, piano, bass, and drums plus a wind trio with cello, a saxophone quartet, and a flute-piano duo.  The sextet appears on the majority of the longer tracks bur the guests rarely intrude and the music really flows.  Soaked in melody, the music goes in many directions without getting lost. The stories Jones is telling deal with creativity, with the musician's search for growth, and wanting to connect with as many people as possible. Is it possible to be true to your "muse", to want to continue to grow each and every day, and to want people to join you on your journey?  We say yes! We say that "Clean" is a delight from start to finish!

I did not review "The Sky Remains" (Steel Bird), the latest album for pianist and composer Josh Nelson, but I did listen to the delightful album many times. The music is a love-letter to and appreciation for his hometown, the city of Los Angeles, CA.  Many of us think of LA as one giant freeway but the area was first settled in the late 1780s, incorporated as a city in 1850 and is currently the second most populous city in the U.S. There is so much to learn reading to liner notes and much to enjoy listening to how Nelson's music gives an emotional heart to his urban area.  Kathleen Grace adds her luminous voice to four of the tracks. Also pay attention to Nelson's classy arrangements especially how he utilizes Chris Lawrence (trumpet, flugelhorn), Josh Johnson (alto sax, flute), and the expressive clarinets of Brian Walsh.  Take this journey and you will be so pleased!

Violinist Sam Bardfeld, who has worked with Bruce Springsteen, Anthony Braxton, and the Jazz Passengers, came back as a leader this year with "The Great Enthusiasms" (BJU Records). Joining him on this aural journey was pianist Kris Davis and drummer Michael Sarin - the stores they tell are inspired by the likes of Richard Nixon and the music of the 1970s (the trio covers Bruce Springstreen's "Because The Night" plus do a knock-out version of The Band's "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)"). The trio does not play it safe, meaning the music goes in many and varied directions. With influences ranging from bluegrass, rock, the explorations of Leroy Jenkins and Billy Bang, and more, Sam Bardfeld and company create a program that is challenging, exciting, rich with ideas and interactions, and well worth exploring.

Friday, December 22, 2017

2017, What a Year! (Pt 3 - Love Those Large Ensembles)

For someone as disorganized as a human being can be, my love of large ensemble music might not make sense.  Yet, I am continually blown away at how the different voices mix, how melodies are passed from section to section, and his the rhythm section is so important.  It's hard not to fascinated how composers and arrangers take the sounds they hear in their head, turin them into notes, and then back into notes.  It's the adding back of the human element that thrills.  Modern big bands are often filled with the most talented musicians who subsume their egos for the better of their collective. Each one of the albums listed below includes songs with great solos but, for this listener, it's often the "amazing swirls of sounds" that remain long after the album is over.

Pianist, composer, and arranger Frank Carlberg released "Monk Dreams, Hallucinations and Nightmares" (Red Piano Records) early in 2017, the centennial year of Thelonious Sphere Monk's birth.  The music sparkles with inventiveness, Monk melodies weaving in and out of intelligent arrangements, powerful solos on every song, etc.  The album culminates with an amazing take on "'Round Midnight", an 11-minute meditation on the classic song with Kirk Knuffke's cornet in front the entire time (perhaps the finest recorded solo of a great year of solos.)  Like the music that inspired it, this collection sounds fresh each time you listen.

"How To Say Goodbye" (JCA Recordings) was issued in late 2016 (as was the album above)  - a star-studded large ensemble (powered by drummer Matt Wilson, no less), it was the first Big Band  album composer, arranger, and educator Ken Schaphorst in 18 years.  It's such a treat to hear how the sections work together and independently, how the melodies lead to exhilarating solos, how the myriad of influences in the composer's life helped shape such original music. The results live and breathe, entertain, challenge, without pushing the listener away - in fact, more than once after the last track ended, I would go back to the beginning and listen again.

Took me a while to come around to appreciate just how good "The Better Angels of Our Nature" (Truth Revolution Records) is. A long-time project of saxophonist and arranger Brian McCarthy, the music inspired by the first Inaugural Address of President Abraham Lincoln (1861) was created for nonet, an ensemble that allows the arranger to plays with his aural palette in so many creative ways.  In a year of such turmoil as 2017 has been, this album serves to remind one that the United States has seen such roiling times in the past and survived, fresh scars each time but with the desire for improvement. Music can help; it cannot change the world but does often remind us that our "better angels" are often close-by.

Yet another album issued in late 2016, "Jailhouse Doc With Holes in Her Socks" (JCA Records) is the latest aural adventure from composer and arranger Darrell Katz. Dedicated to his late wife,  Paula Tatarunis (1962-2015), much of the music uses her poetry as a stepping stone to fascinating melodies and creative arrangements - Katz has always been influenced by Julius Hemphill and the long version of "The Red Blues/Red Blues (Live)" that closes the disk shows how that influence has evolved into Katz's "personal" sound (also features the unique voice of saxophonist Oliver Lake.  Utilizing various sized ensembles as well as the expressive voice of Rebecca Shrimpton, this music is quite powerful and rewarding.

If this was saxophonist, composer, and arranger Chelsea McBride's debut recording, it would easily be one of the debut albums of 2017.  A young veteran of the Toronto music scene, Ms. McBride is quite busy, leading several different ensembles and member of several others.  "The Twilight Fall" (Brontosauras Records) is the full-length debut of her Socialist Night School, a 19-piece aggregation complete with a vocalist, powerful electric guitar, plus the oft-rampaging drums of Geoff Bruce. Alex Samaras adds emotionally rich vocals to a number of tunes but, for these ears, it's how Ms. McBride uses the various sections of the band to enhance the narrative and to keep the music moving forward.  There are various influences from the jazz and blues side but also nods to rock music, Latin and much more. Attractive music that shows vitality and maturity as well as the desire to go in different directions.

Trombonist, composer, and arranger Alan Ferber created "Jigsaw" (Sunnyside Records) for his Big Band. It's that ensemble's second album and shines so bright with originality, solos, intelligent and challenging material as well as being emotionally rich (in that way, reminiscent of the work of Maria Schneider and Bob Brookmeyer). The seven pieces are just "vehicles for blowing", although there are no shortage of impressive solos.  Yes, this band can roar but it's the blend of the quiet moments, the introspective melodies and harmonies, and those moments when the musician let loose that gives the music its humanity.

Kenny Wheeler's big band music is held in high regard by music scholars but is not in the repertoire of many large ensembles. "Sweet  Ruby Suite"(UofT Jazz) comes from the University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra, Gordon Foote director, and finds the student ensemble interpreting the Canadian native's music alongside saxophonist Dave Liebman and Wheeler's long-time associate, vocalist Norma Winstone.  To the band's credit, they hew closely to the original Wheeler arrangements.  What stands out to this listener is how well the ensemble plays, how the soloists give it their all each solo, and the timeless quality of Kenny Wheeler's work.

Right around Thanksgiving, I received a huge package from the University of North Texas as the program is celebrating its 70th anniversary.  Slowly but surely, I am making my way through recordings that show the strength of the program's various ensembles, the different arrangers, and numerous fine young soloists.  Those recordings and the one from the University of Toronto serve to remind us that jazz has not disappeared, that there are people who want to learn more and play for audiences, that if you stop worrying about the commercial intent of certain art forms, they can and will survive.  .

In the final chapter of these four posts, I'll look at smaller group recordings, solo and duo albums, and more. Be well all!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

2017, What a Year! (Part 2 - Trumpets & Louis Smiles Down)

If you're a fan of creative trumpet, 2017 has been a banner year.  It's  not at all surprising that Wadada Leo Smith is on the list of best albums - TUM Records issued two at the same time with "Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk" standing out for me. With four Thelonious Monk classicsjuxtaposed with Smith originals, the music draws in the listener with its organic of sound, reverberation, and silence.  There are no dull moments and one can just luxuriate in how this master musician, 76 years on December 18, plays with such power, intelligence, rhythm, and melody.  I was able to attend one night of his "Create Festival" this year (the East Coast version) and can tell you he continues to grow as a musician, composer, and, above all, a human being.

Trumpeter and composer Kenny Warren was a new name to me when "Thank You For Coming to LIFE", his debut recording for Whirlwind Recordings crossed my desk. As I did my research, his previous recordings quickly came to light (his Americana-flavored pair of "Laila & Smitty" disks are stand-outs) plus his recent work with Slavic Soul Party; all those albums and more illustrate the work oof a original thinker and player. This Quartet date - JP Schlegelmilch (piano), Noah Garabedian (bass), and Satoshi Takeishi (drums - has but six songs yet each shines with its own brightness and invention.  Strains of funk, hard bop, classical music, blues, and more, enlivened by the delightful interplay, did bring to mind Wynton Marsalis's "Black Codes" group, especially the urgency, emotion, and the sheer joy of playing music with friends.  

Just as a list such as this has to include Wadada, it's a rare year that Dave Douglas does not give the listener multiple treats. 2017 brought us "Little Giant Still Life" (Greenleaf Music), an album made in collaboration with The Westerlies (trumpeters Riley Mulkerhar and Zubin Hensler plus trombonists Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch) and the delightful drumming of Anwar Marshall. Inspired by the art and artistry of Stuart Davis (1892-1964, composer Douglas creates a aural gallery show that uses the rhythms of the paintings. Note the sly humor in several tracks, the delightful "basso profundo" of the trombones, the use of harmony and counterpoint, and how Marshall makes so much of these pieces dance.  One continues to be impressed at how hard Dave Douglas works and how he takes guidance and direction from his influences and creates timeless music.

Then there's the second album from Douglas's Riverside, a quartet featuring the continually amazing bassist Steve Swallow plus Chet Doxas (tenor sax, bass clarinet) and his brother Jim (drums).  While their debut Greenleaf album nodded in the direction of Jimmy Giuffre, this second effort, "The New National Anthem" finds its inspiration coming from Mr. Swallow's wife, Carla Bley (they even toured Europe with the composer-pianist).  Playful, melodic, genre-busting, highly interactive, this music has such a bright quality, even the ballads take the listener in such fascinating directions.  Long-time fans of Mr. Swallow and Mr. Douglas know they are in for a quality experience from every album but one cannot help but be impressed by the work of the Canadian brothers (Chet's clarinet stands out while Jim locks right in with the bassist, making it sound like they have been a rhythm section for two decades, not just two recordings).

The second album by trumpeter-composer Rebecca Hennessy's FOG Brass Band (self-released) upends one's conception of a traditional Brass ensemble. Yes, it's a sextet but there are three horns (trumpet, trombone, tuba) plus a rhythm section of electric guitar, piano, and drums (no marching band, this).  The composer gives the band such a fascinating collection of tunes in many different styles, such well-formed melodies, smart harmonies, intelligent interplay, a heck of a rhythm section, and don't miss how strong the solos are.  FOG is part of a growing eclectic music scene in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Yes, Ms. Hennessy often take her inspiration from musicians and composers (especially the afore-mentioned Carla Bley and a touch of Duke Ellington) from the country just south of hers but she is quickly developing her "voice" and arranging style.

Trumpeter and composer Sam Boshnack puts to music the story of pioneering journalist Nelly Bly (1864-1922), successfully and not-so-subtly reminding the world of both the power of a single-minded woman but also how the press can tell important stories.  Her Quintet, which features the sublime clarinet playing of Beth Fleenor, understands that the story comes first yet the music offers them music freedom.  The "Nellie Bly Project" may only be 34 minutes long but packs quite a punch, especially in the two long, episodic pieces.  Sam Boshnack, with both her Quintet and the B'shnorkestra, is becoming an important voice in the Pacific Northwest and, hopefully, soon around the world.

The debut album from trumpeter and composer Jaimie Branch, "Fly or Die" (International Anthem), is chock full of ideas, with "hard" beats, brash tones, and features the great playing of Tomeka Reid (cello), Jason Ajemian (bass), and Chad Taylor (drums). Pieces such as "Theme 001" bristle with the energy of Julius Hemphill's "Hard Blues" whereas "Theme 002" reminds this listener of saxophonist Matana Roberts's work with Taylor and bassist Joshua Abrams for their Sticks & Stones trio.  "Theme Nothing" also blends African rhythms, this time with a hint of blues-rock. There are also pieces with multiple overdubs (the muted opening of "Leaves of Glass" is among the quieter sections of the album and employs the cornets of Ben Lamar Gay and Josh Berman, a short, buzzing, solo, and a pair of tracks with acoustic guitarist Matt Schneider.  Plenty of variety packed into 36 minutes and it makes one impatient for more of Jaimie Branch's fascinating music.

Drummer and composer Tomas Fujiwara created quite a project for his new album "Triple Double" (Firehouse 12 Records). This sextet features two guitarists (Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook), two brass (trumpeter Ralph Alessi and the cornet of Taylor Ho Bynum), and two drummers (the leader plus Gerald Cleaver).  There is a "progressive rock" and a blues-rock feel to a number of the pieces and, like Ms. Branch's music, often bristles and erupts. With two such powerful drummers, the band occasionally leaves subtlety behind in favor of a mighty roar but notice how easily they can pull back (especially on "Blueberry Eyes").  Each musician has her or his own "voice" and it's such a aural pleasure to hear Ms. Halvorson articulate lines interacting with Seabrook's "noisier" elements or Alessi's flowing lines in counterpoint with Bynum's splintered, raucous, interjections.  There are a trio of duo pieces - the first, "Hurry Home B/G"", is an unhurried interaction between Seabrook and Cleaver while the second, "Hurry Home M/T" uses similar elements for the duo of Ms. Halvorson and Fujiwara.  Right in the middle of the program, the leader opens "For Alan" with a recording of a lesson he had (as a 10-year old) with the great drummer-educator Alan Dawson (1929-1996) - once the voices drop out, Fujiwara and Cleaver take off on an exciting percussive journey. They are not "one-upping" or "cutting" each other; instead, they get carried away on the power of multi-rhythms and making each other dance.  Mr. Dawson comes back in near the close to teach about syncopation.

Amidst the tumult of sounds, what stands out is the friendship, the musicality, and the willingness to expand the spend as far as these six musicians can.  Give in, let your mind open, and you'll hear many fascinating sounds and exhilarating interactions!

I am halfway through this year's list - next time out, it's large ensemble music and more.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

2017 - What a Year, Especially for Music! (Part 1 - Voices)

Most years are a blend of happy and sad, chaos and peace, health and illness, loss and gain. 2017 certainly was that way for me. Reading the news from home, from Washington, throughout the country and the world, one is not surprised that our capability for shock is tested every minute our eyes and ears are open.  Music reflects all that and more; often music deflects all that and more.  We have as much a need to be entertained as we do to hear our favorite artists try to speak or sing "truth to power."  No surprise that Kendrick Lamar's recent CD is titled "DAMN" and in all caps.   The lists of favorite television show are peppered with programs ("Handmaid's Tale", "Dark", "Stranger Things") that warn us of dictatorships, of totalitarian governments of the near-future, of women continuing to struggle to be equal.  Are we surprised by the almost daily "sexual harassment" charges levied at movie and television personalities, at producers and directors, at trusted newsmen.  And at government officials.

Music reminds many of us of what can be good, that the creative process brings people and audiences together, if not to change the world than just a small part of it and, maybe, just for two to four hours.

Listed below, and in subsequent posts, are the albums that brought me joy and hope through this year,  created by artists who made me question my beliefs or soothe my spirits.  Step Tempest was quieter than normal this Fall, actually since the end of July.  Not that I wasn't listening to music but, perhaps, I needed it step back to see a bigger picture. True, I was committed to other projects that took more of my time that I expected but, in the past, I found the time to write because the artists who send me their music, the publicists who are kind to hang with me, the people I interact with when I are writing and doing radio interviews appreciate the work I do. No excuses, no apologies. Just thought you should know.

Part one is but 10 of the, possibly, 36 recordings I think deserve recognition.  This list contains albums with voices, many with poetry, some I never had the opportunity to write about.

If you held me down and ordered me to tell which album was my true #1 choice, I would admit to "Matt Wilson's Honey And Salt Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg" (Palmetto).  It's not just because I saw the band live at The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme, CT, and was invited on stage to read with the band ("We Must Be Polite" with the delightful Bo Diddley-beat and more)...well, that was great (I mean, Ron Miles, Jeff Lederer, Dawn Thomson, Martin Wind, and the irrepressible Mr. Wilson....did I mention Ron Miles?) but the album has so much going for it, so much diverse music, pithy poetry, and at the center of its big heart, the need to connect in dark times.  Might not be your cup of joe (or Matt for that fact) but every time I listen to the album or relive the live gig, it brings a smile to my face.

Been a good couple of years for poet Emily Dickinson what with, at least three CDs of her works set to music plus the brilliant 2016 movie "A Quiet Passion."  Jane Ira Bloom connected with Ms. Dickinson when she discovered that poet was a pianist and that her poetry has a sense of improvisation about it.  Ms. Bloom and her brilliant ensemble (bassist Mark Helias, drummer Bobby Previte, and pianist Dawn Clement) created the 2-CD "Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson" (OTL Records); CD One features 14 originals plus the Rodgers-Hart classic "It's Easy to Remember" while the second disk has the same songs plus the voice of actress Deborah Rush reading snippets of the poetry that inspired the songs (save for "It's Easy....")  Ms. Bloom takes a different approach than Matt Wilson, the music is not inspired by Americana but is certainly American music, with swing, with flowing melodic passages, splendid interplay, and soaring improvisations.  What a tribute, what a treat!

"Freedom Highway" is the latest album from Rhiannon Giddens and it posits the racial insecurities rife in the United States in the heart of the music.  For all those people who woke up the morning after the 2016 and saw that our country truly was not united (not that it wasn't obvious during the previous administration and the highly flammable voices raised during the endless election cycle), for those people whose voices were just beginning to be heard in this country, this music hears your concerns and gives you hope.  Perhaps the best way to move forward after being knocked to the ground is to keep telling your stories of hope, of reconciliation, of recognition, of dancing until your body expels the evil spirits, of remembering that battles are rarely won without sacrifice and pain. Yes, there are moments of pure joy, moments of anger, pride, lust, love, of hope.

Trombonist-composer Ryan Keberle & Catharsis looked for hope on "Find The Common, Shine a Light" (Greenleaf Music). Original songs mixed with intelligent covers ("The Times They Are A'Changing", "Fool on The Hill", "Al Otro Lado del Rio") played by a band that enjoys working together including trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, bassist Jorge Roeder, and drummer Eric Doob plus the voice and guitar of Camila Meza.  Also a response to the 2016 election, the music reached out to divergent audiences across this country, reminding people that creative musicians see what's going on in the world they travel through, that they react by playing music to exemplify community, togetherness, showing how men and women from different backgrounds can share a common  vision.

Ms. Meza is also part of pianist-composer Fabian Almazan's album-length suite "Alcanza" (translate to "reach") - the music, released on the pianist's Biophilia Records, speaks to the need of conservation of natural resources, to education, to the proliferation of wars and homelessness and more.  The rhythm section of Linda May Han Oh (bass) and Henry Cole (drums) know when to stoke the fire (and when to hold back) while Almazan's string arrangement are sophisticated and essential.  Note how melodic the solos are, how those arrangements frame and interact with the voice and soloists, and just how powerful the music is.  A shout-out to the string section of violinists Tomoko Omura and Megan Gould, violist Karen Waltuch and cellist Noah Hoffield for their stellar work.  All in all, a splendid recording.

Trumpeter, vocalist, saunter player, composer and arranger Amir elSaffar expands upon his studies of Iraqi maqams with his 2-CD masterwork "Not Two" (New Amsterdam Records). Written for his 17-piece Rivers of Sound Orchestra, the songs flow with grace and elegance, moves on the power of the brilliant rhythm section (drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Carlos de Rosa), and draws on many traditions to create an aural sound painting  that shifts gears all the time. Keeps you on your toes does this music without condescending to popular tastes or being strictly traditional - the more creative composers do that and Amir elSaffar is deserving of all the accolades he has received for his brilliant contributions to music and to educating his listeners to the width and breadth of Arabic culture.

Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, and Melissa Stylianou - collectively known as Duchess - added much-needed brightness to a cold and dark winter (heck, the whole darn year) with "Laughing at Life" (Anzic Records). The group's music, a potent and pleasurable mix of standards from the "Great American Songbook" and beyond.   Each with solo careers and two with young families, they come together to invite listeners out of the ordinary and the humdrum into a world where harmonies, melodies, smart and sassy arrangements (from the fertile mind of Oded Lev-Ari) and sometimes saucy and often sweet lyrics tell delightful stories.  Special guests Wycliffe Gordon (trombone, scat vocal) and Anat Cohen (clarinet) augment the musical trio of Michael Cabe (piano), Matt Aranoff (bass), and Jared Schonig (drums) - guitarist Jesse Lewis and tenor saxophonist Jeff Lederer also add their unique voices to several tunes.  The music can certainly stand on its own but does the sun shine brighter when these three voices step out in front. Whew! What joy!

Ms. Gardner joins forces with pianist Ehud Asherie for "The Late Set" (Anzic Records), an aural evocation of smoky nightclubs, out of the glare of the lights of Broadway, perhaps down a set of stairs, with glasses clinking while the audience sits quietly listening.  Mostly composed of ballads, the performers do not rush through these performances (mostly from well-known composers of the 1920s-1950s. Asherie is the perfect accompanist, framing Ms. Gardner's supple voice with lovely reactions,interactions, and harmonies.  O, and that voice....plenty of emotion, a dash of playfulness, every lyric can be understood, even felt. "The Late Set" is more than the midnight hour at the cabaret - listen to the songs and you'll hear the fine line between blues, joy, and sadness.

I'm still processing the amazing 2-CD "Dreams and Daggers", the latest album from Cécile McLorin Salvant. Mostly recorded live at The Village Vanguard with her Trio of Aaron Diehl (piano), Paul Sikivie (bass), and Laurence Leathers (drums), this music often shimmies, shakes, struts, slithers, slides, and sashays out of the speakers. Plus don't miss the songs that whisper, sigh, shudder, and sit in wonder. There are also several shorter tracks recorded in the studio where Ms. Salvant's voice is accompanied only by the strings of the Catalyst Quartet and piano - those tracks, arranged by bassist Sikivie, add a classy touch but your brain will be forever rearranged by the torch songs, by the intelligent choice of material from the Great American Songbook and the early blues of Bessie Smith (pianist Sullivan Fortner accompanies the vocalist on "You've Got To Give Some") and Ida Cox.  The multi-sectioned "Somehow I Never Could Believe", composed by Langston Hughes and Kurt Weill for their "American" opera "Street Scenes" (1947), is a certifiable masterpiece as performed by Ms. Savant and the Trio.  So much to behold here.

Vocalist Lizz Wright strikes pay dirt on "Grace", her second album for the Concord Music Group. Produced by Joe Henry, who surrounds this lovely alto voice with the twin guitars of Chris Bruce and Marvin Sewell, the acoustic bass of David Piltch (one great underrated bass player), drummer Jay Bellerose, and the keyboards of Kenny Banks and Patrick Warren plus an occasional choir.  Compare her version of "Stars Fell On Alabama" (first recorded by the Guy Lombardo Orchestra in 1934) to the one on the Duchess CD - two great interpretations with Ms. Wright's dreamy reading displaying her Southern roots (born in Georgia and now living in North Carolina) while Henry's arrangement gives the song a glow of late evening.  Ms. Wright covers tunes from Birds of Chicago, Bob Dylan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Nina Simone, k.d. lang, Ray Charles, and others, making each song her own without losing the beauty, joy, anger, and soul within.

Each one of these albums buoyed my spirit - the next list will feature albums from younger musicians, from veterans, from masters, and several delightful reissues.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Three Ladies in Melody

The Holiday season is upon us, the winter is fast approaching (getting dark in CT by 5 p.m.), and we are continually being assaulted by advertisements plus bombarded by bad news.  This Saturday evening at 8 p.m., one can leave all the negatives behind to "accentuate the positive" with the Duchess Trio.  Duchess - Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, and Melissa Stylianou - is bringing their delightful sounds to the Milford Center for the Arts, 40 Railroad Avenue in Milford CT.  Billed as a "Holiday Show", these delightful songstresses will mix and mingle music from their two Anzic albums with songs of the seasons.  One of the most engaging elements of their music is how they blend songs from the 1930s and 40s, some you may know, many you might not, and make one tap his feet or smile from the emotional tug at the heartstrings.  On top of that, all three are wonderful solo singers and, collectively, create sweet harmonies.

Joining them in concert will be pianist Michael Cabe, guitarist Jesse  Lewis, and bassist Noah Garabedian.  Yes, no drummer, so the music will be on a more intimate level (but it will still swing with glee) plus it's a "cabaret" setting and one might feel as if he/she was sitting in a 1920s jazz club (just maybe).

No matter what, Duchess will brighten your mood, make you laugh (check out their podcast "Harmony & Hijinks" for a healthy taste of the trio's stage banter as well as a closer look into their creative process plus interviews with fellow musicians and producer Oded Lev-Ari) and, ultimately, feel good. Can't ask for more than that!

For ticket information, go to To learn more about this Trio (which, this month, celebrates its fourth anniversary), go to

Here's a taste from the group's second recording:

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Late Notice - Live Music 11/30, 12/01 & 02

This from the Slifka Center, 80 Wall Street, New Haven, CT, an event featuring singer, songwriter, and artist Kathy Kosins. "Art Reception for the Exhibit “Jazz in the Abstract featuring artwork by Kathy Kosins including a live performance. Light refreshments will be served. ASCAP award-winning vocalist Kathy Kosins has won the hearts of critics and fans around the globe with her eclectic musical palette that expands the rich history of Jazz and Soul."

Call 203-432-8523  or write for more information.

Tim Berne's Snakeoil - Berne (alto saxophone), Oscar Noreiga (clarinets), Matt Mitchell (piano, keys), and Ches Smith (drums, percussion) - perform two sets on Friday 12/01 at Firehouse 12, 45 Crown Street in New Haven.  Noisy, challenging, inventive,  dynamic, fast-moving, and so much more, Tim Berne and company have created a sound like no other ensemble on the planet.

The first show begins at 8:30 p.m..  For ticket information, go to or call 203-785-0468.

Saxophonist (tenor and soprano) Dayna Stephens comes to The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme Saturday 12/02. He and excellent Quartet - Aaron Parks (piano), Rick Rosato (bass), and Bill Stewart (drums) - will play music from his latest CD "Gratitude." Stephens has such a sweet tone and composes music that pulls you in on its melodies and fascinates with its power and calmness.  All four of the musicians are excellent soloists yet they also understand interactions and support.

The first set begins at 8:30 p.m.  For more information, go to or call 860-434-2600.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Give The Drummer Some (November '17 Edition)

Drummer, composer, and arranger Ernesto Cervini is quite a busy human. He leads or co-leads eight groups (!), is a publicist for a growing number of Canadian musicians, and is a member of several other ensembles.  His sextet, Ernesto Cervini's Turboprop, has just issued its second album - titled "Rev" (Anzic Records), the ensemble features the mighty rhythm section of Cervini, Adrian Farrugia (piano), and bassist Dan Loomis plus the front line of Joel Frahm (tenor saxophone), Tara Davidson (alto and soprano saxes), and William Carn (trombone). The majority of the program was recorded after the ensemble had finished a tour of Western Canada. The joy and camaraderie that the sextet exudes is obvious from the start and, honestly, the music they create is irresistible.

Farrugia contributes the opening track, "The Libertine": from the solo drums lead-in, the band builds off the sinewy bass and piano lines, playing a handsome melody.  The pianist dances over the active rhythm section. There's an appealing urgency as the music rushes forward. Frahm roars out of the piano solo, pushed by and pushing back against the tumultuous rhythms.

That spirited interplay continues on Cervini's original "Granada Bus."  Again, the bass and drums add the jet fuel to the music while the dance melody opens up for delight-filled solos from Ms. Davidson (soprano), Farrugia, and Frahm.  The title track (also a Cervini composition) is also a fiery exchange between the horns and drums with the alto, tenor, and 'bone "riffing" away while the drummer thunders beneath them.

There are three eclectic "covers" in the program.  "No Rain", a tune by Blind Melon that captivated the leader as a youth, maintains the sprightly melody while getting a powerful rhythmic undercoating.  Carn's dancing solo is a highlight (pay attention to splendid counterpoint created by Loomis) as is the lovely and powerful soprano sax statement.  "The Daily Mail", written, recorded, and released by Radiohead in 2011, is a handsome ballad that opens with a strong melodic bass solo over the simple piano chords before Frahm enters with the melody. When the tenor, soprano, and trombone take off for the combined solo, the songs takes on a gospel feel. The sextet does not overthink the piece but really the capture the power and mystery of the original.  The third standard is "Pennies From Heaven" and the band swings the heck out of the piece.  Frahm plays the theme then joins for the alto and trombone for a delightful romp.  Later on, Loomis steps out in front for a fine melodic solo before the song swings its way out.

The music and the performances invite you into "Rev", keeping your attention throughout and making you want to return again and again.  Sure would be great to see and hear this band live in the U.S. but the upcoming dates are all in Canada.  In the meantime, jump aboard Ernesto Cervini's Turboprop and enjoy the ride!

For more information, go to

Here's the delightful "Granada Bus":

Dylan Jack is a drummer and composer from Massachusetts who has played in a number of rock and fusion bands.  Thanks to a gig that fellow student (bassist Anthony Leva) at Bard College's Longy School of Music in Boston had booked, Jack met and played alongside guitarist Eric Hofbauer and clarinetist Todd Brunel.  The drummer than asked the trio to play for his graduate recital: soon, the band had gelled playing his original material, played more clubs and concert halls, and Hofbauer invited Jack to join his Creative Nation Music label.  The results of a late February 2017 day in the studio is the drummer's debut as a leader.

"Diagrams" is credited to the Dylan Jack Quartet and the music is really a collective affair.  You can hear in the first seconds of the opening track "Are You Made of Coins" how the rhythm and melody are connected.  The high-spirited theme, played by bass clarinet and guitar, has its roots in bop and funk but it's such fun to hear how Jack and Leva change the feel during Brunel's solo (sounds like a touch of bossa nova).  When the guitarist steps out, the three plays a funky riff as Hofbauer digs in with a blend of single-note runs and chordal lines.  The exuberant drum solo during which Jack keeps circling back to the melody really stands out.
The listener might not be able to tell listening to the gentle yet firm feel of the melody that the title of the next track, "Sentenced", was influenced by the trial of the Boston Marathon bomber. After the theme section, Hofbauer steps out over sweet brush work and a genial walking bass line.  The feel changes during Brunel's powerful soprano sax solo with much more energy from the rhythm section - note the interaction between the soloist, drums, and guitar. Leva solos over the impressionistic guitar. The piece has now slowed down and is more reflective before the the guitar, bass, and soprano reintroduce the melody. They drop out, Jack takes over for an intense solo with his brushes - it makes the listener lean in. He switches to sticks yet never overpowers the song, again referring to the melody which invites the band back in for the close.

"Ghost Pal", the longest track (13:58), opens in free time, with much dynamic variation and shifting focus, before the melody is introduced at 3:50. The piece teeters between being a ballad and short, spiky rapid-fire riffs, before Brunel steps out for a powerful clarinet solo. As he quiets down to an eerie moan, Hofbauer steps out. His electrified acoustic sound is quite melodic and percussive: in contrast, Leva plays a bowed bass solo.  Jack's skittering brush work takes center stage as with more clarinet moans, rapid-fire yet quiet guitar riffs, and the occasional bass interjection.  Soon, the band reenters, the "ghost" story continues, with a return to the melody line taking the piece out.

"Diagrams" asks a lot of the listener, as the music shifts and darts, changing direction with glee. Yet, one is rewarded time and again by hearing how this quartet works and plays together, really listening and responding to each other, not just "blowing" over the changes.  The Dylan Jack Quartet creates music worth exploring; let go of your expectations and enjoy this sonic journey.

For more information, go to

Here's a track for you to dig into: