Sunday, February 12, 2017

Immigrants Songs

In this heightened time of insecurity about immigration in the United States, we often forget why people risk their lives to come here. Whether their reasons include escaping harsh treatment or to follow dreams, mothers, fathers, son and daughters still cross numerous borders to build new existences.

In the instance of Žan Tetičkovič, his is a story of following his dreams from his native Slovenia to study music in New York City. The drummer and composer who goes by the name Jean John has self-released his debut American album.  Titled "The Port of Life", he started creating the 15 track-75 minute program on his arrival in the New World in 2011 to study at The New School.  The handsome booklet includes "The New Colossus" by poet Emma Lazarus which features the lines emblazoned on our minds "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Jean John returned home to  record the album with a septet that includes Alba Nacinovich (vocals), Lenart Crečič (tenor saxophone), Tomaž Gajšt (trumpet, flugelhorn), Jani Moder (guitar), Marko Črnčec (piano - he has an album for Whirlwind Recordings), and Myles Sloniker (acoustic bass) plus the Janus Atelier String Quartet (violinists Matija Crečič and Nejc Avbelj, violist Barbara Grahor, and cellist Zoran Bičanin).

The music tells of the composer's arrival in New York with the first two tracks including the instrumental "The Port of Life, Dusk" followed by "The Narrows Gateway" which is a sonic adventure of landing at Customs.  The first track features the entire ensemble on an uptempo piece that musically tells the story of the immigrant standing on the deck looking at his destination.  With the wordless vocal and uplifting melody, the music has the sound of the Pat Metheny Group as the rhythm section really pulls the band forward with the guitar and voice leading the way while the trumpet, saxophone, and string quartet color the melody.

The next 11 tracks comprise the "Acculturation Suite", a song cycle that blends sounds, voices, short tracks, longer cuts and powerful musicianship.  Opening with "Prelude", an introspective work played by the String Quartet, the Suite follows the drummer through his "Farewell" to the "Euphoria" of following his dream to "Collapse", the realization of how hard it is for someone to uproot himself and how alone he feels. The Strings return for "Intermezzo", a musical real to reflect on the journey and resettlement. The second half of the Suite includes "Alienation" (perhaps a pun) as the composer continues his search.  The music is not as dark as "Collapse", there seems to be light at the end of this tunnel.  Sloniker's powerful and melodic bass introduces "Adjustment"; joined by John's funky drums, the song moves forward on a slinky melody line with the saxophone and guitar leading the way. The leader introduces the last piece in the Suite, "A New Beginning", with a staggering drum solo that slows down and softens for the main melody.  The strings rise in on an circular line played by guitar and piano.  When the rest of the group enters, the music takes off on a celebration of the new "home", the composer nows has his feet on solid ground and his joy rises to the heavens. Once the festivities come to a close, the ensemble returns for the final track, "The Port of Life, Dawn". The voice and piano open as if praying and so does the String Quartet; the music is a reverie that, after five minutes, allows the rhythm section and guitarist to enter. As the music rises to its climax, all the instruments reenter in a triumphant "shout."

Jean John layers certain tracks with sounds and effects plus one particularly strong statement about immigration ("...our origin story") from President Obama, all the more powerful since his presidency ended.  On of the ironies of "The Port of Life" is the composer went back to Slovenia to record the album but the distance from his adopted home makes the music even more powerful.  The ensemble not only interprets the music but imbues much of it with their own desires and their appreciation for John's accomplishments.

Perhaps part of my enjoyment of this album comes from the numerous times I, a second generation American, have attended the Naturalization Ceremony in my home town, a day when immigrants become citizens. It's touching, life-affirming, and it's a bit humbling. "The Port of Life" is an impressive story of determination, of talent, of desire, and of fortitude.  Give it a listen.

For more information, go to www.jean-john.com.

Here's a taste of several tracks:





Vocalist, composer, and arranger Jihye Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea, and came to the United States to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. And study she has done, learning from Ayn Inserto, private lessons from Maria Schneider and Terence Blanchard, and workshops with John Clayton and Robin Eubanks. Since graduation from Berklee, Ms. Lee is completing graduate work at the Manhattan School of Music under the tutelage of Jim McNeely.

With the help of Berklee Professor and trumpeter Greg Hopkins, she assembled a 19-piece orchestra (students and teachers) to record "April" (self-released), her first American album.  Much of the music Ms. Lee created for this project came in response to the sinking of the Korean ferry Sewol which took the lives of over 300 of the 476 passengers and crew; the majority of those who perished were teenage students.  Yet, the songs, while they have elegiac moments, are not filled with anger or long stretches of sadness. The album takes its title from the lovely opening track which is also the month of the tragic event that spurred the composer into action.  But the music, unlike the month T.S. Eliot described in "The Wasteland", as "the cruelest month" is filled with promise, with new life springing out of the earth, days are longer and beginning to be warmer; one hears joy in the dance created by Shannon LeClaire (alto sax) and Allan Chase (soprano sax) and no inkling of the tragedy to follow.

photo: Keith Davis
As this music tells its story, one person's reactions to events happening a world away in her native land, most of the tracks are not centered around solos, save for the longest  on the program.  "Sewol Ho" (12:52) moves away from its opening theme, building to a dissonant climax; then, five "voices" step up to tell their "stories" ranging from the duet of co-producer Hopkins (trumpet) and Jeff Galindo (trombone) to the conversation of Ben Whiting (bass clarinet) with Ms. LeClaire (clarinet) and, finally, Rick DiMuzio (soprano sax) takes the song out. Various instrumental voices move in and out of the melody on "Deep Blue Sea" and, in several instances, it's the sections that carry the melody. DiMuzio solos, this time on tenor sax, and he moves easily over the rhythm section and around the colors provided by the brass and reeds.  He returns to solo on tenor on the following track, "Whirlwind", a piece that is more uptempo and nervous, almost hyper. But he and pianist Alain Mallet are, at turns, calm in this storm as they convey how one can create an emotional oasis in times of heightened tension.

Sean Jones (pictured left) joins the ensemble for the final track, the lovely ballad "You Are Here (Every Time I Think of You)", how flugelhorn carrying both the melody and as the only solo voice.  The song opens with the reeds sans rhythm section playing the initial theme, the flutes frame Jones's melody, dropping away as he moves through the verse into his solo.  The reeds and brass take over for a chorus and Jones returns, this time taking flight as the sections move in and out behind him.  Stick around for the lovely coda - first, Jones goes it alone and then the ensemble, led by the reeds and brass return to take the piece out with Jones moving over the sound in a flurry of notes.

"April" is an impressive introduction to Jihye Lee, a composer and arranger (she studied vocal performance at Berklee and adds wordless vocals to several tracks here) who channeled her emotions to create this music that celebrates life, rarely pausing to mourn. How does one deal with loss of this proportion, a tragedy taking the lives of so many young people?  It's an unanswerable question yet the music serves as a balm.

For more information, go to jihyemusic.com.

Here's the last track from the album:

Monday, February 6, 2017

Ensembles Big & Small (Pt 1

Thelonious Sphere Monk, pianist, composer, and leader, died in 1982 at the age of 64 after a long career that began near the birth of bebop and ended as jazz had splintered into many genres.  His influence is as strong today, if not stronger, as it was in his prime (approximately 1950 - 1970).  Musicians around the world continue to explore his music, digging into the veins of blues and swing that permeated his small yet seemingly infinite repertoire (less than 60 songs).

"Monk Dreams, Hallucinations and Nightmares" (Red Piano Records) is the first full album recorded by the 18-member Frank Carlberg Ensemble (an earlier version of the ensemble recorded two songs for the Fresh Sound New Talent 2003 album "The Sound of the New York Underground").  After listening to the recording on and off for the past several months, I truly believe you will not hear a better big band album this year (maybe its equal but none better). Why?  Well, the band is loaded with first-class musicians (listed below) and Carlberg's pieces (the only Monk work is "Round Midnight") are so intelligent, filled with twists, turns, references to and quotes from the master's work that the music sounds contemporary. The rhythm section - Carlberg (piano, Rhodes), Johannes Weidenmuller (bass), and Michael Sarin (drums) - often stirs the pot but also play in ways that cause the music to move in fascinating directions.  So much happens in this music. There's the rambunctious "Dry Bean Stew" that opens the program on a truly playful (listen to how the rhythms shift from march time to swing to post bop to blues and elsewhere).  "Rhymes", which, after the opening bass solo, features the voice of Paul Lichter reading the poem "Rhymes with Monk" by Clark Coolidge. Jeremy Udden (alto saxophone) and David Smith (trumpet) add atmospheric counterpoint. "A Darker Shade of Light Blue" pits snippets of Monk's melody with several instruments flitting around, not as counterpoint but like birds outside the window curious at the sound.  All but the bass and drums drop out as Brian Landrus solos on bass clarinet until the ensemble returns and the piece takes off with the trumpet of John Carlson rising out over the powerful rhythm section.

Vocalist Christine Correa joins the band on "You Dig!", a piece that takes its inspiration and lyrics from the Monk quote "You've got to dig it to dig, you dig?" Powered by Sarin's rambunctious drums and Weidenmueller's rollicking bass line, the performance an explosive alto sax solo from John O'Gallagher.  Ms. Correa is also featured on "Always Night", it too inspired by a Monk quote, "It's always night or we wouldn't need light". As the vocalist sings, trumpeter Carlson dances around her as the band moans and Carlberg's Rhodes pours notes down like rain.

The program closes with Monk's "Round Midnight"; this impressive arrangement could be subtitled "Concerto for Knuffke" as Kirk Knuffke's expressive cornet is the main voice throughout the 11 minutes.  Listen to how the leader arranges the "voices" in the different sections, looking for lightness from the reeds and depth from the trombones, to how Sarin dances about beneath the rhythm, which is suggested by the piano and bass.  And the solo is just fascinating.  Conversational, angry, playful, emotional, sad, all that and powerful as well.  There are moments when the piece sounds like Miles Davis working with an arrangement by Gil Evans in that genre disappears and it's really pure music (to these ears).

"Monk Dreams, Hallucinations and Nightmares", despite its title, is an uplifting set of music, a 70-minute program that keeps on giving each time you listen.  Frank Carlberg channels the spirit of Thelonious Monk but does not imitate or rearrange his melodies.  This is "inspired" music of the highest order and the Frank Carlberg Large Ensemble fires on all cylinders.  Wow!

For more information, go to www.redpianorecords.com/releases/.

The personnel:
Kirk Knuffke, John Carlson, Dave Smith, Jonathan Powell (trumpet, flugelhorn, cornet)
Alan Ferber, Brian Drye, Chris Washburne, Max Seigal (trombone, bass trombone)
John O'Gallagher, Jeremy Udden, Sam Sadigursky, Adam Kolker, Brian Landrus (saxophones, clarinet, bass clarinet)
Christine Correa (voice)
Frank Carlberg (piano, Rhodes)
Johannes Weidenmueller (bass)
JC Sanford (conductor)
+
Paul Lichter (spoken word)

Here's an introduction to the album:




Drummer and composer Vinnie Sperrazza has a new album; "Juxtaposition" is his ninth as a leader or co-leader and first for Posi-Tone Records.  While known for his powerful playing, Sperrazza also has a gentle, melodic, side and is not afraid to sublimate his power for the sake of melody.  His quartet on this album includes the fine bassist Peter Brendler, the wonderful pianist Bruce Barth, and tenor saxophonist Chris Speed.  While Barth is, perhaps, best known for his impressive "swing" as a leader as well as in bands led by Terence Blanchard, Tom Harrell and Luciana Souza and Speed has played in "modern" settings such as the Claudia Quintet, Jim Black's Axis No Axis, and Michael Formanek's Ensemble Kolossus, here they come together to make a cohesive ensemble dedicated to playing material that challenges as much as soothes the listener.

The 12-song program consists of nine originals and one piece each by James Williams, Tony Williams (no relation), and Leonard Bernstein.  "This Night, This Song" comes from the Tony Williams Lifetime "Turn It Over"; no vocal here as on the original but Speed's tenor leads the way, caressing the melody while the leader gently drives the piece. Pianist William's "Alter Ego" has a sweet blues-soul feel, nobody's in a hurry, and the solos sing, especially Barth's rolling piano lines.  "Somewhere", the beautiful Bernstein melody from "West Side Story", is an emotionally rich ballad with a vulnerable solo from Speed, spare but supportive bass notes and lines, Barth's sparkling piano, and Sperrazza's splendid brush work.

As for the originals, the fun starts with the mid-tempo opener, "Chimes", with its "Big Ben" like opening - it's a good introduction to the sound of this band, with Speed's deliberate sax lines blending well with Barth's chordal playing, sometimes elaborate, sometimes spare (his solo on this tracks is delightfully colored by the blues). Brendler and Sperrazza offer the perfect support, pushing or prodding the soloists and just digging into the groove.  "St. Jerome" is a bouncy song, with the piano gleefully riding atop the bouncy bass and dancing drums.  Barth and Sperrazza lock in on "One Hour" - their interactions during the piano solo are fiery. The drummer really flies beneath Speed's powerful solo. The drums lead in "Warm Winter", a bop-ish piece with a melody that feels like a Charlie Parker riff.  Brander's delightful solo leads into an expansive solo from Barth, one with phrases that swirl like leaves around the driveway.

The ballads Sperrazza created for the project include the country-ish "House on Hoxie Road" (sweet melody and fine brush work) and the impressionistic title track which opens with just Barth and Speed - when the rhythm section enters, the piece moves forward at a slow pace, Brendler acting as counterpoint while Sperrazza skitters around the band. There's an "open" quality to the sound of "Hellenized", no clutter but a gentle swing and smart interaction plus a heartfelt tenor solo.  The gentle touch of the brushes guides Speed through the melody of "Solitary Consumer"; the bassist takes the first solo and once again displays his melodic chops. Barth's solo is short and delightfully conversational as it leads into Speed's more melancholy statement.

This album is a treat from start to finish, which is the best way to listen.  There are moments when the music feels like a John Coltrane date from the late 1950s and a bit like Thelonious Monk in the deliberate way in which the melody is played on several tracks.  The mix of Vinnie Sperrazza, Peter Brendler, Chris Speed, and Bruce Barth works well together, each plays to his strength while also being attentive to the others.  Delightful music that calls for repeated listens, that is the joy of "Juxtaposition."

For more information, go to www.vinniesperrazza.org.

Here's the opening track:

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

CD Release Party & Noted Tenor in Old Lyme

It was 49 weeks ago (give-or-take) that saxophonist Mike Casey (alto and tenor) brought his Trio to The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme to record his debut album.  Joining him onstage was bassist Matt Dwonszyk and drummer Corey Garcia, his "regular unit' for the past three years. The two sets included originals from the saxophonist and drummer plus pieces by "classic" saxophonists Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Jackie McLean (who founded the Institute at the Hartt School of the University of Hartford where Casey studied with Abraham Burton, Rene McLean and Steve Davis, among others).

The album, "The Sound of Surprise: Live at The Side Door" (self-released) comes out on February 7 and the Trio celebrates its release this Friday (2/03) at the very venue where they recorded.  The recording is quite "hot" with the bass and drums on equal sonic footing as the saxophone.  It's obvious this is a working band as one can tell these musicians are conversing, challenging, and supporting each other throughout the performance.  Dwonszyk stands out as quite a melodic player when he solos as well as laying down a solid bottom for his cohorts to build upon.  Garcia is impressive as well; the African rhythms he sets up on the opening track, "Hydraulics" (which the drummer composed), brings to mind Art Blakey's powerful work with his Jazz Messengers. The leader shines as well, with solos that not only push against the sounds produced by the bass and drums but also ride on their flow. Casey's alto solo on McLean's "Little Melonae" is a gem; at one point, his interaction with Dwonszyk features a smart bit of counterpoint amidst the "walking" bass lines. Another highlight is the original "Dagobah", with the tenor suggesting Coltrane as the rhythm section roils below.

Casey has been busy over the last year, not only working on producing the album (crowd-funded) but teaching, playing with the Trio and working with other ensembles.  I like the fact that his debut is a live album, the Trio did not try for perfection in the studio, opting instead to illustrate how a "live" show gives a truer representation of a working group.

The Mike Casey Trio hits the stage at 8:30 p.m. For tickets to the show and more, go to thesidedoorjazz.com.  To learn more about Mr. Casey and get links to purchase the album, go to www.mikecaseyjazz.com.

Give a listen to "Hydraulics":



photo by Erika Nj Allen
I would be tempted to stay overnight at The Old Lyme Inn (which houses The Side Door) because on Saturday, tenor saxophonist and composer J.D. Allen will perform with his Trio. Although neither the venue's website or Mr. Allen's site lists the personnel, he usually plays with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston.  Their latest album together, "Americana: Musings on Jazz and Blues" (Savant Records), was issued in May of last year to great critical acclaim, the latest in a series of recordings that posit Allen as one of the finer contemporary composers and musicians.  His pieces, rooted in the blues, are quite melodic, have flowing rhythms, his sound hearkening back to the approaches of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins without imitating either player (or anyone else, for that fact).

The J.D. Allen Trio will play two sets, the first commencing at 8:30 p.m.  For reservations to the show, go to the website above or call 860-434-2600.

Here's a taste of the Trio's latest recording to get you in the spirit: