Thursday, October 18, 2018

Foreground Music

Someone asked me recently how I keep up with the all the music that he and I talk about.  I responded "I spend a lot of time in my car and, instead of listening to the news, I listen to music. When some album really catches my ear, I bring it inside, listen on better speakers, really paying attention and then, time willing, write about it."

Here are two such attentions grabbers.

While Yuhan Su is a new name to me, "City Animals" (Sunnyside Records) is her third CD as a leader - the first two were issued o Inner Circle Music and are well worth exploring. The vibraphonist and composer came to the United States in 2008 from her native Taiwan to study at Berklee College in Boston, MA, and has lived here ever since.  Her Quintet includes Matt Holman (trumpet, flugelhorn), Alex LoRe (alto saxophone), Petros Klampanis (bass), and Nathan Ellman-Bell (drums), all of whom (save for LoRe) appeared on her 2016 disc, "A Room of One's Own."  Her music is composed with these musicians in mind and both albums sound as if the material was played live numerous times before entering the studio.

This is definitely 21st Century music.  The rhythm section is very active, pushing the music forward while one can hear elements of many different styles of music.  Ms. Su spreads the solos around but  does not say away from the spotlight.  On the aptly-titled "Feet Dance", her exciting solo, who accompanies dancers as they create their work, gives way to a powerful turn from LoRe, all the while the bass throbs and the drums bounce joyfully underneath.  The title track has a rollicking call-and-response with the vibes and alto playing a line and Holman's trumpet responds.  I am a fan on clear tone and great sense of the power of his instrument. yet, he can be gentle and highly melodic - "Tutu & D" is a prime example of that aspect of his work. His phrases move over the melodic bass counterpoint, the vibes adding color while the drums scurry and the cymbals swish in support.

There are so many moments to enjoy on this album.  The trio of vibes, trumpet, and saxophone into to "Viaje" during which the musicians play over and under each other's lines before the bass and drums give the song its direction stands out (the duo of sax and trumpet after the theme section is powerful).  The three-part, 18 minute-plus suite "Kuafu" (inspired by a figure from Chinese mythology) moves in multiple direction over its course. Part 1, "Rising", has a powerful forward motion with equally powerful solos from LoRe, Holman, and Ms. Su.  Part II, "Starry, Starry Night", after its rubato beginning, turns into a handsome ballad (be sure to listen to the excellent bass work of Klampanis).  The last section, "Parallel Chasing", is, if possible, even more urgent than the opening movement of the Suite - here, it's Ellman-Bell's super drumming that will catch your ears on initial listening.

"City Animal" has much to offer the passionate listener.  Hard to sit still as this band kicks in and the solos stand out throughout the program. If you listen to her 2016 effort "A Room of One's Own" and then this fine album, you'll hear that Yuhan Su is not only an excellent instrumentalist but has matured into a fine composer whose music has depth, intelligence, wit, and power.  Listen closely - you should find much to enjoy!

For more information, go to www.yuhansu.com.

Here's the title track:



Since it's inception in 2006, NYSQ (New York Standards Quartet) has revolved the axis of David Berkman (piano), Tim Armacost (tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone), and Gene Jackson (drums). "Heaven Steps to Seven" is the group's fourth album for Whirlwind Recordings) and its first with bassist Ugonna Okwego.  The bassist has worked with the band before but has never recorded with them.  The band sees no need to change its modus operandi, its repertoire including songs from Broadway, from be-bop, post-bop, and more. What these four musicians do better than many who explore a similar milieu is to really explore, to deconstruct and reconstruct, making the most well-known pieces sound brand-new!

Listen to the first three tracks on this album.  They take Leonard Bernstein's "Tonight" (from "West Side Story") and caress the melody in the opening section (note Okwego's excellent bass work) - then, they kick into a higher gear still respecting the melody but pushing the heck out of the tune.  Armacost introduces "Cheryl", a classic Charlie Parker tune, and when the bas and drums, note how Jackson plays the melody as well.  When Berkman enters, the energy level kicks up another notch with the quartet seemingly reaching a climax. But, wait, it's just they step aside and make room for a delightful bass solo. Okwego then drops into a 4-note bass line and the rest of the group returns; yet now, the songs has a funky groove over which the pianist produces a rollicking solo.  "Peace", the classic Horace Silver tune, is a lovely ballad.  Notice how Jackson and Okwego play anything but in a standard manner underneath the handsome tenor and lyrical piano solos.

One is tempted to highlight each one of the eight tracks but, if you are a fan of NYSQ, you know to expect the unexpected.  Enjoy the artistry of Bud Powell's exquisite ballad "I'll Keep Loving You" and the pair of tunes from the pen of Cole Porter.  Every member of NYSQ is a master musician, each with a great respect for the tradition, each understanding they needn't play a piece note-for-note to show it respect but to expand on its ideas and let the listener in on the complexity as well as the enjoyment of the explorations.

If you have never heard NYSQ, you can start with "Heaven Steps to Seven" but - be warned - it'll be hard not to check out the rest of their excellent albums.  They play with great fire, with gentleness, wit, and always sound happy to be together.  Can't beat that.

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

Here's the Quartet's splendid take of the Charlie Parker tune:

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Impressive Music from Earlier this Year (Pt 1)

The joy of teaching (for me, it is quite a joy) always gets in the way of reviewing. With the weekly influx of albums, worthwhile music gets pushed to the back of the shelf.  Such is the case with these two albums. As the great Charlie Parker so nicely stated on his 1945 Savoy recording, "Now's the Time"!

Photo: The Fresno Bee
As someone who has been a fan of poet Philip Levine (1928-2015) for over three decades, when the album "The Poetry of Jazz" (Origin Records) arrived in the mail in early March of this year, I was thrilled. This collaboration with alto saxophonist and composer Benjamin Boone began in 2010 when Boone met the poet on the campus of Fresno State University in California.  Levine was a "jazz poet" throughout his career, his collections peppered with poems about Erroll Garner, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and others.  I once saw and heard Levine read at Wesleyan University in a duo setting with a vibraphonist, a fascinating combination of melody, words, and rhythm.

For their collaboration, Boone composed music to fit Levine's words and his voice. He surrounds that voice on most tracks with the fine rhythm section of David Aus or Craig Von Berg (piano), Spee Kosloff or Nye Morton (acoustic bass), and Brian Hamada or Gary Newmark (drums) plus a slew of guests.  Many listeners will be attracted by the appearance of tenor saxophonist Chris Potter on "The Unknowable (Homage to Sonny Rollins)", trumpeter Tom Harrell on "I Remember Clifford (Homage to Clifford Brown)", alto saxophonist Greg Osby on "Call It Music (Homage to Charlie Parker)", and tenor saxophonist Branford Marsalis on "Soloing (Homage to John Coltrane)" - those songs are fascinating with great playing from all involved supporting poems that speak to the joy of the musicians they pay tribute to.

Yet, there are many other treasures on this 14-song program.  The sweet homage to "Yakov", an immigrant whom the poet met as a young man working in an automobile factory in Detroit. Boone contributes a wonderful soprano saxophone solo, keening high above the band withy support from the trumpet of Max Hembo.  One of Levine's most famous poems (a poem he wrote in 1968, a year after the riots in Detroit), "They Feed They Lion", arrives in a frenzy of soprano saxophone, trumpet, and French horn (the brass played by Boone's sons Atticus and Asher) - it's a riot of sound and fury.

Nat'l Endowment for the Arts
The album closes with "What Work Is" (another of Levine's most famous works as well as the title of one of collections), a lovely recollection of the poet's older brother who worked on the third shift at the Cadillac factory while studying opera during the day.  It's a stunning piece, especially with Boone's alto saxophone wrapping around Levine's voice, a handsome way to end a powerful program.

If you have never encountered the poetry and essays of Philip Levine, please check him out. Benjamin Boone is a new name to me.  A native of North Carolina, he studied at the University of Tennessee and did graduate work at Boston University and University of South Carolina. He has performed in many countries around the world and did work as a Fulbright Scholar in both the former Soviet Republic of Moldova and in Ghana.  This album was recorded at four different sessions over the course of two years (2012-2014), then took a while to find a home and was finally released in late March of this year.  Find the album, dig into the program, go back to the music and to the poetry, and celebrate this brilliant collaboration.

For more information, go to www.benjaminboone.net.  To learn more about Philip Levine, go to www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/philip-levine.

Here's a listen:



"New York Stories" (Sunnyside Records) is a delicious collaboration featuring the words and voice of Judy Niemack, the arrangements of Jim McNeely, and the powerful playing of the Danish Radio Big Band. The nine-song program was actually recorded/broadcast in November of 2013 but not released until August of this year (Ms. Niemack's second CD for Sunnyside).  Her supple voice, fine scat singing, and intelligent lyrics pay homage to how the blues influenced jazz, telling stories splendidly framed by McNeely.

The title track is an episodic journey to the vocalist's current residence. Note how the beat changes from the bluesy, even sultry opening section, getting "funky" in the middle as the brass and reeds play phrases from the oeuvre of Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker. Five of the nine come from Monk. First, the ensemble digs into "In Walked Bud" which carries the name "Suddenly" and spotlights the lyrics of the late Jon Hendricks. It's one of the first arrangements McNeely wrote for Ms. Niemack (1993) and one can understand why the vocalist loves it.  It allows her to be sassy and for her voice to move in and out of the sections before and after the solos.  Elsewhere, Ms. Niemack and Mr. McNeely turn "Misterioso" into "A Crazy Song to Sing"; the opening would fit one of Alfred Hitchcock's movies but once the vocalist enters, the piece turns brighter. Slowly but surely, the music becomes a journey into the blues and then into big band euphoria.

The album also includes the vocalist's take on Clifford Brown's "Daahoud", here titled "I Should Have Told You Goodbye" - she most certainly captures the joy in Brown's music and joins in on the soloing with her vocal flight of fancy. The ensemble inhabits the reading of Sting's "Fragile", a plea for peace in the war-torn areas of Central America.  Accompanying Ms. Niemack's articulate vocal is an arrangement that lifts off from the rhythm section to places where the brass and reeds dance together that is both emotionally and melodically rich.

The album closes with the appropriately placed "It's Over Now", a delight-filled journey through Monk's "Well You Needn't".  Everybody jumps from the get-go with the rhythm section kicking along as the sections respond and retort to the soloists.  It's so much fun that it makes this listener want to go back to the beginning of the disc and start the 75-minute merry-go-round one more time.

"New York Stories" is an aural treat, a celebration of music that puts the spotlight on the voice and words of Judy Niemack and the delightful arrangements of Jim McNeely.  Kudos to the Danish Radio Big Band (musicians listed below) whose involvement helps to make this journey such an excellent one!

For more information, go to www.judyniemack.com.

Here's the closing track:



Personnel:

Jim McNeely - arranger, conductor 
Judy Niemack - vocals 
Anders Gustafsson - 1st trumpet 
Christer Gustafsson - 2nd trumpet 
Thomas Kjaergaard - 3rd trumpet 
Mads La Cour - 4th trumpet 
Lars Vissing - 5th trumpet 
Vincent Nilsson - 1st trombone 
Steen Nikolaj Hansen - 2nd trombone 
Peter Jensen - 3rd trombone 
Annette Saxe - 4th trombone 
Jakob Munck Mortensen - 5th trombone 
Nicolai Schultz - 1st alto sax 
Peter Fuglsand - 2nd alto sax 
Hans Ulrik - 1st tenor sax 
Frederick Menzies - 2nd tenor sax 
Anders Gaardmand - baritone sax 
Per Gade - guitar 
Nikolaj Bentzon - piano 
Kaspar Vadsholt - bass 
Søren Frost - drums

Friday, October 12, 2018

Music for the 21st Century, For Today

I do not receive Blue Note albums to review - I buy the ones I really want.  Over the past decade, trumpeter and composer Ambrose Akinmusire has caught my ear and mind, not only on his own recordings but also his work with David Binney, Walter Smith III, and Wolfgang Muthspiel (to name but three).  His own recordings stand out for the width and breath of his imagination. Yes, he's a fine musician yet it's the 36-year old Oakland California native's compositions and arrangements that truly set him apart.  Akinmusire absorbs all he hears on the bandstand, in concert halls, in practice room, on the radio, and in the streets, adding those myriad sounds to what he reads in books, essays, and in the daily papers.

"Origami Harvest", his fourth album for Blue Note Records, is, arguably, his most ambitious sonic adventure.  The six original compositions feature two members of his Quartet, pianist Sam Harris and drummer Marcus Gilmore, plus vocals from rappers Kool A.D. and LmbrJck_t as well as impressive string work from The Mivos Quartet.  I have yet to hear the entire album - still, judging from the fascinating video below, this is a major work.  Filmed in the streets and from the sky above his native city, the film compiles excerpts from the entire album, with natural images interspersed with impressionistic choreography and the powerful vocals. Experimental? Yes!  Thought-provoking?  Absolutely! Let this music soak in. Art has the power to disrupt even as it entertains.

For more information, go to www.ambroseakinmusire.com.



*********************************
It would be remiss of me not to mention that Jason Crane and The Jazz Session is back.  You can see that in the right-hand corner of this blog.  In a bit of shameless self-promotion, I was fortunate to be interviewed by Mr. Crane as I am a sponsor of his work on Patreon and he asked if I would contribute to his "subscriber Bonus Material" by talking about one of my favorite albums.  Readers of this column how hard it is for me to pick a Top 10 every year (some years, as high as 42) but, for the sake of sanity, I chose two and went with a third, "Freedom Suite" by Sonny Rollins, his ground-breaking recording from 1958 featuring drummer Max Roach and bassist Oscar Pettiford.  I invite you to listen (click on the link) as that post is open to the public and I urge you to be a Patreon subscriber.  There are few interviewers, if any, more engaging than Jason Crane and you'll learn a lot about some fine creative artists.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Creative Explorations by Groups of Equals

Rudy Royston is one those drummers who makes an impact on the musicians he works with from the first note of a song. He plays with such fire, often pushing his fellow musicians to greater heights and, to my mind, more powerful solos.  Royston, a Texas native who came of age in Denver, CO, studied music in college but really learned about his craft (not just playing but composing, arranging, and listening) while working with trumpeter Ron Miles.  He's gone on to play with a great number of musicians including Bill Frisell, Dave Douglas. J.D. Allen, Ravi Coltrane, and Rudresh Mahanthappa.  In person, he's a joy to watch, mostly because he always looks like he's having the time of his life.

"Flatbed Buggy" is Rudy Royston's third album as a leader as well as the third to released by Greenleaf Music.  For this effort, which reaches back to the drummer and composer's childhood memories, he's gathered a topnotch group of collaborators including Gary Versace (accordion), John Ellis (bass clarinet, saxophones), Hank Roberts (cello), and Joe Martin (bass).  Those of you expecting a collection of hard-blowing "jams" will be pleasantly surprised by the delicate nature of much of this material and how melodic the material.  That does not mean it's "wimpy" or "smooth jazz" - tracks such as "Hourglass", "the opening "Soul Train" (sorry, no Don Cornelius), and the effervescent "Bobblehead" dance out of the speakers.  Yet, it's the blend of accordion and cello, the way Ellis weaves his bass clarinet in and out the music or adds his soprano to the exciting performance of "Bobblehead" that stand out.  Yes, this music has power and it comes from the interactions, from the irrepressible rhythms, the solid foundation that Martin's excellent bass work provides.  On occasion, you may hear the influence of Mr. Frisell's "Americana" music or the way the late Jimmy Giuffre weave folk melodies into his music but this is Rudy Royston telling his own tales.

Each song has a storyline.  "boy...MAN" opens with a lovely cello melody and then wraps that around there accordion and cello.  Here, Royston guides the ensemble forward, opening the piece up to a strong bass solo that builds intensity to a powerful close.  Later on in the program, "girl...Woman" starts as a lovely ballad again with Roberts in the lead and Versace playing counterpoint and in unison.  The track includes a stunning accordion solo, introspective and gentle, ref;active of a day spent in the country.  Ellis, Versace, and Martin weave their individual sounds each other over the quiet colors of cello and the leader's cymbals.  But, even with all these quiet interactions, the quintet drops into a lively, "pop music" groove to take the piece out.

"Flatbed Buggy" is one of those albums to listen to all the way through.  There's so much to "hear", so many stories and histories embedded in this music that it's impossible to appreciate what Rudy Royston has so majestically created on one pass through.  At times stunning, at others times, joyful yet always melodic and rhythmically rich, this album deserves your full attention!

For more information, go to www.rudyroyston.com.

Put on your dancing shoes and listen to this:



Trumpeter and composer Jonathan Finlayson, long-time collaborator of saxophonist Steve Coleman, continues to spread his creative wings on "3 Times Around" his third album for Pi Recordings.  The new album features pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist John Hébert, and drummer Craig Weinrib, all of whom appeared on Finlayson's 2017 Pi release, "Moving Still", and replaces guitarist Miles Okazaki with tenor saxophonist/flutist Brian Settles and alto saxophonist Steve Lehman.  While the influence of Mr. Coleman is evident on the opening two tracks and the impressive 14-minute opus "The Moon Is New", this music is no cookie-cutter impression of Finlayson's mentor's music.

"Feints" and "Grass" open the program, their exciting rhythms and percussive melodies (and counterpoint) making for intense listening. The first extended solo one hears on cut one is by Mitchell - he does not disappoint as his solo hurtles ahead as he interacts with with Weinrib's powerful drumming spurring him on.  Then, the interplay of Settles, Lehman, and Finlayson soars atop the dynamic rhythm section.

The pace changes when you enter the rubato world of "A Stone, A Pond, A Thought" - here, the trumpet leads the saxes in atop rumbling piano, thrumming bass, and various "colors" from the drummer.  Hébert's impressive bow-work is featured in the middle of the nine-minute "sound sculpture" before the sextet returns to push the intensity higher but never falling into a rhythm.  That intensity carries over to the episodic "The Moon Is New" - after the powerful opening, the piece moves in several directions and puts the spotlight squarely on The leader, Lehman, Settles, and Mitchell, all the while the rhythm section scurrying around under those soloists.  The shorter yet no-less-powerful "Refined Strut" follows and the music is as advertised.  Concentrate on how the rhythm section creates the irresistible "strut" and the on how the reeds and trumpet decorate the melody.

Photo: Paul de Lucena
"3 Times Round" is dedicated to the late Muhal Richard Abrams (1930-2017) and the conceptualist/composer's sense of adventure is a large influence on how Jonathan Finlayson approaches his original music.  The sound of this ensemble is so full yet never cluttered nor cliched.  The sextet is emotionally and musically attached to this project all the way through - I really enjoy listening to and am deeply impressed by the playfulness of Craig Weinrib as he dances along with the ensemble.

For more information, go to jonathanfinlayson.com.

Here's the album's opening track:




Although you do not see it anywhere on the album cover, this is the second album from the quartet known as Dirigo Rataplan. The ensemble, organized by drummer and composer Devin Gray, features trumpeter David Ballou, tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, and bassist Michael Formanek.  In 2004, Gray assemble a trio owht the trumpeter and bassist, adding the tenor sax to the mix after moving to New York City several years later.  Their 2012 debut album, originally released on SKIRL Records, sets the soundstage for the quartet's new release.  Gray's music takes its influences from myriad sources, from folk melodies, funk rhythms, and blues changes, from "free" explorations and the classic interactions of Ornette Coleman's Quartet from the Atlantic Records years (1959-61) to create its contemporary sounds.

Chamber Music America
It's a real joy to hear how these musicians play together, how they explore the various routes that Gray's compositions offer them. When you have four such individual voices, the music can either be an exercise in technical virtuosity or a four-way street with everyone listening to each other, conversing as equals, giving the music their full attention.  That's what you get with "Dirigo Rataplan II". One supposes you could listen just for Eskelin's melodic saxophone or Ballou's articulated melodies and exploratory solos or Formanek's fascinating bass work (who has a more melodic approach to the bass than him?) or how Gray leads the band without commanding the spotlight.

DowntownMusic.net
Listen to "Quantum Cryptology" to hear how the band navigates the melody line and how each gets a solo while the rhythm section creates a different yet interactive foundation/counterpoint.  Note how "Trends of Trending" opens in the pocket then moves inward, the trumpet and saxophone conversing across the bass and drums. Hear how Formanek's bass lines up high on the neck of his instrument dances over the scuttling drums on "What We Learn from Cities." The softness of the opening of "Intrepid Travelers" hints at blues for the first half then moves subtly away.

Dirigo Rataplan II" contains music that asks you to listen, does not beseech the listener, but seduces with its melodies and interplay/interactions as well as the intelligence of the music.  Is this strictly intellectual music? A kind of "highbrow jazz"?  What Devin Gray has created with Ellery Eskelin, David Ballou, and Michael Formanek is a delight from start to finish.

For more information, go to devingraymusic.com.  The quartet appears tomorrow in CT at Firehouse 12 - go to firehouse12.org for more information. They'll travel down to Baltimore, MD, on the next day and back to Philadelphia, PA, to close their short tour.  For more information, go to devingraymusic.com.

Here's the opening track:

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

CT Gig Alerts (Friday & Saturday 10/05 & 6)

Autumn is here and the time is right for jazz in concert venues and performance spaces!  This weekend in Connecticut promises little foliage but three fine shows, all of which are worth your time and effort to attend.

Saxophonist, bassist, composer, and educator Mark Zaleski returns to The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme.  His band includes brother Glenn on piano, tenor saxophonist Jon Bean, guitarist Ciao Aifune, bassist Danny Weller, and drummer Oscar Suchanek.  They'll play music from Mr. Zaleski's second album, 2017's "Days, Month, and Years" as well as his latest project which is a collection  of rearrangements, reconstructions, and deconstructions of Michael Jackson's songs.  What you'll hear over the course of the two sets is great interactions, smart melodies, and powerful solos. Plus it's great fun.

For tickets, call 860-434-2600 or go to thesidedoorjazz.com. To learn more about MZ, go to www.markzaleskimusic.com.

Here's the Mark Zaleski Band live in 2016;



Firehouse 12 in New Haven continues its Fall 2018 Concerts Series this Friday night with a visit from drummer Devin Gray and his quartet know as Dirigo Rataplan.  He's celebrating the release of the group's second album "Dirigo Rataplan II"  - besides Gray, the group features bassist Michael Formanek, tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, and trumpeter Dave Ballou (the same lineup as on the 2015 self-titled album released onSkirl Records). This is one of those delightful groups that blurs the lines between styles (or genres, if you'd rather) so you'll hear snatches of blues, "free" jazz, funk, folk elements, a trace of Ornette Coleman-like interplay, and impressive interactions.

Dirigo Rataplan takes the stage for the first set at 8:30 p.m.  The second set - a separate charge - starts at 10 p.m.  You should enjoy this exploratory music not only for the way the band digs into the music but also because each musician has a distinctive "voice".  The crisp attack and sound of Ballou, the smooth yet searching tones of Eskelin, the melodic majesty of Formanek's bass playing, and Gray's exciting yet thoughtful drumming.  To find out more, go to devingraymusic.com.  For tickets, call 203-785-0468 or go to firehouse12.com.

Here's a short compilation of the album (which, on Bandcamp, is titled "Dirigo Rataplan II" - go figure.



On Saturday evening, The Buttonwood Tree, 605 Main Street in Middletown, welcomes the duo of Christian Artmann (flutes) and Laszlo Gardony (piano).  They will be celebrating Mr. Artmann's new Sunnyside Recording, "Our Story", a quartet album (with guest vocalist) that Mr. Gardony (who often graces the piano seat at The Buttonwood with his exciting and melodic playing) is an important member of the group.  For the Middletown date, it's the two of them sans rhythm section (or guest vocalist).  Mr. Artmann's music is quite handsome, ethereal at times, and his flute sound is graceful and gracious.  He can also swing when the music calls for it.

Mr. Artmann studied classical music in his native Germany as he was growing up, discovering in his teens. He's studied at Harvard Law School, Princeton University, and the Berklee School of Music.  He has toured Europe playing in both classical and jazz settings as well as clubs and performance venues in the United States.  "Our Story" is his fourth album as a leader since 2010, three of them with the delightful rhythm section of bassist Johannes Weidenmuller and drummer Jeff Hirschfield. To find out more about the flutist, go to artmannjazz.com.

The music commences at 8 p.m. on Saturday.  For tickets and more information, go to buttonwood.org/event/laszlo-gardony-and-christian-artmann/.

Here's the opening track from the new album: