Monday, November 12, 2018

Large Ensemble, Sextet, Trio, & Solo Stories

Composer, arranger, educator and guitarist Darrell Katz has lived and worked in the Boston, MA, area now for over four decades. In 1985, he was one of the founders of the Jazz Composers Alliance, an organization with aims similar to those of the Chicago's AACM and New York City's Jazz Composers Collective; among those aims was to promote the work of a variety of artists in the area .  JCA also  formed an orchestra to work whose early concerts and commissions featured the likes of Julius Hemphill, Sam Rivers, Dave Holland, Maria Schneider, Fred Ho, and others.  The JCAO has been featured on the majority of Katz's albums.


His latest aural adventure, "Rats Live On No Evil Star" (JCA Recordings), is a sprawling set of songs that cover many topics and myriad genres. The opening track, the title song, is a multi-part composition originally composed for the chamber music duo Marimolin in 1987. Here, it is expanded for the 19-piece ensemble. The evocative marimba work of Vessela Stoynova, the powerful violin playing of Helen Sherrah-Davies, the wordless vocals of long-time JCAO associate Rebecca Shrimpton, the saxophones solos of Rick Stone (alto) and Phil Scarff (tenor), are highlights; then again, so is the brilliant orchestration and the use of Bill Lowe's expressive tuba along with Mike Connors funky drumming.

Photo: Andrew Hurlbut
After that concerto-style opening track comes the three-part "How To Clean a Sewer" - at 35+ minutes, the music goes in so many directions.  Part I, titled "3 or 4 Kinds of Blues", has so much going on, different groupings of instruments "conversing" with each other all revolving around a simple blues melody.  Again, the marimba is a major rhythmic and melodic voice as is the violin.  Part II, "Windfall Lemons (air, earth, water, fire)", is also blues-based but this time revolves around poem written by Katz's late wife Paula Tatarunis. It's fascinating how Ms. Shrimpton can make such "dark" lyrics sound so inviting.  Part III, "Attention", also revolves around lyrics: this time, it's Simone Weil's quote "Attention is the rest and purest form of generosity." Now, one hears the influence of Neal Hefti and Henry Mancini in the arrangement as well as more modern arrangers.

By this time, one is already 49 minutes into the album and there are still four more tracks. Each one of the remaining cut stands out but it's the album closer, "Red Sea", that truly stands out. Ms. Shrimpton adapted an essay from Ms.Tatarunis, a remembrance of a fascinating man that poet had met early in life who returned other life much later.  The vocalist also wrote the music along with Katz who plays guitar on the track. This trio piece is rounded out by pianist Alizon Lissance, yet another musician on the album who works at Berklee College with the leader and vocalist.  This music is quite handsome underneath Ms. Shrimpton's heartfelt vocal.  It's a gentle ending to a program that has great energy, at times, blending flashes of anger with long passages of  brilliant music.

"Rats Live On an Evil Star" is, like other Darrell Katz recordings, one that you should take time with. Enjoy the music, the hairpin curves, the quick turns, the powerful lyrics yet don't ignore the settings and the orchestrations that Katz creates throughout.  The brilliant juxtaposition of the mallet instruments with the "low" sounds of the baritone saxophone and the tuba, the voice with the violin, the sectional work and the short, pithy, solos; that and more makes this album an exciting adventure from beginning to end.

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

Here's one of the tracks not in the review, "To An Angel":



Ernesto Cervini wears many hats. He's a drummer, composer, arranger, publicist, husband, father, and brother to vocalist Amy Cervini, all the while leading or co-leading several ensembles. One of those ensembles is Turboprop, a sextet that features bassist Dan Loomis (he of the thick tones and penchant for melodies), pianist Adrean Farrugia, tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm, alto and soprano saxophonist Tara Davidson (she also contributes flute), and trombonist William Carn.  The sextet has just issued its third album, "Abundance" (Anzic Records) that is an aptly titled collection of originals and standards.  The album gets its name from Loomis's "Abundance Overture", a splendid tune with a folky opening melody (played by flute and accompanied by Cervini's sticks. The horns enter, the piece takes on a jaunty feel and everyone plays with great joy.

This is quite a versatile ensemble that often sounds as if it's much larger.  Farrugia's "The Ten Thousand Things" is a high-powered romp with moments where the band drops out and you just hear the composer's fine chord work. The band really flies during Frahm's muscular solo, powers by a rampaging rhythm section.  The leader's "Song For Cito", perhaps the only song you'll ever hear dedicated to  the former manager of the Toronto Blue Jays Cito Gaston. Carn's hardy trombone solo is followed by a high-powered romp from the pianist.  "Gramps", the other original by Cervini, is a ballad dedicated to the drummer's grandfather yet it too has an intensity that shows up as the Ms. Davidson moves through her solo. The piece does return to its gentle roots as the ensemble slows to the finish.

On an album loaded with highlights, none shine brighter than the two back-to-back standards. First, there's the powerful "My Shining Hour", a Howard Arlen that Cervini heard on a Geoff Keezer solo piano album. The arrangement opens with a splay of all the instruments before the pianist leads the way into the melody that is played by the reeds and trombone.  It's the trombone that gets the lead on the gentle reading of "Smile", the Charlie Chaplin composition that the composer, writer, and director wrote for the soundtrack of his 1936 movie "Modern Times." The spotlight is on Carn for the first three minutes of the piece but do pay attention to how the rhythm section frames his solo.  Loomis steps out for a solo - he's so melodic, always going for the emotional heart of the song and not showing off his technique.

"Abundance" is the sound of a sextet that is comfortable with each other, willing to challenge each other, and having a great time making good music.  There's much to enjoy when Ernesto Cervini's Turboprop gets together - give them a close listen!

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

Here's the opening track:



Every once is a while, the reviewer receives an album that wins you over initially on the strength of the joy that the musicians exude.  Such is the case with the debut recording by drummer, composer, and arranger Henry Conway III.  "With Pride For Dignity" (self-released) finds the Detroit, MI native leading a trio that features Kenny Banks Jr. (piano) and Kevin Smith (drums).  It's a cooperative ensemble with all three musicians contributing arrangements and/or songs. Listening to the opening track "Slippery" (composed by Ray Brown and arranged by bassist Smith), the first impressions I had after "how delightful" was how much the overall blues feel sounded like the musical approach of Phineas Newborn Jr. and what a lyrical bassist Smith is.  The leader does not impose his will on any song but you cannot miss his presence.  The title track (composed by Banks Jr.) is an episodic journey that, at times, feels like the history of jazz going into your ears. Note how the tempo changes happen on a dime, how the music swings with power, and all three musicians are tuned in to each other.

Photo: Adrian H. Tillman
The trio pays tribute to composer/musicians such as Duke Ellington ("Cottontail"), Jimmy Heath ("Gingerbread Boy"), Detroit native, and mentor to the drummer, Marcus Printup ("Hopscotch"), and the afore-mentioned Phineas Newborn Jr. ("Sugar Ray").  Each on of the tunes shines on the power of its melody and the reinvention of a modern ensemble.  Both the Printup and Newborn Jr. songs are "deep blues" with the former having an irresistible rhythm as well as the hint of "rent party" piano while the latter has such a jaunty feel with Banks Jr. digging into his solo over the walking bass lines and the "easy" beats from the drummer. "Cottontail" speeds forward on the power of the brilliant brushes work and an inventive bass line (here's where the listener detects the Ray Brown influence on Smith).  The leader starts on supplying the rhythm of "Gingerbread Boy" aided and abetted by the bassist and the pianist's left hand.  Once Conerway III switches to his sticks, the trio is off on a romp.

The pianist's "The Feel Goods" and the drummer's "Carvin's Agreement" closes the proceedings; the former is a delightful medium-tempo blues and the latter a solo drum piece.  Even though there are no ballads on the program, neither does that lack bother this reviewer.  At this time of such negativity in the U.S. and elsewhere, the brightness of this music, the obvious joy of the musicians as they move through the songs, the promise of more-to-come, is a breath of fresh air. Plus, this album reminds you of the power that the blues has to settle one's mind and to assure you we're all on this trip together.  Kudos to Henry Conerway III and his trio!

To find out more, go to thehc3.com.




Over the past four decades, pianist, composer, educator, and author Kenny Werner has created music that can move one's feet, touch one's heart, capture one's mind, and explore the far corners of our world as well as our worlds of emotions.  "The Space" (Pirouet Records) is his 35th release as a leader or co-leader and his fifth solo recording. The program features three originals, two pieces from label owner and saxophonist Jason Seizer, two standards ("You Must Believe in Spring" and "If I Should Lose You"), and a fascinating take on a Keith Jarrett improvisation.  The Jarrett piece, "Encore From Tokyo", an excerpt of a piece first heard on the 1976 ECM album "Sun Bear Concerts", is one of those delightful pano romps the composer/improviser creates during his shows - here, Werner's performance finds the joy of the piece, the uptempo yet entrancing rhythm, and the lyricism that hints at Charles Lloyd's "Forest Flower."

The title track opens the album. At 15:57, it's the longest track on the recording, moving from melody to rhythm to a pleasing combination of both, soothing the listener, the "spacious" (no pun intended) sound and clear audio makes every note stand out.  Really, what the composer and the pianist expects is that the listener will surrender to the charms of the music, throw away labels, allow the music to bot out out extraneous sounds, close one's eyes, and relax.  This is not a "new age" trance dance but an adventure in which the listener is allowed into the mind of the creator. There is no other piece on the album that sounds like this one yet it sets the stage for all that follows, "loosens up" the listener, and you are ready to follow Werner everywhere his fertile mind takes him.

And, it's a treat. From the Jarrett tune to the lovely take of Michel LeGrand's "...Believe in Spring" to both of Seizer's elegant compositions to the gracious flow of the Rainger/Robin classic "If I Should Lose You" (from the 1936 movie "Rose of the Rancho"), this is music that gets its hooks (pun intended) into you. The other two Werner originals are "Fifth Movement" and the album's close track "Fall From Grace."  The former, which does right after the Jarrett piece, is somewhat more introspective yet also displays flashes of lengthy melodic flourishes throughout; but, listen to the pianist's left hand as it suggests both a rhythm and a bass line. The latter cut opens with a handsome, stately, melody.  The steady left hand chords set the pace and do not let down, hinting at a J. S. Bach air.  That slow but steady pace makes the piece very much of a closing statement.

"The Space" deserves tome listened to all the way through time and time again.  Kenny Werner continues to create music that follows no one's directions but his own. The avid listener is the grateful beneficiary.

For more information, go to kennywerner.com.

Here's one of the Werner originals:

Saturday, November 3, 2018

"Thelonious The Onliest"

I can't claim the sobriquet "Thelonious The Onliest" for my own creation (there are numerous references to where it came from) but it is certainly a fitting description.  Thelonious Sphere Monk (1917-1982) first came to critical notice in the mid-1940s during the birth of bebop and stayed popular through the 1960s.  The native of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, created a unique style with references to the "rent party" piano of James P. Johnson, the rollicking stye of Thomas "Fats" Waller, and others but, really, nobody sounded like Monk. His splintered lines and fractured rhythms stand beside his fascinating melodies as a touchstone for pianists and other instrumentalists over the past seven decades and there is no reason to think that influence will ever dissipate. He played and recorded in many settings, from solo to trio to quartet to large ensembles yet his musical style never wavered.  Songs such as "'Round Midnight", "Mistersioso", "Crepuscule With Nellie", "Well You Needn't" and so many more, show up on set lists every night in clubs and on stages from Chicago to Shanghai, New York City to New South Wales with musicians continually trying to decode his compositions.

2017 was Monk's "Centennial Year" and 2018 is shaping up to be the year where artists are making recordings of Monk's oeuvre.. Before the end of December, there will be three albums on the market.  First out of the gate in mid-August was "Work: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Monk", a solo gem from guitarist Miles Okazaki.  The guitarist, who has worked and/or recorded with Jane Monheit, Steve Coleman, and Jonathan Finlayson plus many more, started the project in early 2017 and discovered he needed to learn a slew of the songs before he recorded.  The album is only a digital form, available through Bandcamp, but Okazaki's liner notes (found on his website at www.milesokazaki.com/albums/work-2018/) tells the tale of how he came to record this project and why, what guitar he used, and about the importance of fellow guitarist Liberty Ellman in bringing this project to fruition.

If you are a long-time fan of the man and his music, it's a delight to hear what Okazaki does with the composition.  It's important to note what he doesn't do, including any overdubbing, changing melodies or even key signatures, never utilizing different guitars, just his trusting Gibson Charlie Christian archtop guitar.  What he does do is allow the listener to soak in each and every melody as well as expose the public to less often recorded Monk tunes ("North of the Sun", "Stuffy Turkey", and "A Merrier Christmas"). There is no shortage of rhythm on the album and the guitarist's approach truly brings out the influence of the blues on Monk. Plus, dig the bossa nova influence on "Bye-Ya", the flamenco-like lines of the title track, and the emotionally strong take of "'Round Midnight."    There are moments you might think you're hearing Mary Halvorson or Howard Roberts but comparisons disappear after two or three listenings.

You can purchase "Work" as one large digital file or as six separate files of approximately 50 minutes.  Whatever you choose to do, Miles Okazaki will, at turns, charm you, make you laugh, and become wistful.  All that's there is the music of Thelonious Monk - just listen!

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

Take a listen:



In the summer of 2017, pianist Frank Kimbrough was invited to perform in a Monk Centennial program to take place later that year at The Jazz Standard in New York City. He assembled a band that featured multi-reed master Scott Robinson, bassist Rufus Reid, and drummer Billy Drummond.  After the concert, a long-time friend suggested that Kimbrough and company record the entire Thelonious Monk songbook. The pianist felt it was possible and, with the help of another good friend plus the head of Sunnyside Records Fran├žois Zalacain, the project was put in motion.  The band (minus Robinson) played 15 songs in April 2018 one night at Jazz at Kitano's in NYC and then 15 more the next night (with Robinson). The ensemble them headed to engineer Matt Balistaris's Maggie's Farm recording studio and, over the span of six days (May 22-24 and May 28-30), recorded 68 tunes (Kimbrough returned in June to record the two piano solos).

The result, to be released by Sunnyside on November 23, is titled "Monk's Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk" - the album comes as an entire six-album set and each CD has a subtitle. The music is delightful throughout not just for the interactions of this fine group but also for the fact that Robinson is featured on tenor and bass saxophones, trumpet, echo cornet (a cornet with a fourth valve and a detachable second bell), bass clarinet, and contrabass sarrusophone! Once the listener gets over the sound of the lower reeds, you hear just how masterful Robinson is and how he can swing on absolutely every instrument he plays.  He even plays trumpet and tenor sax on one track ("Thelonious"). It's no gimmick - it adds to the joyous sounds emanating from the speakers.

The quartet does not mess around with the songs, no radical departures but also no rote repetition of the originals. Besides the two solo pianist pieces, there is a splendid piano-tenor sax duo on "Something In Blue" where the stride piano influence on the composer comes shining through. also, dig the bass - bass saxophone duo on "Reflections" for just how sweet both instruments sound and work together to tell Monk's story.  Kudos to all involved, from the four musicians to the excellent work of Balistaris to engineer, edit, and mix.  The sound is so fine and clear, the low notes of the contrabass sarrusophone and bass saxophone rumble in your gut, Reid's class bass work stands out, Drummond's cymbals shimmer at the sides of the spectrum, and the piano tones ringing out.

I have had the opportunity to live with this music for the past month so, listening to four or five tracks each time I sit down (more on several occasions), and, if you buy "Monk's Dreams", you'll want to do the same (even though bingeing seems to be the "in thing").  I recommend you do purchase this album (as I do with the Miles Okazaki digital album) - you'll come away with an even greater appreciation of Thelonious Monk and be blown away by the brilliant musicianship!

For more information, go to home.earthlink.net/~fkimbrough/.

Take a taste here:



Frank Kimbrough, Rufus Reid, Billy Drummond, and Scott Robinson (and his instrument menagerie) appears on November 27 and 28 at the Jazz Standard, 116 E. 27th Street, New York City, NY - call them at 212-576-2232 or go to jazzstandard.com.

I did mention that there three recordings that will be released before the close of 2018. The last one to reach the public is the work of pianist Jed Distler - go here to read more.