Thursday, January 17, 2019

An Unexpected Sabbatical, A Treasure of Nichols, & A Splendid Historical Issue

Life is filled with twists and turns with unexpected events happening throughout. Sometimes we are prepared, other times we are taken totally off guard.  In the second week of December 2018, I came down with a virus that came and went throughout the Holiday Season but never let its hold of me.  Right after New Year's Day, it was obvious this virus was much more serious and, after a series of tests that told me was I did not have (other than I was anemic) I was admitted to the hospital and spent a week getting poked, prodded, MRI'd, more blood was taken and it was discovered that I had an infection in my blood and it was attacking me in numerous ways. Thanks to several hard-working physicians associated with Middlesex Hospital here in Middletown, CT, the infection is being handled by a six-week daily treatment of antibiotics.  My great thanks go to the wonderful nurses and PCTs who helped me through the darkest hours and the long, ugly, hours of worry.  It's good to be home, great to be digging back into music, and exposing some fine new music for the readers.  Thanks  for your patience!
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In the midst of the illness, I received a note from drummer-arranger Lucas Gillan who, judging by the name of my blog, thought I might have more than a passing interest in the music of pianist and composer Herbie Nichols.  Gillan, based in Chicago, IL, leads a quartet known as Many Blessings and, on the 100th anniversary of Mr. Nichols's birth (1/03/19), released "Chit-Chatting With Herbie: Lucas Gillan's Many Blessings Plays Herbie Nichols Trio" (JeruJazz). It's a track-by-track rearrangement of Mr. Nichols's 1956 Blue Note album that featured bassists Al McKibbon or Teddy Kotick pus drummer Max Roach.  Gillan arranged the music for his quartet that is composed of Quentin Coaxum (trumpet), Jim Schram (tenor saxophone), and Daniel Thatcher (bass). This is not the first time that an ensemble with reeds and brass have approached Mr. Nichols's music (The New York Jazz Composers Collective created an offshoot called The Herbie Nichols Project in the mid-1990s and released three albums - the band included pianist Frank Kimbrough) but the first I can recall without a pianist.

Photo: lucasgillan.com
If you are a Herbie Nichols fan (and he's become a cult figure in the last four decades well after his passing in 1963), then you will love "Chit-Chatting...". The sax and trumpet share the melodies while the rhythm section create a delightful cushion while prodding, poking, and supporting the front line.  Coaxum's trumpet is especially lively throughout while Schram's has a bluesier side. They complement each other well throughout.  Just listen to the opening "The Gig" - Gillan sets the dancing beat and gets a boost from the bass and then the trumpet and sax glide through the melody. There's a hard-bop feel akin to Clifford Brown and you can hear the joy in the musicians the way you could when Brown played.  There's a handsome reading of "The Lady Sings the Blues", a melody that Mr. Nichols wrote for Billie Holiday. One can't miss the blues feel and the sense of melancholy but there are also moments of joy.  The subtle humor and thick beat of "The Spinning Song" moves forward in a sly manner (Gillan's drums are so melodic on the theme) while "Hangover Triangle" stumbles forward on thick bowed bass lines and sharp drumming while the trumpet and saxophone deliver the theme in less than 75 seconds.

The album closes with George Gershwin's "Mine" (from the musical "Of Thee I Sing"). Gershwin was Herbie Nichols's favorite composer and here the quartet sing out the melody line supported by the powerful drums and solid bass lines.  "Chit-Chatting With Herbie" is a splendid tribute, one that goes beyond mere copying the original arrangements and being faithful to the sound.  The music sounds fresh, contemporary, and joyous!  Kudos to Lucas Gillan's Many Blessings as their performances and music will raise your spirits on the dark nights of winter and year-round.

For more information, go to lucasgillan.com.

Here's the opening track:

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I actually wrote this review early in December but never got to publish it.  So, I'm playing "catch-up."

Over the past several decades, pianist and composer Fred Hersch has recorded and released numerous live albums with his various ensembles as well as a solo.  His latest Palmetto Records release "Fred Hersch Trio '97: @ The Village Vanguard" was recorded in July 1997 during the first time the pianist had a week as a headliner at the famed New York City club.  While he had no intention of releasing the tapes, Hersch was quite pleased as he listened to the three sets recorded on the Friday night gig.  He had been working with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tom Rainey since 1991, recording several albums for Chesky Records.  Like every trio that the pianist has worked over this career, this one is an interactive ensemble, each player an integral part of the proceedings.

Photo: Vincent Soyez
The eight-song program is a collection of five standards and three originals (two by Hersch, one by Gress). If you listen to a lot of his recordings, what's surprising is that there are no Thelonious Monk songs, usually a staple of his sets. Nevertheless, there's plenty of splendid playing throughout the 58+ minutes. It's always fun to hear the trio build up a head of steam and push each other forward.  The opening three "standards", "Easy To Love", "My Funny Valentine", and "Three Little Words", are so filled with fire that the listener can barely sit still.  Hersch stretches out during his solo yet leaves room for his partners to "strut their stuff".  Even the next track, Hersch's "Evanessense", has an urgency that fills the players with great energy (note the brilliant, melodic, bass work of Gress).

There's is really only one ballad on the album and that's Gress's lovely "Andrew John."  It's hard not to be impressed by the musicianship that makes this piece stand out, from the lyrical piano solo that opens the tune to Gress's fundamental bass lines to Rainey's brilliant work on the cymbals. Yet, there's also the slinky, funky, "Swamp Thang", a Hersch original that glides in on deep bass notes, stop-start drums, and a piano line that slithers around the rhythm section. The pianist helps to ratchet up the intensity with a splendid solo that blends blues, jazz, and a touch of gospel, sounding not unlike Allen Toussaint.

I do not need convince Fred Hersch fans of how enjoyable "@ The Village Vanguard" is or how good his Trio '97 was. From start to finish, this album is a blast, sounding fresh as it did when recorded 21 years ago.  2018 has seen the reissue of Hersch's 1989 "Heartsongs" (Sunnyside Records) as well as his latest Trio's "Live In Europe" (Palmetto Records) - all three are worth your attention!

For more information, go to fredhersch.com.

Here's a taste from Trio '97:



May I recommend the excellent interview with Fred Hersch conducted by multi-instrumentalist and producer Leo Sidran for his "Third Story Podcast." I have always wanted to interview the pianist but I doubt I could do justice to his story, music, and life the way Sidran does. It's worth your time. Go to www.third-story.com/listen/fredhersch and give a listen.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

NPR Jazz Poll 2018

The 2018 NPR Jazz Critics Poll has been published - read it here - and, as usual, my list is both quite different and in sync with my fellow critics/reviewers.  In a year that has so many exemplary large ensemble recordings, only one is in the Critics Poll and that's Henry Threadgill's 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg: "Dirt...And More Dirt" but precious others make the Top 50.  I may be one of the only writers who did not vote for the Wayne Shorter 3 CD ""Emanon", not because it was not worth the money I paid but because there could have so much more music. The "classical" CD is brilliant as are the live ones but they're so short.  Mr. Shorter's Quartet - Danilo Perez (piano), John Patitucci (bass) and Brian Blade (drums) - is one of the brilliant improvising units of this or any century/ galaxy but Blue Note could only find two sets to release.  Am I being chintzy? Probably.  I will admit to playing the CDs over and over, enjoying every minute, and actually wanting more.  It's like the John Coltrane's "Both Directions at Once", a group of unreleased tapes from 1963, that displays a working unit at the height of its powers, it's leader searching different routes while his group play with fire, intelligence, and abandon.  I'm not a complete-ist, I do not need to hear every note a great artists plays but sometimes it's fun to hear musicians being human, being friends, collaborators, and adventurers.

Here's the list I submitted. Once again, I'm grateful to Francis Davis for again inviting me to participate and for all the hard work he and Tom Hull do to put all the entries together.  My list is below (without commentary). If you saw the list I put together in December, you'll know there were 50 contenders for these 10 spots.

Here you go:

Top 10 Albums 2018
Step Tempest (steptempest.blogspot.com)

Felipe Salles Interconnections Ensemble - "The Lullaby Project (and Other Works for Large Ensemble)– (Tapestry Records)

Rudy Royston – “Flatbed Buggy”– (Greenleaf Music)

Jim McNeely & The Frankfurt Radio (HR) Big Band – “Barefoot Dances and Other Visions”(Planet Arts)

Kate McGarry, Keith Ganz, & Gary Versace – “The Subject Tonight is Love”(Binxtown Records)

Dafnis Prieto Big Band – “Back To The Sunset”(Dafnison Music)

Henry Conerway III.  "With Pride For Dignity" (self-released)

Cecile McLorin Salvant – “The Window”(Mack Avenue)

Ambrose Akinmusire – “Origami Harvest” – (Blue Note Records)

Benjamin Boone/Philip Levine – “The Poetry of Jazz” – (Origin Records)

 Miles Okazaki – “Work: The Complete Works of Thelonious Monk” – (self-released/Bandcamp)

Reissues and Historical
John Coltrane – “Both Directions At Once – The Lost Album” (Impulse)

Wes Montgomery - "Wes Montgomery In Paris: The Definitive ORTF Recording” (Resonance Records)

Fred Hersch Trio - “Heartsongs” (Sunnyside Records)

Best Vocal Album
Kate McGarry, Keith Ganz, & Gary Versace – “The Subject Tonight is Love”(Binxtown Records)

Best Debut
Henry Conerway III.  "With Pride for Dignity" (self-released)

Best Latin Jazz Album
Felipe Salles Interconnections Ensemble - "The Lullaby Project (and Other Works for Large Ensemble)" – (Tapestry Records)

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Blessings & a Joyful Noise for the New Year

No matter how you look at 2018, it was a year of extremes. Strange weather, devastating fires, tsunamis, hurricanes, droughts, and that's without mentioning the extreme political polarization in the US and many other countries.  Musicians, through their music, recognize these extremes, they reflect on how their audiences are weathering, their music can provoke, can soothe, can issue a call-to-action, can ignore it all and just dance.  All is not lost - extremely messed up - and more people are beginning to respond with positive action. Can it negate the rise of authoritarianism?  Can it quell the cult of personality that grows stronger each year?  We don't seem to elect leaders but cardboard cutouts beholden to the highest bidders (and that's true for both major parties in the US) - many only seem to speak their minds when they are ready to retire.

Does it all come down to the mighty dollar?  The cynic says "of course" and the optimist knows it does but prays for change.  Nothing new under the sun yet that sun shines every day meaning there's always the opportunity for change. One has to be brave these days just to get out of bed but if you just pull the covers over your head, the ones in power take that as a vote of confidence. No one says this world is supposed to make sense.

Anyway, music and family remain my balm in bad times. Always has, Expect they always will. Have a great New Year, let your voice be heard (whether you are pro or con), and keep your communities going!

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Just a glance at the track listing of the new Kirk Knuffke CD, "Witness" (SteepleChase), and you'll know you're in for quite an aural adventure. From spirituals to Strayhorn, Sun Ra to Guiseppe Verdi, Puccini to Henry Mancini, the program is delightfully. The cornettist shares top billing with operatic baritone Steven Herring while creating the music with Russ Lossing (piano) and Ben Goldberg (contralto clarinet, clarinet).

The album opens with the traditional "Witness", the clarion call of the cornet and the lows notes of the contralto clarinet leading Herring in. When Lossing enters, the music takes on deeper gospel hues. When Knuffke steps out to "testify", he's supported by Goldberg's low lines and Lossing's impressionist piano chords. The clarinet solo is emotionally rich leading to a far-ranging piano solo playing variations on the melody. When Herring returns, he responds to the higher energy level with a even more powerful vocal.

That's just the opening track.  Surprises along the way include a playful take on Sun Ra's "The Satellites Are Spinning" - the original version, from 1971, is basically voice and drums but here Herring opens by reciting the lyrics while the musicians "free-associate" around him. As the piece tumbles forward, Herring sings in a call-and-response with Knuffke while Lossing and Goldberg dance around them.  Following Sun Ra is Verdi's "Iago's Credo" (from "Otello"). Herring stays close to the handsome melody as the cornet, contralto clarinet and piano improvise around him. The musicians capture the emotion in the vocal, sometimes matching the energy while, other times, they step back to allow the voice to stand out.

There's a beautiful reading of the Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer song "Charade." Opening with voice and piano, the contralto clarinet and cornet enter on the second verse.  Pay attention to the beauty of the piano accompaniment and how Herring inhabits the lyrics.  Throughout the album, Knuffke is in sync with the voice, acting as counterpoint and responder.  Everyone step away for the stunning piano solo followed by an equally impressive (and quite bluesy) cornet spot. While Goldberg is mostly in the background, do pay attention to his "foundational" lines.

Knuffke sets poems by contemporary poet Kirby Congdon and the late Carl Sandburg to music.  Sandburg's work, "Subway" is a short blues chant that rides forward on the rhythmical lines of cornet and clarinet joined on the second verse by the piano.  The energy and interactions give the music such urgency that the song ends much too soon.

From beginning to end, "Witness" is a fascinating recording. There's so much music here, four voices working together to create a unified message.  Music crosses so many borders, so many walls, religions, politics, and much more. This mix of gospel, poetry, popular songs, opera, creative music and spirited improvisations is often stunning yet will make smile all the way through. Kirk Knuffke, Steven Herring, Ben Goldberg, and Russ Lossing made magic in the studio and we are the beneficiaries.

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

Here's a taste of the Sun Ra piece:




Cover Art: Damon Locks
Although it's official release date is not until 1/11/19, it's been impossible keep the new album by alto saxophonist Greg Ward out of the CD player. The full title "Greg Ward Presents Rogue Parade: Stompin' Off From Greenwood" (Greenleaf Music) tells the listener much about this album.  One - this is a new group for Ward. Consisting of two electric guitars (Matt Gold and Dave Miller) plus the splendid rhythm section of Matt Ulery (bass, electric bass) and Quin Kirchner (drums), the music they make is notable for its irresistible forward motion and Ward's delightful melodic flow.  Two - this is the second album Ward has made since his return to Chicago and has all the earmarks of the newer music from the Windy City.  The blend of funk, r'n'b, hip hop rhythms, jazz, and exciting interactions may remind some of Tortoise and Ornate Coleman's Prime Times but there are traces of the world-music adventuresome attitude of Makaya McCraven as well.

Chicago Reader
Since I've been listening to this music without paying attention to song titles (all songs are by Ward save for Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust"), I would recommend you do the same.  On initial listenings, listen for how the rhythm section powers this music (Kirchner's blend of busy cymbals and active snare work is quite exciting while Ulery not only keeps the bottom solid but engages with Ward playing subtle counterpoint). Ward's alto tone can be so sweet (especially in the higher registers) but there's power in his melodic lines.  It takes a few times through to hear the guitarists - initially, it seems as both are there for the various colors they create but they also provide melodic introductions and the occasional solo. Their sound is not distorted yet the effects they use are often subtle and powerful.  Note the beginning of the album's final track (people who buy the download from Greenleaf get a bonus final track) - "Sundown" is driven by both guitars with Ward giving support.  The energy level continues to rise from the onset and is overwhelming by the close. There are several ballads. One is the generously melodic "Pitch Black", the softness of the alto and the rhythm guitar rising above the clatter of Kirchner's percussion and Ulery's solid bass lines.  Still, as the piece comes to a close, the intensity picks up still the band does not lose its melodic way.

Go back to the beginning, to the high-powered "Metropolis", and you'll really hear how all the elements of this music come together to make a unified statement.  How the melodies and counter-melodies, how the rhythms from the drums and guitars push the music, and how you can hum many of these melodies (even if you can't keep up at times).  Music often gives me hope for the future - "Stompin' Off From Greenwood" makes me smile, bounce my feet, challenges me to listen with fresh ears, opening up to the myriad possibilities in this music, making me wish I was in the audience as the band developed this program leading uptown the recording.

"Greg Ward Presents Rogue Parade" is the latest installment in the musician's maturity as a composer and bandleader. He's been busy since returning to Chicago, adding his saxophone to many different ensembles and recordings (including 2018's Benje Daneman's Searchparty "Light in the Darkness"). Greg Ward is making great strides and we are lucky to be part of the experience!

For more information, go to www.gregward.us.

Here's an action-packed tune: