Sunday, October 4, 2020

Large Ensembles: Poetry, Politics, & Presence

Photo: Luke Awtry
Composer, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist Kyle Saulnier created the Awakening Orchestra 15 years ago not only to play his original music (and some astute covers) but also to create conversations around the political situation in the United States and the world.  18-members strong, Saulnier has assembled an aggregation of veteran and young musicians from both the New York and Boston musical community, sprinkled in the occasional guest vocalists and a guest soloist––together, they make music that blends many genres to create a sound that soars, roars, cries, and sighs.

"volume II: to call her to a higher plain" (Biophilia Records) is the Orchestra's third recording ("vol. I: this is not the answer" in 2014 on Innova Recordings and "Interlude: Atticus Live–the Music of Jesse Lewis" in 2016)––the music was composed, workshopped, and performed over the past five years. Like all of the recent releases on Biophilia, the 15-song, 116+ minute program has an artistic, origami-foldout cover and is available only as a digital download.

The album is broken into two parts;  "Part 1: the pessimist's folly" includes "prelude & fanfare: the Patriot", an adaption of Nine Inch Nails "burn", an orchestral arrangement of Bill Frisell's "Throughout", and the four-part "i can see my country from here (Symphony No. 2 for the Awakening Orchestra"). "Part II: the optimist's folly" includes an orchestra adaptation of Molly Drake's "I remember", the five part title track which carries the subtitle "Concerto for Violin and Awakening Orchestra", the two part "the (desc/diss)ent", and closes with an instrumental adaptation of Eric Whitacre's chorale "lux arumque".

Photo: Guinara Khamatova
When faced with this much content, it's better to dive right in and start from track one. Sit and listen: this music changes moods often so after the "prelude & fanfare" prepare you for a big band experience, the first sounds you hear on "burn" is Michael McAliister's electric guitar. After his intro, vocalist Nathan Hetherington leads the way––there's a break in the middle where various instrumental vices from the Orchestra play before the intensity ratchets up for a powerful guitar. After a handsome reading of Frisell's piece, "Throughout", featuring excellent solos from bassist Joshua Paris, trombonist Michael Fahie, and trumpeter Seneca Black, the listener enters the musical world of "Symphony No. 2..."

Photo: Richard Velasco
The two long multi-section pieces (one is 41+ minutes, the other 33+ minutes) are quite involved, episodic; the "Symphony.." based on the comparison of the ideas of the French Revolution and how the United States democratic republic seems to have abandoned its ideals in the 21st Century and "Concerto..." is a work based on the 1980 book by Alvin Toffler "The Third Wave" and, the piece like the album, takes its name from a quote from Senator George McGovern.  For the latter piece, the composer wrote the violin parts for his wife Brooke Quiggins Saulnier––the blend of her playing, classically and folk music inspired, with the ensemble adds more shades to the music. Note her work with soloists Samuel Ryder (soprano), John Yao (trombone), Pablo Masis (trumpet), and Vito Chiavuzzo (alto saxophone)––sometimes. the violin is a color in the background, it's counterpoint during a solo, she sets up the solos. Ms. Saulnier is the primary voice on the "Cadenzas" that come after the first and third parts of the "Concerto..."

Photo: Luke Awtry
I't's hard to not attempt to describe each piece of music on this album as each song stands out for its melody, for its emotion, its interplay, the fie solos, and the arrangements. Still, after the tour-de-force of the "Concerto...", the final two tracks should not be missed.  "the (desc/diss)ent" features splendid work from the rhythm section, intelligent section writing plus powerful solos by Nadje Noordhuis (trumpet)––kudos to drummer Will Clark for keeping up his part of the conversation during the solo––followed by a give-and-take with Remy Le Boeuf (soprano sax) and Felipe Salles (tenor sax), also with Clark as a partner. Just past the halfway make of the 13-minute, Ms. Noordhuis steps out for an unaccompanied minute before Michael Caterisano (vibraphone) ushers her back in and slowly, the ensemble reenters.  The soulful trumpet solo takes the song to its close with just high trumpet notes over subdued electric piano.

"volume II: to call her to a higher plain" closes with the Whitacre chorale.  Arranged for the eight brass players, the lovely sounds echo as the melody rises, a spiritual finish to a spirited program.  Kyle Saulnier wants the listener to understand the gravity of the political and social issues that plague the United States but he refuses to lose hope.  There are moments throughout the album where the music asks questions and others where the music and the Awakening Orchestra seems to hold our hands, saying "be strong."

For more information, go to and To purchase the album, go to

Here's the Nine Inch Nails song:


Kyle Saulnier: compositions, arrangements

Remy Le Boeuf, Vito Chiavuzzo, Samuel Ryder, Andrew Gutauskas, and Felipe Salles

Daniel Urness, Seneca Black, Nadje Noordhuis, and Pablo Masis

Michael Fahie, John Yao, Samuel Burtis, and James Rogers

Rhythm Section:
Michael Caterisano, Michael MacAllister, Aaron Kotler, Joshua Paris, and Will Clark

Seth Fruiterman; voice
Julie Hardy; voice
Nathan Hetherington; voice
Brooke Quiggins Saulnier; violin

(Reader, take note––I have known Mr. Saulnier for around six-seven years as we were both teaching at Quinnipiac University in Hamden CT. He's spoken to my classes about contemporary music and we have talked about his writing process and the issues one has trying to get his/her music heard. He's since moved on but we stay in touch. Our discussions barely scratched the surface of how hard he has worked to get this music performed and recorded.  Kudos to Biophilia Records and to Nick Lloyd plus Greg DiCrosta for their efforts in bringing this project to fruition.)

Tenor and soprano saxophonist and composer Marius Neset, a native of Bergen, Norway, has been living in Copenhagen, Denmark, since he began his collegiate career there in 2003. While in school, he met numerous artists and performers, including British keyboard master Django Bates who featured him in his student band at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory.  Upon graduation, Neset began playing in various ensembles (including one with Professor Bates) throughout Europe including several that he lead or co-led.  His debut as a leader, "Suite for Seven Mountains", was issued in 2008 on Edition Records––the saxophonist went on to record several more albums for the British label before signing with the German ACT Music label in 2014, recording his debut album  for them , "Lion" with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra.  

In 2019, Neset decided to move back "home" to Norway but, before leaving, he created a program to record with the Danish Radio Big Band with its newly-appointed chief conductor Miho Hazama.  "Tributes", his sixth album as a leader for ACT, features five new original compositions, one ("Bicycle Town") in two parts and another ("Children's Day") in three parts.  The program opens with "Bicycle Town", Neset introducing the song with a circular line that suggests Sonny Rollins without imitating the great master. He goes it alone for several minutes, expanding the melody and his sound until the reeds of the Big Band begins to flutter around him. The playful flutes and the bouncing baritone sax are soon joined by the low brass and eventually the rest of the band.  The music now has a funky feel suggesting Weather Report, especially Joe Zawinul's more rhythmic songs. 

Photo: Nicolas Koch Futtrup
The tune comes to a quick close leaving Neset playing a spiraling line to the close. "...Part 2" is introduced with a new circular line before electric bassist Kaspar Valdsholt digs into his solo.  When the entire band joins, they play a familiar line from "...Part 1" and Neset produces a powerful solo. "Tribute" follows and is a classically-inspired work with a lovely melody––soprano saxophonist Hans Ulrik steps out of the ensemble for a sweet solo.  In fact, his voice dominates the middle of the song before Neset's arrangement for the reeds and brass creates a delightful dance.

The two pieces in the middle of the program, "Farewell" and "Leaving the Dock", would not sound out of place on a Maria Schneider album.  The former starts with a lovely melody for the soprano sax (Neset, this time) supported by the brass, reeds, and piano. The music gently ripples forward as the soprano rises over the ensemble: in this instance, Neset sounds like Wayne Shorter, especially in his most fluid phrasing.  The slow fade leads directly into the next song. One can feel the waves lapping the side of the boat as trumpeter Mads la Cour introduces the melody with the leader and various other reeds shadowing his line. Pianist Henrik Gunde steps out for a thoughtful and poetic solo with the band sitting out for the first few choruses and then offering occasional support. The close of the piece suggests the boat, now on the open sea, looking homeward.

The album closes with the three-part "Children's Day". After its formal opening, "...Part 1" is a delightful and playful piece that suggests the Caribbean with a rollicking solo section for guitarist Per Gade and Neset. The somber theme also opens "...Part 2"––this time, the piece is a ballad with solos by Valdsholt (acoustic bass) and an excellent spotlight for trumpeter Gerard Presencer that covers a lot of time and ideas.  No formality or somber feel as "...Part 3" rides in on hand percussion and thumping bass. Neset dances through his sweet solo with the sections jumping in from time to time. The tenor sax leaps in and out of the sections short phrases before moving into the next part of his solo. The rhythms and the solo are irrepressible and irresistible pushing the band to a rousing climax.  

"Tributes" certainly does not sound like a sad goodbye to Denmark for Marius Neset.  He celebrates his growth as a person and musician, hails his friendships, refers to his musical partnerships, shows how his twin influences of jazz and classical are easily intertwined in this 50-minute program.  A big bow to the work of the Danish Radio Big Band and conductor Miho Hazama (herself an excellent composer-arranger). Music can be and should be a joy to listen to: this recording certainly is!

For more information, go to


Marius Neset; tenor saxophone, compositions

Danish Radio Big Band:

Miho Hazama, conductor

Erik Eilertsen, Thomas Kjærgaard, Dave Vruels, Mads LaCour, and Gerard Presencer

Vincent Nilsson, Peter Dahlgren, Annette Saxe, and Jakob Munck Mortensen

Peter Fuglsang, Nicolai Schultz, Hans Ulrik, Karl-Martin Almqvist, and Anders Gaardmand

Rhythm Section:
Per Gade: guitar
Søren Frost; drums
Kaspar Valdsholt: bass
Henrik Gunde: piano

Here's Marius Neset and the DR Big Band in concert with a song that's not on the album:

Friday, October 2, 2020

Trios Time Again

Pianist and composer Matthew Shipp turns 60 years old in early December and remains one of the busiest, most creative musicians on the Black Music scene.  His current Trio––bassist Michael Bisio and Newman Taylor Baker––is, arguably, his finest ensemble while his music continues to expand.  The band's new album, "The Unidentifiable" (ESP Disk),  captures one's ears and mind from the opening seconds of "Blue Transport System" and refuses to let go until the 10:31 "New Heaven and New Earth" fades to silence. Even then, moments return in snatches of melody, sounds, and beats.  Upon first listening, you might think Newman Taylor Baker's splendid drumming is the reason to return. Perhaps it's Michael Bisio's powerful and often melodic bass work or the muscular piano, long flowing phrases, or thoughtful compositions that the leader supplies that turn your head. In fact, it's all three and more.

Photo Mark Lazarski
I've learned to listen to a new Matthew Shipp Trio all the way through each time. This is not music you "cherry-pick" your favorites and ignore the rest.  Listen to how the rhythm section goes its own way on "Phantom Journey" or provides a gentle cushion of colors for the exploring piano lines on "Dark Sea Negative Charge". Baker's trance-like drums go alone on the short "Virgin Psych Space 1" serving as an intro to the trio's reading of "...Space 2".  Note how each music builds on those drums, Bisio's bass weaving in and around while Shipp's piano travels above.

There is a quiet passion pulsing on the above-mentioned "Dark Sea...."; check out the fascinating hard drumming on "Trance Frame" (another short solo piece) and the powerful piano on "Phantom Journey."  The sound of the album, engineered by Jim Clouse in Park West Studios in Brooklyn, NY, is clean and loud.  Te lengthy final track will glue you to the chair, the thick bass tine, dancing snare work, and the ever-exploratory piano lines slowly build to a powerful climax–Bisio's bowed bass and overtones atop Shipp's gently piano melody become a contrast in light and darkness dropping out so the music can close on Baker's subtle brushwork.

"The Unidentifiable" is one more high point in the creative career of Matthew Shipp, not just for the music he composed for the Trio but also for his continued dialogue with Michael Bisio and Newman Taylor Baker.  There is no compromise, no cliches, just a powerful message of creativity in uncertain times.

For more information, go to To purchase the music, go to

Here's the opening track:

Pianist and composer Lafayette Gilchrist has created an amazing amount of music, relevant music, over the past three decades.  A resident of Baltimore, MD, since 1987, his music covers a wide swath of territory, from House to Jazz to Hip Hop to Funk to Blues and beyond.  His music has been featured on the HBO series "The Wire" "Treme", and "The Deuce", he's played with the David Murray Quartet as well as drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, and bassist William Parker.  The pianist gets compared to many keyboard masters, from McCoy Tyner to Willie :The Lion" Smith––his ability to play so any styles reminds this listener of the late Jaki Byard.

It's been 13 years and myriad experiences since his last Trio album ("3") was issued. "Now" (self-released) has arrived and it's an collection of amazing adventures.  Two CDs, 16 songs (all originals), 150 minutes, and the great rhythm section of Herman Burnie (bass) and Eric Kennedy (drums), the music is an incredible journey.  Opening with "Assume The Position" (first heard on David Simon's "The Wire"), the listener is bowled over by the thundering chords, the rapid-fire drums, and the pounding bass.   Latter on Disk one, "BMore Careful" is a New Orleans-inspired blues that serves a warning and a spotlight for Burnie's handsome arco work. Kennedy's drums and Gilchrist's piano are mixed high and loud making the music jump from the speakers.  

Dig into "On Your Belly Like a Snake", another hard-edged romp. Most of the longer pieces (seven of the 16 tracks are 10 minutes or longer) usually have stretches where the band eases off the intensity but here it's a short break before the drums push the leader to play harder. Disk one closes with "The Midnight Step Rag", a delightful dance with a touch of the Crescent City in Kennedy's drumming and a bouncy piano solo.  You can just about pick out the deep notes of the bass but also listen to the pianist's active left hand.

Photo: Theresa Keil
Disk two opens with the 13:33 "Tomorrow Is Waiting Now (Sharon's Song)", a handsome medium tempo ballad that builds in intensity on the strength of Gilchrist's splendid piano playing.  Burnie creates a fine solo as well and even though Kennedy does not solo, he plays an integral role throughout the piece. The following piece, "The Wonder of Being Here", is a true ballad, a handsome one at that. The bassist shows his melodic side, especially beneath the lovely piano solo.  Later on the disk, "Can You Speak My Language" is a poignant ballad, the two-handed piano playing and Gilchrist's melodic runs seem to nod towards Keith Jarrett.

Disk two and the album closes with "Specials Revealed", a rich melody wrapped in a soulful rhythm. Gilchrist's solo is built off the repeating chords in his left hand and he gracefully moves up the keyboard while Burnie hugs the bass line and Kennedy pushes the rhythm forward.  I understand the title of the song is also the name the leader has given the Trio–that make sense as this is special music. Yes, "Now" is a lot of music to take in all at once, really three good sets of music on two CDs.  But, take your time and do take it all in.  One can hear so much in the music that Lafayette Gilchrist, Herman Burnie, and Eric Kennedy have created for this album.  Gilchrist's collection of songs plumb his own experiences as well as those of his community, reminding us that music not only tells stories but moves us emotionally. "Now" moves, oh yes it moves!  

For more information, go to

Here's the powerful opening track:

The trio of Geof Bradfield (tenor and soprano saxophones), Ben Goldberg (clarinet and contra-alto clarinet), and Dana Hall (drums, percussion) first met in 2017 at The Hyde Park Jazz Festival in Chicago, IL.  That chance encounter led to "General Semantics" (Denmark Records), recorded a year later.  All three musicians have years of experiences behind them as leaders, co-leaders, or group members (Bradfield and Hall have worked together over two decades)––one can tell from the music that recorded how comfortable they are with each other, willing to push and be pushed into many different musical areas.

What a splendid sonic journey this is.  Opening with the quiet rush of "Air" (Bradfield on tenor, Goldberg on contra alto, and Hall using brushes), the music dances forward delightfully as the two reed players carry on quite a conversation.  Composed by the late pianist Cecil Taylor and recorded in 1961 by Steve Lacy, the "swinging" track has a timeless feel. "Tioga Street Zenith" is a three-way conversation, a bit more frenzied yet Hall sticks with brushes as the reeds spar and parry.  "Last Important Heartbreak of the Year" may sound like the title of a Country ballad but is really a rollicking tune with New Orleans drumming goosing the reeds right along.  A bit later in the program, "Hit Flip Switch" (from Goldberg's prolific pen) also is a delightful romp, hearkening back to the raucous music of Louis Armstrong and Johnny Dodds. Bradfield's laughing soprano and Goldberg's playful clarinet should tickle one's fancy!

The soprano sax and clarinet combo returns to dance together yet again on Hermeto Pascoal's happy "8 de Agosto"––again, the two reeds weave around each other as Hall kicks and sticks away with glee.  Bradfield's tenor sax introduces the title song which soon drops into a funky beat, Goldberg's contra alto clarinet producing the bass line. The tenor solo is built off that bass line while Hall keeps the tune close to the ground.  "Half The Fun" opens with a "deep" solo from Goldberg over quiet hand-held percussion.  Several minutes later, Hall drops into a modified "jungle" rhythm a la 1920's Duke Ellington, Goldberg plays a slinky bass line, and Bradfield creates a sweet soprano sax melody.

The album comes to a close with "Under and Over" which has a "freer" feel as the tenor sax and drums open the piece in a fiery conversation.  After they stop, Hall drops into a slow, bluesy, beat, Goldberg's clarinet gets the melody while Bradfield acts as the bass line. There's a feel of Julius Hemphill's "Hard Blues" in the sound of the music, in the way the sax and clarinet move together. The piece closes with a classically-inspired clarinet and tenor saxophone duet.

The trio of Geof Bradfield, Ben Goldberg, and Dana Hall reminds us that when like-minded musicians get together, magic can happen.  Magic does happen on "General Semantics"––this delightful and musical recording is well worth your attention!

For more information, go to

Hear the album's closing track: