Monday, November 23, 2020

Guitars Galore (Part 2)

      Three more albums which feature guitars in different settings are featured in this post––each one has its own strengths and should interest the curious listener.

Will Vinson (saxophones, electric piano), Gilad Hekselman (guitars), and Antonio Sanchez (drums) have created an album for Whirlwind Recordings with the punning title Trio Grande. All three have crossed borders to make New York City their base with Vinson coming from Great Britain, Hekselman from Israel, and Sanchez from Mexico.  They are at the top of their game; this album illustrates how each brings different styles and how they have so much fun "playing" with melody, sound, dynamics, and more. 

Even though there is no bassist, the first sounds one hears is the keyboard bass on the drummer's "Northbound".  The feel and sound of the piece may remind some of Marc Johnson's Bass Desires but with a soprano sax in place of one of the guitars in that group. The joy is in the interplay, the chuckling as well as expansive playing of Hekselman juxtaposed with Sanchez's dancing drums.  The opening moment of the guitarist's "Elli Yeled Tov" (Good boy, Elli) sound like a piece by Lionel Loueke, especially the tone of the guitar. Again, it's Sanchez playful drums that capture one's attention as does Vinson's delightful alto sax solo.  Vinson's "Oberkampf" is a melancholy ballad with the feel of a Joni Mitchell piece. The soprano sax solo near the end of the piece has a more optimistic feel, lifting the energy of all involved.

Other highlights include Hekselman's super-funky "Scoville" which bops along atop Sanchez's conversational drums. The raucous guitar solo features stop-and-go rhythms which the drummer executes like a race car driver.  The drummer's "Firenze" (the Italian name for Florence, Italy) is a handsome ballad, its fine melody lines pushed forward by the alto saxophonist who dashes off into an energetic solo.  Sanchez's spare solo is a treat, he interjects silence into the spot while the sax and guitar move melodically behind him.

"Trio Grande" closes with the guitarist's "Will You Let It", a lovely ballad with an emotional melody, a splendid guitar solo which has a touch of Bill Frisell in Hekselman's solo.  The sparkling cymbal work surrounds the other instruments with a glowing effect.  The really fine aspect of this album from Will Vinson, Gilad Hekselman, and Antonio Sanchez is that the music defies categorization––is it Americana, jazz, rock or is it all that and more?  Go with the latter and just listen and enjoy!   

For more information and to purchase the album, go to https://triogrande-whirlwind.bandcamp.com/album/trio-grande.



I first heard "A Love Supreme" by the John Coltrane Quartet in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, basically 1967, the "Summer of Love".  The music was unlike anything I had listened up until then, having cut my teeth on AM radio and enamored of The Beatles and The Kinks.  The person who played the album for me had been searching for new music and had been blown away by Coltrane's declaration of spiritual love and devotion.  The album was my personal door that opened up within the next few years to Miles Davis, the AACM, Chick Corea, ECM, and beyond.  Over the years, there have been versions by Turtle Island String Quartet, the Branford Marsalis Quartet, and others plus various recordings of particular movements––a favorite is Kurt Elling's brilliant take of "Part II: Resolution" that he recorded in 2004.

Drummer John Hanrahan (born December 9, 1966–two years to the day that the Coltrane Quartet recorded the album) had interviewed the group's drummer Elvin Jones in 2003 who led him to Ashley Kahn's incisive history of the album. That whetted the younger drummer's appetite and when he moved back to Chicago, he formed A Love Supreme Quartet. In 2017, Hanrahan met guitarist and conceptualist Henry Kaiser who introduced the drummer to Coltrane's 1966 album "Meditations" which many people, including the guitarist, feel is the "spiritual follow-up" to "A Love Supreme." The newer Lp, recorded nearly a year to the day after "...Supreme", added the musical voices of saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and drummer Rashied Ali to the Quartet––the sessions would the last time Coltrane recorded with Elvin Jones and pianist McCoy Tyner.

Kaiser and Hanrahan formed a quintet with saxophonist 
Vinny Golia, electric bassist Mike Watt, and organist Wayne Peet. They went into the studio on February 19, 2019, and recorded the two-CD set "A Love Supreme Electric: A Love Supreme & Meditations" (Cuneiform Records). Subtitled "A Salvo Inspired by John Coltrane", the music captures the power of the original pieces and pushes the volume.  Instead of the steadying piano of Tyner, Kaiser's often-raucous guitar is the "second voice" while Peet takes on the pianist's supporting role.  His organ work hearkens back to the sounds of the Black Church but with a modernist twist. He does "fill out the sound" nicely.  Golia, an impressive musician who's the dean of the New Music scene in Southern California, does not try to play like John Coltrane and, unlike the great master, does play soprano saxophone on several of the suites movements. He sets the tone on the opening "Part 1: Acknowledgement", producing his own fiery sounds.  Mike Watt, a veteran of rock bands such as Minutemen and Firehose (currently, he's working with guitarist Mike Baggetta), is a steady presence, making sure his bandmates and listeners do not miss the four-note foundational bass line throughout the opening suite.  

Photo: R.R.Jones
Hanrahan (pictured left) opens "Part 3: Pursuance" with a 3 minute-plus solo that really builds in intensity until Golia (on tenor) jumps into the theme before taking off into a powerful solo. Kaiser's off-balance attack and mighty roar comes next, with a call-and-response with the over-amplified Yamaha organ of Peet as Golia's baritone joins in the fray. 

"Meditations", the lesser known of the two works, has more dynamic variety yet still has moments that rattle the rafters. Peet's organ has a more prominent place in the performance; his interactions with Watt and Hanrahan, especially on Love", stand out. He joins the fray on "Consequences" connecting with Kaiser and Golia to create a fascinating three-way conversation while the bassist and drummer create a maelstrom.  The beat falls out in the middle, the volume drops out, and Golia steps up.  "Serenity" opens quietly with Golia's tenor weaving in and out of the curious guitar sounds and Watt's bass serving as counterpoint.  Hanrahan's solo is next and it has definite bounce and shape before the quintet crashes into a noisy, free-style, reprise of the opening section of "Meditations" titled "The Father and The Son and The Holy Ghost."  The music is harsh with little reprieve but, like the original version, the overall performance can serve as a cleansing.

CD 2 and the program closes with "Acknowledgement reprise", another take of the opening movement of "A Love Supreme."  Recorded at the same session, this take features Golia on both tenor and soprano sax plus a fine organ solo.  The song ends as the the opening of the program started, witg John Hanrahan striking a gong. 

"A Love Supreme Electric" uses the power and the glory of the original performance by the John Coltrane Quartet, expands its sonic blueprint, reminding us of how timeless this music is.  The volume of this music may put some listeners off but do listen to these fine artists make this music their own, doing so with respect and wonder.

For more information and to purchase the album, go to  https://cuneiformrecords.bandcamp.com/album/a-love-supreme-electric-a-love-supreme-and-meditations

Here's the opening track:


One can tell from the title of the new album, "Forest Standards Vol.2" (BIG EGO Records), from guitarist and composer David Lord that this is not his debut album.  In fact, from his home in Wichita, Kansas, he has recorded solo guitar album under the monicker Francis Moss and with the groups The Wonder Revolution and Miki Moondrops. 2018's "Forest Standards Vol. 1" featured Chad Taylor (drums, mbira) and Devin Hoff (acoustic bass)––Taylor returns for "...Vol.2" but the bass chair now is filled by Billy Mohler plus guitarist Jeff Parker shows up on eight of the 14 tracks. 

What's fascinating about this album is that the music moves in unexpected directions; the liner notes (written by Dave Segal of Seattle, WA's newspaper The Stranger) explain that Lord wrote all the tunes in the Lydian mode and how that changes how the pieces resolve.  Listen to how Mohler and Taylor create the flow on the opening "Cloud Ear"––Lord and Parker weave their guitar lines in and around each other in a gentle manner.  Chad Taylor, who can push a group with the best of them is often understated yet still helps to propel many of the pieces.  His rhythmic dance on "Conifer Tuft" has a lightness as well as an urgency.  The two guitarists take turns on solos but also support each others.  Vibraphonist Sam Hake joins the quartet on several pieces include "Coltricia" where Lord overdubs his guitar lines but opens the middle for the ringing vibes.  

There's a gentle yet probing quality to many of the pieces. The fine duet of Parker (electric) and Lord (acoustic), "An Amanita", allows the former to move around the sound spectrum like a wild while the latter keeps the structure of the piece.  Hake and Lord handle the melody on "Nectaries" but you should also attention to Taylor's excellent brush work and Mohler's counterpoint as well as the backwards guitar loops at the end of each verse.  Even though many of these pieces are short in duration, they are long in attention to melody and detail. Both Parker and Lord overdub multiple guitars on "Mossy Maze Polypore" and the textures mixed with quiet background noises first pull the listener in then make one pay attention to the various sounds.

One's appreciation of "Forest Standards Vol 2" grows each time you listen.  This is not music for one impressed by flashy technique but for people who love to hear finely constructed music that embraces melody and experimentation.  David Lord and his talented associates want you to take your time with this music––the sonic experience is well worth it!

For more information, go to www.foreststandards.com.  To listen to the album and for purchase information, go to https://davidlord.bandcamp.com/album/forest-standards-vol-2

Here's "Nectaries":





Friday, November 13, 2020

Autumn Potpourri

Listen to all the musical sounds around us; there are albums that push us into action, others that take us to new worlds, and others that plain bore us. Then, there's "comfort food" music, songs that make us smile, calm us down because the artist(s) is (are) so in sync and sound like that everyone is having such a good time.  For his third album as a leader, pianist, accordionist, and composer Ben Rosenblum has expanded his trio (bassist Marty Jaffe and drummer Ben Zweig) to a sextet featuring Wayne Tucker (trumpet), Jasper Dutz (tenor saxophone, bass clarinet), and Rafael Rosa (guitar), dubbing the group the Nebula Project.

"Kites and Strings" (self-released) features seven Rosenblum originals, one traditional Bulgarian song, and one song each by Leonard Bernstein ("Somewhere") and Neil Young ("Philadelphia", the 1993 movie with Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington).  The fast-paced "Cedar Place" opens the program with the trumpet, tenor sax, and accordion leading the rhythm section through the melody. The accordion may remind some of Gary Versace's work with the Maria Schneider Orchestra.  Te title songs also features Rosenblum's accordion and adds vibraphonist Jake Chapman to the mix.  Solos by Chapman, Tucker, and the leader occur over the floating rhythm section––the music feels warm and comfortable.  "Motif from Brahms (Op. 98)" is a lovey ballad; with the accordion on the melody, trumpet and clarinet for support plus fine piano work by guest pianist Jeremy Corren, the music deftly blends classical and jazz influences. 

Photo: Francesco Moretti
There's a delightful Middle-Eastern feel to "Fight or Flight" with a rollicking guitar solo from Rosa and excellent percussion from Zweig.  The Bernstein song (also featuring Corren) is quite sweet with accordion in the lead and strong counterpoint from bassist Jaffe. Fine solos from the leader, Tucker, and Dutz (bass clarinet) plus an excellent arrangement give the song a pleasing feel.  The trombone of Sam Chess is featured on Young's "Philadelphia", sharing the melody with Dutz's tenor. Rosenblum's emotionally rich solo piano gives the music its gravity pushing the rhythm section to build the intensity under the trombone and guitar solos. Tucker's fast-paced solo enlivens the bopping "Laughing on the Inside"which also includes a swinging accordion solo a la Art Van Damme and a raucous, bluesy, solo from Rosa.  

The Bulgarian traditional "Izpoded" closes the album. With the trumpet, saxophone, and accordion sharing both the melody and counterpoint, the music moves in a stately manner. No percussion but Jaffe's long blowed bass tones gives the music a strong underpinning.  "Kites and Strings" often feels as if the music is flying high, dipping, swirling, and dancing in a strong breeze. Looking for a wide musical grin; Ben Rosenblum Nebula Project is all that and more.

For more information, go to www.benrosenblum.com

Here's a live take of the Leonard Bernstein classic:



Photo: Antonio Porcar
Bassist, composer, and music label co-owner Dan Fortin is the very definition of a contemporary musician.  Not only does he play jazz (1/3rd of the cooperative trio Myriad3 and as a member of saxophonist Allison Au's Quartet) but also "experimental pop" with the quintet Bernice), and the fascinating Queer Songbook Orchestra.  In every musical situation, whether playing electric or acoustic bass (occasionally synth bass), Fortin is the glue of a group. He's a powerful player who plays the "foundations" of most songs so that the other group members have the freedom to move but the bassist is also quite melodic, creating solos you remember (not just there to make a song longer).  Early in 2019, Fortin joined forces with vibraphonist Michael Davidson  to create Elastic Recordings, an outlet for their creative endeavors.  The label debuted with the duo's "Clock Radio" (my review is here); the label's second release, and the bassist's second as a leader, is "The Latest Tech", a nine-song collection of pieces for acoustic bass.

Solo bass requires concentration and commitment on the part of both the creator and the listener.  Just as fellow bassist Jorge Roeder accomplished earlier this year with his smashing "El Suelo Mio", Fortin's music keeps one's attention throughout. Because he is so melodic and percussive, one can hear the musician telling stories. It's the insistent rhythm and repetitive lines propel the title track forward, the ringing chords of the  ballad "X-Ville", the impressionistic "American Desert" that opens the album, the "Purple Haze" influence thump and bump of "Welt", and the hypnotic flow of  the closing track, "Beautiful Psychic Dream"––this music pulls you in, initially keeping you guessing as to where the bassist is taking you but then inviting you back like a friend.  

"The Latest Tech" is, admittedly, not music for everyone but those who enter these musical environments created by bassist and composer Dan Fortin with an open mind and curious ears will be rewarded.  

For more information, go to www.danfortinthewebsite.com.  To hear more and to purchase the album, go to https://danfortin.bandcamp.com/album/the-latest-tech.  

Here's a taste of the title track:



Tenor saxophonist and composer Mike Casey hails from Hartford, CT.  He first studied at the Greater Hartford Academy for the Performing Arts and went on to attend the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the Hartt School of Music, which is affiliated with the University of Hartford. There, he studied with Jackie's son, Rene, as well as with Steve Davis, Javon Jackson, Abraham Burton, and others. After graduation, Casey went on to play with pianists Marc Cary and Benito Gonzalez, harpist Brandee Younger, bassist Nat Reeves, and, in 2016, the saxophonist released his debut album, "The Sound of Surprise", recorded live at The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme, CT.  In 2017,  he was accepted into the inaugural class of Berklee's Master's program in Contemporary Performance and Music Production at the Boston, MA-based new campus in Valencia, Spain.  

Before leaving for Spain in July 2018, Casey took his trio––bassist Matt Dwonzyk and drummer Corey Garcia––to lay down tracks for his second album, "Law of Attraction" (self-released).  The sprawling 83+ minute recording includes 16 tracks with several takes of some songs plus five songs that features the piano of pianist Gonzalez. At the time of the recording, the trio had been playing regularly for over four years and you can tell. The bassist and drummer are a solid unit, knowing how to support, prod, and excite Casey.  "Best Part (take 1)" opens the festivities; it's a medium-paced ballad led in by the chords of bassist Dwonzyk. The melody and sound of the track reminds this listener of Australian alto saxophonist Bernie McGann and, especially, his 2000 album "Bundeena."  "No Church in The Wild (intro)" is next, with Gonzalez on board, and the distinct flavors of the classic John Coltrane Quartet.  That leads into the main body of the song, a rousing, fiery, performance by all involved, especially Garcia whose thunderous percussion pulls the performance forward (the digital version fuses the "intro" to the main body placing that in the middle of the program––there's another take that appears as a bonus track for the digital). On each iteration, Casey and Gonzalez create passionate, powerful, solos that sing and soar. 

Highlights also include the fascinating "Dagobah" (influenced by the movie "Star Wars")––listen to how the bass and drums move underneath the leader, giving the music a sense of urgency.  The title track dances forward, more like Sonny Rollins in the 1970s and 80s. Dwonzyk, whose thick bass tones stand out over the course of the album, creates a delightful solo, supported by the swooshing cymbals.  "Feel The Bern" is short (2:45) but ever-so-funky, with the bass producing one dancing line after the other in support of Casey's "honking" lines.  Garcia's solo will rattle your speakers and windows but you'll want to play this track a lot (no matter your political affiliation).  The three takes of "Get You" are also funky and short (a shade above three minutes) and each one is slightly different from the other (dynamics, rhythmic drive, and how the musicians interact).  

"Law of Attraction" is an attractive album, especially if you like brawny, energetic, post-bop.  In the liner notes, Mike Casey writes that this session was recorded "Live in 100 degree heat with no air conditioning...recorded all old school, no isolation, no headphones! No tricks."  This music sounds live and very much alive, an energy boost without ingesting caffeine. One could be picky and say that the inclusion of all the alternative takes interrupts the flow of the album but, in this digital age of "shuffle tracks", it's hard to tell if anyone listens to an entire album in one sitting.  However you choose to approach this music, it's well worth your time!

For more information, go to www.mikecaseyjazz.com/home. To listen to more and purchase the album, go to https://mikecasey.bandcamp.com/album/law-of-attraction.

Here's the Trio with the afore-mentioned "Dagobah":


Monday, November 9, 2020

Guitarists Galore (Part One)

         Growing up in the 1960s, guitar "heroes" were all the rage (for some of us).  There was Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Steve Miller, Carlos Santana, Ritchie Blackmore (Deep Purple), Peter Green, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and so on.  Every one of these musicians has his own "style", critics and reviewers would argue who's the best or the flashiest or the most overrated/ underrated, and fans would chip in with their own opinions.  While that sort of hype has mostly dissipated, there are still a number of really fine artists from around the world adding their unique voices to the mix.

Pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn has been playing her instrument for over four decades. She was at a club in Chicago when she first heard the instrument and the sound fascinated her.  The next day, she purchased one and soon was playing in country bands around the Windy City. Moving to Houston, Texas, helped her to learn and to play Western Swing. Ms. Alcorn began to study jazz improvisation and a meeting with composer/ conceptualist/ performer Pauline Oliveros led to a collaboration that opened the eyes of the younger artists to a multitude of sounds and possibilities.  Subsequent meetings with Eugene Chadbourne and German bassist Peter Kowald led to more expansion of creativity; her first album date as a leader or co-leader was with guitarist Chadbourne in 1996––since then, she has issued eleven albums plus appeared on several more.  It was on guitarist Mary Halvorson's 2016 octet album "Away With You" that this writer first heard Ms. Alcorn and her work within that ensemble was ear and mind-opening.


The majority of her albums are solo but her new recording, "Pedernal" (Relative Pitch Records) features the pedal steel player with her friend Ms. Halvorson, bassist (and duo partner) Michael Formanek, violinist Mark Feldman, and drummer Ryan Sawyer.  The music, all composed by Ms. Alcorn, is often soft and slow; yet the quintet also gives the interactions power while creating intelligent, far-ranging, solos.  The title track opens the program.  It's a delightful blend of folk, country, classical, and blues influences with a touch of anarchy at times. The blend of electric and pedal steel guitars and players not afraid to stretch notes and ideas makes one pay closer attention. Feldman's sweet violin tone is a handsome –placed on the right side of the mix with Ms. Halvorson on the left (Ms. Alcorn is in the center), the violinist can both stand out and blend in.

Photo: Nicole Fara Silver
That opening song sets the tone for the entire album. "Circular Ruins" has a somber first several minutes before opening up to Ms. Halvorson's sparring with the bass and drums. A moment later, Feldman takes over the match.  The leader joins in as well.  "R.U.R." has a boppish feel in its quick tempo; its first set of solos features angular swift lines. The pace slows down in the second of the piece for a rubato, spacey, group of interactions, that break down to duos (pedal steel and drums, drums and guitar) and occasional interjections from the leader and violinist before returning to the main theme.

Photo: David Lobato
The centerpiece of the album is the 13+ "Night in Gdansk", a episodic piece that runs the gamut in dynamics, in melodic interplay, its interactions and counterpoint giving way to short unaccompanied transitions. There's mystery within this music, the plaintive violin melodies, the guitar duo with lines that connect then spin away from each other, how the drummer and bassist are both foundation and colorists to the sounds above them in the mix. There's a lot to take in on the initial listenings––hit "repeat" when you hit the final note, start over, and you will slowly but surely begin to see the overall shape of the piece.

The program closes with the delightful, playful, folk/bluegrass influenced "Northeast Rising Sun" where everyone gets to let loose.  Ms. Alcorn sits back, letting Ms. Halvorson and Mr. Feldman gleefully solo over the scampering rhythm section before she reenters her most playful solo.  A short, melodic, bass solo leads us back to the original melody and the sweet close.

Susan Alcorn and her excellent musical companions have produced a splendid album, emotionally rich yet adventurous, and ultimately satisfying. If you have never heard the pedal steel guitarist, start with "Pedernal" but make sure to check out her fascinating solo albums (2015's "Soledad", also on Relative Pitch Records, is especially rich music).  Pay attention and the rewards are copious.

For more information, go to www.susanalcorn.net/recordings.  To listen to more and purchase "Pedernal", go to https://relativepitchrecords.bandcamp.com/album/pedernal

Here's the opening track:





Photo: Oresti Tsonopoulos
Guitarist, composer, and educator Alex Wintz is one busy person. Between gigs with Etienne Charles, Roxy Coss, and Nick Finzer, his own trio, and private lessons, the California native (raised in New Jersey) stays quite busy.  The current pandemic has certainly slowed down the gigs but not the teaching.  While he appeared on numerous albums, Wintz has only one recording as a leader––2017's "Life Cycle" (Culture Shock Records)––to his name. That album featured his Trio, bassist Dave Baron and drummer Jimmy MacBride, plus guests Lucas Pino (tenor saxophone), Victor Gould (piano), and Ben Williams (acoustic bass) on selected tracks.  

In January of 2019, a recording engineer friend of Wintz made the offer of six hours in the studio. The guitarist brought the trio in to Red Bull Studios; they had been playing as often as they could and had built up a good-sized repertoire.  They set up, did a quick sound check, and started recording. As the title tells you, these sessions are "Live to Tape" and Finzer's label, Outside In Music has issued the results on vinyl, CD, and digital downloads.  No overdubs, only a few takes (at most), the seven-song program consists of four Wintz originals and one piece each from Herbie Hancock ("Textures"), Annie Clark/ St. Vincent ("What Me Worry"), and Herbert Martin/ Michael Leonard ("I'm All Smiles").  The recording and mix (Evan Sutton) posits the listener in the middle of the Trio and, while there's no crowd noise or words from the leader, one feels as if he is in concert space.

Clicking, percussive, guitar leads the Trio and the listener into "Idris", a tribute to the late drummer Idris Muhammad (1939-2014) who imbued every fast song he played with an irrepressible dancing beat. MacBride is right on top of the beat throughout and his bandmates dance with glee. "Textures", composed by Herbie Hancock for his 1980 "Mr. Hands" Lp, dances gently in a Caribbean mode (the composer's version mixed synths with acoustic piano)––the melody is quite lovely and the rhythm section gives it an Ahmad Jamal-feel.  The St. Vincent composition follows; the trio treats the ballad respectfully giving the song a bluesy shade a la Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing". 

The straight-ahead jump of "Ely, MN" (a Wintz original) allows the band to gallop ahead although there are numerous momentary slowdowns on the way. MacBride and Baron do a great job of push the music forward with the guitarist complying with a hard-driving solo.  The drummer also gets to step out which he does with great force and style.  

"Live to Tape" closes with "I'm All Smiles", a perfect tune in that the music on this album will make you do just that––smile.  This album is the perfect Friday or Saturday evening experience.  At the end of a long week, turn down the lights, pour a libation, sit back and let the delightful sounds produced by the Alex Wintz Trio wash away the week's detritus.  No deep messages on the album; in fact, just one and that could be "take it easy and enjoy!" 

For more information, go to www.alexwintzmusic.com/.  To hear more and purchase the album, go to https://alexwintz.bandcamp.com/album/live-to-tape

Here's the Trio with the Herbie Hancock piece:




When the pandemic hit in earnest back in March, many countries closed down, limiting access to restaurants, theaters, clubs, stadiums, schools, airports, shops, and just about every place where people congregate.  Many of us wondered then how artists would respond to this major threat to their livelihood. Musicians are adapting to online concerts, a number of venues have opened to present concerts but the audience is only allowed in via the Internet. Musicians are figuring out ways to record at home.  In April, we read reports of musicians streaming short "concerts" every day or week plus others who lived in cities stepping out on their balconies or onto the streets in front of their domiciles.  In warmer climes, groups have performed in large public spaces but few, if any, will play to a crowd indoors for a while longer.



Danish guitarist and composer Mikkel Ploug, who has worked on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean with artists such as Kenny Wheeler, Pete Robbins, Mark Turner (their 2018 duo album "Faroe" is a quiet gem) and a host of others, was ensconced in his apartment at a loss for ideas. Two weeks into the shutdown, Ploug opened his balcony doors in the early evening, put his amplifier and a chair out there and proceeded to play a lullaby for the neighborhood children. The response was immediate and overwhelmingly positive so he continued every night for the next month.  Soon, the videos he recorded of each performance went viral so Ploug started a Kickstarter program to raise money to record these Danish lullabies and "pop" standards in a studio setting.  The result is the truly lovely "Balcony Lullabies" (Stunt Records). 

The 13 songs include nine traditional songs plus "Julia" (The Beatles), "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" (Harold Arlen), "The Nearness of You" (Hoagy Carmichael), and "You are My Sunshine" (Jimmie Davis/ Charles Mitchell).  There are not "bravura" performances, recorded to show off the guitarist's versatility but they do show he can adapt material to his solo guitar and make it meaningful to any audience.  Whoever listens will find their own favorites but keep in mind that there are "lullabies", pieces of music that allow your mind to wander. The sound of Ploug's acoustic and electric guitars is lovely throughout and one wishes he lived nearby so that the music could waft through the windows of the house.  He had previously recorded a solo album (the all-acoustic "Alleviation" in 2017) that is also worth exploring. 

The pandemic has scared many of us, forced us to retreat and think only of ourselves. "Balcony Lullabies" reminds us that we should not abandon our neighbors and have empathy for those separated from their families, for those younger ones who cannot connect with their friends or continue their education in a proper setting. Will this worldwide problem help us appreciate patience? Who knows? In various places, pandemic "fatigue" has created an upsurge in cases but art can remind us of the best in people. Mikkel Ploug, has created a delight-filled interlude, escape if you will, from the madness.  

For more information, go to www.mikkelploug.com.  Go to sites such as amazon.com and iTunes to for purchase options. 

Here's the "live" version of the album's final track (recorded 4/15/20):



Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Looking at the World Through Very Different Glasses

It's endlessly fascinating what music can do for the curious/ avid listener. On one hand, we have a great pianist spending time away from the city to play through the scourge of the pandemic. On the other, a stunning sextet of musicians joined on three tracks by one of the forefathers of British "art rock" exploring a variety of approaches to creative music with words that have many meanings.

Sixteen years ago, pianist Fred Hersch and his life partner Scott Morgan celebrated their union by building a house in the Pennsylvania woods. It is the place they go to escape the craziness of New York City and to rest in the midst of their very busy schedules. When the pandemic closed down all opportunities to play to a live audience, Hersch began releasing a "Song of the Day" on his Facebook page; after a month, he decided to do a short concert once a week but that only lasted for two weeks. In August of this year, the pianist left Morgan in the city, traveled to their second dwelling, and spent a week recording "Songs From Home" (Palmetto Records).  With help from fellow pianists Benoit Delbecq (co-producer and mixing engineer) and Dan Tepfer plus two piano technicians (Greg Graham and Chris Solliday), the music will certainly warm your heart and soul.

Anyone who follows Fred Hersch knows his programs are always an eclectic mix of standards, "pop" tunes", Thelonious Monk, and originals.  "Songs From Home" is different as there's no Monk and only one original.  It's a mix of standards, jazz works, and delightful interpretations of Joni Mitchell (listen below), Jimmy Webb, and Lennon & McCartney.  The album opens with an introspective take on "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" (from "My Fair Lady")––one could say that this performance is a comment on the lockdown and the desire to get back to some semblance of "normal".  Webb's "Wichita Lineman", one of the finest songs he composed, is filled with love, longing, a prayer for people separated by their jobs.  The one Hersch original "West Virginia Rose" is paired with the traditional "The Water is Wide"; the first melody has the feel of a Randy Newman ballad while the traditional is filled with hope. Kenny Wheeler's handsome "Consolation (a Folk Song)" follows and, like many of the late Canadian-born trumpeter's pieces, has a lovely and expansive melody. Duke Ellington's "Solitude" is an apt choice for this program. One can picture the pianist at the keyboard sifting through memories as he slowly plays the memorable melody..  

Fred Hersch turned 65 on October 21; the program closes with a jaunty reading on "When I'm Sixty-Four" (he certainly was at the time). Playful and expansive, the performance reminds us all we have much to be thankful for. Yes, times are troublesome, the pandemic rages on, but music is wonderful medicine for the trouble soul. "Songs From Home" may be viewed by some as a response to the pandemic. So be it. To these ears and heart, it's a timeless, highly emotional, and deeply satisfying album that resonates long after the final note rings out. 

For more information, go to fredhersch.com.  

Listen to Fred Hersch play Joni Mitchell's "All I Want":





Photo: Reuben Radding
One should always expect the unexpected when listening to the many different recordings, ensembles, and pairings that guitarist/ composer Mary Halvorson posits herself in.  Code Girl started as a quintet to create settings for the poems she had been writing. With long-time associates Tomas Fujiwara (drums, percussion) and Michael Formanek (acoustic bass), the guitarist built a front line with vocalist Amirtha Kidambi and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire.  The quintet's self-titled debut album was issued in early 2018 garnering critical acclaim for its mysterious blend of improvisational music, "progressive rock", the often-impressionistic lyrics, and the spellbinding vocals.

The group's second album, "Artlessly Falling" (Firehouse 12 Records), finds Akinmusire replaced by Adam O'Farrill plus the addition of Maria Grand (tenor saxophone, vocals) and, on three of the eight pieces, the voice of Robert Wyatt. Mr. Wyatt first came onto the British music scene in the mid-1960s as the drummer of Soft Machine, a quartet that created a beguiling mix of jazz, rock, minimalism, and more. When that group splintered, he helped form Matching Mole and embarked on a solo career, his soft vocals blending with his embrace of "free jazz."  After an accident in 1973 left him paralyzed from the waist down, Wyatt regrouped creating a series of albums featuring his idiosyncratic compositions, often-political lyrics, and voice. He came out of retirement to record his vocals for Code Girl, fitting seamlessly into the beguiling, swirling, sounds.

Among the first sounds you hear on the album opener, "The Lemon Trees", are the sweet harmonies of Ms. Kidambi and Ms. Grand. Quiet brush work and simple, foundational, bass notes plus O'Farrill sharp trumpet lines serve to introduce Wyatt's first vocal.  He sings one verse before the trumpeter creates a his own "sing-song" solo. Fujiwara steps out next with a pounding solo before the sextet falls back into the song, Wyatt now double-tracked.  "Last Minute Smears" follows with lyrics taken directly from Judge Brett Kavanaugh's testimony during his Senate confirmation hearing.  The dark ballad, replete with martial drumming and breathy tenor sax solo, is not farcical but does condemn the process with its own words. 

Wyatt (pictured left) returns for "Walls and Roses"; he starts off the piece then Ms. Halvorson kicks the piece into a more "hard rock" direction dropping for Ms. Kibambi's verse. After one more "guitar shredding", Wyatt returns and then Ms. Grand sings a verse.  The different voices, tempo and dynamic changes, keep the listener engaged. His third and final appearance comes on "Bigger Flames", an Impressionistic "word painting" with slightly askew strummed guitar chords and trumpet/ saxophone counterpoint. Despite being recorded in England, Wyatt sounds as if he sitting in front of the band.

Photo: James Wang
Tracks such as "
Mexican War Streets (Pittsburgh)", "Muzzling Unwashed", and "A Nearing" show the influence of not only Wyatt but also the "freer" side of the late bassist Jack Bruce. The rhythm section is insistent throughout those songs, pulling the ensemble forward urgently. Note how the voices fit seamlessly into the mix of instruments. There are moments in "Mexican War..." that feel influenced by by both Kurt Weill and Black Sabbath!  The lyrics speak to the history and the present in a city ever-changing.  Formanek's percussive then melodic unaccompanied bass sets the tone for "A Nearing" which also stands out for Ms. Kidambi splendid vocal as well as O'Farrill's interactions with Ms. Halvorson, his inventive lines, and how he negotiates the dynamic rhythm section. Ms. Grand also creates a potent solo that is impressive for her in the maelstrom created by the guitar and drums.

Photo: James Wang
The album closes with the title track. Ms. Halvorson's modulated guitar accompanies Ms. Kidambi with the rhythm section swirling up a storm.  Soon, one notices the trumpet and tenor saxophone creating their own swirling lines in their respective corners of the sound spectrum.  Note the change near the end when the rhythm section kicks into a forward gear. The vocalist holds her own in the sonic storm singing right up to the abrupt ending. One should go right back and listen again as there is too much to take in in one sitting. 

Mary Halvorson's Code Girl creates its own genre, taking from so many streams of contemporary music. Is it Jazz, is it Rock, Progressive, Art-Rock?  Ms. Halvorson's lyrics are all in different poetic forms e.g the title song is a sestina and the opening track a double tanka.  Call "Artlessly Falling" whatever you want but don't dare ignore it. The music and words are much too beguiling and thought-provoking to be typecast.  

For more information, go to www.maryhalvorson.com.  To hear more and to purchase the recording, go to https://maryhalvorson.bandcamp.com/album/artlessly-falling

Go to the link below to hear the opening track:

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Autumn 2020 Treats

Nowadays, music comes from everywhere, from artists around the world. Two of the three groups reviewed below are transatlantic in composition while one is from a group of musicians based in Chicago but with international experience.

It's been 12 years since alto saxophonist and composer Patrick Cornelius recorded with the Transatlantic Collective.  Composed of Cornelius, bassist Michael Janisch, Estonian pianist Kristjan Randalu, and drummer Paul Wiltgen (from Luxembourg, that band spent the better part of four years recoding and touring.  Janisch and Cornelius stayed in touch; in fact, the Wisconsin-born bassist, head of Whirlwind Recordings (and now a resident of London England), has released three of Cornelius's albums as a leader. The saxophonist reached out to his three friends with a new project, music inspired by Maine's Acadia National Park; they gathered in England, rehearsed, played several gigs, entered the studio, and emerged with a new album.  The result is "Acadia: Way of the Cairns" (Whirlwind), a delightful suite (seven pieces by Cornelius, one each for Randalu and Wiltgen) that sparkles and shines from beginning to end. The group has now been dubbed Acadia after this project, 

First thing one should notice is how clean and clear the sound––you can hear all four musicians without an issue.  Janisch's bass playing is particularly strong; he is the first soloist on the opening title track, his melodic lines and thick tone set the pace for the band.  The skipping rhythms of "Blueberry Mountain" are propelled forward by Wiltgen with a touch of hip hop in his attack. Note how Cornelius dances over the rhythm section plus Randalu's short but dazzling solo that starts low in his left hand, gleefully darting up the keyboard. The rhythmic attack on this tune as well as the opening moments of "On The Precipice" features echoes of pianist Keith Jarrett's European Quartet with Jan Garbarek, Jon Christensen, and Palle Danielson.  The powerful "Darkest Night" is in the middle of the program, introduced by the circular piano lines with the bass introducing the main melody before Cornelius introduces the second part of the theme.  The saxophonist's exciting solo is underpinned by the heft of the piano chords.

Randalu introduces his composition "Valse H├ęsitante" with a lilting melody before the saxophonist joins in counterpoint. There's a touch of Erik Satie in the gentle melody as well as the opening phrases of the piano solo. Check out the formal sound of the saxophone solo, almost as if this was a recital.  The drummer's contribution, "Ten Years Later", might refer to the band's extended hiatus. The ballad, which closes the program, is a finely constructed piece in which all four musicians move the melody forward.  Cornelius steps out for a short, soulful, solo that closes on a bluesy return to the original melody.  

"Acadia: Way of the Cairns" moves with purpose, style, energy, and soul. Patrick Cornelius writes to the strengths of his musical partners and they respond in kind.  This music pulls the listener, leaving one satisfied but ready to dig right back in.  That's what the best music does!

For more information, go to www.patrickcornelius.com/projects/acadia. To listen to more music and purchase the album, go to https://patrickcornelius-whirlwind.bandcamp.com/album/way-of-the-cairns

Here's the quartet playing "Darkest Night":



Greg Osby (United States: soprano and alto saxophones) and Florian Arbenz (Switzerland: drums, percussion) have played together for over 22 years, playing concerts in Europe and the United States.  "Reflections of the Eternal Lines" (Hammer Recordings) is their first duo recording but they have recorded together before with the drummer's cooperative trio VEIN. This album was inspired by the paintings of Swiss artist Stephan Spicher, whose workshop was the host for the recording. The pieces, composed by the drummer, run the gamut from the hard driving "Groove Conductor" to the dancing rhythms of "Wooden Lines" to the quiet kalimba/ soprano sax piece "The Passage of Light" (which has the feel of a ballad by Billy Strayhorn).  The mysterious "Chant" rumbles forward on the sounds of a gong, orchestra bells, and cymbals while Osby creates a lovely melody.  

Black American Music has had a number of fine saxophone/ drums duos; examples include John Coltrane and Rashied Ali ("Interstellar Space"), Max Roach with both Anthony Braxton and Archie Shepp (for Hat Hut Records), plus Dewey Redman and Ed Blackwell.  "Reflections of The Eternal Line" will remind you of those albums yet has its own beauty and mystery.  The duo of Greg Osby and Florian Arbenz recorded alongside Stephan Spicher (see and hear below), each artist inspired by the others.  Sit down, turn the speakers up loud (or wear head phones), and the sounds create paintings in your mind. What an aural treat!

For more information, go to www.florianarbenz.com/osby/.  To purchase, go to https://florianarbenz.bandcamp.com/

Here's the delightful opening track:


The city of Chicago, Illinois, reverberates throughout "Forward", the new album by trumpeter/ flugelhornist Chad McCullough.  It's his debut on Outside In Music and features a stellar cast of Windy City regulars including pianist Rob Clearfield, bassist Matt Ulery, and drummer Jon Deitemyer plus, on three of the six tracks, Ryan Cohan (keyboards, programming, co-producer).  The program, all McCullough originals, features three quartet pieces and three that add Cohan to the mix.  First time through, one can hear the influence of the late Kenny Wheeler, especially in the open-ended nature of the music and performances––Cohan's synthesized strings actually add to the airiness, giving an ethereal feel to "Oak Park", a symphonic grandeur to "Grave at the Gavel or Grace at the Gallows", and a winter-like atmosphere to "Water Tower Sunset."  

Like Wheeler, McCullough does not dominate this music, allowing the rhythm section to set the tone of each piece. If you have paid any attention to Rob Clearfield, you'll know he's one of the most lyrical pianists on the scene. Not only does he create a solid foundation for the trumpet to ride on but he also creates space for Ulery and Deitemeyer to move independently––you'll hear that on pieces such as "Gentle" and the fast-paced "Focal Point."  On the latter piece, the rhythm section plays with great energy and purpose––Clearfield dominates the first several minutes, engaging in a musical conversation with the bass and drums that is exhilarating. McCullough picks up on that energy, creating his own dialogue with the group.

Photograph: Roberta Ciprus
If you have any familiarity with the city of Chicago, several of the songs will create a mental picture of the city.  "Oak Park" is where Frank Lloyd Wright, "November Lake" will remind you of the breezes off Lake Michigan that make you catch your breath, and "Water Tower Sunset" will posit one in the bustle of North Michigan Avenue. 

What impresses most about "Forward" is how the music, whether the pace be slow or fast, is so alive with ideas, melody, and sense of purpose. At this time, when music is one of the few ways to "travel" safely, Chad McCullough has created a journey that is emotionally uplifting and ultimately satisfying.  

Here's a taste of "Grace at the Gavel or Grace at the Gallows":




Chad McCullough, with Jon Deitemyer, Matt Ulery, pianist Paul Bedal, and synth artist Paul Mutzabaugh, played an "Album Release Concert" in mid-October (two weeks ago, as of this writing) at the Fulton Street Collective in Chicago. Below is an excerpt of the full show, the lively "Focal Point":