Friday, August 5, 2022

They Play Ms. Bley

I have been impressed by a number of new albums released this Summer that are soft in volume but musically and emotionally strong.  

The trio of Steve Cardenas (guitar), Ted Nash (tenor + soprano saxophones, clarinet), and Ben Allison (bass) have played on each other's albums and in live concerts for more than two decades. Nash and Allison were connected as founding members of the New York City-based Jazz Composers Collective (very active in the 1990s) while Cardenas began recording as a member of the bassist's group around the turn of the century.  As an ensemble, they've recorded three albums, 2018's "Quiet Revolution" (Sonic Camera, Allison's label), 2019s "Somewhere Else – West Side Story Songs" (Plastic Sax, Nash's label), and the recently released (July 2022) "Healing Power – The Music of Carla Bley" (Sunnyside Records, the label Cardenas records for). Their 2018 debut was dedicated to the music of reed master Jimmy Guiffre and his work with guitarist Jim Hall–the shape and sound of the lineup was perfect for an exploration of that composer's music and also worked really well for the Bernstein/Sondheim songs on the second recording..

For the trio's third release, they turn to Carla Bley whose unique musical stylings has kept listeners and critics entranced and guessing for over five decades.  She has led numerous ensembles including both a small and large big band as well as, most recently, a trio with bassist Steve Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard.  Her music reveals all sorts of influence but Ms. Bley has always a penchant for smartly-crafted melodies. The songs on "Healing Power" come from throughout the composer's career; not only do Messrs. Cardenas, Nash, & Allison do the music justice, they make the songs their own.  The nine-song program opens with one of her most famous pieces "Ida Lupino".  Composed in 1964 and first recorded by her-then husband Paul Bley, the music is quite introspective and has a lovely melody.  Allison's quiet bass lines creates a perfect foundation for the solos.

Photo: Ludovico Granvassu
The second track, "Donkey", is even older (1962) and swings nicely with a be-bop line worthy of Charlie Parker. With the exception of "Lawns" and the title track (both from 1987), all the tracks are from the mid-1960s.  The music shows both the composer's versatility and her willingness to carve out her own compositional space in the fertile Creative Music scene.  The listener should be thrilled by the mysterious and emotional "Olhos de Gato" (listen below) as well as the playful "King Korn" (both pieces that feature Nash on clarinet).  The former has a Spanish "tinge"(a hint of flamenco) plus splendid short  solos from all three musicians. Meanwhile, the latter track has a sweet bluesy feel–the main "body" of the piece is a three-way conversation that is bright, musical, with a touch of humor.

The program closes with the blues-drenched title track; note the interaction of the bass and guitar on Cardenas's sweet solo plus how Nash "gets down" over the sympathetic background.  Yes, "Healing Power" just might cure what ails the world (ah, we can dream) but this soft yet dynamic session will make you smile as it reminds you just how impressive a composer Carla Bley has been through her long and continuing career.  Kudos to Steve Cardenas, Ben Allison, and Ted Nash!!

For more information about the trio, go to https://benallison.com/the-trio.  To hear more and purchase the album, go to https://stevecardenas.bandcamp.com/album/healing-power-the-music-of-carla-bley

Hear them play "Olhos de Gato":


Here's the title track:

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Charles Mingus at 100: Just as Contemporary, Just as Meaningful

Plenty of attention being paid to bassist, composer, activist, author, and bandleader Charles Mingus (1922-1979) in this year, the 100th anniversary of his birth.  Those of us who followed Mingus when he was alive knew how important he was as a link from the bebop generation  to the new Black Music of the late 1960s and into the 1970s. If you listen closely to the music of The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Dave Holland, Vijay Iyer, Tyshawn Sorey, Dave Douglas, you can, at times, hear the Mingusian approach. 

Into the mix steps bassist Ethan Philion.  The Chicago-based musician has made a name for himself working alongside saxophonist Greg Ward, violinist Mark Feldman, saxophonists Gary Bartz and Ernest Dawkins plus many others. He was chosen in 2015 to take part in the Betty Carter Jazz Residency at Lincoln Center where he worked/studied with pianist Jason Moran, bassist Eric Revis, vocalist Carmen Lundy, saxophonist JD Allen, and others. Currently, Philion leads three ensembles including a piano trio, a piano-less quartet, and a 10-piece ensemble dubbed Meditations on Mingus––it's that last group whose new recording, released August 26 on Sunnyside Records, that we're concerned with in this post. Arranged and produced by the bassist, "Meditations on Mingus" features Russ Johnson and Victor Garcia (trumpets), Rajiv Halim, Geof Bradfield, and Max Bessessen (saxes, bass clarinet, flutes), Norman Palm and Brendan Whalen (trombones), Alex Lombre (piano) and Dana Hall (drums).

The eight-song, 76-minute, program features pieces Mingus fans will recognize plus a few surprises.  The album opens with "Once Upon a Times, There was a Holding Corporation called Old America" which was composed for "Mingus at Monterey 1965" but not heard until a 1966 live recording at UCLA.  It's an episodic adventure that plays to the strengths of both the collective and individual soloists. "Meditation for a Pair of Wirecutters" also showed up in 1966 ––at 15:11, it's the longest track on the disk and, as most of these pieces, goes in several directions, from a piano solo over arco bass to a lovely bass clarinet solo (Bradfield) over shifting rhythms to powerful ensemble work.  Philion's arrangement allows all the instruments to be heard even when the music gets cluttered. Hall's drum playing is exemplary throughout but especially on "...Wirecutters".  

Longtime favorites such as "Haitian Fight Song" and the rip-roaring "Better Get It In Your Soul" sparkle with splendid playing, the ensemble joyously dancing through the melodies before the solos.  The former track opens with a powerful bass statement leading into the familiar intro before melody comes rolling in. The buildup to the full ensemble is great fun with trumpets blaring, bluesy trombones, and thick piano chords. Powerful solos from Palm (trombone), pianist Lombre, and the leader stand out. "Better Get It...", with its delectable soul-gospel melody, features fire in the rhythm section, delightful "shouts" from the brass and reeds during the piano solo, a powerful alto sax solo (Bessessen), and a "stomping" drum spot for Hall. The music is so infectious you'll want to press "repeat"! Dig the coda!!

There's a lovely take of "Self-Portrait in Three Colors" with a long and powerful trumpet solo from Johnson over different ensemble backgrounds. Also, check out the bluesy, playful "Prayer for Passive Resistance" with a smashing alto solo from Rajiv Halim.  "Remember Rockefeller at Attica" from 1975's "Changes One" gets a sparkling arrangement (with a little hint of "Fables of Faubus" thrown in to enforce the fact how stupid Governors can be)––the pace is powerful led by the throbbing bass and dancing drums.  

Thanks to Ethan Philion and to "Meditations on Mingus" for reminding us that there are many ways to interpret the music of a Master and how rewarding it can be to dive right in. Play it loud! 

For more information, go to https://ethanphilion.com/. To preorder the album, go to  https://sunnysiderecords.bandcamp.com/album/meditations-on-mingus-2.

Here's the band in action on "Haitian Fight Song":

Friday, July 29, 2022

Off-Kilter Yet On Point

Photo: Peter Koloff

Trombonist and composer John Yao is a busy musician and teacher. He leads several different ensembles including a hard-hitting 17-member big band, he has played in and continues to play in numerous ensembles including Terraza 7 Big Band, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, and Manuel Valera's New Cuban Express Big Band. Yao has issued five albums as a leader or co-leader including two with his Quintet, one with the Big Band, and one with the piano-less quintet known as Triceratops.  That group has a unique front line––besides the trombonist/composer stands Jon Irabagon (tenor and soprillo saxophones) and Billy Drewes (alto and soprano saxophones). Their 2019 debut album, "How We Do" (See Tao Records) featured the rhythm section of Peter Brendler (bass) and Mark Ferber (drums); my review stated "the eight-song program is a delight from start to finish" and upon listening again recently, I stand by that review (read here).  

Triceratops second album, "Off-Kilter" (See Tao), finds the original lineup intact save for Robert Sabin who is now the bassist.  The sound of the band has not changed with the blend of the reeds with the trombone creating fascinating interplay. What stands out for this listener is that Yao's compositions (he composed eight of the nine pieces on this album with Billy Drewes contributing the other). His melodies are so strong, well-developed, and not just quick themes for blowing over. Take "Crosstalk" with its interweaving lines for the front line, bopping beat, and the solid walking bass line.  Listen below to "Labyrinth" and how the playful intro gives way to a delightful blues with a few side-trips (into tempo changes, speed-ups, slow-downs). The quintet keeps one on the edge of your seat to see where the music is going  next. A piece such as "The Morphing Line" has the feel of Dave Holland's Prime Directive especially in the flexibility of the rhythm section (Ferber is fantastic throughout the program).  It's not imitative, just uses Holland's sound as a springboard. 

The title track closes the album. The music moves at a high speed and the solo peels off from the melody.  Drewes' alto spot leaps above the rumbling bass line and the rapid-fire drumming.  The solo concludes with a return to the opening theme and––no surprise––the tempo downshifts for a moment so that the front line can play a short chorale with Ferber adding to the melody.  Then, a rapid ascending bass line leads the band back to the original tempo and the opening melody with cut-outs for a call-and-response with Ferber.  

"Off-Kilter" is right on target, modern music for adventurous minds.  John Yao's Triceratops is quite alive, playing with fire, with joy, spirited interactions that jump out of the speakers.  Throughout the program, the blend that Billy Drewes and Jon Irabgon get with the leader is fun to listen to and, at times, quite exciting.  Give this music a good, close, listen and the rewards will be plentiful!

For more information, go to www.johnyao.com.  To hear more and to purchase this and other albums by Mr. Yao, go to https://johnyao.bandcamp.com/album/off-kilter

Hear the mysterious yet playful "Labyrinth":

Thursday, July 28, 2022

New Voice From Montreal

One of the treats of reviewing music is that I get plenty of albums that seem to come out of nowhere by artists I don't know.  And, sometimes, I'm pleasantly surprised! Out of Canada via Montreal comes the debut album of pianist and composer Kate Wyatt.  The Vancouver B.C native is certainly not unknown in her native nation having worked with the late Kenny Wheeler, with composer and bandleader Christine Jensen, vocalist Jay Clayton, the Orchestre de National de Jazz de Montreal (ONJ), and with her husband, bassist Adrien Vedady.  She's a richly-melodic and thoughtful musician not given to displays of technique but always working to give her music depth. 

"Artifact" (self-released) is Kate Wyatt's debut as a leader. The seven-song program, all but one (Billy Strayhorn's lovely "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing") composed by the leader, finds the pianist in the company of her husband on bass, trumpeter Lex French, and drummer Jim Doxas.  The trumpeter hails from New Zealand but moved to Montreal in 2016 and is making a name for himself. Doxas should be well-known to American audiences having worked and recorded with his tenor sax-playing brother Chet in the quartet known as Riverside with Dave Douglas and Steve Swallow.  What stands out most while listening to this music is how well the quartet plays together; they listen to each, respond, push a bit, never losing sight of the leader's goal which is to celebrate the melodic and harmonic aspects of each piece without ignoring the rhythmic possibilities. 

Photo: Evan Shay
Several of the tracks will bring to mind the "open-air" music of Kenny Wheeler––certainly the title track which opens the album does.  The piece takes its time cycling through the melody before French takes his solo. He wraps his notes around the richly melodic bass and the spare piano chords. Some of his smears sound like those of the late Lester Bowie.  Ms. Wyatt's solo rolls forward atop interactive drums and thick, foundational, bass lines.  Later in the album, "Antepenultimate" also has tinges of Wheeler.  Still, "Short Stories" is a playful strut with lively walking bass lines and dancing cymbals. There's more playfulness of "Lhotse Face"––listen below at how well this unit works together.

The ballads on the album are excellent.The Strayhorn song is quite lovely; French "sings" the melody and, after Vedady's handsome spotlight and Ms. Wyatt's sweet melodic adventure, creates a splendid solo of his own.  "Underwater Chant" is slower yet contains a full melody, more lovely trumpet, fine counterpoint, quiet yet "just right" drum and cymbal work. Even so, French's solo is quite playful as if he is trying to cajole the band into following him (they don't and he comes back to the fold). He does set the tone for the piano spot. 

The program closes with "Duet", another delightful melody and, surprisingly, featuring all four musicians. Listen to how the music skips like a young person on a sunny Spring day, full of life and energy, ready to take on the world.  

"Artifact" is a delightful debut album, filled with melody, spirit, and a joy for playing together that gives the listener hope, hope that music can bring our world back from the brink of madness.  I'm glad that Kate Wyatt finally found the time to get her music recorded because this album is a gem. Highly recommended!!

For more information, go to www.katewyattpiano.com/. To hear more and purchase the album, go to 
 

Hear "Lhotse Face":

Monday, July 25, 2022

Hear What I've Been Listening To (7/25/22)

String quartets are usually not the bailiwick of this blog but there have been a slew of new (and, to be fair) older recordings that have caught my fancy in recent months.  In June, it was the massive seven-CD box set of the collected string quartets of Wadada Leo Smith (still working my way through that) as well as the brilliant three-CD solo violin set from Johnny Gandelsman's "This is America" which led me back to listen to his work with the Brooklyn Rider string quartet.    

Around the same time, I became aware of PUBLIQuartet, a string ensemble founded in 2010 and based in New York City.  Composed of Curtis Stewart (violin), son of tuba master Bob Stewart, Jannina Norpoth (violin), daughter of Detroit-based music master A. Spencer Barefield, Nick Revel (viola), and Hamilton Berry (cello), the string quartet pushes at the boundaries and prejudices about 21st-Century classical music inspired by the work of Kronos Quartet, Roscoe Mitchell, Caroline Shaw, and many others.  Among their projects is "Mind| The| Gap|" which brings diverse musical material from folk, blues, pop, and elsewhere and presents them in a new musical light.  

"What Is American" (Bright Shiny Things) is the PUBLIQ's third album and follows in the structure of 2019's "Freedom & Faith" in there are suites, adaptations, new music, and improvisations.  Among the 20 tracks are four short pieces, all sharing the main title "Fifth Verse", that connect the words poet Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in 1861 that added a verse to "The Star Spangled Banner" to support the Union Cause in the Civil War.  The ensemble opens the program with their take on Antonin Dvořák's "String Quartet No. 12, Op. 96 "American", one of the pieces the Czech composer wrote while in the United States (1892-1895) as the head of the National Conservatory of Music in NewYork City. One can easily hear the influence of Negro Spirituals on the composer while the PUBLIQs use of percussion and voice throughout the four movements underscore that influence.

It's a fascinating program.  The quartet play the four-movement "Dig The Say", a piece pianist Vijay Iyer composed for Brooklyn Rider based on the music of the "Godfather of Soul" James Brown. Part of the fun of the piece is just how funky it is but also the introspection built into the second movement. Instrument are used for percussion, there are quick stops, foot stomping, pizzicato, and an overall sense of joy.  There are pieces by Rhiannon Giddens (the powerful blues "At The Purchaser's Option"), Roscoe Mitchell (the enigmatic "CARDS 11.11.20"), and improvisations on works by Fats Waller ("Honeysuckle Rose"), Ornette Coleman ("Law Years" and "Street Woman"), plus the four improvisations that close the album under the title "Wild Women"––they include hand-clapping funk of "Black Coffee" by Tina Turner, the high-powered in-your-face soul of "They Say I'm Different" by the late Betty Davis, Alice Coltrane's ecstatic "Er Ra", and closing with Ida Cox's feisty anthem "Wild Women Don't Get The Blues".  

Some might say that "What Is American" is way too ambitious a project––of course it is. It has to be. For as much as the media makes the US look as if it is either right wing or left wing, overall it is way too complex to neatly drop into two sides.  By taking their influences from a plethora of genres, by adding improvisation, voices, and more, this program shows just how diverse this country is. And that's good. That is something we need to remember!  PUBLIQuartet has much on its mind but foremost, they want to use music to educate, entertain, and energize a pandemic-numbed world.  

For more information, go to www.publiquartet.com.  To hear more and purchase, go to https://publiquartet.bandcamp.com/album/what-is-american.

Here's Vijay Iyer's "Dig The Say - 1: Carry the Ball": 

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Sounds in Our Head

Photo: Dave Stapleton
The duo of Sachal Vasandani (voice) and Romain Collin (piano) issued their first album "Midnight Shelter" (Edition Records) in Spring 2021––it seemed the perfect escape during pandemic times. Not because it was "escapist entertainment" but because of how made the listeners feel the various emotions one has in contemplation. Perhaps it was Vasandani's unadorned vocals or Collin's clear, clean, accompaniment, maybe because the duo took music from folk, rock, and elsewhere, unifying them in sound and delivery so the listener could hear and feel the words.  There was no improvisation, no feats of vocal techniques, just pure, clean, song. When you think about it, that's a gift but also a return to balladry.  Not sure I was ready for the intimacy of the first album; at the time, the world was sick from worry about COVID-19, scared of the variants, and tired of being cooped up, I just wanted to sit with my friends, see my family, go to a concert and not watch it on a computer screen or television in 2-D but feel music coursing through my body and others, a communal experience.
 

Just over a year later comes "Still Life", the duo's second adventure for Edition.  It would be easy to write that this is more of the same but only on the surface. There is still the excellent choice of material; the smashing choices of Elizabeth Cotton's "Freight Train", the timeless Paul Simon's musical warning "The Sound of Silence", and Ray Reid's "I Can't Make You Love You" (arguably the best song ever composed by a ex-football player––former Cincinnati Bengal Reid with Allen Shamblin) are among the immediate standouts. There are three original songs worth your attention. The album opens with Vasandani's "No More Tears" which at the onset has the urgency of a Robert Johnson blues tune and then turns into a subtly powerful jazz tune.  "Someone Somewhere" comes from a collaboration between the vocalist and drummer Nate Smith, a down-tempo ballad where the piano chords seem to float below and around the words.  "How Could We Be" is a lament composed by Collin; while there is an urgency in the piano chords, the vocal is gentle, soft, pleading without begging.  

Photo: Dave Stapleton
The duo do a smashing rearrangement of "Latch", a 2012 song by the British electronica duo Disclosure that featured Sam Smith.  The spare piano work captures the gentle funkiness of the track but it's Vasandani's impressive falsetto that stands out.  James Bay 2014 "Let It Go" is a heartfelt ballad; Vasandani's sweet vocal approach brings out the heartbreak in the lyrics. 

The album closes with Peter Gabriel's "Washing of the Water" from 1992's "Us"––this duo version captures the gospel/soul feel of the original as well as the despair the singer has of the breakup the song describes.  A brilliant close to a splendid program.  "Still Life", the title, can be understood in different ways such as to describe an image in a painting or photograph, it can describe a person going through each the motions each day, and, to me, it's a response to after all the bad and good that befall us, our families, friends, the world, life goes on. Sachal Vasandani and Romain Collin have created an album that takes in the despair created by the pandemic and soothes our fevered brows with their gentle musical balm.  

For more information, go to www.sachalvasandani.com.  To hear more and to purchase the album, go to https://sachalvasandani.bandcamp.com/.

Hear the Billie Eilish/Finnish tune "I Love You":

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Hear What I've Been Listening To (7/21)

Photo: Adrien Tillman
Saxophonist (alto and soprano) and composer Caleb Wheeler Curtis has turned a lot of musical minds and ear over the past seven years since the collective quartet Walking Distance released its debut album, "Neighborhood",  in January of 2015. Since then, the Ann Arbor, MI, native has worked and recorded with pianist Orrin Evans (small group as well as The Captain Black Big Band, with bassist Noah Garabedian and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza in the collective trio Ember, with trumpeter Josh Lawrence, with pianist Jason Moran, drummer Lennie White, and a slew of others. He's issued six albums as a leader or co-leader on a variety including SunnySide Records, Outside In Music, and pianist Evans' Imani Records.

Album # 7, "Heatmap", is also on Imani. The 10-song program finds the saxophonist/composer once again in the company of pianist Evans plus the rhythm section of bassist Eric Revis and drummer Gerald Cleaver.  What one hears is a splendid cross-section of contemporary music; take the rumbling title track which opens with a long dissertation from the pianist that takes its time to develop while the bass and drums build the fluid foundation beneath him.  Curtis enters over halfway through the piece, the urgency of his alto sax showing traces of Ornette Coleman and Henry Threadgill. The leader's fire ignites the rhythm section until the formal close of the piece. "Splinters" is a funky piece that must takes its name from the chopped-up Curtis uses to create the theme. Cleaver booms up from below pushing the saxophonist to a fiery climax.  Evans enters a bit circumspect but soon, aided by the active bass and drums builds an impressive statement.

Photo: Liz Brauer
There a slew of stand-out tracks. The rip-roaring "C(o)urses" opens the album with a red-hot soprano sax solo over rampaging drums, ferocious bass lines, and the pianist "cat-and-mouse" piano lines.  "Tossed Aside" opens as a quiet ballad with impassioned saxophone work. Revis's thick yet melodic bass lines along with gentle piano chords and phrasing over Cleaver's delightful traps playing give the music a feel of mid-1960s New York City r'n'b (to these ears, the music of The Drifters and Ben E. King).  "Limestone" opens quietly as if the music was tiptoeing into existence.  Revis rises up to create a wonderfully melodic solo which gives way to an alto sax solo reaches to the heights without losing the gentleness of its surroundings. Listen to "Trembling" below and its subtle mix of exciting rhythms, the low rumbling of the piano, the fervency in Curtis's lines that plead for release, and the energetic thrum of the bass. Listen deeply.

"Heatmap" closes with the appropriately-named "Whisperchant"––one of the most impressive aspects of this music is how this quartet can sizzle, explode, whisper, and float without ever sounding forced or unnatural. Caleb Wheeler Curtis composed this music focussing on both the musical and emotional content with both being equal. But you must sit down and listen; this is not background music, this is life!

For more information, go to www.calebcurtis.com.  To hear more of and purchase the album, go to  https://calebwheelercurtis.bandcamp.com/album/heatmap

Hear Curtis and the band "Trembling":