Monday, February 18, 2019

Large Ensemble Music February 2019

Over the past decade, composer and arranger Miho Hazama, a native of Tokyo, Japan, had developed into one of the jazz world's most in-demand artists. She has arranged and conducted for numerous Japanese Big Bands and pop recordings as well as making her mark in the United States and Europe in the past several years - she has worked with Owen Broder, Theo Bleckmann, the Danish Radio Big Band, and the WDR Big Band among many others.

In August of 2018, Sunnyside Records released "The Monk: Live at Bimhuis", her arrangements of classic Thelonious Monk songs. Now. less than six months later, the label has issued "Dancer in Nowhere" credited to Miho Hazam m_unit, her 13-piece ensemble (plus guests) that features a rhythm section plus vibraphone, three reeds and two brass, and a string quartet, the same instrumentation she has employed for her two previous large ensemble releases.  The original music this group plays is fascinating, not beholden to any one particular style or influential mentor.  One hears snippets of "pop" music, swing, hard-bop, Ellington-Strayhorn, theatrical music, and more.  That written, this music is certainly not static.  Like many of her contemporaries, the solos rise intelligently out of the melody lines and arrangements not just because the song needs a solo.

On the opening "Today, Not Today", note how natural the strings sound not only on their own but when mixing with the reeds and brass (trumpet and French horn). On "RUN", listen to how Ms. Hazama utilizes Jake Goldbas's powerful drumming to not only push the piece forward but also create the initial intensity in the music.  The interaction of the ensemble during the flute solo (Ryoji Ihara) creates quite a tension which increases during Steve Wilson's wonderful alto saxophone flight of fancy.

This is the rare recording where every song stands out. "Somnabulant"opens with the wordless vocals of guest Kavita Shah supported by the string quartet.  Then, the trumpet and reeds enter and the music drops into a slow ballad tempo over which guest Jason Rigby plays a lovely tenor solo.  Other instrumental voices are introduced as the music moves forward.  Ms. Shah and pianist Billy Test work together in the center section - when the drums reenter, it's to support the powerful guitar solo of Lionel Loueke.  The rest of the ensemble enters to support and then be influenced by the wailing blues lines from the guitarist.  Later in the program, Ms. Hazama creates an exciting arrangement of John Williams's "Olympic Fanfare and Theme", the only non-original on the eight-song program. The way the various voices are blended during the second half of the piece is fascinating.

Charles R. Hale Productions
The album closes with the title track.  There are several different storylines as the music progresses, moving from a quiet, even peaceful melody to a powerful series of interactions where the various sections interpret the melody and the harmonies (plus Nate Wood takes over the drum seat). Jason Rigby's robust tenor solo leads the group to the finish line.

"Dancer In Nowhere" is impressive and expressive from the opening note to the final fade.  Miho Hazama has grown up before our very ears. Her music is contemporary yet timeless and we are the beneficiaries of her brilliance.

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

Here's the opening track:


Personnel:

Miho Hazama - conductor, composer 
Steve Wilson - alto, soprano sax, flute 
Ryoji Ihara - tenor sax, clarinet, flute 
Jason Rigby - tenor sax, clarinet (4 & 8) 
Andrew Gutauskas - baritone sax, bass clarinet 
Jonathan Powell - trumpet, flugelhorn 
Adam Unsworth - French horn 
Tomato Akeboshi - violin 
Sita Chay - violin 
Atsugi Yoshida - viola 
Meaghan Burke - cello 
James Shipp - vibraphone, guiro, shekere 
Billy Test - piano 
Sam Anning - bass 
Jake Goldbas - drums 
Kavita Shah - voice (4 & 6) 
Lionel Loueke - guitar (4) 
Nate Wood - drums (8)


The Wing Walker Orchestra, an 11-piece ensemble organized by composer, arranger and bass clarinetist Drew Williams, has issued its debut album. "Hazel" (ears and eyes Records) is composed of the seven-part "Hazel Suite", two more Williams originals, and a reworking of tUnE-yArDs "Look Around".  The "...Suite" is inspired by the graphic "space opera" series "Saga" created by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples. As a listener, you do not need know that because the music stands on its own.  The seven pieces utilizes all the voices in the ensemble; many of the songs ride on the powerful rhythms created by drummer Nathan Ellman-Bell.  The initial five tracks are fairly short but the music hits its stride on parts VI and VII.  The pounding drums and the clarinet melody leads the ensemble into "VI: Heists (or Your Majesty)", a piece that really pushes hard. The "low" instruments, trombones and tenor sax, continue the theme as the rest of the group begins to chime in.  "VII: Ignition (or Hazel)" is much slower, the tolling piano note keeps the rhythm section as the brass and reeds quietly play longer notes. The intensity picks up once the bass drum replaces the piano note yet the music never changes tempo - although the piano plays tolling chords as the piece fades - nor is there a defined melody line.  

The balance of the album is just as engaging.  "Look Around" is a smart arrangement of the original with trombone and alto saxophone replace Merrill Garbus's vocals. The ensemble really kicks into middle section which features a muscular trombone solo. "We've Seen These Walls Crumble" is a soulful ballad which, at times (especially at the beginning and in the final third), reminds this listener of The Band (Americana jazz?). The rubato middle section starts off very quietly and features a conversation by the two trumpeters (John Blevins and Danny Gouker). The final track on the CD (the digital download has a bonus track), "High", has a delightful feel with a playful bass clarinet solo from Williams, several tempo changes, a high-powered guitar solo from Jeff McLaughlin, and an exciting lead-up to the finish, once more powered by Ellman-Bell with help from  bassist Adam Hopkins.

Some of the thematic material on "Hazel" may remind listeners of the writing of Darcy James Argue.  However, unlike many modern large ensembles, the reed section of the Wing Walker Orchestra does not double or triple on other instruments.  Nevertheless, over its six years of existence, the ensemble has developed its own personality and one hopes this is just the first installment in a series of fine recordings with the promise of tours. 

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

Give a listen:




Personnel:

Brad Mulholland - alto saxophone & clarinet 
Eric Trudel - tenor saxophone 
Drew Williams - bass clarinet 
John Blevins - trumpet 
Danny Gouker -trumpet 
Karl Lyden - trombone 
Nick Grinder - trombone 
Jeff McLaughlin - guitar 
Marta Sánchez - piano 
Adam Hopkins - acoustic bass 
Nathan Ellman-Bell - drums 




Guitarist, composer, and arranger Chris Jentsch has, over the course two decades, released seven albums, the majority with larger ensembles.  The latest is "Topics In American History" (self-released on Blue Schist Records) and features the Jentsch Group No Net, a splendid ensemble recored live in concert;  the band features a group of Brooklyn-based musicians conducted by JC Sanford. The seven-song program covers, in its own special way, 460+ years of history Starting with "1491", just before the European ships ventured to the Caribbean; it's obvious this is an abstract history clarified by the liner notes. Still, the various voices of the ensemble, the strong rhythm section, and the intelligent arrangements help the listener to understand how the events referred to in the song titles helped to the shape the present day

Photo: Gina Renzi

The Copland-esque "prairie" ramble that opens "Manifest Destiny" gives way to a handsome melody (excellent colors from the reeds, brass, and guitar in the background) leads to solos by bassist Jim Whitney, onto a delightful conversation between the leader and the clarinet of Mike McGinnis who then steps out for a powerful solo before Jason Rigby creates a lovely soprano sax solo.
Before the songs closes, other voices step out for monetary solo and duo lines pushed forward by drummer Eric Halvorson.


Just as the pioneers discovered new territories, the listener can do that with these songs.  There are touches of darkness in "Dominos", a piece inspired by the Red Scare of the 1950s (Cold War and McCarthyism).  The leader takes a long impassioned solo followed by an equally powerful solo from Rigby, here on tenor sax. Throughout the album, the arrangements leave space for the various voices to interact and nobody is ignored.

Photo: Gayle Cornish
The album closes with "Meeting At Surratt's", a reference to Mary Surratt's boarding house where the group that plotted to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln met. She was hanged for her association with the conspirators although the evidence against her was weak. The song, introduced with martial drumming, has a traditional feel and a melody line led by the tenor saxophone. After Rigby creates a fascinating tenor sax statement, the leader steps out for a robust solo, his lines rising above the ensemble and leading them to the finish.  

"Topics In American History" is filled with good melodies and excellent musicianship.  Every solo stands out as do the arrangements around the melody and the verses.  Jentsch Group No Net, the brainchild of Chris Jentsch, tells us stories worth paying attention to.

For more information, go to chrisjentsch.com.

Personnel:

Chris Jentsch - electric guitar
Michael Gentile - flutes
Mike McGinnis - clarinets
Jason Rigby - tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone
David Smith - trumpet, flugelhorn
Brian Drye - trombone
Jacob Sacks - piano
Jim Whitney - acoustic bass
Eric Halvorson - drums, percussion
JC Sanford - conductor










Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Sonic Explorations of the Soul

Dr. Lewis Porter is a musicologist, author, and educator who happens to be one fine pianist. Over the seven years, he has released several trio albums and a slew of duo performances.  His new recording, "Solo Piano" (Next To Silence LLC), is his first going it alone.  Since the good Doctor is a historian of jazz music, you won't surprised to find that the music on the album has a wide variety of influences including standards, originals, blues, and, of course,  jazz. Best of all, it often sounds as if Porter is having fun.  Listen to the original "Ragtime Dreams" - there is a bit of dissonance in the melody line reminiscent of Randy Newman. "Blues for Sunset", also an original, is a sweet meditation that moves on an "easy rollin'" left hand while the pianist digs dances and creates a solo with phrases that seem to dance in the air.

Photo: Ed Berger
Three of the pieces are "standards", starting with the opening exploration of Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love."
The long playful solo goes through several styles while stand connected to the melody line throughout.  Porter paints quite a portrait on George Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy." There's an orchestral feel to the piano and an intelligent use of occasional silence.  Later in the program, Porter's take on "Body and Soul" is truly lovely. Sit back and let music fill your ears, listen to how articulate the pianist is (reminding this listener of Fred Hersch), and enjoy the ride.

Photo: Bill May
Other originals include the delightful and hypnotic "Mixolydia", the meditative yet expansive "Through the Sunset", and "For Eddie Harris."  The "...Harris" track is notable in its combination of short melodic phrases and an insistent rhythmic but notice how the piece threatens to break down in the middle yet never loses its way.

The album closes with a handsome version of John Coltrane's "Central Park West."  Here again, the pianist takes his time to create a fine story from the opening melody. There are moments when the piano lines take flight and others when it seems like the piano is sweetly singing. Actually, one could write that about many of the songs on "Solo Piano."  Lewis Porter certainly understands the power of melody, especially when combined with a strong, rhythmic, left hand. This collection is a delightful addition to his catalogue and deserves your attention.

For more information, go to www.lewisporter.com. (The album will be released on 3/29/18.)


Our house is quiet this mid-February morning with only the sounds of pianist Lucian Ban and clarinetist Alex Simu wafting through the rooms.  The duo's new Sunnyside album, "Free Fall", is inspired by and dedicated to Jimmy Giuffre (1921-2008).  Giuffre, who played tenor saxophone and clarinet, graduated from North Texas Teachers College (now North Texas State University, one of the premier music schools in the USA) and went on to play with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra and the Buddy Rich Band before joining Woody Herman's Thundering Herd. For Herman, he composed what may still be his most famous composition, "Four Brothers" (1949) which featured the tenor saxophones of Giuffre, Zoot Sims, Herbie Steward, and the baritone saxophone of Serge Chaloff.  In the mid-1950s, Giuffre organized a drummer-less band with guitarist Jim Hall and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer (replaced a year later by bassist Ralph Pena) and recorded the classic "Western Suite" Lp for Atlantic Records.  In the early 1960s, the reed master (who also played soprano and baritone saxes plus flute and bass flute) formed a new trio with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow, moving into a "freer" sound.  Giuffre went on teach for several decades, all the while still recording even adding electronics to his groups.

For the Ban and Simu CD, recorded live in Bucharest, Romania, (both musicians are natives of the country) in February of 2018, the duo mixed original pieces with several improvisations (including the title track) plus a lovely version of Carla Bley's "Jesus Maria" and two pieces from Giuffre (both recorded with Bley and Swallow as was the Bley piece). Here, Ms. Bley's lovely ballad rolls in on a piano figure not unlike a piece by Erik Satie.  Simu moves lightly through the melody and creates a long, impressionistic, solo.  "Cry, Want", the first of the two Giuffre compositions that actually come at the end of the program, opens with an unaccompanied clarinet solo. One can hear the influence of the blues on the composer, even more so when Ban enters. The piece moves slowly and quietly with one really hearing the "cry" in Simu's phrases.  "Used To Be", the other Giuffre piece, has a livelier feel. The gospel sound in Ban's thick piano chords, reminiscent of Abdulah Ibrahim, creates a great cushion for Simu to explore the higher range of his instrument.

The album opens with the pianist's "Quiet Storm", setting the tone for the rest of the program. As the music moves forward, the duo opens up, their lines dancing in and around each other, never very loud but you almost see Ban and Simu watching each other anticipating the next moves.  The title track builds off a dark piano riff that slowly lightens up as the clarinet - then, they begin to really dig in challenging each other yet making sure to stay connected.  There's a similar feel to the other improvised work, "Mysteries." The piano creates a quiet riff while the clarinet plays long tones, even dissonant tones.  That dissonance is a foreshadowing of how the music will pick up in intensity and even move int "freer" territory.  Still, the duo never loses the connection to Ban's left hand, the quiet riff that is the glue of the music.

"Free Fall" demands your attention, doing so not by shouting in your ears but, most often, whispering into them.  Lucian Ban and Alex Simu are influenced not just by Jimmy Giuffre's music but also by the composer's desire to move beyond the cliches that often permeate music. Several of the pieces, especially the originals, are influenced by the blues, using that musical language as a touchstone for personal and duo explorations.  This music, the concert, and the resulting album is certainly an enjoyable listening experience.

For more information about these musicians, go to www.lucianban.com and www.alexsimu.nl.


Monday, February 11, 2019

Looking Back Yet Sounding Like Today

If one subscribes to the belief that you learn something new everyday then the life of a reviewer can be very exciting.  I have known about the duo of Jeanne Lee (1939-2000, vocal) and Ran Blake (piano) but never really sat down to listen.  They first met in the mid-1950s and started performing together several years later.  Their debut album, "The Newest Sound Around" (RCA Victor), was issued in early 1962, a fascinating combination of standards, blues, and jazz. The Lp earned positive reviews but did not sell well in the United States.

Europe was another matter, especially Sweden and the Netherlands. Ms. Lee and Mr. Blake made several trips to perform there during the mid-1960s. Now A-Sides Records has issued "The Newest Sound You Never Heard", a double-CD collection recorded both in the studio and live in 1966 and 1967 while the duo was in Belgium. 33 never-before heard songs, some familiar to fans but many quite surprising. The 1966 sessions, a combination of a radio concert and "in-person" tracks, is a fascinating collection of songs, from Thelonious Monk's"Misterioso" (with lyrics by Gertrude Stein) to The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" to standards such as "Honeysuckle Rose", "Night and Day", and "Take The A-Train" to gospel, Broadway and even a funky reading of Ray Charles' "Hallelujah, I Love Him So."  Scattered among the tracks are several originals by Blake including an impressionistic instrumental titled "Birmingham U.S.A."  Ms. Lee, who said she was influenced by Abbey Lincoln, does some impressive scat singing on a number of tracks but don't ignore the lovely ballads. Included  in that list is Cole Porter's "Night and Day" - note how Ms. Lee caresses the words while Blake provides such a sympathetic background.  Disc One is quite the hour of music.

A year later, the duo returned to the VRT Studios and recorded the 14 tracks that appear on disc #2.  There's only one repeat from a year earlier (Juan Tizol and Duke Ellington's "Caravan") and more adventures in creativity.  Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" gets a gospel-flavored accompaniment while Ms. Lee stays close to the original melody; in the middle of the the song, the rhythm disappears and the duo move in and around each other Asia in a dream.  Ms. Lee's unaccompanied reading of Billie Holiday's "Billie's Blues" is an absolute stunner as is the duo's performance on Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman."  Listen to the spare piano backing to the highly emotional vocals, the essence of describing loneliness in music.  The final three tracks, "The Man I Love", Billy Strayhorn's "Something To Live For", and "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most", make for an intimate and poetic close to the program.

There are moments on the 1967 sessions that remind this listener of the interplay between Cecile McLorin Salvant and pianist Sullivan Fortner on the former's latest album "The Window."  I hear it in the the playfulness and the intimacy, in how both participants interpret the music and the lyrics, making the songs their own.  Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake only made two studio recordings together Fresh Sounds issued a recording in 2013 of the duo from their 1966 visit to Stockholm, Sweden and, now with the release of "The Newest Sound You Never Heard", listeners get an even fuller picture of the magic these two created whenever they convened to make music.  And, it's amazing how contemporary these recordings, made over five decades ago, sound today.  Highly recommended!

For more information, go to ranblake.com.

Here's the Monk tune from 1966:



Eric Dolphy (1928-1964) had a short professional career as a musician but that career was quite full.  From the time he joined drummer Chico Hamilton's group in 1958, he rarely went without work. He hooked up with bassist and composer Charles Mingus in 1959 with whom he recorded the extremely impressive Candid album "Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus." Even after he left Mingus's employ in 1960, Dolphy hooked up with the bassist for tours.  In 1960, the multi-instrumentalist (alto saxophone, flute, bass clarinet) recorded his debut as a leader and in the next few years, recorded with Oliver Nelson ("Blues and The Abstract Truth") and began an exciting if short-lived relationship with tenor saxophonist John Coltrane.  Dolphy's own group, featuring trumpeter Booker Little, made an historic album "Live at The Five Spot" in 1961.

In February of 1964, Dolphy recorded his classic "Out to Lunch" for Blue Note Records but seven months prior to those sessions, he went in the studios with producer Alan Douglas the nine tracks that were split into two Lps, "Conversations" and "Iron Man".  Notable for the debut of 18-year old trumpeter Woody Shaw and the amazing bass work of Richard Davis, the tapes were released numerous times by different labels; along the way, the stereo master tapes disappeared and it turns out that the Dolphy family actually had documents, scores, and several reels of tapes which they gave to flutist James Newton for safekeeping. He, in turn, donated the documents to the Library of Congress.

In 2016, James Newton visited Resonance Records studios with the tapes in tow. Over the course of listening with producer Zev Feldman and executive producer George Klabin, they decided to release an album that featured a newly re-mastered versions of the two Douglas albums plus 80+ minutes of outtakes from the session - one notable exception is the 15-minute "A Personal Statement",  composed by pianist Bob James, from March of 1964. The resulting package, "Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions",  as issued in Fall of 2018 as a three-Lp set which is why you may seen the album on many "Best-of" lists.  The CDs have just been issued with an impressive booklet that features interviews with bassist Davis, saxophonist Sonny Simmons (who appears on four of the original Lp tracks and four of the alternate takes), Sonny Rollins, Steve Coleman, Oliver Lake, Nicole Mitchell, Marty Ehrlich, Henry Threadgill, Joe Chambers, Han Bennink, Bill Laswell, a former manager of the Douglas Record label Michael Lehman, and Dolphy's close friend Juanita Smith.

Photo: Blue Note Records
The two "official" releases continue the artist's explorations into expanding his musical range.  Four of the tracks feature Simmons, Shaw, Prince Lasha (flute), Clifford Jordan (soprano saxophone), Bobby Hutcherson (vibraphone), and J. C. Moses (drums) while three add Garvin Bushell (bassoon), and Eddie Khan (who shares the bass parts with Davis). Drummer Charles Moffett appears on one track.  Dolphy is generous sharing the solo spotlight therefore the group tracks feature plenty of solos all around.  There are a pair of short unaccompanied alto sax takes of the standard "Love Me" in which you can hear how Dolphy expanded the language that Charlie Parker created for the instrument.  Perhaps the most fascinating outtakes are the two versions of Roland Hanna's "Muses for Richard Davis." Davis on bowed bass and Dolphy on bass clarinet explore the handsome melody with deep bass sounds and chords providing a strong foundation for the lower reed instrument.  Coming after the classic "Alone Together" (also a duet for bass - plucked here - and bass clarinet), the "Muses..." blend the expressive the reed sounds with the more formal sounding bass (Davis has such a wonderful sound and the mix here shows him in his best light.

Eric Dolphy may not have had a long life but his influence can still be felt 55 years after his passing. His willingness to experiment, his tart yet refreshing alto saxophone playing, his lovely flute, and his championing of the bass clarinet as a lead instrument, make him a role model for musicians around the world. "Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions" restores two albums that sorely needed someone's attention - how delightful and intelligent that James Newton brought the tapes to Resonance Records and what a splendid package.  The "limited edition" three-Lp set sold out quickly but, thanks to the sound restoration of George Klabin and Fran Gala (who also mastered the albums and CDs), the music steps out of the speakers and fills the room.  Highly recommended!!

For more information about this recording, go to resonancerecords.org/artists/eric-dolphy/.

Here's the exciting alternate version of "Mandrake":

Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Companionship and Intimacy of The Trio

Pianist, composer, and interpreter Russ Lossing has had a fascinating career, one that now spans three + decades. He has worked with so many contemporary musicians, ranging from drummer Billy Hart to saxophonist Dave Liebman to guitarist John Abercrombie to vocalist Kendra Shank to cornetist Kirk Knuffke and beyond.  There are really good reasons for his seemingly steady employment but the most notable is that Lossing is a thoughtful and creative pianist who truly immerses himself in every musical situation and gives his all.  As a leader, he's recorded albums for Hat Art, Fresh Sounds New Talent, Clean Feed, SteepleChase Records, and Sunnyside, many in a trio setting as well as several solo recordings.  

What you might not know is that, as a young man, he studied with the avant-garde composer John Cage and what I did not remember until reading the liner notes of his new recording, "Motian Music" (Sunnyside), was his long and close relationship with drummer and composer Paul Motian. The drummer would invite him up to his New York City apartment to help work on his compositions plus recorded several excellent albums as a sideman with the pianist.  This tribute is a follow-up to Lossing's 2012 solo exploration of the late Motian's music "Drum Music" (also on Sunnyside).  For the new album, Lossing works alongside his rhythm section of the past two decades, bassist Masa Kamaguchi and drummer Billy Mintz.  

If you paid any attention to the music of Paul Motian since his ECM days (his debut as a leader, "Conception Vessel", came out in 1973) is that many of his pieces embraced melody and not always rhythm as one might expect of a drummer.  "Motian Music" opens with "Asia", a lovely ballad first recorded by the drummer in 1978. One can hear the influences of American folk music as well as the melodic explorations of Keith Jarrett who the drummer first started working with in 1966.  This tune stretches out easily, opening and closing with quiet solo piano.

The intimacy of the music is underscored by the fact that the trio recorded in the same room and that each piece was recorded in one take. That can only happen if there is great trust among the participants as well as an intimate knowledge of the material. Listen as the trio wends its way through "Jack of Clubs", swings heartily on "Fiasco" and "Dance", and gently moves through "Introduction" (a piece from 1985's "It Should Have Happened Here", the first trio effort by Motian, guitarist Bill Frisell, and saxophonist Joe Lovano).  Kamaguchi has a deep bass sound and a great melodic sense while Mintz plays in the tradition of Motian, never overdoing anything, at times quiet as can be, and with excellent work on the cymbals.

"Motian Music" closes with the whisper-soft "Psalm" a piece so quiet at the outset one has to lean into the speakers. Soon, you can make out a melody from the piano as the bass plays a slow counter-point. The drums and cymbals color the piece as the music floats forward. The sounds seem to hang in the air, like early morning clouds on a Spring morning awaiting the sunrise.  A glorious ending to a splendid album of music. Russ Lossing's love and respect for Paul Motian the man and composer shines through every track - the listener is the beneficiary and, honestly, in these days of uncertainty and daily unkindness, one needs this music.

For more information, go to www.russlossing.com.  (The album will be released on February 22).

Here's an uptempo track to whet your appetite



Photo: Harvey Tillis
Over the course of four albums, the Joe Policastro Trio - Policastro (bass), Dave Miller (electric guitar), and Mikel Patrick Avery (drums, percussion) - has proven itsefs as adept translators of many different styles of music, from their 2013 debut where the Trio (albeit with a different guitarist and drummer) danced its way through Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" to its delightful interpretations of popular music that one can hear on its more recent  efforts.

Album #4 (and the third release by the current trio since June of 2016) is "Nothing Here Belongs" (JeruJazz) - the nine-song program features six Policastro originals and three unique covers including a fascinating remake of "The Wandering Sea", first recorded in 1963 by Santo & Johnny (who are best known for 1959's "Sleep Walk").  Miller, who is also currently working with saxophonist Greg Ward's Rogue Parade, blends a country music feel into his guitar sound while Avery (whose creative music credentials include working alongside cornetist Rob Mazurek and bassist Joshua Abrams) keeps a steady, uncomplicated, yet urgent beat.


I grew up musically in the 1960s when trios such as Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience defined the "power trio" (in those days, that meant three musicians and a wall of Marshall amplifiers).  Over the years, I found the trios led by John Abercrombie, Jim Hall, Bill Frisell, Jeff Parker, and several others very appealing. The rhythm section is so integral to the success of the music and the lead guitarist needs to balance melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic duties.  That is also what is so appealing with the JPTrio.  Yes, the leader stands out as the chief composer here yet, without the interaction and intelligence of Miller and Avery, the music would not shine.  What the listeners get on "Nothing Here Belongs" is a band that likes to take chances without blowing your ears off. As they have done on previous recordings, the music moves from "swing" rhythms to blues to folk-influenced pieces to rock to jazz (even a touch of "surf" guitar.) The trio has no fear - they tackle Talking Heads "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)" and really capture the emotion inherent in the piece.  They also get "down & dirty" on the bassist's "Bloodshot" yet listen to Miller's guitar moving through various styles.   Policastro's "Plain Song" is a fascinating and handsome melody that suggests Frisell's country side with a funky touch.  Yet, there is an intensity that pushes the piece forward, especially when Miller goes into his solo.  The leader solos on most tracks - that's good because he's quite a melodic player. He also enjoys playing counterpoint to Miller on many of the tracks. Avery is so supportive; he rarely steps out but the drums are a force throughout.

The Joe Policastro Trio is blessed with a 3-day-a-week (Sunday through Tuesday) steady gig at Pops for Champagne, North State Street in Chicago.  That regular schedule (3 sets a night) allows the band to continually work on material, tighten it up, revisit older pieces, play with arrangements. "Nothing Here Belongs" is enjoyable from start-to-finish and I recommend you listen several times to understand just how good this music and the JPTrio is.

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

Here's the band in the studio:

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Continuing the Deep Dive Into the Treasure Trove

Pianist and composer Roberto Magris (born 1959, Trieste, Italy) is truly a citizen of the world. With a long career playing jazz in venues large and small, in big cities and faraway villages, he's become an emissary, an ambassador if you will, for the power of music, the joy of interplay, and for playing this music with and for all generations.  His recordings have paired with drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath, saxophonist Herb Geller, bassist Dr. Art Davis, multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan, drummer Idris Muhammad, and a slew of others.  These albums have both explored the "tradition" as well as creating new pathways of enjoyment.

His latest album, "World Gardens" (JMood Records), finds the pianist in the studio with bass Dominique Sanders, drummer Brian Steven, and percussionist Pablo Sanhueza.  Sharp-eyed readers and listeners will notice a resemblance to the mere recent sounds and ensembles of Ahmad Jamal but the most telling comparison is how music joy both leaders imbue their respective music with.  The new album blends standards, originals, individual pieces from drummer Andrew Cyrille and pop megastar Michael Jackson, and several folk songs into a 75+ minute program that will have you tapping your feet and smiling broadly.  That's not to say the quartet doesn't slow the pace every once a while (the leader's "Another More Blues", Jimmy Dorsey's "I'm Glad There is You" with its slow swing feel, and the lovely Slovenan folk tune "Vse Najilepse Rozice/All the Most Beautiful Flowers" played as a piano solo) but the mood throughout is upbeat and positive.

Right out of the gate, the musicians hit their stride on the late Jackson's mega-hit "Never Can Say Goodbye" - what the leader does well is emphasize both the handsome melody and the rhythms inherent in the song's construction.  The rhythms percolate but never overheat while Magris dances with glee throughout his solo. The quartet takes its time entering the special musical world of "Blue Bamboo" (a Chinese folk song from Yunnan Province) and not how each voice is important to the song, from the elegant percussion to the bass rhythms and counterpoint, plus the powerful piano solo.  Hard to not to be seduced by the powerful rhythmic drive of Magris' "Song For an African Child." With a subtle nod to the rhythms and South African melodies of Abdullah Ibrahim, the piece bounces along with infectious melody lines and playful interactions.

In the midst of the deep chill that comes and goes in the Northeastern states of the US, "World Gardens" will have you dreaming of spring and summer.  Roberto Magris and his delightful band reminds us that dark times and moods can often be alleviated by music that asks nothing more of you than to sit back, relax, and dig the sounds! A special attraction at the close of the album is the "Audio Notebook" of Executive Producer Paul Collins - it's his own review!

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

Here's a taste:




Although you might mistake the three men in the photo on the left as cast members of "Law & Order" (pick a version), it's actually (from left to right) Ernesto Cervini (drums, percussion, reeds), Daniel Fortin (bass), and Chris Donnelly (piano, synth, Fender Rhodes, spoons) - collectively, they are known as Myriad3. In Fall of 2018, the trio released its fourth album "Vera" (Alma Records) and the music continues the ensemble's adventures in sound. Earlier albums leaned towards the modern trio sounds of The Bad Plus but this recording is certainly the trio's most inventive and personal document.

Pay attention to the opening three tracks.  Each song tells a story. Donnelly's "Pluie Lyonnaise" is a ballad that has a long introduction with the pianist sticking to chords and the rhythm section creating a solid foundation.  The trio does not rush, takes it time to set the mood before Donnelly takes a classically inspired jaunt. The bass and drums return playing the original tempo and the pianist dances above them.  "Tamboa" starts out with hand percussion then the piano picks up on the rhythm. Soon, Cervini is pushing the tempo on drums. Then, there's a bass solo that leads to a slower-paced piano solo.  Obviously, there's a lot going on here and it strikes this listener that the trio push and prod each other so that the music is not stale. The third track, "Ward Lock", builds off the simple figures created by the bass and piano. Cervini's splendid cymbal work surround the lovely child-like melody played by the piano before the trio moves into the solo section Pay attention to how the musicians are listening to each other, they are all creating the story together.

I could continue, telling you how lovely the following track, "Diamond", but you should discover this for yourself. If you like piano and willing to move away from the styles of Bill Evans, Fred Hersch, Oscar Peterson, Brad Mehldau and so many others, you will hear music on "Vera" that will renew your faith in creative music.  Myriad3 writes its own material (one exception here is Igor Stravinsky's delightful "Piano-Rag-Music"), they usually play the songs on the road before heading into the studio, and one can tell these pieces are not thrown together for the sake of the recording.  Sit with this music, let it flow over you but pay attention - the band does not take short cuts, they don't fill space for the sake of an album, and each piece has its own story.  Took a while for me to discover the beauty and joy in this music. I needed to slow down, take a breath, throw away expectations, and just listen.  "Vera" is delightful from start to finish - just give the music a chance.

For more information, go to www.myriad3.com.

Listen to this track - have fun:


Saturday, January 26, 2019

Her Story, His Music, Our History

Photo: Jon Grönsoos
Wadada Leo Smith (born 1941) first picked up the trumpet at the age of 12 and it seems as if he hasn't put it down since. His studies Took him from his local high school to the U.S Army to Chicago and to Wesleyan University in the mid-1970s.  But his adventures in modern creative music and the creation of his own musical language began in Chicago in 1967 when he met Anthony Braxton, violinist Leroy Jenkins,, and later drummer Steve McCall. Mr. Smith also became involved with the Association For the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) which gave him a forum for his music and willing participants in making sure the music was played and heard. Over the decades that followed, his working and his teaching has taken him from Chicago to New Haven, CT, to CalArts in Santa Clarita, CA, and back to New Haven. He has traveled the world, played music with many different people and in many different styles but he always sought to educate his audience (whether the subject be the music of Miles Davis or the history of Black Music, nature, politics, Rastafarianism, and more. He has played solo, in many duos, trios, quartets, and up to large orchestras. His trumpet is always calling is to attention, making audiences pay attentions, his crisp, clear, tones rising out of his ensembles making us pay attention.

His latest album (to be released February 15), "Rosa Parks: Pure Love", is his eighth recording for TUM Records to be released since 2011 and continues Mr. Smith's work about Civil Rights that began with his brilliant 2012 Cunieform recording "10 Freedom Summers."  That album's material stretched from Dred Scott to Medgar Evers to JFK and LBJ to the Little Rock Nine to September 11, 2001, to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and beyond.  There was also a piece titled "Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days."  That piece is here as well now with words,  performed by Min Xiao-Fen (voice and pipa) and the RedKoral (String) Quartet.  For this project, the music (which Mr. Smith calls an "oratorio") tells a specific story of how that victory over racism set the the stage for the growth of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and the emergence of Dr. King.

Photo: R.I. Sutherland-Cohen
Besides Ms. Xiao-Fen and the RedKoral Quartet (violinists Shalini Vijayan and Mona Tian, violist Andrew McIntosh, and cellist Ashley Walters)  musicians on the album include the BlueTrumpet Quartet (pictured left and featuring Hugh Ragin, Ted Daniel, Graham Haynes, and Mr. Smith, the vocal trio Diamond Voices (Ms. Fen, Carmina Escobar, and Karen Parks) drummer Pheroan akLaff, and electronic musician Hardedge. Mr. Smith also injects into several pieces short excerpts of solo works created by Mr. Braxton, Mr. Jenkins, Mr. McCall, and himself taken from recordings made between 1969-1977.  Mr. Smith wrote all the lyrics save for one piece "No Fear" that is a direct quote from Rosa Parks (1913-2005).

If you lived through this time of American history, this music and these words contain great power.  If you were born after the the 1960s, this recording and these words will begin to educate you about what was happening in the Southern part of the United States.   It is also important that Mr. Smith acknowledges how this project - in fact, all of his work -  has its roots in the friendships, the improvisations, the concerts, that he, Mr. Braxton, Mr. Jenkins, and Mr. McCall played in 1967 (in the US) and in 1969 (in Paris, France).  Still, there is so much to take in, the various sounds, the voices, the blend of group sounds, the importance of what Ms. Parks accomplished with her act of defiance, and how this music invites us in to experience the fears, the anger, the hopes, the dreams, the victories, and the ongoing battles that still plague the United States over 63 years after Rosa Parks refused to move from where she was sitting on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus.

Photo: R.I. Sutherland-Cohen
"Rosa Parks: Pure Love" is an album to listen to all the way through, not to be excerpted, chopped up, or played piece by piece.  There is a flow from beginning to end, a storyline writ by music and words that comes to an end all too soon. This album cannot paint enough pictures to help you experience those days, how the African American community pitched in to defeat the racist policies of a city determined to keep them second-class citizens. Yet, this album opens (for some, reopens) doors that one must enter to understand how we got to now, how the politics of 2019 is built upon the responses and reactions to the events of the 1950s (and before) and the misguided beliefs of certain members of society that have been ingrained since before this country became United.  The enemy of this music is fear and ignorance - is it possible to create dialogue with music? This music, like most powerful music, needs to be experienced in a live setting. Wadada Leo Smith continues to create powerful music, continues to remind us of our history and to pay attention to the beauty as well as the contradictions that surround us. He reminds to also pay attention to those beliefs and insecurities that make us who we are and can lead us down the road to ruin or redemption.

For more information, go to wadadaleosmith.com.

Here's just a short taste of this amazing music:

Monday, January 21, 2019

O, The Adventures You'll Hear & Share

Canadian born saxophonist Quinsin Nachoff has a new double album about to be released in February (2/08) and it's a stunning collection of pieces that run the gamut from free jazz to experimental interactions and beyond.  "Path of Totality" Whirlwind Recordings) features his group Flux, a quartet-quintet that has the tenor and soprano saxophonist in the company of David Binney (alto saxophone, C-Melody saxophone), Matt Mitchell (piano, Prophet 6, modular synth, Novachord, harpsichord, Estey pump harmonium), Kenny Wollesen (drums, Wollesonic percussion on cuts 1, 3, 4, and 6), and Nate Wood (drums on cuts 1, 2, 5, and 6) and, my goodness, do they create a sound! Of the six tracks, two are over 19 minutes long, one at 14, one at 13, one at 8:10, and one at 6:36. Each track is different, four have added musicians, and the overall effect is surprising as well as fascinating.

There is a part of me that wants to illuminate each track for you while, in reality, you just need to find this album, turn it up loud, and dive in.  The project was inspired by a total solar eclipse that took a path from the Northwestern part of the United States across the lower Midwest and into the Southern states. Nachoff, the composer, related the experience to his music, opening his compositions up to different tonalities and ideas that sprang from experiments with melodies, harmonies, and rhythms he had not worked with before.  It certainly helps that Flux is such a talented ensemble, that Mitchell can make any keyboard he touches sound unique.  The use of electronics is both subtle and powerful, the addition of a five-man reed and brass section on "March Macabre" creates a huge sound (plus there's also a tap dancer), and the brilliant interaction of Nachoff, Mitchell, Binney, Wollensen, and multi-percussionist Mark Duggan (marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, crotales, and Tibertan singing bowls) on "Toy Piano Meditation" creates a mini-Gamelan orchestra that obliterates then rearranges your sense of time.

The more I listen, the more I believe this sonic adventure is a form of alchemy, a magical science beyond explanation.  Both drummers capture your attention by how they not only color the surroundings  but push the music forward.  The sound of Binney and Nachoff together will make you listen as they blend their voices as well as stand out individually.  Mitchell shines every time he makes a recording, either on his own or in support of someone else's visions. He can disappear into the ensemble to fill the bottom layer of sound, he can stand out as a soloist, and he puts an indelible touch on every track

"Paths of Totality" contains so much music you'll need to listen numerous times before you begin to hear all that is going on.  Don't be shy as this music will challenge you from note one until the powerful final track, "Orbital Resonances", fades slowly away on the pounding percussion of both Wollenson and Wood.  What a treat - Quinsin Nachoff continues to mature as a composer, musician, and arranger and we are the lucky beneficiaries.

For more information and to watch a series of videos that goes with the music on the album, go to www.quinsin.com.

Here's the exciting title track:




For her third album as a leader, "Wander Wonder" (self-released),  alto saxophonist and composer Allison Au opens the program with a delicious curve ball. The sounds of producer Todd Pentney's Prophet Rev2 synthesizer washes over the Quartet not unlike the synthesized sounds that dominated several of Wayne Shorter's CBS albums in the mid-1980s ("Phantom Navigator" and "Atlantis" in particular).  The rest of the program uses the synth sparingly but the sense of experimentation heard at the top of the album, which one can hear on the other albums Ms. Au has made, is heard throughout.  With the splendid rhythm section of Jon Maharaj (acoustic and electric bass) and Fabio Ragnelli (drums), the music flows forward. Maharaj is a wonderfully melodic bassist whose counterpoint to Pentney's left hand shines on several of the tracks - that counterpoint can be heard during a number of the saxophone solos as well.

Take the time to roll with the music, to follow the dancing alto sax solos that, at times, remind this listener of a bird in flight. Listen to the dancing interactions of "Red Herring" as Ms. Au interacts with Ragnelli while the synth strings color the background.  Her alto sax flies easily to the higher registers on "Looking Up" as Maharaj and Ragnelli dance joyously beneath her.  Dig Marahaj's thick electric bass lines on "The Rest Is Up To You" and the funk passages the rhythm section falls into under the alto theme. During Ms. Au's delightful solo, the rhythm section kicks with glee (also, notice how Pentney rises out int his solo while Ragnelli gives him a martial beat to move in and around.

Really, what I like most about "Wander Wonder" is how this quartet interacts intuitively, how important melody is to each song, how the themes help set up the solos, and how the rhythm section does not play it safe at all.  Sit down, let the music wash over you. Close your eyes, listen to each musician. This is also an album to enter on your own without preconceptions; don't worry about influences or who everybody sounds like, just listen. Then, listen again.  This is not music for impatient people. Take your time. The thrills on this album are often sublime but they are there to savor.

The Allison Au Quartet has won numerous awards in its native Canada and deservedly so. "Wander Wonder" illustrates the band's strengths and how Ms. Au continues to mature as a composer. Check this out!

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

Here's the AAQ in the studio: