Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Potpourri for Spring (CD Reviews)

Noir Blue - Ken Peplowski (Capri Records) - The proper word to describe this program of 7 standards and 3 originals is "delightful." With a crackling rhythm section of Shelley Berg (piano), Jay Leonhart (acoustic bass) and Joe La Barbera (drums),  Peplowski (carinet, tenor saxophone) bops, swings and strolls in a most entertaining way.  Berg is such a creative player, either rumbling through a solo or playing the right accompaniment.  Leonhart can deftly underpin a tune as well as create a fine solo and La Barbera is as creative behind the soloist as he is designing the right setting for each tune. Peplowski's tone on clarinet (an instrument he took up as a member of Benny Goodman's mid-1980s ensemble) is warm and inviting.  He creates a South American atmosphere on "Bourbon Street Jingling Jollies", an Ellington/Strayhorn collaboration from "The New Orleans Suite."  He and Berg caress Strayhorn's bittersweet "Noir Blue", never rushing through the melody, making sure each note counts.  Peplowski brings out the tenor sax for Hoagy Carmichael's "Riverboat Shuffle", giving the 1920s composition a more up-to-date "mainstream jazz" sound. Yet, Peplowski's tenor tone hearkens back to Lester Young (even more so on "Love Locked Out.") Some listeners may be surprised by the leader's tribute to Ornette Coleman -  "Little Dogs" evokes the Coleman Quartet of the late 1950s - early 60s, with Berg's bouncy, Monkish piano sounds replacing Don Cherry's trumpet. The "swing blues" track closes this most impressive program.
If you love jazz, "Noir Blue" covers a wide swath of creative territory, with ballads that rise slowly and burners that make one's feet bounce.  And, nary a false note.  Highly recommended! - for more information, go to www.caprirecords.com

Yaounde - Samuel Torres (Blue Conga) - Percussionist/composer Torres' second CD as a leader shows him as a progressive, blending traditional rhythms with intelligently crafted melodies and smart arrangements.  The core sextet features the excellent drumming of Cuban native Ernesto Simpson, bassist John Benitez, the sparkling keyboards of Manuel Valera, the expressive trumpeter Michael Rodriguez and saxophonist Joel Frahm. Frahm's playing continues to impress, especially his rich soprano sax (just beautiful on "Bambuco") and his muscular tenor.  Clarinetist Anat Cohen gets added to the mix for "Macondo", with its staggered rhythms and the blend of her woody tone with Rodriguez's shiny brass, Frahm's hearty tenor and Valera's exclamatory piano chords is quite handsome. The hustle and bustle of "Lincoln Tunnel", with its flashy electric bass lines, guest Ralph Irizarry's thumping/popping timbales and a "stop-start" melody line, is irresistible (Rodriguez's fiery trumpet solo is also a joy.)  Vocalist Sofia Rei Kuotsovitis joins Torres for "Ronca el Canalete", overdubbing several voices to create a choir that moves sinuously over the congas.
Torres takes several solo turns, including the hypnotic 4-minute "Chia - The Moon Goddess", cuts that not only display his formidable technique but also his ability to create melodies for his drums. There's much to absorb on "Yaounde" and repeated listenings only heighten the experience.  To find out more, go to www.samueltorres.com.

Like A Rusted Key - Peter Van Huffel Quartet (Fresh Sounds New Talent) - Alto saxophonist/composer Van Huffel, a native of Canada now living in Berlin, Germany, creates music that insinuates its way into your mind.  Not outwardly ebullient, the songs move with a purpose. And, this CD, his 3rd with pianist Jesse Stacken and first with the rhythm section of fellow Canadian Miles Perkins (acoustic bass, toys) and Swiss drummer Samuel Rohrer. "Drift", the longest track in the program. opens quietly with percussion, the staccato piano behind the handsome melody. Slowly, steadily, the song builds in intensity, the fullness of the alto saxophone rising over the simple piano rhythm.  A martial drum beat announces the bass solo and then the leader returns, his introspective phrases reflecting the raga-like lines that bassist Perkin played.  The directions that the piece takes reminds this listener of Keith Jarrett's European Quartet from the 1970s (with Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielson and Jon Christensen.) But, this group goes its own way with the intensely-rhythmic "Tangent", moving with an urgency that reflects modern rock and the fire of Cecil Taylor. Pianist Stacken drives through his solo, prodded by the pounding drums and bass.  All drop out for the alto sax to move out of time - they return, yet drop away to return again to ratchet up the intensity.
There's plenty of variety, from the Kurt Weill-like melody and circus atmosphere on "Engehavej"(and when the piece opens further, the music lurches then propels forward) to the mysterious, percussion-driven excitement of "Backwards Momentum" - Rohrer moves like a dervish over his kit beneath Stacken's driving solo then really pushes the proceedings when Van Huffel takes over. Silence is a key ingredient of "Melancholic", with the tolling piano chords that slowly lead the piece in until one can notice the light echoing alto and hushed percussion - not much changes save for the intensity of the long notes until the long quiet fade.  If one is patient, the work is meditative and calming.
"Like a Rusted Key" is quite the group effort - even though the songs are all composed by Peter Van Huffel, each member of the Quartet is intimately involved in the creation of the music and that intimacy is what shapes the program and makes it work.  Stick with it and the rewards are plentiful. To find out more, go to www.petervanhuffel.com.

Rainbow - Kronos Quartet, with Alim  Fargana Asimov and Homayun Sakhi (Smithsonian Folkways) - Over the course of 30+ years, Kronos Quartet has effectively redefined the role of the string quartet in the 20th and, now, 21st century. Not only have they championed new works by many American composers, they have turned their eyes and ears to the world and brought listeners into the folk musics of Asia, South America and elsewhere.
Their latest venture is Volume 8 of the Smithsonian Folkways "Music of Central Asia" series and finds the KQ (violinist and founder David Harrington, long-time members violinist John Sherba and violist  Hank Dutt along with cellist Jeffrey Zeigler) working with Afghan composer and rubab player Homayun Sakhi (and trio) as well as with Azerbaijani composer/vocalist/percussionist Rafael Asgarov (balaban or wooden flute),  Rauf Islamov (kamancha, a stringed instrument), Zaki Valiyev (tar, or long-necked lute) and Javidan Nabiyev (naghara, or drum.) Alim Qasimov has a voice with an incredible range, sounding not unlike the cadences one hears at the Muslim call for prayer. His other instrument is the daf, or frame drum.  The 5 cuts range from "Kohlen Atim" ("My Splendid Horse"), a piece that starts slowly and then builds to an intense finish to the highly dramatic "Getme, Getme" ("Don't Leave, Don't Leave") to the rampaging "Leyla" (short but incredibly forceful.)  "Mehriban Olaq" opens like a Aaron Copland work (the furious bowing of the strings) before dropping into long tones, then the full ensemble enters and the piece becomes a duet for the voices over thunderous percussion and flying strings. The final track, "Qashlarin Kamandir" ("Your Eyebrows are Bow-like"), is episodic, with sudden and dramatic tempo changes, more great vocal exchanges and an amazing propulsion.
Kronos Quartet is nothing if not adventurous and "Rainbow" is yet another example of the ensemble's tremendous appetite.  The music has moments of splendor and force, joy and introspection.  Musical and educational, this CD is worth seeking out.
The "hard" copy, as opposed to the Mp3 download, includes an video that shows Kronos hard at work with their collaborators creating this program as well as a guide to the instruments on the recording.  To find out more, go to www.folkways.si.edu/albumdetails.aspx?itemid=3255.

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