Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Saxophones Colossal

Perpetual Motion - Donny McCaslin (Greenleaf Music) -Did not know quite what to expect when reading that the new McCaslin CD was going to be "electric" but will tell you here that, if you are a long-time listener to his music, this is one enjoyable set of songs.  Featuring the rhythm section of Adam Benjamin (Fender Rhodes, piano), Tim Lefebvre (electric bass) and either Antonio Sanchez (drums cuts 1-6) or Mark Guiliana (drums cuts 6-9), the music not only has "perpetual motion" but also lots of "forward motion."  Blasting out of the gates with "Five Hands Down", the band plays with great fire (Sanchez knows how to electrify a rhythm) and McCaslin responds with a fiery solo, even squealing a bit near the climax.  The title track has the feel of a Wayne Shorter-Joe Zawinul collaboration with a melody that continues to move upward and plenty of shifts in the rhythm section.  The leader's solo, over Lefebvre's roiling bass lines and Sanchez's stormy cymbals, moves away from any Shorter influence into a percussive, squalling, booming statement.  Uri Caine joins the fun on "Firefly", a ballad that builds atop Sanchez's active percussion and distorted Rhodes lines. It does build to a boil but moves into an "r'n'b" feel on the way out. The pianist also contributes the final track, "For Someone", a beautiful ballad that he plays solo. There's a touch of "fatback funk" in Guiliana's drums on "Memphis Redux", a sweet journey down to the Southland that may remind some of The Crusaders (after they jettisoned the word "Jazz" from their monicker) - both McCaslin and Benjamin (on acoustic piano) dig deep into their souls on the solo while the bass pops, bumps and jumps underneath. "L.C.Z.M." moves in on a funky riff that has the feel of a classic Led Zeppelin line and while the piece has tremendous drive, there is no bombast to weigh the groove down.
Producer David Binney brings out his alto saxophone for "Impossible Machine", a tune he co-write with McCaslin. The 2 reed players explore the long melody line before McCaslin moves out into a well-drawn solo  -the way he moves around the chordal interjections and with the shifting rhythms is exciting as well as pleasing. 
In the late fall of 2010, I saw Donny McCaslin play as part of guitarist Joel Harrison's ensemble and was highly impressed by his control. Yes, he plays with fire and virtuosity but rarely gets lost and never just "shows off."  Yes, "Perpetual Emotion" is an "electric" album but not just because of the presence of the amplifiers.  Dig into this music and you'll find plenty of soul and honesty.  For more information, go to www.donnymccaslin.com.   
Courtesy of Greenleaf Music, here's a taste of "L.C.Z.M." 
Donny McCaslin - L.Z.C.M. by greenleaf_music

Across The Sky - Geggie Trio + Donny McCaslin (Plunge) - I first heard bassist John Geggie when he was a part of the quartet known as Chelsea Bridge that released several CDs in the 1990s and also his work with pianist D.D. Jackson.  A steady hand in the rhythm section, he's also a fine soloist and strong composer.   It's hard to believe that this 2007 recording and 2008's "Geggie Project" Trio CD on the Ambiences Magnetiques label are his first as a leader in a career that spans 2 decades and genres as varied as classical, folk and jazz.
This Trio features pianist Nancy Walker, drummer Nick Fraser and special guest McCaslin, Canadians all but the guest. Yet, McCaslin is no "Donny-come-lately" - he is an integral part of the music that moves back and forth organically from "straight-ahead" pieces to short, fully improvised, tracks featuring smaller combinations. 
The program opens with "The Eyes Are Worth 1000 Words", a piece with a loping bass line, a nifty bop phrase thrown into the theme and a sly tenor line.  McCaslin plays around with Fraser's snappy drumming, Walker's occasional chords and his intensity rises atop the cushion provided by Geggie. He moves with the beat, behind and ahead of it, creating a memorable solo. Fraser gets a short but effective spot that leads back to the opening theme.  The strength of this material is that every track is different, ranging from the ethereal ballad "From Which" (McCaslin plays high and softly in the tenor range  and it's quite lovely) to the gentle funk of "Or Not" (with the leader's declamatory bass solo and Walker's rippling yet understated phrases.) The title track, composed by Geggie, has an open feel due to the rubato nature of the group interaction - there is beauty in the way Walker works beneath and alongside the tenor lines, all the while the rhythm section controls the shifting dynamics.  The piano solo, with phrases that move like slowly falling water, is very lovely.
"Brume" and "Ruelles" are group improvisations that come one after the other, the former (translated as "mists") building softly on the whispering tenor sax and the rising piano figures while the latter ("streets") is a "freer" conversation among the participants that picks up in speed but never gets lost.
It's just piano and bass interacting on "Les Jardins de Luxembourg", creating a melancholy and mysterious dialogue of ringing notes and overtones. The pianist joins the saxophonist for the short and ethereal "Reflection", an Erik Satie-like impression. The CD closes with "Pompidou", just bass and tenor in a short yet bracing interaction.
"Across The Sky" is music of the highest order, a program in which technique gives way to interaction and group dynamics.  The melodies are smartly drawn while the improvisations display the trust and sense of adventure one craves hearing in creative music. For more information, go to www.johngeggie.com.

Graylen Epicenter - David Binney (Mythology) -I have been a fan of alto saxophonist/composer David Binney's music since I reviewed "The Luxury of Guessing" in 1995.  What was impressive then and, perhaps, moreso now, is the urgency in his compositions, the interactions, the themes that stretch out then open to cogent solos and the excellence of his sidemen (all of whom are friends - listen to his highly informative and entertaining conversation with Jason Crane on "The Jazz Session" by clicking here.)

One of the things you'll learn about this new CD is that the title has no meaning - Binney just liked the way the 2 words sounded together.  One has to laugh hearing that admission because it seems (at least to this listener) that Binney always knows what he wants from his music.  These pieces have musical themes and always seem to be moving forward.  The title track, at 12:35, is the longest cut yet is multi-sectioned with melodies for each change, powerful solos from guitarist Wayne Krantz and Binney, strong rhythm section work from pianist Craig Taborn, bassist Eivind Opsvik and drummer Brian Blade and a lovely interlude with an atmospheric wordless vocal from Gretchen Parlato. "Equality at Low Levels " features Binney doubling on soprano and alto saxophones shadowed  on the theme by Taborn - the middle of the piece finds the saxophonist back on alto sparring, jabbing and jousting (musically) with the pianist (who seems to get "freer" as the piece moves forward.)
Drummer Dan Weiss joins the group for 5 pieces, doubling with Blade on 4 of those tracks.  The duo push mercilessly on "Terrorists and Movie Stars" prodding, even goading Binney and tenor saxophonist Chris Potter to "open up" and let fly, all the while Taborn is goosing the rhythm with pounding chords.  The drum "twins" open "Any Years Costume" with a blazing dialogue that roars and jumps out of the speakers.  After the ensemble pushes through the theme, the drummers along with Opsvik, drive the solo section underneath Binney's passionate solo.  Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire spars with the drummers and Taborn for his hard-edged solo. The piece takes an interesting detour towards the quiet during Opsvik's handsome solo but ends dramatically.
Parlato returns to sings along with the saxophones and trumpet on the short (1:35) but challenging "Same Stare, Different Thoughts."  She also contributes lyrics to "Home", a piece that Binney has recorded several times in the past but never with words.  Much of the opening moments feature voice, quiet and spare piano lines, nearly inaudible alto saxophone and soft drums (from Blade.)  The piece builds slowly as Ms. Parlato stretches her lines into wordless sounds that open to Binney's expressive and emotional alto solo. Blade reacts to the soloist's energy and the piece builds to an intense finish. 
The CD closes with "Waking to Waves", a piece that opens with impressionistic vibrations before the efforts of drummers Blade and Weiss, Kenny Wollesen (vibraphone) and Rogiero Boccato (shakers and more) create a Brazilian rainforest of sound for the handsome melody (reminiscent of Caetano Veloso) - there is a mix of voices, saxophones, and Krantz's acoustic guitar before Akinmusire takes off for a powerfull solo that drives right to the last note.
"Graylen Epicenter" is a stunning CD, with so much variety in sound and melody that the temptation to play it over and over is hard to resist.  If you have not paid attention to David Binney, be advised. This is but one of a dozen CDs he has released (as either a leader or co-leader) since the turn of the Century.  Each one is worth investigating (his work for Criss Cross is among the Dutch label's most impressive releases) - This new effort sets the bar very high for 2011 (and beyond.)  For more information, go to www.davidbinney.com.

Power Play - Ralph Bowen (Posi-Tone Records) -Tenor saxophonist/composer came out of Canada in the mid-1980s to study in the United States and first came to critical notice as a member of the Blue Note labels hand-picked ensemble of "young lions" known as Out of the Blue. That group featured, among others, alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, bassist Bob Hurst and drummer Ralph Peterson.  Bowen went on to work with pianists Michel Camilo, Hank Jones and Horace Silver as well as vocalist Shirley Scott and bassist Charles Fambrough.
This release, his 3rd for Posi-Tone, features the fine piano work of long-time friend Orrin Evans, bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Donald Edwards.  Evans' tolling McCoy Tyner-like chords give great power to "Drumheller Valley" as does Edwards' powerful drumming.  Bowen starts his solo (after a fine one from Evans) quietly but soon rides the roiling rhythm section to impressive heights.  "Two-Line Pass" has the speed of a hockey game in the flying bass lines of Davis - Bowen blazes a mighty trail through the piano chords, having fun interacting with the ensemble.  Evans takes his own joy ride with Edwards supplying the high-octane percussive push.
Bowen wisely plays "My One and Only Love" as the pretty ballad it is, staying close to the melody and chord changes for his handsome solo.  There is a sense of joy in his solo, a happiness that carries through the entire piece. 
Other highlights include the handsome uptempo ballad "Bella Firenze" with an Evans solo that is relaxed and "swinging" at the same time and an energetic give-and-take featuring Bowen and Edwards (which ends on a fadeout.)  "Walleye Jigging" has a pleasing melody played over shifting tempos that opens to an understated piano solo before Bowen and Edwards have more strong interaction. Bowen's lithe and gentle soprano saxophone is featured on the final track, "A Solar Romance."  Take the time to listen to Davis's long tones on the bass and Edward's exemplary work on the cymbals as well as Evans' impressionistic piano (somewhat reminiscent of another, older, Evans - Bill.)
"Power Play" does have its share of powerful playing but there is also a goodly amount of dynamic variation from track to track.  What does not change throughout the program is the fine musicianship and the excellent interplay.  Some might call Bowen's approach "modern hard bop" - call "honest good music" that's well played and you won't go wrong.  For more information, go to www.ralphbowen.com or www.posi-tone.com.
Here's the opening track, "K.D's Blues" courtesy of Posi-Tone Records and IODA Promonet:
K.D.'s Blues (mp3)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the link to my Binney interview, Richard. I need to check out that McCaslin album, too. And I'm interviewing Ralph later this week. His episode will be posted on 2/21.

    All the best,