Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Fusion Not Confusion

One might think that the duo of Aaron Goldberg and Guillermo Klein was put together just for "Bienestan" (Sunnyside) but, in actuality, the former played piano on the latter's 1997 debut "El Minotauro" (Candid Records).

For this recording (composed of 2 sessions, the first in May 2009, the second in August 2010), Goldberg plays acoustic piano and Klein Fender Rhodes.  8 of the 14 tracks are Klein originals, 2 by Charlie Parker, 2 selections from Luis Bonfa and Antonio Maria's "Manha de Carnaval"  ("Black Orpheus" and "Orfeo Negro")  and "All the Things You Are" by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II (which opens and closes the program.) The rhythm section is a classy one with drummer Eric Harland (who's appeared on all of Goldberg's solo efforts) and bassist Matt Penman.  Alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon is heard on 5 tracks including the lively reading of "Moose The Mooche" (with its variable lines and shifting rhythms).  Chris Cheek plays tenor saxophone on 2 tracks alongside Zenon and soprano saxophone on Klein's lovely "Yellow Roses" (which also features the alto saxophonist.)

Goldberg's work is exemplary throughout.  His finely articulated lines make the melodies come alive.  Listen how he winds his phrases around the Fender Rhodes on "Implacable" (a piece for the leaders without rhythm section and saxophones) - Klein creates a "drone" with his hypnotic riffing, supplying both the rhythm and bottom.  "Burrito" is a tasty ballad with the feel of a Radiohead melody while "Anita" has a melody line that suggests Milton Nascimento.  The pianists feed off each others lines while the saxophonists offer both melody and counterpoint.  "Impressions de Bienestar" moves easily atop Harland's quiet yet insistent percussion. The word "bienestar" means "well-being" and the tune exemplifies the word as well as giving off a feeling of peacefulness.  There's plenty of that feling throughout the program.

"Bienestan" is also noteworthy for Klein's arrangements and the way he is able to take the melodic intensity of his large-ensemble recordings to a softer yet no less effective level for a smaller band.  With the exception of the afore-mentioned "...Mooche" and the hard-hitting, funky, relentless "Human Feel", the pieces are often slow and contemplative.  Even the more rhythmic "Orfeo Negro" takes a more thoughtful approach. Harland and Penman are stalwarts when they appear and Zenon's playfulness and melodicism is quite sweet.  Hopefully it won't be another 14 years before Aaron Goldberg and Guillermo Klein record again. Listen for yourself and decide.

Jazz composers have turned to Far East on a number of notable occasions for inspiration. Included in the list are Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn ("The Far East Suite"), Dave Brubeck ("Jazz Impressions of Japan") and guitarist Pierre Dørge, whose New Jungle Orchestra have traversed the musical universe from Polynesia to Malaysia to to Southeast Asia to Africa.

Trombonist/composer Jeff Fairbanks' Project Hansori incorporates traditional Korean and Chinese folk melodies into contemporary jazz on its impressive debut recording.  "Mulberry Street" (BJU Records) blends the talents of a 17-piece big band with traditional Korean instruments, special guest Fred Ho's mighty baritone saxophone and, one 1 track, Heun Choi Fairbanks on cello.  The fusion works nicely right from the opening track "San Da Ma", with its Korean Church hymn melody played in unison on Fairbank's trombone and guest RaMi Seo on gayageum (Korean zither.)  "Hoping for Hope" has a full "big band" sound and is based on rhythm pattern from Korean Samulnori music.  Here, the splendid rhythm section of bassist Linda Oh and drummer Bryson Kern are joined by percussionist Yosun Yoo on several traditional percussion instruments. The multi-sectioned piece rises and falls atop the rhythm, the back-and-forth of the reeds and brass and the excellent solo work of Oh, pianist Francesca Han and guitarist Sebastian Noelle (a long-time member of Argue's Secret Society as are reed player Erica von Kleist and trombonist Jennifer Wharton.)

The title track is a 4-part, 26-minute, suite that is a tone poem dedicated to the intersection of New York City's "Little Italy: and the Chinatown district.   "Entrance and Funeral March" opens the "suite" with a dirge (though the use of flute and clarinet lightens the mood a bit) before a brass band moves in (here, as in other sections of the "suite", one hears the influence of both Charles Ives and Bob Brookmeyer).  Part 2, "Scaring Evil Spirits Away with Joyful Sounds", blends Ho's majestic baritone with a chorus of 4 soprano saxophones at the onset before the band comes roaring in.  The piece slows a bit for a soaring alto sax solo from von Kleist leading to a rousing climax with the saxophones and brass firing away (take that, evil spirits!) Ho leads the band in again on Part 3, "Releasing Grief", a piece that uses Buddhist and Christian hymns played simultaneously (again, the Ives influence).  Later in the song, Ho steps out for a fiery solo before the brass plays a funeral march beneath Noelle's aggressive guitar solo.  Part 4, "The Send-off", is a wonderful collage of clashing yet sympathetic melodies and rhythms that serves to lay the piece to rest and put a wide smile on the face of the listener. 

When I first encountered "Mulberry Street", I was knocked out by its bold combinations of traditional sounds and contemporary jazz but it is so much more than that.The section writing is clean, clear and inventive, harmonies abound, the soloists first-rate, and the vision of the composer is fully realized.  At a time when there are myriad large ensemble recordings, Jeff Fairbanks' Project Hansori is one of the most impressive and satisfying.  For more information, go to and follow the links. 

Here's a download of "Scaring Away Evil Spirits..." courtesy of BJU Records and IODA Promonet - enjoy!

Mulberry Street Part II: Scaring Away Evil Spirits with Joyful Sounds (mp3)

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