Monday, September 26, 2011

Rare Concert + Reviews of Music by 1 Duo, 2 Trios and a Quartet

If you are a person who appreciates musicians that can create works informed by gospel music, by classical music, by blues, by jazz and free improvisation, then do not miss the pianist/organist/vocalist/composer Amina Claudine Myers Trio Friday September 30 at Firehouse 12, 45 Crown Street in New Haven.   Ms. Myers first came to critical notice in the early 1960s when she moved to Chicago and played in the bands of hard-bop greats Sonny Stitt and Gene Aamons.  After meeting pianist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams, she joined the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) and began developing her own music.  Her 1980 recording, "Amina Claudine Myers Salutes Bessie Smith" (Leo Records), remains one of her finest works. She's performed and recorded with Lester Bowie (his "The 5TH Power" release on Black Saint is also a stunner), Charlie Haden, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, David Murray and many others.

Joining her in the recording studio/performance space will be acoustic bass guitarist Jerome Harris and drummer Reggie Nicholson, both impressive musicians. They'll play 2 sets, 8:30 and 10 p.m.  For more information, go to or call 203-785-0468. 

We reviewers are supposed to be a hearty crowd and low-key appreciators of the jazz world but my wife came running when I shouted "O my!  What a treat!"  No, not food nor a paycheck but this splendid duo CD from pianist Joel Forrester and soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston.  "Live at the Hillside Club" (Asynchronous Records" features 12 delightful tracks recorded in the Berkeley, California, arts venue.  Messrs Forrester and Johnson were on tour promoting a new CD by their long-running Microscopic Septet.  They have been friends and collaborators since 1974 - even though the Micros broke up for 15 or so years and Johnston moved to Australia, the band's music never went out of favor (some critics always "keep the faith.") 

They first met when Johnston heard Forrester playing a Thelonious Monk and it was musical love at first hearing. The CD contains 4 Monk tunes, 7 by Forrester and "Splat", a solo piece by Johnston.  There are many "sweet" moments including the lovely and blues-drenched "Pannonica" and "Your Little Dog", a heart-felt tribute to a family pet.  Johnston's soprano playing is often sublime (never moreso than on "Did You Ever Want to Cry?") yet he "swings" congenially on "Well You Needn't."  Forrester's piano work is informed by Monk but he's no imitator plus he's got a "huge" left hand - when he hits the "stride" on "Evidence", the room vibrates.

Even if you've never sprung for a Microscopic Septet recording (infidel!!), "Live at the Hillside Club" is...well.. it's a treat (and low in calories as well.)  To find out more, go to and/or

The trio of Jean Michel Pilc (piano), Francois Moutin (bass) and Ari Hoenig (drums) have been a working unit for 15 years and, in modern jazz terms, that's a lifetime.  When they got together in March of 2011 to record "Threedom" (Motéma Music), they literally walked into Peter Karl Studios, sat down and played.  No set list and no original pieces by band members - of the 18 tracks, 9 are group improvisations and the other half are either "popular" standards or jazz standards. 

As a listener, I approached the CD in a similar fashion.  I did not look at the tracks listing (until I got surprised by funky take of "Giant Steps" followed by the sweetly abstract take of "Afro Blue"), just popped the CD into the player and let it flow.  You should do the same.  While there is much here to like, the average listener probably won't sit still to take in the entirety of this exceptional program.  In his own way, Hoenig puts on a clinic - his work is splendid, from the intermittent rubbing brushes on both "Birth" and  "Lily" to the snapping snare work on "I'm Beginning to See the Light" to the conversational high-hat on "Slow." In many trio settings, the bass and drums alternate being the bottom -  that happens here at times but Moutin is ever-so-musical throughout the program.  Pilc shines as well with his post-bop flourishes on "Confirmation" or his mysterious abstractions on "You and the Night and the Music."  His playing on "Birth" shows the influence of Erik Satie; no wasted notes, no added single-note dashes, just a piece filled with wonder (the mood actually carries over to the next track, "Slow."

"Threedom", the freedom to be themselves, this music that is the sounds of joy of creation. As you already know, there are a truckloads of piano trio CDs but only a handful as pleasing and creative as this one.  For more information, go to  Even better, see Pilc Moutin Hoenig in concert. (The CD comes with an embedded video of the threesome playing a spirited version of "Mr. P.C.")

A similar spirit inhabits "Hearts Wide Open" (Le Chant du Monde Records), the new CD from Israeli-born guitarist Gilad Hekselman.  While the guitarist penned all the tunes, one can hear that the music is played by a band that knows each other well and plays to each other's strengths.  With a rhythm section of Joe Martin (bass) and Marcus Gilmore (drums), Hekselman has the freedom to move in any direction he chooses.  Add the tenor saxophone of Mark Turner (on 4 tracks) and the music soars even higher.  I like what the soloists do but it's the work of Martin and Gilmore that shines.  The movement that Gilmore creates really pushes the guitarist on the uptempo pieces.  Listen to their musical conversation on "One More Song", how Hekselman continues to rise up over the insistent drums. And pay attention to Martin; he not only supports the other players but adds his own counterpoint to the piece.  The quartet eases into "Brooze", a "modern blues piece with a strong melody, sparse but fitting guitar chords and forceful drumming.  Turner's tenor is often in the higher registers and he ambles through his solo yet provides enough fire to incite the guitarist's solo.  Martin and Gilmore lock down the slippery beat on "The Bucket Kicker", giving Hekselman the freedom to follow his melodic whims through a solo that displays fire and wit. The quiet elegance of "Will You Let It?", with its folk-like melody, is a showcase for Gilmore's explosive drum work - he does not overwhelm the piece but gives the piece an appealing edginess.

When you return to "Hearts Wide Open" a second and third time, concentrate on the melodic richness.  Just about every track has a strong theme and the fine rhythm section helps to make each piece stand out.  Yes, the group can (and does) improvise impressively but the brilliance and ultimate success of the CD lies in the fine musical architecture Gilad Hekselman creates.  To find out more, go to  To hear the group (sans Mark Turner) in action, go to The CD is scheduled to be released in October of this year.

Speaking of fun, Sō Percussion has just the most delightful time creating the various sounds on "It Is Time" (Canteloupe Music).  The quartet - Eric Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, and Jason Treuting - came out of the Yale School of Music 12 years ago with a sound like no other.  Yes, the group's sound can be traced to the pioneer work of Steve Reich but they have also the mined the fertile musical veins of John Cage, Paul Lansky and David Lang. They write their own pieces as well. 

Here, Steve Mackey gives Sō quite a sonic palette to play with;  everything from wine bottles to metronomes to pump organs to steel drums to alarm clocks is thrown into the mix.  Amazingly with all the toys and drums, the work never sounds cluttered. In fact, it's quite playful which is not surprising seeing as the composition was inspired by the composer's young son.  There are plenty of melodic lines to entice the most skeptical listener.  The rhythms often have an African feel but that does not permeate the music.  There is an ebb and flow to the work as well as an appealing lightness of "being." Overall, it's a very hopeful program.  There's a DVD that comes with the CD release - it, too, is fun, a bit serious but still fun.

To find out more, go to

Friday, September 23, 2011

California Streaming

The past few days, I've been enjoying the sets that NPR recorded at the 2011 Monterey Jazz Festival.  You can do the same by going to  There, you will find music from saxophonist Donny McCaslin and his "Electric" group, the Latin jazz of the John Santos Sextet, Cuban singer/songwriter Juan-Carlos Formell & Johnny's Dream Club, trumpeter Sarah Wilson & Quintet featuring the electric violin work (in more ways than than just plugging in) of Charles Burnham and drummer Matt Wilson, and the Bill Carrothers Trio.  That's the pianist in the picture above and his live set features long-time associates Drew Gress (bass) and Bill Stewart (drums.)  So, if you couldn't make the trek to the Festival, these highlights will brighten your days and nights.

It's always worth clicking on to find out what Patrick Jarenwattananon and his associates have posted for jazz and music fans.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Live Music (recent past + upcoming) and Selected New Favorites

The Fabian Almazan Trio - pianist Almazan, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Kendrick Scott - opened the Fall 2011 Concert Series last Friday night at Firehouse 12 with grace, style and fire.  From the opening piano notes to the "danzon" that closed both sets, the night was alive with melody and percussive intensity.  Scott, who has worked with the pianist in Terence Blanchard's band, is not on Almazan's scintillating new release, "Personalities" (Henry Cole is on the trap set), really dug into the music, pushing, prodding, driving and shining throughout the evening.  Ms. Oh is a bassist who not only underpins the music but also is a fine melodic soloist.  Her work in the second set was quite impressive, with solos that emphasized rhythmic as well as thematic possibilities.  As for Almazan, he is another one of the fine young pianists who already has his own style (Dan Tepfer, Jeremy Siskind, Gerald Clayton and Gwilym Simcock also come to mind) - there is a foundation of classical music in his approach to melody and his solos eschewed cliches.  After the second set, the pianist praised the piano and the room for helping to make his music shine.  If you get the opportunity to hear Fabian Almazan in person, do not pass it up - he makes wondrous music.

"Leapfrog" is the name of the sweet new Sunnyside CD from pianist/composer Armen Donelian and he's bringing the ensemble from the recording to play this Friday evening at Firehouse 12.  It's the same group that appeared with Donelian in April of 2010 at the Firehouse - they returned in July and October of the same year to to record the 8 tracks on the CD.  Driving the group is recent Wesleyan graduate Tyshawn Sorey (drums) ably abetted by the rock-solid bass work of Dean Johnson.  On the front line with the pianist is saxophonist Marc Mommaas and guitarist Mike Moreno.  Donelian provides the band with a number of adventurous as well as melodically rich pieces, ranging from the bluesy "Smoke" to the hard-edged "Rage" to the seductive "Mexico."  Sorey, who has powered the trio Fieldwork and Steve Coleman's group, shines throughout the program - Donelian, in his 4th decade as a professional musician, creates music that has myriad influences yet sounds fresh and refreshing.
The Group will play 2 sets, 8:30 and 10 p.m.  For more information, call 203-785-0468 or online at To find out more about the impressive career and music of the pianist, go to

Saxophonist/composer Jeremy Udden, whose new CD "If the Past Seems So Bright" (Sunnyside) is a lovely and understated blend of Americana, "pop" music and jazz will be on a short tour this week (9/20 - 9/25) that will take him back home.  Udden is a native of Plainville, Massachusetts, who now lives in Brooklyn, NY but his music resonates with the feeling of small-town life. Many of the tunes on the new CD and his 2009 Fresh Sounds New Talent release that bears the name of his hometown, have rock-influenced beats yet also feature banjo and acoustic guitar.  The tour, with a band featuring guitarist Mike Baggetta, Randy Ingraham (Fender Rhodes), bassist Eivind Opsvik and RJ Miller (drums), starts at NUBLU (24 1st Avenue in New York City) then moves north to UMASS/Dartmouth (9/22), the Lilypad in Cambridge, MA, Dirty Truth in Northampton, MA, and ends in his hometown for a benefit concert on 9/25 for the Plainville Lion’s Club in the Plainville Town Park at noon. During the Massachusetts part of the short tour (funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Chamber Music America Endowment Fund), Udden will give workshops at his former elementary and high schools.  Sounds like fun for all involved - to find out more, go to

The Uncertainty Music Series, curated by multi-instrumentalist/composer Carl Testa, steps out of its home base of New Haven, CT, and heads up either Rte 91 or 17 to Middletown and Wesleyan University to use the lovely pipe organ (pictured left) housed in the school's Memorial Chapel (High Street) on Thursday September 22.  "The Musical Singularity: Music for Computer-controlled Pipe Organ" will feature new works by Forbes Graham, Ben Klein, Dean Rosenthal, Brian Parks, Michael Winter and Testa.  Each composer has created a new piece programmed so that he can sit in the audience (except for trumpeter Forbes Graham who will be on stage and programming the computer while playing his horn.)  The event, which begins at 8 p.m., is free and open to the public.  For more information, go to


Recently, there have been (and will be) a slew of releases featuring or inspired by poetry - "Mobile" (Inner Circle Music), the new release by vocalist Sara Serpa, has songs that take their inspiration from the poetry, fiction or essays of writers such as Herman Melville, Homer, V.S. Naipaul, John Steinbeck, e.e. cummings and Herodotus.  Ms. Serpa, who composed all but one of the melodies, realized that her fascination with the stories she read was the fact they were based on the journeys of solitary travelers.  Ms. Serpa does not enter her musical sojourns alone - aiding her is Andre Matos (guitars), Kris Davis (piano, Fender Rhodes), Ben Street (bass) and Ted Poor (drums).  What the listener realizes after several times through the program is how much of a group effort this program. Whether it's the stunning acoustic guitar opening on "Pilgrimage to Armanath" or Ms. Davis's dizzying piano solo on "Ahab's Lament", this music draws one in.  Poor can kick hard when called for ("Gold Digging Ants") or be percussively "conversational" ("Ulysses's Costume") and his cymbal work is quite impressive.  Street is the "glue" on this music, working alongside Poor through all the changes while offering musical counterpoint now and then - "Sequoia Gigantis" is a good example of his fine playing.  Matos' shimmering electric guitar work on that track stands out as well. 

Still, it is Sara Serpa's voice that haunts the listener long after the last notes fade.  Her "instrumental" work moves from scatting on several tracks to singing along with Matos' guitar ("Traveling with Kapuszinsky") to the multi-tracked chorus on cinematic "City of Light, City of Darkness" that closes the program. Her Portuguese is flawless on "Sem Razão" while "If" (a poem from cumming's first edition of poetry "Tulips & Chimneys") is dark and foreboding music leavened by Serpa's soft vocal.

"Mobile" moves the listener in many directions, whether it's the fine keyboard work of Kris Davis, Andre Matos strong guitar playing, or the active and reactive rhythm section of Ted Poor and Ben Street.  Sara Serpa's vision for the project is impressive - the creativity of her vocal work is yet another reason for one to explore this music time and again.  For more information, go to

 Saxophonist Tineke Postma (alto and soprano) grows more mature and impressive with each recording.  "The Dawn of Light" (Challenge Records) is her 5th release in 8 years and features her working band.  Composed of Martijn Vink (drums, he appeared on her debut CD), Marc Van Roon (keyboards, synthesizer) and Frans Van Der Hoeven (acoustic bass), the bands wends its way through 10 tunes (6 by Ms. Postma, 2 by Van Roon, and 1 each by Thelonious Monk and Heitor Villa Lobos.)  Much of the music and some of Ms. Postma's saxophone work bears the influence of Wayne Shorter ("Falling Scales" with its various shifts in tempo and the evocative alto sax is an early example.)  Her soprano is earthy and seductive on "The Observer" then turns introspective for Van Roon's "Newland."  Esperanza Spaulding gets a vocal showcase on "Leave Me A Place Underground" (music by Ms. Postma, lyrics by Pablo Neruda) and her energetic scat singing sets the stage for a fine soprano solo.  Van Roon's acoustic work is lively and engaging while the rhythm section shines throughout.  Her alto work on the Villa Lobos piece that opens the CD, "Canção do Amor", shines with inventiveness, especially in the breathy and sprightly solo section.

"The Dawn of Light" is filled with sweet moments, songs with inventive solos and rhythmic excitement as well as melodies played with real emotion (not just someone going through the motions.)  Tineke Postma's music is well worth investigating.  For more information, go to

Drummer/composer Jerry Granelli has released a slew of recordings in his long career but few as engaging  as "Let Go"  (Plunge Records). Featuring saxophonist Danny Oore and bassist/cellist Simon Fisk, the 9 tracks have an intimacy that belies the fact this is the first time the 3 men have recorded together.  There is a nakedness to the sound - the music rarely shouts - and Granelli is not the sort of player who feels the urge to be showy.  In some ways, he's like Paul Motian, not as spare perhaps but rarely intrusive.  Vocalist Mary Jane Lamond adds her voice to several tracks but it's Oore who is the main voice whose tenor, soprano and baritone saxophone work is quite impressive.  On "Leaving", his tenor rises over the funky drums and melodic bass lines while his breathy soprano swoops and swirls around the Bertolt Brecht-like "Dango."  Fisk's lively overdubbed cello lines create quite the rhythmic inspiration for Granelli on "Letter to Bjork."

The interplay throughout the CD is mighty impressive and one is attracted to the lack of clutter in this music.  Jerry Granelli and company enjoy their interactions and, if you like music that is intimate and entertaining, "Let Go" will please you.

To find out more, go to

Listen for yourself:

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Recommended Live Music (a reminder) + CD Pick

Last week, I wrote about the duo of vocalist Jen Shyu (pictured left) and bassist Mark Dresser appearing Tuesday September 13 (tonight!) at The Big Room, 319 Peck Street in New Haven. Seats are still available for this show and I heartily recommend attending.  The duo explores many facets of creative music but especially the interactions of voice and bass, how artists use their different styles to create music that is organic, not forced.  Go to or for directions and more information.

This coming Friday, the many (musical) personalities of pianist Fabian Almazan will be on display as opening program in the Fall 2011 Concert Series at Firehouse 12, 45 Crown Street in New Haven.  His debut CD, "Personalities", is released on October 4 (I imagine there will be copies on sale at the shows) - my review is forthcoming.  Almazan, who has worked with trumpeter Terence Blanchard and co-produced (and performed on) the 2011 CD release of Bryan & the Aardvar ks (click here to find out more about the group), writes and plays music that blends influences from his native Cuba with jazz, classical, pop and much more.  Joining him will be the excellent young bassist Linda Oh and drummer Kendrick Scott. They'll play 2 sets - 8:30 and 10 p.m. - and you can find out more by going to

Alto saxophonist Kenny Shanker has been involved with jazz since his early teens - he even toured Japan twice with the Monterey Jazz Festival High School All-Star Big Band. He makes his Posi-Tone Records debut with "Steppin' Up" and, like the Patrick Cornelius release I reviewed a few weeks back (read here), Shanker builds the majority of his songs off of strong melodic lines.  He gets great support from the sparkling rhythm section of bassist Yoshi Waki and drummer Brian Fishler.  Add to them the hard-edged piano of Art Hirahara plus energetic contributions from guitarist Lage Lund and the listener is rewarded time and again.  Listen to the short but lovely "Rhapsody" or the rollicking "E,J.", 2 very different pieces yet both have excellent melodies - the latter piece is enlivened by the interplay of Fishler with the soloists.  Pianist Mike Eckroth replaces Hirahara on 3 cuts, including the hearty "Quirk", the sweet ballad "Sarah", and the lovely take on Leonard Bernstein's "Somewhere" that closes the CD (and is the only non-original in the program.)

Through it all, Shanker's alto saxophone playing is impressive for the way he builds his solos, his warm tone and lively engagement with the band.  Lund matches warm tone as well as creating solos off the energy of his band mates.  Hirahara continues to impress as a sideman and soloist; in the former role, he does not just lay back but engages the soloist with fine chords and counterpoint while his own solos have an energy that reflects the influence of Bud Powell (my opinion) without being derivative of anyone in particular. 

Thanks to the fact that my new job has me in the car 5 days a week, I have been listening to most of my music "on the road."  "Steppin' Up" sounds like great with the windows down driving the back roads, the music washing over me like a friendly rain storm.  Wherever you decide to listen to Kenny Shanker's debut CD, you'll enjoy the sonic ride.  For more information, go to

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Live Music in Middletown, New Haven & Beyond + Marcus Hits All the Marks

It's amazing when the calendar turns to September just how crazy/busy life becomes, especially when it comes to concerts.

My hometown is hopping this weekend, especially down at The Buttonwood Tree, 605 Main Street, Middletown.  Pianist/composer and tall person John Funkhouser returns to the Tree with his trusty rhythm section, bassist Greg Loughman and drummer Mike Connors.  If you've seen and heard the Funkhouser Trio, you know that they have such a great time playing with time (lots of interesting and often odd meters -  the results are quite infectious.  Opening the show at 8 p.m. is Boston-based singer-songwriter Britt Sawdon. Looks to be a good night of music.  To reserve a seat or 2, call 860-347-4957 or go online to

Saturday night, The Buttonwood presents the duo of Laszlo Gardony (piano, on left) and Stan Strickland (reeds, flute, kalimba, voice, on right) at 8 p.m. The Hungarian-born pianist has lived in the United States, settling in the Boston area and teaching at the Berklee School of Music.  Over the years, he performed with the likes of saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman, bassist Dave Holland, bluegrass musician Kenny Glaser and the Boston Pops.  For the past decade, he's toured the world with his Trio of Yoron Israel (drums) and John Lockwood (bass) and pursued duo gigs with Strickland.  Perhaps best know his work with saxophonist Marty Ehrlich, Stan Strickland is an impressive musician as well as a member of the Berklee faculty.  They're celebrating Gardony's new Sunnyside CD, "Signature Time", a Trio date that features a number of fine original tunes plus a pair of fascinating interpretations of Beatles' songs (Strickland appears on several tracks.)  Both men are fine, intuitive musicians. 

Also on Saturday night, the Uncertainty Music Series (concerts curated by bassist/conceptualist Carl Testa) presents a solo performance by trumpeter and cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum (pictured here with Professor Anthony Braxton).  Also on the bill is Colorguard, aka electronics musician Kryssi Battleene. The event takes place at 8 p.m. in Never Ending Books, 810 State Street in New Haven.  For more information, go to

On Tuesday night September 13, the Series presents the duo of Jen Shyu (vocal, erhu, dance) and Mark Dresser (bass) at 8 p.m. in The Big Room, 319 Peck Street in New Haven. They'll play music from their brand new CD, "Synastry" (Pi Recordings), a fascinating recording that is intimate, challenging, mysterious and wonderfully musical. Shyu, who has worked extensively with saxophonist Steve Coleman, has studied music from many different cultures.  Dresser has been at the forefront of the creative music scene for over 3 decades, working by himself, with his own groups and alongside Anthony Braxton, pianist Myra Melford, soprano Dawn Upshaw and many others.  This should be a very special night.  For more information about the CD, go to Go to the Uncertainty Music website (listed above) for directions.

That's pianist Fabian Almazan pictured at the piano on the left and he will be in a similar pose on September 16 when he opens the Fall 2011 Concert Series at Firehouse 12, 45 Crown Street in New Haven. Almazan, born in Cuba and raised in Miami, Florida, is celebrating the release of his often stunning debut CD, "Personalities" (Biophilia Records).  The recording features his working group of Linda Oh (bassist) and Henry Cole (drums, guiro) plus a string quartet on several tracks.  You can various sides of Almazan's musical personality through his use of electronics, his arrangements, his choice of material (7 originals, a song each from Cuban composers Antonio Maria Romeo and Carlos Varela, plus an arrangement of the "Adagio" from Shostakovich's "String Quartet No. 10) and splendid musicianship on piano.  For the Firehouse gig, Ms. Oh will be on bass but Kendrick Scott replaces Cole on drums. There will be 2 sets, 8:30 and 10 p.m. - for ticket information, go to or call 203-785-0468.  To find out more about the pianist, go to  

Just received information about the 9th Annual Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT), set to take place October 20-23, 2011, at the Jazz Standard, 116 East 27th Street, New York, NY.  This year, FONT is holding a "Kenny Wheeler Celebration", honoring the 81-year old Canadian native (pictured left) who has lived in Great Britain for many decades.   Look at this lineup:  On Thursday 10/20, Ingrid Jensen + Brass, an ensemble with 3 trumpeters (plus Mr. Wheeler), french horn, trombone, tuba plus piano, bass and drums;  on Friday and Saturday (10/21-22), the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble (featuring Mr. Wheeler) play 3 sets (7:30, 9:30 and 11:30 p.m.); On Sunday 10/23, the Kenny Wheeler Quintet featuring Jon Irabagon (saxophone), Craig Taborn (piano), Matt Brewer (bass) and Rudy Royston (drums) close the fabulous weekend (sure hope someone records this group.)  For more information about this impressive live event, go to

Saxophonist-composer Marcus Strickland's previous recording, "Idiosyncracies" (2009, Strick Muzik), remains one of my favorite CDs.  Rarely a month goes by without listening that most impressive trio hit.  Saw the group - brother E.J. on drums with bassist Ben Williams - play live at Firehouse 12 in May of 2010 and was bowled over by their interplay, musicianship and insistence on making sure each song had a strong melody before they ventured off into extended solos.

"Triumph of the Heavy; Volume 1 & 2" (Strick Muzik, to be released 9/27/11) is a 2-CD set, the second of which features music culled from the evening at the New Haven performance space/recording studio.  "Volume 1" adds the piano of David Bryant to the mix (he also appears on Strickland's 2009 CrissCross "ballads" CD, "Of Song", also highly recommended.) The pianist gives the music added depth and he gets a lot of solo space; he's a solid player with solos that display a bluesy feel ("A Temptress' Gait") or stromg forward motion ("Bolt Bus Jitter").  Marcus continues to develop as a composer and musician (he adds alto sax to his arsenal of tenor and soprano, with one track featuring overdubs of clarinet and bass clarinet).  His soprano work is quite impressive, with a tone that feels clear and warm (finely displayed on "A World Found") while his tenor playing, especially in the higher range, has a softer but no less forceful quality. His solo on "Shapes", especially atop the forceful drumming of his brother, is multi-directional yet true to the "shapes" he lays out at the onset of the tune.  His rollicking alto solo on "Set Free" builds off Bryant's romp and Williams' short yet finely honed melodic bass solo.  The bassist, who can be a very effective second "voice" (as he was on "Idiosyncracies" and proves to be on "Volume 2") has a more supportive role in the Quartet setting yet he along with E.J. provide such excitement and color.

As I wrote above, I was in the audience on the evening that produced "Volume 2" and the live recording, despite the somewhat muddy drum sound (certainly not heard or felt in person), brings back happy memories.  Listen to E.J. plays with the accents and beats on the uptempo cuts including the "hip-hop" feel underneath the tenor solo on "Mudbone", his whisper-soft cymbal work on "A Memory's Mourn" and the playful poly-rhythmic approach on Jaco Pastorious's "Portrait of Tracy". Marcus's soprano sax on the last track mentioned ranges from a clarion call to a stomping, near-revivalist feel to a sweetness as the piece comes to a close. Williams' strong walking bass lines drive the "free-swing" feel of "Surreal", anchoring the bottom while E.J. matches the energy of his brother's fiery soprano lines. The 3 musicians open "Gaudi" each moving in a slightly independent direction but then Williams moves into a long, rhythmically exciting, solo.  When Marcus enters for his tenor solo, his brother drops into such a funky beat that it is (and certainly was that night) impossible not to move your feet.  The next time someone tells you jazz is such serious music, play him or her"Gaudi."

"Triumph of the Heavy" really is a triumph for Marcus Strickland and his excellent band.  This music is so alive, so much fun, serious when the tune calls for a different approach and well worth the investment.  If you like music that can not only thrill you but has the power to move you emotionally, latch on to this fine 2 Volume set. For more information, go to  

Thursday, September 1, 2011

CD Picks (in the wake of Irene)

To paraphrase the poet Robert Burns, "the best laid schemes of reviewers and home owners can be washed away by the eye of a storm."  I was hoping to get a slew of reviews posted before Hurricane Irene arrived but, alas, that did not occur.  So, in the interest of time (yes, school is back in session and papers are waiting to be read), here's a brief look at several excellent new recordings.

I have received a slew of new releases that have impressed me with their emphasis on melody. As opposed to pure "blowing sessions", the recordings in this review start with well-thought out melodic ideas and build from there.

Let me begin with the splendid new release by alto saxophonist and composer Patrick Cornelius. Hot on the heels of 2010's trio date "Fierce", "Maybe Steps" (Posi-Tone Records) expands the basic instrumentation of sax-bass-drums to include piano (the guitar work of Miles Okazaki is heard on several cuts) for a program of 9 originals and 2 standards (K Weill's "My Ship" and G Shearing's "Conception".)  Check out the rhythm section which consists of drummer Kendrick Scott, pianist Gerald Clayton (on all tracks but one, a handsome duo take of the Weill tune features pianist Assen Doykin) and bassist Peter Slavov. Much of the music is the direct result of the birth of Cornelius's daughter "Isabella" and his fatherly fascination in her.  The music has a searching quality, a sense of adventure and wonder that is often the purview of very young children. No bumps and bruises along the way, just a sweet collections of tunes.  The title track moves easily atop the fine walking bass line and sparse yet effective cymbal work.  Clayton's generous chords push Cornelius into a strong, singing, solo. That is followed by the Satie-esque "Bella's Dreaming", with the leader playing these sweet, bluesy, smears that pushes the piece into George Gershwin.  It's a wee bit short at just over 2 and 1/2 minutes but none of the tracks are really long.  Scott dances "Shiver Song" in, laying down an irresistible beat that gives all involved just the right push (and a great drum-alto exchange near the close of the piece.)

Nary a sour note on the disc, "Maybe Steps" is delightful music from start to finish. Give it a lot of listens. Release date is 9/20/11.  For more information, go to

I had heard bits and pieces of guitarist/composer Oscar Peñas releases on the Spanish Fresh Sounds New Talent label but his US debut, "From Now On" (Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records) is a major step forward. With his regular quartet of Dan Blake (tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone), the lively 6-string electric bass of Moto Fukushima, and the sensitive young drummer/percussionist Richie Barshay plus guests Gil Goldstein (accordion, piano) and Franco Pinna (bombo leguero), Peñas creates a fascinating paean to his native Spain. His earlier efforts trended towards trying to sound like electric fusion - here, the composer fills the majority with flourishes of sounds and rhythms of his native Spain and, thanks to his talented band, creates a wonderful sound.  Blake is the main soloist; his sweet tones on soprano livens "Encuentro" while his tenor work is rich with ideas on "Continuum" and "Samuel Smith".  Goldstein, on accordion, shares the spotlight with the leader on both the title track and the lovely ballad "Julia" while his piano lines create a classical feel on the afore-mentioned "...Smith."  Fukushima is an inventive bassist, whether dancing along below the soloists or during his spotlights  (his short solo on "Choro No. 2" is pleasingly melodic.)  Barshay, who has spent time with Herbie Hancock and The Klezmatics, never overplays and has a wonderful knack for offering just the right accompaniment.  Listen to his lively pandiero work on "Choro No. 1" and his simple yet arresting cymbal play underneath the guitar solo on "Julia." While Peñas is a solid electric guitarist, his acoustic work is, at turns, hypnotic, melodic and inventive.

"From Now On" rarely gets loud but draws in the listener with its charming Hispanic melodies and rhythms as well as the numerous fine solos. A fine companion to bassist Alexis Cuadrado's excellent BJU recording from early 2011, "Noneto Iberico", Oscar Peñas should be proud of his accomplishment.
Here's one of the more delightful pieces, courtesy of BJU and IODA Promonet:
Choro, No. 1 (Guainga) (mp3)

Although "There" (Anzic Records), the 3rd Cd from the Ernesto Cervini Quartet is not scheduled to be released until late October, be on the lookout for it.  It is one of the more joyful releases of this or any year in recent history.  The drummer/composer has such a fine group including the melodic and muscular Joel Frahm (tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone), the splendid pianist Adrean Farrugia and bassist Dan Loomis. Frahm and Farrugia are playful throughout, dropping quotes from all sorts of tunes into the midst of their solos.  Cervini is a very melodic drummer who truly knows how to drive a tune and Loomis is solid while also a strong soloist.  Several of the uptempo pieces have the sound of the Keith Jarrett "Nordic" Quartet with Jan Garbarek, the group that recorded "Belonging."  Soulful, swinging and joyous, "There" is a winner! To find out more, go to