Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Music of All Shapes & Colors

Pianist and composer Mike Holober spends much of his time as an arranger with a number of large ensembles, from the Westchester Jazz Orchestra to the Gotham Wind Symphony to the HR Big Band of Frankfurt, Germany.  As a leader, he has issued 5 CDs over the 12 years, 2 at the head of the Gotham Jazz Orchestra and 2 with his Quintet. The 5th and latest, "Balancing Act" (Palmetto Records), features an octet of world-class musicians playing a program that includes 5 new songs by Holober, 1 by Jason Rigby (who plays tenor sax, clarinet and bass clarinet on the CD), Billy Joel's "Lullaby; Goodnight My Angel", and an inventive re-arrangement of Jerry Ragavoy/Bert Berns hit for Janis Joplin, "Piece of My Heart" (originally recorded by Erma Franklin, Aretha's sister.)

And what a band!  The rhythm section includes Brian Blade (drums) and John Hébert (bass) plus a front line of Rigby, Dick Oatts (alto & soprano saxes, flute), Marvin Stamm (trumpet, flugelhorn), Mark Patterson (trombone), and Kate McGarry (voice).  Holober utilizes Ms; McGarry as both a singer and as another instrument blending her voice with the reed and brass.  Her reading of "Piece of my Heart" is heartfelt, bluesy, angry and defiant, matching the emotions of the arrangement.  Stamm's muted solo is a quiet counterpoint to the vocal.

There are moments of contemplation throughout the program including the opening moments of "Canyon." That piece picks up in intensity through the trumpet solo and explodes duty Oatts' fiery alto spot.  "Sighs Matter", one of 2 songs with "Sighs" in the title (the opening "Book of Sighs" is the other) is a lovely ballad with a Brazilian influence in the melody, a subtle tinge in the rhythm and in the beautiful soprano sax lines.  "Grace at Sea" may remind some of a Maria Schneider piece yet listen to the graceful funk of Blade and Hébert under Patterson's trombone solo plus the solo piano spotlight after the second vocal verse.  Speaking of funk, the rhythm section creates an incredible dance on "Idris", blending the influences of James Brown and Bob Brookmeyer in a glorious fashion. Listen for the strong tenor solo as well as Holober's hearty spotlight.  Blade gets a solo and honors the memory of the gentleman the song is named for, the late Idris Muhammad.

The album closes with the wistful "When There Were Trains", a remembrance of youth and quieter times. The Brazilian influence re-emerges here in the beat, the harmonies and Oatts' transcendent flute.   The composer's original lyrics stand out throughout the program and Ms. McGarry delivers with the game and emotion we have come to enjoy over the past decade.

 "Balancing Act" speaks to the challenges of modern life and is adult music of the highest quality.  Mike Holober does not speak down to his audience; instead, he respects the idea that the curious listener will enjoy the width and breadth of his project. The songs are intelligent, the arrangements impressive and the musicianship outstanding - find this music and take it into your heart.

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

Here's the lovely last track:

It's the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, founded by Muhal Richard Abrams, Jodie Christian, Phil Corhan, and Steve McCall in Chicago. Over the 5 decades, the AACM's aim has been to help musicians and composers create "serious original music."

3 younger members, Nicole Mitchell (flute, electronics), Tomeka Reid (cello), and Mike Reed (drums), have recorded a tribute to the organization.  "Artifacts" (482 Music) is a fine collection of 10 pieces by 9 composers, most of whom (Abrams, McCall, Leroy Jenkins, Fred Anderson, Amina Claudine Myers, Anthony Braxton, and Roscoe Mitchell) were there at the beginning.  The Trio also plays a work by Edward Wilkerson, whose music emerged in the dates 1970s, and one by guitarist Jeff Parker.  The latter's composition, "Days Fly By with Ruby" is attached to Anderson's "Bernice", a smart move as the guitarist was mentored by the saxophonist in the 1990s.

The program serves as a reminder of the powerful music that these men and woman created.  The powerful drive of Mr. Braxton's "Composition 23B" swings hard, reminding that the composer was influenced by the music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis.  The playful dance rhythms of "Jo Jar", Mr. Mitchell's tune for his partner in the Art Ensemble of Chicago, makes one smile as does the energetic reading of Mr. Abrams' "Munkt Munk".  Ms. Myers' "Have Mercy On Us" is modern gospel and the trio, after a frenetic opening with electronically distorted flute, fall into a hypnotic rhythm - the distortion of the flute and the churning cello create an intensity matched by Reed's drumming.

The late Steve McCall (1933-1989) is the only composer on he CD with 2 tracks, both associated by his work alongside Henry Threadgill (saxes, flute) and the late Fred Hopkins (bass) in Air.  "B.K." has numerous rhythmic changes, a tumultuous cello part, and fiery drumming while "I'll Be Right Here Waiting" is a stunning ballad (certainly the prettiest piece that Air ever performed).  The round notes of the flute combined with the thick cello tones and the wonderful colors created by Reed (especially when the music drops out of tempo) is powerful and emotionally rich.

Mr. Wilkerson's delightful march "Light On The Path" closes the program on quite an upbeat note.  The way Ms. Mitchell's wraps her dancing flute phrases around the active pizzicato cello while the drummer dances along in abandon will set your feet tapping.  The funky drums that support Ms. Reid's cello solo reminds one that the AACM made and still makes music from all elements of the Black experience throughout the world.

The title "Artifacts" may make you think of a museum or an archaeological exploration yet this is far from what Nicole Mitchell, Tomeka Reid and Mike Reed want one to feel about this music.  No, these compositions and performances are alive with possibilities; the DNA of the originals is deep inside the musicians and they understand this music was made for the ages.  The album serves as both a tribute and a reminder what can be accomplished by a community.

For more information, go to www.482music.com.

"Vista Accumulation" (Pi Recordings), the new album from pianist and composer Matt Mitchell, may remind listeners of the work of Muhal Richard Abrams in its shifting rhythmic patterns and episodic nature.  Yet one can hear the influence of Andrew Hill and John Hollenbeck on the 8 tracks spread out over 2 CDs (over 96 minutes of music).  Joining Mitchell is his "working group" composed of Chris Speed (tenor saxophone, clarinet), Chris Tordini (bass) and Dan Weiss (drums).   Each one is essential to the success of this music as the pianist's pieces are filled with twists and turns, with long melody lines (shared by piano, bass and drums) and intelligent harmonies.  Mitchell's powerful left hand, on occasion, works in tandem with Tordini's bass and, at other times frees the bassist to play counterpoint.  Weiss, as he has exhibited over the past decade, has this wonderful ability to make music come alive and is often a melodic element as well as a timekeeper. Speed is a perfect partner with the piano, especially when playing clarinet  The reedy sound combined with the brightness coming from the keyboard soothes as it cajoles.

Hiroyuki Ito/NYTimes
Perhaps the most interesting aspects of this recording (in this author's mind) are the movement within the music, how melody drives each piece, and how solos come and grow so organically.  Tracks such as "'twouldn't've" and "Hyper Pathos" seem to breathe with the musicians, never sounding forced or contrived. The latter is a good example of how Tordini's bass is so important; not only does he solo (at the end) but his counterpoint to the clarinet is quietly intense and easy to pick up in the spaces left by the piano and drums.

What one should do with such (seemingly) complex music is to concentrate on a particular musician each time you listen.  Mitchell's piano is the driving force of this music yet he understands the need to stand back when the material calls for it.  His subtle backing of Speed's clarinet solo on "All The Elasticity" not only reacts to the phrases being played and providing counterpoint but also pays attention to the other members of the rhythm section, feeding them chords. Mitchell uses his power in a similar manner to Don Pullen on "Utensil Strength", splintering melodic lines and creating a musical firestorm in his left hands.  The propulsive melodic fragment that appears throughout the song serves to change the focus and intensity.  On that same track, notice how Weiss moves in and out of the picture; at one point, he is silent for 4 minutes while closer to the end, he's playing the melody and pushing the proceedings.  His hip-hop approach at the opening of "Numb Trudge" press at the tolling piano chords trying to coax Mitchell into a melody and, after 2 minutes, Speed enters and plays a theme.  When he's done, the song breaks down and the pianist plays a long, abstract, solo  that ultimately removes the tension.  Once he's done, the other musicians enter and slowly the piece builds up with Speed's clarinet leading the way.

I've played "Vista Accumulation" numerous times in the past 6 weeks and each time I hear something new.  What is more evident now is the emotional richness and sincerity of this music, the honesty with which Matt Mitchell and band breath life into the notes and in how they interact with each other.  The songs may be long (none under 7:48 and 4 above 12:28) but there is not a dull moment to be heard.

For more information, go to www.mattmitchell.us. To get a taste of this excellent recording, go to matt-mitchell.bandcamp.com/album/vista-accumulation.

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