I do get carried away with writing about music that moves me; that is why a "Best Of" list is so dangerous. What starts as 10 for the NPR Critics Poll (see here) ends up being 40 on this blog. I'm not very good at picking more than 5 really great albums but find that, as I listen back, my opinion usually deepens, gets stronger, from finding and hearing more delightful moments. Click on the links and listen - enjoy! Thanks for reading. 2016 was quite a crazy year for all sorts of reasons and 2017 has a great possibility of surpassing the madness of the past 12 months. Music is often the savior for many of us and will continue to do that eternally.
Again, this list is in no particular order:
Frank Kimbrough - Solstice (Palmetto) - Here's what I wrote about this delightful recording: bit.ly/2ge606D.
Stephan Crump - Rhombal (Papillon Sounds) - I wrote in August "(Y)ou will listen to this album for the impressive interactions of Crump (bass and compositions), Tyshawn Sorey (drums), Ellery Eskelin (tenor saxophone), and Adam O'Farrill (trumpet). Pay attention to how the solos grow out of the melodies, how the quartet mix their distinctive styles to the composer's vision of the music, and the clarity of the sound."
Fred Hersch Trio - Sunday Night at The Vanguard (Palmetto) - Few groups in the world more magical than pianist Hersch, bassist John Hébert, and drummer Eric McPherson. They are great in the studio and even better in person.
Thumbscrew - Convallaria (Cuneiform) - Thumbscrew makes thoughtful music, songs and sounds that both challenges the listener and rewards him or her. It is easy to discern the comfort level that Mary Halvorson, Michael Formanek, and Tomas Fujiwara have each other, that they can be "themselves" in a cooperative trio while creating a "group" sound.
Mary Halvorson Octet - Away With You (Firehouse 12 Records) - This is one of several albums on the list that I have yet to review. From start to finish, it's a great album. Ms. Halvorson, arguably one of the more original contemporary guitarists, continues to grow as a composer and arranger, finding ways to make a large ensemble sound both bigger than its parts and as intimate as a conversation between friends. This is quite a group - Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet), Jon Irabagon (alto saxophone), Ingrid Laubrock, (tenor saxophone), Jacob Garchik, (trombone), John Hébert (bass),Ches Smith (drums), andSusan Alcorn (pedal steel guitar) - and they can be exuberant.
Allison Miller BoomTic Boom - Otis Was a Polar Bear (Royal Potato Family) - Another recording I did not review but I did see this great ensemble live. Drummer and composer Miller assembled quite a band Kirk Knuffke (cornet), Ben Goldberg (clarinet), Jenny Scheinman (violin, vocals), Myra Melford (piano), and Todd Sickafoose (bass) - and they went on tour in the Spring of 2016, showing up at Firehouse 12 the first weekend in May. This is another group that can play any style of music and play well - check out the video from a gig in Philadelphia a week after the New Haven show, it's such a treat! Then, go find the CD.
Ted Nash Big Band - Presidential Suite: Eight Variations on Freedom(Motema Music) - The week before the United States 2016 election, I wrote ""Presidential Suite" will mean many things to different people but the words plus the music remind us that America can be great when our leaders work to unite citizens. Even when this country's (and the others represented on this album) problems are front-and-center, we have had leaders step up to inspire us. This music, with many songs based on the rhythms and words of African Americans, fills one with hope even in treacherous times. Ted Nash has done listeners a great service with this music, illustrating that words and music can have a positive effect on us all. Please listen." Now, this music and these words resonate even louder and stronger, much fuller than any Tweet.
Tom Tallitsch - Gratitude (Posi-Tone Records) - What a band tenor player and composer Tallitsch assemble for this recording - pianist Jon Davis, bassist Peter Brendler, and drummer Rudy Royston (with organist Brian Charette on 2 tracks - watch the video and you get a feeling for the intelligent music and the splendid interactions. Tallitsch gives the rhythm section its freedom and they respond by providing him with such great support and the freedom to move around the music with abandon and, often, grace. If you have the time (make the time), watch all the video for this Quartet from this live date.
Larry Young - In Paris: The ORTF Recordings(Resonance Records) - The final recording on the list that I did not review is this impressive reissue from Resonance Records. Organist Larry Young (1940 - 1978)moved to France in 1964 to join the Nathan Davis Quintet and, while living there, made several recordings as a sideman and as the leader of a piano trio. He had already made his Blue Note Records debut (1964's "Into Something") after several recordings for the Prestige label. One gets several different views on Young's work but can already hear how his organ style is moving away from the blues-soaked sounds of Jimmy Smith, Johnny "Hammond" Smith", and Jimmy McGriff. Amazing how much of this music sounds fresh today.
photo by David McLister
I should tell you how much I enjoyed the return of singer-songwriter William Bell ("This is Where I Live" on Stax Records) and just how great he sounded on NPR's "Tiny Desk Concerts." I grew listening to his songs recorded by himself and various Stax/Volt recording artists (Albert King's version of "Born Under a Bad Sign" still sends chills down my spine plus there's the wonderful version of "You Don't Miss Your Water" by Otis Redding). Mr. Bell's going strong at 77 and his album is a pure delight. He's had a busy career but this new album has brought a new and wider audience.
Dig the video and the preponderance of yellow:
Then, there's Paul Simon and "Stranger to Stranger" (Concord Music). The music refers back to the songwriter's long career, his journeys to South Africa and South America and into the heartland of the US plus his folk roots plus his love of 50's doo-wop and more. There's lots been written about this album - some say Simon just might retire - and the more "experimental sounds" might turn some fans off but it's certainly his most "fun" album in quite a while.
This "Best of" process usually takes four posts to finish; I like to think that's because my tastes are so eclectic. It's true that I like and listen to a lot of different music plus each album reviewed has pieces or themes that really speak to me. Again, this list is in no particular order but notice the number of releases from Sunnyside Records - I'm surprised that François Zalacain does not get more recognition.
Ryan Keberle & Catharsis - Azul Infinito (Greenleaf Music) - Talk about a band that gets better with age and work, trombonist's Keberle's Quintet - Camila Meza (voice), Michael Rodriguez (trumpet, pandeiro), Jorge Roeder (bass), and Michael Doob (drums) - grows stronger and smarter with every release. This album pays tribute to the various groups the composer played with when he first moved to New York City, many of which played South American music. The presence of Ms. Meza (her second recording with the group) adds an extra voice and this music soars. The interaction of the brass throughout the songs is delightful while the rhythm section makes this music soar and sway.
Jeff Lederer - Brooklyn Blowhards (little (i) music) - Albert Ayler and sea shanteys, a name and a style of music you may have never thought would go together in your lifetime but saxophonist Jeff Lederer, a champion of Ayler's music, is fearless, adventurous, and has a great sense of humor. The Blowhards - Petr Cancura (tenor saxophone), Kirk Knuffke (cornet, slide trumpet), Brian Drye (trombone), Art Bailey (accordion) and the percussion trio of Allison Miller, Stephen LaRosa, and Matt Wilson (trap drums, ship's bell, chum bucket, chain) plus guitarist Gary Lucas (three tracks) and vocalist Mary LaRose (5 tracks) - make this mashup work. Noisy and great fun, play it loud! For more information, go to www.littleimusic.com. Here's the band in action:
Alan Ferber Nonet - Roots and Transitions (Sunnyside Records) - Trombonist, composer, and arranger Ferber leads this smallish "big band" through series of composition inspired by the birth of his first child. The Nonet has been together for five albums (several with expanded personnel) and here includes his twin brother Mark (drums), Matt Clohesy (bass), Bryn Roberts (piano), Nate Radley (guitar), Charles Pillow (bass clarinet), John Ellis (tenor saxophone), Jon Gordon (alto saxophone) and either Scott Wendholt (6 tracks) or Shane Endsley (2 tracks) on trumpet). The music often crackles with excitement but there are track with a quieter, contemplative edge. No matter the type of song, this is an excellent recording. For more information, go to www.alanferber.com. Enjoy this taste:
Adam O'Farrill - Stranger Days (Sunnyside Records) - Trumpeter and composer O'Farrill, son of composer, arranger, and pianist Arturo O'Farrill, released his debut (as a leader) with his brother Zach (on drums, with whom he has released two albums as co-leaders), saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown and bassist Walter Stinson. Loaded with smart melodies and excellent musicianship, this recording illustrates the trumpeter's commitment to making personal and accessible as well as adventurous music. The interactions between the four young musicians set off sparks throughout the program. For more information, go to www.adam-ofarrill.com. Here's the opening track:
Noah Preminger - Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground (self-released) - Over the past several years, saxophonist Preminger has gotten deeply into the blues, Delta Blues in particular. This group - Preminger plus Jason Palmer (trumpet), Kim Cass (bass), and Ian Froman (drums) - made its debut with 2 long improvisations but this nine-song program shows a band getting comfortable with each other so they can explore this material in melodic and adventurous ways. The interaction of the trumpet and tenor sax sparkles throughout while the rhythm section creates a variety of moods. For more information, go to www.noahpreminger.com.
Sara Gazarek and Josh Nelson - Dream in the Blue (Steel Bird Music) - I wrote the following paragraph about this wonderful album: "Dream in the Blue" invites the listener in, makes him comfortable, makes him cry and smile and tap his feet and think about how the interactions of two talented people can open up so many possibilities. The lilt in and lift of the voice, the idea that a piano can be an orchestra or a solitary sound in a crowded lifetime, the lyrics that stir the heart, all that and more make this recording by Sara Gazarek and Josh Nelson so special." It's such a delightful program of standards and contemporary songs. Plenty of heart, lovely vocals, and intelligent piano, what a treat! For more information, go to saragazarek.com/duo/. Here's a swinging track:
Peter Eldridge - Disappearing Day (Sunnyside Records) - One of more expressive vocalists, a strong composer, solid pianist, and excellent educator, Peter Eldridge makes music for adults. This recording, his fifth as a solo artist, was built from his long-standing duo with bassist Matt Aranoff; the material features standards, pop songs (the version of Paul McCartney's "Jennie Wren" is a stand-out), and originals. Also impressive is his use of backing vocalists (people such as Jo Lawry, Laila Baili, Lauren Kinhan, Janis Siegel, and Alan Hampton all pitch at various times). Great music for early morning, late in the day, or any time you need a boost! For more information, go to petereldridge.com. Here's a poem by Robert Bly set to music by Mr. Eldridge:
Sara Serpa and André Matos - All The Dreams (Sunnyside Records) - Vocalist Serpa and guitarist husband Matos set poems to music, write original material for wordless vocals and guitars, drawing the listener to this world of quiet songs, stories, and intimate interactions. The only other voices on the CD are the synthesizers of Pete Rende and soft percussion of Billy Mintz yet there is no filler or extraneous sounds - everything one hears is in the service of the song. The gentle quality of the music and the performances often give the program a feel of folk music but there are myriad influences.
For more information, go to serpamatos.com. Here's a lovely track set to the words of poet Fernando Pessoa:
Bryan Nichols - Looking North (Shifting Paradigm Records) - Back in July I write the following words about this album: "Looking North" is music that allows the listener to relax, to listen, to create images, to enter a musical world where melody is much more important than technical prowess. This is not music for the car but can be played when the sun shines through the window in the morning or as the moon rises in the late winter afternoon. or after the children go to sleep. If you like solo piano music that forgoes "standards" but has its foundation in folk song, blues, and contemporary music, yet sounds quite original, it's all here in the music of Bryan Nichols." Returning to the program after several months, the music still sounds rich, heartfelt, and so alive. For more information, go to www.bryannichols.org. Here's a lovely ballad from the program, one that sounds influenced by Erik Satie:
Denny Zeitlin - Early Wayne: Explorations of Classic Wayne Shorter Compositions (Sunnyside Records) - Most of the songs on this delightful solo piano journey hearken from Wayne Shorter's tenure with Miles Davis and solo recordings on Blue Note. Dr. Zeitlin explores this music with his usual curious nature, playing with rhythms and moods but with great respect for the melodies. The ballads are emotionally strong, the faster pieces have strong foundations, and the solos within the songs glisten with creativity. Recorded in front of a live audience, this album is a joyous tribute to a man, his music, and his vision as well as a reminder how one can be with respectful and creative. For more information, go to www.dennyzeitlin.com.
Here's a classic Miles Davis Quintet work that is such an aural delight:
Since first hearing "Way Out West", Sonny Rollins's 1957 Lp with Ray Brown (bass) and Shelly Manne (drums), I have loved the sound of trios built on that instrumentation (more so than piano or guitar trios, but that's me.) When you have a melodic yet forceful drummer and a bassist whose playing is foundational as well as melodic, an adventurous saxophonist can do so much. The excitement and beauty are the interactions and conversations within the music.
Drummer and composer Rudy Royston (pictured above) recently released his second album as a leader. "Rise of Orion" (Greenleaf Music) features the powerful percussionist in a trio setting with saxophonist Jon Irabagon and bassist Yasushi Nakamura - it's a such a fine recording (my review is here) and now the three musicians are on a 9 gig/10 day tour that takes them around the country and, lucky for us CT residents, deposits them at The Side Door Cafe in Old Lyme on Friday December 16. Replacing Nakamura (who is in Tbilisi, Georgia, this weekend with pianist Aaron Goldberg and drummer Leon Parker) is bassist Thomson Kneeland.
The door opens at 7:30 p.m. and the music commences 60 minutes later. The room will rock but keep your ears open for the soulful ballads Mr. Royston composes. For more information and reservations, call 860-434-0886.
Here is one of those ballads (Mr. Irabagon on tenor sax):
Trumpeter Marquis Hill, a native of Chicago IL, brings his Quintet to The Side Door on Saturday (12/17). The young musician, who has worked with Marcus Miller, Joe Lovano, drummer Makaya McCraven, and bassist Matt Ulery, won the 2014 Thelonious Monk Trumpet Competition and recently released his first album on Concord Records, "The Way We Play." It's actually his 5th recording as a leader since 2011. For the past 2 years, he's been closely involved with FONT, the Festival of New Trumpet, created by the late Roy Campbell Jr. and Dave Douglas in 2003. This September, Hill created (thanks to the Roy Campbell Jr. commission) created new works for his ensemble Signatures in Brass, six trumpets (!) and rhythm section.
For his gig in Old Lyme, the music will be created by Hill (who also plays flugelhorn), Braxton Cook (alto saxophone), Joel Ross (piano), Chris Smith (bass), and Jonathan Pinson (drums). Hill's records feature many different styles, from straight-ahead to post-bop to "soul jazz" to hip hop and more. He's generous with giving his cohorts solo space and, when he steps out, Hill has a fluid style with hints of Booker Little and Clifford Brown.
This group of albums released in 2016 includes a historical document, recording by gentlemen who started making music in the late 1960s and early 70s with the AACM, music that pays tribute, poems set to melodies, and much more!
Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra –
All My Yesterdays (Resonance Records) - I did not pay much attention to this band in its early days as I was in the thrall of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who. But, while those groups were stealing the hearts of American teenagers, composer and trumpeter Thad Jones was writing some amazing songs and charts and organizing a Monday night "rehearsal" band with his friend, drummer Mel Lewis, one that began its tenure at the Village Vanguard in February 1966 and still plays there (under the monicker of the Vanguard Orchestra). This package - 2 CDs and a 92-page booklet - includes music from the first set the TJ/MLO ever played in front of a live audience and a gig from six weeks later. If you like big band music, you'll love this album. The music is raw yet polished, exciting, emotional, and downright joyous. Bless George Klabin and Zev Feldman of Resonance Records for bringing this music to light!
Alexis Cuadrado - Poètica (Sunnyside Records) - Bassist, composer, and arranger Cuadrado turns his attention to contemporary writers on his latest recording. The poetry of Melcion Mateu (also a native of Barcelona) and Rowan Ricardo Phillips (a NYC native fluent in Catalan) is put to new music performed by the poets alongside Cuadrado, Miles Okazaki (guitars), Andy Milne (piano, keyboards) and Tyshawn Sorey (drums). This music has a harder sound, more of an urban edge, than his previous recordings, and one is thrilled and moved by how the poets and musicians mix their various voices. Urgent, thrilling, striking music that inhabits your mind with each listen. For more information, go to alexiscuadrado.com.
Jane Ira Bloom - Early Americans (Outline Recordings) - The sound of soprano saxophone, in the right hands, is hypnotizing, sensual, and can paint pictures like no other instrument. Put the rhythm section of Bobby Previte (drums) and Mark Helias (bass) in the studio with Ms. Bloom and magic happens. This album is magical, personal, interactive, and uncategorizable - just let the music play and lose yourself (or, maybe even find yourself) in it.
Matt Wilson - One Big Happy Family (Palmetto Records) - Drummer, composer, mad scientist Wilson leads a number of different ensembles and on this album, he makes music with current and past members. Some tracks include as many as 11 musicians. They came together to make a tribute recording to Wilson's wife Felicia who passed away in 2014. In keeping with the drummer's passionate style, the music ranges from hard-hitting "raves" to folk-inspired and bluesy ballads. The music is also a tribute to the power of people coming together to play and how this act of creativity can stave off the darkness.
Henry Threadgill Ensemble Double-Up - Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi Recordings) - It's rare that Mr. Threadgill records with pianists yet this septet has two (Vijay Iyer and David Virelles); also rare is that the composer does not play on an album of his compositions but, here, he is just the conductor. This group features the brilliant tuba player Jose Davila and cellist Christopher Hoffman (both members of Mr. Threadgill's Zooid), the "conversational" drumming of Craig Weinrib, and the twin altos of Curtis MacDonald and Roman Filiu. The four-part suite is dedicated to the composer's contemporary Lawrence "Butch" Morris (the composer, cornetist, and conductor) who passed on in 2013. This swirling, whirling dervish, music has numerous moments of delight and others of mystery; even now, nearly 10 months since I first encountered the album, I am surprised by the stunning "Part IV" and his the opening two-piano conversations pulls me into its elegiac spirit and prayer-like feel.
Wadada Leo Smith - America's National Parks (Cuneiform Records) - Mr. Smith, like Mr. Threadgill, has created his own musical language through his long career, telling stories this country needs to hear about the power of music to transform society as it explores its myriad issues and relationships. This 2-CD collection of songs not only celebrates the natural wonders (such as The Mississippi River and Yosemite) but also people (Eileen Jackson Southern, pioneering Black musicologist) and the city of New Orleans. Mr. Smith leads his Golden Quintet- Anthony Davis (piano), John Lindberg (bass), and its newest members, drummer Pheeroan akLaff and cellist Ashley Walters - his crackling trumpet riding the powerful rhythm section, caressing his fascinating melodies, and allowing moments of beauty to linger. Don't bother to tack labes onto the music of both Henry Threadgill and Wadada Leo Smith - there are few contemporary composers with their vision, compassion, and continuing brilliance. For more information, go to www.wadadaleosmith.com.
Peter Brendler - Message in Motion (Posi-Tone Records) - Bassist and composer Brendler's second recording for the LA-based Posi-Tone Records employs the same trio of musicians as his 2014 debut - drummer Vinnie Sperrazza, saxophonist Rich Perry, and trumpeter Peter Evans - and covers as much musical territory. Guitarist Ben Monder joins the ensemble on 4 tracks filling out the sound with his chordal magic and special solos. This is another album that sounds better each time one listens as you can concentrate on the intelligence of the arrangements, the breadth of the compositions, and the brilliant inter actions as well as wonderful solos.
René Marie - Sound of Red (Motema Music) - The word "sassy" has always been associated with the great vocalist Sarah Vaughan yet is equally appropriate for this splendid performer, storyteller, and composer. With songs that touch your heart and others that make you want to dance, these "Sounds" swing, dance, strut, as well as make you aware of the fragility of the human condition. Ms. Marie's longtime rhythm section of bassist Elias Bailey, drummer/co-producer Quentin E. Baxter plus pianist John Chin is on the mark throughout and the various guests add their special magic. In the long run, it's that lively and alive voice that brings you back again and again. For more information, go to renemarie.com. Here's Renè Marie and her Trio playing three songs from the album for NPR's "Tiny Desk Concert" series - you can't help notice what a delightful performer she is:
Nick Sanders & Logan Strosahl - Janus (Sunnyside Records) - Pianist Sanders and saxophonist Strosahl have been friends for a decade, ever since meeting in the rehearsal rooms at The New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, MA. For this intimate yet open album of duets, the musicians plays music that swings, sings, soars, and soothes with tunes from the classical world (pre-Baroque and 20th Century modern), the expansive mind of Thelonious Monk, jazz standards, and even a tune inspired by a video game. Respect intermingles with a sense of playfulness and exploration throughout the program; like so many recordings included here, this music sounds better each time I hear it.
It's an honor being asked to participate in a Critics Poll, fun going back and listening to albums that you really enjoyed writing about, and downright nerve-wracking trying to pick 10, especially in a year where so many good recordings crossed my desk.
2016 was a very busy year in my life and a quick glance at the number of posts over the past 12 months is evidence that I did not have as much time to sit, to listen, to contemplate, and to write. Connecticut is a small state with a decent amount of venues for live music but, due to numerous obligations, I rarely took the opportunity to just bask in the glory of watching and listening to musicians create, interact, to give of themselves, to transport listeners beyond the mundane and into worlds of endless possibilities. The albums listed below (and in subsequent posts) are the ones that made days special, that made me think, helped me see the "real" world in a different light, and gave me great joy.
As one gets older, it's often tough to find joy when the world is in such upheaval. Music not only gives us a haven from the daily insanity but, like poetry, theater, books, film, sports and more, also sheds light on the issues we should not, cannot, and often ignore.
Here's Part One:
Camila Meza - "Traces" (Sunnyside Records) - This recording, issued in late Winter, is utterly delightful. Not only is Ms. Meza a fine vocalist but this recording illustrates what a good guitarist, arranger, and band member she can be. Her group - Shai Maestro (keyboards), Matt Penman (bass), Kendrick Scott (drums), Bashiri Johnson (percussion), Jody Redhage (cello) and guest vocalist Sachal Vasandani - creates sounds that make each one of these songs stand out. In February, I wrote "Chances are good you will not hear a better CD this year." That statement, for me, still stands. (Ms. Meza is also a member of trombonist Ryan Keberle's group Catharsis whose 2016 album appears in Part Two of this list).
Billy Hart & The WDR Big Band - The Broader Picture (ENJA/Yellowbird) - Arranged and conducted by Christopher Schweizer, this album is a knockout from beginning to end. Mr. Hart, who is most often heard in quartets ands quintets, is right at home pushing and prodding a large ensemble, especially one as talented as the WDR Big Band. This album gives us the opportunity to hear the drummer's compositions in a different light and, golly, do they ever sound good. Great drumming, impressive compositions, sparkling arrangements, and powerful solos, all add to a splendid album.
Here's a nice long track to enjoy:
Anthony Branker & Imagine - Beauty Within (Origin Records) - Dr. Branker is a composer and arranger who has been involved with music as a musician, conductor, and educator for over three decades. His CV is deeply impressive (read it here) and his music keeps getting stronger. It's political and topical in the manner of Charles Mingus and Max Roach and this particular quintet of musicians - Fabian Almazan (piano, Pete McCann (guitars), Ralph Bowen (tenor and soprano saxophones), Linda Oh (bass), and Rudy Royston (drums) - play with such fire and finesse that this music is alive and powerful, lovely and emotionally strong.
Greg Ward & 10 Tongues - Touch My Beloved's Thoughts (Greenleaf Music) - The story of how this music came to life is quite fascinating (read it here); suffice to say, it's origins lay in saxophonist and composer Ward listening to Charles Mingus's "The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady" (1963). Ward's work for 10 musicians, created for a concert of music and dance, is filled with blues, sparkling solos, and intelligent arrangements that spark comparison to Mingus's work in its scope but does not imitate it. Especially impressive is the piano playing of Dennis Luxion and the rhythm section of Jason Roebke (bass) and Marcus Evans.
Patrick Cornelius Octet - While We're Still Young (Whirlwind Recordings) - Saxophonist, flutist, composer, and arranger Cornelius created this fine recording as a musical response to the stories of A.A. Milne that he was reading to his children at bedtime. With an impressive band - John Ellis (tenor sax, bass clarinet), Jason Palmer (trumpet), Nick Vayenas (trombone), Miles Okazaki (guitars), Gerald Clayton (piano), Peter Slavov (bass), and Kendrick Scott (drums) - and a smart group of compositions, this album features music that is contemplative yet swings, with musicians telling "stories" that flow thanks to the fine ensemble arrangements and individual solos. My review (read it here) includes quotes from both Cornelius and co-producer Kyle Saulnier. For more information, go to www.patrickcornelius.com. Here's one of the delightful tracks:
These are just five of my favorites - more to come in the next several weeks. Enjoy!
Hard to believe that it's been 13 years since composer, arranger, and trumpeter Ken Schaphorst has released an album. It's not like he hasn't been busy - since 2001, Schaphorst has been the chair of jazz Studies at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, MA. He moved back to the East Coast after 10 years as the Director of Jazz Studies at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.
His new album, "How To Say Goodbye" (JCA Recordings), is his first large ensemble recording since 1998's "Purple". The Big Band features 18 musicians, most of whom have worked with the composer in the past including three of his NEC students. The rhythm section is stellar and includes Matt Wilson (drums), Jerry Locke (percussion), Uri Caine (piano), Brad Shepik (guitar), and Jay Anderson, arguably the best contemporary large ensemble bassist. The reed section includes Donny McCaslin (tenor sax), Chris Cheek (tenor sax), Jeremy Udden (alto sax), Michael Thomas (alto and soprano saxes, clarinet), and Brian Landrus (baritone sax and bass clarinet), the latter two being former students of Schaphorst at NEC. The brass sections include the trumpets/flugelhorns of Tony Kadleck, Dave Ballou, John Carlson, and Ralph Alessi while Luis Bonilla, Jason Jackson, Curtis Hasselbring, and Jennifer Wharton play trombones (Ms Wharton on the bass 'bone).
Over the course of the 10 tracks (70+ minutes), one hears a multitude of ideas and the overall feeling one gets is that much of this music has its foundations in the blues (the blues as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Woody Herman, Bob Brookmeyer, and Herb Pomeroy employed it). Both of the last two composers were mentors of Schaphorst and each has a song in his honor in the program. "Blues for Herb" is a vehicle for McCaslin's tenor and powerful surges of the rhythm section and the horns. "Take Back The Country" is a sly up-tempo blues that takes its title from Brookmeyer's political stances. Instead of a scree (as one might have read in the late composer's blogs), the piece has a sweetness, a lightness that one hears in the brush work of Wilson and the guitar work of Shepik. Bonilla and Landrus create delightful solos but the the highlight of the track and the album (for me) is the Carlson's flugelhorn solo over Wilson's high-hat and Anderson's one-note percussive throb. When the reeds and the brass enters, the piece takes on a gospel feel that is irrepressible.
This is an album with a surplus of wondrous moments. Whether it's Udden's solo on "Floating"or the composer's gentle Fender Rhodes intro to "Mbira 1" (once the ensemble joins in, the piece is infused with sweet South African rhythms), the music breathes. There is a gentle quality to the swing of "Green City" (a touch of Thad Jones in this arrangement) and Cheek creates a long yet emotionally rich solo. The brass and reed sections kick the piece up several notches in the final two minutes but not at the expense of the swing feel. Shepik and Leake create a loping rhythm for "Mbira 2" over which the ensemble plays a handsome, percussive, melody. The guitarist takes the first solo, moving in and around the rhythm section with ease before giving way to a fine trombone spot from Jackson.
"Global Sweat" follows and its slow pace plus trance-like feel in the rhythm section leads the listener into darker territory. The somber work of Cheek and the composer (on trumpet here) atop the ominous chords soon drop into a bluesy pace for Schaphorst to continue to solo as the other trumpets play behind him. Listen for the various musicians interpreting the melody behind as Caine carries on and Wilson pummels the drums. It's a long slow build to the finish, the friskiness dying out so the music can land somewhat softly. The final track, "Descent", is no downer, opening with a swell of brass and horns before Caine takes off on a delightful romp of a solo with just Wilson's dancing drums and Anderson's racing bass lines as companions - the arranger puts in a pair of short stops, almost a call-and-response, then a riff-filled section before Alessi steps out over cymbals and Caine's rich chordal work. He continues to dance as Leake adds tabla drums, the brass and horns play little circular lines a la Steve Reich before the piece changes and Wilson frolics as there sections roar alongside. A rapid-fire melodic fragment takes the piece to its abrupt finish and one is left waiting, wishing, for more.
If "How to Say Goodbye" had been released in any other month but December, the album would possibly have made numerous "Best of" lists. Many lists for the year run from Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving and December albums often get short shrift. Do not pass this album by - there is not a weak track, plenty of great solos and arrangements that have a richness and intelligence for the most sophisticated listener as well as someone who loves good music. One hopes it's not 18 years before the next album by the Ken Schaphorst Big Band. Please!
Composer, arranger, conductor and multi-instrumentalist Kyle Saulnier leads The Awakening Orchestra, a 19-member ensemble whose 2014 Innova Recordings debut, "Volume I: This Is Not The Answer", was an expansive project that sounded unlike any other large ensemble other than Joseph Phillips Numinous Orchestra and, at certain times, Darcy James Argue's Secret Society. The Orchestra's new recording is a track-by-track reimagining of guitarist/composer Jesse Lewis's 2008 album "Atticus." Titled "Interlude: Atticus Live! The Music of Jesse Lewis", the album is one of the initial releases on pianist Fabian Almazan's Biophilia label. Lewis may be best known for his work with Amy Cervini, Jo Lawry, New York Voices, The Duchess Trio, and drummer Deric Dickens. With the exception of the opening cut, "Looking Glass" (which is a solo piece as it is on the earlier album), Saulnier arranges the music to highlight its melodic components and rarely strays far from the original arrangements. Yet, a band this size, plus Lewis on guitars, give his "Atticus" project heft and fullness.
Jos. McCarthy Photography
After the quiet opening, the Orchestra makes its initial appearance on "Build!", a gentle melody that, at times, sounds like the band is tuning up but that leads into a brass round slowly opening into "The Adventures of Dirt McGillicuddy." Here, the melody is played by Lewis as the band churns below and around him, egged on by the powerful drums of Will Clark, the brass and reeds, and the solid bass work of Joshua Paris. Trumpeter Jonathan Powell rises out of the rhythm section to deliver a strong solo with the brass and reeds creating a wall of sound around him. The title track opens with the round tones of Nadje Noordhuis on flugelhorn - she gives way to the main theme played by flute (Vito Chiavuzzo) and what could be bass clarinet (Andrew Gutauskas). With the entire band playing, the melody has a cinematic feel with Clark in the driver's seat. After a long and melodic intro to "The Robert Frost Experiment", the rhythm section lays downs a torrid stop-time beat pushed forward by the bass and baritone sax. Guitarist Michael MacAllister steps out in a big way, his guitar lines roaring over the band which fills in behind him. Everyone but electric pianist Kotler drops out and, soon, alto saxophonist Chiavuzzo creates a most heart-felt solo. Again, the band begins to fill in around him (the arrangement may remind one of the sound of Maria Schneider) and the saxophonist rises to the occasion.
"Quiet" and "Snowflake" offer a short reprise to the more tumultuous pieces. The former floats in on the percussion of James Shipp - the music does pick up steam but drops back down opening for a powerful tenor saxophone solo from Samuel Ryder. The latter opens with quiet electric piano; soon the percussion and MacAllister enters followed by Lewis playing the melody. The short interlude introduces vibes of JAmes Shipp and then the guitarists play the lead. The full band does not enter until late in the performance as Lewis flying through his solo.
The final two tracks start with the aptly-titled "Turbulence", which starts off quietly but hits its stride around the three-minute mark as trombonist Michael Boscarino steps out for a strong solo. "The Pasture (You Come Too)" closes the program; the lengthy opening features guitars and reeds playing softly supported by percussion. Ms. Noordhuis rises out of the impressionistic sounds for a short yet emotionally rich solo. The closing 90 seconds have the power of Ms. Schneider's music as well as touches of Aaron Copland.
One should not approach "Atticus Live" as your typical Big Band recording. There's more rock than swing, moments when the guitars seem to be repeating the melody over and over, and other times when the swirling winds and brass don't go where you might expect. Still, the power is in the performances of the Awakening Orchestra, in the power of the rhythm section, and the way Kyle Saulnier uses the reeds and brass to color, not just as background noise, and in the different sounds produced by JAmes Shipp. Recorded live at Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn, NY, the sound quality is excellent. Give this music time to sink in - it's well worth the effort.
Trumpets; Daniel Urness, Seneca Black, Nadje Noordhuis (flugelhorn as well), Jonathan Powell
Trombones: Michael Boscarino, Sam Burtis, James Rogers, Max Seigel (bass trombone)
Reeds: Rob Mosher, Vita Chiavuzzo, Samuel Ryder, Andrew Gutauskas, Nick Biello
Percussion; JAmes Shipp, Will Clark, Rich Stein
Guitars: Jesse Lewis, Michael MacAllister
Keyboards: Aaron Kotler
Acoustic and electric bass: Joshua Paris
Arranger and conductor: Kyle Saulnier
Two years ago, guitarist, composer, and arranger Eric Hofbauer released two fascinating CDs with his Quintet under the monickers of "Prehistoric Jazz Volumes 1 and 2 (released on his Creative Nation Music label). The first was a reimagining of Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" and the second a journey into Olivier Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time." The splendid ensemble - Jerry Sabatini (trumpet), Todd Brunel (Bb clarinet, bass clarinet), Junko Fujiwara (cello), and Curt Newton (drums and percussion) - took hold of the material and, thanks to the inventive arrangements and despite the title of the project, made listeners hear the material with new ears. Also important to the overall project were David Adler's impressive liner notes.
The team is back, including Adler, for "Volume 3." This time, the Quintet tackles the quintessential American composer Charles Ives (pictured left)and his "Three Places in New England." Ives, well-known for his insertion of hymns, marching band tunes, and dissonant melodies in the midst of his symphonies, does not have a huge catalog like Aaron Copland or Leonard Bernstein and he continually worked on pieces - Ives started sketching out "Three Places..." in 1903, did the main work between 1911-14 and finished revisions in 1929.
What Hofbauer has done here is create an atmosphere that takes Ives's piece through various stages of jazz. One hears a touch of early New Orleans, Duke Ellington's "jungle music", swing, bop and more, doubling the piece from its 20-minute structure with the additions of solos and group-within-the-Quintet interaction. The real joy is how well this approach works. All the musicians are stalwarts. The crisp electro-acoustic sound of Hofbauer, the classically inspired tones of Sabatini's trumpet, the round sounds and "hot" swing of Brunel's clarinet, and the drive plus the colors that Newton produces. Extra credit should go to Ms. Fujiwara as both her arco and pizzicato work are par excellence (she "walks" a bass line with the fluidity of Ron Carter and Christian McBride). Just listen how the Quintet creates an amazing amount of musical heat (while maintaining a fine sense of humor) on "Putnam's Camp, Redding Connecticut" yet also allows for Ives's melodies and "quotes" to be heard. Guitarist Bill Frisell recorded "The "St. Gauden's" in Boston Common", the composer's tribute to the sculpture dedicated to the first African American regiment to fight in the Civil War. While Frisell's 1993 version was fairly short, Hofbauer stretches this performance to 17 minutes, going in so many different directions.
By the time the listener reaches the third and final track, "The Housatonic at Stockbridge", one is ready for this crazy blend of hymn and "free" playing that reaches a thunderous climax followed by a quiet guitar melody that takes the piece to its close. The music does not seem finished, as if both Ives and Hofbauer could see a continuation of these studies. No matter how you perceive the closing movement, this music is a striking piece of Americana. Charles Ives pushed the boundaries of classical music with his approach to orchestral and solo works (his songs also cover a great amount of territory and one can hear how they influenced composers like Aaron Copland and Randy Newman). Eric Hofbauer and Quintet also push boundaries, make you hear American music in different ways, illustrating the fusion of styles that compelled Ives and the multitude of curious jazz and classical performers and composers throughout the 20th Century to the present day. "Three Places in New England" is quite an aural treat - enjoy the journey.
Here's the final track on the album:
Earlier this Autumn, guitarist Hofbauer digitally released "Ghost Frets" (Creative Nation Music), an 11-track solo guitar album dedicated to his late musical partner, guitarist Garrison Fewell (1953-2015). Over the years, the two musicians had a built a bond based on exploring music from all genres and styles. Though they only released one album together - 2007's "The Lady of Khartoum" - the duo spent a lot of time playing together. That sense of openness and play is quite audible on the new recording, an eclectic blend of improvisations, two pieces by Fewell, and one track each from Thelonious Monk ("Let's Cool One"), Eric Dolphy ("Out To Lunch"), Joe "King" Oliver ("Buddy Bolden's Blues"), George Harrison ("All Things Must Pass"), and Richard L. Butler and Timothy Butler of The Psychedelic Furs ("The Ghost In You").
The eclectic choice of material plus the improvisations gives the listener plenty of choices to find their way. Two of the first three tracks are come from Fewell, the pleasing swing of "Blues Update" and the fascinating "Ayleristic" with its blend of John Fahey, Robert Johnson, and Sandy Bull. There's a sense of mystery to the latter track, a sense that Hofbauer is listening to his former partner's voice telling him to dig deeper, into the emotional heart of the music. This whole project has a sense of purpose; one gets a feeling these musical stories need to be told. The depth of the audio is intense, the guitar sound flowing from the speakers or into earphones clean and clear.
Whether it's the slide guitar reading of the Harrison song (an impressionistic opening leads to a bluesy and intoxicated reading of the melody) or the traditional yet contemporary take on "Buddy Bolden's Blues", this music is engrossing. Monk's tune has a pleasing swing and like that master's music, is filled with rhythmic surprises. "The Ghost In You" has a fine melody and a lightness that lasts the entire piece. Not surprisingly, "Out to Lunch" displays the angularity and playfulness of the original. The improvised pieces runs from the percussive "Masafir" (the guitarist creating the rhythm plucking the strings behind the bridge) to the playful rhythmic swing of "Scratchadelic" (listen and you'll understand the song's title) and on to the Monk-inspired "Meet @ Office, Midnight" (a bluesy ballad) to the album closer "A Sognare di Bergamo" (another ballad, this one with a Romantic classical feel).
"Ghost Frets" also includes liner notes from David Adler that are well worth checking out, especially for the explanation of the relationship Eric Hofbauer had with Garrison Fewell. The album is a tribute but not in the traditional sense. Yes, it celebrates the relationship of the two musicians but also celebrates the artist's connection to music. Music this good has stories embedded in the notes and the performances, in the slide of the guitarist's fingers on the fret board, on the strength of the plucked notes and chords. Each listener will find different ways into this music but, with patience and a sense of curiosity, each person will be rewarded.