Monday, February 27, 2017

Ensembles Small & Large (Pt 2) + Acoustic Solo

When times are busy, uncertain, even a bit scary, music serves as both an antidote to depression and and a kick in the butt. Here are three new recordings that make me smile and give me hope.

Miguel Zenón, in my opinion (humble or not), is one of the finest alto saxophonists in the world. He is a technically dazzling musician who has been able to synthesize the music of his native Puerto Rico with African American creative music in a seamless fashion. Over the past decade, each recording he has released (either for Marsalis Music or his own MIEL Music label), Zenón has displayed this delightful ability to make art out of dance music and vice versa.  Yes, his music swings but what it truly does is flow, sometimes rapidly, sometime gently, but the performances make one want to move his or her feet.

For the past 15 years, he has toured and recorded with pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig, and drummer Henry Cole.  This group's latest album, "Típico" (MIEL Music), is its first in a decade that just features the quartet.  The music is great to get lost in.  The fiery "Academia" opens the album and illustrates just how the band has gelled, the rhythm section beneath the leader pushing, listening, prodding, responding to each other, propelling the song on the joy they bring to the performance.  The title track bounces on the two-handed piano figure that not only introduces the piece but shows up throughout - listen to the seamless tempo changes, how Cole's cymbal work echoes Zenón's flights of fancy, and Glawischnig not only keeps the pulse but builds the foundation for the band to build off of.

For those who think Zenon's music does not have enough "soul", listen to the lovely ballad "Cantor."  Dedicated to composer, vocalist, and pianist Guillermo Klein, Zenon's handsome melody has hints of tango while Perdomo's piano lines beneath seem classically inspired. The quartet does not rush the piece, the melody stretches out until the pianist rises up and takes a solo that is melodically rich.  "Sangre De Mi Sangre" (translates to "Blood of my Blood") is dedicated to Zenon's daughter and has a story quality in both its melody lines and the leader's passionate solo.  There are moments when the music picks up pace, becomes a dazzling dance before slowing down as a reminder not to be carried away.

The keening alto saxophone leads the way on "Corteza", a delightful adventure in how melody can influence rhythm. Again, the musicians do not rush into the solos but give the listener a fine melody before stepping into the spotlight.  The rapid-fire rhythms of "Entre Las Raíces" ("Among Roots") give Zenón the impetus to create an amazing solo, especially when he rides the percussive storm of Cole's drums.  The melody line may remind listeners of Rudresh Mahanthappa's melody for his "Bird Calls" ensemble and he updates the speedy riffs Charlie Parker with the influences of his Indian heritage.  Zenón and company makes sure one hears the Afro Caribbean roots in their music, molding the melodies from the impassioned rhythms.

"Típico" is a splendid recording and reminds us of how great music can be created when ensembles are familiar with each other and love to challenge themselves to keep growing, keep moving forward.   Kudos to Miguel Zenón and his Quartet for creating such delightful music.

For more information, go to

Watch and listen to a piece from the album:

Tenor saxophonist and composer Kirk MacDonald is a prolific musician living in Toronto, Canada.  He leads a quartet, has guested in numerous bands, and now has issued his third recording with the 19-member Kirk MacDonald Jazz Orchestra. "Common Ground" (Addo Records) features all original works arranged by trumpeter Joe Sullivan (who also has a big band which in based in Montreal).  The KMJO has been in existence since 2004, has a fairly large book of Macdonald originals, and boasts two arrangers (trombonist Terry Promane is the other).

The new album, two CDs and 90 minutes long, has a "swing" feel from the get-go, with allusions to the big band recordings of John Coltrane and Thad Jones, at times even Duke Ellington and Count Basie. The title track at 8:33 is the shortest cut on the album, meaning each musician gets time to develop his or her solo. But even on the  shorter tracks, the arrangements still give the players enough time to really dig in.

That gives the listener a lot to dig.  The rhythm section - Nancy Walker (piano), Lorne Lofsky (guitar), Neil Swainson (bass), and Barry Romberg (drums) - do a great job setting the table throughout the program. When the band is flying, as they do on "You See But You Don't Hear", "Kirk's Blues", and "The Power of Four", you won't be able to stop tapping your feet.  Romberg and Swainson, both veterans, know how to drive an ensemble, never getting in the way but continually stoking the fires.

There are also pieces that take their time to get going, plenty of time for the melody to be played fully and the various sections to harmonize. The leader's daughter, Virginia Frigault-MacDonald (20 years old at the time of this June 2015 recording), creates a lovely clarinet spotlight on "Vanda Justina" (listen to the flurry of sounds from the brass as her solo hits its stride); she yields the floor to her father who paints a lovely tenor saxophone portrait over the second half of the 12-minute track.  One hear the Thad Jones influence in the melody and arrangement of "You See But..." as well as how the brass and reed sections frame the solos of Luis Deniz (alto sax) and Pat LaBarbera (soprano sax).  Listen for the light sound of the flutes (supported by the low notes of Peter Hysen's tuba) carrying the melody of "Shadows" right before Ms. Walker's delightful solo.  Her rhythmic inventions are matched by Romberg's playful drumming.

What I like most about "Common Ground" is how each song takes on its own personality after you listen three or four times.  There is nothing generic about this music. It's born out of the joy of playing, out of the love of creating as a team, of an ensemble utilizing the musical visions of a fine composer and an intelligent arranger.  The music of the Kirk MacDonald Jazz Orchestra should resonate with fans of big band jazz or, for that matter, anyone who likes music.

For more information, go to

Complete personnel:
Kirk MacDonald, P.J. Perry, Luis Deniz, Pat LaBarbera, Perry White - saxophones, flutes, clarinets
Virginia Frigault-MacDonald - clarinet on three tracks
Jason Logue, Brian O'Kane, Rob Smith, Kevin Turcotte, Joe Sullivan - trumpet, flugelhorn
Alastair Kay, Terry Promane, Kelsley Grant - trombone
Peter Hysen - bass trombone, tuba
Lorne Lofsky - guitar
Nancy Walker - piano
Neil Swainson - bass
Barry Romberg - drums

Here's a good taste of KMJO:

I've been listening to guitarist Ross Hammond's music, both electric and acoustic, since 2014's "Humanity Suite." His electric excursions are often loud, filled with sonic explosions but also brilliant interactions and challenging directions for both musicians and listeners.

Yet, it's his fascinating acoustic work that really captures my imagination.  2015's solo "Flight" remains one of my favorite albums of the last five years; the different textures and locations make the program sound alive.  His 2016 releases, duo albums with tabla master Sameer Gupta and multi-reed genius Vinny Golia, featured improvisations shaped out of common musical ideas and shared languages.

"Follow Your Heart" (Big Weezus Music) is a return to the acoustic solo format. Recorded live in St Paul's Church in Sacramento, CA, Hammond used his 12-string and resonator guitars to create a 9-song program that blends folk and blues elements. Instead of looking for influences, just listen. Close your eyes.  There's a timeless quality to pieces such as "Blues for Bob Feathers", one that hearkens back to Woody Guthrie, to Lead Belly; perhaps it's in the simplicity of a single guitar or the trance-like sound of the bass string as it resonates.  Notice how the guitarist uses dynamics on "Lake Tahoe Waltz", how the ringing slide notes decay as if being carried away by a gentle breeze, and how the melody has a bittersweet, Country & Western feel.  The 12-string sounds as much like an ocean as an orchestra on "Whirlpool", the sounds swirling, swelling, holding our attention, drawing us in, hypnotizing us as much as it heals.
The album's final track is "I Ain't Scared of Your Jail" which, despite its defiant title as well as its powerful single-note lines, aches more with resignation. Listen to the notes quiver, the shivering sound of the slide on the strings, the darkness of the lower notes - then, go back, listen again, maybe you will hear the mood shift from darkness to, at least, an appreciation of the light, wherever it may come from.

Perhaps it's the frazzled emotional damage caused by the changes one feels in daily life these days as much as the heartfelt music Ross Hammond has created that makes "Follow Your Heart" so powerful. A single voice (in the form of a guitar) echoing through a church is a powerful salve, a form of salvation in hard times.  This music, like the blues and folk sounds that inspired it, is human music.  Even without words to guide us, these guitar sounds often feel like the "gospel truth."

For more information, go to

Here's a taste of this fine recording:

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