Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Pro Bone Players (2 Nicks & 1 John)

Leo Sidran has a great, informative podcast called "The Third Story"; he recently ran a delightful interview with trombonist, composer, and bandleader Ryan Keberle.  Among the many points made in the discussion was that (and I am paraphrasing Keberle here) the trombone is enjoying new-found popularity, especially with trombonists (such as him) leading their own groups and not just big bands. Below are reviews of three new recordings that prove his point.

When trombonist and composer Nick Finzer entered the studio to record his third album as a leader, the United States was embroiled in a contentious Presidential election, a time when the country was facing serious choices about its mission and future.  The album, "Hear & Now" (Outside In Music), is a musical reaction to those events and the malaise that the composer saw spreading over the country.  Pieces such as "We The People", "The Silent One", "Race To The Botton", and "Dance of Persistence" display Finzer's concerns as does the urgency of the musical performances. The power in the music comes as much from those song titles, much the way Charles Mingus provoked his audiences, forcing us to think of the conditions all around.

The sextet for the session includes Lucas Pino (tenor saxophone, bass clarinet), Alex Wintz (guitar), and Glenn Zaleski (piano) plus the powerful rhythm section of Dave Baron (bass) and Jimmy Macbride (drums). The blend of trombone and reeds makes for an excellent contrast on pieces such as "Again and Again" where the bass clarinet plays the harmony behind the melody while the rhythm section simmers underneath, the piano serving as a go-between.  Wintz's guitar rises up for the first solo, slowly the intensity rises, reminiscent of Herbie Hancock's music on his Blue Note recordings "Speak Like a Child" and "The Prisoner."  Then Finzer and Pino solo together, pushing the piece forward before stepping aside for Macbride's short, powerful solo.  Subtle overdubbing creates a reed and brass choir at the onset of Duke Ellington's "Single Petal of a Rose" (the only non-original piece in the program); it's quite beautiful and leads into the emotional piano solo over the whisper-soft bass and drums. Zaleski's solo opening on the final track, "Love Wins", introduces the poetic ballad. Pino's swirling bass clarinet and Wintz's impressionist chords frame Finzer's handsome melody as Baron's spare bass notes serves as the foundation while Macbride dances over his cymbals and drum kit.

The blend of power and gentleness, of reeds, strings, and piano atop an exemplary rhythm section makes "Hear & Now" stand out.  One can not ignore the agenda Nick Finzer has on this album, showing how music can reflect the times, how jazz has always been and remains protest music, how the stance of the musicians can call the audience to action, and how much we need to be pro-active in these days of "reaction without reflection."  The musicians are not revolutionary in the way that the late Fred Ho and the late Charlie Haden were but this music fights against complacency and blanket acceptance, calling for "presence, vision, passion, inspiration, reflection, dialogue, evolution, action, and change", the words printed on the inner sleeve of the album.  Pay attention!

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

Here's the opening track:

Glenn Zaleski also shows up on the new release from trombonist, trumpeter, and composer Nick Vayenas.  "Flow Motion" (self-released) is Vayenas's fourth album as a leader (since 2008) - he's such a busy sideman, working with Michael BublĂ©, Josh Groban, Lady Antebellum, Patrick Cornelius, and Kendrick Scott (on whose label he released his debut CD, "Synesthesia."  Besides Zaleski, the sextet on the recording includes Dayna Stephens (tenor saxophone), Peter Slavov (bass), Colin Stranahan (drums), and the afore-mentioned Cornelius (alto saxophone).

photo by Angela Sowon Vayenas
Although there is a track titled "Anarchy", the majority of the material seems to have no political agenda.  That particular track swings with a vengeance, featuring strong solos from the alto saxophonist, the leader, and Stranahan. Zaleski's work in the background is notable for its strength and subtlety, which is true throughout the entire program.  In fact, it's his short but rich chordal work that leads off the title track that leads off the album.  The song swings with a gentle yet firm rhythm - Vayenas plays in a buttery style, quite melodic, setting the tone for Stephen's handsome solo and the pianist's earthy explorations.  The rhythm section moves the music forward in a playful manner, especially the drummer whose accents are a delight.

Vayenas switches to trumpet for "Premonition", sharing the melody with the tenor sax. The piano chords, at times, suggest McCoy Tyner but, like the opening track, there is a gentleness to the proceedings.  The leader's tone on trumpet is clear, his notes crisp, and his attack adds intensity to the track.  The influence of Herbie Hancock is evident on "The Final Frontier"; again, the trumpet takes the lead and Vayenas's bluesy solo spurs the rhythm section to react with stops-and-starts as well as keeping the flow moving.

Another highlight is "Velvet Mystery", a handsome ballad whose melody is carried by the mellow trombone and breathy tenor sax. Zaleski creates an impressionistic opening solo that opens up to Vayenas's heart-felt improvisation - he's "writing a story", inviting the listener to get lost along the way to come out on a reiteration of the main melody that's now has a quiet intensity, not so much as a mystery.  The final track, "Change", is also a ballad with only trombone and piano.  The opening features Vayenas on melody and Zaleski on counterpoint with the pianist taking the first solo.  Various melodic fragments show up before the trombone reenters. His "singing" lines over the chordal accompaniment intimate a "classic" ballad and serves as a lovely closing to the album.

"Flow Motion" is an album to get lost in.  The program never forces its way into your brain yet invites you to relax, settle down - even the funky "Red Stripe" has a good natured gentility. The music Nick Vayenas and crew creates on the album is truly for early morning reveries and late-night meditations.

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

Here's the title tune:

"Tight Rope", a funky, hard-edged, tune opens "Presence" (See Tao Recordings), the fourth recording from trombonist and composer John Yao.  The Chicago native has worked in numerous ensembles including the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, the Brooklyn Big Band, and the Jeff Fairbanks Orchestra. His previous album, ""Flip-Flop", was created for his 17-piece Instrument but the new recording is with his Quintet, a return to the smaller-group ensemble of his 2012 Innova recording.

This group includes Jon Irabagon (soprano and sopranino saxes), Randy Ingram (piano, Fender Rhodes), Peter Brendler (bass), and Shawn Baltazor (drums); the music Yao gives to them play to their strengths. Irabagon, whose noted for his tenor work, is limited to the higher range reeds here yet it's a smart juxtaposition to the trombone. Plus, he has developed into such a fine player. Listen to the elegiac "M. Howard" (the album is dedicated to the memory of one of the leader's best friends and how the soprano melody lifts up as it sings.  The lovely, melodic bass solo (Brendler is one of the most sensitive players on the scene) leads into an intense piano solo that also rises, this time over the rhythm section and the horns. Yao then steps out, the intensity picks up even more, and one hears his sorrow transformed into (musical) action.

I like the audacity of "Fuzzy Logic", the opening moments featuring trombone, bass, and sopranino on melody while the drummer and piano create a raucous scene.  As the piece moves into its fiery stop-start pace, Yao and Ibragon wail away, Ingram provides counterpoint to their intense soloing and the rhythm section gives chase. There's also an intensity to "Nightfall" but with a melodic flair. Ingram's forceful solo inspires the rhythm section as well as Yao to really get deeper into the music.  The title track is calmer, even more melodic, a work for quartet sans saxophone, becoming a spotlight for trombone and piano.  The bass and drums stay active, producing dancing rhythms for the soloists.  The closing track, "Bouncy's Bounce", does have a jaunty feel. Pay attention to Brendler as he moves from the melody to his solid walking bass line. Notice also how Irabagon takes the title to heart, his playful solo dancing - yes, even bouncing - above the rhythm section.  Yao starts out quieter but soon gets into the playful spirit, goosed by Baltazor's active bass drum and interjections.

Such good music, such strong compositions, such a good ensemble, "Presence" has all the ingredients to please and challenge an active listener.  John Yao created this life-affirming music in the aftermath of a sudden loss. Many of us turn to art, to music, in times of stress. This album by The John Yao Quintet gives one hope in the face of  tragedy, inspiring us to continue to move forward.

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

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