Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Saxophonists Take Center Stage + Two Collectives

Tenor saxophonist and composer Melissa Aldana, born and raised in Santiago, Chile, first played the saxophone when she was six years old with her musician father as her teacher. Her musical life was accelerated upon meeting pianist Danilo Pérez who invited her to play at The Panama Jazz Festival. From there, she auditioned for was admitted to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. After graduation she recorded her first albums for Greg Osby's Inner Circle Music (2010 and 2012) -in 2013, Ms. Aldana became the first South American person to win the Thelonious Monk Jazz Saxophone Competition.  Her third album, released on Concord Jazz in 2014, and fourth, released in 2016 on WOMMusic, both featured her Crash Trio comprised of bassist Pablo Menares with drummers Francisco Mela (2014) and Jochen Rueckert (2016).

Her fifth album as a leader, "Visions", finds her on the Motema Music label. Menares is still with her but now the ensemble is expanded to a quartet featuring Sam Harris (piano, Rhodes) and drummer Tommy Crane with special guest Joel Ross (vibraphone) on eight of the 11 tracks.  The addition of Harris obviously fills the sound out and also opens up Ms. Aldana's compositions to new possibilities. The title song, composed with Frida Kahlo in mind, features powerful piano chords (a la McCoy Tyner and Fabian Almazan) which give the music depth and, really, unlimited range. On first impressions, this music may remind you of Miguel Zenon's Quartet in the way the musicians interact, how Crane and Menares give the music such space and breathing room yet are also an integral part of the melodic development. Hear the duo shine on the ballad "Abre Tus Ojos" and then how they drive the band on the next track "Elsewhere." On the latter track, the bass line suggests "A Love Supreme" but the propulsive drive from the drums and piano moves the music in other directions.

Photo: Anna Yatskevich
The music is also quite dramatic. On "Dos Casas Un Puente" and "The Search", the group takes its tie setting up the melody and them playing its way through the head before opening up to solos.  It's fun to hear both Ross and Ms. Aladana ride the percussive drive on the latter track snd how the vibraphonist sets up the former tune's attractive melody line (playing in unison with the saxophonist).  The bassist's "Perdon" is a handsome ballad with fine harmonic flourishes from Harris.  The other piece not composed by the leader is "Never Let Me Go" - composed by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston for the long forgotten movie "The Scarlet Hour" (1956 - Nat "King" Cole" played the song in the movie). It's a sweet ballad with a lovely unaccompanied opening from Ms. Aldana as well as a handsome piano solo.

Photo: Harrison Weinstein
"Visions" is a mature statement from Melissa Aldana who has, over the past decade, grown steadily as a musician and composer.  She has moved past the influences of her father, of teachers Joe Lovano, Bill Pierce, and George Coleman into her own voice. And, the fact that she works with this band on a regular basis is a big plus. Five of these songs appear on a live recording made in late August in Santiago, Chile (available on iTunes and Amazon.com) - it's a quartet date (Joel Ross is not on the album) and it's fascinating to compare the songs (there's really not much difference only that the songs are longer on the live date and Harris's contributions stand out even more).  All told, "Visions" is an album to savor, to play all the way through because the stories that Ms. Aldana and her group tell are so involving! Also, dig the great cover art from Cecile McLorin Salvant.

For more information, go to www.melissaaldana.net. As, a link to her purchase page - melissaaldana.lnk.to/visionsEM.

Here's a track:

Alexa Tarantino, who plays alto and soprano saxophones plus flutes, is a graduate of the prestigious jazz program at Hall High School in West Hartford CT, and graduated from both the Eastman School of Music (Rochester, NY) and the Juilliard School (NYC). She's worked and recorded with drummer Sherrie Maricle's DIVA Orchestra plus with Arturo O'Farrill's Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, and with Cecile McLorin Salvant's OGRESSE.  She leads her own Quartet and is co-leader of LSAT (with baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian).

2018 was a very busy year of recording for Ms. Taratino resulting in three releases in the first five months of 2019. "Winds of Change" is her debut as a leader for Posi-Tone Records. With the splendid rhythm section of Christian Sands (piano), Joe Martin (bass), and Rudy Royston (plus trombonist Nick Finzer on three tracks), she glides, soars, and dances her way through 10 tracks, eight of which are originals.  Listen to the band swing on "Breeze" (complete with a sweet alto sax solo) and set the speakers on fire with the infectious "Face Value."  She's generous with the solos, making sure that Sands, who is a delight throughout, gets the spotlight on numerous occasions (his far-ranging statement on "Undercurrent" is a real treat).

Photo: Anna Yatskevich
Ms. Tarantino plays with authority and assurance throughout - she is certainly ready to be a leader. The alto flute is featured on Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Zingaro" - note how softly the rhythm section plays yet still moves the song forward (excellent counterpoint from bassist Martin).  The ensemble roars with delight on "Ready or Not", a hard bop original played at breakneck speed.  She matches Sands's incredible solo with a very statement of her own - notice how she interacts with both the pianist and Royston plus leaves plenty of room for Finzer to raise his own ruckus.  On the appropriately titled "Calm", she creates a handsome melody for her alto and for the echoing trombone.  It's fun to hear her weave the melodic lines together. Check out what the rhythm section is playing under both the trombone and alto solo, how they push the music a bit "out"when Ms. Tarantino reenters and raising the ante for her solo, truly disrupting the "calm."   The album closes with "Without"; the song opens as a duo for alto and piano before the rhythm section tiptoes in. There's just a hint of Johnny Hodges in the alto sound, not surprising as the tune also resembles Billy Strayhorn's "Blood Count."  Yet, the final minute of the song leads the listener in a much different direction.

Photo: Steven Sussman
"Winds of Change" is a powerful debut for young Alexa Tarantino (26 as of the writing).  No telling where her journey will take the composer and instrumentalist but it should be fun to hear.  Great choice of sidemen on this date as each brings such great strength and creativity; they make each song "sing" in its own fashion. That written, Ms. Tarantino gives them some excellent material to work with! A pleasure to sit down and spend time with, "Winds of Change" is worth your attention.

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

Here's the opening track:

Here are the two "collective" albums Alexa Tarantino was part of for Positive-Tone Records.

Posi-Tone co-owner and producer Marc Free put Ms. Tarantino together with trombonist Finzer and drummer Royston for the June 2018 recording session that resulted in "Maximum Enjoyment." Filling out the sextet - named Something Blue - are tenor saxophonist Sam Dillon (whose Posi-Tone debut was issued in early May of this year), pianist Art Hirahira, and bassist Boris Kozlov. The ensemble plays five originals from its members plus seven other tunes from the label's stable of artists.  Opening with Behn Gillece's "Slick", the music hits hard with good solos all around. Other Posi-Tone artists represented here are guitarist Amanda Monaco ("Coppertone"), saxophonist Jacam Manricks (the appropriately titled "Cluster Funk"), bassist Peter Brendler ("Stunts and Twists", a bluesy ballad, no less), and saxophonist Travis Sullivan (the hard-hitting album closer "New Directions").

 Photo: Sara Pettinella
Pianist Art Hirahara contributes two excellent songs to the album including the handsome "Aoi Blue." The blend of the saxophonists with trombone suggests Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers with Curtis Fuller but note the fie percussion work from Royston (pictured left).  Ms. Tarantino's "Breeze" (which she also plays on her debut) has a bluesy feel, especially in the loping rhythms and opens to feature solos from the composer, Finzer, and the pianist.  The fine mid-tempo ballad "Shift" serves as a spotlight for its composer, tenor saxophonist Dillon. The excellent rhythm section work is such a pleasure to hear as is Hirahara's expansive yet short solo. "Why Aren't You Excited", from the trombonist, is actually more introspective than one might expect from the title. Fine work all around from the band and the soloists.

"Maximum Enjoyment" reveals the fine talent that Posi-Tone Records and producer Marc Free has been able to cultivate over the past decade (Rudy Royston and Boris Kozlov appear on large number of the label's releases not to forget the composers whose work is recorded here). Something Blue certainly refers to the many times Blue Note Records made Lps featuring their sterling lineup of artists in the late 1950s and throughout the 60s.  Smart concept and good exposure for both the artists and the label - give it a whirl.

Here's one of the two Behn Gillece pieces:

The day after Alexa Tarantino recorded her debut, she went into Brooklyn NY's Acoustic Recording studio with a sextet created by guitarist Amanda Monaco.  Lioness came together during a monthly concert series in Flushing NY that the guitarist curates. Producer Marc Free suggested she put together a group of women musicians, baritone player Lauren Sevian suggested the name, and the sextet was formed.  Featuring the three instrumentalists mentioned above, tenor saxophonist Jenny Hill, organist Akiko Tsuruga, and drummer Allison Miller fill out the group. Note the absence of a bassist - Ms. Tsuruga, who has previously recorded with drummer Jeff Hamilton and worked alongside Lou Donaldson plus saxophonist Ralph LaLama and trumpeter Joe Magnarelli, is a classic Hammond B-3 player, meaning that her feet supply the solid foundation.

Photo: Enid Hill
All six members contributed songs to their debut "Pride and Joy" released in March on Posi-Tone Records. The rhythm section - guitar, organ, and drums - gives the music a different and, to these ears , quite inviting, feel.  On pieces such as Carla Bley's classic "Ida Lupino", their work allows the alto of Ms. Taratino to solo freely. Really, it's Allison Miller's funky, danceable, "Mad Time" that opens the album and sets the mood. Then there's the Caribbean feel that permeates Ms. Hill's "Sunny Day Pal" - note the delightful bounce under the guitar solo and the New Orleans drumming under the three saxes as they restate the theme.

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Ms. Monaco takes centerstage as the reed players sit out on the sweet reading of the late Emily Remler's "Mocha Spice."  The gentle drumming of Ms. Miller and supportive organ work makes this piece a highlight.  There's a short and highly funk reading of Aretha's "Think", hearken back to the days of Booker T. & The MGs and The Bar-Kays.  Ms. Tsuruga's aptly titled "Funky Girl" provides a bluesy finish to the album plus a number of delightful low notes for Ms. Sevian. She also gets the first solo and sets the stage for Ms. Tarantino and Ms. Hill to dig in. The guitarist and the composer both get the spots and make the most of it.

"Pride and Joy" is suffused with excellent musicianship and is a whole lot of fun, especially if you play the album at higher volume.  Not sure if Lioness will stay together in its present form as its members are so busy as leaders and side persons.  Nevertheless, this is a delightful recording.

Go to www.facebook.com/pg/lionesswomeninjazz/posts/ for more information.

Here's the first cut - try not to dance, I dare you!

Photo: Michelle Grace Hunder
Alto saxophonist, educator, and composer Angela Davis came to the United States from her native Australia a decade ago to study.  She stayed for six years, recording and self-releasing both her debut album "The Art of the Melody" and its followup, "Lady Luck." Both albums featured her quartet (with bassist and fellow Australian Linda May Han Oh); the second one also included a string section arranged by pianist Dan Tepfer.

She moved home a few years ago and is now a Lecturer of Jazz at the James Morrison Academy of Music at Univ. of SA. And, Ms. Davis now has a new album.  "Little Did They Know" (ABC Music).  Featuring pianist Tony Gould and bassist Sam Anning, the eight-song program features four originals and a song each from Charlie Haden, Bill Frisell, Sammy Fain, and George Frederic Handel.  The song choices lean more to ballads - even Fain's "Love is a Many Splendored Thing" (from the 1955 movie of the sane name) starts with Gould playing a lovely unaccompanied reading with variations of the theme.  When Ms. Davis and Anning enter, the pace picks right up and the music takes on a light-hearted feeling highly by the sweet sounds of the alto sax (one can hear a bit of Paul Desmond in the leader's tones). Ms. Davis's "Circuit for Three" is more up-tempo - the excellent melodic line is followed by strong solos from Gould and Anning.

Photo: Hayley Miro
Haden's "Our Spanish Love Song", which the late bassist composed for his duo recording with Pat Metheny, has a handsome memory inferred by the composer's love of Iberian music.  The sympathetic nature of the trio's interactions really make this song move forward while pulling you into the emotional power of the melody.  Later in the program, Ms. Davis's "Hymn for Haden" celebrates the person and his love for traditional music.  Anning's simple yet powerful counterpoint to Gould's sparkling solo is a highlight of this track and actually occurs throughout.  Ms. Davis's "The Light Between Us" also feels like a hymn with its classic melody line, the soft chords, and the sweet singing alto sax sound.

Photo: Hayley Miro
"Little Did They Know" is a melodic gem, music to start the day (if the windows are open in Spring and Summer, the songs of the birds often fit in) and to close the evening.  It's fitting that the program closes with Handel's aria "Lascio Ch'io Pianga"; the quiet melody, the short saxophone solo that takes its lead from the many singers who have performed the piece, and the gentle piano accompaniment, all combine to bring hope in a new day.  Angela Davis lives, breathes, and cherishes melody; the listener is the beneficiary of her love.

For more information, go to angeladavismusic.com.

Here's the Charlie Haden song:

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Sounds Of Change, Of Life, Of Dedication, Of "Stretch Goals"

Photo: Anna Yatskevich
Trumpeter, composer, and podcaster Dave Douglas has truly big ears.  Over a career that spans nearly three decades, he has played with and recorded numerous ensembles of all sizes, making music that can be very political in nature, exploratory, soulful, classical, and highly interactive.  He started his own label, Greenleaf Music, in 2005 not just for his own different projects  but also to spotlight work by a diverse group of contemporary ranging from Donny McCaslin to Linda May Han Oh to Rudy Royston toRyan Keberle & Catharsis to Greg Ward.  His blog, "A Noise From The Deep", is notable for his in-depth interviews with artists of all stripes within the contemporary music scene.

The majority of his albums feature Douglas with younger musicians. However, his latest project, "Devotion", features the trumpeter in an interchange of musical ideas with pianist Uri Caine (a long-time compatriot) and master drummer Andrew Cyrille.  Caine and Douglas have a long-running duo but adding Cyrille takes the music in many fascinating directions. There's the tango-like "False Allegiances" - inspired by Carla Bley, the trumpet lines snake through the rich piano accompaniment and the quiet yet pounding drum part.  Douglas, who claims Mary Lou Willams as a major influence, composed "Rose and Thorn" with the great pianist and composer in mind.  The dancing rhythms created by Caine and, especially, Cyrille and exciting and fun.  The piano solo goes from boogie-woogie to gospel and beyond.

The lovely ballad,"We Pray" is inspired by Dizzy Gillespie. With its handsome trumpet melody, rich piano chords, and the soft brush-on-cymbals and snare work, the music pulls the listener in.  The muted trumpet and gentle brush work at the onset of "D'Andrea" (dedicated to pianist Franco D'Andrea) gives way to a bluesy waltz.  Caine's solo is a delight while Cyrille's soft-shoe accompaniment is a witty touch.

Photo: Marek Lasarki
Andrew Cyrille, an active participant in the creative music scene, remains creative and adventurous at the age of 79 (he turns 80 in November of this year).  His delightfully subtle style shines throughout the album, even when he is playing as soft as a whisper.  Tune in to "Prefontaine" (inspired by long-distance runner Steve Prefonataine who passed tragically at the age of 24). Listen how the drummer interacts with Caine during the trumpet solo, the piano's percussive riffs flowed by rapid-fire runs echoed by the cymbals and snare.

The title track, a hymn composed by Alexander Johnson (1791-1832) in 1816, closes the album.  The musicians respect the original melody but also open it up to interpretation.  Why not? That's what they do all throughout "Devotion".  Dave Douglas, Uri Caine, and Andrew Cyrille are master musicians and communicators.  We are the beneficiaries of their hard work, interactions, and, yes, devotion.

For more information, go to greenleafmusic.com.

Here's one of the delightful tracks:

Ben Kono, composer, reed player, is a native of Vermont who has been based in New York City for two decades.  One of the more versatile players on the contemporary - he plays tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinets, flutes, oboe plus English Horn - has worked with and recorded with Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, Joseph Phillips' Numinous, and the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble.  Because of his ability to play so many different instruments, he has played in the "pit orchestra" or "pit band" in numerous Broadway productions.

Kono also has a quintet to play his original music.  An earlier version of the group (guitarist Pete McCann, pianist Henry Hey, bassist John Hébert, and drummer John Hollenbeck) is featured on Kono's 2011 debut recording "Crossing" (1918 Records), an album that received great praise (including my review - click here) not just for the musicianship but also for quality of the compositions.  There are several overtly political songs but also pieces dedicated to family and the many places Kono had visited as a child and as a young adult.

"Don't Blink" (self-released), Kono's second album, had its beginnings in 2011 from a remark that the composer's daughter made about a photo he took as a youngster on a trip to Glacier National Park in Montana.  After doing research, Kono realized that the ice formations he had photographed were starting to disappear due to climate change.  He began to compose pieces around environmental themes and recorded them in February 2015 with his quintet (at that time, the group included McCann (acoustic and electric guitars), Hey (piano, Fender Rhodes), Kermit Driscoll (acoustic and electric basses), and Satoshi Takeishi (drums, percussion). Kono could not find a label to release the album and it languished until this year when he released the album himself.

The 15 tracks (five are one minute long or less) cover a wide swath of topics, from "Spirit Animals to Iron Eyes Cody to the extinction of many species including the dodo and the passenger pigeon plus deforestation. The song titles and explanations take a somber approach to the present as well as the possibilities of a future while the music roars, shimmers, shudders, dances, and moves inward. Pieces such as "Last Flight of the Dodo" and "River of Fire" have a tremendous urgency thanks to the insistent percussion and the powerful bass lines. "River..." has a stunning guitar solo plus Kono's bass clarinet-through-an-amplifier sound that emulates Jimi Hendrix.

"Tipping Point" has a hard bop feel: the song, inspired by Charles Keeling (1928-2005) the American scientist who first reported on the rise of CO2 levels in the atmosphere....in 1958! Te song would be out of place on a Blue Note Records album from the mid-1960s i.e. Wayne Shorter or Herbie Hancock.  Kono's powerful tenor leads the way and takes in a free-for-all with the band (especially McCann and Hey) near the close of the piece.  Meanwhile, the short "Spirit Animal" pieces are dedicated to the marmot, the condor, leviathan (whale), and beluga - three of the four are played on English Horn (double-reed woodwind) with "Leviathan" on bass clarinet.

The album closes with hope in the form of "Renewal."  McCann's acoustic guitar supports Hey's piano work with Kono playing the theme on flute. At the close of the piece, one hears a tape of the leader's daughter Sami sings the simple melody that served as the impetus for the composition.

Yes, the song titles carry a power of their own. But, even without knowing the inspiration for each song, "Don't Blink" is filled with attractive melodies, impressive solos, fine interaction, and a mature yet adventurous attitude of on the part of Ben Kono and the ensemble. There are many of us who believe that the half-steps forward and full steps backward taken by the last two Presidential administrations (with the support of the Senate and the House of Representatives) have not come close to solving the issues inherent in the song titles.  But, listener, keep an open mind when approaching this album - the rewards are many.

For more information, go to dontblinkmusic.org.  If you purchase the physical through Ben Kono's Bandcamp page - benkono.bandcamp.com50% of purchase price will be donated to Riverkeeper.org and the Sierra Club. 

Here's a track to pique your interest:

Photo: John Rogers
When one listens to as much music as I do, you begin to notice when certain musicians crop up on various albums.  For the past few years, one of those musicians is pianist and keyboard player Matt Mitchell.  Currently, he's a member of Tim Berne's Snake Oil, Jonathan Finlayson's Sicilian Defense, and Anna Webber's Simple Trio plus he's recorded with Steve Coleman's Natal Eclipse, Rudresh Mahanthappa's Bird Calls, the Dave Douglas Quintet, Mario Pavone's Blue Dialects Trio, and a slew more.  Not only does Mitchell have "big ears", he's also an amazing improviser and a fascinating composer.

His latest recorded adventure, "Phalanx Ambassadors", is his fourth album for Pi Recordings.  It's a quintet adventure with Mitchell playing piano, Mellotron, and Prophet-6 synthesizer joined by Miles Okazaki (acoustic and electric guitars), Patricia Brennan (vibraphone, marimba), Kim Cass (acoustic and electric basses), and Kate Gentile (drums, percussion, album art and layout).  The seven-song program combines five longer pieces (all over five minutes) with two very short works ("Taut Pry" and "Zoom Romp"). The former (1:45) has a 1980s British "prog-rock" sound (think Hatfield & The North sans vocals) while the latter (1:26) is a big slab of funk mixed with a strong melody line and raucous interactions.

Mitchell truly writes for each voice in the ensemble so the pieces are not just head-solos-head.  Even the longest cut, ""Phasic Haze Romps" (15:53), is an episodic adventure with the instrumentalists movie in and around each other. While Ms. Gentile fills the bottom of the piece moving around her drum kit, Cass upholds the foundation of the music plus adds his harmonies, Mitchell and Ms. Brennan play counterpoint along with Okazaki.  There's a classical feel as well as an urgency in the music that makes it sound as if the quintet were sailing headlong into outer space. There are moments throughout the album (save for the short tracks) that are hypnotic, pulsing, and, ultimately, powerful.

Photo: YouTube
The best person to talk about "Phalanx Ambassadors" is Matt Mitchell.  His essay on the recording can be found at pirecordings.com/albums/phalanx-ambassadors/ opens numerous doors of understanding for the listener.  The sound is thick, thick with the five musicians playing all at once but also thick with ideas.  Take time to explore this often-fascinating album.

For even more information, go to www.mattmitchell.us.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Resonating Through The Decades

Over the past seven years, Resonance Records has done a excellent job of rejuvenating the jazz career of guitarist Wes Montgomery. Not that his more famous CTI records demeaned him but this slew of albums serves as a reminder of just how good a soloist he could be, how adventurous he and the various musicians he played with could be, and, in several cases, serves as a history lesson for present-day listeners. Several of the albums comes from the period just before (or immediately after) the guitarist signed with Riverside Records.

The new two-CD set, "Back on Indiana Avenue: The Carroll deCamp Collection", is the sixth release from Resonance and hearkens back to their 2012 album "Echoes of Indiana Avenue."  As in many of the label's releases, there is a great back story to his the tapes were made and how they came into the hands of Zev Feldman at Resonance - watch the video below for more information.   As for the sessions, they are broken into three different sections, including "piano quartets with guitar, piano, bass, and drums plus organ trio and two tracks of piano sextet all on disk one while the overwhelming majority of disk two is "Nat "King" Cole-style trios with piano, bass, and guitar.  Because Mr deCamp did not keep notes (or they were never discovered), no-one is positive of who plays on what track (save for organist Melvin Rhyne, trombonist David Baker, and tenor saxophonist David Young.  Bass players include Wes's brother Monk and Mingo Jones while drummers are identified as Paul Parker and Sonny Johnson.   Pianists are a bit harder to pin down but the ones that are listed include Earl Van Riper, John Bunch, Carl Perkins, and another Montgomery brother Monk (who just may be the pianist on the two horn sextet tracks

Photo: Franklin Daily Journal
For those of us who grew up in the 1960s and later, many do not how about the myriad clubs in African American communities around the US.  Cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Washington D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, Kansas City, and elsewhere had a street or streets dedicated to bars that presented live music, often seven days a week.  Musicians were able to hone their skills, work on new material, entertain and educate audiences night after night.  Indianapolis, Indiana, the city in which the Montgomery Brothers were born and where they returned after the family moved to Columbus, Ohio, had several clubs in the Indiana Avenue area that catered to jazz and late night sessions.

"Back on Indiana Avenue" features music recorded from the mid-to-late 1960s (and, perhaps some tracks from the early 60s).  Wes's signature octave playing is in full bloom but so are his rapid-fire single-note runs and delightful rhythm work. One can hear the influence of Charlie Christian on his attack as well as the horn-like solo style of Les Paul. Check out the piano quartet on "Stompin' At The Savoy"for the Christian influence but make sure to dig brother Monk romping on the piano.  Dr. Lewis Porter's excellent notes state a number of these tracks may have recorded at Montgomery's home.  Dr. Porter, who is an excellent pianist and educator, theorizes that Buch appears on several cuts on these recordings plus Carl Perkins, another fine Indianapolis native, swings lustily on the final cut, "The Song Is You."  No matter who's playing, the music really turn on the audience (someone or ones is clapping in rhythm in the piano solo).

If you're a Wes Montgomery fan, you'll want "Back on Indiana Avenue - the Carroll deCamp Recordings" for many reasons.  If you're new to his music, perhaps the studio recordings on Riversde and Verve are the place to start.  Nevertheless, this is music that is filled with spirit and joy as well as a numerous splendid solos.  Dig it!

Photo: Steinway & Sons
Pianist and composer Bill Evans (1929-1980) is another artist whom Resonance Records has shown in a new light.  Two albums, "Some Other Time: The Lost Session from The Black Forest" (2016) and "Another Time: The Hilversum Concert" (2017), added to the mystique created by 1968's "Live at The Montreux Jazz Festival" (Verve Records), hitherto the only recording to feature Evans and bassist Eddie Gomez with drummer Jack DeJohnette. The more recent albums were both recorded within five days of the Verve release and show the Trio in full flight, the pianist truly enjoying the experience, especially on the "The Hilversum...." session.

DeJohnette was gone by the end of that summer. Marty Morell joined the group, staying for nearly seven years. The first Evans release on Resonance was 2012's "Live at Art D’Lugoff’s Top of The Gate" - that album, recorded in October of 1968, just weeks after the Morell entered the scene, comes from tapes made by label owner George Klabinthen 18 years old.  Now, the label presents "Evans in England", an 18-song two CD recorded when the Trio spent four weeks (basically the month of December) in residence at Ronnie Scotts in London.  The musicians are in sync throughout, having not only spent the past year playing together but also having the luxury of playing the same venue for an extended period of time. 

You can really hear the camaraderie of the three musicians on these songs.  How much they swing together, how both Gomez and Morell play quietly on the ballads, and how much the rhythm section pushes the pianist during his solos.  There are several Evans classics, such as "Re: Person I Knew", "Waltz For Debby", and "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" that closes the second disk.  "Waltz..." has a delightful unaccompanied piano opening that leads to a more spirited reading of the tune.  When Gomez steps out to solo, the song speeds up appreciably.  It's a treat to hear Morell's brushes dancing on the snare and cymbals before he returns to hs sticks.  It's fun to hear the trio play Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight" - the pianist had great respect for Monk's piano work as well as his compositions. Evans plays up the melodic and harmonic sides of the song while the bass and drums play with the rhythms, making the song flow and swing.

Two previously unrecorded Evans compositions made their debut during the Trio's residency.  Both "Sugar Plum" and "The Two Lonely People" are featured on Evans 1091 Columbia Records Lp, "The Bill Evans Album".  The unaccompanied piano opening  on the former tune followed by a delightful conversation between the piano and bass shows just locked in the musicians are.  Gomez plays counterpoint to Evans lovely thematic material and swings mightily during the lively solo.  The opening moments of "...Lonely People" are breathtaking in its lyricism - when the bass and drums enter, the music begins to swing but the pianist maintains his more introspective approach. Evans expands upon his solo near its close, picking up on the energy that his bandmates are sending his way.  If you listened or have listened to much of the music this trio made over its time together (1968-74), you'll know they pushed each other constantly while respecting each other's space yet honoring the music and spirit of jazz.

"Evans in England" is a worthy addition to the Bill Evans legacy.  Now that there are three albums of material from 1968 and 69, you can really hear that the pianist was fully in creative flight during that time, that he had finally recovered from the untimely death of bassist Scott LaFaro in 1961.  Eddie Gomez not only plays with great verve but is so delightfully melodic that his frequent solos unfailingly stand out.  Marty Morell is the consummate accompanist, rarely "showing off" but always into the music. Absolutely recommended!

If you want to learn more about Bill Evans, blogger and author Marc Myers is the person to read (he adds much to the album liner notes). Go to www.jazzwax.com and search for the numerous postings he's done on the pianist!

Friday, May 17, 2019

The Drummer Tells the Story (Pt 1)

I was lucky to grow up in Middletown, CT, for many reasons: one in particular was the presence of Wesleyan University, its bookstore, galleries, theater, and, especially, the Music Department.  The University greatly expanded its World Music studies under the auspices of Robert "Bob" Brown introducing the students (and curious community members) to Javanese gamelan music as well as South Indian classical music. Members of the faculty were two brothers, T. Vishwanathan, an amazing flutist, and T. Ranganathan, who played the mridangam, a double-headed drum. "Ranga", as he was called, was one of the most out-going people one could ever meet. He had a great sense of humor and was strikingly humble about the fact he was an amazing percussionist (here he is in the 1960s - click here).  He died much too young - at the age of 62 - but I can still hear his incredible laugh and his amazing hands as they created such amazing rhythms and melodies.  Like the great tabla master Alla Rahka, Ranga could make you marvel at his technique as well as being thrilled by joyous playing.

Meet Rajna Swaminathan. She plays mrudangam (variant spelling), having studied with several current masters of the drum including Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman.  Ms. Swaminathan, born in Maryland, has been involved in both the world music and jazz scene in New York City since 2011 working with artists such as Vijay Iyer, Amir ElSaffar (she's a member of his Two Rivers Orchestra), Steve Coleman, and saxophonist Maria Grand.  She's currently a Graduate Student at Harvard University and has worked with Iyer in that capacity as well as on several concerts.  Ms. Swaminathan also composes for dance and theater productions including 2015's "The Worry Machine" (music from the Anu Yadav play, "Meena's Dream").  Her frequent musical companion is her sister Anjna who is a composer and violinist. Together with their father Dr. P.K. Swaminathan, they run a 5013-C called Rhythm Fantasies, INC, whose goal is to "promote South Indian classical music and dance in a space that encourages education and enrichment through innovation and cross-cultural collaborations."  

Now Rajna has her first album as a leader "Of Agency and Abstraction" (Biophilia Records).  The recording, co-produced by Iyer, features her group RAJAS, a quintet that features her sister (violin), Ms. Grand (tenor saxophone), Miles Okazaki (guitar), and Stephan Crump (bass) plus guest Amir ElSaffar (trumpet) and Ganavya Doraiswamy (vocal).  One of the joys of this music, this beautiful collection of original compositions, is that while it's obvious these musicians are brilliant technicians, there's more emotion inside the motion, a flow that enters one's mind, closes the eyes, and allows you to breathe easily (that's what it does for me).  Note how easily the percussive [luck of the guitar combines with the singing violin, bowed bass, bouncing mrudangan, and dancing tenor saxophone blends. 

The tendency to want to discuss this music gives way to the belief that each listener approach there album with an open mind.  If you're looking for a message, take your time to find it.  The leader describes the group's mission as one that is "a network of like-minded improvisers from multiple/overlapping traditions to experiment with new horizons of relation through hybrid forms, textures, and sensibilities." After all, RAJAS means passion/action" in Sanskrit. 

Yet, there are moments throughout that stand out.  Ms. Grand's breathy tenor leads the way on "Peregrination" with the violin in counterpoint and the rhythmic guitar in sync with the percussion.  The splendid "singing" violin meshing with the guitar at the onset of "Vigil" begins a journey that spreads over 10 minutes with the various voices adding counterpoint and harmony.  Ms. Doraiswamy and Mr. ElSaffar join the quintet on "Departures" - while you may not understand the words, the trumpet and violin create a call-and-response that helps to transmit the emotions of the lyrics.  Don't ignore the contributions of bassist Crump - his arco work throughout is deep and resonant. Without a "regular" drummer, he's free to be melodic as well as foundational.

Just listen.  As I write these words, the windows are open and birds are singing in the trees close to the house.  Their songs fit in nicely with the sounds swirling out of the speakers.  Late at night, listen.  Early in the morning, listen. Give this music all the attention you can. Time will fall away and the beauty inherent in these songs, these collaborations, the myriad voices, will seep into your soul.  Too poetic for you?  This music is quite lyrical, gentle, soothing, and challenging.  "Of Agency and Abstraction" stands out amidst the noise of the everyday. Rajna Swaminathan took plenty of time to create this music, to find the right musicians, the right sonic combinations, and the results are very impressive, very moving.  Listen.

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

Here's an example of the wondrous sounds:

The drummer, educator, and mentor Ralph Peterson literally burst into the public ears in 1985 as a member of O.T.B. (Out of the Blue), a group of young musicians that Blue Records Records created to showcase younger talent.  He worked with so many musicians through his career including Tom Harrell, Terence Blanchard, Geri Allen, Charles Lloyd, and Betty Carter.  But the once person who made the biggest impression on his person and career was drummer Art Blakey.  Peterson was one of the few drummers who the great master invited to play in his bands, the talent incubator known as The Jazz Messengers.  The younger man learned that you give everything on the bandstand and that you expect the same from the people you work with as well as to pass on the jazz traditions through your music and through teaching.  Peterson has done just that over the years creating groups that featured younger players such as clarinetist Don Byron, vibraphonist Bryan Carrott, pianist Orrin Evans, and trumpeter Sean Jones (among others).

Peterson has been recording prolifically over the past few years for his own Onyx label. Most of those albums feature younger musicians recorded live.  The newest addition to the catalogue, "Legacy Alive: Volume 6: Live at The Side Door", is credited to Ralph Peterson & The Messenger Legacy, a sextet composed of musicians who played with Mr. Blakey (1919-1990) in the late 1970s and through 80s.  What a unit - Bill Pierce (tenor saxophone), Bobby Watson (alto saxophone), Brian Lynch (trumpet, Essiet Essiet (bass), and Geoffrey Keezer (piano), who along with Peterson, swing their way through 11 pieces associated with the Jazz Messengers repertoire (the group stayed active for 35 years!)

Photo: Peter Leng Xiong
The program was recorded over two nights in October 2018. The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme is owned and operated by Ken Kitchings (Rich Martin does the booking) and there is no bigger or more vocal supporter of the music in the state than he.  If you listen closely, you can hear Kitchings shouting his encouragement throughout and the end of songs. Why not?  The sextet is having a great time, they all play with gusto, the material is top-notch, and the sound is great. The drums and piano come through loud and clear; Brian Lynch's trumpet cuts through the mix with his delightful blend of riffs, smears, and articulated lines. It's so great to hear Bill Pierce playing so strong, his bluesy solos are a treat.  Bobby Watson, who joined the Messengers in 1977, has always played with wit, humor, and when called for, grace. He does so here as well.  He also has blues in his background but he can fly with ease over this band. Check him out on his "In Case You Missed It", a tune on which everyone solos with abandon.  Geoffrey Keezer, who joined the Messengers when he was 18, also plays with great wit and spontaneity.  Listen to his unaccompanied opening of "That Ole Feeling" - he sets the pace for the band who dance delightfully behind his sparkling keyboard.  His solo on Curtis Fuller's  "A La Mode" is flat-out amazing

As for the leader, he's always been fun to listen to. Yes, his power can overwhelm some groups but not this one.  His ability to push a band, to prod soloists, to stop-on-a-dime, to create a storm that not only dazzles listeners and make them shout but also is so darn joyous - Peterson is having fun, even as you realize that some of this material was composed 40, 50, over 60 years - this band makes it sound contemporary.  The Juan Tizol - Duke Ellington classic "Caravan" was first recorded in 1936. Listen here and it's alive, ebullient, and powerful.  "Three Blind Mice", credited to Anthony Rooley and Thomas Ravenscroft (who wrote the melody in 1611), was recorded by Blakey in 1962 in a quintet that included Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard.  The arrangement is quite similar and the overall effect is as well.  The sextet also takes an energetic run through Shorter's "Children of the Night" (which he composed and recorded with The Messengers in 1961).

Thanks to the great engineering and mastering, the music on "Legacy Alive" is loud and clear. Every member of the Messenger Legacy gives his all (just as Art Blakey commanded them to do during their tenure with him) - it's that dedication, that desire to communicate living history, that makes this music so thrilling.  Just start with first track "A La Mode": if that does not make you jump up and shout, call the doctor immediately! Also, check out the great cover collage by CT-based artist Andres Chaparro. It exemplifies the powerhouse that Ralph Peterson has been throughout his career and who is today.

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

Here's that opening track: