Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Pull Up a Seat, Give a Listen, a Good Listen

Since vocalist Camila Meza joined Ryan Keberle & Catharsis in 2014, the quintet has gone from strength to strength Though Ms. Meza was not a full member in that year, she did sing on five of the eight tracks of "Into The Zone" (Greenleaf Music) plus the bonus track, Sufjan Stevens' "Sister."  Two years later for "Azul Infinito", her voice had become an integral part of the quintet, an ensemble that features Keberle (trombone, keyboards), Michael Rodriguez (trumpet), Jorge Roeder (acoustic and electric basses), and Eric Doob (drums).  That group also recorded 2017's "Find the Common, Shine a Light", a recording made in the wake of the 2016 U.S. election with music that was a strong indictment of the election process and results yet without pointing fingers. That album also featured several short improvised pieces plus longer pieces that showed the versatility of its members.

"The Hope I Hold" is a step forward for the group. Rodriguez is gone, replaced by tenor saxophonist Scott Robinson (who actually has guested on a number of Keberle's earlier albums).  Also, the sound of the band has expanded with the addition of Ms. Meza's excellent guitar work plus vocal contributions from the leader and from Roeder.  The program is split in two fascinating halves. The first five tracks are Keberle compositions with lyrics adapted from the great American poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967), specifically from his 1935 poem "Let America Be America Again." Hughes's powerful words (read them here) are been lightly edited to fit the equally powerful music.  The four tracks that make up "The Hope I Hold Suite" are driven by the impressively forceful rhythm section, by the intelligent melodies the leader has created, by the mixture of reeds, brass, and guitar, plus the strong vocal work.  Ms. Meza, an immigrant from Chile, understand the history of this country, has seen the remnants of "Jim Crow" that exist throughout the U.S. – yet, there is neither vitriol in her voice (as there is none in Hughes's words: sorrow yes but not burning hatred) nor sorrow in her delivery.  One does hear hope, hope for a better country, a more compassionate leadership, and a better understanding of the myriad issues facing the world. Following the suite is another Keberle composition.  "Campinas" not only features his trombone and keyboards but also he sings lead.  The first part of the piece has a strong Brazilian feel, especially in the "floating" voices and the exciting drum patterns.  The second part starts with understated percussion, synthesizer sweeps, and a lyrical trombone solo before the drums kick back into the rhythms of the opening under the trombone solo and the guitar spotlight that follows.

Photo: Takahiko Tokusa
The next four tracks introduces The Catharsis Trio.  Composed of the leader, Ms. Meza, and bassist Roeder.  The trio first worked together on a tour of Japan when the promoter really wanted the music but could not afford to bring the entire band.  Needless to say, the participants viewed the tour as a both a challenge and an opportunity to see the material in a different light.  The guitarist contributes the lovely "Para Volar" – the blend of voice, guitar, bass, and trombone is alluring. Roeder's first recorded composition, "Peering", has quite a fine melody with the various voices playing off each other, providing fine harmonies as well as smart counterpoint.  The team of Manuel Jose Castillo (lyrics) and Gustavo "Cuchi" Leguizamon (music) composed "Zamba de Lozano", a song
made famous by Mercedes Sosa.  Ms. Meza caresses the lovely melody while Keberle offers handsome support and even shadows her on several lines. The Trio closes its set with a rearranged version of "Become the Water" of the previous Catharsis album that took its title from the chorus of this song.  Here, Keberle intertwines the sounds of his Korg Minilogue synthesizer into the mix but the words are loud and clear.

The album closes with with "Epilogue/Make America Again", a chorale for voices, trombones, and keyboard that ends with a long drawn-out chord (sounds like an organ).  The music has the feel of a prayer, a wordless plea for hope that seems to have eluded many of us in the past two+ years.  Bitterness and cruel satire is no help – it is imperative that we all talk to each other, at community meetings, in churches, mosques, and synagogues, in the classroom, in the halls of the government. Then, "The Hope I Hold" may become a reality.   Ryan Keberle & Catharsis continue to make relevant music, the writing continues to mature, and the musicianship is of the highest caliber. Now that Ms. Meza's immense talent is being put to its full use, next time around, perhaps Scott Robinson will get to employ his full array of instruments. Imagine that!!

For more information, go to ryankeberle.com.

Give a listen to "Campinas":

Photo: Ken Drew
Saxophonist, violinist, vocalist, and composer Tori Freestone has been busy making a name for herself in her native England and on the Continent.  As a leader or co-leader, she's issued four CDs and has appeared on recordings by Ivo Neame, Andre Canniere, and a group called Compassionate Cow.  Ms. Freestone has also worked in a number of British big bands and smaller ensembles plus is currently a tutor for the National Youth Jazz Collective and for Trinity College of Music in London.  Her main musical vehicle at the moment is the Tori Freestone Trio based on her saxophone playing and compositions with the delightful rhythm section of Dave Manington (bass) and Tim Giles (drums).

The Trio has just issued its third recording for Whirlwind Recordings.  Titled "El Mar de Nubes" ("the Sea of Clouds"), much of the program was inspired by the saxophonist's retreat to the Canard Islands at the close of 2017.  There she wandered the landscape catering her thoughts, inspired by the longs walks in the natural forests and mountains as well as viewing the Super Moon, a phenomenon that makes the night as bright as day when it rises.  The music she created from her sojourns is not radically different than her previous two Trio discs yet one feels that the three musicians are locked in more than ever before.  The title track opens the album with the leader's saxophone interacting and responding to the lyrical bass lines and dancing brushes work.  Dig the funky opening of "Hiding Jekyll", how the rhythm section locks into the groove even as the saxophonist plays a double-time on top of them. Pieces such as "Hasta La Vista" and "Los Indianos" have such a playful quality, the former (composed by the bassist) built off a speedy riff that has hints of Trio Air in how the sax and bass work together over the dancing drums while the latter rises out of Giles's drums interacting with the cowbell. The riffs Ms. Freestone play may remind some of Sonny Rollins's playful interactions with Ray Brown and Shelly Manne on "Way Out West."

The album also includes two versions of the traditional American song "Shenandoah."  Version 1 is all instrumental, replete with wonderful bass playing (note Manington's fine bow work  and his deep sonorous phrases in response to Ms. Freestone's wide-ranging solo (she rarely strays far from the original melody but does create an impressive solo).  In the middle section, Giles creates a hypnotic rhythm for the bass solo (note how the saxophonist plays long, breathy tones behind Manington)that leads into a more expansive tenor spotlight.  Version 2 is quite different – Ms. Freestone accompanies her vocal with keening fiddle tones.  The bassist creates a counter melody behind her, joined a verse later by Giles's skittish drums.  The violin solo brings to mind the raspy tones of Charles Burnham and, when Ms. Freestone moves away from the melody, the music moves into more playful territory. The trio does return to the melody; this time, the vocalist sings with just the drums as her accompanist before it fades out on Giles.

"El Mar de Nubes" is music well worth exploring. Over the course of seven years and (now) three albums, Tori Freestone, Dave Manington, and Tim Giles have become tighter and looser, the former through the many gigs they have played and the latter from the trust they have built by playing all those gigs. Sadly, I don't see any live dates on this side of the Atlantic Ocean listed for the album release tour but this is a Trio one needs to hear live.  That written, the new album is one for listening deeply and all the way through!

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

This video should serve as a great introduction to the album:

Saturday, June 22, 2019

A Break, A Concert, A Journey!!

My wife and I are in Chicago this weekend to celebrate the third Birthday of our granddaughter Margo.  She was born on the first day of summer and, honestly, has been a bright addition to our family.

It's a very busy weekend in the Windy City. The Cubs are playing the New York Mets, the Rolling Stones kicked off their delayed US Tour last night (6/21) in the comfort of Soldiers Field (40,000 capacity), Yo-Yo Ma played Bach and planted a tree in Unity Park (read about the unique concert here), Hugh Jackman performed at the United Center, Cuban pianist Cucho Valdes plays in Millennium Park on Monday night (6/24), and, as usual, the clubs and concert halls are busy throughout the city.

Tonight, we are going to see the Fabian Almazan Trio perform at Constellation. Mr. Almazan (also born in Cuba), bassist Linda May Han Oh, and drummer Henry Cole are in the midst of a tour that takes them around the country in support of his new Biophilia album "This Land Abounds With Life."  Inspired by the pianist's return to his homeland after 23 years, the music jumps with life and sounds, history and mystery, and much more.  I have seen these three musicians play before but never together and am looking forward to an evening of power and grace, flowing melodies and bustling rhythms.

Here's one of the tunes from the album:

If you're in Chicago tonight (6/22), go to www.constellation-chicago.com for ticket availability.  Then check out the sight to see wh else is gracing the stage of the performance venue this summer.

To learn more about the artist, go to www.fabianalmazan.com.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Two Cohens, Unrelated: Both Can Play!

Photo: Todd Heisler/NYTimes
There is something about the sound of Anat Cohen when she's playing her clarinet.  She's a fine tenor sax player and certainly shines as well on soprano sax but her most exciting "voice" is the clarinet.  The woodwind seems to free her spirit and contains so much emotion, it makes one listen to what she plays

Her latest Anzic release, "Triple Helix", features her splendid Tentet, the ensemble that mades it recorded debut on 2017's "Happy Song."  The only personnel change is that Christopher Hoffman takes over the cello chair from Rubin Kodheli.  The title track, composed by the group's musical director Oded Lev-Ari, is a three-part, 22-minute, "Concerto for Clarinet and Ensemble" (actually the sub-title for the work) – it's quite moving.  There are sections that relate to the musics Ms. Cohen heard and played growing up.  The second movement, "For Anat", is classical in nature and construction, and all the musicians have clear roles on relating the story.  The playful third movement, "Last", starts out as a spirited dance then moves into an introspective section with the lovely clarinet interacting with the ensemble.

The album is filled with many delightful musical moments.  Ms. Cohen's "(Choro for) Miri" shows her continued interest in the Brazilian song form. Her sweet singing solo is nicely supported by Vitor Gonçalves's handsome piano.  There's a definite New Orleans tinge to "Footsteps and Smiles" thanks to Anthony Pincotti's dancing drums and the blend of Owen Broder's baritone sax with the clarinet on the main theme.  Excellent solos from Gonçalves  and vibraphonist James Shipp. Dig the break that starts with the baritone sax and cello then expands to include the brass and clarinet.    

Arranger Lev-Ari discovered "Lonesome Train" on Stan Kenton's 1952 classic Lp "New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm" – the version here adheres to the melody line but has a stronger backbeat plus there's no vocalist.  Instead, trombonist Nick Finzer steps out while the ensemble, with Gonçalves on accordion here, builds up the intensity.  Don't miss the "deconstructed" closing section!

"Triple Helix" is a treat from Astor Paizzolla's "Milonga del Angel" that opens the program to Ms. Cohen's "Morning Melody (epilogue)" that closes it.  Anat Cohen and the Tentet are show in their best lights thanks to the ensemble's 11th member, musical director Oded Lev-Ari.   Listen closely and you will be richly rewarded!

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

Here's the opening track:


Anat Cohen CLARINET 
Nick Finzer TROMBONE 
Christopher Hoffman CELLO 
Vitor Gonçalves PIANO & ACCORDION 
Sheryl Bailey GUITAR 
Tal Mashiach BASS 
Anthony Pinciotti DRUMS 

From the first time most Americans heard bassist Avishai Cohen as a member of Chick Corea's Origin ensemble (in 1997), his energetic musicality has stood out.  Not only is he a master bassist, he also plays piano (his first instrument) and he sings.  Cohen formed his own label, Razdaz Recordz, in 2002 and though you can find many of his albums there, he has also released music on Stretch Records/Concord, Sony Masterworks/France, and on Israeli labels.  His arco (bowed) playing is another strength is  his ability to synthesize Arab and Jewish melodies from throughout the Middle East into his music.

His latest RazDaz CD, "Arvoles", features his latest trio, Elchin Shirinov (piano) and Noam David (drums) plus flutist Anders Hedberg and trombonist Björn Samuelsson on five of the program's 10 tracks.  The title track ("Arvoles" is the Ladino word for "trees", hence the cover) is a traditional piece with a formal melody that the trio treats with respect.  Note that Cohen's bass solo builds off the melody and the lovely piano accompaniment. Pianist Shirinov kicks off Cohen's "Elchinov" with a circular piano line that serves as the pace-setter for the track. Make sure to notice how the bassist wraps his attractive bass sound around the pianist's active left hand.  A big plus is the active and creative drum work –David never sits still throughout; with his shifting rhythms and dancing cymbals, it's hard not to smile.

The trombone and flute add their voices to such pieces as the opening "Simonero", the evocative and classically influenced "Childhood (for Carmel)" and the funky "New York 90s."  One can hear the collision of dance beats with the Israeli songs that Cohen heard growing up.  Hedberg's alto flute adds a fine color to the melody line.  "Childhood..." features smart interplay between the musicians plus short solos from both flutist and the trombonist.  The quintet swings with glee on the album closer, "Wings", complete with sparkling brush work from David, solos from the leader and pianist that have a lightness and joy that jumps out of the speaker.

In many ways, it's easy to listen to "Arvoles" and imagine it's the product of a reflective time for Avishai Cohen.  He's been quite busy the past several years with several different projects including full concert programs with symphony orchestras and recording his "pop" album; 2017's "1970" was mostly vocal with female choruses, electric instruments, and touches of r'n'b and Gospel music. This new album is not necessarily a "return to the past" but a continuation of the bassist's life-long search to find his way in the world.

For more information, go to avishaicohen.com.

Here's the opening track:

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Piano Trio Journeys With Friends Home & Away

Fabian Almazan came to the United States from his native Cuba when he was 12 years old.  Settling in Miami Beach, FL, he continued his music education and, particularly, his work on the piano. In 2007, he went to play with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, a relationship that continues to this day. His first album as a solo artist, "Personalities", was issued in 2011 on Palmetto Records. That album featured bassist (acoustic and electric) Linda May Han Oh (now his wife) and drummer/percussionist Henry Cole plus two tracks with a string quartet.  Since then, he has performed and recorded with artists such as John Hollenbeck, Gretchen Parlato, saxophonist Adam Larson, vibraphonist Chris Dingman, bassist Ike Sturm, and vocalist Nicky Schrire (among others).  Almazan has also released three albums since his debut and, along the way, started his own label, Biophilia Records, with an eye towards social consciousness, recycling, climate change, and more. The label does not produce physical CDs, only high-quality downloads included with all their origami-influenced album jackets.

His fifth album, "This Land Abounds With Life", is a return to the trio format (although one track features a string quartet). The music was inspired by Almazan's return to Cuba after 23 years.  He was particularly entranced by the various songbirds he encountered in the green spaces and forests away from the cities – in fact, he made numerous recordings of the avifauna (indigenous birds) and their songs are featured on several tracks. The12 tracks, spread out over a generous 83 minutes, were recorded in New Orleans, LA, over two days in December 2018. Almazan chose that location for several reasons;  1) - because he really likes the recording studio and 2) - it's the most Caribbean-like city in the US, its music having been inspired by people from Central and South America but especially the islands closest to the mainland.

From the opening moments of "Benjamin" (named for the oldest character, the donkey, in George Orwell's "Animal Farm") to the sweet solo piano reading of Willie "The Lion" Smith's "Music on My Mind" that closes the album, Almazan, Ms. Oh, and Cole take the listener on quite a journey.  One of the more amazing tracks –and the longest at 12:51 – is "The Everglades", a musical journey through the heart of one of the natural attractions in Florida and one that is threatened by the sprawl of humanity.  The music starts quietly as if the trio were on a walk at the break of day. The tension and intensity builds up through Ms. Oh's bass solo followed by Almazan's powerful solo supported by Cole's powerful drums. They change gears, moving into a rampaging rhythm, the piano filling the sonic space.  After the storm passes, the piano goes alone, a slow, prayer-like melody. The bass then enters, Ms. Oh's simple support serving as foundation.  Cole's quiet drum work comes in quietly. There are no more eruptions, only a musical appreciation of the natural beauty there in front of us.

Almazan's music is not only inspired by the birds but the people he met as well.  "The Poets" opens with a vocal recording of Cuban poet El Macagüero de Pinar who improvises based on a phrase supplied by the pianist.   The music that follows bounced with such delight, its power supplied by piano chords and Cole's playful percussion. The late Nelson Mandela inspired the lyrical yet robust solo piano piece "Juala" (Cages).  The rolling piano chords in the left hand suggest both Keith Jarrett and Cecil Taylor but the musicality is all Almazan.  The composer reaches back to the rich musical life of Cuba during the 1920s and 30s to create "Folklorism" – the music sounds contemporary thanks to the drummer's rhythmical approach. Almazan creates a melody that opens up to include the dance rhythms of the time he is sourcing plus the colorful melodies composed by several composers of that era.  The string quartet of violinists Megan Gould and Monica Davis, violist Karen Waltuch, and cellist Eleanor Norton shows up on Carlos Varela's "Bola De Nieve", a piece the Trio recorded on the 2011 album.  The strings fill out the sound and the pianist's arrangement gives them more to do than just play pretty backgrounds. Each musician gets several lines to play on her own, either in support of a solo or as the song moves into a different section.

There's so much more but you should discover the myriad joys that "This Land Abounds With Life" contains on your own.  At 35 years old, Fabian Almazan is at the height of his creative and performance powers. He can and will do much more that one would not be surprised to see him surpass those heights as new projects are created.   What he has created here, with the help of Linda May Han Oh and Henry Cole, is powerful, filled with emotion and splendid musicianship, and songs than resonate long after the sounds fade.  Brilliant!!

For more information, go to www.fabianalmazan.com. For purchase, go to fabianalmazan.bandcamp.com/album/this-land-abounds-with-life.

Here's the Trio in the studio performing the powerful and playful opening track:

Anat Fort was born in Israel but came to the United States in the waning years of the 20th Century to study at William Paterson University in New Jersey. There, she was mentored by the likes of Harold Mabern and Rufus Reid plus spent time learning from Paul Bley.  Her debut album, "Peel", was issued in 1999 – that's the same year she met drummer Roland Schneider and bassist Gary Wang.  The trio began weekly rehearsals, slowly, steadily, building a repertoire and began touring throughout the US, Europe, and Israel.  She signed with ECM Records but her 2004 album, "A Long Story", featured drummer Paul Motian, clarinetist Perry Robinson, and bassist Ed Schuller. It was not until 2007's "And If" that the Trio first appeared on record. Mr. Schneider moved to Berlin, Germany (he's also a member of bassist Anne Marie Iversen's Ternion Quartet) and Ms. Fort moved to Tel Aviv while Mr. Wang stayed in the US working with numerous groups and artists including T.S. Monk, Matt Wilson, and Dena De Rose.  Still, they did not break up choosing to continue to play tours and  recorded an album in 2016 with multi-reed master Gianluigi Trovesi.

On the first day of May 2018, the trio entered LowSwing Studios in Berlin, Germany and recorded the 10 tracks that comprise "Colour" – it's their debut on Sunnyside Records and the album illustrates how their friendship, their musical bond, and ideas have grown in the past two decades.  Ms. Fort is an articulate pianist.  Her lines flow easily out of the compositions and even the improvised pieces have a melodic structure. The bluesy swagger of "Sort Of" meshes well with the quiet ballad "BBB" that opens the album.  The former tune opens like a ballad from Ray Charles and hits its stride during Ms. Fort's second solo.  The latter track takes its time to develop, not unlike a work from Keith Jarrett. It's fascinating to hear the rhythm section so clearly, Wang's counterpoint and Schneider's movement around the kit and especially, his fine cymbal work.

Sit back and let this music fill your ears.  If you like music that takes its time to develop, dig into "Part Trio" and the lovely ballad "Goor Katan."  The more playful pieces, such as "Tirata Tiratata" with its stop-start movements and splendid drum work will lift your spirits.  "Free" builds off the thoughtful and melodic solo bass opening into a fast-paced romp hat goes on for several minutes until the pianist slows it down then lets its build up again during her solo.  Schneider takes more of a martial approach on his solo spot before letting loose.  Wang's second solo is oh-so-slow leading to an introspective piano section which returns to the romp before the stop-on-a-dime finish.

"Heal And..." closes the album. It's the longest track (11:33) building to a delightful three-way conversation from the lovely melody at the start of the track. Ms. Fort's fine piano work goes in several directions, from short phrases to long flowing lines, from melodic flourishes to percussive fills.  Wang and Schneider encourage her, both supporting and pushing her phrases forward Time slips away as the rhythms ebb and flow – it's such a pleasant aural adventure to be on, ending the program on a powerful interaction.

"Colour" is a one-day snapshot of the Anat Fort Trio that was developed over two decades. The comfort that the ensemble feels with each other is evident throughout. The music is never balky or static: instead, the music breathes naturally from the opening moments.  It must be great fun to see and hear this band in concert.  In the meantime, this recording is quite fine!

For more information, go to anatfort.com.

Here's a surrealistic video of "The Limp":

Drummer, composer, and educator Matt Slocum hails from Wisconsin where he first discovered his love for jazz and for jazz drummers such as Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones.  He attended the University of Southern California and was a student of Peter Erskine. There he met pianist Gerald Clayton and began a musical relationship that continues to this day. Clayton has appeared on three of the drummer's four releases and is back on the bench for his new effort "Sanctuary", Slocum's debut on the Sunnyside Records label.  For this album, the bass chair is occupied by Larry Grenadier who most jazz fans know has a long and musically rewarding career as part of pianist Brad Mehldaus Trio.  The bassist is also married to singer-songwriter Rebecca Martin.

Unlike an ensemble that has spent much of the year touring or has been a working unit for a long time, the trio of Slocum, Clayton, and Grenadier recorded after one rehearsal.  Slocum gave them the material beforehand. Yet, the results are impressive.  One of the drummer's strengths is that he composes excellent melodies.  He also knows that his two compatriots also have strong melodic tendencies.  That said, the album opener "Romulus" comes from the pen of Sufjan Stevens (the song appears on his 2003 "Greetings from Michigan" album). Grenadier makes his presence felt from the get-go playing a unaccompanied to start the song.  He moves into the melody which opens the door for the piano and drums to enter.  The trio captures the haunting images of the song, making it feel comfortable and original at the same time.

The seven other tracks that make up the program are Slocum originals.  There's a playful feel to "Consolation Prize", especially in the frisky drumming and Clayton's dancing piano lines. Grenadier not only joins the drummer in setting the pace but take a fine (and dancing) solo of his own. "Star Prairie" has a sweet melody – propelled by Slocum's delightful brush work, the song gently dances forward.  A stillness is evident on "A Dissolving Alliance", the ethereal ballad on which the trio has the most freedom. It's impressive how they support each other even as they carve out a space in the song for themselves.

The title song and an up-tempo adventure titled"Anselmo" bring the program to its close.  "Sanctuary" is a handsome, medium paced, song, its memorable melody opening up to a lyrical solo from Clayton.  Slocum, thanks to Grenadier's delightful bass work, has the freedom to dance around his cymbals.  The final cut has a rhythm not unlike Ahmad Jamal's "Poinciana", only faster, which gives way to a more nuanced percussive attack that gives on each chorus to tom-tom beats.  The bassist holds the bottom while Slocum takes a thumping solo. Grenadier truly stands out, his supportive phrases have a heft that gives the pieces such depth yet he remains delightfully melodic.

Matt Slocum makes music his own way. The drummer knows what he wants to "say" and is not a slave to fashionable beats, to packing the sound spectrum with extraneous clutter – in fact, "Sanctuary" stands out for its airiness, for the listener's ability to hear each instrument clearly.  Kudos to his musical partners Gerald Clayton and Larry Grenadier for their excellent contributions.  You may need a few listens before beginning to get a fuller picture of what Slocum is doing and that's okay. There's much to chew on here, in its own subtle ways.

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

Enjoy "Consolation Prize":

Monday, June 10, 2019

New Standards for the 21st Century

Over the past five years, guitarist, vocalist, and composer Camila Meza has steadily worked her way into the consciousness of people who listen to contemporary music. The Chilean-born Meza first came to the United States in the early 2010s to study and soon found herself collaborating with numerous artists.  Her work with Ryan Keberle & Catharsis plus her brilliant 2016 album "Traces" (Sunnyside Records) as well as her work with pianist Fabian Almazan stands out in the plethora of recordings that have filled the market.  Even before her work with Keberle, she laid the seeds for her collaboration with bassist Noam Wiesenberg and the Yellow Nectar Orchestra, an ensemble that features a jazz quartet (guitar, keyboards, bass, and drums) with a string quartet (and arrangements by the bassist). On a 2013 video

The results of Ms. Meza's work with Wiesenberg can be heard on "Ámbar" (Sony Masterworks).  Recorded in June 2017 and funded by a Kickstarter campaign, the 12-song program covers a wide territory of the sonic landscape with original works blending with classic songs by Milton Nascimento, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Elliot Smith, Tomás Méndez, and the fascinating collaboration of David Bowie with Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays ("This Is Not America" from the 1985 movie "The Falcon and The Snowman"). That last song fits nicely with Ms. Meza's latest adventures with Keberle & Catharsis that have an emphasis on socially and politically conscious music.  One also notices on the track the influence of Metheny on her guitar playing. In fact, pay close to her guitar work and how it synchronizes with the vocals – it surely stands out on "Traces" and on her earlier albums but most writers seem to ignore that aspect of Ms. Meza's presentation.

The excellent string arrangements are an important aspect of this music.  They stand out on "Waltz #1" (the Smith piece) not just for the colors they provide but for how their sound blends percussive and melodic elements. The strings (played by violinists Tomoko Omura and Fung Chern Hwei, violist Benjamin von Gutzeit, and cellist Brian Sanders) caress the voice on the opening of "Atardecer".coming back time and again to create a sweet counterpoint.  The arrangements do not treat anyone as just an accompanist: every voice is important, from the rich sonorities of the cello to the flowing lines of the violins and viola.

The entire ensemble dances with delight on "Awaken", thanks to the percussive magic of Keita Ogawa. It's important to note that, by the time of the recording sessions, the main ensemble of Meza, Ogawa, Wiesenberg plus Eden Ladin (piano, keyboards) has been working/rehearsing as a unit since 2013.  Listen to the understated power that the octet utilizes on Nascimento's "Milagro Dos Peixes", a tune from earlier in the Brazilian composer and performer's career.  It's easy to get lost in the voice, how the strings move in and out of the arrangement, and how the rhythm section move the piece forward.

The album closes with a solo performance of Méndez's "Cucurrucucú Paloma" (composed in 1954), just Camila Meza and nylon string guitar. The song tells of the story of the mourning dove (the title translate as the "Coo-coo dove") and the singer's loss of a loved one.  The piece seres as a lovely coda to a delightful recording. "Ámbar" may have taken two years to come to light (six, if you count how long Camila Meza & The Nectar Orchestra have worked on the material) but the wait has certainly been worth it.  A delight from start to finish!

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

Here's the NPR Jazz Night In America performance by the ensemble:

For her fifth album, vocalist Judy Wexler went to work with frequent collaborator Alan Pasqua (the pianist has been a major contributor to three of her previous albums). After she spoke with author and jazz historian Ted Gioia about what makes a 'jazz standard", Ms. Wexler and Ms. Pasqua spent the better part of a year sharing song ideas back and forth. Finally, the co-producers organized a group of musicians, many of whom have appeared on her other recordings, and put the process in motion. In addition, Ms. Wexler worked with PledgeMusic to fund the album.

"Crowded Heart" (named for the Sinne Eeg/Mads Mathias song that appears on the album) is a delightful blend of songs composed by current artists and composers.  Besides the title track, one hears pieces by Kurt Elling (one with Richard Galliano, the other with Mr. Pasqua), Gregory Porter, Luciana Souza, Fred Hersch & Norma Winstone, Alan Broadbent, Enrico Pieranunzi & Lorraine Feather, Larry Goldings, plus René Marie.  Highlights include is Ms. Eeg's tune, notable for the lovely blend of voice with acoustic guitar (played by Larry Koonse) and the piano. Also, there's sweet and funky reading of Porter's "Painted On Canvas" – the rhythm section of bassist Derek Oles and drummer Steve Hass lay down quite a beat and there's delightful alto saxophone playing from Josh Johnson.

Ms. Wexler transforms Ms. Feather's "I Took Your Hand" (a song that the lyricist added words to Enrico Pieranunzi's "Fellini's Waltz").  Here, the rhythm has opened up – note how the vocal lines dance above the rich piano accompaniment with the alto sax as partner.  Piano and voice open a lovely reading of Fred Hersch and Norma Winstone's "Stars", the melody suggesting the bossa nova feel of the rhythmic background.  The original version is just voice and piano but the addition of the drums and bass allows the music more breathing room.  Ms. Marie's "Take My Breath Away" is quite a love song (as only the composer can write – her best songs link love and lust, desire and joy and Ms. Wexler has such fun with it.  Yes, she understands what she is singing and takes great pleasure from it.

On an album whose focus is on the voice, one cannot diminish the role Alan Pasqua plays in its success. Both his piano solo and whistling are one of highlights of the opening track, Ms. Souza's "Circus Life."  He unpacks his melodica for a delightful, accordion-inspired, solo on Galliano/Elling's "Parisian Heartbreak."  Pasqua's collaboration with Kurt Elling and Philip Edward Galdston, "And We Will Fly" brings the program to a close. The Brazilian feel, heightened by the dancing rhythm section, also includes the fine acoustic guitar work of Koonse (shadowed by the deep cello tones played by Stefanie Fife).

"Crowded Heart" shows Judy Wexler at her finest.  Never one to overwhelm her songs with vocal trickery, Ms. Wexler caresses melodies, reaches for the emotional heart of each song, and, with the aid of Alan Pasqua,  gives listeners an experience that resonates beyond the recording, settling in one's own crowded heart.

For more information, go to judywexler.com.

Here's the title track:

The Bird and The Bee is a duo from Los Angeles, CA, consisting of Inara George (vocals, compositions) and Greg Kurstin (synths, compositions) that have been creating "indie pop" (really music that blend pop, jazz, folk, and electronics)since 2005.  The duo's recorded debut was a self-titled album on Blue Note Records in 2006. Ms. George, who is the daughter of the late Little Feat founder Lowell George, started out interested in theater but had formed several bands before the end of the 20th Century.  She has released four albums of her own including 2018's "Dearest Everybody" that deals with the loss of her father.  Mr. Kurstin, a producer who has won multiple GRAMMY awards, has worked with Paul McCartney, Beck, Kelly Clarkson, Foo Fighters, and Adele.  He also founded the 2000s indie band Geggy Tah. Before that, he studied with pianist Jaki Byard, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, and saxophonist George Coleman.

Drummer Charles Ruggiero, who has worked with Chuck Mangione and Ozzy Ozbourne, first heard The Bird and The Bee on the radio in 2007.  The drummer had an epiphany that he could take these malleable songs and create jazz arrangements around them.  He called his friend Hilary Gardner (yes, she who is 1/3rd of Duchess) to help him record one of the band's tunes for his 2014 debut EP "Boom Band, Boom Bang" (well, he is a drummer) – Ruggiero was thrilled to discover that Ms. Gardner also loves the band's music.  Thus was born the seeds of their duo album "Charles Ruggiero and Hilary Gardner Play the Music of The Bird and The Bee".

Released on Spike Wilner's SmallsLive label, the album finds the duo, along with pianist Jeremy Manasia (who has worked with recorded with the drummer o several occasions) and bassist Neal Miner, playing eight songs from three of TB&TB's four albums (that duo also recorded a tribute to Hall & Oates in 2010). Manasia's flowing piano lines enliven many of the songs.  "Lovey Dovey" has sweeping phrases from the piano as Ms. Gardner explores the story of a woman who cannot wait for her partner to get home from work so they be together without the hustle-and-bustle of the world.  "Would You Ever Be My) F**king Boyfriend" opens with a bouncing bass line with the feel of Peggy Lee's classic "Fever".  Not being sure if the offensive word (to some) in the title is a verb or adjective and that's part of the fun of the piece.  So is the irressistible rhythm and the splendid piano solo. "4th of July" swings with such a spirit that one cannot help but snap his fingers.

Hilary Gardner is one of those vocalists who makes you believe everything she sings. Nothing is forced and the emotions are real.  Even pieces such as ".....Boyfriend" and Ms. George's paean to Van Halen vocalist Davie Lee Roth "Diamond Dave" ring true.  The original version of the latter tune is up-tempo and has an hilarious video to go with it. But here, Ms. Gardner and the band frame the song as a ballad, a mournful, bluesy, tale of a childhood idol.  If you do not know the original version, this is quite a tribute.

There are so many joys to behear on "Charles Ruggiero and Hilary Gardner Play the Music of There Bird And The Bee" from the splendid piano work of Jeremy Manasia to the understated yet intense work of Neal Miner and the drummer/co-leader as well as the sweet, sassy, and honest vocals of the other co-leader.  Those myriad joys are also the result of the excellent source material.  This album stands nicely on its own but you should also introduce yourself to Inara George and Greg Kurstin's witty duo.

To find out more, go to ruggierodrums.com.

Here's the opening tune:

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Music That Soothes, Music That Challenges

Saxophonist and composer Remy Le Boeuf, the identical twin brother of pianist Pascal, has issued his first album as a leader (see below) and is also in the midst of raising funds to record a large ensemble album.  Born and raised in Santa Cruz, CA, Remy studied at the Manhattan School of Music and collaborated/performed with the likes of Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, Linda May Han Oh, and co-leads a group with his brother – they have recorded three albums (plus an exciting "remix" recording), the latest being 2016's "Imaginist" which features the JACK Quartet plus guests Ben Wendel and Justin Brown.

His debut album, "Light as a Word" (Outside In Music), features quite a quintet. Besides Remy (alto sax, all compositions), one hears Walter Smith III (tenor sax), Aaron Parks (piano, electric piano), Charles Altura (guitar), Matt Brewer (bass, electric bass), and Peter Kronreif (drums).  The blend of the two saxophones is a delight throughout as the themes of certain songs allow them to play in harmony as well as wrap their phrases around each other. Perfect example is "Full Circle", a piece introduced in a classical manner by Parks's solo piano with the leader's alto sax melody leading the rest of the group in.  The solo section opens as conversation between Le Boeuf and Smith III, then the leader steps out. You'll enjoy the clarity of the songs coming from the rhythm section; from the chordal piano accompaniment, the bass working around the theme, and the airy drumming.

Photo: Shervin Lainez
Playful drumming opens "Imperfect Paradise" as the the full band plays the theme – Altura steps out over the electric piano, his energetic solo pushing the intensity levels of the rhythm section.  Parks really digs into his spot giving as good as Brewer and Kronreif give him.  The drummer takes the piece over the theme and that's when you realize that neither saxophonist had a solo.  That choice, among many other aesthetic moves Le Boeuf makes, is a strong hint that this is a group project. Yes, he's the leader but his interactions with his fellow musicians gives this music its coherence and deep emotional quality. His "friendship" gives all the musicians the freedom to add their own voices to his music.

Photo: Shervin Lainez
Several pieces feature "Intros."  "Union" opens with a quiet alto exploration in which Le Boeuf's lovely tone reaches for the sky. The body of the song is a lovey ballad which stays in rubato until the rhythm section gently prods the piece forward. There'a an ebb-and-flow to the rhythm as the alto sax and acoustic piano explore the melody and its variations. Parks provides a soft, Erik Satie-like, opening to "Villa Hermosa (for Jon and Brian)", its introspective feel having a dream-like quality. This song moves up and away from the intro not unlike a song from Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays. The airiness of the interactions have that breathing in and out quality of the former song yet the solos from Parks and then the two saxophonists create a raising intensity that reaches a powerful climax in the final 80 seconds.

There's plenty to explore on "Light as a Word" so do not rush through the program. Enjoy all the interactions and melodies I described above, plus more.  The music created by Remy Le Boeuf and his band will not dazzle you with pyrotechnics but will move you through its great emotional pull as well as the splendid musicianship of all involved.

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

Give a listen:

Bassist and composer Alex Fournier studied music in his native Canada at the University of Toronto with Dave Young, Andrew Downing, and Phil Nimmons, all well-established musicians and educators. He went to study at the Peabody Conservatory Jazz Program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. There, he worked with Michael Formanek as well as the classical bass with Paul Johnson.  Since graduating with an advanced degree in Jazz Performance, Fournier has performed with saxophonists Tim Berne and Tony Malaby, drummers Billy Hart and Nick Fraser, and with trumpeter Lina Allemano plus many others.  In 2017, Fournier released "Wet Dog Music", a album of solo compositions for bass.   He also has a duo with electronic musician Edwin Huet dubbed Xiodjiha and a trio known as Money House with guitarist Patrick O'Reilly and drummer Stefan Hegaret.

His longest running ensemble is called Triio, started in 2014 as a quartet (hence the extra i) before expanding to a sextet several years later.  The group features Bea Labikova (alto sax, flute), Aidan Sibley (trombone), Tom Fleming (electric guitar), Ashley Urquhart (piano), and Mark0 (drums).  The group's self-titled and self-released debut album finds the band exploring six of Fournier's compositions. Over the course of 62 minutes, the music moves in and out of tempos, is occasionally very quiet, has moments of dissonance as well as delicate interactions.  Upon initial listenings, I jotted down the names Dave Holland and Mary Halvorson as possible influences. Formanek's intelligently constructed compositions could be an influence as well as the small group work of Anthony Braxton.  Mr. Braxton, whose recorded music can often be impenetrable to this writer, makes so much more sense in a live setting.  When you watch the saxophonist in concert, you can see how he directs the other musicians, how the forms he composes, even the gestures he makes, all translate into such intriguing music.

The program opens with "ESD." The solo piano opening starts out with a percussive feel then begins to roll forward until the rest of the band enters.  There's the Holland/ Ms. Halvorson influence can be heard/felt in the spiky rhythms plus it's fun to hear how Mark0 (last name is Ballyk) powerfully pushes the music forward.  One is never quite sure throughout the album where composition ends and improvisations begins – no big deal. The fascinating thing is to hear where the music goes.  "Giant Dad" starts out quietly yet there are occasional sonic explosions throughout the opening moments.  Flute and trombone play the melody while piano and guitar support them.  The skittish rhythm section often falls into step and jumps away, comes back (check out the combined trombone and guitar solo but pay attention to the bass and drums), and then drops out.  The soft open feel of "Dusk" has a lovely melody first played by the alto and soon shadowed by the trombone.  The spare percussion and bass move stately underneath as the guitar keeps a high-pitched tone going in the background for the first few minutes before dropping out for Sibley's solo.

For his sextet's debut album, Alex Fournier has created pieces that often have several melodies inside them - only one of tracks is under seven minutes with three lasting over 10 minutes. The tracks contain unaccompanied solos, duos, trios, and more. None of them are static yet all of them take time to develop, to expand and contract and, often, expand again. Note the manic excitement of "Fourhundred Dollars": the music roars, how the rhythm section rumbles, the guitar screeches, the pounding piano, yet everyone comes together to carry the piece out.   The songs on this album including the closer, "Permanently Hiccups", have the feel of a chapter book, one that follows different characters as they move through a day, sometimes together in one place, sometimes in a smaller group.  In the case of this six-person "Triio", they all arrive together, all changed by the experience.  If you approach this music that way, you will truly enjoy this adventurous and fascinating musical experience.

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

Try the opening track on for size:

Monday, June 3, 2019

Living Large Ensembles (Pt 1)

Pianist, composer, and educator Fred Hersch has amassed an amazing discography over the past three-plus decades but rarely has he played with a large ensemble (outside of the "Leaves of Grass" Ensemble of eight instrumentalists and two vocalists plus the 12-member ensemble that produced "My Coma Dreams").  He has done some work with symphony orchestras, string ensembles, and vocal choirs.

Enter arranger Vince Mendoza and the WDR Big Band.  The Band, based in Cologne, Germany, is famous throughout Europe for its rigorous schedule and the great musicians, arrangers, and collaborations with people from all around the world. Mendoza has worked and recorded with the ensemble on several occasions. "Begin Again" (Palmetto Records) finds the arranger and band working with Hersch, culling with songs from throughout his career as well as debuting a new piece.  The title track is that new composition and it opens the album in a gentle swinging manner.  Like the easy majority of Hersch compositions, the melody is smartly crafted - in fact the composer leads the Band in to the body of the piece with is trademark gracefulness. The first solo belongs to alto saxophonist Johan Hörlen whose handsome lines rise above the intelligent section writing. Then Hersch steps out and creates a splendid musical portrait. Make sure to listen for the Cuban-style solo piano break and the smart, playful, drumming of Hans Dekker.

It's impossible to pick one stand-out track because....well...because they all stand out!  The fiery interactions of the sections is a highlight of "Havana" while the dark harmonies and eerie sounds that permeate ""Out Someplace (Blues for Matthew Shepard)" place the listener out in the hills of Wyoming as the young man, tortured and tied to a barbed wire fence, fights for his life.  The music has echoes of the impressionistic ballads of Duke Ellington.  Compare that to the classically-inspired "Pastorale" and its uplifting atmosphere (including the splendid solo piano opening and the "chorale" Mendoza creates for the reeds). Should you want to dance around the room, play "Forward Motion" good and loud. The propulsive nature of the melody and Dekker's powerful drumming is a recipe for body movements.  Dig the great two-way conversation that trumpeter Ruud Breuls and trombonist Andy Hunter have before the tenor  saxophonist of Paul Heller explodes.

The program closes with "The Orb", a tune from "My Coma Dreams" dedicated to Hersch's life partner Scott Morgan.  The lovely ballad, which is a piano solo for two-thirds of its 5:12, closes with a lovely arrangement for the reeds with the brass as a counterpoint.  It's a perfect end to a brilliant album.

Fred Hersch creates works that often feel orchestral even if he is playing solo or with his trio.  Plus, he plays with such fluidity, the phrases flowing forward with grace and intelligence. With the addition of Vince Mendoza's fine arrangement and the smashing work of the WDR Big Band, "Begin Again" is masterful and delightful!

For more information, go to fredhersch.com.

Give a listen to this handsome ballad:

Fred Hersch: composer, piano; 
Vince Mendoza: arranger, conductor; 
Wim Both: trumpet; Rob Bruynen: trumpet; Andy Haderer: trumpet; Ruud Breuls: trumpet; 
Johan Horlen: alto sax; Karolina Strassmayer: alto sax; Olivier Peters: tenor sax; Paul Heller: tenor sax; Jens Neufang: baritone sax; 
Ludwig Nuss: trombone; Andrea Andreoli: trombone; Andy Hunter: trombone; Mattis Cederberg: bass trombone, tuba; 
Paul Shigihara: guitar; 
John Goldsby: bass; 
Hans Dekker: drums.

Starting a big band is a daunting challenge. Even if you have great material, you need to find the right musicians who are sensitive to the nuances and possibilities of the music.  And, you have to figure how to pay them, find rehearsal space, and, if you are truly blessed, venues to perform.  For example, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra grew out of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, an ensemble that would meet every Monday night at the Village Vanguard in New York City (and still does in its 54th year!).

The Terraza Big Band, the brain-child of saxophonist Michael Thomas and bassist Edward Perez, took it name from Terraza 7, a bar and performance venue in Jackson Heights/Elmhurst, Queens, NYC.  The venue is a lively music spot with performances of all styles of music nearly every night of the week plus it hosts weekly workshops.  Messrs. Thomas and Perez began rehearsing their band once a month (on the first Thursday) starting in the summer of 2015, slowly but surely building a repertoire and a steady lineup. Look below  – you'll recognize a number of those musicians not just as sidemen but also as solo artists. When the leaders felt the time was right to record, they commenced a Kickstarter, raised more than enough money and went into the studio.

The results of the work of this 18-piece band can be heard on "One Day Wonder" (Outside In Music). Right from the first notes of Thomas's "Zed", you can hear a well-oiled music machine. The hard grooves of the rhythm, the call-and-responses from the reeds and the brass plus the fine counterpoint, all point to music that is smartly composed and intelligently arranged.  No one voice stands out (though drummer Jimmy Macbride is the lynchpin). Alex Wintz steps out for the first solo over the highly-responsive rhythm section.  The music sounds so bright, extremely well-recorded, it feels as if the listener is sitting in front of the ensemble.  Listen to the clarity of the soloists on "Without Doubt", how Luis Perdomo's piano solo is so crisp as are the delightful turns from saxophonist Troy Roberts and trumpeter Dave Neves.  But, also pay attention to the foundation of the piece, how bassist Perez roams around the bottom as Macbride explores along with the soloists while the piano chords hold the music together.

The bassist brought one of his older pieces to the band.  "Pasar el Tiempo, Aunque Fugaz, Contigo" sizzles with the fire of Tito Puente and Arturo O'Farrill with a melody line built from the percussion (Macbride and Samuel Torres really shine). Perez also contributes "Flights of Angels" - again, the melody/theme is provided by the reeds and brass sections which lead to fine solos from the bassist and guitarist Wintz.  Perez's Latin (musical) roots are on display on the burning "Me Lo Dijo Mi Primo." The rhythm section is absolutely on fire setting the stage and pace for a fiery, expansive, solo from John Ellis (tenor sax) – when he interacts with the brass in the middle of the solo, the music gets even hotter.

Meanwhile co-leader Thomas's "Longing" is not only another intelligent melody but yet again, the music opens up to fine solo, this time from the baritone sax of Andy Gutauskas and the trombone of John Fedchock (the most experienced member of the Band).  The album closes with Thomas's "Think Tank", a funky work that explores the different voices within each section plus a whirling dervish of a soprano sax solo from the composer.

In a year whether have been a plethora of fine big band and large ensemble albums, "One Day Wonder" stands out.  The music that co-leaders Edward Perez and Michael Thomas have created and curated for this band is uniformly excellent; the musicians that have assembled shine throughout and they all contribute.  One hopes that the Terraza Big Band continues to thrive and grow in the coming years and beyond.

For more information, go to www.terrazabigband.com/home.

Here's the title track:


Miho Hazama - conductor
Michael Thomas, Roman Filiú, Troy Roberts, John Ellis, Andy Gutauskas - saxophones
Sam Hoyt, Alex Norris, Josh Deutsch, David Neves - trumpets
John Fedchock, Nick Vayenas, Matt McDonald, Jennifer Wharton - trombones
Alex Wintz - guitar
Luis Perdomo - piano
Edward Perez - bass
Jimmy Macbride - drums
Samuel Torres - percussion