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!!

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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!

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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.

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Enjoy "Consolation Prize":

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