Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Songs, Stories, Journeys, and Dreams

Cowboys and Frenchmen is a quintet based in New York City that took its name from a 1988 short film by David Lynch ("The Cowboy and The Frenchman").  Formed in 2014, the ensemble –– alto saxophonists Ethan Helm and Owen Broder, pianist Addison Frei (who replaced original member Chris Ziemba in 2019), bassist Ethan O'Reilly, and drummer Matt Honor –– released its debut album, "Rodeo" (Outside In Music), in November of 2015 and its second album, "Bluer Than You Think", in October 2017.  Listen to the music and you will hear many strains of American music, from folk to classical, rock music to jazz, and beyond.  And, although there are no lyrics on these songs, the music is telling us stories, illustrating how musicians convey their emotions through the music –– it's not about technical flashiness but about pulling the listener in to the music, not pushing them away.  

The quintet's third full-length album (recorded before the pandemic EP the group self-released in August of last year) is "Our Highway" (Outside In Music) and is a digital release only –– in some ways, it's a tribute to all the time the band has spent on the road and, especially, the times they played at clubs in Jacksonville, FL (home of Broder) and Yorba Linda, CA (Helm's hometown). The band also created a video album, which is available only through ticketed events like the one this Friday, February 26 via Live From Our Living Rooms You also see many shots of traffic from from various interstate highways as well as shots of the group walking through wooded areas and national parks.  Helm wrote all the music and, like the video, his songs cover a wide swath of musical and personal territory.  The power of the program is that it may be a long time before this band, and all other entertainers, live the "gig life" the way it used to be.

The music starts in the forest; "American Whispers: Pines" opes with the two altos playing a bucolic melody sans rhythm section. When the rest of the band kicks in, the music begins to fly. Note how the saxophonists are now playing complimenting each other, conversing as pianist Frei plays a powerful solo over the roiling rhythm section.  Next is "Alice in Promisedland", a lovely piece inspired by the music of the late Alice Coltrane. As one hears the influence of Ms. Coltrane's trance-like compositions, there's also a generous amount of blues especially during Broder's long, flowing, solo. Helm adds trills and long tones on flute and joins in on the repetition of the opening. Helm's coda leads into "American Whispers: Streams –– An Old Church" with the flute and alto parsing the melody until Frei rides the fast-paced rhythm section.  As the two altos join together on a classically-inspired melody line. the piano, bass, and drums fade out.  When they return, the music takes on the feel of a hymn. Bassist O'Reilly creates a lovely solo over spare piano chords and Honor's shimmering, dancing, brush work.  

The remainder of the six-song program is just as impressive and sweeping. Listen to the how the rhythm section moves together, how the piano pushes and prods the reeds and the reeds, at times, push back. Another goal of this sonic experience is to let the listener hear and know how much fun it is to play creative music. "Our Highway" is soulful, reverent and, at times, irreverent, looking back and forward (as many musicians do every time they compose and play), and well worth spending 47 minutes in the thrall of.  Go to www.cowboysandfrenchmen.com to find out more and all are invited to attend the Album Release Party on 2/26 – to find out more about the ticket event, go to www.bandsintown.com/e/102455835.  To hear more of the CD and purchase the album, go to https://cowboysfrenchmen.bandcamp.com/album/our-highway

Here's a taste:

With the release of 2016's "Words",  the focus of composer and pianist Amanda Tosoff went to blending her original music with the words of her father Lloyd, Uncle Ted, fellow Canadian poets (the pianist is a native of British Columbia and currently a resident of Toronto, Ontario) plus William Wordsworth.  For her new recording, "Earth Voices" (Empress Music), she turns to the words of Rumi, Edgar Allan Poe, Pablo Neruda, Walt Whitman, and Canadian poet Marjorie Pickthall (1883-1922) plus covers of songs by Joni Mitchell, Mike Ross, Luciana Souza, and the quartet of Aoife O'Donovan, Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer, and Stuart Duncan (from Yo-Yo Ma's 2013 "Goat Rodeo Sessions".  Instead of "Words" sole vocalist Felicity Willams, she is joined on the new album by Emilie-Claire Barlow, Laila Baili, Michelle Willis, Lydia Persaud, Robin Dann, and Alex Samaras.  The previous recording featured a sextet of musicians while the new album features an ensemble of up to10 musicians including a string quartet playing on various (see below).  What is not different are the engrossing melodies, the intelligent arrangements, and the attractive musicianship.

The eight-song program opens with Poe's "A Dream Within a Dream" sung by Ms. Barlow. The uptempo piece jumps forward on the power of Ms. Tosoff's piano in conjunction with the bass of Jon Maharaj and the drums of Morgan Childs.  The tandem of saxophonists Kelly Jefferson (soprano) and Allison Au (alto) create a wordless chorus behind the voice. Jefferson creates a delightful solo in the middle.  Violinist Aline Homzy and cellist Beth Silver join on "Sonnet 49", a lovely composition composed by Ms. Souza with words by Neruda. Ms. Dann's vocal has a light, ethereal, quality that fits the words perfectly and meshes so nicely with the strings.  "Here and Heaven" (listen below), the piece from the Yo-Yo Ma album, opens with a plaintive cello melody (played by Ms. Silver) –– Ms. Willis and Mr. Samaras sing the opening lines of several of the verses over Childs insistent drum.  The song also includes a excellent guitar solo from Alex Goodman; he also supports the vocalists on the final chorus. 

Samaras appears on two more tracks, by himself on "Birdwings" (words by Rumi, music by Ms. Tosoff) and with Ms. Biali on "Oh, Life" (words and music by Canadian native Mike Ross). The former tune is a lovely ballad with the string quartet building on the solid foundation of the rhythm section. The melody flows as does the handsome vocal (Mr. Samaras's vocal reminds this listener of Theo Bleckmann, especially the intensity he can inject into quieter phrases). The latter song has a hypnotic opening and an emotionally string arrangement. Ms. Biali takes the lead, her rich alto joined by Samara's tenor on the refrain.  Especially impressive in Childs's drumming over the repetitive piano figure.  After the vocalists hit an intense climax, Goodman creates a solo that also adds intensity to the piece.

Lydia Persaud
is the featured voice on Ms. Mitchell's anti-war piece "The Fiddle and The Drum" –– this arrangement, also recently recorded by Theo Bleckmann with The Westerlies, also features Ms. Au's alto sax, Goodman's guitar, and a particularly robust piano solo  The power of the Vietnam-era lyrics are not lost in the light of the terrorists attacks in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021.  Ms. Persaud sings with strength as well as gentleness without resorting to imitating Ms. Mitchell's airy vocalizations.   

The album closes as it opens, with the voice of Ms. Barlow.  "Finis" (appropriate title for the last track) features the words of Ms. Pickthall over the music of Ms. Tosoff.  The flowing melody helps take the sting out of the fact the poet is asking have more time in her life to enjoy the world around her –– one verse states "Give me a few more days to keep/ With a little love and a little sorrow/ And then the dawn in the skies of sleep/ And a clear tomorrow". In the middle of the song, the wordless vocal and piano take off together (in unison!) in a celebratory dance followed by another verse before Goldman's soaring solo.

If you allow this music to seep into your soul, "Earth Voices" will bring great comfort and light into your day.  Make sure to take the time to listen to the fine piano playing of Amanda Tosoff, her compositions and delightful interpretations, and the excellent contributions from the seven voices and 10 instrumentalists.  Enjoy!

For more information, go to amandatosoff.com.  To hear several tracks and to purchase the recording, go to https://amandatosoff.bandcamp.com/album/earth-voices

Hear "Here and Heaven":


Kelly Jefferson – soprano sax ("A Dream Within a Dream" only)

Allison Au – alto sax ("A Dream Within a Dream" and "The Fiddle and the Drum").                        

Aline Homzy – violin  & Beth Silver – cello (five tracks)

Jeremy Potts – violin (one track)

Laurence Schaufele – viola (one track)

Alex Goodman – guitar (four tracks) 

AmandaTosoff – piano 

Jon Maharaj – bass 

Morgan Childs – drums 

Sunday, February 21, 2021

How We Swing, How We Play

Photo: Anna Yatskevich
Several years ago, Posi-Tone Records co-founder Marc Free put together a quintet that resembled the lineup Eric Dolphy assembled for his 1964 classic Lp, "Out to Lunch".  The quintet known as Out to Dinner, composed of saxophone, trumpet, bass, drums, and vibraphone, were mostly artists who had already recorded for Posi-Tone.  Less than a year later (June 2019), producer Free reorganized the group, keeping vibraphonist Behn Gillece and bassist Boris Kozlov while adding tenor saxophonist Nicole Glover, drummer Donald Edwards, and the fine young trumpeter Giveton Gelin.  Alto saxophonist Patrick Cornelius joins the ensemble for three tracks. 

The new album bears the title "Play On". That's the opening track, composed by Gillece, of this 13-song program that features originals from each member of the group plus one song from Stevie Wonder and Lee Morgan.  There's plenty to enjoy from beginning to end.  Gillece's vibes are recorded so well that one feels as if he's playing them in your front room. His moody composition "Something From Nothing" is a fine ballad.  Note how Kozlov's deep bowed bass sounds mesh with the whirling phrases from trumpet and saxophone.  On Wonder's "Visions", it's just Gillece's ringing tones and the bassist's melodic counterpoint and support. There are moments when Gelin reminds this listener of the bluesy tones that made Kenny Dorham was noted for –– check out his delightful solo on his own "Armageddon" and his easy flowing lines on the bassist's "Lew's Loose". 

Edwards contributes three of the more fascinating songs on the album.  "Asami's Playland" is a delightful ballad with the tenor sax of Ms. Glover (pictured left) leading the way –– she and Gelin move out front, first playing the melody, and then conversing with the rhythm section as the piece comes to its conclusion.  Gillece's accompaniment is structural, as it is through much of the program; that gives Edwards the freedom to move the song forward. "The Essential Passion" is a powerful hard-bop piece jumps out of the speakers on the power of the drums and the rapid "walking" bass line.  The soloists –– tenor sax, trumpet, and vibes –– each dance gleefully atop the fiery rhythm section.  The third of Edwards's compositions, "The Dream", opens with the vibes alone setting up a gentle, mysterious, feel that turns soulful with the addition of the bass and drums followed soon after by Ms. Glover and Gelin.  Instead of everyone taking solos, the saxophone and trumpet converse in the song's middle.  

There's not a dull song on the program.  Ms. Glover's high-powered "Rebecca's Dance" is her only contribution to the album but it's a very good one.  Kozlov is integral to the success of the song with the rhythmical intensity of his "groove".  Note how the composer's solo is quite powerful and how the trumpeter dials back the intensity at the top of his solo.  But Edwards (pictured above) gooses Gelin forward and the solo takes flight.  Gillece starts his solo with a abstract of the melody before he too falls into the drummer's forward motion.  The bassist's "Abe Duct" will remind of the funky jazz of  Horace Silver or Bobby Timmons. Gillece's solo gets right into the groove while Gelin opens his equally funky solo with a variation of "Watermelon Man".  Patrick Cornelius adds a dollop of heat as his solo explores the higher range of his alto sax while Ms. Glover starts her short spot somewhat quietly before adding heat of her own. 

"Play On" closes with a high-powered take of Lee Morgan's "Short Count" (from the trumpeter's 1967 album "The Sixth Sense").  Edwards kicks the song into high gear right from the get-go and the song features delightful solos from Ms. Glover,  Cornelius, and Gillece.  It's the kind of high-powered music that begs to be heard in person.  "Out To Dinner" sure is tasty at times plus the music has the right amount of heat.  Dig in!

For more information, to hear more, and to purchase the album, go to https://outtodinner.bandcamp.com/album/play-on

Hear "The Essential Passion":

Photo: Anna Yatskevich
Boris Kozlov and Donald Edwards, along with pianist Helen Sung, make up the rhythm section on "Indigenous", tenor saxophonist Diego Rivera's second album for Posi-Tone Records.  The Michigan native, whose first professional gig was in 1999 with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, has had a busy career working with artists such as Kurt Elling, the Lincoln Center Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, and the Rodney Whitaker Quartet (among others). Like label-mate (and trombonist) Michael Dease and bassist Whitaker, Rivera is on the faculty of Michigan State University. And, yes, he is the son of Mexican-American parents and, yes, he is named after the great Mexican muralist  of the 20th Century but instead creates sound paintings.

His new album (his fourth as a leader) features 12 tunes of which seven are Rivera originals. His choice of "cover" tunes is surprising and ambitious. The program opens with Cannonball Adderley's "Marabi" which the alto saxophonist composed for his 1968 album "Accent on Africa." Trumpeter Etienne Charles (also on the faculty of MSU) joins the quartet for this tune (and two others) –– needless to say, the rhythm section creates a delightful bop-cum-South African rhythm and the music takes flight. Everyone plays with great passion but note Ms. Sung's splendid solo, the leader's robust tenor lead, and the crisp trumpet sound.  Rivera switches to soprano for a lovely take of Stevie Wonder's "The Secret Life of Plants" (from the 1973 Lp of the same name) –– his rich tone and searching solo, supported by the strong piano work of Ms. Sung, opens the piece right up.  The lovely "Asta Ta Malakia Sou" ("Let Your Tender Hair"), from the Greek composer Michalis Souyioul (1906-1958) starts as a tender ballad with a strong connection between the tenor sax and piano but picks up in intensity as the piece moves forward until its gentle finish.  Rivera goes back to soprano sax for "Sabor a Mi" ("Taste of Me"), a sweet bolero from Mexican guitarist and composer Alvaro Carillo (1921-1969); Charles is featured on muted trumpet throughout and both he sand the leader create fine solos. 

Photo: Anna Yatskevich
Of the originals, the title track moves with the power of John Coltrane's "Resolution" (from "A Love Supreme"). However, this tune was composed in response to the Trump Administration's treatment of various ethnic groups within the United States as well as the treatment of Native Americans by other administrations. When Edwards and Rivera lock in, sparks fly like they did with Coltrane and drummer Elvin Jones.  The delightful "Sombras Del Pasado" ("Shadows of the Past") romps forward on a Habanerá rhythm –– Kozlov dances underneath the soloists, especially the peppery piano dance.  Charles joins with Rivera in dancing the rhythm in and then out while the rhythm section keeps the fire burning.  The quartet embraces the shuffle rhythms of "BLM Plaza" with the tenor sax playing the melody and leading Ms. Sung in for her fine solo. Rivera and Kozlov follow, both digging the blues feel.  "Purpose" is also a blues but instead of a shuffle rhythm, the song jumps forward at an irresistible pace led by the rapid-fire "walking" bass lines and Edwards rock-solid drumming.  After yet another sparkling piano solo, Rivera jumps out and rides the rhythms.  Before the song returns to its opening section, Edwards moves front-and-center.

The program closes with the lovely ballad "Shir LaShalom" ("Song for Peace"), an anti-war song composed by Yaakov Rotblit (lyrics) and Yair Rosenbloom (melody) –– the piece was first played in 1969 by the Israeli Defense Forces Infantry Ensemble and is said to have been been sing by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin right before he was assassinated in 1995.  Rivera plays a powerful solo, a plea for sanity in insane times, his rich, clear, tones rising over the rhythm section.

"Indigenous" is an impressive statement from saxophonist, composer, and educator Diego Rivera.  The support of and interactions with Helen Sung, Boris Kozlov, and Donald Edwards are excellent throughout as is the playing of Etienne Charles.  Can't go wrong with this powerhouse recording!

For more information, go to diegoriverajazz.com.  To hear more and to purchase the recording, go to https://diegorivera.bandcamp.com/album/indigenous.

Here's the title track:

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Catching Up to 2020 (Still Trying)

Photo: J. Rerych

 Pianist/ composer Marc Copland was a good friend of and collaborator with guitarist John Abercrombie (1944-2017) for nearly five decades.  Copland, who started his professional career as a saxophonist, first recorded with Abercrombie in 1972 (an album issued in 1973 titled "Friends" released by Oblivion Records).  Copland was born and raised in Philadelphia, PA, moved to New York City to attend Columbia University and got involved in the music scene. After the release of the album, Copland decided to switch to piano, moving to Washington, D.C. where he worked with many great musicians at the various clubs in the area. He released his first album as a leader in 1988 and has since with many great artists including Kenny Wheeler, Dave Liebman, Gary Peacock, Paul Motian, Drew Gress, and, of course, John Abercrombie –– in fact, the pianist appeared on the guitarist's final two albums for ECM, 2013's "39 Steps" and 2017's "Up and Coming".  

Copland's latest release, "John" (Illusions/ Mirage), is a solo tribute to his friend and also serves to pay tribute to what a fine composer Abercrombie was over his career.  In fact, the nine songs come from a wide swath of the composer's oeuvre. Opening with "Timeless", the title track of Abercrombie's 1975 debut on ECM Records.  It's a beautiful ballad (listen below) whose descending chord pattern has such a wistful feel. Here, Copland creates a Erik Satie-like opening with floating chords that set the listener up for the body of the tune.  The touch of dissonance during the last 90 seconds feels as if we are waving goodbye to the composer before moving into the quiet final few seconds.  The following track, "Isla", comes from Abercrombie's 1982 collaboration with Ralph Towner ("Five Years Later") –– the music has a determined feel as it pushes forward but slows down on occasion as if to take stock of the musical situation.  

Three of the tracks come from the two ECM albums that the pianist appeared on.  "Flip Side" possesses a gentle swing and a sweet melody that, on occasion, Copland adds a breezy bounce to.  "Sunday School", like the previous track, was first recorded on "Up and Coming"; the pianist works within the tune's solid structure, imbuing the melody and his solo with the feeling of floating.  "Vertigo", from 2013's "39 Steps", closes the program with the melody first moving around a continuous note in the lower register but soon takes off and you hear the poetry in the phrases and the different shades of colors in the piano solo.  

Photo: Francesco Prandoni

"Love Letter" is an Abercrombie composition that the guitarist played many times in concert but never recorded.  Copland recorded the piece with his trio (bassist Drew Gress and drummer Joey Baron) in 2017 and released on 2019's "And I Love Her."  Here, the music opens in a state of wonder the moves into the handsome melody.  Copland blends chordal phrases with single-note runs, his left hand as active as the right yet the music is not cluttered.  There's a generosity to this performance, to creating moods of wonder and adventure, of happiness and peace.   

"John" does great honor to the music of John Abercrombie and to the many memories that Marc Copland made playing alongside and traveling with the guitarist.  Wistful but neither maudlin or sad, the album celebrates music and friendship –– sit down and let the music flow through you!

For more information, go to innervoicejazz.com/artists/marc-copland/.  To listen to more and to purchase the album, go to. https://marccoplandjazz.bandcamp.com/album/john

Here's Mr. Abercrombie's classic "Timeless":

Photo: Jessica Carlton-Thomas
Kevin Sun, tenor saxophonist, composer, and writer, produced one of 2019's most impressive albums, "The Sustain of Memory."  The music covered a lot of territory over the course of the 2-CDs, 21-song, program.  His followup endeavor, "(Un)seaworthy" (Endectomorph Music), seems modest in comparison: five songs in just over 35 minutes.  Don't be fooled by the album's brevity as there is a lot of music packed into the program.  Featuring his "working" trio of Walter Stinson (bass) and Matt Honor (drums), Sun's material gives both the musicians and the listener much to chew.   

Recorded in Brooklyn, NY, right after the trio returned from a residency in Beijing, China, the musicians dig into the music and create an adventurous program that blends blues, mainstream jazz, delightful solos, and even more delightful interactions.  Listen to how the trio travels through the opening minutes of the first track, "Bad Lady" –– they all play the melody before the bass drops into a two-note patterns and Honor dances around the cymbals as Sun digs into his solo.  As the music moves forward, the foundation expands and Sun joins Honor is quite a dialogue.  "Seaworthy (Unseaworthy)" reminds this listener of the interactions of Henry Threadgill with Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall (in the trio Air). Hear in how Sun moves the melody line over the rhythm section then moves in sync with them. The  tenor sound has hints of Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter without imitation.  

Photo: Clara Periera

While it would be fun to describe every track, the avid listener is encouraged to discover the music on his/ her own.  One can really hear the musicians fully involved with the material and "conversing" with each other.  Each one of Sun's compositions is written with these musicians in his mind's ears.  The trio had time to play with these pieces before recording and it shows. There's no clutter, no wasted moments, just exciting forward motion, excellent solos, and the joy of "living" music.  There is nothing unseaworthy, unsafe, or dangerous about "(Un)seaworthy" –– this is a journey worth taking many times as there is so much to hear!

For more information, go to www.thekevinsun.com.  To hear more of the music and to purchase the album, go to https://thekevinsun.bandcamp.com/album/un-seaworthy.  

Listen below:

Friday, February 12, 2021

Chick Corea (1941-2021)

The last year has been devastating for many people. The pandemic has taken loved ones and that have had no chance to say goodbye or to conduct a proper burial. The music world is no difference, plus much of a performer's livelihood has been cancelled or moved online. In the past 11 months, we have lost a score of musicians and, in the last six weeks alone, the jazz world said goodbye to Stanley Cowell, Frank Kimbrough, and, several days ago, Chick Corea.  In the midst of all the other events vying for our time and empathy, these are striking losses.

On a personal level, both Corea (as well as Cowell) played into my education about creative music, about free expression, about Black History, fusion music, and more.  Corea (pictured left) played with a slew of jazz greats, from Stan Getz to Gary Burton to Anthony Braxton to Dave Holland to Roy Haynes to Mongo Santamaria to Miles Davis to Herbie Mann to Dizzy Gillespie to Herbie Hancock –– the list is very long and equally impressive.  His recordings for ECM, especially his first Return To Forever group, introduced the world to Stanley Clarke (bass) and Flora Purim (vocals) as well as Airto Moriera (percussion) and Joe Farrell (saxophones, flute). When Corea and Clarke went "electric", listeners heard guitarists Bill Connors and his replacement Al DiMeola.  The translucent sounds of "Crystal Silence" with Gary Burton was the template for the "ECM Sound".  

He seemed to tour incessantly over the decades as well as releasing dozens of albums. He moved effortlessly between genres, between acoustic and electric, to trios and solo gigs, jazz to classical to folk and beyond. In the early 1970s, Corea embraced Scientology and never abandoned his belief in the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard. Above all, he was a dazzling pianist, technically one of the finest over the past six decades. There have been many tributes since the news of his passing and more to follow. True, his music lives on, his attention to detail, to his love for interaction, for melody and rhythm, for the joy of playing might be equalled but never surpassed.  While Chick Corea undoubtedly had more music in him, he has left a legacy for all to endlessly explore.

For more information, go to https://chickcorea.com/.  

Here's a live version of "Crystal Silence" with Gary Burton:

Here's the second RTF (electric, with Bill Connors):

Here's Corea with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade:

And Chick Corea solo:

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Exciting and Inviting Piano Trios

Photo: Dave Stapleton
Pianist Fergus McCreadie, a native of Scotland and resident of Glasgow, is one of the bright young stars of the European jazz scene.  At 22, he's already garnered a slew of awards –– in 2019, his self-released debut album, "Turas", was named "Album of the Year" at the Parliamentary and Scottish Jazz Awards. In 2020,  was named "Best Instrumentalist" at the Scottish Jazz Awards.  In 2015, the pianist and composer recruited bassist David Bowden and drummer Stephen Henderson; they have developed into a delightful interactive trio (watch the video below). McCreadie is also a member of drummer Graham Costello's STRATA and has recorded a duo album with vocalist Luca Manning.   

In 2020, the pianist signed with Edition Records and just issued his first album for the label (second overall).  "Cairn", named for a mound of rough stones usually seen on hilltops (especially in Scotland), features nine new original pieces by the pianist. Opening with the trance-like "North", the music pulls the listener in on the strength of the melodies, the emotional richness, and the splendid musicianship.  The trio seems to breathe as one, no one musician hogs the solo space, and you can tell they listen closely to each.  Whereas the debut album came together in the studio, this time the ensemble had the luxury of playing this music on numerous gigs. The title track ups the tempo but yet it's the rich melody that really stands out.  McCreadie's delightful solo brings Bruce Hornsby to mind while the fire of the rhythm section adds considerable power to the mid-section of the song.    

Photo: Dave Stapleton
Pay close attention to the fine playing of both Bowden and Henderson.  The bassist, who leads the jazz-fusion sextet Meczla, is a strong, foundational, musician as well as a melodic soloist.  Henderson is a member of Bowden's other ensemble Square One and is a powerful drummer yet also has a subtle side.  Listen to his hand-drumming on the intro to "Across Flatlands" and again on "Tree Climbing". The latter tune has the feel of the music from "Riverdance" at the outset but as the bassist gets into his solo, the music builds on the piano chords –– McCreadie's solo starts quietly but builds to an energetic, powerful, climax, egged on by the drummer's percussive barrage.  Not surprising that "Jig" has a similar feel. This tune starts in high gear but listen to how the piece develops. Reminiscent of McCoy Tyner in his Blue Note period, the music swings, twists and turns, sparks flying among the musicians. Henderson gets a spotlight near the close of the piece that dances with glee in the manner that Eric Harland's solos often do.   

Photo: Dave Stapleton
There is also power in the lyricism of pieces such as "Tide" and "An Old Friend".  The former track should remind the listener of standing by the ocean on a days when are climbing up the sand.  One can feel the tidal pull in the flow of the pianist's left hand while the cymbal splashes suggest the crashing whitecaps.  There's a trace of Randy Newman in the opening moments "...Friend" in both the gentle chords that lead in the simple yet emotional melody. As the piece progresses forward on the piano chords and melody, the bassist and drummer enter quietly (soft brushes work) and Bowden creates a rich emotional and melodic solo.  The music does reach a powerful climax but goes out on the gentle feel of the opening.

"Cairn" closes on "Cliffside", the bassist joining with the piano chords to play the melody over the shimmering and insistent piano chords.  Those chords never let up even during the piano, pushing the rhythm section to build the intensity until McCreadie's right hand is flying over the keys.  Technically virtuosic? Yes.  Emotionally satisfying?  Absolutely!  Fergus McCreadie, David Bowden, and Stephen Henderson have created a striking and highly fascinating album that will resonate in your heart and mind long after the last notes fade.  

For more information and to purchase the album, go to https://fergusmccreadie.bandcamp.com/album/cairn.  To learn more about the pianist and his rhythm section, go to www.fergusmccreadie.co.uk

Here's the title track:

Pianist and composer Yoko Miwa moved to the United States from her native Japan in 1997 to attend Berklee College of Music.  Though she only intended to stay for one year, Ms. Miwa stayed and is an active member of the Boston jazz scene and on the faculty of her alma mater.  She has issued eight recordings as a leader either in a trio or quartet setting and all with her husband Scott Goulding on drums.  Bassist Will Slater makes his first appearance on 2012's "Act Naturally" album and remains with the Trio to this day, occasionally spelled by Brad Barrett.  

After the pandemic stopped the Trio last March, Ms. Miwa had to cancel her April 2020 recording session.  Not only that but also her father died of complications from Alzheimer's Disease. The studio reopened in July, the pianist set the dates with the Trio and results can be heard on her ninth album, "Songs of Joy" (Ubuntu Music).  Kicking off with a powerful version of Richie Havens' "Freedom", one can hear how much the musicians needed to be back in the studio as well as how much Ms. Miwa was celebrating life in the face of tragedy. The influence of McCoy Tyner can be heard in the thundering piano chords and how her solo rolls forward (her left hand is relentless) –– Goulding takes a short solo before the musicians return to the powerful reading of the melody.  The pianist learned the title track from vocalist Sheila Jordan.  Composed by Billy Preston, one can hear the influence of blues and gospel on the melody lines and Ms. Miwa's splendid solo. Her two-handed explorations throughout the performance raises the level of intensity.

Photo: Chris Lee
The 11-song program includes five originals and six covers. Among the former group is "The Lonely Hours"; dedicated to the pianist's father, it's her response to not being able to be there in his final days (in the early weeks of the pandemic, international travel was very limited as was access to the hospitals and hospices). One can hear Ms. Miwa's classical training in the composition yet the music blurs the lines between genres.  Check out her "Largo Desolato" below.  While the title refers to "a slow, solitary, grand phrase", this music rises from a blues-soaked bass line into a powerful performance (you might catch a "grand phrase" at the onset of the piano solo but, mostly, this song swings).  "Small Talk" really swings. The bounce in the piano playing has a strong hint of Harold Mabern and dig how Ms. Miwa plumbs the lower notes of the keyboard throughout. The lovely intro to "Inside a Dream" reflects the influence of Bill Evans as does the flow of the music (note how Slater plays in unison with the pianist plus his fine solo and counterpoint).

The final two tracks on the album are "Tony's Blues" and "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You".  The former, composed by former Berklee colleague Tony Germain, is another display of the pianist's deep understanding of the blues/ r'n'b styles of Bobby Timmons and the afore-mentioned Mabern.  Most people recognize the latter track as a Led Zeppelin track (off their debut album).  Composed by American folk singer Anne Bredon and made famous in the early 1960s by Joan Baez, the Trio's version here (augmented by the bowed bass of Brad Barrett on his only appearance) captures the longing in the song. Ms. Miwa's insistent piano work really pushes the music forward.  

"Songs of Joy" is notable for many reasons.  The strong material, the powerful piano work, the solid yet fluid rhythm section, and the fact that the music is so positive. Yes, there are "blues" songs and the leader does create a musical response to the passing of her father but the overall emotion one gets while listening is joy.  The joy of performance, of camaraderie, and doing what you are meant to do –– bring pleasure to the listener.  Yoko Miwa does that and more, making one so glad to be in the presence of these fine musicians! 

For more information, go to www.yokomiwa.com.  Check out her interview with Jason Crane on "The Jazz Session" by going to the top right of this post. 

Hear "Largo Desolato":

Thursday, February 4, 2021

The Composer's Voices

The Jazz Composers Alliance was founded in Boston, MA, in 1985 to create a public forum for new jazz compositions. Over the course of its existence, the JCA has created a home for area-based composers such as Darrell Katz, David Harris, Ken Schaphorst, Laura Andel, and others as well as sponsoring artists-in-residence programs in the Greater Boston area. The organizations has brought artists such as Julius Hemphill, Sam Rivers, Michael Gibbs, Maria Schneider, and many more to work with composers and musicians.  To play the music, there is the JCA Orchestra composed of many of the finest musicians/ educators in the area.  Albums have been issued on Innova, Leo Records, CIMP, Cadence Jazz Records, and its own JCA Recordings.  

The JCA Orchestra's latest is "Live at the BPC" (JCA Recordings) –– recorded on October 4, 2018 at the Berklee Performance Center, the program features six original works; two by David Harris and Mimi Rabson plus one each from Bob Pilkington and Darrell Katz.  Ms. Rabson's exciting "Romanople" opens the proceedings and its an exciting blend of Turkish rhythms, semi-formal "Roman" marching band music, and the score for a war movie, not unlike Nino Rota's screen scores for Federico Fellini.  Ms. Rabson also contributed the final track, the tongue-in-cheek "Super Eyes-Private Heroes".  The music blends the bombastic approach of themes from James Bond movies with the soundtracks of television shows like "Mannix" (Lalo Schifrin), "The Rockford Files" (Mike Post), and "I Spy" (Earle Hagen).  Solos from Ms. Howell-Brooks (bari sax), Ms. Davies (violin), and Harris (trombonist) enliven the already over-the-top proceedings.  

Katz's "A Wallflower in the Amazon" (the composer is pictured left), the title track of his 2010 Accurate Record recording, is the longest (18:53) and most episodic of the pieces. Ms. Shrimpton sings the words of the late Paula Tatarunis, Katz's wife, her voice leaping and hopping through the story while saxophonists Stone, Ms. Haruvi, and Scarff intertwines lines around Sabattini's trumpet, the rocking drums and tumbling marimba lines.  After a raucous climax, Ms. Shrimpton returns to the "story" while the brass, reeds, and electric guitar groan sans rhythm (although drummer Smith joins the building fray). After another climax, the piece moves gently to its close, the lyrics serving as an epilogue. 

The other tracks include "The Sixth Snake", "The Latest", and "Yellow, Orange, Blue".  "....Snake", composed by trombonist Pilkington (pictured left) is another long (15:49) episodic piece that moves from full ensemble playing to solos (with and without accompaniment), and closes with a powerful and swinging final section –– watch and listen below.  "The Latest", composed by trombonist Harris, opens with a slinky melody line that drops into a delightful, Latin-influenced, rhythm.  The composer writes that the piece is inspired by McCoy Tyner's "Fly Like the Wind" as well as traditional Thai music.  Ms. Howell-Brooks creates a delightful bass clarinet solo and, after a break where the voice, strings, brass, and reeds move through the lengthy melody (reminiscent of the music of guitarist Pierre Dørge), guitarist Zocher steps forward producing a "hot" solo.   "Yellow..." is the second of Harris's compositions; while the rhythm is reminiscent of his other song, the solos roar out of the mix with group improvisations, splendid percussion from Smith. Ms. Stoyanova (vibraphone), and Mansour, plus excellent section writing.

"Live at The BPC" was issued in early November of last year but I am just catching up to it now.  The JCA Orchestra sounds great, the music is exciting, involving, emotionally rich, and my recommendation is to bask in the glory of this large ensemble.  

For more information, go to https://jazzcomposersalliance.org/

As promised, "The Sixth Snake":


Tina D'Agostino: conductor
David Harris: conductor
Darrell Katz: conductor

Rebecca Shrimpton:  voice

Hiro Honshuko: flute, EWI
Rick Stone: alto saxophone
Lihi Haruvi: alto and soprano saxophones
Phil Scarff: tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet
Melanie Howell-Brooks: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet

Mike Peipman: trumpet
Dan Rosenthal: trumpet
Jerry Sabatini: trumpet
Jim Mosher: French horn
Jason Camelio: trombone
Bob Pilkington: trombone
David Harris: trombone, tuba

Strings Theory Trio:
Mimi Rabson: 5-string violin
Sherrah Davies: 5-string violin
Junko Fujiwara: cello

Maxim Lubarsky: piano
Tony "Thunder" Smith: drums
Gilbert Mansour: percussion
Vessela Stoyanova: vibraphone, marimba
Jesse Williams: bass
Norm Zocher: electric guitar

Monday, February 1, 2021

Big Band Bud, Bleckmann with Brass


The life story of Earl "Bud" Powell (1924-1966) is not easy to read.  A child prodigy, he was in the forefront of the Bebop movement in the 1940s but a run-in with the police left him battered, bruised, and unconscious. From that time on, at various stages of his musical career, Powell would be institutionalized.  Yet, his musical output rarely suffered.  It was as if a switch would turn on when he sat down to the keyboard.  He could be a dazzling stylist, was an adventurous composer, and, up to the final years of is life, Powell was often a splendid soloist.  Unlike his contemporary Thelonious Monk, his compositions and his recordings have not garnered the same scrutiny, examination, and tributes. Enter Ethan Iverson.  The busy musician, composer, writer, and  performer began a comprehensive study of Powell's ouevre and began writing a piece for quintet and orchestra.  The result is "Bud Powell In the 21st Century" (Sunnyside Records) recorded live on the final days of December 2018 at Umbria Jazz Winter #26.  

The 16-piece ensemble includes Ingrid Jensen (trumpet), Dayna Stephens (tenor saxophone), Ben Street (bass), Lewis Nash (drums), and Iverson (piano, conduction) plus the brass and reed sections of the Umbria Jazz Orchestra. The program includes seven Powell compositions, one by Monk ("52nd Street Theme"), plus eight Iverson originals, several based on motifs that the composer based on Powell's improvisations. The album opens with the two-part title track ––  "Chorale" has a somber theme but when you listen to the reed and brass interjections, it may remind you of the sounds of Powell's "Parisian Thoroughfare" while "Continuity" jumps out on the strength of Iverson's dancing piano lines. That leads to a delightful romp from Stephens as the backing sections call-and-respond. 

The Bud Powell pieces ("Celia", "Tempus Fugit", "Bouncing With Bud", "Wail", "Dance of the Infidels", "I'll Keep Loving You", and "Un Poco Loco") all stand out. "Celia" swings sweetly and the arrangement with the trumpets playing the theme over Nash's splendid drumming is a treat.  The drummer leads off "Tempus Fugit" with a militaristic take before breaking into a powerful rhythm and we're off. The reeds play the theme, the brass answers, and the musicians romp away.  Sparkling solos from Iverson and Ms. Jensen add more sizzle to this sauce.  The bebop jump of "Dance of the Infidels" has the tenor and trumpet play the theme while Street and Nash build a swinging foundation.  "I'll Keep Loving You" opens with a long, lovely, French Horn feature for Giovanni Hoffer who, after the solo intro, leads the ensemble through the lovely melody (pay attention to the short "breaths" of the reeds during the verses).   

The final two tracks, "Nobile Paradiso" and "Un Poco Loco", are the longest pieces on the program (11:08 and 6:21) and both have great power. The former, an Iverson original, takes ideas from Powell and wraps them in a gentle swing rhythm, bouncy piano, and delightful, melodic, counterpoint from the brass and reeds. The latter track, one of Powell's most covered originals, has a forceful rhythm track –– it's a forceful example of the "conduction" method where Iverson cues the different musicians to step out of the ensemble and make short musical statements.  Over the course of the tune, the reeds play first and, after a brief respite, the brass get their moment. It's fascinating to hear the musicians play off each other, climaxing in a glorious cacophony above Nash's splashing cymbals.  The return to the theme is downright enjoyable!
Don't know much about Bud Powell?  Go find his classic Blue Note recording "The Amazing Bud Powell Vol. I" (you'll end up wanting more but start here) and then come back and listen to "Bud Powell In the 21st Century".  Not only does Ethan Iverson pay his respects, he does what all forward thinking musicians; he breathes new life into the ideas, themes, and musicianship of the originals.  Everyone plays great and the music shines!

For more information and to purchase the album, go to https://sunnysiderecords.bandcamp.com/album/bud-powell-in-the-21st-century.  

Here's a taste:


Ingrid Jensen - trumpet
Dayna Stephens - tenor saxophone
Ethan Iverson - piano, conduction (two tracks)
Ben Street - bass
Lewis Nash - drums
Giovanni Hoffer - French horn (on "Un Poco Loco")
Daniele Tittarelli - alto saxophone
Manuele Morbidini - alto saxophone, conduction (six tracks)
Pedro Spallati - tenor saxophone
Rossano Emili - baritone saxophone
Mirco Rubegni - trumpet
Francesco Lento - trumpet
Francesco Fratini - trumpet
Massimo Morganti - trombone
Roberto Rossi - trombone
Federico Pierantoni - trombone
Rosario Liberti - bass trombone

Here's a fascinating combination. "This Land" (Westerlies Records) posits the expressive voice of Theo Bleckmann in a collaboration with the brass quartet The Westerlies (trumpeters Riley Mulherkar and Chloe Rowlands plus trombonists Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch) .  Original material mixed with compositions by Woody Guthrie (four of his pieces), Bertolt Brecht, Joni Mitchell, Phil Kline, a gospel tune and one traditional make the listener sit and think about the power of music to illuminate the human condition.  The expansive musical arrangements allow the brass to "paint the scene" alongside the vocals and the songs often soar. 

Opening with Ms. Mitchell's "The Fiddle and the Drum" (composed in 1969), the song's anti-war message, originally sung by a Canadian looking across the border, reverberates in this time of internal unrest.  Bleckmann's vocal has just the right emotion and does not sound accusatory while the horns rise and fall behind.  While the title track sounds like it could be a Woody Guthrie tune, the music comes from trombonist Clausen who set the words of the late Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali (1941-2001). Note how Bleckmann uses electronics to create a vocal wind behind the strident horns.  The vocalist contributes "Another Holiday", a song inspired by the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in 2016. Without mentioning the horrific event, the lyrics speak of how the world passes by as events unwind, as one's family grows up in uncertain times. The horns move from bell-like figures to drones as Bleckmann's electronically modified voices float through the sound.  

While each song is notable, there are several beyond the ones mentioned already that really stand out. The traditional "Wade in the Water" is given a dark, mysterious, feel by the horns as they push the vocal to the background.  "In the Sweet By and By", a Gospel tune from the 19th, is linked with Joe Hill's "The Preacher and The Slave" (the satirical lyrics comes from the latter).  The "oom-pah" waltz adds to the comic effect as do the "Salvation Army" trumpets behind the penultimate verse.  Bleckmann translates the lyrics of Bertolt Brecht's "Das Bitten der Kinder", an anti-war song, that is first presented as a recitation and then sung in the original German with the brass playing the role of a string quartet (Bleckmann first recorded the piece in 2008 on the Winter & Winter album "Berlin: Songs of Love & War, Peace & Exile")

All the Woody Guthrie pieces ("Two Good Men", "Tear The Fascists Down", "The Jolly Banker", and "I Ain't Go No Home in This World Anymore") are instrumentals with only one over 51 seconds long (the rollicking "...Men").  They serve as joyful slices of Americana.

The album closes with Phil Kline's "Thoughts and Prayers" (from his "Florida Man" song cycle) – the piece is an elegy for the victims of the Parkland, FL, mass shooting and was originally composed for Bleckmann.  The title reminds us that that's the most politicians have offered after the multitude of gun tragedies that have occurred over the past decade.  

"This Land" is powerful music in these crazy days. Conceived and recorded before the pandemic but in the midst of the Trump administration, the music reminds that the United States has always been somewhat off-center. Theo Bleckmann and The Westerlies make all 15 tracks worth listening to time and again.  

For more information, go to westerliesmusic.com.  To hear more and to purchase the album, go to  https://thewesterliesmusic.bandcamp.com/album/this-land.

Here's an important musical statement from the album: