Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Henry Threadgill, Book & Music – "You're Going to Have to Serve Your Time"

If memory serves correctly, I first encountered the music of Henry Threadgill in Cutler's Record Shop in New Haven, CT, on seeing the first Air Lp, "Air Song" (Why Not Records imported from Japan), on the Jazz "New Releases" section of the wall.  Intrigued, I discovered that the trio (saxophonist, flutist, and composer Threadgill, bassist Fred Hopkins, and drummer Steve McCall) hailed from Chicago and were members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). By this time, I had heard the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, and Muhal Richard Abrams, fascinated as well as puzzled by this music that often eschewed typical jazz forms to look for new sounds and mixtures.

Photo: John Rogers
Threadgill, like a good number of his contemporaries, had served in the Armed Forces and come back to a changed United States. The Vietnam War was still raging, President Nixon had alienated a good portion of the country, and the inner city neighborhoods in major cities across the US had never recovered from the riots that had occurred before and after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.  What some people heard as anger in this hybrid form of Black Music was really a major advancement in approaches to composition and improvisation by many Black composers and musicians.  By the mid-1970s, many AACM musicians had been to Europe but came back to move to New York City.  

Henry Threadgill tells his story in his new memoir "Easily Slip Into Another World: A Life in Music" (Penguin Random House). Written with Brent Hayes Edwards, the composer/musicians takes the reader through his early years with bows to many members of his family and the various neighborhoods he lived in.  We learn of his voracious appetite for learning and how he slowly but steadily learned piano, saxophone, and flute as well as to learn how to compose. Threadgill certainly played many different styles of music, from Gospel to R'n'B to Jazz to funk as so on but was open to classical music. He also was quite curious, fixating on learning how to fly and making people disappear, neither of which he was successful at.  His time in the Armed Forces, especially the months he spent in Vietnam were harrowing but taught him much about the world, about community, and so much more.  Coming back to Chicago and to the AACM pushed him to create his own music just as his contemporaries were doing (and many still do).  We read of how he created Air with Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall as well as the groups that followed.  

I was lucky enough to experience Air, hubkapaphone (that's a story unto itself) and all, in concert in Battell Chapel in New Haven.  It was the Summer after Nessa Records of Chicago had issued "Air Time", the trio's first American release.  The music moved in multiple directions with melodies coming from all three musicians, rhythms stopping and starting seemingly at will––McCall was an amazing percussionist, Hopkins a brilliant bassist with a true melodic bent, and Threadgill's tart alto sax sound pushed and pulled at the fabric of the material.  One can still echoes of that sound in the music Threadgill creates today.

That said, the book illuminates how the composer organizes his groups, how he mixes and matches disparate sounds, how he's more fascinated by "flow" than by "rhythm", how he and his groups deconstruct and rebuild the compositions throughout every performance.  Henry Threadgill is more interested in performance than recording, fascinated by how the musicians he plays with and/or conducts deal with time and with the flow of the intervals inside the music.  When you return to listen to any one of his myriad recordings after reading this book, you'll hear his music with different ears, hearing the "architecture" of each song as well as the influence of the blues on the Sextett albums, the world music components of the Make a Move ensemble, and how ZOOID mixes composition and improvisation so that one can not tell where one starts and the other ends. 

In a year that has seen new biographies of Sonny Rollins and Chick Webb. "Easily Slip Into Another World: A Life in Music" is a "must-read" for music lovers.  The book goes a long way to shed light on the continually creative mind of Henry Threadgill, never dwelling on either awards or disappointments but telling a story that displays great humanity in spite of any and all roadblocks.  


In addition to the new book, there is a new Threadgill album.  "The Other One" (Pi Recordings), recorded live in May of 2022 at Roulette Intermedium in Brooklyn, NY, features the 12-member Henry Threadgill Ensemble composed of musicians who are members of ZOOID, the Double Up Ensemble, and several newcomers to the Threadgill universe.  The ensemble plays "Of Valence", a three-movement composition influenced by percussionist Milford Graves' study of the human heartbeat and its integration into music.  "Movements I" and "III" are broken into nine sections with the ninth being the "Finale" (in both).  Meanwhile "Movement II" is 16:24 long with distinct sections but not broken up like the others.  Even though the instrumentation is different than any other of his groups, you can the various trademarks of the Threadgill oeuvre: the long, winding, melody lines, the deep tones of tuba and cello for the bottom, rhythms that suggest swing, blues, African music, and more.  What's different is the short sections that curtail long solos but do listen to how the composer/conductor moves the sounds through the band and how they come together.

Photo: Jeenah Moon/NYTimes
Listen to "The Other One" all the way through because that will help bring the music into focus. There's an excerpt below but it's like reading a short quote from a long book. Listening to music, especially "concert" music, is usually a cumulative experience. We remember moments of the pieces, the emotions we felt, perhaps an impressive solo or the rhythms that made us tap our feet.  All three "Movements" of "Of Valence" start quietly before other instruments are added. The composer does that to pique our interest––where will the music go next, who's taking the next solo, etc.?  There are many moments of strong musicianship here from violinist Sara Caswell, clarinetist Noah Becker, pianist David Virelles, percussionist Craig Weinrib, and the bravura of work of Jose Davila (tuba) and Christopher Hoffman (cello).  That's not to discount the work of the others (all personnel listed below).  The Henry Threadgill Ensemble, its leader, and his music shines brightly on "The Other One"! 

For more information including listening to and purchasing this music, go to  https://henrythreadgill.bandcamp.com/album/the-other-one


Henry Threadgill – composer & conductor
Alfredo Colón – alto saxophone
Noah Becker – alto saxophone, clarinet
Peyton Pleninger – tenor saxophone
Craig Weinrib – percussion, electronics
Sara Caswell – violin
Stephanie Griffin – viola
Mariel Roberts – cello
Christopher Hoffman – cello
Jose Davila – tuba
David Virelles – piano
Sara Schoenbeck – bassoon
Adam Cordero – bassoon

Here's a taste of "The Other One":

Thursday, June 1, 2023

The Majesty of Magos, the Power of Expression, the Songs of Women

 Over the past month, I have listened to four different albums featuring vocalist, composer, and activist Magos Herrera. 2018 saw the release of "Dreamers" (Sony Music/Mexico), her brilliant collaboration with Brooklyn Rider while December 2020 was the release date for "Con Alma: An Operatic Tableau on Isolation" (National Sawdust Tracks), Ms. Herrera's album with Italian-born composer Paola Prestini. The newer albums are reviewed below.

For those who don't know Magos Herrera, she's a native of Mexico City who came to the United States in 1992 to study at The Musicians Institute in Los Angeles.  She continued her studies in Boston, MA, before returning to Mexico.  Her first four albums as a solo artist were recorded in her home city. In 2008, Ms. Herrera moved to New York City and, one year later, released "Distancia" on Sunnyside Records––two years later, she followed up with "México Azul" for the same label.  Since then, she was 1/2 of the duo Magos & Limón (Spanish  guitarist Javier Limón) that recorded two albums for Sony Music.  What stands out for this listener includes her persuasive contralto voice, how she inhabits each song whether she's singing in Spanish, Portuguese, or English, and how she obliterates "borders" in her music (is she a jazz singer, a classical chanteuse, or a folk artist? Yes, all that and more.

"Aire" is her 11th album as a leader, her third for Sunnyside, the first release for that label in 12 years.  With her regular working trio of Vinicius Gomes (acoustic guitar), Sam Minaie (bass), and Alex Kautz (drums and percussion) plus guest Ingrid Jensen (trumpet and flugelhorn on two tracks), Dori Caymmi (voice on "Samba em Preludio"), and Gonzalo Grau (percussion on three tracks). The Knights, the 21-member chamber orchestra (see personnel below) also appear on 10 of the 12 tracks playing arrangements by Mr. Grau, by Argentinean pianist Diego Schissi, and the great Brazilian composer and arranger Jaques Morelenbaum ("Samba em Preludio"). The material includes five originals by Ms. Herrera as well as compositions by Chilean folklorist Violetta Parra (1917-1967), by Ariel Ramírez & Félix Luna, by Guinga & César Pinheiro, by Danilo Moraes & Paulo Cesar de Carvahlo, and by Vinicius de Moraes & Baden Powell. 

Photo: Shervin Lainez
There's so many reasons to listen to "Aire", not the least of which is how strong these songs are and how the vocalist works with both the trio and the orchestra.  Whether it's the dancing rhythms of the title track that opens the album (Grau's arrangement is both lavish and supportive) or the gentle swaying of "Samba em Preludio" (the blend of 79-year old Caymmi's handsome voice with the supple quality of Ms. Herreras voice is charming and touching), the music touches the heart.  Quiet guitar introduces Violetta Parra's "Gracias a la Vida" but note how Schissi's arrangement first introduces the reeds and then the strings move around under the voice. Add Ingrid Jensen's occasional trumpet responses to the vocal rises above the orchestra and the piece has a "magical-realism".  Guinga's "Passarinhadeira" (finch) is just voice and guitar––Ms. Herrera sings so gently over Gomes's finger-picked acoustic guitar that one must lean into the song.  Schissi's handsome string writing behind the wordless vocal on the short "Papalote Intro" leads the listener into Ms. Herrera's original piece. Gomes's delightful guitar solo follows the theme with The Knights' caressing sounds swimming around beneath him. They do the same for Ms. Herrera's wordless vocal improvisation.

The album closes with "Healer", a piece dedicated to and featuring the voice Maria Sabina (1894-1985), the Mexican shaman, in the opening moment.  Ms. Sabina not only used herbs, peyote, and mushrooms but also the voice to heal people. Ms. Herrera uses her voice to deliver the message of healing through music and the celebration of life.  The blend of percussion, voices, guitars, and The Knights brings "Aire" to a magical and delightful close.

Magos Herrera has created a panacea to the fear and worries of the past few years, music to escape the myriad voices of argument and disagreement of people who use words to hurt and stress their superiority.  Can music heal our souls?  Ms. Herrera believes so and this magnificent album serves as her proof!

For more information, go to www.magosherrera.com.  To hear and to purchase the album, go to https://magosherrera.bandcamp.com/album/aire.

Colin and Eric Jacobsen - artistic directors
Wayne du Maine - conductor

Colin Jacobsen, Christina Courtin, Abi Fayette, Alex Fortes, Kristi Hellberg, Nannte Iwata, Yaira Matyakubova - violin
Mario Goto, Celia Hatton - viola
Gabriel Cabezas, Jia Kim - cello
Grey Fulmer - bass
Alex Sopp - flute
Michelle Farah - oboe
Agnes Marchione - clarinet
Edward Burns - bassoon
Karl Kramer-Johansen - horn
Micah Killian - trumpet
Dave Nelson - trombone
Megan Conley - harp
Blair McMillen - piano


Listen to "Choro de Lua":

Venezuelan-born pianist and composer Edward Simon first met Magos Herrera in 2017 when he, his trio members (bassist Joe Martin and drummer Adam Cruz) and the vocalist performed together in a 2017 tribute concert honoring the great Argentine vocalist Mercedes Sosa (1935-2009).  That planted the seed in the pianist's mind to create a follow-up to his 2016 Sunnyside Records album "Latin American Songbook".  This time, Simon with Herrera and the Trio, would focus on Latin American women composers and performers. In addition, the ensemble (with bassist Reuben Rogers replacing Martin and now including  and guest percussionist Luis Quintero) worked on a commission that Simon received from the Chamber Music's New Jazz Works––"Latino Soy" is a three-movement piece, two movements featuring lyrics sung and spoken by Ms. Herrera.

"Femeninas: Songs of Latin American Women" (artistShare)  is an 11-song, 63-minute, program that pays tribute to artists such as Joyce Moreno (Brazil), Elizabeth (Chile), Chabuca Granda (Perú), Violetta Parra (Chile), Marta Valdés (Cuba), Rosa Passos (Brazil), and Georgina Hassan (Argentina).  Opening with Ms. Moreno's "Feminina", the music jumps out of the speakers on the lively rhythms created by the trio plus the crisp acoustic guitar of Romero Lubambo (one of his two appearances on the album).  After Ms. Herrera delivers the lyrics, composed as a question to a Mother as to what "female" means, Rogers takes a delightful, melodic, solo and Quintero adds a short solo. That leads into Ms. Morris's lovely ballad "Décimas"–Simon's arrangement does not stray too far from the original until he pushes the tempo in the second half of the piece. Again, Roger's melodic bass lines stand out not only as foundational but in counterpoint to the vocal. 

Simon's suite, "Latino Soy", takes up 1/3rd of the album's running time. "Naked Sky" features original English lyrics by Ms. Herrera. The music slowly builds up behind the vocal into a fast bolero––Cruz's drumming and brush work stand out as do the richly melodic solo Simon creates.  "Buleria" is even quicker, with the feel of flamenco (Simon's piano captures the feel of a guitarist). The break in the middle for drums, handclaps, and percussion sets up a powerful with Ms. Herrera's wordless vocal soaring above the ensemble. Here, the overdubbing creates a responsive chorus that is hypnotic, mesmerizing.  The final section, "Mujer Remolino", takes its title from one of the nicknames of the shaman Maria Sabina (see above)––the words translate to "Whirlwind Woman".  The medium-tempo piece opens up to a long, twisting, rhythmical, piano solo. After a break where Ms. Herrera joins in on wordless vocal, she then begins to read the words of one of the Mexican shaman's healing ceremonies.

Other highlights include the stunning "Gracias de la Vida" ("Here's to Life") from the pen of Ms. Parra. After the voice and piano move through the verses, Cruz enters to "converse" with Simon during his solo. Rogers joins them for the final verse of the song.  The song then breaks into double-time, a dramatic close to quite a dramatic piece.  Lubambo returns for Ms. Passos "Dunas" (lyrics by Fernando de Oliviera), a delicious Bossa Nova with a pleasing solo from Simon. 

The program closes with "Hacia Donde" ("where" or "wherever"), a lovely ballad composed by Ms. Valdés (born 1928) for voice and piano.  One may not understand Spanish but you cannot miss the pensive mood of the singer and the gentle, "formal", piano in the background that carries that introspective and emotional mood throughout the performance.  

When you sit and listen through "Femeninas" several times, you can really hear how the pairing of Magos Herrera and Edward Simon is magic. One feels, actually intuits, that they have worked together for many years.  Yet, that's just part of the magic of this project. The rhythm section is powerful, able to "groove" and support in equal measure. Simon's piano work is clear, his phrases articulate, and his arrangements intelligent and respectful.  Ms. Herrera's voice is so wondrous, her ability to express emotions and transport listeners beyond the mundane explains why every project she is involved with is worth investigating.  

"Femeninas" will be released on June 8, 2023––go to www.edwardsimon.com/projects/femeninas to find out more.

Listen to and watch "Gracias a la Vida":

Monday, May 29, 2023

Good Friends, Great Music

Photo: Laura Desberg
Vocalist and composer Gretchen Parlato first met guitarist and composer Lionel Loueke in 2001 while both were studying at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles, CA (renamed for Herbie Hancock in 2019). Both moved to New York City several years later, both were signed to ObliqSounds Records with Loueke playing on Ms. Parlato's first two albums––she returned the favor by singing on his 2006 "Virgin Forest" recording (his debut, "In a Trance", was self-released in 2005).  She also sings on Loueke's 2012 Blue Note album "Heritage".  When the COVID pandemic reared its ugly heads, the two artists began trading ideas, song fragments, and more from their home studios (Ms. Parlato lives in Los Angeles with her husband, drummer Mark Guiliana, and their son Marley while Loueke and his family live in Luxembourg.). They convened in LA in March of 2022 and, over three days, produced their first full album as a duo.

The results can be heard on "Lean In" (Edition Records), an intimate yet rhythmic journey that captures both the fears of the shutdown and the liberating power of music.  From the opening seconds of Loueke's "Akwê" (first recorded by the guitarist in 2005 with the cooperative trio Gilfema), it's a bouncy piece with rapid-fire vocal breaks, the guitarist's crisp acoustic guitar work and mouth clicks, and a distinct connection to the music of West Africa. That's followed by Ms. Parlato's lovely rearrangement of "I Miss You", a Top 10 tune by Klymaxx from 1984. Later in the program, Ms. Parlato returns to one of the first Brazilian songs she ever learned, "Astronauta"––composed by Carlos Pingarilho and Marcos Vasconcellos, the gentle samba was first recorded by Os Cariocas in 1966. The duo give the piece a lovely, Joāo Gilberto feel with just voice, acoustic guitar, and overdubbed electric guitar.  

Photo: Lauren Desberg
"Nonvignon", a Loueke original that both artists recorded for their 2005 debuts, is reprised here.  The title translates to "good brother" and the duo have so much with the rhythm of the piece which can here in both vocals, the handclaps, and the sweet sounds of the guitars.  The music reminds this listener of Paul Simon's "Spirit Voices" from his 1990 album "The Rhythm of the Saints".  That's Mr. Simon's "Brazilian" album and one can hear the influence of the Black slaves who were transported to South America, who brought their customs, foods, music, and more.  Listen below!

There are three short pieces included in the 12-song program. "Okagbé", the first one, features voices, guitar, balafon, and kalimba while "Mi Wa Se" features Marley Guiliana on vocals plus his dad on percussion, bassist Burniss Travis, and the guitarist who adds a quick vocal in the final 10 seconds of the piece that only lasts 58 seconds.  The final piece, "Dow Wé Interlude", has both vocalists repeating a short phrase while Loueke jams with Travis and Guiliana on drums this time.  That short tune leads into the album's final track, "Walking After You".  Composed by Dave Grohl for Foo Fighters' "The Colour and The Shape" (issued in 1997), the piece is a lovely ballad.  Ms. Parlato and Loueke speed up the song a bit yet the intimacy of the lyrics are not compromised. With several layers of guitars, hand-held percussion (Mark Guiliana's drums enter close to the fade), and gentle background vocals (including Marley also joining in the last minute), the song is a reminder of our need for community as well as music in dark times.  

"Lean In" is a gem of an album, music to listen as you walk on the beach or through the woods, when you are sitting on your porch or lying in bed at night with windows open. Besides the excellent musicianship on and the superb sounds of this recording, I am impressed how Gretchen Parlato and Lionel Loueke combine their voices when they sing in unison and when they weave counterpoint beneath the lead. They'll be touring the US and Canada this Summer and have already scheduled a tour for the Fall.  Go see and hear them! Buy this record!

For more information about the artists, go to https://gretchenparlato.com/ and www.lionellouekemusic.com/.  To listen to more and to purchase "Lean In", go to 

Listen to "Nonvignon": 

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Love, Loss, Living Sounds


I've been aware of saxophonist and composer Michael Blake since the mid-1990s when, along with bassist Ben Allison, pianist Frank Kimbrough, saxophonist Ted Nash, and trumpeter Ron Horton, he co-founded the Jazz Composers Collective.  During that time, Blake was also a member of the Lounge Lizards and, by the end of the decade, co-founded Slow Poke with guitarist Dave Tronzo. Since then, he has worked with artists as diverse as Neil Sedaka, trumpeter Enrico Rava, guitarist Charlie Hunter, pianist Henry Butler, trumpeter Steven Bernstein, and many others. Along the way, he's recorded 14 albums for labels such Songlines, Sunnyside, Ropeadope, Newvelle Records (see below), and others.

Album number 15 "Dance of the Mystic Bliss" (P&M Records) is a fascinating program for the get-go.  After Blake's Mother passed in 2018, the saxophonist felt no desire to write or even play. When the pandemic closed down the world, he felt his lethargy lift and began writing inspired by his mother's joy for living (she was a dancer and teacher).  Blake built a unique ensemble for this project; four string instruments (violin, cello, electric guitar, and acoustic bass), two percussionists (drums, cymbals, shakers, marimba, etc.), and his expanded reed arsenal (soprano and tenor saxes plus flute and alto flute).  The percussionists (Mauro Refosco and Rogerio Boccato) were tasked with creating the rhythm arrangements).  Violinist Skye Steele (who has worked with artists such as Anthony Braxton, Willie Nelson, Deer Tick) suggested cellist Christopher Hoffman (Henry Threadgill, Anat Cohen, Anna Webber) while the leader brought in guitarist Guilherme Monteiro (Kenny Werner, Kurt Elling, Lila Downs) and bassist Michael Bates (Ben Monder, Donny McCaslin).  Blake also brought 10 pieces, most new and the others rearranged for this ensemble (dubbed Chroma Nova).

What the interested listener gets is a playful yet melodic blend of "world" sounds (especially West African and Brazilian) with improvisation and more than a touch of blues.  The album opener, "Merle the Pearl", is inspired by and dedicated to Blake's mother.  Each time the song plays, I hear the influence of Arthur Blythe's "Down San Diego Way" in the mix of percussion, rhythm-inspired melody line, and how the saxophonist soars gleefully over the ensemble.  Later in the program, "Sagra" takes a similar approach but Steele's "hoe-down" fiddle adds a new dimension.  Blake builds his tenor solo off of Steele's riffs, digging into the percussive groove.

In conversation, Blake told me that, for this album, he started playing flute (he had been so blown away by the flute work of the late Thomas Chapin that he did not pick up the instrument for over a decade.  One hears the flute in the intro of "Prune Pluck Pangloss" but the leader returns to tenor for a powerful solo. "The Meadows" also commences with a flute melody––this time, the leader creates a fine solo, first over the shimmering strings and coming to its close over the bass and rhythm section. After an excellent spot for Monteiro, Blake's flute takes flight, swirling, soaring, and fluttering while Refosco and Boccato create a rhythmic playground of sounds. 

Besides the splendid percussion and delightful flute playing, the use of Steele and Hoffman's strings stand out. Not only is the former an impressive violinist but also his "exotic" instruments (the one-stringed gonji and the three-stringed rabeka or rebec) add so many different colors. Hoffman's cello and his deep resplendent sound gives the music a counter-weight to Blake's soprano sax  as well as a counterpoint to Bate's foundational bass lines. Listen below to "Le Coeur du Jardin (The Heart of the Garden)" for its beauty and mystery and the excellent cello solo (which, as it moves along, breaks into two celli). 
Whether it's insistent funk of "Little Demons" or the mysterious jungle of "Weeds", "Dance of the Mystic Bliss" satisfies on so many levels. The wit, the immediacy of the sound, the thoughtful solos, all that and more makes this album one to explore time and time again––just might want to get up and dance, who knows?

For more information, go to www.michaelblake.net/. To hear more and to purchase the album. go to  https://michaelblake.bandcamp.com/album/dance-of-the-mystic-bliss.

Listen to "Le Coeur du Jardin (The Heart of the Garden)":

In the Fall of 2022, Newvelle Records inaugurated its "Renewal Series" with albums by label co-owner and pianist Evan Mehler, Dave Liebman, Nadje Noordhuis, and Michael Blake.  For "Combobulate", Blake (tenor and soprano saxes, flute) assembled a brass quartet composed of trumpet (Steven Bernstein), trombone (Clark Gayton), and two master tuba players (Bob Stewart and Marcus Rojas) to which he added drummer Allan Mednard. The music lives up to the series name as it renews the listener's faith in the power of music to give hope in dark times.  The album opens with "Henry's Boogaloo" that rides in on the New Orleans "beat" and the bouncing tuba lines.  Bernstein comes in with a riff playing off the rhythm and then Blake introduces the melody. The saxophonist solos over the tuba counterpoint and Mednard's "kicking" drums. Check out the fun on "Bills in the Bell", how Rojas (walking bass lines, no less) and Mednard push the piece, how Stewart's voice shows up in the background "horn arrangement", the rollicking solo from Bernstein, the drum solo with Rojas bobbing and weaving which leads the band into a slower yet no less funky beat while the flute joins the brass. Feeling blue, Buddy––turn up the volume and rock the house!

Watch and listen below to "Malagasy". Notice the smiles on Mednard's face as he kicks the band forward, note the concentration on Rojas's face, and how everyone's voice is part of the joyous African rhythm and melody.  Love how trombonist Gayton dances in his chair while soloing.  Pay attention to how the voices of the ensemble mesh throughout the piece

There are slower moments including the gospel-like tones and feeling of "Cuyahoga Valley" (such gorgeous low notes) as well as the plaintive "Bob The Bob". The emotional melody line that Blake plays gets a rich tuba counterpoint ––it's arguably the most soulful tune in the program. One of the two bonus pieces on the digital download, "Anthem for No Country", features album co-producer Elan Mehler on piano––there is a hint of Abdullah Ibrahim in the melody (the song first appeared on Blake's 2001 "Elevated" album) and a feel of South African Township music (on both versions actually). 

"Combobulate" comes to a close with "The Parting Glass", a traditional song attributed to Scottish poet Robert Burns. There are dozens of versions, mostly vocal, of the song to be found online, and one can hear hints of Burns' "Auld Lang Syne" in the melody. The ensemble plays it straight, sans drums for the first half––when Mednard enters, his steady beat under the long tones of the horns which support Bernstein and Blake as they weave lines around each other, gives the music a touch of a 1960s "soul" ballad. However you decide what the song sounds like is fine, the piece is a gentle coda to an impressive collection of songs. 

Michael Blake has proven time and again over his career how big his ears are, how open to the musics of different traditions he can be, and how his musical voices can elicit many different emotions in the course of a performance or recording. "Combobulate" certainly is music for a "renewal" of the spirit and the soul. Highly recommended!!

As promised above, "Malagasy":

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Large Ensembles and Real Life (Part 1)


Brazilian native (Sao Paulo), saxophonist, composer, and arranger Felipe Salles came to the United States in 1995. Since then, he has worked with and led several different-sized ensembles and has taught at the University of Massachusetts/ Amherst for 13 years.  As a composer, he's been quite interested in the Immigrant experience in the United States––in 2020, Tapestry Records issued "The New Immigrant Experience", his second album with his large band, the Interconnections Ensemble (their 2018 release, "The Lullabye Project", was based around tunes from the composer's Brazilian upbringing). The "...Immigrant Experience" is a multi-media project that combines Salles's powerful compositions with interviews featuring immigrants to the US as part of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals).  The stories within the music are heart-breaking, emotional, stunning, and question the attitudes of politicians around the country who hold the future of these people hostage.

The 19-member Ensemble's latest project is "Home is Here" (Tapestry Records) and finds Salles writing intricate and vibrant pieces for eight guest artists, all of whom left their countries of origin to pursue their artistic dreams in the US.  The album opens with "Re-Invention", a vehicle for Paquito D'Rivera, the oldest guest in the project who, arguably, had the hardest journey to citizenship.  Listen below to how Salles blends Cuban rhythms into the body of the piece plus uses the ensemble to paint an evocative portrait. Rivera's joyous clarinet solo (like most if not all of his solos) dances with glee through the musical landscape. "World Citizen" finds Terry, the other Cuban ex-pat, in a less formal setting, one in which the drums and percussion push the proceedings forward.  The sensuous feel gives the soloists (bass trombonist Angel Subero and alto saxophonist Terry) just the right cushion (the setting for the sax solo has more fire but is positively effective).

The two tracks with vocals are quite different. Ms. Rei's moves easily through "Meridian 63", the mid-tempo "bouncing rhythm" supporting her voice as do the brass on the verse. Jonathan Ball's rollicking soprano sax gives the vocalist to scat along with the reeds and brass.  Quiet flutes lead the group in on "Two Worlds Together", a "dark" ballad featuring Ms. Herrera. Note how Salles uses the sections to provide a gentle response to the huskiness of the wordless vocal. However, the emotion displayed by Ms. Herrera gives Tyler Burchfield's bass clarinet solo its focal point while freeing up the vibraphone playing of Luke Glavanovits.  

"Home is Here" comes to a close with "Storytelling". After a quiet opening, the rhythm section propels the piece forward with tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana leading the ensemble through the theme.  At the close of guitarist Kevin Grudeki's solo, the ensemble drops out and Ms. Aldana steps out for a short, lovely, solo.  She then leads the band back in to support her soaring and exuberant solo.  The full-throated music reminds the listener that many musicians from other parts of the world, including Felipe Salles, have made their mark in this "Promised Land" thankful for the artistic freedom that the United States provides, finding their voice in the Creative Music. We listeners are thankful for the many sounds these artists have brought to our lives.  

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

Here's the opening track:

Felipe Salles conductor and composer, soprano saxophone on one track;
Saxophones and woodwinds; Jonathan Ball, John Mastroianni, Mike Caudill, Carl Clements, Tyler Burchfield; 
Trumpets and flugelhorns; Don Clough, Jeff Holmes, Seth Bailey, Bill Fanning, Jerry Sabatini; 
Trombones; Clayton DeWalt, Randy Pingrey, Bob Pilkington, Angel Subero; 
Nando Michelin, piano
Kevin Grudecki, guitar
Luke Glavanovits, vibraphone
Keala Kaumeheiwa, bass
Bertram Lehmann,  drums/percussion.

Paquito D'Rivera (Cuba) – clarinet & alto saxophone
Sofia Rei (Argentina) – voice
Jacques Schwarz-Bart (Guadeloupe/France) – tenor saxophone
Nadje Noordhuis (Australia) – flugelhorn
Magos Herrera (Mexico) – voice
Yosvany Terry (Cuba) – alto saxophone & shekere
Chico Pinheiro (Brazil) – guitar
Melissa Aldana (Chile) – tenor saxophone

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

A Life in the Day

Photo: Emra Islek
Hard to believe that it's been five years since Rudy Royston debuted his Flatbed Buggy quintet, the ensemble that includes John Ellis (bass clarinet), Gary Versace (accordion), Hank Roberts (cello), and Joe Martin (acoustic bass).  The group's self-titled debut (issued by Greenleaf Music) certainly surprised a majority of the drummer/composer's fanbase in that the contents were far more than a "blowing session"; instead one heard a series of song stories that reflected Royston's upbringing in Texas and the images that invoked in his mind.  The music felt more "Americana", in line with the music that the drummer was playing in Bill Frisell's ensemble.  

"Day" (Greenleaf Music) reunites the band post-Pandemic.  The 10-song program (eight by Royston with one each from Martin and Roberts) finds an ensemble comfortable in taking chances, pushing at the edges of composition to create not only delightful interplay but also strong solos.  We move through the "Day" starting with "Morning", a melody that stretches out played over time by each musician.  When Ellis lays down a rhythmical bass clarinet line that the other members of the band add their voices to, one gets the sense the group is "riffing" on Aaron Copland––Roberts' fine solo takes its cue from the bass clarinet line before Versace pushes the forward in a dialogue with Ellis. All the while, the rhythm section dances with abandon.  "Thank You For This Day" opens with the cello melody that turns into rhythmical strumming over Martin's pulsating bass and the dancing high hat. Then, listen as the melody and solos unfold off the rollicking opening.

This album finds the quintet in more of a "barn dance" mode much of the time. "Five-Thirty Strut" kicks off with a melodic drum solo but then gets down and funky. Notice how Martin and Roberts lock into the groove (listen below and try to sit still) then get "jazzy" beneath Ellis's solo. Kudos to sound engineer and mixer for the clarity of the sound throughout the album.  "Keep It Moving" is still funky but slinkier as well, the well-drawn melody moving atop a delicious "walking bass" line.  Then, the cello play in unison for a while before a quick stop and into Martin's fine bass solo (hints of Charles Mingus's "Haitian Fight Song" in there). 

Photo: R Royston
The album closes with Royston's short prayer-ballad "Time to Sleep" before moving into Robert's "A.M. Hours", a playful creep down the stairs for a late-night snack.  The tip-toe quality of the melody is echoed in the cello and bass lines while the accordion watches from the top of the stairs with the bass clarinet looking over its shoulder.  The drummer and his trap set sit this tune out, perhaps sleeping while the spirits play.

No matter what, "Day" is a splendid album, music for a breezy day, for a Summer night, sounds that caress and play with the listener like a good friend. Rudy Royston continues to grow as an artist, facilitator, arranger, and composer: Flatbed Buggy now seems to be his central mode of musical transportation and you should climb aboard!

For more information, go to www.rudyroyston.com.  To hear more and purchase the album, go to https://rudyroyston.bandcamp.com/album/day.

Put on your dancing shoes for "Five-Thirty Strut":

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Listening to The Brothers


Photo: Shervin Lainez
The Le Boeuf Brothers, Pascal (piano, compositions) and Remy (alto and tenor saxophones, compositions), first came to critical attention in 2009 when they self-released their debut album "House Without a Door".  The identical twins have both managed to carve out solo careers as performers, composers, arrangers, and educators. Pascal leads a Trio and works with vocalist Allan Harris and saxophonist Jeff Coffin while Remy leads a large ensemble known as Assembly of Shadows. He received several GRAMMY nominations for his work with that ensemble and Pascal just (in mid-April) was rewarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.  Their co-lead group has issued four albums including 2013's "Remixed" and 2016's "Imaginist" with the JACK Quartet.

"Hush" (SoundSpore Records) is the brothers' first release in seven years. Featuring Dayna Stephens (tenor saxophone), Linda May Han Oh (bass), and Christian Euman (drums, cymbals, brushes), the majority of the 19 tracks (only three are over five minutes duration) live up to the recording's title.  Euman uses brushes on the majority of the songs––in fact, it's the quiet nature of the music and the emotional richness of the melodies that pulls in the listener.  Due to the brevity of many of the cuts, there are few solos yet the poetry in the melody often stands out.  Pieces such as "Soot", "Please Scream Inside Your Head", and "State of Conflict" are much more beautiful than their titles suggest. Take the first track listed (listen below); despite the name, the music is gentle with the melody played by a breathy alto saxophone underpinned by gentle piano chords and low bass notes plus just the hint of mallet work.  As the piano moves up front (for just one short chorus), there is no pressure or tension, just an exquisite sense of peace.

Watch the video below for "Wedding Planning", certainly the most spirited piece on the recording. Still, Euman is still using brushes but note how it's Pascal's piano and Ms. Oh's wonderfully articulated bass lines that move the music forward.  The alto solo is quite joyful and there are moments when the rhythm section gleefully swings!

Really, you need to take the time to listen to this music. There are hints of Debussy and Satie in the melodies as well as folk music and Americana, Sondheim and Bacharach; that's it, just "hints".  Melody and interaction are the watchwords of "Hush", music that eschews technical displays and long solos for haiku-like melodies and soft timbre.  The Le Boeuf Brothers want you to respond to this music by gathering it in, sharing with friends, and returning to the quiet sounds many times. 

For more information, go to www.leboeufbrothers.com.  To hear more and purchase the album, go to  https://leboeufbrothers.bandcamp.com/album/hush.

As promised, "Wedding Planning":

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

To Listen is to Wonder, To Dream


Photo: Dave Stapleton
Ben Wendel, born in British Columbia, raised in Los Angeles, and now living in Brooklyn NY, is a multi-faceted musician. He plays tenor and soprano saxophones, bassoon, synths, and percussion, composes, arranges, produces, and more. He was founding member of the instrumental ensemble Kneebody and he has worked with artists such as Snoop Dogg, Linda May Han Oh, Eric Harland, Prince, and many others.  He's issued eight albums as a leader plus produced sessions for Gerald Clayton, Dan Tepfer, and Dave Cook.  Wendel has played on sessions led by Moonchild, keyboardist Tigran Hamasyan, percussionist Adam Rudolph, and pianist Taylor Eigsti (among others).  He currently is adjunct faculty at the New School in New York City and conducts masterclasses around North America.  His recordings cover a plethora of styles from from jazz-fusion to "straight-ahead" to exploratory but with an ear towards strong melodic lines.

His new album "All One" is Wendel's second for Edition Records––it's basically a solo album with guests but what a lineup. The six-program song opens with "I Loves You Porgy".  The Ira & George Gershwin classic from "Porgy and Bess" features Wendel on saxes, bassoon, and synth bass supporting Cécile McLorin Salvant whose emotionally stunning vocal stands out.  His arrangement for the reed orchestra (all parts played by Wendel) is a delight from start to finish. Later in the program, Jose Jamés inhabits "Tenderly" (music by Walter Gross, lyrics by Jack Lawrence)––the 1946 tune has been recorded by Sarah Vaughan, Rosemary Clooney, Nat "King" Cole, Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald, Eric Dolphy, and many others. Wendel's arrangement is stunning not only when the reeds support the voice but how he "paints" the background behing the handsome tenor sax solo.   

Photo: Dave Stapleton
Trumpeter Terence Blanchard joins Wendel for the powerful and wide-ranging "Wanderers" (composed by the leader: listen below)––the orchestral arrangement reminds this listener of Julius Hemphill but note how the piece "opens" in the middle and takes on the feel of a progressive big band. Guitarist Bill Frisell leads the reeds through the handsome aural-scape of his piece "Throughout".  Wendel's arrangement creates layers of sound, some in the front of the mix, others farther back plus the cushion he creates for the guitarist is quite lovely.  Ther Wendel original "Speak Joy" opens with synth bass, bassoons murmuring in both speakers, the lovely flute sounds of Elena Pinderhughes moving the melody forward.  Lower tones dominate the background for the flute and soprano sax solos; there's a splendid moment when the two lead instruments unite and play the melody in unison as overdubbed flutes and saxes swirl behind them.

"All One" closes with the third of three Wendel originals, the atmospheric "In Anima".  Here, the acoustic piano of Tigran Hamasyan joins the synths to create a melancholic and trance-like background for a tenor sax (with effects) solo that threatens to veer off. That leads to a piano solo that builds off the rhythmic pattern and sets the stage for a return to the original melody. Now, it's played by bassoons that are joined by the tenor sax which then steps forward to bring the piece and the album to its gentle close.

"All One" is Ben Wendel's "pandemic" album. Recorded over a period of 18 months (between the Fall of 2020 through March 2022), some artists remotely at home, others in studios, the music never sounds stiff or overly arranged but it's also not a series of jams.  Each track stands out yet the "through-line" is that continued creative endeavors can survive and thrive in the face of an uncertain future. At times playful, other times quite serious, there is tenderness, resolve, joy, love, and even ferocity that makes the listener dig in for repeated listenings. Highly recommended!

For more information about Ben Wendel, go to www.benwendel.com. To hear and to purchase the album, go to https://benwendel.bandcamp.com/album/all-one

Hear "Wanderers" with Terence Blanchard:

Monday, April 17, 2023

Sounds Abound

Photo: Antonio Narvaez
To the left is a photo of pianist and vocalist Champian Fulton in her natural habitat; that is, playing her infectious, swinging, life-affirming brand of popular music to a happy crowd.  The Oklahoma-born Fulton has been recording since 2007. She prefers the Trio setting (can't blame her––she's a fine pianist) although she often adds her flugelhorn playing Father, Stephen Fulton, to the group.  She's issued 14 albums, many on her own label but also several for Cellar Live and one for Posi-Tone. Over her career, her vocal style has blossomed so one hear a bit of Ella, Sarah Vaughan, and Dinah Washington.

Her new album, "Meet Me at Birdland" (self-released), has just been issued. The 13-song, 70-minute, experience features Ms. Fulton with her New York trio, bassist Hide Tanaka and drummer (brushes-man extraordinaire) Fukushi Tainaka.  This is one tight ensemble and the pianist's chops are on display throughout. Instrumentals such as "Theme for Basie" and the rip-roaring "Happy Camper" give the group room to stretch out while Ms. Fulton's vocals on "Just Friends" and "I've Got a Crush on You" makes one feel like she is singing just for you.  Even the oft-recorded "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most" sounds fresh and alive. 

"Meet Me at Birdland" closes with "It's Been a Long, Long, Time"––voice and piano, no rhythm section, and this bluesy take is a treat.  One gets the feeling if Champian Fulton lived in the time of the Harlem "Rent Parties", she'd be living in the penthouse. This collection will most certainly brighten your life.  

To find out more, go to www.champian.net.  To buy the new album, go to  https://champianfulton.bandcamp.com/album/meet-me-at-birdland.

Listen to the Trio dig into "Theme for Basie":

Like your guitar music electric and loud?  Or do you like is electric and sensitive?  "The Great Mirage" (ASG Recordings) pairs Joel Harrison and Anthony Pirog with the rhythm section of Allison Miller (drums) and Stephan Crump (electric bass) and the results are fascinating.  All four players have excellent jazz chops but here they turn their attention to music that could be best described as "Prog Rock meets Electric Fusion".  There are moments, such as on the album opening title track and on "Mortgage on My Soul" (composed by Keith Jarrett) that try men's speakers with both guitarists displaying chops that would impress fans of Jeff Beck and Steve Vai.  Yet, on "There's Never Enough Time" and "Desert Solitaire", there are moments of beauty and emotional depth.  

One should not downplay the work of Ms. Miller and Mr. Crump.  On the uptempo pieces, they set the pace – the funky rhythms on "East Hurley" rub against the wailing guitars so nicely. Listen to how gently they keep the pace flowing on Harrison's heartfelt "I'll See You in the Shining World". This particular tune is one whose melody sticks to your soul.  

Pirog and Harrison turn acoustic on the 75-second "Last Rose of Summer" with one of them playing dobro. Despite its brevity, the piece stands out.

The album closes with two powerful tracks. First, "Clarksdale" has a hard-edge tempered by the addition of Bruce Katz on the Hammond B-3 organ. Pirog's wailing solo pushes off the rhythm section while Harrison's ringing chords keep the structure. That leads to the rocking "Buffalo Heart"–composed by Harrison, the roaring piece sounds like an homage to Neil Young & Crazy Horse. The guitars roar at each other from thew corners of the stereo mix while the bass and drums throb and thrash in-between them.  

"The Great Mirage" is, in some ways, one of those "turn it up to 10" recordings, with piercing guitars that can cleanse one's soul. To the credit of Joel Harrison and Anthony Pirog, these songs have really strong and, for a good number, engrossing melodies.  Yes, it's loud, yes, it's mostly electric, but this music also has emotional power and maturity, not just a endless of loop of flashy solos.

For more information, go to https://joelharrison.com/.  To hear more and buy the album, go to  https://agsrecordings.bandcamp.com/album/the-great-mirage.

Here's the title track: