Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Pro Bone Players (2 Nicks & 1 John)

Leo Sidran has a great, informative podcast called "The Third Story"; he recently ran a delightful interview with trombonist, composer, and bandleader Ryan Keberle.  Among the many points made in the discussion was that (and I am paraphrasing Keberle here) the trombone is enjoying new-found popularity, especially with trombonists (such as him) leading their own groups and not just big bands. Below are reviews of three new recordings that prove his point.

When trombonist and composer Nick Finzer entered the studio to record his third album as a leader, the United States was embroiled in a contentious Presidential election, a time when the country was facing serious choices about its mission and future.  The album, "Hear & Now" (Outside In Music), is a musical reaction to those events and the malaise that the composer saw spreading over the country.  Pieces such as "We The People", "The Silent One", "Race To The Botton", and "Dance of Persistence" display Finzer's concerns as does the urgency of the musical performances. The power in the music comes as much from those song titles, much the way Charles Mingus provoked his audiences, forcing us to think of the conditions all around.

The sextet for the session includes Lucas Pino (tenor saxophone, bass clarinet), Alex Wintz (guitar), and Glenn Zaleski (piano) plus the powerful rhythm section of Dave Baron (bass) and Jimmy Macbride (drums). The blend of trombone and reeds makes for an excellent contrast on pieces such as "Again and Again" where the bass clarinet plays the harmony behind the melody while the rhythm section simmers underneath, the piano serving as a go-between.  Wintz's guitar rises up for the first solo, slowly the intensity rises, reminiscent of Herbie Hancock's music on his Blue Note recordings "Speak Like a Child" and "The Prisoner."  Then Finzer and Pino solo together, pushing the piece forward before stepping aside for Macbride's short, powerful solo.  Subtle overdubbing creates a reed and brass choir at the onset of Duke Ellington's "Single Petal of a Rose" (the only non-original piece in the program); it's quite beautiful and leads into the emotional piano solo over the whisper-soft bass and drums. Zaleski's solo opening on the final track, "Love Wins", introduces the poetic ballad. Pino's swirling bass clarinet and Wintz's impressionist chords frame Finzer's handsome melody as Baron's spare bass notes serves as the foundation while Macbride dances over his cymbals and drum kit.

The blend of power and gentleness, of reeds, strings, and piano atop an exemplary rhythm section makes "Hear & Now" stand out.  One can not ignore the agenda Nick Finzer has on this album, showing how music can reflect the times, how jazz has always been and remains protest music, how the stance of the musicians can call the audience to action, and how much we need to be pro-active in these days of "reaction without reflection."  The musicians are not revolutionary in the way that the late Fred Ho and the late Charlie Haden were but this music fights against complacency and blanket acceptance, calling for "presence, vision, passion, inspiration, reflection, dialogue, evolution, action, and change", the words printed on the inner sleeve of the album.  Pay attention!

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

Here's the opening track:

Glenn Zaleski also shows up on the new release from trombonist, trumpeter, and composer Nick Vayenas.  "Flow Motion" (self-released) is Vayenas's fourth album as a leader (since 2008) - he's such a busy sideman, working with Michael Bublé, Josh Groban, Lady Antebellum, Patrick Cornelius, and Kendrick Scott (on whose label he released his debut CD, "Synesthesia."  Besides Zaleski, the sextet on the recording includes Dayna Stephens (tenor saxophone), Peter Slavov (bass), Colin Stranahan (drums), and the afore-mentioned Cornelius (alto saxophone).

photo by Angela Sowon Vayenas
Although there is a track titled "Anarchy", the majority of the material seems to have no political agenda.  That particular track swings with a vengeance, featuring strong solos from the alto saxophonist, the leader, and Stranahan. Zaleski's work in the background is notable for its strength and subtlety, which is true throughout the entire program.  In fact, it's his short but rich chordal work that leads off the title track that leads off the album.  The song swings with a gentle yet firm rhythm - Vayenas plays in a buttery style, quite melodic, setting the tone for Stephen's handsome solo and the pianist's earthy explorations.  The rhythm section moves the music forward in a playful manner, especially the drummer whose accents are a delight.

Vayenas switches to trumpet for "Premonition", sharing the melody with the tenor sax. The piano chords, at times, suggest McCoy Tyner but, like the opening track, there is a gentleness to the proceedings.  The leader's tone on trumpet is clear, his notes crisp, and his attack adds intensity to the track.  The influence of Herbie Hancock is evident on "The Final Frontier"; again, the trumpet takes the lead and Vayenas's bluesy solo spurs the rhythm section to react with stops-and-starts as well as keeping the flow moving.

Another highlight is "Velvet Mystery", a handsome ballad whose melody is carried by the mellow trombone and breathy tenor sax. Zaleski creates an impressionistic opening solo that opens up to Vayenas's heart-felt improvisation - he's "writing a story", inviting the listener to get lost along the way to come out on a reiteration of the main melody that's now has a quiet intensity, not so much as a mystery.  The final track, "Change", is also a ballad with only trombone and piano.  The opening features Vayenas on melody and Zaleski on counterpoint with the pianist taking the first solo.  Various melodic fragments show up before the trombone reenters. His "singing" lines over the chordal accompaniment intimate a "classic" ballad and serves as a lovely closing to the album.

"Flow Motion" is an album to get lost in.  The program never forces its way into your brain yet invites you to relax, settle down - even the funky "Red Stripe" has a good natured gentility. The music Nick Vayenas and crew creates on the album is truly for early morning reveries and late-night meditations.

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

Here's the title tune:

"Tight Rope", a funky, hard-edged, tune opens "Presence" (See Tao Recordings), the fourth recording from trombonist and composer John Yao.  The Chicago native has worked in numerous ensembles including the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, the Brooklyn Big Band, and the Jeff Fairbanks Orchestra. His previous album, ""Flip-Flop", was created for his 17-piece Instrument but the new recording is with his Quintet, a return to the smaller-group ensemble of his 2012 Innova recording.

This group includes Jon Irabagon (soprano and sopranino saxes), Randy Ingram (piano, Fender Rhodes), Peter Brendler (bass), and Shawn Baltazor (drums); the music Yao gives to them play to their strengths. Irabagon, whose noted for his tenor work, is limited to the higher range reeds here yet it's a smart juxtaposition to the trombone. Plus, he has developed into such a fine player. Listen to the elegiac "M. Howard" (the album is dedicated to the memory of one of the leader's best friends and how the soprano melody lifts up as it sings.  The lovely, melodic bass solo (Brendler is one of the most sensitive players on the scene) leads into an intense piano solo that also rises, this time over the rhythm section and the horns. Yao then steps out, the intensity picks up even more, and one hears his sorrow transformed into (musical) action.

I like the audacity of "Fuzzy Logic", the opening moments featuring trombone, bass, and sopranino on melody while the drummer and piano create a raucous scene.  As the piece moves into its fiery stop-start pace, Yao and Ibragon wail away, Ingram provides counterpoint to their intense soloing and the rhythm section gives chase. There's also an intensity to "Nightfall" but with a melodic flair. Ingram's forceful solo inspires the rhythm section as well as Yao to really get deeper into the music.  The title track is calmer, even more melodic, a work for quartet sans saxophone, becoming a spotlight for trombone and piano.  The bass and drums stay active, producing dancing rhythms for the soloists.  The closing track, "Bouncy's Bounce", does have a jaunty feel. Pay attention to Brendler as he moves from the melody to his solid walking bass line. Notice also how Irabagon takes the title to heart, his playful solo dancing - yes, even bouncing - above the rhythm section.  Yao starts out quieter but soon gets into the playful spirit, goosed by Baltazor's active bass drum and interjections.

Such good music, such strong compositions, such a good ensemble, "Presence" has all the ingredients to please and challenge an active listener.  John Yao created this life-affirming music in the aftermath of a sudden loss. Many of us turn to art, to music, in times of stress. This album by The John Yao Quintet gives one hope in the face of  tragedy, inspiring us to continue to move forward.

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

Monday, May 22, 2017

A Great Lake

If one takes a close look at the ongoing career of saxophonist, composer, and activist Oliver Lake (pictured left), you'll see a person dedicated to not only celebrating the past but also always moving relentlessly ahead.  Coming out of St. Louis, MO, in the 1960s, a co-founding member of the BAG (Black Artists Group), he teamed up with Julius Hemphill, Hamiet Bluiett, and David Murray to form the World Saxophone Quartet, all the while touring and recording with his own ensembles.  Like Wadada Leo Smith, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, and other of his contemporaries, he developed a sound on his chosen instrument - alto saxophone - that immediately tells who he is upon the first notes.  His recorded output includes duos, trios, quartets, organ-based ensembles, steel pan groups, big band, and numerous releases with the collective Trio 3 (with Andrew Cyrille and Reggie Workman, an association well into its third decade).  Lake works with the trio Tarbaby (Orrin Evans, Nasheet Waits, and Eric Revis) and as a guest artist with other groups.

"Right Up On" (Passin' Thru Records) is his first recording with a string quartet but not his first with strings; he appeared in duo with violinist Leroy Jenkins (1932 - 2007), augmented his "working" quartet with a string quartet on 1979's "Shine!" (Arista-Novus), and released an album in 1997 "Movement, Turns, and Switches" with the Oliver Lake String Project.  This new album features FLUX Quartet (violinist Tom Chiu, violinist Conrad Harris, violist Max Mandel, and cellist Felix Fan), who Lake has worked with since 2002 and for whom he composed the majority of the pieces on the recording.  Like much of the composer's works, the 9 compositions have written and improvised sections plus the use of graphics and minimal notation.

The music certainly has a contemporary feel but hearkens back to the late quartets of Beethoven and to the string writing of Olivier Messiaen, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, and George Walker.  The lovely sonorities of the title track, the twists-and-turns of "2016" (the pizzicato opening with its stormy feel that opens to a lovely pastoral melody that branches into several other directions, and the fascinating use of dynamic variations on "Sponge" (near silence to keening sounds to percussive effects and a surprising vocal interjection) illustrates how Lake pushes the musicians and challenges the audience.  The composer adds his saxophone voice to two tracks. On "Hey Now Hey", he joins the Quartet 1/3rd of the way playfully interacting by pushing his way into the conversation whereas on "5 Sisters" (dedicated to the memory of his mother and her four sisters), the alto leads the way. Listen closely to how the strings respond to the reed sounds and melody lines, to the improvisation, to how the cello adds such depth to the music, and to how the piece ends unresolved (to these ears).

The final track, "Einstein 100!", comes from 2005 and, of course, plays with space and time, with the finite and infinite, with solos and improvisations, and contains moments of delightful counterpoint. It is important to note here that Albert Einstein was an accomplished amateur violinist, often reaching for his instrument in moments if stressful research.  Nearly 21 minutes long, the music is dramatic, cathartic, sometimes soothing, occasionally puzzling (why the coughing?), but always searching, probing, looking inward and outward, and never settling for cliche.

Oliver Lake has been a creative force for over five decades and shows no inclination to stop pushing forward.  In FLUX Quartet, he has found musicians as daring as he, as willing to go deep into music and out on a limb as he continues to do.  Pay attention to"Right Up On"; even as the music challenges your expectations, it will also take you many places.

For more information, go to www.oliverlake.net or to passinthru.bandcamp.com/album/right-up-on.

Here is Oliver Lake with FLUX in concert:

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Way From Home

Pianist and composer Vadim Neselovskyi left his native Ukraine at the age of 16 and moved to Germany with his family. After attending schools there, he came to the United States to study at the Berklee College of Music and now serves on the faculty of the Boston-based school. His debut album, "Spring Song", was issued in 2007, the music performed by a sextet including two vocalists.  In 2013, Sunnyside Records issued "Music for September", a solo album produced by Fred Hersch featuring songs inspired by classical music, Keith Jarrett, and interpretations of several well-known standards.

In 2014, Neselovskyi formed a trio with Israeli-born drummer Ronen Itzik and the American bassist Dan Loomis (a charter member of Wee Trio).  They headed off to Ukraine for a jazz festival and as they were about to take the stage, the organizers of the festival told Neselovskyi's ensemble that a Ukrainian military plane had been shot from the sky by a missile launched by a separatist group (one of several terrorist attacks that took place that year.)  The musicians were asked to keep the music appropriate for the tragic events.

That concert was the genesis of "Get Up And Go" (Jazz Family/Blu Jazz Productions), the debut album of the Vadim Neselovskyi Trio.   The group is coming to The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme CT this Friday night (5/19) to not only play the music from the album but also new material inspired by the group's travels around the United States, Europe, and beyond.  While music of the music is a reflection on the events around the festival, there are also a number of uplifting songs, pieces such "San Felio" and "Who Is It" that surge forward on the power of Neselovskyi's dashing piano lines, Loomis's thick bass lines, and Itzik's dancing drums. The former piece has several tempo changes, a well-placed laugh, and wonderful melodic turns-of-phrase. The latter tune is similar, opening on a raucous rhythmic surge before the trio digs in, interacting, teasing out melodies, plus a powerful piano solo. The title track is an exhortation, a reminder that even in sorrow, life goes on.  The music starts slowly,  prayer-like, before moving forward on the power of the rippling piano and the forceful drum work of Itzik.

The program also includes the powerful ballad "Krai', an original the pianist recorded for a 2014 recording, a duo with horn player Arkady Schilkloper.  It's the first song Neselovskyi played at that festival, a solo work with a wide range of emotions, from anger to wonder to pride. "Krai" means "region" in pre-Revolutionary Russia and "administrative territory" since.  For the pianist, I can speculate that it also means "home" or, at least, serves as a reminder of his native land. Another lovely ballad is "Winter", the opening notes falling like gentle snow until Loomis's arco bass lines read the melody. The expansive piano solo rarely rises above a whisper yet is filled a sense of wonder and contemplation.

Vocalist Sara Serpa joins the Trio on two songs, the handsome "Station Taiga" (named for a stop on the Trans-Siberian railway) and the album closer "Almost December." While she does not sing any words, her haunting voice joins with the piano and bass on the latter track to create an impressionistic portrait of early winter.  Notice how melodic Loomis is when he's interacting with the other musicians and take delight in the lovely addition (halfway through) of glockenspiel to the song.  One of my favorite moments on the recording occurs on "Station Taiga" when Neslelovskyi matches Ms. Serpa's vocal with his melodica, then moves away in counterpoint to the blowed bass, voice, and piano.

"Get Up and Go" is an impressive collection of songs, heart-felt, exciting, highly melodic yet, at times, also quite rhythmical. Vadim Neselovskyi is a mature composer, a splendid pianist, and impressive soloist. But, this music is about heart more than technique, soul more than exquisite execution.  In a world of multitudinous piano trios, the Vadim Neselovskyi Trio is well worth your attention.

As I wrote above, the Trio is in CT this week then in New York City on 5/21 and 22. Go to www.vadimneselovskyi.com/live/ for more information. To reserve a seat at The Side Door, call 860-434-2600.

Here's a look at the V. N. Trio:

Monday, May 1, 2017

Sounds of Gratitude, Strength, and Wonder

There are a number of very good reasons that the new album by saxophonist Dayna Stephens is titled "Gratitude". First and foremost, he is finally over the worst of the effects of Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis (FSG), a kidney disease that has affected him for the past two decades. Thanks to a donation from his aunt Lauren Annette Bullock (a performing artist based in California), Stephens is back in good health. Also, the album is the first to be issued on his own label, Contagious Music.

In many ways, the album is a continuation of 2014's "Peace" (Sunnyside) in that it is produced by Matt Pierson, features the same musicians (pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier, guitarist Julian Lage, and drummer Eric Harland), recorded (mostly) in the same studio in Rhineback, NY, and the material leans heavily in the direction of ballads.  This time, however, the songs are composed by Stephens contemporaries with the exception of Billy Strayhorn's "Isfahan." 

The album opens with "Emilie", a lovely piece from Olivier Manchon, with a sweet melody first introduced by piano and tenor saxophone (Stephens also plays baritone sax, EWI Wind synthesizer, and synth bass on the album).  The music skitters along on the dance of the rhythm section with the leader rising above them with long, flowing, lines.  "In A Garden", from pianist Aaron Parks, is next. This is such a gracious ballad, the quiet guitar chords and spare accompaniment frame a lovely melody that Stephens takes his time to work through.  First solo is from Grenadier and is a reminder of how melodic a player he can be.  

There are moments throughout the album that are reminiscent of the recent work by Charles Lloyd (the gentleness of the tenor playing) yet Stephens is certainly his own person. On Pat Metheny's Impressionistic ballad "We Had a Sister", he utilizes the EWI for the melody and solo before Mehldaus splendid solo.  The Wind Synthesizer often sounds harsh but here paints a lovely and emotional portrait. The use of baritone saxophone on "Isfahan" is inspired.  With only guitar and bass as support, Stephens gives the Strayhorn ballad from Ellington's "Far East Suite" a jaunty but not overdone feel.  There is a pleasing "Americana" feel to Lage's "Woodside Waltz" (Mehldau plays "tack" piano) and the leader plays a sweet solo. Electronics play an important part on the last track, two different songs titled "Clouds" (the first from Massimo Biolcati, the second from Louis Cole) - the synthesizer dances alongside Harland's excellent drum work as the tenor sax plays the melodies.  As the piece moves forward into the section composed by Cole, the tenor pairs with the EWI to play the plaintive melody.  It's an effective and gentle way to close out the program.

Piotr Wyleżoł image
Stephens original composition "The Gratitude of Timbre" is a lovely ballad, the only original piece on this album (unlike the previous recording, which had none). Notice how the band (minus Mehldau) pushes the piece forward, pointing ahead to a future with such possibilities and excitement.  Dayna Stephens has never shied away from a challenge, performing and teaching even as he constantly needed dialysis. "Gratitude" is a "thank-you note" to all those who supported him mentally and fiscally, to the many musicians who he has worked and played with, and to the power of music and faith. 

For more information, go to daynastephens.net.  

Here's the opening track:

One often feels the need to put labels on music, especially to "understand" the intentions of the composer and performers.  If you take a close look at "Nerve Dance" (Clean Feed Records), the new release from the Michaël Attias Quartet, you see an ensemble makeup that has been central to jazz since the days of bebop - the leader on alto saxophone, pianist Aruán Ortiz, bassist John Hébert, and drummer Nasheet Waits - and they make music that hearkens back to the Keith Jarrett groups of the late 1970s and 80s. There is great group interactions, intelligent compositions that blur the lines between melody and improvisations, and an dynamism that has its roots both in the AACM and European "free music" scene.

Putting labels aside for the time-being, what one hears on "Nerve Dance" is delightful and challenging interplay that speaks to the elasticity of forms.  Nasheet Waits is amazing throughout, his drumming on several tracks, including the opening "Dark Net", showing the influence of hip hop. His melodic work on "Nerve and Limbo", especially in the first half, captures an intensity that one hears in Andrew Cyrille - he is central in not only moving the piece forward but in illuminating the melody.  His rhythm section mate, John Hébert, also has a wonderful melodic side, noticeable on Attias's "Moonmouth" as well as his own "Rodger Lodger" - his counterpoint to the theme stands out and is continued throughout solos.  He also is quite a dancer as he displays his impressive moves on "Scribble Job Yin Yang", flying above the deep piano notes of Ortiz.  The pianist is a splendid accompanist. His chordal splashes on "La Pèse-Nerfs" (taking its title from the journals of Antonin Artaud) helps the piece move out into "freer" territory, echoing the cymbal splashes of Waits. Aruán Ortiz can be gentle as well. His deliberate pace as he moves through the melody of Hèbert's "Nasheet" allows the piece to grow up and out. Later on, when the music is more forceful, his interaction with the drummer is energetic yet thoughtful.

Alto saxophonist and composer Attias is a fine improvisor but also an intelligent composer and arranger.  The orchestrations on pieces such as "Moonmouth" and "La Part Maudite" gives each member of the ensemble equal weight in the sound, whether it's the piano, bass, and drums playing the melody on the latter track or how the voices move around each other on the former.  "Dream In a Mirror", at 9:51, is the longest track. Waits open the piece with a powerful solo that folds back into itself time and again before Hébert take an equally long and majestic solo. With two short taps on the cymbal, the piano enters with the drums and plays the melody alongside the bassist.  The intensity picks up with the entrance of the alto sax.  The rhythm section creates quite a storm while Attias pushes them forward with an equally power solo.

Yes, "Nerve Dance" by The Michaël Attias Quartet may only appeal to listeners who enjoy contemporary jazz but, to give this music any one label, does it a disservice. Exploratory music is better, played by an ensemble who challenge each other and themselves to avoid cliches, to play honestly and in the moment.  The band did a short tour around the release of the CD and, hopefully, you can get to hear them live. In the meantime, this album is mighty impressive.

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

Bryan and the Aardvarks look to the heavens for "Sounds From the Deep Field", the ensemble's second album and first for Biophilia Records. It's no surprise that band in on Fabian Almazan's new and progressive label as the pianist has been in the band since its inception.  Bassist and composer Bryan Copeland leads the group which, besides Almazan (who also plays synths), features Chris Dingman (vibraphone), Jesse Lewis (guitars), and Joe Nero (drums) - on this album, they are joined by vocalist Camila Meza and Dayna Stephens (EWI Wind synthesizer). Like the other 2017 Biophilia releases, the music is only available as a download. There is an option where you can purchase the cover and the download. Click on this link to find out more.

Copeland's influences for this album include the work of Carl Sagan, the explorations of NASA's satellites as they move away fromearth, and, musically, the progressive "rock" of artists such as Hatfield and The North plus progressive jazz of Tony Willams, Bill Bruford's Earthworks, Chick Corea, Jason Moran, and others. This ensemble does not imitate any of those artists mentioned but, to my ears, uses their visions to create their own.  Notice how the opening track, "Supernova", moves to power of the chords provided by Lewis and Dingman, with Ms. Meza's wordless vocals as an extra instrument, and Almazan's far-ranging solo. The "openness" of "Eagle Nebula" is created by the swirling sounds of the vibes and piano while Nero and Copeland frame the composition.  Lewis and Ms. Meza build the melody throughout the first half of the track before they drop out with the rhythm section. Dingman and Almazan move around each other, as if floating in space, until the rhythm section returns to help the piece to its rousing conclusion.  Copeland composed "Soon I'll Be Leaving This World" as an elegiac piano spotlight for Almazan; he has the first 90 seconds to himself before the drums enter, then drop out for the bass to continue to lay the foundation.  When the rest of the band enters (reminiscent of Procol Harum's "Salty Dog"), the pianist continues to lead the way with a dazzling array of long. flowing, lines that move way and back into the band. Everyone drops out and Alamazan takes the piece to its close on an ever-softening lilting melody.

Ms. Meza also sings Copeland's lyrics on several tracks.  "The Sky Turned To Grey", a song about earthly storms and how they effect us.  Lewis creates a power solo over the roiling piano chords and solo rhythms; that "powerful" sounds continues when the solo ends and the voice returns to push the song to its climax. The opening notes of the lovely ballad "Magnetic Fields" suggests Kurt Weill's "September Song"  - the lyrics are more hopeful, a search for meaning in such a vast universe. The music opens up for a fine vibes solo over a a rhythm that suggests a waltz.

The music is not all "spacey".  Hard-edged funky drums lead the way into "Strange New Planet" (this is a tune where the "prog-rock" influence is most noticeable). Lewis and Dayna Stephens's EWI take the melody lines while Dingman offers counterpoint. The leader's powerful bass lines lock in with the drums to keep the song "rocking". There's an even harder "reprise" of the track, the short "LV 426" several tracks later.  Despite the title of the album's final track, "To Gaze Out The Cupola Module", the piece jumps right out of the speakers, powered by Nero's "smashing" drums. Almazan's electronic keyboard shares the solo space with the vibes, trading off phrases as the song rockets forward.

"Sounds From the Deep Field" has many glorious moments for listeners to bathe in.  Whether it's Fabian Almazan's powerful piano playing, Chris Dingman's supportive, melodic, trance-like vibraphone, Jesse Lewis's arching guitar lines, Camila Meza's earthy yet dignified vocals, the strong support and drive of drummer Joe Nero, plus the leader's foundational work (listen to how his high notes still manage to underpin "Tiny Skull Sized Kingdom"), this music captures one's imagination.  Would it work so well without the beautiful artwork, the views of the heavens taken by NASA's Hubble Telescope team, or the words of Carl Sagan?  They certainly help but it's Bryan Copeland's vision for this music that leads the way and it's an entrancing way to follow.

For more information, go to bryanandtheaardvarks.com.

Join the band and Ms. Meza on a track from the recording:

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Strong Music, Subtle Message

Trumpeter David Weiss leads two of the most dynamic bands playing these days and nights. As a player, he takes a bit of a back seat in The Cookers (the septet with Billy Hart, George Cables, Billy Harper, Eddie Henderson, Cecil McBee, and Donald Harrison) - Weiss is much more prominent in Point of Departure, a quintet (plus guests) that takes its name from an Andrew Hill composition (and album).  This group mines music from the late 1960s and early 70s from composers like Hill, Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter, and two men closely associated with the Detroit music scene of that time, pianist Kenny Cox and trumpeter Charlie Moore.  Those two musicians, who recorded as the Cox and The Contemporary Jazz Quintet, had a big effect of Weiss and he has recorded a number of their pieces with Point of Departure.

"Wake Up Call" (Ropeadope) is the ensemble's fourth CD. The 9-song program is broken into three sections, "I. Prologue", "II. Unfinished Business", and "III. New Beginning".  Judging by the power of the music, I believe that Weiss is telling his audience that these songs, many of them from the raucous years of the late 1960s, are indicative of the turmoil in this country at that time and how they reflect these troubled times. Besides Weiss on trumpet (and Fender Rhodes on 2 tracks), Point of Departure is composed of Matt Clohesy (bass), Ben Eunson (guitar), Myron Walden (tenor sax on 6 tracks), J.D. Allen (tenor sax on 3 tracks), Nir Felder (guitar on 3 tracks), Travis Reuter (guitar on 6 tracks) and, for my money, the most important element in the group, drummer Kush Abadey. The drummer, who first came to critical notice at the age of 16 when he joined Wallace Roney's group, has worked with Terence Blanchard, Chris Potter, Tomasz Stanko and many others.

The album opens with "Sanctuary", a John McLaughlin songs from the Mahavishnu Orchestra'a 1973 album "Birds Of Fire."  The music starts slowly but soon Abadey plus guitarists Eunson and Reuter are creating a roiling rhythm for Walden's intense solo.   "..Unfinished Business" begins with Wayne Shorter's "Two Faced", a song first recorded by the Miles Davis Quintet in 1968, appearing on 1976's "Water Babies". At 12:22, it's the longest track and takes its time to build up steam - there are strong solos from Weiss and Allen, both fairly long and both feeding off the energy of the rhythm section.  Two songs from Charles Moore follow, the funky uptempo "Multidirection"(reminiscent, at times, of "Theme from Shaft") and the delightful ballad "Noh Word." On the latter track, Allen's soulful solo rolls into Felder's, a more impressionistic take over the powerful drums.

The third, and longest, section, "New Beginning" opens with Joe Henderson's "Gazelle" (recorded in 1970) - the piece rides the rampaging drums (listen to Abadey under Walden's fiery tenor solo) and percussive guitar. Cox's "Sojourn" has an understated power, pushed by the rhythm section and the counterpoint of the guitars. Perhaps the most fascinating cut in the program is "Sonhos Esquecodos" from Brazilian composer Lelo Nazario (recorded in 1982 as a member of Grupo Um).  Sandwiched between two pieces by Tony Williams, the song has a long rubato beginning (yet listen to the power of Abadey) with trumpet and saxophone playing the melody (actually sounds like a tune Weather Report may have produced in its early years). Once the piece settles into a groove, Reuter's hard-edged solo ratchets up the intensity.

"Wake Up Call" is intense music, so much so that even the quieter moments have great power. Listen to this music for its messages, for the solos, for the amazing work of Kush Abadey and Matt Clohesy, for the smart two-guitar work, and for its power.  David Weiss & Point of Departure wants you to get off your feet and let the music created here push you to action.

For more information, go to davidweissmusic.com/projects/david-weiss-point-of-departure/.

Take a listen:

Tenor and soprano saxophonist Jason Rigby, from Cleveland, Ohio, is a busy musician and educator. He leads or co-leads four groups and is currently an Assistant Professor of Jazz/Commercial Saxophone at Towson University in Maryland. His third album as a leader, "One: Detroit - Cleveland Trio" (Fresh Sound New Talent), features the rhythm section of bassist Cameron Brown and drummer Gerald Cleaver, both of whom hail from the Motor City and recorded with Rigby on his 2009 FSNT album "The Sage."  In fact, Brown was also on Rigby's 2006 debut for Fresh Sound, "Translucent Space."

Right from the opening moments, "One" is a treat for lovers of saxophone trio music. "Dive Bar" is a duet for tenor and drums - Cleaver opens the piece with a short introduction, a thunderous setting for Rigby to enter with a melody not unlike the initial theme of Sonny Rollins's "Freedom Suite."  The power of the drums and the writhing saxophone lines sink their hooks into the ears of the listener and do not let go for seven minutes. Brown leads the trio in on ""Dorian Gray" with a three-note bass line then joins Rigby to play the theme. The tension created by the rhythm section gives the tenor plenty of room to play around. Rigby is a strong player but not a "shouter" or ""screamer", there's a subtlety to his lines that give a song like "Live By The Sword" its focus yet his phrases hint at the work of Albert Ayler - listen to Brown and Cleaver as they freely navigate underneath. Both musicians stoke the fires of this music without losing control or direction.

Yet, there are quieter moments with strong melodic flourishes.  The Richard Rodgers - Lorenz Hart standard "You are Too Beautiful" (composed in 1931 for Al Jolson) starts off quietly with Rigby emphasizing the melody and building his solo from the theme. Pay attention to the great counterpoint of Brown and the sweet brush work of Cleaver.  The saxophonist goes solo on the Gershwin's "Embraceable You", creating a mini-symphony and taking his time to reference the melody. He breaks out the soprano sax for Herbie Hancock's "Speak Like a Child", playing the melody against Brown's excellent counterpoint and Cleaver's splendid cymbal playing.  Rigby's solo is mesmerizing, short phrases repeated, bouncing off the low notes of the bass, twisting around the poly-rhythms of the drums, and slowly picking up in intensity but never boiling over.

"One" is a good title. Yes, this is a trio recording but the musicians approached the session of one mind; to play hard, smart, and together.  One can hear plenty of "freedom", with the sax, drums, and bass seemingly going in three directions at the same time but never at cross purposes. Listen to the music of Jason Rigby: The Detroit - Cleveland Trio with open ears and you will be rewarded many times over.

For more information, go to www.jason-rigby.com.

Enjoy the opening track:

Monday, April 24, 2017

Ladies Day April 17 Edition (Part 2)

Composer, arranger, and valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer released his final album late in 2011. Titled "Standards", the recording featured the New Art Orchestra plus guest vocalist Fay Claassen. I had enthusiastically reviewed her 2010 release with the WDR Big Band Cologne ("Sing!"); Mr. Brookmeyer 's album came a year later and was even better (the version of "Love For Sale" is simply stunning).

"Luck Child" (Challenge Records) is her seventh release as a leader and the first time I have heard her sing with a small group (though not the first time she's recorded with one).  The recording features pianist Olaf Polziehn, guitarist Peter Tiehuis, and bassist Ingmar Heller plus Ms. Claassen's husband Paul Heller (clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone on one track).

The repertoire is a smart mixture of standards, songs by contemporary songwriters, and a pair of tunes from her husband.  Opening with the title track, a tune from guitarist Leni Stern with lyrics by Catriona O'Daly, it's a handsome melody (influenced by Jimmy Webb) with a stay-strong story. Ms. Claassen has a funky time with Paul Simon's "One Trick Pony" (excellent work from Tiehuis); good choice as it's one of the songwriter's least-covered tunes and is perfect for the vocalist's range.  Paul McCartney's "Blackbird" has been covered dozens of times and Ms. Claassen's soulful version is one of the best. The musicians play it fairly straight yet it's the vocal that takes flight throughout.

Other highlights include Kenny Wheeler's "Fay" (written for the vocalist) with her splendid overdubbed vocals taking the parts of an instrumental front line and a deep blues-soaked reading of Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" (her high notes are stunning, loud and clear).  Her husband contributes "Miniature No. 7", a 60-second piece on which he overdubs a reed section which  Ms. Claassen joins while the composer roars along on tenor sax.  The other Heller song, "Finding You", is a contemporary love song with another soaring vocal and bright piano solo. Pianist Fred Hersch and vocalist Norma Winstone composed "Song of Life" for a duo album issued in 2003, recording it as a ballad.  This version is faster with a rippling guitar solo that gives the piece a Bruce Hornsby feel (one hears that in the lovely choice of chords and releases).

Fay Claassen attempts to blend old and new, hard and soft, happy and sad, doing so in a trip setting that is both comfortable and challenging.  There are musical surprises along the way (a sweet version of "Oh Shenandoah" and a good take of Burt Bacharach/ Hal David's melodramatic "A House Is Not a Home"); the vocalist is strong throughout and "Luck Child" succeeds on the strength of her performances, the musicians' interactions, and the variety of the material.

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

Here's the title track:

Saxophonist, bass clarinetist, educator, and composer Roxy Coss has a new album, her third as a leader and first for Posi-Tone Records. "Chasing the Unicorn" features six original pieces plus works by Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Lionel Loueke, Lennon & McCartney, and Willie Nelson. With her regular band, composed of Alex Wintz (guitar), Glenn Zaleski (piano), Rick Rosato (bass), and Jimmy Macbride (drums), the sounds explode out of the speakers with great urgency and high spirits.

The title track opens the album with the leader on soprano sax but also overdubbed tenor sax and bass clarinet.  That "full" sound plus strong solos from Ms. Coss, Wintz and Zaleski as well as the intelligent arrangement is rewarding for the listener. The tenor sax leads the way on another original "You're There", the music pushed along by Macbride's active drumming. Ms Coss's solo rides the percussive wave. Wintz and Zaleski offer good counterpoint as the solo continues.  The melody of "Unwavering Optimism" moves upward throughout yet notice the step down as the band moves into the solo section.

As for the non-original pieces, Loueke's "Benny's Tune" brings back the bass clarinet in a supporting role as the band explores the rhythmic melody line. The interweaving of piano and tenor sax while Wintz joins the rhythm section catches the ear as does the guitarist's high-energy solo. When Ms. Coss re-enters for her tenor solo, she dances atop the bouncy rhythms.  "Oh Darling" (from The Beatles "Abbey Road") maintains its bluesy feel but with a sophisticated touch, not unlike a David "Fathead" Newman approach to a "pop" tune. The Quintet darts through Joe Henderson's "A Shade of Jade" with Ms. Coss's tenor leading the way. Strong solos all around from the front line on the hard-bop track. Wayne Shorter's lovely ballad "Virgo" puts the bass clarinet up front, a classy move, and Ms. Coss's solo is quite impressive. But, pay close attention to the work of Zaleski, Rosato, and Macbride as they are quiet yet active in support.  The album closes with Willie Nelson's "Crazy" - the tenor solo is reminiscent of both Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster in tone and attack.  Wintz's guitar solo stands out as well.

Photo by Anna Yatskevich
"Chasing The Unicorn" follows Ms. Coss's "Restless Idealism" (Origin Records) release by 15 months yet feels like a giant step in her career.  One can hear in the maturity of the compositions, in her development on both the soprano sax and bass clarinet, and her work as a bandleader.  This is a group you'll want to see and hear. Each member plays with strength and intelligence, adding to the songs in many different and often subtle ways. The faces of contemporary music are always changing, more young people are getting involved (even now, at a time when the business end of the "business" can be frustrating), and we are hearing news way to approach both tradition and change.  Give a close listen to Roxy Coss and this ensemble.

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

Enjoy the title track:

I first met guitarist, composer, and educator Amanda Monaco when she played in my hometown early in the new Millenium as a member of The Lascivious Biddies, a quartet that combined witty lyrics, strong vocals, and sharp musicianship. Turned out that Ms. Monaco has grown up in nearby Wallingford CT and had been schoolmates with tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery and pianist Noah Baerman. After leaving the Biddies in the mid-2000s, she has led several ensembles, released four albums as a leader, and built upon her teaching career.

"Glitter" (Posi-Tone Records) is her fifth release and finds her leading an ensemble that features Lauren Sevian (baritone saxophone), Gary Versace (organ), and Matt Wilson (drums). Just looking at the lineup and several of the song titles ("Gremlin From the Kremlin", "Mimosa Blues", "The Mean Reds"), one gets the feeling the listener is in for a good time.

And this truly is a good time. Opening with the swinging "Dry Clean Only", this band digs in and lets loose (yes, that's possible). Keeping the solos short, the song has an urgency that's hard to resist (plus, who swings harder than Matt Wilson?) Ms. Sevian is a versatile player whose solos really dance (as she does on "Mimosa Blues" and Tommy Flanagan's "Freight Trane").  Versace's roller-rink organ introduces "Gremlin..." (check out the martial drums as well) - the Eastern European-style melody and chord changes open up to playful solos sounding like a Lieber & Stoller tune from the late 1950s mixed with Micky Katz. "The Mean Reds" also could have come from the '50s, the organ splashes and "rocking" guitar riffs being pushed along by Wilson's splashy cymbals.

There is a serious side to this fun session.  "Theme For Ernie", a Fred Lacey composition recorded by John Coltrane in his Prestige Records, is a lovely ballad (amazing how Wilson can play so softly and still be integral to the music) with lovely solos from baritone, guitar, and organ (although Versace does dance through his chorus).

Best advice about "Glitter" is to enjoy the ride - no doubt that these four musicians are having a blast. This is the best and "loosest" I have heard Amanda Monaco play. That's not a slam against her earlier work. This program works so well because of the temperament and talent of the ensemble as well as how the composer understands how to let her music "breathe." Play it loud and relax.  Just maybe the world is not coming to an end.

For more information, go to amandamonaco.com.

Enjoy the opening track:

Friday, April 14, 2017

Modern Chamber Music, perhaps

Music and poetry are often intertwined; whether it's through the turn of the lyrical phrase or the message of the verse, poetry has a rhythm that speaks to many people. Trumpeter and composer Matt Holman was introduced to the Greek poet Sappho (630-550 B.C) by his wife in the early of their courtship and the poet's words fell on receptive ears. Historians believe that the poems were written to be sung with accompaniment of the lyre.

Holman, who has worked or is now working with large ensembles led by Darcy James Argue, John Hollenbeck  Fred Hersch’s Leaves of Grass, Asphalt Orchestra, guitarist Joel Harrison, and the JC Sanford Orchestra (among others), also is a member of the SKETCHES quintet and is on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music and Hunter College.

The poetry of Sappho is the inspiration for "The Tenth Muse" (New Focus Recordings), the trumpeter's second album.  Working with Sam Sadigursky (soprano sax, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, alto flute), Chris Dingman (vibraphone), and Bobby Avey (piano), Holman uses fragments of poems (many of them no more than a short sentence) to create 16 pieces that are minimalistic yet melodic, thoughtful, meditative, reflective, emotionally powerful, and sometimes verging on melancholy.

The Lilypad/Cambridge, MA
It's best to let the music do the talking. The clarity of the sound, the beauty of the individual instruments, how the composer and arranger mixes and matches the voices, how the poetic fragments become musical stories, the moments when the music transports the listener (literally) out of time, all this and more makes "The Tenth Muse" very special. There are moments when the Sadigursky's clarinet or soprano sax echoes or trails behind the trumpet, when the rolling piano chords build to a thundering climax, when Dingman's vibraphone peels like a church bell or the trumpet sustains a note that resonate long after the album ends.

Holman leaves space in the program for each member of the ensemble to have an unaccompanied solo. Those interludes are the shortest tracks in the 67-minute suite but do not feel extraneous (are titled as "Fragments"). And, while there is a classical chamber music feel to the proceedings (especially in Bobby Avey's piano work), the music defies categorization. The composer wisely leaves it up to each listener to find his or her way.

If you are a person who loves to get lost in music, who likes to be challenged and rewarded by a composer and his ensemble, then seek out "The Tenth Muse." The sounds, these abstract notes that coalesce into emotions, have great power and stand out from the standard fare. Matt Holman has given us a wonderful present; take notice.

For more information, go to mattholman.com.

Take a look:

Mike McGinnis (clarinet, soprano saxophone) is a musician who easily moves in an out of different musical styles without losing his voice.  He has composed for large ensemble ("Road Trip" for 10 musicians), worked on Broadway (in "Fela"), performed with Anthony Braxton and Steve Coleman as well as with Yo Lo Tengo, plus is a founding member of The Four Bags, an eclectic group that combines accordion, trombone, guitar, and his woodwinds.

His new recording, "Recurring Dream" (Sunnyside), is a consummation of a desire to work with musicians he idealized growing up in Maine. The album finds him in the company of pianist Art Lande and bassist Steve Swallow, both with long careers, both connected with ECM in its early years (and, in the case of the bassist, to this day thanks to his association with Carla Bley), and both excellent composers as well as adventurous musicians.

McGinnis's liner notes make mention of the bassist's work with clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, a big influence on the young reed player.    This program does not follow Giuffre's experimental trio music (with Paul Bley as well as Swallow) of the early 1960s although "Circle Dance" (credited to McGinnis and Lande) is a short "free" excursion.  Instead, the listener is treated to seven delightful melodies with originals for all three, one track by saxophonist Mel Martin (the album opener "Mel's Drive In"), and a Lande "derangement" of the standard "Darn That Dream" that the pianist titled "Drat Recurring Dream."

The opener is a rousing and funky piece with McGinnis on soprano sax dancing through the theme supported by the bass and piano. Listen to how Swallow not only supplies the rhythm but also counterpoint, especially beneath Lande's delightful solo. The bassist's subtle sound blends nicely with the piano throughout and, most notably, on McGinnis's handsome bluesy "Hearth."  Another lovely ballad is "Amazing", composed by Swallow, that the trio takes its time to explore.  Again, the piano solo is a delightful, a poetic take on the melody with impressionistic flourishes and lovely single-note runs. After the composer's melodic solo, McGinnis creates an emotionally rich clarinet excursion. Lande's "Constantinople" opens with an unaccompanied piano solo and it's fun to hear where the directions the pianist's mind goes.  Swallow's tone is perfect for this ensemble, meshing well with the lower piano notes but also serving as a strong solo voice. Listen to his delightful lead-in to his piece "Bend Over Backwards" and how it sets the stage for the bluesy body of the song.  Lande and McGinnis take a jaunty stroll through the theme and then the clarinetist digs in for a solo that may remind some of Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw. The pianist takes off into a solo that plays with the tempo, working with it or behind the beat, even jumping ahead on occasion.

One gets the feeling while listening to "Recurring Dream" that this trio had a lovely March day in the recording studio. They got to play, create lovely music, some playful music, and just enjoy the camaraderie.  Art Lande or Steve Swallow, no matter the setting, are always "themselves", knowing when to lay back or step in.  Over the past 15 years, Mike McGinnis has demonstrated he can play and compose in many different styles, creating a body of work is fun, funky, serious, and very much his own.  Delightful music anytime of day, I bet they are a joy to watch in person as well.

To find out more, go to www.mikemcginnis.com.

One of the joys of contemporary music is how composers and musicians often go in unexpected directions (not talking about "pop" music here). Drummer and composer Harris Eisenstadt has several "working", ensembles that explore "free" music, through-composed pieces, jazz, Americana (Canadia, I suppose), and more. His new album, "Recent Developments" (Songlines Recordings), features a fascinating nonet - Anna Webber (flute), Sara Schoenbeck (bassoon), Nate Wooley (trumpet), Jeb Bishop (trombone), Dan Peck (tuba), Brandon Seabrook (banjo), Hank Roberts (cello), Eivind Opsvik (bass), and Eisenstadt (drums) - playing a suite that only displays a form on repeated listenings.  That is not a criticism. The composer does not betray a theme by giving his pieces titles so it's up to the "active" listener to make sense of this work.

The music features a "Prologue", "Introduction", the six-part "Suite", five "Interludes", and an "Epilogue."  Each part of the "Suite" contains intimate conversations between the musicians, whether it's Ms. Webber's flute interacting with Robert's cello to close "Part 4" or "Wooley's trumpet solo over bass and drums (with Bishop and Peck interjecting) on "Part 1" which then has a countermelody for flute, banjo, and bassoon before the trumpeter takes off over the drums.  It's much more fun to listen than to dissect, more exciting to hear how structure is stretched, broken, reassembled, and changes. "Part 3" sounds like "modern jazz" yet is led in by the bassoon while the trombone solo is supported by bass, drums, and Seabrook's banjo as the rest of the ensemble move in and out of the mix.  The composer adds a short counter-melody for reeds and brass that comes and goes like before you really notice.  Ms. Schoenbeck's emotional solo on "Part 5" is stunning but note how the music evolves from various voices moving in and out with melodic fragments at the beginning and how the bassoon rises out of that to begin her statement over just bowed bass and drums.

Subtle, rewarding, and challenging, the album opens with just flute and bassoon on the "Prologue" and closes on a group "Epilogue", a piece that ends on a bass and banjo melody that makes you feel like there's more to come and that the music is not really over. "Recent Developments" is engrossing music, surprising at times, often quiet, with the various voices drawing the listener in. Let the musical vision of Harris Eisenstadt soak into your mind and enjoy how it unfolds, expands, and changes.

For more information, go to www.harriseisenstadt.com/bands/recent-developments/.

Here's a piece from the album: