Friday, June 23, 2017

The Languages of Large Ensembles

After a series of genre-breaking albums for Pi Recordings, trumpeter, vocalist ,and composer Amir ElSaffar moves to New Amsterdam Records for "Not Two", a fascinating double-CD, the first to feature his 17-member Rivers of Sound Orchestra. The eight song-program continues his search into adapting Iraqi song forms into Western music while his large ensemble differs from a traditional big band by adding more percussion and stringed instruments (such as the buzuq and oud.  Yet, the band rises and falls on the powerful work of drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Carlo DeRosa, musicians along with saxophonist Ole Mathisen and oud master Zaafir Tawil who have been members of his Two Rivers Ensemble  since his 2007 debut as a leader ("Two Rivers").

photo by Alice Gebura
It would be unfair to describe each song but it is fascinating to hear how the different voices weave in and out of and around the enthralling rhythms.  Also striking is the composer's use of several voices working in counterpoint (for example, how the tenor saxophone and oboe solo together as other voices rise and fall behind them on"Penny Explosion").

"Rivers of Sound" is a perfect name for this group -  for many centuries, the river (and the seas and oceans) was one of the primary sources of cultural and economic movement.  That interaction between people of different cultures, when benign, help to infuse different sounds and words (as well as customs) into the everyday life of cities and countrysides.

These collisions of cultures and ideas are evident throughout the music on "Not Two". The violin with oud and buzuq on the opening of "Layl (Night)" carry the melody; then the vibraphone is added, then the reeds, the santur (hammered dulcimer), more voices added as the percussion thunders and pounds.  Soon, ElSaffar rises out of the storm, a plaintive vocal reaching towards the heavens.  There is also such urgency to this music. Listen to how "Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy" unfolds, the powerful motion, the different voices (at one point, JD Parran's bass saxophone carries the bottom yet is also in sync with the trumpet and violin), the hypnotic melodic exchanges between oboe and guitar, on and on right up to the glorious "...Fantasy" at the very end.

In essence, to get the full effect of this music, one must listen all the way through. And, when you return, all those different voices stand out more and more. How ElSaffar employs the guitar, how the vibes add lightness, the percussive quality of the piano (akin to Latin dance music), the different sounds of the hand percussion, the reed voices, the violin, and so forth. At times, so soft, the music whispers in your ear; at other times, the ensemble pounds, plucks, and roars pulling the listener into this glorious din.

Above all, Amir ElSaffar makes "human" music: joy, sadness, anger, humor, intermingle with other emotions. Give yourself up to and immerse yourself into "Not Two" - the pleasures are endless.

For more information, go to

Listen here:

Rivers of Sound Orchestra:

Personnel: Amir ElSaffar (trumpet, santur, vocals), Carlo DeRosa (acoustic bass), Craig Taborn (piano), Dena ElSaffar (violin, jowza - 4-stringed bowed instrument), Fabrizio Cassol (alto saxophone), JD Parran (bass saxophone, clarinet), Ole Mathisen (tenor and soprano saxophones), Mohammed Saleh (oboe, English Horn), Naseem Alatrash (cello), Jason Adasiewicz (vibraphone), Miles Okazaki (guitar), George Ziadeh (oud, vocals), Tareq Abboushi (buzuq), Nasheet Waits (drums), Rajna Swaminathan (mridangam), Tim Moore (percussion, dumbek, frame drum), Zaafir Tawil (peecussion, oud).


Steve Coleman, saxophonist, composer, and conceptualist, moves from strength to strength and has done so for nearly four decades. He's won several major awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur "Genius Grant".   Whether leading a large ensemble or a compact quintet, his music is filled with surprises, melodies that move with the deftness of a dancer, and rhythms that draw from all corners of the Black music continuum.

His new album, "Morphogenesis" (Pi Recordings), features a new ensemble, Natal Eclipse, an octet without a drummer (Neeraj Mehta adds a percussive voice on four of the nine tracks but she is not a trap set drummer). Besides the leader, there are two reed players (tenor saxophonist Maria Grand and clarinetist Rane Moore) plus the wondrous voice of Jen Shyu that gives this music a bit of a lighter feel than other Coleman recording.  The composer has stated that this music was inspired by his study and appreciation for boxing, hence titles such as "Shoulder Roll", "Dancing and Jabbing", and "Inside Game." Both Ms. Moore and bassist Greg Chudzik are members of the "modern-classical group Talea Ensemble (and are members, along with violinist Kristin Lee, of the leader's Council of Balance ensemble) while Ms. Grand, Ms. Shyu, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, and pianist Matt Mitchell have been involved with others of Mr. Coleman's groups.

Two of the nine tracks, "NOH" and "SPAN", are in-studio improvisations and, as such, play into the true meaning of morphogenesis ("...biological process that causes an organism to develop its shape.")  The first piece builds from the percussion slowly developing rhythm, the clarion call of the alto sax, deep bass notes, and Ms. Shyu's vocal into an arresting exploration.  The second piece also starts slowly, this time from a melodic fragment played by the alto sax into a delightful sonic puzzle. Note how each member of the ensemble plays the rhythm of the piece at one time or another.  

It has been noted time and again that Steve Coleman is a musical descendant from Charlie Parker but I can hear Henry Threadgill, at times, in his sound but especially in his adventurous compositions.  The manner in the composer utilizes each voice, how the support of the bass and piano often are in rhythmic counterpoint to the soloists. The clarity of the recording stands out as well, the sonic "weight" of the bass is as important as that of the clarinet and violin, never overshadowing any instrument but equal.  When listening to pieces such as "Morphing" or "Horda", you'll hear echoes of music from the Middle East, the Deep South of the United States, 19th and 20th Century European classical music, be bop, and more, all part of the evolving language of Mr. Coleman's music.  

As with the ElSaffar recording above, listen to "Morphogenesis" all the way through before going into deeper explorations.  Approach the program as a live concert where it is impossible for a listener to hear everything.  Then dig in. Enjoy the powerful melodies, listen to the excellent solos (the leader is generous in making sure every voice is heard throughout), follow the different trails the composer lays out for his ensemble members, take your time to enjoy this impressive recording. Natal Eclipse refers to astrology and certainly has great meaning for the composer. For the purposes of this music, the group is an engaging balancing act.  Steve Coleman is continually exploring and we are the beneficiaries.  

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Here's a taste:

Natal Eclipse:
Personnel: Steve Coleman (compositions, alto saxophone), Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet), Maria Grand (tenor saxophone), Rane Moore (clarinet), Kristin Lee (violin), Jen Shyu (vocals), Matt Mitchell (piano), Greg Chudzik (bass), Neeraj Mehta (percussion).

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Masters Of & At Play

I do not believe anyone would argue the importance of John Coltrane (1926-1967) on 20th Century Black American Music (and beyond).  His tenor saxophone playing, built off the advancements of Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Don Byas, and others, created sounds that still ripple through music. And his soprano work laid the path for people such as Wayne Shorter and Dave Liebman.  His quartet music, especially the group with McCoy Tyner, Paul Chambers or Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones remains a touchstone for artists such as Branford Marsalis and Joe Lovano.  Coltrane's long-form compositions as well as his lengthy performances set the table for experimentalists in the AACM and in Europe.  His embrace of spirituality opened doors for artists such as Pharaoh Sanders, Franklin Kirmeyer, Marion Brown, and Archie Shepp not to forget what his widow Alice Coltrane created in the 1970s and 80s.

As this article is about to post, we are four weeks away from the 50th anniversary of his passing (from liver disease).  To honor his life and legacy, Resonance Records is releasing "Compassion: The Music of John Coltrane", a recording from the 40th Anniversary show that BBC3 commissioned from Dave Liebman in 2007. The producer, Robert Abel, asked the saxophonist if he could assemble the Saxophone Summit, a sextet that had been in existence (and still is) for the gig but several key members were not available including Ravi Coltrane, the Coltranes son.  The quintet Liebman (tenor/soprano saxophone, wooden recorder, C flute) did assemble included Joe Lovano (tenor sax, aulochrome - a double soprano saxophone - alto clarinet, Scottish flute) plus the splendid rhythm section of Phil Markowitz (piano), Ron McClure (bass) and Billy Hart (drums).

The two saxophonists chose material from the last decade of John Coltrane's life.  Opening with the hard-driving "Locomotion" (from the 1957 Blue Note recording "Blue Train", the band locks in and the music soars.  All the soloists shine, thanks to their dedication to the project as well as the locomotive rhythm section.  The one medley on the program, "Central Park West/Dear Lord", is a feature for the saxophonists. The first tune features Lovano dancing through his solo. A quick shift moves into a sparkling piano introduction leading into Liebman's expressive soprano sax in the spotlight. Neither saxophonist imitates the "Coltrane sound" which helps both pieces shine.

There's a splash of humor in the use of recorded and Scottish flute to introduce the delectable "Olé" but, when the rhythm section kicks in, the tenor (Lovano) and soprano (Liebman) lead the way. The piano solo is a delight, goosed forward by Hart's explosive drumming. Then the saxophonists have their say leading to Liebman's powerful soprano adventure. Also pay attention to McClure who is a strong "foundational" player.

Every song on the album stands out. From the heartfelt ballad "Dr. King" (clarinet and flute in the lead) to the expressive blues of "Equinox" (tenor/soprano) to the lengthy (17:27) "Compassion" (originally released in 1965 on "Meditations").  A long poly-rhythmical drum solo serves as an introduction for that final track then the two tenors state the theme and the music takes off.  Lovano breaks out the aulochrome and creates quite a solo, switching in-and-out of the double reed sound nt unlike many of Rahsaan Roland Kirk's multi-reed adventures. The piano solo starts at a high level and keeps rising.  A rapid-fire interaction with Liebman, now on soprano and Lovano on tenor, takes the piece to its conclusion.

"Compassion" is a wonderful tribute as well as a reminder of the vivid trails that John Coltrane blazed during his short but often amazing tenure in our world.  This quintet, co-led by Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano, never settles for merely replaying the past but illustrates how the music has grown in time and was doing what jazz does best - moving forward on the strength on its innovators.

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Dave Douglas, trumpeter, composer, podcaster, and label owner, has always been productive with, at least, two to three ensembles going at the same time. Several years ago, he partnered with electric bassist Steve Swallow and the Doxas brothers (tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist Chet and drummer Jim) to create Riverside.  The American-Canadian quartet's self-titled debut album was dedicated to the multi-reed master Jimmy Giuffre. The ensemble chose to create new music inspired by the clarinetist/saxophonist whose career moved from big bands to small groups to "free" music to electronic experimentation.  Steve Swallow had worked with Giuffre in his Trio with pianist Paul Bley that played totally improvised music in the early 1960s. At that time, Swallow played acoustic bass - when Giuffre reconvened the Trio in the late 1980s, the bassist had switched to electric bass changing the overall sound of the group.

The music on and attitude of the second Riverside album, "The New National Anthem" (Greenleaf Music), was inspired by composer, pianist, and wife of Steve Swallow, Carla Bley.  The title track, originally recorded by Gary Burton for his 1967 Lp, "A Genuine Tong Funeral",  is just right for an anthem; you know, long enough for the flag to be raised but before the crowd gets restless. Ms. Bley, who is known for both the political nature of her music as well as the humor often found in her compositions, also composed "King Korn" which first appeared on a 1963 Paul Bley Lp (and which the late pianist recorded on several other occasions). Here, the piece has an Ornette Coleman/Don Cherry feel thanks to the sharp interactions of the trumpet and clarinet.  Her other contribution is the Kurt Weill- inspired "Enormous Tots" (from her "Tropic Appetites" suite and the bouncy, martial, feel is perfect for both Chet Doxas (on tenor) and the trumpeter to play around with delight.
There's a cowboy music-cum-Nino Rota feel to "Il Sentiero", a tune with a boozy trumpet solo, pounding drums, sweetly melodic bass, and rippling clarinet, a touch of carnival in the Old West.  Douglas's "King Conlon" is his musical response to learning "King Korn" (programmed as the following track) - it's a delightful jumble, perhaps more Charlie Parker than Conlon Noncarrow.  There's a hint of be-bop in the trumpet-clarinet-drums that opens the piece. Drummer Doxas swings delightfully while Swallow dances along with the soloists.

The saxophonist's "View From A Bird" has a lovely solo bass introduction, a good reminder that Swallow is like no one else, putting musicality in front of technique, the third melodic member of the group. Sometimes, you have to listen closely to hear what he is playing but it's worth the concentration. Listen to how he and drummer Doxas lock the groove down on "Americano" and how he continues to do so even as his section mate kicks the tune to a higher level. Also, pay close attention to how good this music sounds, how you can everyone's part even when they play loud.  Notice Swallow's stunning solo on "Demigods", how it perfectly fits the bluesy nature of the song and does not interrupt the flow. The bassist contributed a new song, "Never Mind", to the session, a blues-drenched ballad with strong solos from the saxophonist and trumpeter.

Long-time listeners to the music of Dave Douglas may hear a comparison to the trumpeter's "Magic Triangle"/ "Leap of Faith" quartet (with Chris Potter, James Genus, and Ben Perowsky), also a piano-less ensemble.  Still, Riverside is blessed by the maturity of trumpeter/composer, the presence of master musician Steve Swallow, and the influences that the Doxas brothers bring to the music, not to forget lessons learned from listening to the music of Carla Bley.  "The New National Anthem"  is worth your attention (and you do not need to stand and salute, unless you want to).

Here's a track to enjoy:

Monday, June 19, 2017

Tal Stories Two

One of the joys of reviewing is when a CD (or digital download) arrives in the mail and you are immediately bowled over by a musician unknown to you .  The day "Gentle Giants" (self-released) showed up, so did the album below with vocalist Danielle Wertz. Both feature pianist and composer Tal Cohen, a young Israeli-born musician who finished school in Perth, Australia, before attending graduate school at the University of Florida in Miami.  He's won numerous awards for his musicianship, has performed with Joe Lovano and George Garzone plus drummer Ari Hoenig and Australian saxophonist Jamie Oehlers, and is now living in the United States.

Listening to "Gentle Giant", I am reminded of my initial reaction to Wynton Marsalis's 1986 album, "Black Codes From the Underground."  There is an audacious quality to the music, making one sit up and pay attention to what each musician is playing and how the ensemble interacts.  We could argue all day long whether the music is "new" or not but that's not the point here. Cohen and company - Robert Hurst (bass), Nate Winn (drums), Greg Osby (alto and soprano saxophone on four tracks), and the afore-mentioned Jamie Oehlers (senior saxophone on six tracks) - make this music breathe, alive with possibility, and going in unexpected directions.  Case in point - the album opens with "Nardis", arguably the most famous Miles Davis composition that the trumpeter never recorded to his satisfaction but was pleased by pianist Bill Evans's many recordings of the tune.  The music grows outward from the rhythm section, the slinky bass line that opens the piece and the atmospheric introduction.  Oehlers (a mentor to the pianist in his school years in Australia and beyond) plays the melody while the piano, bass, and drums give the rhythms a Middle-Eastern feel.  Listen to how Cohen builds his solo, the intensity he discovers, the interactions with Hurst and Winn. There is delight in this performance, power as well but a great feeling of playfulness.

The album is filled with fine melodies (all but the opening track are Cohen originals), many with the combination of Israeli folk songs blended with the influence of Chopin and Scriabin.  "Lo Haya" is a two-part piece, the first a lovely duet with Oehlers, the second a lullaby built from a phrase from the original melody.  "Part 2" opens with a lovely introspective piano solo then adds the rhythm section building to a powerful interchange between the two saxophonists as the intensity builds and builds.  The saxophonists also combine on the delightful "Great PK (for Shuli)" which swings powerfully right from the get-go with strong solos all around.  Osby gets the spotlight on "Gavetsch"; he follows a particularly high-spirited piano playing with pieces of the melody, interacting with the rhythm section, spurring both Hurst and Winn to respond - in an odd choice, the tune's reprise "Hazil Magil" is programmed three tracks previous and is a different take of the piano solo only.  The album closes with "Chopin Meets Abach".  Paraphrasing Cohen's notes, it's music that contrasts the peace the composer gets from classical music (Chopin) and the Israeli citizens need for a protective mask (Abach is the name of the mask's manufacturer) during the Gulf War.  With eh rhythm section creating a powerful racket, Osby's soprano saxophone phrases rise like a flock of birds.

"Gentle Giants" is an excellent introduction to Tal Cohen, his music and his vision. This is music that is easy to get lost in, to let the sounds flow in and out of you. While, at times, the music sounds so spontaneous, one can hear that the music spent time living with the pieces, playing them and finding so much depth.  This album is actually Cohen's second as a leader - his debut "Yellow Sticker" (also featuring Jamie Oehlers) was released in 2011 - and is a delight from start to finish.

For more information, go to

"Intertwined" (self-released) features the combined talents of Tal Cohen and vocalist Danielle Wertz. Ms. Wertz, a native of Virginia, met the pianist when both were studying at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. Her voice will remind some of Kate McGarry, Gretchen Parlato, Sara Gazarek, and Sheila Jordan. There's a quality of lightness that shines through whether she is romping through the melody, as she does on the title track or wrapped in the gentle melody of "Autumn Leaves." On the latter track, Jamie Oehlers adds his breathy tenor saxophone, responding to the vocalist as well as creating a memorable solo. Listen to how Cohen weaves his lines throughout the piece, not only building the foundation but also responding to the emotion of his companions. The sparsity of the accompaniment allows Ms. Wertz to explore the words, their meanings, their relationship to the melody and the improvisations.

Actually, the first sounds one hears on the opening track is Oehlers's hypnotic melodic fragment leading in "Beautiful Love", a song first made famous in 1931 by the Wayne King Orchestra. The gentle vocal and the articulate piano work join the saxophone as the trio open the piece, each one listening to the other and responding.  Cohen's "Chopin Meets Abach" blends wordless vocals with a rolling piano line, the power of the music coming from his the voice builds along with the piano, not always in contrast but in union with the message of the composition.

The story the duo tells on "Manhattan In the Rain" (composed by Duncan Lamont) is powerful description of chance encounter that goes from good to sad. It is performed without sentimentality or treacle but with honesty and beauty (the rainstorm conjured up by Cohen's piano is magical).  Throughout the program, one can hear how time the musicians spent exploring the songs, moving away from cliched performances into interpretations that are more personal.  That's what audiences usually want. If artists are going
perform standards, make the pieces sound brand-new.  If the emotions are honest, the music has power.

"Intertwined" is powerful. Danielle Wertz and Tal Cohen have created an album that transports the listener beyond the ordinary. Be open and the music will seem like an adventure, a good and satisfying experience.

For more information, go to or to

Here's a video that tells the story behind the recording:

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Trio Music for June 2017 - Pianos (Pt 1)

Dan Tepfer has a new album, "Eleven Cages" (Sunnyside Records), his return to the trio format in nearly seven years.  Joined here by Thomas Morgan (bass) and Nate Wood (drums), the pianist and composer creates a musical exploration of freedom through the concept of the myriad cages in out lives. Some we create, others are foisted upon us - the composer here is focussed more on the former than the latter yet.  In ways, songs are cages: they have walls created by time constraints, by technique, by imagination, by rhythms that adhere to a steady beat.  Listeners can construct cages, usually by not being willing to trust the artist's imagination.  Putting labels on music helps some people but are often "cages" for musicians which often forces them into boxes where they do not wish to be.

photo by Debra Scherrer
Seven originals plus 2 group improvisations ("Cage Free I" and "Cage Free 2") and two fascinating "standards" (one from 1935, the other from 2008) gives the Trio the blueprint to cover a wide swath of musical territory. The album opens with the hard-driving "Roadrunner" (an original), with Wood slapping out a forceful beat and Morgan joining forces with the pianist's left hand to create quite a groove.  "Minor Fall" follows: the pace is slower, the melody more formal with Morgan displaying his Charlie Haden-like ability to put so much depth into a single note.  Notice as well the minimalist percussion and how Wood really helps to complete the portrait the song is creating.

Listen to how Tepfer, Morgan, and Wood play with time and not just on the free improvs.  "Hindi Hex" is a piano solo based on a traditional North Indian music form.  A funky excursion into Beyonce's "Single Ladies" offers a multitude of delights (try typing while listening - impossible!)  Check out the playful "Little Princess" that speeds up, slows down, crawls, runs, strolls, and keeps the listener on his/her toes.  The album closes with George Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy", another work that shows how Morgan can impact a piece.  His counterpoint is as impressive as the lovely melody.

"Eleven Cages" is, at turns, playful, soothing, challenging, and always musical. Dan Tepfer, along with Thomas Morgan and Nate Wood, gives the listener much to savor, an aural experience to return to time and again.  Highly recommended!

For more information, go to

Here's the opening track:

Composer and pianist Pete Malinverni and his Trio looks to the "beyond" for his latest recording, "Heaven" (Saranac Records).  The 10-song program is more spiritual than religious: it includes a number of traditional American gospel and folk songs, two pieces from Edward Kennedy Ellington (including the delightful title track), a swinging remake of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready", "Eili, Eili" from the pen of Hungarian Jewish poet and soldier Hannah Senesh, a lovely take of Molly Mason & Jay Ungar's "Ashokan Farewell", and the leader's own music for "Psalm 23." The music is gentle yet uplifting, a balm in times of sadness and loss but also a reminder of the peace one can find in contemplation.

Chamber Music America
Performing alongside Malinverni is bassist Ben Allison and drummer Akira Tana. plus three guests (one each on three separate songs).  This rhythm section knows just how to caress a melody, how to support the lyrical pianist, and be in the moment.  Listen to the gentle backing on the Senesh piece, the bass counterpoint and the brush work.  But they can swing as well.  Their support of the pianist and guest Steve Wilson (alto saxophone) on "Wade In The Water" is just right, the joyful walking bass and sprightly drum work.  Vocalist Karin Allyson joins Malinverni and Ben Allison on "Shenandoah" - the bassist takes the first solo in the middle of the piece and his melodic turn sets the mood for the leader.  Jon Faddis sits in on muted trumpet on "Come Sunday."  His solo is actually quite devilish as it bounces atop the snappy brush work of Tana.

photo by Sally Green
Pete Malinverni is an accomplished musician, having released over a dozen albums in the 30+ years he's been a professional musician. He's composed a suite for Gospel Choir and jazz ensemble as well as having set a poem of James Weldon Johnson to music. He's expanded his music for "Psalm 23" (which appears on "Heaven" as a powerful ballad) into a suite for big band and gospel choir.  Malinverni's certainly got "soul" - can't miss that on this album's "Down in the River To Pray." Not all of his music has a religious or spiritual bent but he's not afraid to let that side of his curiosity to show as an artist.  It's in full bloom on "Heaven" and it's a delight to hear.

For more information, go to

Here's the title track:

MEM3 is Michael Cabe (piano), Ernesto Cervini (drums), and Mark Lau (bass). They first came together in 2006 to record with Ernesto's sister Amy on her "Famous Blue" recording - in 2007, they recorded their first album, "Pennsylvania Grey" (self-released) but they are all such busy musicians, it has taken nine years for the follow-up. "Circles" (also self-released) was recorded in 2011 but issued earlier this year and shows how they have grown as a musicians and composers, how their friendship makes the music stronger.

As on their debut, each person contributed three original songs plus there is one adaptation of a hymn (in this instance, it's a powerful reading of "Faith of Our Fathers"). The band admits they have been influenced by artists and groups such as Oscar Peterson, The Bad Plus, and EST (Cervini's "4ES" was composed for and dedicated to the leader of EST, the late Esbjorn Svensson).  MEM3 are not mimics.  They use electronics sparingly but what stands out for me is how well they combine melody with rhythmic drive.

Listen to Cabe's "Native Dancer" and how it builds off of the pianist's percussive and funky phrases plus how Lau and Cervini (especially his excellent brush work) relentlessly push the piece forward.  The driving quality is also evident on the pianist's "Shire Song", even during the melodic bass solo (more fine brushes from Cervini). It's fascinating to hear how they move away from and back to the lovely, folky melody.  The power of songs such as "Olympic" and "Circles" can be heard on how the three musicians work together to set the stage for the music, the insistent piano riffs, the throbbing bass, and the relentless drumming. The title track shows the influence of "progressive rock" especially in the waves of synthesizer lines that rise out over the pounding piano.

Best of all, they are not afraid to play ballads, songs like "AFJ", with its pealing gospel lines, and "Anthem", which has the feel of a classic "soul" ballad, a vehicle for Aretha Franklin, Betty LaVette, or the late Sharon Jones.  The piano solo on the latter cut is so "vocal" throughout, especially as it builds to its powerful close (but don't ignore the heart-felt bass solo at the opening of the piece).

"Circles" grows with each successive listen as you hear how well this music is constructed, when you realize that each member of MEM3 checked their egos at the studio door to create this fine example of "group" music.

For more information, go to

Here's a taste of the trio's music:

Theo Hill is a young pianist who hails from Albany, NY who now lives and works in New York City.  Over his decade-plus in the city, Hill has worked and recorded with the likes of trumpeter Charles Tolliver, trombonist Frank Lacy, drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, saxophonist Dave Liebman, trombonist David Gibson (he's on two CDs with his band), the Mingus Big Band, and many others.  Hill's debut CD, "Live at Small's" (Small's LIVE), was a quintet issued in October of 2014.

His new recording, "Promethean", is his first for Posi-Tone Records and is a trio date with bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Mark Whitfield, Jr. One might be tempted to assume as he reads the program that, with the exception of the pianist's composition "The Phoenix", that this CD is an homage to Hill's influences. There are two pieces from Tony Williams ("Pee Wee" and "Citadel") and Kenny Kirkland ("Blasphemy" and "Chance") as well as one each from Bobby Timmons, Herbie Hancock, Victor Lewis, Hale Smith, Chick Corea, and Duke Pearson. The lone original is a tribute to McCoy Tyner; one hears it in the muscular chords and the powerful surges from the rhythm section.

Right from the opening notes of Timmons's "This Here", one can hear that Hill is a masterful pianist and that he can "swing" with force, joy, and purpose,  Messrs. Nakamura and Whitfield, Jr. are equal partners in this adventure, keeping the rhythms percolating and creating foundations that not only support  but also push the pianist and songs forward.  Smith's "I Love Music" (recorded, most notably, by Ahmad Jamal in 1970) is given a funky treatment with the rhythm section locked into the groove. Corea's "Litha" rises on Latin rhythms into a high-energy romp (note that fast-paced "walking" bass and superb cymbal work) - it's on pieces such as those that one hears the real joy Hill and the Trio can create. Yes, the pace may be funky or frantic but the music transcends mere technique. There's such a handsome solo piano reading of "Chance", with its floating chords and articulated single-note lines, illuminating an artist not afraid of making a song his own.

The main definition of promethean is "daringly original and creative."  That may be hyperbolic in some instances and I wish to modify it just a bit in the case of Theo Hill.  He's a daring musician who is continually creative, willing to take chances with the "tradition" without being sacrilegious. No need to shoot the (jazz) messenger but to honor him and her by continuing to move the music forward.  Enjoy "Promethean."

For more information, go to

Here's the original tune from the album:

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

NYSQ Sets, Upsets, and Resets Standards

"Sleight of Hand" is the sixth album from the New York Standards Quartet (NYSQ), a quartet formed in 2006 by David Berkman (piano), Tim Armacost (tenor and soprano saxophones), and Gene Jackson (drums).  For this CD, their third for Whirlwind Recordings, they welcome back bassist Daiki Yasukagawa for his third album with the band.

As the group's name implies, most of their material comes from either the Great American Songbook or from classic jazz composers, such as Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, or Hank Mobley (all of whom are represented on this album).  And, as they have done on all their recording and on their numerous gigs (in the United States, Europe, and Asia), these musicians approach the songs with fresh ears and ideas.

NYSQ loves to swing. "Soul Eyes" (Mal Waldron) jumps from the get-go, Armacost's tenor leading the way.  Check out the rhythm section - they are cooking up as storm with Jackson leading the way, Yasukagawa laying down a stunning walking bass line, and Berkman providing the percussive chords in the background.  After the tenor reaches the end of his improvisational journey, the pianist takes his own joyful romp over the active rhythm section.  The pianist imparts a "rent party" feel to his short but sweet opening to Monk's "Ask Me Now."  Jackson plays with the rhythms, giving them a bit more bounce while the bassist plays delightfully melodic lines beside him. Yasukagawa's muscular bass lines lead the band into Mobley's "This I Dig Of You" - when the rest of the group jumps, the piece takes off in a big hurry with a powerful swing and smart musicality. There is a Charlie Parker feel to the melody line of Berkman's "Sleight of Hand" (played by both piano and tenor); it's so much fun to hear how much fun the band is having playing together.

The ballads on the program also stand out.  "In a Sentimental Mood", a piece that has, arguably, been recorded thousands of time, is emotionally strong.  The splashing cymbals and impressionistic piano support the tenor as it moves gently though the melody with just the right amount of improvised commentary at the end of lines.  Berkman paints a little darker shade of framing around Jule Styne's "I Fall In Love Too Easily" before Armacost, on soprano here, alternately dances through or caresses the melody. Halfway through the piece, Jackson and Yasukagawa kick up their heels with the piece really picking up steam. Check out the blazing version of "Lover Man" that closes the disc for a lesson on how a drummer can motivate soloists.  There is a gentle swing to "Detour Ahead" (composed in the 1940s by Herb Ellis, John Frigo, and Lou Carter), the quiet opening leading to Armacost (on tenor) reading the plaintive melody as Jackson's brushes deftly tap dance underneath.

When you listen to as much music as I do, every once in a while it's nice to be entertained.  That is exactly what the NYSQ do with the music on "Sleight of Hand" - they entertain.  The Quartet does not "dumb down" the music or resort to worn-out cliches. They don't worry about being either too simple or too complicated, too "avant-garde" or too "straight-ahead." They play and do so magnificently.  Jump in with both ears and this music will make you smile nice and wide!

For more information, go to  You can also check them out at

Here's the Mobley tune:

Monday, June 12, 2017

Brass: Polished, Burnished, & Modern

Here's a modern take on the brass band concept.  Trumpet, trombone, and tuba plus piano, electric guitar, and drums is the makeup of Rebecca Hennessy's FOG Brass Band. "Two Calls" (self-released) is the Canadian ensemble second release and first full-length album. Based in Toronto, Ms. Hennessy (trumpet, peck horn, baritone horn) is very busy musician leading several groups and playing in several others.  FBB plays music that may remind you, at times, of Charles Ives, the Henry Threadgill Sextett, and Guillermo Klein's Los Gauchos but, really, has quickly developed a sound of its own. This is not a "marching band"  but a group that utilized all of its parts to the utmost.  Kudos to drummer Nico Dann and tuba player Jay Burr as they are the "engineers" that stoke the figures this music creates. Pianist Tania Gill also help keep the music flowing as does guitarist Don Scott.  Rounding out the front line is trombonist Tom Richards.

There are touches of New Orleans brass band music that show up on pieces such as the bluesy "Lagoon" and "Snag", a peppy dance tune that sound inspired by The Meters. But there are also pieces such as the opener "Red Herring" that has such a drive and is the piece most like Mr. Threadgill's music. That's followed by the prayer-like "Horn Lake", an impressionistic work that might have been inspired by walking along the shore in the early morning looking out at the still waters. Listen to the pictures the band creates with just the trumpet, quiet guitar, tape loops and triangle.  3/4s of the way in, the music suddenly falls into a samba-like rhythm and the piece literally dances out.

photo by Michael Fisher
Highlights abound. Guitarist Scott gets to romp his way through the first half of "Kings County Sheriff", soloing over the dancing drums and tuba. There's a touch of Klezmer in the horn melody and at the beginning of Ms. Hennessy's far-ranging solo. Bird songs introduce the title track (and continue for a little bit under the musical introduction); it's a funky, jazzy, dance piece that features strong solos from Richards and Ms. Gill.  There's a playful feel to "Birds For Free", a piece that starts in a Latin style before changing tempo. Listen to how Dann drives this piece, especially under the trumpet and trombone solos.

"Two Calls" closes with the lovely "Why Are You So Sad Booker Little". Not only is that a great title but the piece is a handsome ballad in which all the members of the sextet make fine contributions. The music is quiet, somber, not a celebration of the great trumpeter (1938-1961) as much as an elegy for him, for the promise as well as the maturity one could hear in his recordings.

The contemporary music scene, while not financially breaking new ground, certainly has produced a number for fine young bands and composers.  Rebecca Hennessy's FOG Brass Band covers a wide swath of musical territory over the 48 minutes of "Two Calls" and the journey is very rewarding. This album is not only "fun" to listen to, as brass band music often, but also melodically rewarding and adventurous.

If you find yourself in Toronto on June 29, FOG is playing the Toronto Jazz Festival - to find out more, go to To find out more about Ms. Hennessy and her myriad projects (including the delightful Way North), go to

Take a look and a listen to "Lagoon":

I've been reading about trumpeter and composer Jaimie Branch for the past few years and was excited to see her debut album hit the streets last month. "Fly or Die" (International Anthem) lives up to its name as Ms. Branch takes many chance on the 10-song program that features three other transplanted Chicagoans (cellist Tomeka Reid, drummer Chad Taylor, and bassist Jason Ajemian - like the  trumpeter, all now live in the New York City area).  Ms. Branch has worked in ensembles led by bassist William Parker and saxophonist Matana Roberts as well as with TV On The Radio. Her work exemplifies the AACM tradition, meaning nothing is sacred save for experimentation as well as cliches are forbidden.

photo by Mark Pallman
The program opens with the aptly titled "Jump Off", 16 second of squalling trumpet that leads into Taylor's countdown into "theme 001." One can hear traces of Wadada Leo Smith in Ms. Branch's clarion call and tone. The drummer lays down as irresistible rhythm as Ms. Reid and Ajemian play off each other, plucking, bowing, and creating a storm underneath. Matt Schneider's acoustic guitar shows up at the end, leading into the trancelike "...meanwhile." He plucks, the bassist and cellist play arco, the drummer offers light percussion, and the leader is nowhere to be heard.  She returns on "theme 002", playing muted trumpet over the infectious, dancing drums of Taylor. The West Indian feel continues as the mute is removed and the trumpeter rises above the rhythmic excitement.

That's just the first four tracks.  "Leaves of Glass" features fellow brass players Josh Berman (cornet) and Ben Lamar Gay (cornet) and they create a sonic blueprint that opens up to the arco cello and bass, a flurry of percussion, fiery trumpet, and scary overdubbed denoting "the storm."

Prepare to be surprised by the breadth and vitality of the music on "Fly or Die."  Although the album is barely 36 minutes long, there is so much going on, so many possibilities.  One can only imagine how this music roars and whispers in live settings.  Jaimie Branch took her time to deliver her debut album and it is well worth the wait.

For more information, go to

Here's a track with the quartet:

Trumpeter and composer Farnell Newton (born 1997, Miami, FL) s a graduate of Oberlin Conservatory of Music who moved to Portland, OR, and is now a full-time member of that community's music scene.  He has worked with singer-songwriter Jill Sobule, funk bassist Bootsy Collins, Darrell Grant, Gladys Knight and many others.  "Back To Earth" is his sixth album as a leader and his debut on Posi-Tone Records. While his 2015 recording "Ready To Roll" was more of a contemporary soul album, his new effort is straight-ahead displaying his formidable "chops".  Joining him are Greg Goebel (piano), Dylan Sundstrom (bass), Christopher Brown (drums), and, on most of the tracks, trombonist Kyle Molitor, all members of the Portland scene.

Eight of the 11 tracks are Newton originals with one tune each by drummer Brown, Freddie Hubbard, and Wayne Shorter. Brown's piece, "Back To Earth" is a funky ballad introduced by a sweet piano melody plus Goebel gets the first solo, an expansive melodic adventure.  The leader doesn't come in until halfway through the 6-minute piece but he rides the groove with an easy solo that even has a bit of fire to it. "Fire" is what hears on the Hubbard tune, "Arietas", a piece off the trumpeter's 1961 "Ready For Freddie" Lp (where the title was spelled "Arietis"). The "burning" piece features splendid work from the rhythm section and fine solos from Geobel and Newton.  Shorter's "El Gaucho" (off his "Adam's Apple" recording) changes tempos, has an attractive feel, and, here, a pleasing Latin rhythm.

The original pieces have their charms as well. "Road To The South" swings atop an insistent rhythmic drive, giving the leader the impetus to rise above the fray. There's also a sweet solo from Molitor and a powerful turn from Goebel (who is quite impressive throughout.) The pianist works around the melody created by the brass on "Redefining The Norm", not so much a counterpoint but a creating a lovely frame around tune. And, again, his solo stands.  His introduction to "Crossing The Tracks" leads the listeners to a soulful tune with several smart twists-and-turns.

Throughout "Back To Earth", Farnell Newton and his compatriots create an enjoyable sound that's not challenging as much as it is soothing, soulful, and melodic. This music sounds good as you sit on the back porch or in the park in the late afternoon as the sun paints the world golden.

For more information, go to

Here's the title track:

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Anniversary Tour, New Music, Sideman Gig

Jorden Hemingway/Bad Behavior
For the last four decades, these smiling gentlemen on the left - Mark Helias (bass), Gerry Hemingway (drums, percussion), and Ray Anderson (trombone) - have been touring this country, Europe, and beyond in an ensemble they smartly titled BassDrumBone.  Over that time, they have released 10 Lps and/or CDs, each led his own group, took time off for illness, toured and/or recorded with other people/groups yet always came back to this trio configuration. Methinks that is because not only do they sound good playing together, they enjoy playing together.

Connecticut fans get a rare opportunity this week to see BDB twice in the midst of its 40th Anniversary Tour.  Friday evening, Messrs. Helias, Hemingway, and Anderson return to Firehouse 12, 45 Crown Street in New Haven to play two sets.  The trio last played the venue in May of 2008 - I was there and can assure you they "rocked the house."  There's a strong steak of blues that runs through their music as well as ties to the avant-garde, to the "free" sounds of the late 1960s and '70s, to straight-ahead "blowing", to funk, and to the New Orleans roots of jazz.  The band's most recent recording, 2016's "The Long Road" (Auricle Records), kicked off the group's Anniversary celebration: it's a 2-CD set with guest appearances from Joe Lovano (tenor sax) and Jason Moran (piano).  It's a wonderful blend of original tunes by all three members of the group and closes with two live tracks from 2013

The New Haven show is the final one of the Firehouse 12 Spring 2017 Concert Series and is a perfect way to kick off the two-week long International Festival of Arts & Ideas (thought the series is not connected to IFA&I, BassDrumBone epitomizes the adventurous scope of the programs to over over the course of the Festival).  The first set begins at 8:30 p.m.  For more information about Friday's gig, call 203-785-0468 of go to

On Saturday, the trio ventures north on Route 91 to Hartford to play a concert at Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor Street.  The event is free and open to the public.  For more information, go to or call 860-232-1006.

Take a look and a listen:

Mark Helias is also a member of Canadian-born saxophonist and composer Quinsin Nachoff's Ethereal Trio. Their self-titled debut album has just been issued on Whirlwind Recordings and is a joy to listen to.  The bassist, who has led several trios over his long career, is the perfect fit for an ensemble of this size: he possesses a really powerful sound, is extremely melodic as well as percussive, is excellent at arco bass ("bowing"), and has a great sense of what his bandmates need from him.  On this recording, he's paired in the rhythm section with drummer Dan Weiss who is also a fine accompanist with a strong sense of melody and forward motion.  They provide Nachoff with such great support and counterpoint as well as a sense that he can play anything. And he gives them material to really dig into, not just rely on cliches but to truly explore the possibilities.

My personal touchstone for sax-bass-drums trios has always been Sonny Rollins's "Freedom Suite." One can hear a hint of the blueprint that 1958 recording created; still, this is definitely 2017 music.  The funky beat Weiss produces on "Subliminal Circularity" has a hip hop feel but notice how the bass moves on his own around the beat while the tenor navigates in between the two "sonic" worlds.  The opening track, "Clairvoyant Jest", might remind one of a groove that could be found on Dave Holland's "Conference of the Birds", the intelligent meshing of structure and freedom. That carries over to the second track, "Imagination Reconstruction" - here, the rhythm is more intense, the sound a bit more diffuse yet the piece does not boil over. Both the bassist and drummer take short solos that rise organically from the music.

The leader is no slouch. He, too, enjoys the freedom the open-ended music goes him, exploring so many different possibilities. Hear how he navigates the aptly-titled "Push-Pull Topology" with its odd-time meters, his melody actually hugging the beat while his solo dances along with Weiss's playful drums.  The handsome ballad "Gravitas" is a lovely blend of tenor sax (played in a register not unlike Charles Lloyd and with a similar lightness), splendid brush work and cello-like tones from the bowed bass.  This is dramatic music, the interactions displaying the trio's keen sense of listening to each other. That description is also apt for the final track, "Portrait in Sepia Tones" - Helias leads off the piece unaccompanied before Weiss tiptoes in (sounds like he's not holding sticks or brushes). After several minutes, the bass drops out for a moment for a statement from the drums before returning 25 seconds later to play counterpoint to the tenor melody (Nachoff sits out the first three minutes).  Throughout the piece, Helias switches from bowed to plucked bass. At the six minute mark, the bassist fall into quite a walking bass line pursued by the drums and tenor - the frantic tempo and exciting interactions continue to close to the end of the 10 minute piece when they trio falls into a funky beat (like the afore-mentioned "Subliminal Circularity") to "dance" the piece to its close.

Quinsin Nachoff's Ethereal Trio has its exquisite moments but also many powerful moments as well.  Messrs. Nachoff, Mark Helias, and Dan Weiss each contribute to the success of the music, each with an authoritative "voice" and an understanding how to make their interactions human and special.

For more information, go to

Here's a track to sink your teeth and ears into: