Sunday, August 20, 2017

American Voices: Poetry & Music

In the pantheon of great American poets, Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) has often gone in and out of favor (there are many folks who consider him a mere disciple of Walt Whitman) but there is little doubt that the Galesburg, Ohio native was an original. The son of Swedish immigrants, he had a number of jobs after college yet also published a three books of poetry before 1908. He married Lilian Steichen that year and began a career as a journalist.  At the same time, Sandburg became a Socialist and the influence of that political movement can be seen in a number of his poems.  In 1914, Poetry Magazine published a group of his poems which brought him to a wider audience which expanded greatly two years later with the publication of the "Chicago Poems."  Before the end of the decade, he had published another collection of poems and a prose essay on the Chicago race riots. He became financially independent in 1926 when the first   volume of his five-volume of Abraham Lincoln was published. His collections of American folk songs was also a big hit with the public and helped to bring more attention to indigenous music.  Sandburg won several Pulitzer Prizes during his lifetime, also played guitar accompanying himself at readings. He was truly a man of and for the "people."  (Check out a group of his poems and read his full biography by going to carl-sandburg.com.

Drummer and composer Matt Wilson has had a life-long interest in the work of Carl Sandburg. Born and raised in Knoxville, Ohio (the town to the west of Galesburg, the drummer's great-great aunt was married to the poet's first cousin - there is a picture in the album's booklet of Matt's father Tom with that cousin (Uncle Charlie).  For those who have followed Matt Wilson's career know that his first album as a leader, "As Wave Follows Wave" (1996 on Palmetto Records) is named for a Sandburg poem.  In 2001, he received a grant from Chamber Music America to create a program of original songs that featured selected works of Sandburg.  He put together a quartet with saxophonist and clarinetist Jeff Lederer, guitarist and vocalist Dawn Thomson, and  acoustic bass guitarist Martin Wind.  Cornetist Ron Miles joined the group along the way and in October of 2016, the ensemble, now dubbed Honey And Salt (yes, named for a 1962 collection of the poet's works), gathered at engineer Matt Balitsaris's studios on Maggie's Farm, and the results "Matt Wilson's Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg" is the drummer's ninth album for Palmetto.

photo by John Abbott
There is so much to like about this project.  Purists may be put off by the fact that the music encompasses many different styles, from rockabilly to swing to folk to avant-garde to "cool jazz" and more.  Before this project, I had not heard much of the work of Dawn Thomson so her presence is a revelation: she has a fine vocal style, displaying a fine range as well as great emotion plus her guitar  is a wonderful voice in the mix, especially her rhythm work and background playing. Jeff Lederer and Ron Miles are a formidable team, the former for his ability to both enliven the proceedings as well as be soothing in the background while the latter has such a warm sound, even his "wilder" excursions have a sense of comfort in them.  Martin Wind plays exclusively acoustic bass guitar; it's the first time he's recorded using just that style of bass but the depth of his notes and his active foundational lines plus his counterpoint lines often stand out.

jchriss.com
Then there's the leader.  It's so obvious that this project is a labor of love; these compositions are among the best Matt Wilson has composed in his career, illuminating his senses of melody, harmony, interaction, and, of course, fun.  He creates a duet with the poet on "Fog" - the poet's voice is heard first, then the drums joins playing the voice patterns of Sandburg.  The drummer plays a call-and-response pattern, first, the melody then the interpretation in a wonderful give-and-take. There are several other tracks on which the drummer plays the melody lines.

photo by VH Guidini
The album is broken into three "Chapters" and an "Epilogue" with 18 tracks. Besides Ms. Thomson's vocals and the poet's recorded voice, nine of the tracks feature recitations from the drummer, Jeff Lederer, Christian McBride, John Scofield, Jack Black, Bill Frisell, Rufus Reid, Joe Lovano, and Carla Bley.  Frisell reads "Paper 2" which opens the poem read over a light guitar accompaniment before breaking into a raucous, bopping track, with solos from Lederer (a raucous tenor spotlight), Ms. Thomson (a "cool" jazz romp, and Miles (an easy jaunt over the "groovin'" rhythm section.  In fact, do listen to how Wind and Wilson push the piece. The poem is repeated this time with the entire quintet offering counterpoint. Two tracks later, Lovano reads "Paper 1" over the same light guitar accompaniment but the piece fades on the recitation.  In between, Rufus Reid's sonorous bass voice reads "Trafficker", one of the darker poems in the program (about a worn-out prostitute) - the track opens with Wilson's quiet brushes work, then adds Miles's muted cornet, Wind's bass, and the "midnight blue" tenor sax.

Your initial surprise to the different sounds this quintet makes (Lederer also plays clarinet, bass clarinet, piccolo, and harmonium) should turn into admiration and, finally, to joy.  The beauty of pieces such as "To Know Silence Perfectly" (read by Ms. Bley), "Stars, Songs, and Faces", and "I Sang" (both sung by Ms. Thomson) may create quite a positive emotional response. Check out the fiery funk of "Anywhere and Everywhere People" read by McBride as the quintet "rocks out" and the power march of "Choose" (Lederer's piccolo takes a starring role) with its Charles Ives-like leanings will make you smile.

"Matt Wilson's Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg" is a smashing achievement. Wonderfully musical, deeply emotional, and so much fun - what more could one want from an artist?  Take it on the road and expose more people to the "populist" poetry, the fascinating melodies, and great band that Matt Wilson has put together in this heartfelt project.  Listen, listen deeply!

For more information about the project and the upcoming September 2017 tour dates, go to www.mattwilsonjazz.com.

Here's a tune with a "country" twang:




photo by John Dolan
Soprano saxophonist and composer Jane Ira Bloom released "Early Americans" in 2016, a trio date with bassist Mark Helias and drummer Bobby Previte, both of whom she had recorded with extensively.  Her new project, "Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson" (Outline), brings back pianist Dawn Clements who recorded with this ensemble on 2011's "Wingwalker" (the pianist is also featured on Ms. Bloom's 2008 album "Mental Weather" with Helias and drummer Matt Wilson!) Ms. Bloom's latest adventure came about when she discovered that Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was a pianist and an improviser, a quality the composer could see in the poetry.  After receiving a commission from Chamber Music America/Doris Duke New Jazz Works, Ms. Bloom put together the program that one hears on these two CDs.  There are 14 original compositions plus a solo soprano saxophone reading of the Rodgers & Hart classic, "It's Easy To Remember."


One might be tempted to start with CD 2 because you hear the lines of Ms. Dickinson's that prompted the compositions. Read by actress  Deborah Rush (Broadway and television), most of the pieces are read before the pieces (there are several exceptions).  But you really can hear how pieces like "Emily & Her Atoms" and "One Note from One Bird" (excerpt from "The Gorgeous Nothings") are built from the poems and poem fragments.  The latter tune does open with one note from the piano before Ms. Rush intones "One note from/ One Bird/ is better than/ a million words/...A scabbard/ Needs/ has - holds/ but one/ sword"  - listen to how the quartet expands that one note and those words outward away from its simple center into a musical meadowland with a sweeping melody and roiling drums.

Deborah Rush
Then there's "Singing The Triangle" during which a letter that the poet wrote that tells of her excitement that "G.F. Bailey's & Co. Great Triple Combination/ will exhibit in Amherst!/ On Friday, May 4th, 1866" - the music is a rollicking illustration of excitement, derring-do, and exuberance (one can almost hear the crowd "oohing and aahing" at the high-wire acts.  The listener may have expected the music to be fairly somber as befits certain opinions of Ms. Dickinson's poems.  Yet, throughout the album, the music bubbles over with glee.  "Cornets of Paradise" opens with powerful drums behind Ms. Rush (pictured left) reciting "Over and over, like a Tune/ The Recollection Plays/ Drums off the Phantom Battlements/ Cornets of Paradise/" - the drums drop out and there soprano sax enters wailing high - Ms. Rush continues with "Snatches, from Baptized Generations/ Cadences too grand/ But for the Justified Processions/ At the Lord's Right Hand."  There 's a quick snippet of gospel and then the quartet goes into an inspired improvisation before moving back right before the close to a modified barrelhouse blues.

CD 1 features the same instrumental tracks in a different order (save for the final two track on both discs being the exuberant "Big Bill" and the Rodgers & Hart tune).  The music is just as exciting without the poetry but this listener really enjoys how Ms. Bloom integrates the lyricism of the poetry with the often flowing lines of the quartet.  "Say More", on disc 1, opens with a lovely soprano melodic fragment with Previte's quiet percussion, the occasional bass melody, and Ms. Clement's lyrical piano. The piece moves slowly forward and up away from the opening line. Add Ms. Rush's vocal performance and the lyrics to the music, the piece opens up to new interpretations.

photo: Lucy Gram
"Wild Lines" is a magnificent recording, filled with intelligent and open melodies, inspired interactions, and a collective love of exploration. One should not discount how well the Quartet works together, the powerful and graceful contributions of Mark  Helias and Bobby Previte, the excellent piano playing of Dawn Clement, and, of course, the wonder-filled work of Jane Ira Bloom. The artist could have chosen to release either one of these discs as her new album, they're both delightful on their own.  Together, "Wild Lines" gives the listener an intimate description of the creative process, how the sounds and meanings of words can be translated to the sounds of music, that the creative process can truly be an infinity of riches.  This is a joyful experience for the musicians and for the audience.

For more information, go to www.janeirabloom.com.  Release date for the album is September 8, 2017 and is available for pre-order at amazon.com.


Monday, August 14, 2017

Imagination, Rhythm, Story, & Honesty

It's been quite an amazing several years for pianist, composer, arranger, and educator Vijay Iyer.  His Trio (with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore) made a number of impressive albums including 2015's "Break Stuff"), he's released a soundtrack and a classical recording, joined the faculty of Harvard University, curated a month of concerts in March of 2015 for the Met Bruer Tony and Amie James gallery in New York City, and served as the music director for the 2017 Ojai Music Festival (held 6/8-11).  Groups such as the Bang-on-a-Can Allstars, Brooklyn Rider, Imani Winds, and Silk Road Ensemble have recorded his pieces. His 2016 ECM recording with Wadada Leo Smith, "A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke", made numerous Top 10 lists as "Record of the Year."

His latest project, the Vijay Iyer Sextet, combines his Trio mates of Crump and, here, Tyshawn Sorey with alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, tenor saxophonist Mark Shim, and cornetist/flugelhorn player Graham Haynes. The ensemble's new album, "Far From Over" (ECM Records) is a fascinating mixture of sounds, from the forceful title track to the funky "Nope" to the elegiac yet forceful "For Amiri Baraka" (just piano, bass, and drums) to the thunderous  "Good On The Ground" (listen to the power of Sorey's drumming and the rhythmical work of the reeds and brass) to the stunning "Threnody" that closes the album.  This is music that holds your attention, makes you move your feet as much as it makes you think.  The musicianship is impressive throughout yet these songs are not mere exercises of technical prowess.

photo: Lynn Harty
Steve Lehman, who has played with the pianist and drummer in Fieldwork, plays with great fire throughout. His lines slash through the thunderous climax of "Threnody" and take flight over the drums on the album opener "Poles." Mark Shim, who has been a member of Lehman's ensemble, is a smart foil to the last saxophonist's tart tone. He can dig deep or fly high (doing both on the title track) and his powerful interactions with Haynes and Lehman on "Nope" really hit hard. Shim gets the spotlight on "Down to the Wire", connecting to the pianist and Sorey to produce a powerful statement.  Cornetist Haynes is a treat as well; his brash electronic treatments on "End of the Tunnel" will remind many of early 1970s Miles Davis. His interaction with the Iyer's Fender Rhodes on "Wake" hearken back to "In A Silent Way" yet he is never imitative. His cornet rises up out of the horn section on "Into Action", creating a fine solo atop Sorey's "fatback" drums, Crump's powerful bass lines, and the excellent piano counterpoint/rhythm.

davidbazemore.com
How good is this rhythm section? Watch the video below to see how hard both Crump and Sorey play, how integral they are to the flow of the music as much as they are to the movement of the melodies and how well they interact with the soloists.  Iyer is also a driving force beneath and in front of this music. His solos throughout display his great sense of rhythm - it's also great fun to see where his phrases go when he is deep into his solo.  The employment of the Fender Rhodes on several tracks helps change the complexion of the music and the listener's ear.

"Far From Over", the title, can relate to many of the events taking place everyday, whether it's the seemingly endless political gyrations of the United States to the continuing racist, anti-Muslim, and anti-Semitic events taking place in the US and around the world.  The music of the Vijay Iyer Sextet has great power, not only to entertain but also to educate, not to only to make us think but also to move.  Dig in!

For more information, go to vijay-iyer.com. The album is set to be released on August 25 and be pre-ordered from iTunes, Amazon, and other outlets!

Here's the Sextet in concert from the 2017 Ojai Festival:



newseum.org
Nellie Bly, the pen name of pioneering journalist Elizabeth Jane Cochran (1864-1922), first got involved in the newspaper business when she sent a scathing response to an editorial in the Pittsburgh Dispatch titled "What Girls Are Good For?" (according to the editor, the answer was "staying home).  That editor was so impressed by Ms. Cochran's reply that he asked her to write her own editorial in response and, then, gave her a position on the staff. He also gave her the byline of "Nellie Bly", the name of a children's song penned by Stephen Foster. The journalist went on to expose issues in "lunatic" asylums, crooked lobbyists, working conditions in factories, and so much more.  Ms. Bly also took up the challenge to travel around the world in less than the "80 Days" that Author Jules Verne had written about.  At a time when a woman rarely traveled abroad, especially by herself, Ms. Bly did just that and broke the fictional record by nearly eight days. To fond out more about this extraordinary person, go to www.nellieblyonline.com.

You can also listen to this new recording by the Sam Boshnack Quintet. The trumpeter, vocalist, and composer has created the "Nellie Bly Project" (Artist Recording Collective), a four-piece suite featuring Ms. Boshnack, Beth Fleenor (clarinet, bass clarinet), Alex Chadsey (piano, keys), Isaac Castillo (acoustic and electric bass), and Max Wood (drums).  Joining the ensemble are vocalists Valerie Holt and Anne Matthews (both on tracks 1 and 3) and Anne Whitfield (spoken vocal on tracks 2 and 4).  All the lyrics and words come from Ms. Bly's columns and essays.  While no one would or should argue about the accomplishments of the journalist, Ms. Boshnack's music is also quite impressive.  The integration of words and music is well thought-out and the compositions are quite strong.

Listen to the power of the opening track, "Expositions."  The power of the rhythm section pushes the melody forward, the bass clarinet and trumpet two strong voices rising above the beat.  Chadsey's electric piano softens the attack but he also deliver a fine solo.   "After One Is In Trouble" opens with a sound and feel that reminds this listener of the week of the late baritone saxophonist and activist Fred Ho.  After a handsome melody is played by trumpet and clarinet, Ms. Boshnack steps out for quite an impressive solo.  The rhythm section applies heat and the trumpet flies about them.  About a quick tempo shift, drummer Wood take over for a long and involved solo (with different musical voices stepping in along the way).  "72 Days" has a wonderful acoustic piano solo before shifting gears with the voices coming in to show Ms. Bly's determination, chanting over and over"I would rather go in debt and successful/than alive and behind time."   That mantra leads into an excellent. clarinet solo before Wood kicks in and the band celebrates the success of the trip as they take the song out.

Nellie Bly's story is one of courage, determination, the fight to find the truth and correct wrongs in what seems like an uncaring society.  The power in her words and deeds is the fuel for Sam Boshnack; you can hear it in every note of her "Nellie Bly Project", hear it in the impressive melodies, the rhythms, the interactions, and solos of the Quintet.  Music is be a powerful tool in education, helping students see more of the world around them and the people who have make great compositions to move this nation and the world forward out what seems to be the eternal "dark ages."

For more information, go to samanthaboshnick.wordpress.com.

Here's an in-concert performance of the opening movement (Dawn Clements is on piano):



Saxophonist (tenor and soprano) Ralph Bowen has been an active member of the creative music scene since the mid-1980s both as a performer and educator (his teaching credits include serving on the faculties of Rutgers/State University of New Jersey and Princeton University). He has played and/or recorded with Horace Silver, the Art Blakey Big Band, Freddie Hubbard, pianist Michel Camilo, Orrin Evans, Dr. Anthony Branker, and many others.  Bowen has recorded as a leader for CrissCross and Posi-Tone Records.  His latest album for the latter label (his sixth) is a self-titled quartet date featuring Jim Ridl (piano, Fender Rhodes), Kenny Davis (acoustic and electric basses), and Cliff Almond (drums).

The program is set up like a concert. Opening with the high-octane original "Cache Cache", the piece serves as a "warmup" as the band dances its way through with solos by Ridl, Bowen, and Almond.  The alliteration in the song title sets the listener up for "The Phylogeny Suite", a six-part, 42 minute, musical adventure with titles such as "A Rookery of Ravens", "A Leap of Leopards", and so forth. What stands out is not only the fine musicianship but also the intelligence of the material, the well-thought out melodies and the interactions.  Almond and Davis are integral throughout, keeping the songs flowing forward and offering great support and, on occasion, powerful counterpoint.  And there is such great variety.  "A Pandemonium of Parrots" swing lustily while "A Venue of Vultures" (there's an image) has a delightful funky edge.  "...Ravens" has a darker edge as well as a great solo from Ridl while there is a gentle edge to "A Flamboyance of Flamingos" (Ridl on Fender Rhodes). Listen also to Bowen's even tone, the clarity of his notes, and how well he builds his solo from the melody.  The "...Suite" comes to a close with "A Cast of Crabs", a deeply funky piece with a touch of Steely Dan and a hint of New Orleans (dig Davis's deep notes on the electric bass). Ridl's overdubbed Rhodes solo has a jaunty edge

One could view the final three tracks as the "encores". Up first is "Aye", a sweet ballad from bassist Davis. Again, the "honest" tones that Bowen creates (no effects, light or no vibrato no "harsh" sounds) stand out as he builds his solo over the rich sounding piano chords and gentle rhythm section.  Dave Liebman's "Picadilly Lily" is an inspired choice as the band romps through the song with such joy. Listen to the drive emanating from the rhythm section!  The album closes with "Search For Peace" - composed by McCoy Tyner and first released on his 1967 Blue Note Records debut "The Real McCoy" (also his first album after leaving the John Coltrane Quartet), this lovely ballad is carried along gently on Ridl's Fender Rhodes work and the melodic work of Almond (Davis is the "foundation" on this piece).  One can echoes of Joe Henderson (the tenor saxophonist on the Tyner album) in Bowen's tone yet one is reminded how much the leader of this date has had his own "sound" since his earliest recordings.

"Ralph Bowen" the album and Ralph Bowen the musician will bring the adventurous listener many hours of pleasure.  This new recording is, arguably, his best and there's not a weak in the crowd.  I'd love to see this group in action but this album is well worth your time.

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

Here's the opening track:

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Storytellers on Piano

photo by Steve J Sherman
Fred Hersch is in now in his fifth decade as a performing artist and composer - the last ten years have seen the most upheaval and revival.  In 2008, the pianist was struck by a AIDS-related illness and was put into a coma by his doctors; when he came out, Hersch needed to learn how to navigate the piano again. The result has seen  him at his most productive, with solo albums, trio albums, a full-length production based on his near-death experiences titled "My Coma Dreams", and his forthcoming memoir "Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz" (coming in September from Crown Archetype).


Also in September, Palmetto Records releases "Open Book", Hersch's 11th solo piano recording (and 12th recording for the label).  Recorded live in concert in Seoul, South Korean (four separate nights), the album is both typical and typical of the pianist's output.  Yes, there's a Thelonious Monk composition ("Eronel"), a piece by Antonio Carlos Jobim ("Zinger"), Benny Golson ("Whisper Not"), Billy Joel ("And So It Goes") plus three original pieces.  One of those originals, "Through The Forest", is a fascinating 19:34 totally improvised piece; it's the centerpiece of the album and one of those performances that defies categorization.  There is a darkness to the chords and a narrative quality to the melodies that shows a classical influence (perhaps Schumann, Debussy, Stravinsky, Gershwin) but what stands out most are the leaps from mood to mood the pianist takes. No surprise there is a forest on the album cover.  The music is not dense, you can see through the fog and the trees are bare but the path forward can be detected.  There is a freedom to being lost which can be scary but also pushes you to sharpen your senses, to call on different solutions to see your way through.

fredhersch.com/photos/
Hersch follows the long piece with the much shorter yet equally dramatic "Plainsong", also a piece with classical leanings (though more Romantic).  This is "classic" Hersch, a long, well-constructed melody with powerful harmonies and a rolling bass line.

"Open Book" shows an artist at the height of his creative power without a sign of slacking off.  It's one one of those albums that sounds good any time of day, scuba as early in the morning with the birds outside your window or late at night as you relax after a long day.  No matter when you listen, this is a quite a good "book."

Fred Hersch is so busy right now with tours, teaching, and more; not only will the book and album come out in September but his "Leaves of Grass" project will be performed at Jazz at Lincoln Center (in the Appel Room) on September 15 and 16. For information, go to fredhersch.com.

Here's the Monk tune (co-credited to Sadik Hakim:



Cuban-born pianist Aruán Ortiz has become a major presence on the creative music scene over the past decade.  Not only has he toured with his own quartet and trio but he also graced the stage with artists such as Esperanza Spalding, Teri Lyne Carrington,  and Greg Osby while recording with Wallace Roney, Steve Turre, Michaël Attias, and Nasheet Waits.

One is tempted to call his latest release, "Cub(an)ism" (Intakt Records) a "rite of passage". Solo piano recordings often bring to light an artist's influences, his upbringing and vision mashed into 10 songs, an hour's worth of explorations.  It's been twenty years since Ortiz's previous solo album (unavailable in the U.S.) but, in those two decades, the experiences the pianist and composer has had through his studies and interactions gives this music its depth and scope.

Being Cuban, having been schooled in that country and then in Spain, Ortiz has a wonderful grounding in both classical (European and the Americas) as well as modern music. Simply translated, he understands the power and flow of melody as well as how to create commanding rhythms.  Start at the beginning with "Louverture Op. 1 (Chateau De Joux)" - the left hand captures our attention with its insistence. After a quick stop, the pianist rolls into a lengthy melody line built upon the percussive power of the opening.  The music tumbles forward; the music moves in and out of time yet the spell has been cast.  After you listen several times, you realize that while Ortiz is a generous player, these pieces are not filler, not technical exercises. Take the aptly-titled "Dominant Force".  The tension created by the powerful left-hand rhythm is heightened by the angular, percussive, melody. Soon, the listener is swept up in the proceedings ready to dance out of the room.  All this magic in 2:32. "Sacred Chronology" has similar intensity, built off the crashing chords that come out of the speakers in jagged time. There is not so much melody as there is rhythmic interaction, the right hand adding exclamation points as the left varies the tempo, seemingly a mixture of Messiaen and Gershwin.

The dynamism of "Monochrome (Yubá), created by the plunking two-note bass notes (the low strings sounds as if they have something on them to flatten the sound), the solemn beauty of "Coralaia" (the gentle, emotionally rich ballad that closes the album), the expansive adventure that is "Cuban Cubism" (with its harsh opening chords giving way to low bass rumbles then rising to high notes floating like light rain), all serve to show a fully engaged  artist.  Not satisfied with the tried-and-true but always pushing forward, creating a narrative of creative curiosity.  Listener, leave your expectations at the door, take part in the adventure, and you will return to this music ready to dig deeper.  "Cub(an)ism" is a high point in the career of Aruán Ortiz; one expects many, many more such triumphs.

For more information, go to www.aruan-ortiz.com.

Here's a track to whet your listening appetite:



Just last week, I wrote about Rufus Records and my earlier writing/listening experiences with musicians on the Australian label.  One of those musicians is pianist and composer Tim Stevens (pictured).  Born 200 miles north of Melbourne, the pianist moved there when he was four years and lives there still (save for a few years in Sydney).  His interactions with the piano began at age eight and, while he studied Music Performance/Improvisation in college, he earned a Graduate Degree in Education, then a Master's Degree from the School of Music at the Victorian College of the Arts (and later, a Ph. D in Philosophy). In 1994, he formed a trio with bassist Nick Haywood and drummer Allan Brownerecording two albums blending original material with jazz standards.  In 2000, Stevens moved to Sydney where he formed a Trio with Mark Lau (bass) and Simon Barker (drums). Upon his return to Melbourne in 2002, he created his current trio of bassist Ben Robertson and drummer Dave Beck, an ensemble that has released four albums on Rufus.  


Stevens has also issued four solo piano recordings for Rufus, beginning in 2002 with the introspective yet playful "Freehand."  In May of this year, the label issued "Media Vita", an album of 12 pieces all composed in 2016, a leap year in which the composer challenged himself to write a new work every day. What should one expect from a project such as this?  Honesty, for one. Exercises such as these expose the creative person in different ways.  If he or she is up to the challenge, the realization that every day is different, that we as people are different, that this kind of "play"is also work. The intertwine of work and play is, for this writer, what makes this album so enjoyable.  Composer Stevens gives us 12 stories from 12 different days in his year as a musician, teacher, parent, citizen, etc. and, in a way, asks us if we can see ourselves in the music.  


timstevens.com.au
Yes, you will hear different influences, from blues to classical to liturgical works to Australian folk tunes. You will hear a technically impressive pianist who understands that one cannot substitute technique for emotion (sadness weighs heavily on a piece such as "The Wrong Door" while the previous track, "Wrested", flows with power with a sense of purpose).  There are two cuts that share the albums title, with "I" having a wistful quality and a melody that cries out for lyrics while "II", which closes the album, has a lighter feel, a sense of promise and bright days and clear nights.  In other words, hope.

"Media Vita", which translate to "half life" or, perhaps, "middle age", is by nature a culmination of the music Tim Stevens has created over the past two decades.  Yet, also by the fact that the 12 songs come from 2016, it's also "new" music, statements as to where the composer is in his life.  (Author's Note: the title is actually from the Latin phrase "Media vita in morte sumus" which translates to "In the midst of life we are in death.") 

Sure, this album is personal, the best music always is. I have listened to this recording every day since it arrived a week ago and there is still more to discover, uncover, and enjoy!

For more information, go to www.timstevens.com.au.

Here's another track for your listening pleasure:

Monday, August 7, 2017

Sound, Silence, of New Pathways to Listening

allaboutjazz.com
Much has been written about composer and multi-instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey over the past year and for good reason. He is a musical polyglot, seemingly without borders (other than time and his music often challenges our perception of time), and he can drive a band from his position behind the drums in the manner of Max Roach, QuestLove, and Eric Harland.  When he was studying for his Masters Degree at Wesleyan University, Sorey also was a member of the University's Klezmer ensemble, playing keyboards and mighty impressive gut-bucket trombone.  He used his time at the school to study with Anthony Braxton, Alvin Lucier, and Ron Kuivila as well as play with various ensembles.  Earlier this year, he earned his DMA in composition from Columbia University and, at the end of this month (8/17), becomes the John Spencer Camp Professor of Music at Wesleyan.

And, he has a new recording.  "Verisimilitude" is his sixth album as a leader and fourth for Pi Recordings.  The program features his longtime "working trio" of Corey Smythe (piano, toy piano, electronics) and Chris Tordini (bass) playing its way through five Sorey originals, only one of which is under 10 minutes.  These pieces cha;lunge the listener to hear a trio in different aspects, to understand that the role of each musician is not to impress with technique or speed but to advance the narrative of the music.  The impressionistic quality of the music and the overwhelming softness can lull the listener. Yet, there are moments of power, both melodic and percussive, as if great gust of wind came through the window.

photo by John Rogers
I am not going to give you an account of each track; instead, you should approach this music with open ears. Be prepared to play the 69-minute program several times all the way through.  This is not background music to be played with guests in the house or while eating dinner. It is music to ponder, to explore, to note how the "traditional" trio approach seems to be eschewed in favor of a group dynamic.  Pay close attention to the work of bassist Tordini. He often drops out but is so important to the sound of these pieces. He can be percussive, melodic, supportive, foundational, and minimalist yet is a necessary element of the songs.

The elegiac quality of "Flowers for Prashant", a musical tribute to the late filmmaker Prashant Bhargava, is a wonderful place to enter the music yet, since the songs all flow into one another, you should start at the beginning.  Have patience with this music - so many of us listen to music to be constantly stimulated, go from high to high, but "Verisimilitude" asks you to slow down, to appreciate every sound, to engage the silence between notes, to stop judging and just listen.  This music is not for everyone and for every minute of the day.  It is contemplative and powerful.  Be open and you'll be rewarded and more so, refreshed.

To find out more, go to pirecordings.com/artist/Tyshawn_Sorey. Here's a link to a recent NYTimes article by Giovanni Russonello that will give you even more historical perspective - click here.

Here's a track to explore:



In January of 2015, I was quite impressed by saxophonist and composer Paul Jones's debut album, "Short History" (read review here). I especially was impressed by his compositional and arranging skills.  All that and more is on display on his sophomore effort, "Clean" (Inside Out Music).  With the exception of pianist Glenn Zaleski, he employs the same sextet (alto saxophonist Alex LoRe, guitarist Matt Davis, bassist Johannes Felscher, and drummer Jimmy Macbride) but also adds the SNAP Saxophone Quartet (Nicholas Biello, Andrew Gould, Sam Dillon, and Jay Rattan), the Righteous Girls (flutist Gina Izzo and pianist Erika Dohi) plus Mark Dover (clarinet), Ellen Hindson (oboe), Nanci Belmont (bassoon), and Susan Mandel (cello) on numerous tracks.

Looks pretty crowded but surprisingly there is little or no clutter on the 14-song programs.  There are five tracks that are built from "Romulo's Raga", a Jones composition dedicated to Romulo Herrera, the longtime chef at the Cornelia Street Cafe in New York City who was murdered in his home in January of 2016.  Jones was away at the time and shocked by the brutal killing, creating an homage that called for a wind octet plus piano.  The "...Raga", while barely over a minute, has an intensity that illuminates the piece.  The other four short compositions, titled "Ive Sn Th Fra Md", "It Was Brgh Cold", and "Im Pretty Uch Fkd", serve as segues to the sextet performances yet, though short, each has a power to stand on its own. Save for the final one, which is the closing track; "The Minutiae of Existence" is a miniature delight and brings the program full circle.  On my laptop, the music does to not stop but goes back to the beginning , the first track being "Ive Sn Th Fra Md", and it helps to point out not only how all the pieces are interconnected but also

The sextet (and sextet plus) music is also quite fascinating.  With four melodic instruments on a front line, it's fun to hear how the composer Jones shares melody and harmony lines.  The title track rolls in  on short figures from the saxophones with the melody played by guitarist Davis, counterpoint from the piano and then switched over to the tenor.  Listen to how Jones plays with the rhythms below the theme before the solos begin over a static rhythm. Macbride drives beneath the solo while the insistent guitar strumming holds the tempo. At 8:46, the songs allows for various sections and solos, making it easy for the listener to fall under its spell.

The jaunty melody of "I Am an American", introduced by bass and piano, creates an easygoing feel.  Bassist Felscher gets the first solo, o long and melodic solo, before Jones steps in.  Ms. Belmont and Ms. Mandel join the sextet for "Buckley Vs. Vidal", a lengthy conversation (but not a debate) with a bounce to its beat and colors provided by the guest "voices".  The guests enliven "Centre In The Woods", a handsome melody played over a tango  rhythm. One can visualize dancers whirling around the floor as the saxophone solo rises over the slowly intensifying background.

As artists take control of their music (or are given free rein by labels), listeners are being blessed by a panoply of engaging projects. "Clean" is one of those albums that grows stronger each time you dig into it. You notice interactions, the fine melodies, the smart arrangements both for the sextet and for the wind octet, and solos that have arrives and are not just technical displays.  If you dig around online, you'll find alternate versions of some of the pieces on the album. Check those out too.  In his liner notes, Paul Jones writes that while working on the material for this album, he was listening to Kendrick Lamar ("To Pimp a Butterfly"), Philip Glass ("Glassworks"), and Steve Reich ("Music for 18 Musicians") as well as the immediacy of contemporary hip hop.  Check this out, spend time inside the songs, and you should be pleased.  To find more, go to www.paulthejones.com.

In the meantime, enjoy the title track:


Sunday, August 6, 2017

Hiatus Listening: Rediscovering Rufus Records

Laying around doing nothing has always been an Achille's Heel for me.  When I wake up, my mind is engaged, either thinking about what I need to do today, what I should have done yesterday, what music I want to listen to, reviews I need to finish, or, the one that really makes me alert, how the cat needs to be fed before she shreds the love-seat.  There is usually nothing logical about this process (save for wanting throw a shoe at the cat) - basically, I "go with the (mental) flow."

The other morning as I was scrolling through the jazz selections on bandcamp.com, I came across an album by the Alister Spence Trio, an ensemble based in Australia that recorded on the Rufus Records label. I had been introduced to the Trio and the record label when I wrote for Bob Rusch's CADENCE Magazine in the 1990s, discovering music from halfway around the world that resonated with a person living in CT.  Mr. Rusch sent me music created by saxophonist Bernie McGann (pictured above), by Ten Part Invention (a little big band led by drummer John Pochée), by pianist Tim Stevens, and others.  I began an email correspondence with label president Tim Dunn - we chatted about all sorts of things but I was most impressed by Mr Dunn's dedication to original music created by Australian musicians.  Like CrissCross Records and Gerry Teekens, François Zalacain at Sunnyside Records, Marc Free and Nick O'Toole at Posi-Tone Records, Manfred Eicher and ECM, Tim Dunn knows what he likes to hear and works hard to spread the word and the sounds. After I stopped writing for CADENCE and about music for a while, Mr. Dunn and I lost touch.

After I discovered that bandcamp.com had the Spence Trio recording, I typed in the name "Bernie McGann" and was pleased to see that the alto saxophonist (who passed in 2013 at the age of 76) had a number of live recordings released several years ago.  On Friday, the day that Bandcamp decided to donate its share of profits from sales to the Transgender Law Center, an organization based in Oakland, CA, whose mission is "to change law, policy, and attitudes so that all people can live safely, authentically, and free from discrimination regardless of their gender identity or expression." Bandcamp's 24-hour sale netted, approximately, $700,000 for the Law Center.  Yes, this reviewer purchased "Wending" by Bernie McGann (90 minutes of live recordings from 2005 and 2012).


I also rediscovered Stevens - I already had in my possession two of his earlier recordings, a splendid Trio CD and a wonderful, exploratory, solo piano album from 2002 titled "Freehand."  His latest recording, "Media Vita", is his fourth solo endeavor and features 12 pieces composed during 2016 when the Melbourne-based musician wrote a new song every day.  I purchased that album as well and will review it at a later date (the pile of CDs waiting to reviewed is awfully high - no complaints, just reporting the facts) so it will be a few weeks.  On first listen, I am pleased by the attractive melodies and how they flow. No question that Stevens is a technically impressive piano but this music has much more emotion than technique - in fact, the composer writes that "there is no free improvisation."

One of my favorite McGann recordings is "Bundeena", an album which features one of my Top 100 songs (really, who can narrow a list down to 10 after listening to music for over 60 years), a song titled "Big Moon" composed by bassist Lloyd Swanton (from The Necks).  Named for the town in which McGann lived, located on the southern outskirts of Sydney along the bay from which the town takes its name, the trio recording blends a myriad of influences (Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Lester Young, etc) to create a delightful 52-minute experience.  McGann was an adventurous player, not adhering to one genre at any time, and his rhythm section - bassist Swanton and drummer Pochée - keep right up, pushing, prodding, driving, and smoothing the way.

Here's "Big Moon" and, below that, the opening track from "Media Vita":





Find out more about the record label by going to www.rufusrecords.com.au. To find out more about pianist and composer Tim Stevens, go to timstevens.com.au.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Hiatus Listening & Watching: Myra M & LCJO

"The Strawberry" by Myra Melford and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra has been featured on video and now released by Blue Engine Records as one of a three-track digital release at the onset of the LCJO's 30th Anniversary. Yes, 30 years! Winton Marsalis and company has used New York City as its base form which to go around the world to share the joys of jazz.  Can't miss that spirit in the great track!

Audio only:



Video:




You really should check out the amazing amount of videos that the LCJO has produced. Also, click on this link to go to YouTube and check out videos from Ms. Melford's week residency at The Stone in New York City.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Hiatus Listening & Watching: Podcasts & Artistic Video

Among the orders I have to follow over this hiatus, sitting still and lying down are among the top 10. So, I have been watching some television and poking around YouTube as well as other sites.  But, I have been also listening to podcasts.  I am hooked on Leo Sidran's "The Third Story" as he is not only a musician but also a fine interviewer.

This morning, I checked out his interview with Duchess Trio, that delightful vocal group featuring Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, and Melissa Stylianou.  One learns a lot about how to keep a group together, about the history of each vocalist, and even an impromptu (sort of) performance.  Go to www.third-story.com/listen/duchess and check it out. While you're at the site, check out the other people he has interviewed (including his father, Ben Sidran).  There's a lot to learning from listening.




That should logically lead you to this: www.duchesstrio.com/harmonyandhijinks/. They are such engaging people, it's easy to sit and listen to several episodes at a time.  It's summertime, time for lazing about, time for enjoyment but, with all the political and social unrest at the moment, one might  feel as if frivolity is just wasted time.  It's not, nor should it ever be. If we lose our senses of humor and perspective, we run the risk of becoming one-dimensional and, frankly, dull.  So, my prescription would be "one episode per day. morning, noon, or night."



Here's a video to enjoy as well:



I started this series with a short set from the Vadim Neselovskyi Trio.  Here's a new video the Ukranian-born pianist posted this week from his January 2017 release "Get Up and Go" -  this track features the lovely voice of Sara Serpa:

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Hiatus Watching: Give the Drummers Some Space

One of the best of this and any year is "The Broader Picture", the music of drummer-composer Billy Hart performed by Mr. Hart & the WDR Big Band with arrangements by Christophe Schweizer.

Here's one of the great tracks:



Here's the drummer with The Cookers from 2014:




A change of pace now with John Hollenbeck & Claudia Quintet:



Later in August, Palmetto Records releases Matt Wilson's Honey & Salt "Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg" - the blend of music and poetry is a delight and features Mr. Wilson in the company of Jeff Lederer (saxophones, clarinet, piccolo), Ron Miles (cornet), Dawn Thomson (guitars, vocal), and Martin Wind (acoustic bass):

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Hiatus Watching & Listening (Pt 2)

The Music Mountain "Twilight Concerts" series presents Ryan Keberle & Catharsis on Saturday August 12 at 6:30 p.m. in the historic Gordon Hall.  The quintet - Keberle (trombone, melodica, keyboards), Jorge Roeder (acoustic and electric bass), Eric Doob (drums), Camila Meza (guitar, vocals) and special guest Scott Robinson (saxophones, trumpet, filling in for regular member trumpeter Michael Rodriguez) - has been touring a lot this summer in support of its new "protest" album, "Find the Common, Shine a Light."  The program features several Keberle originals, several "group" compositions, and inspired renditions of songs by Bob Dylan, Jorge Drexler, Paul McCartney, and Vito Aiuto & The Welcome Wagon.

The album addresses issues that arisen since the beginning of the 2016 Presidential Election cycle and in the wake of the Donald Trump Presidency.  The album covers shows protest placards with statements about immigration, human rights, respect, and more.  The band does not beat one over the head - they want you to think, respond, and make sure your voice is heard.  No sitting back and letting other people speak for you.

For ticket information, go to musicmountain.org/category/concerts/ or call 860-824-7126 or 860-824-7626.

Here's the group's take on Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'":



Take a listen to Vito Aiuto's song:



Here's a track from the new Bill Cunliffe record "BACHanalia" that I will review when the hiatus is through.  It's a smashing arrangement of a tune by Oscar Levant (that's a character from the past) and features a wonderful flugelhorn solo from Terell Stafford:




And, while in a bit of ballad mood, here is the duo of Jason Anick (electric mandolin) and Jason Yeager (piano) with the rhythm section of Greg Loughman (bass) and Mike Connors (drums) performing a George Harrison tune. They've got a fine new album on Inner Circle Music titled "United."





How about a "modern" brass quartet. The Westerlies, born in Seattle, WA, and now based in New York City, make such fascinating music.  The foursome includes Riley Mulherkar and Zubin Hensler on trumpet, and Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch on trombone. Here's a piece from each of the ensemble's two Songlines recordings. The first album was dedicated to the music of Wayne Horvitz:



The following track is a Duke Ellington tune from the ensemble's self-titled second album:

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Hiatus Watching & Listening (Part 1)

There are times when this blog slows down because of school or family visits but rarely a week goes by when I do not post a review or a notable gig happening in Connecticut.  But, I must step aside for what could be as long as two weeks. Lord knows, I have lots to review but.....So the plan is to upload videos and audio from artists with new albums and more -  just no reviews.

Here's the first installment!

We open with a live video featuring the Vadim Neselovskyi Trio.  Vadim's on piano, Dan Loomis on bass, and Ronen Itzik on drums and this was recorded in Bremen, Germany, exactly two weeks before the Trio appeared at The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme, CT. I was there for the later gig and the musicianship blew me away!  So, watch the Trio having so much fun and make sure to turn up the volume.




Music Mountain in Lakeville, CT, has booked a fascinating summer of creative music for its "Twilight Concerts" series. On Saturday August 5, multi-reed artist and composer Ben Kono brings his Quintet to the lovely hall on the mountain. Kono, who plays in multiple ensembles and Broadway "pits", has been working on a work titled "Don't Blink" for the past several years (thanks to commissions from Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.  Not sure who is in the Quintet for this gig but here's a live take from 2014 with band that features Pete McCann (guitar), Mike Holober (piano), Kermit Driscoll (bass), and Satoshi Takeishi (drums and percussion). 




For more information about the live show, go to musicmoutain.org.  To learn more about Mr. Kono, go to www.benkono.com.

Here's the opening track from saxophonist Ralph Bowen's new self-titled disk on Posi-Tone Records. Besides Bowen blowing hard on tenor saxophone, the band features Jim Ridl (piano), Kenny Davis (drums), and the rollicking drum work of Cliff Almond (especially on the track below). The album includes six-song "Phylogeny Suite" that has songs titled "A Rookery of Ravens", "A Venue of Vultures", and so forth (you'll need to look up "phylogeny").  The track below is not part of the suite but an invitation to and preview of the great sounds to come.

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




Here's a track from alto saxophonist John O'Gallagher, bassist Johannes Weidenmuller, and drummer Mark Ferber.  Whirlwind Recordings released "John O'Gallagher Trio: Live In Brooklyn" earlier this year (actually, late December 2016) and, somehow, it got buried under a pile of others recordings and student papers (excuses, excuses) - a review is forthcoming but here's a taste of what to expect from this exciting group.  Pay attention to fascinating interactions and powerful playing from all three.

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

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

This & That, Late July '17 Edition

Pianist Denny Zeitlin first played with drummer and percussionist George Marsh in the late 1960s.  When Dr. Zeitlin (he's also a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, a practicing psychiatrist, and an oenophile) was commissioned to write the film score for the 1978 remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", not only was Marsh involved but the composer was able to employ synthesizers to help create mood. Dr. Zeitlin went back to acoustic music for several decades while Marsh made his name as a session player and played with numerous groups.  But the pianist never lost his curiosity for the myriad that electronic instruments could generate and, by the turn of the 21st Century, was beginning to explore their use once more. Sunnyside released "Both/And" in 2013, a solo excursion on which synthesizers played a major role.  He reunited with the drummer that same year and they soon began experimenting together in Dr. Zeitlin's home studio.

In the studio, they would set up back-to-back and just begin playing.  Every session was recorded and when the keyboardist went back to listen, he had a lot of fine interactions.  So much so, that Sunnyside released "Riding The Moment" in 2015.  Now, the label has issued "Expedition" and it's even more fascinating and exploratory than the duo's debut.  My initial reaction, especially when the duo falls into a slinky groove, is to compare this music to the work of the late Joe Zawinul, especially from Weather Report's third album (1973's "Sweetnighter") forward.  Both keyboard masters have the ability to play such slinky grooves but, if anything, the good Doctor has a more melodic approach.  The way he mixes the acoustic piano with the synths on "Thorns of Life" is so attractive, the sonic colors so vivid.  Listen to how the duo pulls away from the abstract opening of "Traffic" and falls into a delightful groove (courtesy of the drums and the deep bass notes from the pianist's left hand).

The ethereal voices that move in and out of "Spiral Nebula" give the piece (also with thanks to the title) the feel of soundtrack music from "Star Trek" or some other "space" movie.  Yet, there is a lovely vulnerable moment when it's just acoustic piano and drums; the interaction is emotionally rich, the music compelling.  "Shooting the Rapids" is an high-energy romp powered by Marsh's deep groove. Do they ever play!  "Not Lost In The Shuffle" does have a hint of blues in the drums and low keyboard notes yet notice how the trance-like keyboards support Marsh's powerful solo.

By the time you reach the last track, the title cut, you've been on quite an "Expedition."  Denny Zeitlin sees his role as not only the writing the melodies but also orchestrating them.  He has quite an orchestra at his fingertips, managing to veer away from the desire to fill every second with sound. George Marsh is not just the "rhythm section"; he, too, has a melodic side yet he often keeps the music "grounded", allowing the pianist to explore so many different paths. Listen to how the duo enters into "One Song", with the acoustic piano supported by the drums and keyboard bass.  It's a pretty piece, smart brush work, quiet background "strings", slowly adding different keyboards but never losing touch with the ballad heart of the music.  What makes this album and its pastiche of sounds, noises, and melodies so impressive is that the music is always accessible, always intelligent.  You should go on this trip; it's not "novelty" music but the adventures of two musicians who have always pushed beyond the mundane, the tried and true, into the heart of creative music.

For more information, go to www.dennyzeitlin.com and georgemarsh.com.

Here's a track to explore:




On Saturday July 29, the Music Mountain Twilight Series, held at the historic concert hall in Lakeville, CT, presents the Alan Ferber Nonet in concert at 6:30 p.m. Trombonist and composer Ferber organized the Nonet in the early 2000s and the ensemble's first recording came out on Fresh Sounds New Talent in 2005. They have since released three albums, the latest being 2016's "Roots and Transitions" (Sunnyside).  Ferber, one of the busiest musicians on the planet, also has issued one big band CD and has another coming later this year.

For this weekend's show, the Nonet will consist of Ferber, Scott Wendholt (trumpet), Jon Gordon (alto sax), Jason Rigby (tenor sax), Charles Pillow (bass clarinet), Kris Davis (piano), Nate Radley (guitar), Matt Pavolka (bass), and Jared Shonig (drums).  The music they make defies categorization (most people would call it jazz) and Ferber's melodies are so impressive, his arrangements so intelligent, and one can hear so many possible influences, from Sondheim to Brookmeyer to Gil Evans and beyond.  

For ticket information, go to musicmountain.org or call 860-824-7126 or 860-824-7626

Here's a track from the Nonet's latest CD:




Also this Saturday, Real Art Ways, 45 Arbor Street in Hartford presents the Tyshawn Sorey Septet in a free concert at 7:30 p.m. The drummer, composer, trombonist, pianist, and soon-to-be Professor of Music at Wesleyan University keeps a busy international schedule. He's got a new Trio album coming out August 4 on Pi Recordings - "Verisimilitude" features the fine pianist Corey Smythe and bassist Chris Tordini working their way through Sorey's fascinating, minimalist compositions.  For the Hartford concert, the Sextet will be composed of Stephen Haynes (trumpet), Ben Gerstein (trombone), Todd Neufield (guitar) plus three acoustic bassists, Mark Helias, Joe Morris, and Carl Testa.  The music is based on Zen Buddhist practices and the composer's fascination with low and slow sounds.  For more information, go to www.realartways.org  or call 860-232-1006.