Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Ms. Fujii Writes, Plays, and Speaks Her Mind (Large Ensemble & Solo)

2018 is the year pianist, composer, and arranger Satoko Fujii turns 60 years old and will release an album every month (one may remember Wynton Marsalis doing something similar in 1999, albeit not for his 60th).  This month will see the release of a solo piano recital.  Before we talk about anything brand new, I should look at two of her more exciting 2017 albums.  Early November saw the latest release (and 10th since 1997) by her 13-member Orchestra New York. Titled "Fukushima" (Libra Records), the music is a reaction to the nuclear disaster triggered by an earthquake in 2011.  There were several deaths as well as tens of thousands of people displaced from their homes (in some instances, for more than nine months). The after-effects of the disaster were felt throughout Japan and the Far East.

The impressive ensemble - saxophonists Oscar Noriega, Ellery Eskelin, Tony Malaby, and Andy Laster, trumpeters Dave Ballou, Herb Robertson, and Natsuki Tamura, trombonists Joey Sellers, Joe Fielder, and Curtis Hasselbring, plus guitarist Nels Cline, electric bassist Stomu Takeishi, and drummer Ches Smith - do an amazing job bringing this musical five-section story to life.  There are moments when the music is mournful, confrontational, angry, quiet, loud, and emotionally powerful. Section "1" opens with breath, as if the wind was passing through trees or over the landscapes of the city. Slowly, one hears various voices rise out of the ensemble, trumpet, sax, percussion - Cline's "tolling" guitar lines ushers in a new section where various voices move in and around his sound.  The group hits its stride at the beginning of "2" when the rhythm section pushes forward a powerful sure of sound and different soloists rise and fall around  them.  The whole group then plays a powerful counterpoint to Laster's squalling baritone solo - yet, pay attention to Cline, Smith, and especially Takeishi (the bassist really roars underneath).

One is tempted to write about every section of this 57-minute adventure but the best advice is to start at the beginning and listen all the way through.  Then, repeat.  What stands out for you?  Is the power of the "sound"? Is it how the electronics of the guitar and bass push the music into different territories for a large ensemble?  Is it the gorgeous coda that is section "5"?  Chances are that it is all of the above and more.  Ms. Fujii gives voice to the victims, making the power of her music and musicians speak for those who suffered (the majority of section "4" is filled with short solo or duo statements, making the point that all voices should be heard - the full band "blues" that closes the section is extremely powerful as well, giving even more gravitas to "5".

"Fukushima", a tragedy translated into music by Satoko Fujii, is quite a stunning work. The musicians of Orchestra New York left their egos at the door for the sake of the narrative.  Yes, the title of the album adds the weight of expectations to the music but serves as a reminder that composers and musicians live in the "real" world as much as they do in the world of creativity.  Here, those worlds collide and, I believe, we are better for it.

Earlier in 2017, the Japanese label Cortez Sound (named for the Cortez Jazz Cafe in Mito, Japan, approximately 80 miles to the northeast of Tokyo) issued its first album.  "Invisible Hand" is a two-CD recording of the solo piano music of Satoko Fujii.  There are 10 tracks, 87 minutes of music, much of which is improvised. As with "Fukushima", the listener is advised to sit and listen, leaving (if possible) one's expectations aside.  The music covers a great deal of territory, from flowing Keith Jarrett-like melodies to the title track that starts inside of the piano and does not have a true "melody" until 2/3rds of the way through its 13+ minutes. "Floating" is an amazing piece with prepared piano; the power of the pianist's single note phrases and occasional chords plus the marimba-like "prepared" sounds have a meditative feel - watch how the mood and direction changes midway through. This is such a fascinating exploration of possibilities.

In the brief liner notes included in the package, Ms. Fujii writes that she "played total improvisation in the first set, mixed with some written pieces in the second set." The joy of this music is that the listener cannot really hear the difference.  The power of pieces such as "Spring Storm" and "Green Cab" is in the pictures that the pianist paints on (and in) her keyboard (the latter track has a delightful "stride piano" section that may remind some of the work of Myra Melford, who as recorded with Ms. Fujii).

Yes, Satoko Fujii is "flooding" the market with her music and yes, it can be overwhelming. For this listener (who has heard several dozen of her albums with various groups), "Invisible Hand" is one of my favorites. It's true that I like the occasional "clutter" of her different large ensembles and her fascinating accordion work with the Gato Libre quartet: however, this two-disk set is quite entertaining and emotionally satisfying.

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

Here's the opening track:

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Catching Up January 18 (Pt. 1)

Over the past several decades, guitarist and composer Rez Abbasi has been "fusing" sounds from India and his native Pakistan with the varied influences of Western Music, specifically jazz and blues. His 12th album as a leader, "Unfiltered Universe" (Whirlwind Recordings), features his long-time companions Vijay Iyer (piano), Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto saxophone), Johannes Weidenmueller (bass), and Dan Weiss (drums) and adds the cello of Elizabeth Mikael.  Iyer, Weiss, Mahanthappa, and Weidenmueller appeared on 2011's "Suno Suno" and 2009's "Things to Come" and the leader sees this record as a third in a trilogy of recording that use South Asian music as touchstone for his compositions and the improvisations.  The blend of alto sax, acoustic piano, and guitar with this highly active rhythm section makes for a winning combination.

John Rogers photo
"Propensity" opens the program and, right from the start, the listener should pay attention to the different components. The extended melody, the powerful combination of bass and drums, the vocal characteristic of Mahanthappa's alto sax, the way the arrangement includes the cello as counterpoint. and the excellent solos.  The title track follows.  This melody, played by the alto and guitar, has a lovely almost melancholy flavor especially when the cello enters shadowing the lines played by the piano.  Notice the "freedom" yet structure in the rhythm section during the solos as well as Iyer's heavy chordal work.  The rhythms slow down at the onset of the piano solo and one can really hear the articulated notes and how, slowly, surely, Iyer works in tandem with Weidenmueller and Weiss.

With exception of "Thoughts", a short (1:41) but rambunctious guitar solo, the songs stretch out but no piece is overdone.  It's fun to hear how the tempos change within songs, how the different voices interact, how the power of the alto sax is matched by the guitar and piano but is not a "war" of virtuosi.  The leader plays with great fire throughout yet there are moments of simple beauty as well.  The longest track (11:54), "Turn of Events", take its time to get going but once the song hits a rhythmic stride, the musicians still don't hurry.  The mysterious melody finally arrives, played by the guitar, sax, and cello and it's as if everything as fallen into the right places. Soon, Mahanthappa and Abbasi are soloing together as the pianist pulls the rhythm section forward.  But, they drop for a piano solo framed by only the bass and drums yet you can hear how Iyer builds his powerful spot from the main melody and rhythm of the composition. Ms. Mikael steps out for a quick solo with Weidenmueller's bass as a counterpoint before the bass is by himself.  Guitar and piano create a percussive dialogue before the sextet returns for the reprise of the opening theme.

"Unfiltered Universe" is structured yet has such a "free" feel at times it seems as if the musicians are spinning a magic story.  While Rez Abbasi talks about the importance of carnatic music to this album, all the influences seems to have merged into an original sound.  Give a listen and then another - this music all seduce you.

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

Here's the title track:

It was Peter Margasak in the Chicago Reader who hipped his readers to the "Flow", the new Delmark album from the Paul Gialorrenzo Trio.  I went out and purchased the album on the power of his suggestion.  Yes, it's a piano trio album, released at a time when one get lost easily in the plethora of piano trio recordings. But, I understand his enthusiasm.  Pianist and composer Gialorrenzo, a native of Long Island, NY who now resides and works in Chicago, has crafted an album that may remind some of work of Herbie Nichols or Bud Powell or Thelonious Monk. He's not afraid of changing tempos in mid-phrase and is blessed to have the rhythm section of Joshua Abrams (bass) and Mikel Patrick Avery (drums) who not only follow his creative paths he creates but push, poke, prod, and "swing like mad" along the way.

Listen to how "Rolling" does just that, how it rolls along on the walking bass lines and ride cymbal and how the melody and solo dances atop it.  Throughout the nine-song program, the emphasis is on melody, interplay, and  the narrative Giallorenzo weaves into every track.  Feet have to tap on "Flipd Scrip" and heads will lean in on the opening melody of "Interstice": with the entrance of bassist Abrams on the latter track, the piece moves in a "freer" direction but never goes all the way out. In fact, there's a section that is "deep" blues.

The two pieces that bookend the album, "A-Frolicking" and "A Way We Go", point to the playfulness of this music, the type of repertoire that make audiences sit up and smile.  The Paul Giallorenzo Trio swings with glee, the music never feels forced, and you can see the musicians are paying close attention to each other.  "Flow" is a delight from start to finish.

For more information about this fascinating musician, go to paulgiallorenzo.com.

Saxophonist Nick Hempton (alto and tenor) has issued four fine albums on Posi-Tone Records, mostly with his fine Quartet.  With the release of "Trio Stonk: Live at Smalls" (SmallsLIVE), the Australian native has downsized but not to the detriment of his music. With his rhythm section - George DeLancey (bass) and long-time associate Dan Aran (drums) - Hempton moves his way through seven pieces, five of which are originals.  Not hard to compare some of the pieces to the 1950s Trio work of Sonny Rollins - listen to the opening of "Dropping A Franklin" or the playful take of "When I Grow Too Old to Dream" and you can hear it in the way Hempton phrases and the gentle swing of the rhythm section.  There are even a few Rollins quotes on the opening of "Not That Sort of Jazz That Stewart Likes", a delightful romp that has an easy groove.

The lovely take of the standard "Poor Butterfly" is a highlight, the alto sax dancing around the structural work of the bass and drums. The singing tone of the sax, the gentle brush work, and intelligent counterpoint from the bass, all combine for a sweet ballad.  "A Whistling Blues" opens with just sax and bass playing a "down home" tune with the feel of David "Fathead" Newman supporting Ray Charles.  The blues gets deeper when the drums enters to slowly push the tune forward.

Trio Stonk plays with verve, a sweet sense of humor, and the desire to entertain people who like jazz. Neither confrontational nor challenging, Nick Hempton and company make music that's filled with joy, soaked in the blues, not afraid to swing, and possessing a sense of humor.  Relax and dig into these tasty sounds.

For more information, go to nickhemptonband.com.

Give a listen:

Monday, January 1, 2018

New Year & More New Music

In a delightful surprise move, Pi Recordings pre-released the new album from Henry Threadgill on New Year's Eve (yes, last night). The recording features yet another new ensemble for the Pulitzer Prize winning composer and reed master, the 15-member 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg. Not sure what the name means but you can be sure that Mr. Threadgill has created music that blurs the lines between composition and improvisation, underpinning it all with the amazing flow from an expanded rhythm section. His Zooid group - cellist Chris Hoffman, drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee, acoustic guitarist Liberty Ellman, and the stunning tuba master Jose Davila - are all here augmented by members of his Ensemble Double Up - pianists David Virelles (also harmonium) and David Bryant, alto saxophonists Curtis Macdonald and Roman Filiu (who also plays alto flute), and drummer Craig WeinribFilling out the group are trombonists Jacob Garchik and Ben Gersteintrumpeters Stephanie Richards and Jonathan Finlayson, plus bassist Thomas Morgan. The 15th musician is Mr. Threadgiill who appears on alto saxophone, flute, and alto flute.

The album won't be officially released until Spring so you have to go to henrythreadgill.bandcamp.com/album/dirt-and-more-dirt to purchase it now as a download.  If you are a fan of Henry Threadgill, you'll go there and you will be more than pleased.  It's a treat and a challenge, just like the New Year itself. Go and give a listen. It just might ward off the chill that has covered the United States over the past week or so.  Worth a try!

I've been driving around the past few months with the new CD by Carn Davidson 9 in my player. "Murphy" (self-released) is the nonet's second recording and continues the concept of the group's 2012 debut album; three reeds, four brass plus bass and drums, no chordal instruments.  Led by William Carn (trombone, compositions) and Tara Davidson (alto sax, soprano sax, flute, clarinet, compositions), this band is a real community with arrangements by members.  Most of the band from the debut album is back including Kelly Jefferson (tenor sax, soprano sax, clarinet), Perry White (baritone sax, bass clarinet), Jason Logue and Kevin Turcotte (trumpet, flugelhorn), and bassist Andrew Downing - joining the band are Alex Duncan (bass trombone) and Ernesto Cervini (drums).

The eight pieces (four each for the co-leaders) make intelligent use of the various voices.  Many of the melodies are carried by the sections, with counterpoint from the others, all driven by the delightful rhythm section. On Carn's "Glassman", vocalist Emilie-Claire Barlow because part of the band with her wordless vocals alongside the brass and clarinets.  The beginning is rubato so the flow comes from the melody. When the rhythm section enters, Ms. Barlow's voice moves in and out of the arrangement during the solos.  "Murphy's Law" has a delightful melody section that leads to a lovely and lengthy solo from White (on baritone sax): only near the close do the sections come in to dance around underneath him.

Lloyd Smith - Ottawa Citizen
There's a lovely classical feel in the reeds and brass melody that opens "Second Act (for Ron)". When the rhythm section enters, the melody is moved forward by the soprano sax, clarinet and flute. Listen to how the voices intertwine, interact, and work below the fine soprano saxophone solo.  There is a symphonic feel to the arrangement (by Carn for his composition). Make sure to check out the excellent work by bassist Downing especially in the final third of the piece.  "Reason, Season, Lifetime" dances in on a short riff from the saxophones, a riff that is repeated several tines throughout the piece. Check out how Jefferson's tenor solo picks up on the "dancing" motif now carried on by the rhythm section.  The other "voices" do a sweet job framing the solo, moving in and out behind the tenor (trumpeter Logue's arrangement).  Ms. Davidson has the other solo, her soprano sax lines slipping and sliding atop the rhythms while the sections match her energy as the intensity level matches up.

The title track closes the album. Named for the for the co-leaders's cat, "Murphy!" (the exclamation point is added as a descriptor) is, at times, playful, slower, jumping around, feisty, but never aloof...you know, cat-like.  There is even a touch of electronics on the tenor sax solo (could also represent the many personalities of a cat) and it's Cervini's exciting solo that brings the song and album back to its playful opening melody.  Not quite a cat chasing its tail mor like one dashing through the house for reasons unknown to humans.

"Murphy" is a delight from start to finish. Even if you are allergic to cats, this music will make you smile, dance, relax, and, honestly, feel better.  Carn Davidson 9 is a true "family" ensemble (listen to "Family Portrait" to hear how all the voices come together to move the narrative forward), one that creates music you'll want to listen to over and over.

For more information, go to www.taradavidson.ca or to www.williamcarn.com.