Monday, April 25, 2016

Jazz Phenom Morgan Guerin Debuts "The Saga" at The Velvet Note

This past Tuesday evening there was an invitation only event held at the Velvet Note jazz club in Alpharetta. The occasion was the preview and first public listening of a new recording by a young multi-instrumentalist phenom, Morgan Guerin.

Morgan Guerin
Guerin explained to the crowd of interested cognoscenti that he had spent a majority of his youth living and absorbing the music scene in New Orleans, where his father Roland Guerin is an active professional bass player. A few years ago Morgan  found himself uprooted by the divorce of his parents. He was relocated to live with his mother, attorney Brianna Williams, to a new home in Atlanta. The traumatic experience became the source of much anxiety for the young Guerin, but like all artists he turned this trauma into the germ of inspiration. The experience was filled with apprehension and doubt. In New Orleans Guerin was surrounded by jazz luminaries that he came to know personally through his father’s professional and social associations. The Marsalis family, saxophonist Donald Harrison and trumpeter Christian Scott were all friends of the family and the young Guerin saw his father play with guitarist Mark Whitfield and pianists Marcus Roberts and Allen Toussaint among others.This rich cultural experience was the nurturing environment that encouraged Guerin to pursue his ultimate career choice to be a musician. It was a bit of a culture shock for the young man to come to Atlanta and see that jazz wasn’t the main focus of the music scene here. A variety of musical genres that seem to flourish in this city. hip hop, neo soul, techno dance and R and B were all part of the music scene and Guerin started to question whether there was a place for the music he loved, jazz, in Atlanta. He even found himself questioning the pursuit of his music, at times even considering a more traditional career path. Fortunately his love of the music prevailed and where there is such abundant talent, there is always an audience. It didn’t take long for the young man to find his way into the hearts and minds of the jazz community in Atlanta.  

He continued advancing his musical education by attending prestigious jazz camps like the Vail Jazz Workshop, the summer jazz programs at the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston and summer programs at the New School in New Orleans and he told me he plans to continue his studies after he graduates from high school this year at the  New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in NYC.. He was selected to be part of the Grammy Band that was featured week long at the 58th annual Grammy Awards presentations this past February. All the while the deeply introspective Guerin was composing and shedding, using all the beauty and angst that was part of his life and transforming it into complex compositions that he felt were representative of what he had experienced from his earliest memories to his current state of mind. The result is his debut album The Saga, a long, detailed, series of stories which we were there to hear for the first time that evening,

Morgan Guerin

To appreciate the talent that this young artist has, one has to recognize the magnitude of the accomplishment that this album represents. Guerin is a multi-instrumentalist. On The Saga he plays the drums, percussion, the piano and Fender Rhodes, both alto and tenor saxophones, the Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI), Moog bass, organ, flute and Vocoder. If that weren’t enough he also wrote all the songs and arranged and recorded them in his own home studio!  And let’s not forget the young man is just seventeen! The closest comparison to such a multi-talented young musician is the British phenom Jacob Collier who is now nineteen and studies jazz piano at the Royal Academy. The main difference between these two, is that while they both play multiple instruments and are adept at electronics, Collier also sings and harmonizes with himself on multiple levels. However Guerin writes and arranges his own music while Collier mostly re-arranges popular songs by other people.

As Morgan states in the liner notes all the songs are “… the result of hard work and meditation.” Hard work and extraordinary dedication has certainly paid off for Guerin as his compositions range from the opening hip-hop inspired “Parallel” with its electronic, funk driven vibe and featuring the rap vocal of Dashill Smith to the more cosmic “Blueprint” with Guerin’s probing saxophone and EWI work and a spoken poem by Allana Hudson at the coda.

“Tabula Rasa” is, by Guerin’s own admission, an aggressive, pleading cry for clarity as he was trying to reconcile leaving his beloved New Orleans and finding his way in his adopted city of Atlanta.  The song rises to what I perceive is a joyful, albeit energized ascension to acceptance. The music skillfully integrates electronic sounds and effects with more traditional instrumentation and Guerin has been able to get fellow students to seamlessly participate in the creative process while never actually being present in the same location. Patrick Arthur’s electric and acoustic guitar work and Brandon Boone on electric and upright bass are the two fellow musician whose work is heard throughout the album. Jules Rodriguez on organ and Paul “Papabear” Johnson on bass are heard on “Parallel.” On the beautiful “Sharynwood Drive,” a reference to his home in New Orleans, there is a bittersweet opening to the composition that features an achingly touching cello solo by Grace Sommer. Ultimately the music has a nostalgic tone, a place that Guerin identifies to this day as a happy place filled with good memories. Curtis Olawumi on flugelhorn, Daniel Wytanis on trombone and a touching electric bass solo by his father Roland Guerin lead the music to a place where it elevates to a joyous declaration played by Guerin on tenor.

Guerin’s memories of  another New Orleans location of importance to his development, is also represented joyfully by the uplifting, “Madeira”, a reference to the street name of his grandmother's home, where he had childhood memories of music filling the air. His tenor playing bursts with excited enthusiasm as the repeating rhythm he creates sweeps you up in an ever ascending swirl of elation.

The two-part suite “With a Peace of Mind” part 1 and 2 Guerin plays the melody on piano synchronously with Risa Pearl’s lilting voice and at times with Arthur’s electric guitar. The effect is quite tranquil and Guerin’s drums are ever present, accenting the breaks and coloring the lines in between.

The title song “Saga” is a floating composition where Gurein uses the Vocoder. He said it was inspired by some of Herbie Hancock’s work on the album Sunlight.  The song has elements of Lonnie Liston Smith’s celestially inspired work with the EWI and vocoder leading the way over the swelling synthesized melodies. Guerin’s tenor solo is fluid and sensuous as it climbs to ever higher peaks and the composition escalates to a cosmic end.

When speaking to Guerin at the club, he was totally engaging. it was interesting to hear some of this young man’s eclectic influences, like ethereal guitarist Pat Metheny, saxophonists, like the taciturn Mark Turner, the iconoclastic Jerry Bergonzi and the audacious Michael Brecker. He is also influenced by the young lions- upcoming saxophonists who now dominate the modern scene- like Seamus Blake, Donny McCaslin and Ben Wendel. I suspect with continued work and diligence, in the not too distant future, Morgan Guerin will join the ranks of these young lions of jazz.  He is certainly someone to keep your eye on and an artist who deserves our encouragement and support.

You can listen to the album and purchase by clicking here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Rhythm Future Quartet brings Gypsy Jazz to Steve's Live Music in Sandy Springs, GA

Jason Anick, Olli Soikkeli, Ivan Pena and Greg Loughman at Steve’s Live Music

This past Sunday evening I made my way to yet another greater Atlanta music venue. This time it was Steve’s Live Music in Sandy Springs, GA. Where owner and music impresario Steve Grossman has been offering an eclectic blend of live music and a vegetarian menu to those in the know for the last four years. Unfortunately, Steve told me the venue will be closing in the next several weeks due to the ever rising costs of renting the space. Too bad, it’s a comfortable laid back showcase for live music and it will be sorely missed.  This particular evening the future of gypsy jazz came to entertain a full house of avid fans at Steve’s in the form of the Rhythm Future Quartet.  

The Rhythm Future Quartet is a Boston based group of four young, abundantly talented musicians who have taken up the mantle from giants of the genre like Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli and their famous “Hot Club of Paris” music. These young upstarts- the oldest is reportedly 32- have rocketed the music into the future by incorporating multiple influences from gypsy jazz to Balkan folk, Spanish Flamenco to Country swing, teaming it with their own virtuosity and playing it all with a joyful abandon that is downright infectious.

The quartet is made up of Jason Anick on violin, Olli Soikkeli on lead guitar, Max O’Rourke on rhythm guitar and Greg Loughman on acoustic bass.  On this evening O’Rourke was on another gig and the able Ivan Pena took the rhythm guitar chair. Together these guys make music that range from jump in your seat bounce to shedding a tear in your beer poignant.
On this particular night we had the fortune of attending the second of two sold out shows. The fortune comes because in order to play this kind of music at the rapid fire pace these guys do it’s always nice to have a warm up se. Warm they were as they burst into the music with an original composition by bassist Greg Loughman titled “Iberian Sunrise.”  The magical interchange between Anick’s fetching violin and Soikkeli’s fleet fingered guitar was a treat to behold. 

On the classic Jimmy Rosenberg title “Made for Wesley,” Anick’s moving virtuosity was on display as he made his violin sing creating a fusillade of notes that he bowed with amazing facility, alternating between rapid fire bursts and poignantly sustained bows. When it was Soikkeli’ turn to solo, the Finnish wunderkind gave a similarly stunning display of facility, machine-gunning a flurry of notes that were amazingly clean and equally inventive. There is both comradery and brotherly competition between Anick and Soikkeli as they push each other to more and more challenging excursions of improvisational daring, like two gunslingers waiting to test who has the fastest draw. All the while the Pena and Loughman kept impeccable time at ever increasingly challenging speeds.
The next tune was composed by guitarist Soikkeli for one of his mentors, guitarist Paulus Schafer, titled “For Paulus.”  At the opening, this slow sauntering gypsy jazz treat had the crowd bouncing to the infectiously strummed rhythm that is until it broke into a double time with Anick propelling the tune in his best imitation of the great Stephane Grappelli whom obviously has been a great influenced.

The more traditional fare was temporarily suspended as Anick spoke of being a Beatles fan and reworking one of their tunes. Loughman introduced the famous lead in bass line to the Beatles “Come Together” as the group gave the classic pop song their own twist. The song had me remembering such violin centric rock groups of the as Fairport Convention, The Flock and ELO.  Soikkeli did a burning acoustic solo on guitar that had it been on distorted electric would have been a ripper.

Anick’s exotic sounding “Vessala” is a Balkan folk music inspired tune evoking a scene with a traditional lace garbed folk dancer spinning to the music’s sinewy twists and turns. When Anick and Loughman both bowed their instruments the sound took on a distinctively chamber music feel.
On the beautiful “Soul ce Soir,” Soikkeli demonstrated a challenging technique of muting the strings with his forefinger as he picked them with his thumb producing a muted sound that was quite unique. Pena’s unerring strumming and Loughman’s bass kept the loping rhythm in perfect play. Anick’s melancholic Grappelli-like sound spanned the spectrum between sweet and sorrowful.

The group did a unique take on the Gershwin standard “Summertime” using the lead-in to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” to start and end the song. The clever pairing added a little suspense and humor to the classic standard that they used as blues-based improvisational vehicle. The audience loved it.
The group continued with several other songs including one that had Anick playing raw fiddle like it could be part of a country hoe down. The old standard “The Best Things in Life Are Free” was played in a way that could have easily conjured up memories of the great Joe Venuti in style.

The crowd at Steve’s came to hear the next generation of gypsy jazz and they were not disappointed. The audience gave the band a standing ovation and the band returned for one encore performance of guitarist Olli Soikkeli’s composition “Bushwick Stomp,” the first song he wrote when he came to America from his native Finland. The tune is a barn burner and has recently reached more than one million views on You Tube, fascinating viewers with its fluid swing, the technical facility and the finely honed synchronicity that these young artists display
The Rhythm Future Quartet is now on tour promoting their new album Travels which highlights their hectic schedule. According to a post on bassist Greg Loughman’s Facebook page the group performed in twenty-one states last year and if their popularity is any indication they should easily break that mark this year. One thing for sure if you have a chance to check out these Gypsy Jazz bandits don’t pass it up.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Mayor's Office of the City of Atlanta Announces Atlanta Jazz Festival Line Up for 2016

Atlanta Jazz Festival
Last Tuesday morning the Mayor of the City of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, and his Executive Director of Cultural Affairs, Camille Russell Love, unveiled the lineup for the upcoming 2016 Atlanta Jazz Festival to be held over Memorial Day weekend May 27-29th.  The press conference was held in the voluminous atrium space at City Hall.

This year’s Festival, the 39th of such annual events, is one of the largest free jazz festivals in the country and takes place in Atlanta’s historic and verdant Piedmont Park. The Festival is made possible by generous corporate and private sponsorship and by the continuing efforts by the Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs and the Festival’s Board of Directors.

The press conference was kicked off by the performance of local artist Alex Lattimore, a contemporary soul and jazz singer/trumpeter and his quartet. The event unveiled the new Jazz Poster for this year’s event, created by Brazilian born and now Atlanta based artist Yoyo Ferro. The poster features a bright fancifully stylized trumpet player with the Atlanta City Skyline in the background, a scene the artist said was inspired while listening to jazz and viewing the skyline from his own home in downtown.

The artist Yoyo Ferro with Mayor Kasim Reed and Director Camille Russell Love
Mayor Reed and Ms. Love both spoke of the vital part art like the jazz festival plays in improving the quality of life here in Atlanta. The event remains free to all and if last year was any indication of the popularity of this event, this year’s artist line up, which has a more intentionally international and crossover roster, should ensure even greater participation.  While the Festival is the focal point of this Arts initiative there are many other venues and events that will create a month long music extravaganza in the City.

MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) Mondays were also announced for the month of May, with live jazz concerts in stations during commuter hours. Jazz performances will be presented from 3-5 pm starting on May 2nd st the Chamblee station, continuing on May 9th at the Five Points Station, May 16th at the Lakewood Station and May 23rd at the Midtown Station. For more information on who is playing click here

There is a neighborhood jazz series that features local artists, trumpeter Russell Gunn, the venerable crooner Freddy Cole, chanteuse Julie Dexter, and trumpeter Gordon Vernick at various parks within the City starting on May 1 through May 22nd.  See schedule here.

And if that's not enough for the die-hard jazz fan the local clubs are featuring a late night jazz series with local and some imported artist throughout the City for the entire month of May. You can access this calendar of events by click here.

Ms. Love said in prepared statement " We are excited about the lineup for this year's Atlanta Jazz Festival. from the soulful groove of Gregory Porter, the hip-hop inspired brass of Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, and the sensuous stylings of Brazilian songstress Eliane Elias, we've got a wide variety of jazz flavors." 

For the traditional jazzers out there, eighty-seven-year-old saxophonist Benny Golson will be bringing his straight ahead music to the main stage on Sunday preceding the soulful Mr.  Porter.

For those of you who are into more progressive jazz the Next Collective could be your ticket on Friday night on the main stage at 7 pm. This powerhouse group includes a front line of Logan Richardson on alto, Walter Smith III on tenor, Christian Scott on trumpet Gerald Clayton on keyboards, Ben Williams on bass and Jamire Williams on drums.

The Headhunters is a must see for those who love fusion/funk. With co-leaders and former Herbie Hancock band mates, the grooving Mike Clark on drums and Bill Summers on percussion and vocals, this latest iteration of the group include saxophonist Donald Harrison, Chris Severin on electric bass and Stephen Gordon on keyboards. The band takes the main stage Sunday at 5 pm.

For the internationally inspired there is Israeli guitarist Assaf Kehati and his trio, Afro Caribbean star trumpeter Etienne Charles and Chilean vocalist Camilla Mezza and her quartet.

A full schedule of the three-day festival can be accessed here. Plan on staking your claim to a spot on the lawn early as this event is a party that no one who loves great music wants to miss.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Sal Gentile Trio's Sunday Jazz brunch at Bistro Niko in Buckhead

Local Atlanta Guitarist Sal Gentile
We are always in search of a good jazz brunch, that rare combination of great breakfast food that goes beyond scrambling a couple of eggs, a slightly decadent atmosphere that makes it seem like you’re celebrating a special occasion, impeccably attentive service and last but not least great music. Last Sunday we made our way to Bistro Niko in the heart of Buckhead to catch a glimpse of some local jazz talent and have what we were hoping would be a great brunch.

We arrived at the restaurant for a two o’clock sitting and the last set of guitarist Sal Gentile’s trio. Gentile is a former New Yorker who came to Atlanta in 1985 after spending over ten years in New Orleans. Gentile teaches and has been performing for years. Some of his guitar influences are Wes Montgomery, Grant Green and Joe Pass. Gentile’s music has spanned the spectrum of pop, rock, blues and jazz over the years. On this particular Sunday he shared the stage with upright bassist Kevin Smith and featured trumpeter Joe Gransden. These musicians are all local stalwarts of the Atlanta jazz scene and it is a pleasure to be able to enjoy a pleasant meal while being entertained by such accomplished artists.  

Joe Gransden, Sal Gentile and Kevin Smith at Bistro Nikos

The final set included a number of Great American Songbook standards including the Victor Young/ Ed Heyman composition “When I Fall in Love,” a medley of Ray Charles’ ”Georgia on My Mind” and Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” and by special request, one of my favorites the Coots/Gillespie classic  “You Go to My Head.” The trio also did a bebop favorite Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology” and a song from local trumpeter legend Kenny Dorham’s repertoire “Blue Bossa.” The trio features animated vocals by Mr. Gentile on the aforementioned “Georgia on My Mind” and “New York State of Mind” and on a specialty song I couldn’t quite place.  Mr. Gransden’s trumpet was mellifluous but sparse in this subdued trio setting and he instead crooned on some of the standards with great aplomb. Mr. Grandsen is a well know artist who also heads a big seventeen piece orchestra that plays around town. Mr. Smith is an established first call bassist in the area.The overall effect was quite enjoyable and we came away with both first rate entertainment and a tasty brunch.

For anyone looking for a great jazz brunch check out Bistro Niko on Peachtree in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. The food was good, the service great and the music top notch. Mr. Gentile is there every Sunday from 11am through 3pm and he often features other local artists like Mr. Gansden, Mr. Smith in a  trio setting. It's a can't miss destination. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Aaron Diehl Trio plays the Velvet Note in Alpharetta, GA

Aaron Diehl, Paul Sikivie and Lawrence Feathers at the Velvet Note
If you bother to take the thirty-minute drive from downtown Atlanta or Decatur to a strip mall in Alpharetta you will be amply rewarded for your efforts. Located in a twenty-foot storefront at 4075 Old Milton Parkway, two doors from a barber shop, is perhaps the best jazz club in the greater Atlanta area.

The Velvet Note, Acoustic Living Room,  Alpharetta, GA
The Velvet Note was a wild dream of a club that started in 2011 with the notion that if you provide people with an intimate space, build into the space top quality acoustics, and feature the crème de la crème of jazz artists, people will come to hear the music. That music would be jazz in all its wonderful diversity. The idea of a successful jazz club seems to be an oxymoron, but manager Tamara Fuller has somehow seemed to make the concept work and work with style.

On Saturday March 26,2016 the featured artist was the great young piano phenom Aaron Diehl and his trio. The band featured Lawrence Feathers on drums and Paul Sikivie on upright bass. In speaking to Mr.  Feathers after the first set he told me the band has been together for about five years. As with any fine piano trio the symbiotic relationship between the three players is a must and this trio had no shortage of symbiosis, often stopping and starting magically like finely choreographed dancers in precise synchronization.

The first set started with the Benny Carter standard “When Lights Are Low.” Mr. Diehl is a dashing young man who almost looks like he could be a model for Armani suits. His playing is as elegant as his haberdashery and his bandmates were equally outfitted in suits and ties. Mr. Diehl is one of those players who, when he sits down at the keyboard, you know takes his art very seriously. He has beautiful facility with both hands which he displayed with unpretentious artifice. His touch can be as light as the most ruminative Bill Evans or as stride-full as Willie “The Lion” Smith. Mr. Sikivie’s plucky bass solo was a nice contrasting voice to Diehl’s thoughtful comping. Diehl also employed repeated two-handed block chord progressions that were very effective.

Aaron Diehl's Space Time Continuum Mack 1094
On his imagistic original “The Flux Capacitor,” from his latest album, Space Time Continuum, Diehl and company quicken the pace and supercharge the audience into the musical time warp. A representation of the excitement and fantastical delight of the Robert Zemekis Sci-fi Comedy Back to the Future from 1985. Diehl’s syncopated left hand creates a memorable ostinato against his probing right hand explorations. Sikivie and Feathers shuffle along at De Loren cruising speed. Mr. Feathers keeping the rapid pace with his ride cymbal, snare and fluttering hi-hat.

Back to the Future Promo Poster
An ardent student of the history of the music, what better way than to show us his own twenty-first century way of re-imagining Fats Waller’s 1942 composition “The Jitterbug Waltz.” Even those in the audience who didn’t know the name of the tune recognized the music’s sauntering melody. Diehl used the piece to produce beautifully flowing glissandi, maddeningly precise repeated motifs showcasing pianistic mastery that was a treat to behold. The trio performed as an organic whole as Diehl expanded on his improvisations around the core of the melody with ever more adventurous expansions. Diehl also used dynamics to great effect as he went form loud and tumultuous to soft and gentle and his whim dictated.  Mr. Sikivie played a particularly welcomed bass solo.

The gentle “Spring Can Really Hang You Up,” made famous by Ella Fitzgerald, was played as sensitive, almost reverential ballad. It is fascinating to watch Mr.  Diehl up close as he plays a ballad like this. His hands are so long and slender and he often settles them tentatively over the keys in anticipation of his next idea or chord, but in a way that makes you feel he himself is not sure where they may land next.He often has his head bowed and his eyes closed as he seems to be channeling the meaning of the song through its unspoken lyrics. A wonderfully evocative rendition.

Diehl and company played another of his originals “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” which he says was inspired by a painting by Mondrian. The song featured some nice solo trap work by Lawrence Feathers who leads the group into a bebop burner. Diehl seems comfortable with a myriad of styles from bebop to stride, hard bop to crossover.

Piet Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie Woogie"  1943

As if to demonstrate the breadth of the pianistic tradition, the group rolled right into Thelonious Monk’s staccato “Green Chimneys” and then onto Bud Powell’s frenzied “Un Poco Loco” both performed with astounding proficiency. Leathers stick and rim work on “Green Chimneys” was particularly impressive. This group can really run on high octane, pushed by Diehl’s fleet fingers, Sikivie’s relentlessly walking bass lines and Feathers subtle but driving trap work.

Diehl chose a song from the underrated pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet fame, “Milano” to do his only solo piece of the first set.  This almost classically inspired piece of music is a miniature masterpiece of shimmering beauty. Diehl played the song at first with a sensitivity that Lewis would have admired, then broke into a stride-like saunter altering the mood from moody to magical.

The trio ended the set with a modal blues driven medley, sprinkled with tidbits of many famous jazz standards throughout which they played to a bustling ovation. Clearly Aaron Diehl is, as one patron put it “the real Diehl,” an elite pianist in a crowded field.  He has mastered a myriad of styles and has an abundance of ability. At age thirty we can look forward to a long and rewarding career from this excellent pianist.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Evolution of a Giant: Larry Young in Paris the ORTF Recordings

Larry Young in Paris The ORTF Recordings Resonance HCD-2022
It is not hyperbole to say that Larry Young was perhaps the last great innovator on the Hammond B3 organ. His trailblazing fusion work with Tony Williams, John McLaughlin, Miles Davis, Carlos Santana and as a leader in his own right would all be part of a seemingly un-matchable legacy that catapulted the organ from the confines of the groove to limitless possibilities of the stratosphere. Tragically he passed away at the age of thirty-eight while being treated for pneumonia, but it leads one to speculate on the endless possibilities his continued development would have brought to the music has he lived.

Thankfully, producer Zev Feldman, of Resonance Records along with executive producers Michael Cuscuna and George Klabin, uncovered this gem of a discovery at the INA (Institut national de audiovisual of France) which oversees the RTF/ORTF (Radiodiffusion-Television Francaise and Office de Radiofussion-Television Francaise) archives that document an important part of his development as a player. This beautifully packaged two-disc set captures Young in Paris sometime between 1964 and 1965 and features a series of ten songs played with different line ups and broadcast over French public radio.

Importantly it marks the period just preceding Young’s Blue Note Years and you can hear the sound that Young was developing, one that would later be honed with such precision on the groundbreaking album Unity. Young, just twenty four years old during these recordings and  is predominantly a sideman on these sessions; a key figure in tenor saxophonist Nathan Davis’ quartet along with fellow Newark, New Jersey band mates Woody Shaw- an amazing nineteen years old at the time- on trumpet and Billy Brooks on drums. These are inspired young black musicians in a pivotal time for Black Americans, ogether these guys just cook, driven by Young’s pulsing B-3 moan and Brooks relentless traps. The music is electric like on Davis’ “Trane of Thought,” which shows how well Young’s left foot bass line could just drive the rhythmic heartbeat of the band. Woody Shaw’s fabled intervallic leaps are on grand display and saxophonist Davis shows his strong Coltrane influence.

The band is also featured on two Woody Shaw compositions the driving “Beyond All Limits” and quirky “Zoltan.” The first a skillful demonstration of tight group interplay-clearly owing a debt to the Blakey legacy- with Davis’ muscular tenor voice leading the way and Shaw’s sinewy trumpet lines weaving in and out of complex phrases. The rhythmic surety of Young and Brooks surge is like the endless splash of waves on a beach. When Young solos, his deft use of pull bars and masterful harmonies show the man’s unerring sense of time and space.  On “Zoltan” the cadenced opening by Brooks is reminiscent of a military march. This is a live recording and the energy level is palpable. Young and Brooks lay the modal groove over which Davis-sounding more like Rollins here- and Shaw soar in opposing statements of acclamation with fury.  Shaw is particularly kinetic in the higher register having at times a decidedly Gillespie-like sound to his horn. After a long Shaw solo, Young finally gets his chance to shine playing at first with a restrained, almost muted sound before skillfully adjusting his pull bars to create a wail of urgency that brings the entire song up a notch in intensity. This leads the group into a frenzied exchange with Shaw, Davis and Brooks all trading licks in a flurry of excitement and drama that is just a marvel to behold.  

The Nathan Davis Quartet circa 1964 Photo Credit Jean Pieree Leloir
The group is expanded into the Jazz aux Champs-Elysees All Stars with the addition of French players. Tenor saxophonist Jean-Claude Forhrenbach, trumpeter Sonny Grey, and pianist and leader Jack Diếval, along with Italian drummer Franco Manzecchi and conga player Jackie Bamboo.   Together they tackle Young’s bopping “Talkin’ About J.C.” with a joyful abandon. The extended front line is fluid and precise as they navigate tune’s head. The solos flow solidly throughout. Half way through Fohrenbach takes his turn on tenor with a deeply melodic, Getzian tone to his swing, complimented by Diếval’s piano comping. Drummer Manzecchi is delightfully loose and freewheeling, he and conga player Bamboo push the tempo. Maestro Young holds down the fort with the two percussionists keeping the groove smooth as silk throughout with brilliantly understated comping that is like of carpet of sound-very similar to McCoy Tyner’s work on piano- that sets the scene for the others to make their statements. Diếval and Young have a wonderful interchange of ideas at about the twelve-minute mark, with Larry sometimes laying leading basslines for Diếval’s pianistic explorations. Young’s solo on this is perhaps his most creative of the album probing and exploratory all within the framework of a deep groove. The international group continues with “La valse grise”, a song presumed to be penned by the French pianist and the All Star’s band leader Jack Diếval. The cool blues groove “Discotheque” is more traditional fare. Young creates his own groove with his pedal driven walking bass line and deeply sultry organ comping. Diếval offers a Martial Solal inspired piano solo.  

Perhaps the most striking part of these internationally spiced sessions is the stark contrast in the playing styles of the horn and reed players. The American players being much more under the influence of the Coltrane/Tyner legacy then their European counterparts whose sound is much more rooted in the legato, deep throated tone of Webster, Hawkins and Ellington.

Young is featured on two songs in the trio setting with conga player Jacky Bamboo and drummer Franco Manzecchi, the campy “Mean to Me” and Young’s own “Luny Tune.”  There is an immediate intuitive connection between Young and Manzecchi, with the drummer  being particularly attuned to Young’s lofty explorations. Listening to Young breath life and excitement into the otherwise lackluster “Mean to Me” is just a joy to behold. You can hear Manzecchi playfully responding to Young pushing the harmonic boundaries of the song’s limits.

On the jaunty “Luny Tunes,” Young is at his most creative, laying down a firm bottom and adjusting his drawbars to the perfect gurgling sound, always facile enough to adjust his sound appropriately as he changes direction, all the while Manzecchi is step for step with him accenting at all the correct breaks as if the two musicians were of the same mind.

Hearing Young on piano is a rare treat and he plays brilliantly on the finale titled “Larry’s Blues.” He is joined by French bassist Jacques B. Hess and the intuitive and Italian drummer Franco Manzecchi who again proves up to the task of anticipating Young's excursions. Young is particularly Monkian in his dissonant approach and yet he always keeps that groove. 

The booklet that comes with this cd set is filled with a treasure trove of information and never before seen photographs that just make the whole listening experience so much more complete. Larry Young’s connections to both Eric Dolphy and Bill Evan’s makes for some fascinating reading. Notes and comments by guitarist John McLaughlin and organist John Medski are equally compelling as are recollections from Nathan Davis, the musicians' progeny Woody Shaw III and Larry Young III.  For any student of the music and the jazz organ in particular Larry Young in Paris the ORTF Recordings offer a rare glimpse into the evolution of a truly unique giant of his instrument. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Pianist/Composer Marc Copland rises to new heights on "Zenith"

Marc Copland's Zenith Inner Voice Jazz IVJ101

The definition of zenith is “the highest point reached in the sky by any celestial object.”  Over the years I have always enjoyed Mr. Copland's work. I identify deeply with his musical sensibilities. The pianist has consistently tried to reach his own personal musical zenith, whether it be as a leader or as a much sought after sideman. With his latest recording Zenith he may have accomplished just that.

From the opening bars of "Sun at Zenith” you are transported into a world of thoughtful rumination. Mr. Copland has a wonderfully sensitive touch on his keyboard and here he is joined by his working trio of equally emotive musicians, his long tenured associate Drew Gress on acoustic bass and his frequent collaborator Joey Baron on drums. The trio finds another partner in this evocative music making journey in the form of the trumpeter Ralph Alessi, a musician whose subtle brilliance shines beautifully on this recording. Together these gentlemen make magic happen.

All compositions, except "Mystery Song" and "Air We've Never Breathed," are by Mr. Copland whose style has a floating, weightless feel to it, the perfect platform to allow Mr. Alessi’s delicate trumpet work to soar in the open, both within the band’s elastic rhythms and above them. “Sun at the Zenith “is a testament to the group's one speak-four musicians melding their distinct sounds into one cogent and unified statement of beauty.

Listen to the pliant bass work of Gress on the opening of “Mystery Song,” a Duke Ellington composition hardly recognizable under Copland’s modern arrangement, specifically tailored to be a true collaborative effort for these particular musicians. Mr. Baron’s syncopated drum work is the epitome of subtle force and probing drive. Copland’s piano is rhythmically elegant as it weaves lines of unexpected beauty over the composition’s core rhythmic drive. The effect is intoxicating in the way the group just pulls you along into its sway.
Marc Copeland photo credit unknown

Alessi is a unique voice on the trumpet, a voice that sings in an almost angelic way. Even when he reaches to the outer limits of the trumpet’s higher register it is restrained and purposeful with no tendency toward brashness. 

The “Air We’ve Never Breathed” is a three-part suite that is like a series of tonal conversations that was created by Mr. Copland along with his other band mates. The first features an interchange between Gress’ plucky bass and Alessi’s muted trumpet, subtitled “The Bass Knows.” This proceeds to Copland stirringly creating a series of repeated motifs on piano titled “Up and Over.” Gress and Baron percolate in their own rhythmic soup over which Copland and Alessi have their own distinct conversation. The music vacillates between subdued and animated with each musician lending their individual talents in a show of unified purpose. Baron suddenly transforms the music with a stunning display of precision cymbal work on the final piece titled “Lips.” The relentless cymbal time used as a background for a gorgeous interplay between Copland’s melancholic piano and Alessi’s sorrowful trumpet.

“Waterfalls” is a wonderful vehicle for the pulsating bass work of Gress. No other bass player, with the exception of Christian McBride, sounds quite as robust at keeping such difficult and complex time with unerring consistency as Drew Gress. Anchored by his frenetic heartbeat, the group veers into a driving cascade of sound that finds Alessi at his most intense, pulled along by the gentle prodding of Copland, the unassuming director of the whole production. Baron splashes into the current with his liquid-like cymbal work.

The more traditional “Best Bet” is a composition that features Copland at his most lyrical. The gentle, breezy feel is accentuated by Alessi’s solo work that takes to the air like a bird in flight. Copland’s dancing elegance creates an air of calm beauty that is reminiscent of some of Bill Evan’s ruminative ballad work. His cascading arpeggios fall lightly like lingering raindrops falling on a thirsty leaf. Alessi’s poignantly squeezed notes perfectly counterbalance Copland’s tender sound.

The last cut on this fine album, titled “Hurricane,” has a circular feel to it with Copland’s repeating lines and Gress’ big round bass pulsating throughout.  Baron’s rambunctious drums create the whirlwind background as Alessi’s horn hovers like a scream in the wind. Copland’s piano is at its most percussive with the bombastic Baron filling in between the notes with relentless cymbal crashes, tumultuous toms and pops on his snare. A hurricane of sound that leave the listener anxiously waiting for the impending calm.

Zenith is an initial release from Mr. Copland's recently formed label, Inner Voice Jazz. If this first recording is any indication of what is to come, this label will be a sure source for superbly creative recordings in the future.

Here is a video of some of Mr. Copland's previous work: