Thursday, September 24, 2020

Invitation (Live)

The Joy of Live Music : Marvin Stamm and Mike Holober Quartet "Live at Maureen's Jazz Cellar"


                                       Live @ Maureen's Jazz Cellar Marvin Stamm, Mike Holober, Mike McGuirk and Dennis Mackrel 

It is always a pleasure when a group of musicians possesses that “special sauce," that complementary talent, awareness, and ability to align their individual efforts and perform as one beautifully purposeful unit. It is even more conducive to success when you get a chance to play/record in a welcoming, intimate setting in front of a knowledgeable and appreciative audience. This happened this past December, pre-Covid, in the unassuming jazz venue Maureen’s Jazz Cellar, located on the west side bank of the Hudson River, in the town of Nyack, NY.

The group is comprised of the trumpeter/flugelhornist Marvin Stamm, the pianist Mike Holober, upright bassist Mike McGuirk and the drummer Dennis Mackrel. They brought their alchemy and recorded this new album simply titled Live @ Maureen’s Jazz Cellar. The music recorded, is a collection of five thoughtful and modernly navigated jazz gems from composers like  Horace Silver, Bill Evans, Bronislau Kaper and Jerome Kern, and includes two gorgeous originals written by the pianist, Mike Holober.

Dennis Mackrel, Mike McGuirk, Mike Holober, and Marvin Stamm

My exposure to the trumpeter/flugelhornist Marvin Stamm goes back to the early eighties when I first saw him playing as a guest artist with the house band- drummer Billy LaVorgna and the English pianist Derek Smith- at a little now-defunct club called the Foxes Liar in Hackensack, N.J. Stamm always impressed me with his fluid facility, his sensuous tone, especially on the flugelhorn, and his unerring melodic and harmonic sense. Years later I heard him with pianist Billy Mays’ The Inventions Trio, which included cellist Alisa Horn on a marvelous album titled Fantasy from 2007. This was a musical hybrid, a chamber/jazz crossover, that brought out Stamm’s facile expressiveness, utilizing a classically inspired approach that meshed beautifully with the Mays' piano and Horn's cello.

I discovered the pianist/composer/arranger Mike Holober in 2010, when I attended some big band performances that he conducted with the Westchester Jazz Orchestra. Besides iconic guest artists, the dynamic big band included Marvin Stamm in the trumpet section among a group of NYC's notable section musicians. Apparently, Stamm and Holober’s work together on the WJO sparked a friendship and the two became close collaborators. Holober’s growing stature as a big band composer/big band arranger was recently acknowledged when his Gotham Jazz Orchestra’s release Hiding Out, which was nominated for a Grammy in 2019.

When similar minds, like Stamm and Holober, collaborate over a sustained period and the chemistry is right, a musical empathy develops and a complimentary creative approach to music becomes almost second nature. The two went about enlisting solid and intuitively responsive rhythm section partners to form a working quartet. The drummer Dennis Mackrel and the bassist Mike McGuirk are under the radar journeymen musicians that fit superbly, expanding the conversational possibilities of this potent group.

In the opening cut, listen to how Holober’s smart intro to Horace Silver’s “Out of the Night Came You,” sets the table beautifully before the group slips into the swinging melody. Stamm’s flugelhorn has a warm, welcoming tone and he plays with a fluid inventiveness that surprises and holds your attention. The group never loses the drive carried by McGuirk’s plump bass lines and Mackrel’s sure rhythmic propulsion.

Bassist McGuirk opens with an intriguing pizzicato solo bass lead-in to Bronislau Kaper’s exotic-sounding “Invitation.”  Stamm takes this haunting melody to a new level of sensitivity. It is simply magical to listen to this master horn player take you down the rabbit hole of harmonic possibilities. Holober is similarly engaging with his own explorations of the composition’s captivating moods. McGuirk offers a fleet journey on a poignant bass solo and the music is advanced by a swirling, rhythmic drive by the trap master Mackrel. Almost fifteen minutes of marvelously played music that by itself is worth the price of admission.

On Holober original “Dear Virginia,” a pensive, touching ballad that features some of the pianist’s most expressive work, the interaction between the pianist and both Stamm and McGuirk’s artful contributions, raise cooperative playing to a new level.

“Morning Hope,” another Holober original, musically builds from tranquility to expectation. Mackrel’s subtle drum work is like a symphony of rhythms, perfectly suited to accompany whoever is soloing, while always steadfastly propelling the music forward. Holober raises the level with a rewarding and touching solo. 

A rousing rhythmic treatment on Jerome Kern’s jewel “All the Things You Are” keeps this well-worn song fresh and interesting. Solos by Holober, Stamm, and McGuirk are all top-notch and raised again by an impressive drum solo featuring Mackrel’s graceful skills.

Holober’s opening to Horace Silver’s tranquil “Peace” is masterful and moving. His piano work is elegant in songs like this, songs with a message that deserves a player who can be creative and still maintain the composer’s intention. Stamm’s impressionistic flugelhorn lines follow exploring the genuine pathos that flows through this music. His horn also offers a yearning hopefulness to the message that peace can in fact be attained, which in today’s day is a powerful aspiration. 

The set ends with the more rambunctious Bill Evans’ funky “Funkallero,” one of the few times Evans took up the electric piano.  Mackrel’s drums set the pace with a boisterous drum entrance. The members robustly trade ideas with an overall feel of gusto. Maintaining the song's drive, Holober plays with an aggressive attack, Stamm’s horn is at his most excitable and jubilant, McGuirk gives a plucky bass solo and Mackrel lets loose with his own punctuated drum highlight. The crowd at Maureen’s are left with unfettered appreciation, offering enthusiastic applause.

If you, like me, miss that “live” experience then get Live @ Maureen's Jazz Cellar and play it till your heart's delight, its the next best thing to being there.

 Follow this link to hear the group play "invitation"

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Saxophonist John Ellis and Playwright Andy Bragen Create a Jazz/Chamber Opera with "The Ice Siren"

The Ice Siren by John Ellis and Andy Bragen

In March of this year, the talented multi-reed musician/composer John Ellis released a recording of a unique jazz chamber/opera/musical theater inspired project that he completed and originally debuted live at the Jazz Gallery’s Large Composer’s Series back in May of 2009. The impressive hour-long composition was titled The Ice Siren, with music by Ellis and a libretto by playwright Andy Bragen, with whom he had previously collaborated on their freer formed 2007-piece Dreamscapes.

John Ellis yields from rural North Carolina and studied at North Carolina School of Arts in Winston-Salem. In 1993 the saxophonist went to New Orleans, absorbing the Delta’s vibe and eventually studying and playing with the pianist Ellis Marsalis. By 1997, the saxophonist relocated to New York City. As a talented sideman, he has worked for jazz artists like bassist John Patitucci, drummer Rudy Royston, organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, altoist Miguel Zenon and seven-string guitar wizard Charlie Hunter to name a few.

I first saw Ellis back in 2011 when he was a member of composer Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society orchestra. I went to the BAM to experience the exciting, musical, and multi-media production of Brooklyn Babylon, with Argue’s expressive music, joined with “in time” graphic work of artist Danijel Zezalp. It was spectacular.

Right away Ellis’ playing caught my eye. He was obviously skilled at multiple reeds, with great tone, but he had an unassuming approach that made it all seem deceptively effortless. He was someone to watch.

With all his diverse musical experiences, there is no wonder that Ellis’ musical sound has absorbed the laid back qualities of his rural south, the spirit of the jazz tradition from New Orleans and has been invigorated by the edgy attack of modernism and hard bop from New York’s scene. To get a sense of his most recent saxophone work, I suggest Ellis’ recently released trio album When theWorld Was Young, which has six selections joyously played and featuring John Ellis’ sumptuous tone and  accompanied by Madison Rast on bass and Anwar Marshall on drums.

John Ellis When the World Was Young

Producing and composing for a challenging jazz chamber/opera project like 
The Ice Siren requires a more expansive set of skills and saxophonist Ellis and his score is impressive and effective. The story partially draws from the eeriness of a surreal nightmare, the relentless anxiety realized with a lost romance and the sorcery of being contacted by an otherworldly specter, yet maintaining an almost perverse sense of humor throughout it all. It is like a fractured musical fairy tale conceived by a mind that might very well have been Tim Burton's, but it is Ellis and Bragen's macabre and funny creation.

A distraught lover, whose dilemma is brought to life by Miles Griffith’s energized voice, mourns the loss of his deceased and beloved Melusina, captured with cool eloquence by the wispy voice of Gretchen Parlato. Melusina captivates him with her siren-like call. In a surreal nightmare, the ice siren mesmerizes him to join her in the depths of the frozen afterlife that is her eternal domain.

It is no doubt that Bragen and Ellis work marvelously together in this hybrid opera/ chamber jazz/ theatrical format. The words become alive and the story is energized by Griffith and Parlato’s fetching vocals. Ellis’ music masterfully employs an eleven-piece orchestra, which besides the two lead vocalists spins an eerie and convincing aural background for the story. The orchestra features Ellis on tenor saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet, Marcus Rojos on tuba (in lieu of bass), Mike Moreno on guitar, Chris Dingman on vibraphone, glockenspiel and chimes, Daniel Sadownick on drums and percussion, Daniel Friedman on additional percussion, Christopher Hoffman on cello, Hiroko Taguchi on violin, Oliver Manchon on violin, Todd Low, viola and is conducted by J.C. Sanford.

Listen to Ellis’ splendid arrangements like Parlato’s haunting voice on “Melusina’s Siren Song” with Ellis’ bass clarinet surrounded by gorgeous string arrangements in an eerie call to her lover. Or listen to the plaintive voice of Miles Griffith as he negotiates the difficult modulating lines on “She Knows Her Face,” answering his lover Melusina’s ghostly presence. Moreno’s frenetic guitar backed the sighing strings and a blustering Rojas’ tuba all build the scene. Dingman's ethereal vibes and Ellis' large toned tenor also creatively add to the mix. The story, the voices the music’s expressive arrangement are all there to offer an exploratory adventure to anyone listening.

It is so inspiring to see musicians expand their territories and challenge themselves by pushing the boundaries of where jazz, chamber music and tangentially related art forms like opera and theater can be so skillfully meshed.
A project like this also has the added reward of employing multiple skilled musicians which is an increasingly difficult achievement in this socially dividing era.

If you have only heard and enjoyed Ellis’ woodwind work with a plethora of jazz and pop artists, or in his own progressive group like Double Wide, then the arrival of this marvelous piece of his storytelling, The Ice Siren, is a worthwhile discovery. This project elevates John Ellis from his place as a formidable saxophonist and launches him into the realm of establishing himself as a talented large-format composer/arranger. 

Thursday, July 30, 2020

John Di Martino: "Passion Flower: The Music of Billy Strayhorn"

John di Martino Passion Flower: The Music of Billy Strayhorn Sunnyside SSC 4114
When a talented and seasoned musician like the exceptional pianist/composer/arranger John Di Martino takes a moment to create a new album under his leadership, it deserves attention. DiMartino’s latest release is titled Passion Flower, a thoughtful compilation of the music of Billy Strayhorn. 

John’s playing incorporates superb sensitivity, admirable facility, and an assured poise that allows him to extract the best qualities of the soul and spirit of these fine compositions.  Di Martino sums up his approach to playing, I “surrender to the ecstasy of making music… if I can feel that joy then I can also transfer that joy to the audience!” 

Strayhorn’s work is a cache of gems. With John’s imagination and his attuned band of tenorist Eric Alexander, bassist Boris Kozlov, drummer Lewis Nash and vocalist Raul Midón, these memorable compositions are reimagined and revitalized in new and surprisingly delightful ways.

The sixty-one-year-old Di Martino hails originally from Philadelphia, “The City of Brotherly Love,” like so many other notable jazz artists of the last half a century. His piano playing has been influenced by a diverse group of iconic pianists including Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Hank Jones and Horace Silver. He mastered his craft by studying with the enigmatic pianist/educator Lennie Tristano, pianist Jimmie Amadie, a Woody Herman alumnus, and with noted pianist and arranger Don Sebesky.  

Di Martino made his way to New York in 1988 after honing his skills for years as the keyboard player for a house band of a casino in Atlantic City. This “showtime” experience exposed him to a myriad of musical styles, genres, and international influences.

Di Martino’s musical skills permit him to “shapeshift,” - seamlessly adapting his playing to the requirements of the music at hand. No wonder he developed such chameleon abilities as he has found himself playing and arranging for such diverse talents as Houston Person, James Moody, Kenny Burrell, Jack Sheldon, David “Fat Head” Newman, George Mraz and Joe Lovano. 

Over the years he has become a sought after accompanist and arranger for such proven vocalists as Billy Eckstein, Giacomo Gates, Janis Siegel, Grady Tate, Gloria Lynn, and Freddy Cole. His inherent street-wise affinity for Latin music was refined by his stint with Panamanian flutist Marisco Smith. He later toured with Latin percussionist and bandleader Ray Barretto’s New World Spirit Big Band for several years. and continues that love for Latin music, continuing his present work with the distinguished clarinetist master Paquito D’Rivera.

Billy Strayhorn photo credit unknown

On the new cd, Passion Fruit, the music of Billy Strayhorn is a unifying theme, but Di Martino and his bandmates always seem to present the music in new and exciting ways. Take the opening “Johnny Come Lately” which is launched by a strutting bass line by Boris Koslov before the group enters the pace with a jaunty swing that is infectious. Di Martino’s piano skills are immediately on display as he probs the ascending and descending spirit of this melody. Tenor master Eric Alexander adds his own signature warm tone and the trap master Lewis Nash creates a swirl of inventive percussive enthusiasm. You cannot help but get drawn in by this band’s enthusiasm for the music.

Billy Strayhorn reportedly wrote his sophisticated masterpiece “Lush Life” at the age of sixteen, an almost unimaginable feat. The song is coveted for its lyrical maturity and musical complexity. Strayhorn originally debuted it with vocalist Kay Davis at Carnegie Hall in 1948. The composition challenges the vocalist with quick changes. It commands the singer to precisely execute slides and leaps, all the while maintaining a debonair, sagacious sensibility of forlorn. Notably successful recordings of this song have included a version by baritone Johnny Hartman, collaborating with saxophonist John Coltrane and a superb take recorded by chanteuse Sarah Vaughan. But even an iconic vocalist like Frank Sinatra, working to record this song with the great Nelson Riddle in 1958, was unsatisfied with his attempts to successfully navigate the complex changes and abandoned recording the song, never to make it part of his repertoire.

A sought after accompanist for countless vocalists of all types, John di Martino has developed his own inherent sixth sense of what makes a vocalist suited to render a specific composition. Here, his sensitive duet with the emotive vocalist Raul Midón is a stunningly effective treatment of this pensive Strayhorn classic. Di Martino’s yearning piano- expressive, complimentary but never overwhelming- creates the perfect tableaux for Midón’s expressive voice. Together they bring to life Strayhorn’s disheartening words and one would be hard-pressed to find a more genuinely moving rendition of this beautiful composition. Easily, this alone is worth the price of admission.

“Rain Check” opens with a slick, tight-brushed snare entry by Nash and features some mellifluous tenor work by Alexander that swells and ebbs with the changes. Di Martino’s piano solos always firmly guide you through the stated melody, but he can add short familiar musical ideas tangentially that he weaves into the music flawlessly.

John Di Martino photo by The Cuban Bridge
“Star-Crossed Lovers” is a gorgeous slow-paced composition that is played with delicate restraint as an expressive vehicle for both Alexander and Di Martino. Alexander’s tenor, at his best, is tonally burnished, emotively strong but purposefully subdued for emphasis. Di Martino’s piano is warm and shimmers with a beauty and sensitivity that radiates from his ability to find that joy in the music he is always looking for.

“Isfahan” is one of my favorite Strayhorn compositions. I have heard tenor master Joe Henderson play this one to great effect. Di Martino utilizes Alexander’s precise and gorgeous intonation and Kozlov’s plucky bass to make this one special. Di Martino creates an inventive solo that works so well over the strong walking bass lines and Nash’s subtle snare and cymbal driven pace. The group trades solos and the interaction of these simpatico musicians is a treat.

The remaining album is a cornucopia of expertly played Strayhorn classics. The slow languishing “Chelsea Bridge” delights and the imaginative “Daydream” is lively and uplifting. Drummer Lewis Nash creates a precise cadenced pulse for the exotic “Passion Flower,” with Alexander’s deep-throated tenor being featured as the lead voice. Di Martino’s piano and the rhythm section are predominantly adding deft accompaniment, judicially applied aural accents to the music, as Alexander is given the stage to subtly explore harmonic ideas on his saxophone. When Di Martino solos, he carves himself out a brief musical path, a flurry of gorgeous lines that seem to just dance with the melody.

“U.M.M.G.” is a more obscure composition that is one of the more energetically driven paces on the album. The cd also includes the Ellington Orchestra’s memorable “Take the A Train” and the middle eastern-inspired “Absinthe,” with some of Di Martino’s most inventive improvisations and Alexander stretching out. 

“A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” is one of Strayhorn’s more romantic compositions, as is the final cut “Lotus Blossom.” It’s great to hear John take the time to feature himself as a soloist on these gorgeous songs. Di Martino has a mastery of his keyboard with a skilled touch and an inventive harmonic grasp of how to make the songs draw out the best of the composer’s intentions.

“Blood Count” was the last composition written by Strayhorn at a time when the composer discovered that he was struck with terminal cancer.  The music drips of melancholy, almost desperation and was written specifically to be played by Ellington altoist Johnny Hodges. Perhaps one of the most memorable renditions of this music was recorded later by tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, who made the song one of the signature pieces of his repertoire. 

Di Martino smarty employs Alexander’s Getzian tone to bring out the sheer forlornness that the music evokes, and the tenorist plays with impressive emotion and depth.  Pairing these two musicians on this aching composition is a testimony to their affinity. Hopefully, this collaboration will be explored in the near future. The performance is one of the cd’s highlights, with Di Martino and Alexander together, artfully extracting some of the essences of Strayhorn’s most empathetic music. 

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Exploring Lost Art Treasures : Jason Palmer's "The Concert: 12 Musings for Isabella'

Jason Palmer The Concert: 12 Musings for Isabella GSA 004

Art often discovers inspiration in unexpected places. For trumpet talent Jason Palmer, inspiration came from a visit to the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston, while attending classes at New England Conservatory of Music,  and seeing the empty stark frames on the walls, an eerie reminder that art was not immune to violation.

On March 18, 1990, the Isabell Stewart Gardner Museum was the scene of a massive theft- the purported single largest property theft in the world. Thieves posing as police officers, duped the on-duty security officers to let them into the closed museum, tied them up and in eight-one minutes proceeded to remove thirteen priceless works of art. They made off that night, over thirty years ago, to never be seen again.  It is an amazing caper for its gall and confounding success. Fortunately, there were no casualties, but like the famous parachutist thief D.B. Cooper, who vanished never to be found, these careful burglars were amazingly never captured or even identified. These gorgeous and priceless pieces of art, reportedly worth $500 million dollars, were never recovered and so, for now, the robbery leaves humanity forever the poorer. 

For Jason Palmer, the artwork represented a series of beautiful stories in and of themselves. Although lost, they needed to be properly celebrated and memorialized. As an artist whose brush and easel was a chart of music and the voices of expressive instruments, Palmer went about to compose musical pieces that represent his concept of these lost works of art.

The album is titled The Concert: 12 Musings for Isabella and was produced by Jimmy and Dena Katz at Giant Steps Arts and features the potent and talented group of Mark Turner on tenor saxophone, Joel Ross on vibraphone, Edward Perez on bass, Kendrick Scott on drums and Palmer on trumpet and composer. The performance was recorded live in May of 2019 in the Harold S. Vanderbilt Penthouse at the InterContinental New York Barclay. 

The two-disc recording includes twelve compositions named after the stolen artwork or in two cases art artifacts “ A Lady and Gentleman in Black"
(Rembrandt), ‘Cortege aux Environs do Florence’ (Degas), ‘La Sortie de Pesage” (Degas), “Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee” (Rembrandt), “A French Imperial Eagle Finial” (uncredited artifact), “Chez Tortoni” (Manet), “Program for an Artistic Soiree” ( Degas), “An Ancient Chinese Gu” (uncredited artifact), “The Concert” (Vermeer), “Landscape with an Obelisk” (Flinck), “Self Portrait”
(Rembrandt) and “Three Mounted Jockeys” (Degas).

Palmer has taught in many universities and is an assistant professor at Berklee School of Music. He often plays with his own quintet at Boston’s historic Wally’s Café  and has appeared with many jazz prominent artists including Herbie Hancock, Roy Haynes, Phil Woods, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to name just a few.

Palmer and his astute bandmates have captured the aural aspects that the visual images that these exceptional artworks evoke. The staccato, darting pace of the music introduces you to Rembrandt’s rather decorous looking “A Lady and a Gentleman in Black.”  It features the tight, front-line synchronous work of Palmer and Turner. Palmer’s trumpet is precise and penetrative in his note selection. Turner offers a more resonant attack that darts in and out of the pulse. Ross’ sinewy vibes work nicely and complimentary to Scott’s rapid fired drum lines and Perez’s grounded bass. If the music is any indication, these two prim and proper figures of Rembrandt’s focus may have led a more robust life than their appearance seems to reveal.

Rembrandt's A Lady and a Gentleman in Black
Palmer’s clarion sounding trumpet leads off on Degas “Cortege aux Environs do Florence,” which is a pencil and sepia wash on paper, and one of the more understated of the works that were stolen. The mood established by Palmer and his group is atmospheric, carefree, and almost fanciful. Palmer, Turner and Ross each take turn soloing. The musicians are true to a feeling evoked by Degas’ figures, strolling on foot and leisurely being accompanied by horses on a procession through the pastoral scene outside of Florence. It is easy to imagine Degas’ revelers might enjoy this music if played for their enjoyment by a group of troubadours.

Degas’ “La Sortie de Pesage” is an expressive, muted watercolor that depicts a more urban setting that centers on the parading of jockey mounted racehorses as they saunter through the back streets of a city on race day.  The music has a rhythmic canter feel that in some ways mimics what the horses, in being walked through the streets of an 1850’s era European metropolis, might sound like. The music is carried rhythmically by the deft rhythmic whooshing created by Scott’s percussive mastery.  

Degas: La Sortie de Pesage
Perhaps one of the most valued artworks lost in the robbery was Rembrandt’s tumultuous “Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee.” The scene depicts a ship with Christ and his followers overwhelmed by a squall in turbulent seas. Rembrandt has often painted his own image, with purportedly as many as ninety self-portraits known to have existed.  Here he places himself in this biblical scene as one of the terrified fishermen. His face is seen holding his hat in one hand and grasping the ropes to steady himself with the other. Jesus is sleeping during the storm, and according to the gospel of Mark, he is frantically awoken by panicked followers. The awakened Christ calms the wind and storm with his exclamation “Peace. Be Still.” stopping the storm and fortifying the greatness of his divine authority. 

Musically Palmer opens this composition using Scott’s polyrhythmic drums as a tool that slowly builds the tumult in intensity, like a brewing storm. The front line of Turner and Palmer play lines in tandem, seemingly ascending with force like a cascading flow toward a pluming swell of water. The soloists alternate in quick succession over Scott’s tumultuous drums. This one captures the painting's fury aurally. They build the kinetic electricity of the rising storm until the group resolves the tension to a tranquil calm at the coda. 

Rembrandt The Storm at the Sea of Galilee
Two of the pieces taken from the Gardner heist were not paintings or drawings but artifacts. One was a Bronze Eagle Napoleon Flag Finial and the other a Chinese Shang Dynasty Ku (beaker) from the 1100-1200s.  Palmer creates a bit of a militaristic sound for his “A French Imperial Eagle” and on “An Ancient Chinese Gu,” Palmer's composition finds Ross’ vibes voice a tubular conversation with Scott’s percolating drums.    

“Chez Tortoni,” by Manet, is a portrait of a well-dressed gentleman in a top hat with pen in hand, as he is gazing at the observer with intention. The music starts off with a probing bass solo by Perez that morphs into a percussive rhythmic exchange with Scott before it emerges into the full group playing energetically in unison. Turner creates a warm and pointed sound that just intrigues and Ross adds a full mellow and floating vibe that elevates the music to the ozone. Palmer's trumpet often can erupt with piercing lines but can also caress a tune with lyrical mastery. These are all talented musicians with distinct voices on their instruments.

“Program for an Artistic Soiree” is another Degas’ pencil sketch that features multiple ideas from the artist-smoke stacks, sailing Clippers, musical instruments, and ballet dancer-all miniature studies. With the diversity of the subject matter, Palmer composes what is the most traditional straight-ahead jazz piece of the cd. The music has a pulsing drive led by Perez’s bass and Scott’s drive. Each musician has an opportunity to be featured on a solo with Perez’s facile bass standing out on this one. This is a "live" recording so often you hear how much the audience loves what they are hearing. The music swings and Turner and Palmer work exceptionally well together, meshing counterpoint lines as dual leads that sonically merge beautifully.

Vermeer’s “The Concert” is one of the artworks that a musician can easily relate to. It depicts three musicians in a sitting room. Vermeer features two other artworks placed on the walls of the scene and a landscape painted on the piano’s open lid. As with all of Vermeer’s artwork, the light is hauntingly realistic and illuminating. Palmer and his cohorts use this composition to create a sonic expression of how a small house concert could be played- softly, sensitively, and with a simpatico between the musicians. This composition has its own beauty, freedom, and transcendence.

Vermeer The Concert
The remaining compositions include Govert Flinck’s “Landscape with an Obelisk” with some fascinating cymbal and drum work from Scott. Rembrandt’s “Self Portrait,” a celebration of multiple ideas from these musical minds. Degas’ “Three Mounted Jockeys” ends the set with this jaunty piece played robustly and with feeling by Turner. Palmer’s mastery of the high register is used poignantly here, and the talented Ross’ vibes modulate with a buoyancy that again elevates the music. Scott and Perez keep the music moving seamlessly.

If an artist’s musical creativity can draw you as a listener into the sources of his inspiration, then one can only appreciate the musician for his curiosity, creativity, and dedication. Palmer is an unusual artist whose imaginative music captured me with his The Concert:12 Musings for Isabella. Beyond his facility on the trumpet, Palmer’s compositional skills show a bright future. He has created some thoughtful and expressive pieces of music here and this project had the added reward of piquing my own curiosity to learn more about those lost Gardner masterpieces that inspired this work.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

"Blue Soul" : Dave Stryker with Bob Mintzer and the WDR Big Band

Dave Stryker with Bob Mintzer and the WDR Big Band Blue Soul  Strikezone 8820

If you are a fan of dynamic music played by an inspired guitarist/composer, a masterful saxophonist/arranger and a formidable European Big Band that just really brings it to the table, then you will love Dave Stryker’s latest Blue Soul

Dave Stryker is one of the leading guitarists on the scene with a distinctive guitar sound that meshes the jazz tradition of Wes Montgomery and the Funk and Soul of Grant Green. The man can play and as a ubiquitous producer he is often recording with his own trio of stalwart bandmates, Jared Gold on organ and McClenty Hunter on drums, and recently included Steve Nelson or Stefon Harris on vibes and Mayra Casales on percussion.

This most recent release comes as a fresh breath of air in these stressful times, offering spirit, joy, great arrangements, and top-notch talent on this swinging gem. Stryker and saxophone/arranger Bob Mintzer, of the Yellowjackets' fame, has come together with the WDR Big Band and created a most enjoyable jaunt through some fabulous music. The nine songs are well chosen and include “What’s Going On” and “Trouble Man,” from the Marvin Gaye repertoire, Jimmy Webb’s prized “Wichita Lineman,” Prince’s “When Doves Cry” and Stanley Turrentine’s “Stan’s Shuffle” all worth the price of admission. Mintzer adds his own composition “Aha,” and Stryker includes his compositions “Came to Believe,” the funky “Blues Strut,” and one of my favorites “Shadowboxing.” 

The music pulses and explodes and there are great solo performances by Stryker on guitar throughout, Mintzer on saxophone wails impressively on “Aha,” “Blues Strut,” and “Stan’s Strut” and there are notable contributions from organist Billy Test, especially on “Trouble Man”  and "Blues Strut."  Altoists Karolina Strassmeyer and Johan Horlen and tenorist Paul Heller all add featured solos. Trombonist Andy Hunter shines on “Wichita Lineman” and drummer Hans Dekker, besides masterfully anchoring this band, is given some space to creatively spice up Stryker’s “Shadowboxing” at the coda. The WDR Big Band hails from Cologne in Germany and was formed in 1946. I have heard this group fronted by some of the best musicians in jazz and they always deliver with professionalism and vigor.

Dave Stryker has been on a creative roll with his successful series of Eight Track recordings-simply tapping some of Soul, Pop and Rock music ’s best era- reimangined these songs into some modern compositions that retain the original’s appeal. Blue Soul, now utilizing the expanded aural canvas that a big band like the WDR Big Band provides, under Mintzer and Stryker with Jarred Gold’s deft arrangements, can be simply too good to miss.  Grab this one and have a blast.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Awaiting "Our New World" the Sirkis/Bialas I Q

Sirkis/Bialas IQ: Our New World Moonjune MJR099

The Sirkis/Bialas I Q (International Quartet) is an impressive, global-based group, employing expressive creativity, virtuosity, and international folk-music influences to infuse their music making it authentic and visceral. 

On their latest Our New Earth, the leader and composer, Israeli percussionist Asaf Sirkis employs a variety of instrumentation (Crotales, Manjira and a Frame drum) and rhythmic vocal techniques including Konnakol (a southern Indian vocalized percussion technique.) to bring in a Middle Eastern and Southern Indian taste to his music.

Asaf Sirkis and Sywia Bialas

The co-leader, Polish vocalist Sylwia Bialas, wrote five of the compositions here and has a beautiful vocal instrument that she controls with skilled aplomb and elastic pliability. She has an impressive range and a well-developed sense of timing, dynamics, and presence.

British keyboard player Frank Harrison attended Berklee on scholarship and demonstrates his accomplished ability as an inventive soloist as well as an intuitively strong accompaniest.

Bassist Kevin Glasgow is an impressive six-string electric bassist who can anchor complex rhythms and is especially expressive in the upper register with his fluid lines that are very guitar-like.

This two-disc offering is stylistically packaged and displays beautiful cover artwork. Produced by Leonardo Pavkovic's progressive Moonjune records, the cd is musically teeming with creativity and optimism. There is an unabashed romantic hopefulness to this album and as Sirkis has explained they wanted “ …to reflect the change and turmoil that are happening globally right now…” and to use their music to “…express the wish that when all the madness subsides we will have a better place to live in…”Our New Earth.”

The original compositions are more like musical excursions where these four gifted musicians paint a hopeful horizon employing gorgeous sonic colors and simpatico interaction. The music swirls, elevating and mystifying the listener, utilizing deft orchestrations, beguiling vocalizations, and draws on a wellspring of rhythmic variations of international flavor.

There are classical, sometimes chamber-jazz elements to this music, albeit string-less. Harrison’s splendid pianistic creations are captivating and Bialas’ acrobatic vocalizations trace melodic lines precisely. Glasgow’s bass work also adds a burnished timbre and a fleet facility that compliments the songs with another component of interest.  Bialas sings predominantly in Polish, evoking a pure and transcendental quality to her voice. Undoubtedly Eastern European in lineage, her vocalizations to me, nonetheless evoke how Brazilian Flora Purim vocalized her work with Chick Corea back in the early seventies. Sirkis is an accomplished fusion drummer who can be bombastic, here he restrains himself, creating more subtle rhythms and provides a floating backdrop that accents the music beautifully with taste and sonic variety. 

Bialas’ high-pitched yipping on the opening of her “Rooting” from “The Earth Suite” has an almost primitive, indigenous-like feel both intriguing and skillful. Sirkis’ uses rythmic-driven vocalization-Konnakol, over his droll-like use of the Manjira on “Our New Earth,” and in conjunction with Bialas captures the essence of a southern Indian meditation-like music.

The album is like a suite and deserves being heard as a unified concept. The music includes Sirkis’ “Land of Oblivion,” with lyrics by Bialas “Letter to A.,”      "Our New World,” “The Message from the Blue Bird,” "The Spooky Action at A Distance” and “Picture from a Polish Wood.” Bialas’ compositions included the aforementioned “Rooting,” “If Pegasus Had One Wing,” “Reminiscence, ”Chiaroscuro, and ”Nocturnity.”  

There is much to hear, to savor,and to enjoy on Our New Earth so pick this one up and enjoy the possibilities.