Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Vibrapohonist Steve Nelson's Homage to Mulgrew Miller: "Brothers Under the Sun"

The vibraphonist Steve Nelson is one of those musicians who has been discreetly plying his craft over the years, most frequently with groups led by the pianist Mulgrew Miller and the bassist Dave Holland. On his latest album Brothers Under the Sun, a title that makes reference to the friendship and astrological affinity Nelson had with the pianist Mulgrew Miller (they were both born under the sign of Leo), Nelson selects a repertoire of songs that are either composed by late pianist or are strongly associated with him. The result is a rewarding collection of music that honor Miller's legacy by perfroming these songs with a joyful reverance, consummate professionalism and an unerring sense of swing.

The rhythm section of Peter Washington and Lewis Nash assure a skilled continuity of spirit for this endeavor, as they, with Nelson played on several recordings with Mr. Miller. The wild card here is the pianist Danny Grissett- who has played previously with this group under the leadership of trumpeter Jeremy Pelt- who does an admirable job of injecting his own creativity into this homage, including his own composition dedicated to Mr. Miller, the closer “Melody for Mulgrew.”

The album leads off with a sauntering “The More I See You” which Nelson plays faithfully in deference to the melody, an approach favored by Mr. Miller when he would play ballads. Nelson’s tone has a warm resonance that comes from the measured and deliberate attack of his mallets. Grissett incorporates some of Miller’s bluesy/gospel feel, while still fluidly traversing across the keys in a modern approach. The group pulses along with Washington’s warm, throbbing bass lines leading the way. Nash, a master swinger, knows how to subtly prod the group, propulsing them forward with just the right mixture of press rolls and cymbal splashes.

The Afro-Latin beat of Miller’s vibrant “Eastern Joy Dance,” allows the group a more fluid platform on which to improvise. Nelson’s mallets glide over the bars in a glissando of notes. Grissett is more angular in his approach here, as Washington and Lewis create the rhythmic rumble.

“Grew’s Tune” is one of Mr. Miller’s most memorable compositions and these guys do it royally. The lock-step, unison playing of Grissett and Nelson is coolly intuitive. Grissett’s solo is a miniature of style, before Washington offers his own impressively effervescent solo.

“Soul-Leo,” -a reference to the astrological sign that binds Miller and Nelson together forever- has its own special swagger. Washington’s bass guiding the tune like a beacon in the night. Nelson and Grissett once again play deftly in unison; both offer invigorated solos as Nash pushes the song along effectively behind Grissett’s repeating left-hand phrases to the coda.

The Rogers and Hart standard “It Never Entered My Mind,” is introduced by Nelson with a gently resonating vibes solo, after which the group picks up at a languished pace. The album continues with the Brazilian influenced Miller composition “Samba D’ Blue,” the bright, uplifting Nelson title composition “Brothers Under the Sun,” and  another  two Miller compositions “For Those Who Do” and the angular, Monkish “New Wheels,” where the group is at its dynamic best. The set ends with pianist Grissett’s persuasive homage, the buoyant and deferential “Melody for Mulgrew.”

Here is a video of Nelson with Miller from 2011:

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Pete Malinverni Trio: "Heaven" The Spiritual Side of Jazz

I have had the pleasure of meeting pianist Pete Malinverni, and the fortune to have seen him perform his pianistic magic in some intimate and spiritual settings on several occasions. Malinverni is a thoughtful, serene man who brings a deep and abiding sense of reverence to his playing. He has been steeped in religious music for decades, with tenures as the musical director of the Devoe Street Baptist Church in Brooklyn, NY, the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY and the Pound Ridge Community Church in Pound Ridge, NY- where I went to several Sunday services just to see him play. He is also a eminent educator and currently is an assistant professor of jazz studies at SUNY Purchase. Pete was kind enough to entertain an interview for my blog back in 2013, which for those who are interested can be found here.

Make no mistake about it, Malinverni can swing, having played in trios with iconic drummer Mel Lewis and with Amhad Jamal drummer Vernel Fourier among others. His music has a naked honesty that sweeps you up in its sincerity and emotional content. 

On his latest release Heaven, Malinverni is joined by eclectic bassist Ben Allison and journeyman drummer Akira Tana.  Together these three make some beautiful and sensitive music. Not surprisingly, the album has a spiritual theme and explores two compositions from Duke Ellington, the title tune “Heaven” and “Come Sunday”; four traditional songs that have an enduring messages of hope and faith; two obscure gems a gorgeous arrangement of a song by Hannah Senesh titled “Eili, Eili” and an Ungar/ Mason composition “Ashokan Farewell;” the uplifting, gospel influenced Curtis Mayfield tune “People Get Ready” and one of Malinverni’s own “Psalm 23.”

“Heaven” is a swinging straight ahead rendering that features Malinverni’s fluid, sometimes Monkish, piano lines, Allison’s pulsing bass and Tana’s light comping. Allison and Tana each offer brief but potent solo work here, before the group returns to the melody line at the coda.

Malinverni’s “Psalm 23,” is based on the famous Biblical passage from David that starts with “The Lord is my Sheperd, I shall not want…” He uses a reverent musical treatment to portray a spiritual that acknowledges God’s grace and guidance given to his people even when they “….walk through the valley of darkness..” The pianist creates a delicate musical monologue that mimics the verse- each challenge met with faith in the higher being- and then he builds the musical tension to a tempest with a rumble created by the trio, until he resolves it to a peaceful conclusion at the coda.  

The bubbling “Down in the River to Pray” is given a buoyant 5/4 bounce with Allison’s pulsing bass line holding down the beat with Tana’s rim and cymbals, as Malinverni explores around the melody.

“Shenandoah” is given a sparse treatment, with vocalist Karrin Allyson lending her clear, light voice to Allison’s bass and Malinverni’s accompanying piano. Allison and Malinverni both take short probing solos before Allyson, whose vocal could bring a bit more emotional content to this song, returns to finish up this endearing American folk song.

“Eili, Eili” is a composition I ‘ve never heard before, apparently based on a poem written by a Hungarian woman, a Jew who fought the Nazi’s in WWII and died trying to save concentration camp prisoners. True to the feeling of the poem, Malinverni and Allison do a marvelous job of making this one of the most moving pieces on the album. The pianist is at his most emotive here and bassist Allison’s plump lines are in beautiful counterpoint to the piano and to Tana’s masterful brushwork.

The lyrics of Curtis Mayfield’s “People, Get Ready” have an uplifting message to an oppressed people and Malinverni deftly finds an elevating experience in this enduring melody, which he and bandmates play with great spirit and elation.

Ellington’s “Come Sunday” is a gorgeous composition that embodies the maestro’s sense of what is spiritual. Guest Jon Faddis’s longing trumpet solo is a case in point. There is a poignancy to his slurring, voice-like horn, a human cry that transcends formalized religious context and unifies us all no matter what our beliefs. The trio expertly backs Faddis exemplary playing of this gem and there is no way one can’t come away from this unmoved.

Another traditional song “A City Called Heaven” features a moving bass solo by Allison at the opening. The bassist has a tremendous feel for this music and it shows here. His tone is clear, his attack is clean and his ideas seem in line with the pianist’s own inclinations-warm, sensitive and uncluttered.

Alto saxophonist Steve Wilson is about as in demand as anyone on the scene today. On “Wade in the Water,” a song made popular by Ramsey Lewis, Malinverni plays a darting solo that floats above his rhythm sections steady pulse. Wilson’s angular alto brings some swinging bop to this one, and he and Malinverni play off each other effectively for a brief section before returning to the head.

The final song on the album is “Ashokan Farewell” a song made famous as the theme to documentary filmmaker Ken Burns “Civil War” series on PBS. The funny thing is despite its melancholy, old-worldish sound, it wasn’t written until 1982 and by a man from the Bronx. 

Notwithstanding the origins of this song- which is based on a Scottish lament- it has been heard by millions and construed to be a part of Americana folk music. Malinverni finds, as many of us do,that the song has a spiritual core to its tender, moving theme. He plays this as a sauntering slow waltz and it seems like the perfect tune to end this album of music on.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano: "Compassion The Music of John Coltrane"

In June of 2017 saxophonist Dave Liebman, a member of the original group, Saxophone Summit, a group dedicated to the legacy of John Coltrane, was asked if he could organize that group or something like it to perform on the BBC’s Jazz on 3 radio program, for the 40th anniversary of John Coltrane’s passing on July 17, 2007. The original Saxophone Summit from 1996 was made up of saxophonists Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano and Liebman, as well as the rhythm section of bassist Cecil McBee, pianist Phil Markowitz and drummer Billy Hart. With the passing of Michael Brecker in 2007, the group continued over the years in various iterations that included, at times, saxophonists Greg Osby and later Ravi Coltrane. With time being so tight, Liebman rallied the core of the group; himself, Lovano, Hart and Markowitz for the date. Ravi Coltrane and Cecil McBee, unfortunately, had prior commitments, and so journeyman bassist Ron McClure was enlisted for this recording.

Compassion: The Music of John Coltrane came to life. As Liebman writes in the thoroughly engaging liner notes, Coltrane’s legacy was vast, and spanned so many stylistic , that choosing a suitable repertoire to play would be a challenge unto itself.  With the anniversary looming, Lovano and Liebman decided that for this gig, they would perform music from all Coltrane’s periods. The result is an original interpretation of Coltrane’s music, as well as a wonderful homage to a master that these musicians all see as one of their most enduring influences.

The set list includes “Locomotion” from the 1958 classic Blue Train, a blues based song that is representative of Coltrane’s early Blue Note period. The dueling tenors of Liebman with his sharper, more piercing tone and then Lovano’s huskier horn, take turns carrying on this classic, as the throbbing bass of McClure, the dynamic piano of Markowitz and the splashing cymbals of Hart propel this classic.  

Coltrane’s more universal appeal was often found through his sensitive playing on ballads, and here Lovano chooses the pensive “Central Park West” as a vehicle of expression. His tenor tone is burnished and lustrous. Markowitz plays a resplendent intro to the diatonic “Dear Lord” that features Liebman on a beautifully realized soprano saxophone solo that hovers like an angle on a cloud.

The Spanish tinged “Ole” represents Coltrane’s excursion into the realm of modal, eastern-influenced music.  The sedately paced intro finds the woodwind players conversing, this time with Liebman on wooden recorder and Lovano on Scottish Flute, before switching to soprano saxophone and tenor saxophone respectively. The modal vamp allows the rhythm section to set the roiling groove. Markowitz inventive solo is a highlight, before Lovano enters with his own deep throated voice. Liebman then squeals and squeaks with a flurry on his soprano. As the song progresses, the two horns let loose with a series of high pitched screeches and wails- a precursor to the more avant-garde sounds to come in Coltrane’s music- before McClure takes a pulsing bass solo at the coda.

“Reverend King,” a song dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. from Coltrane’s Cosmic Music album, was originally recorded in 1966 and released posthumously in 1968. This was a period when the saxophonist was experimenting with dialogue between himself and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. Lovano and Liebman play on this dialogue with a more subdued alto clarinet and C flute respectively. Hart’s toms accentuating a rolling background with McClure’s Arco bass. The tinkling notes of Markowitz’s piano, Liebman’s fluttering flute, Lovano’s woody alto clarinet and McClure’s bowed bass all create the moody feel of this piece.

“Equinox” was a return to a minor blues format, this time during Coltrane’s Atlantic years, originally recorded in 1960. Lovano and Liebman choose to interpret this as if Coltrane played it in his later years. A looser, more open feeling that was not restricted so much by form or structure. To this end the drummer Billy Hart sets the tone with his distinctively free feel to his rhythmic timekeeping. Liebman’s soprano soars into atmospherics, Markowitz expands the musical palate with a stirring solo of invention and succinctness. Lovano’s tenor is at its most exploratory, a raspy excursion out to the borders of the tune’s boundaries.

The final song is “Compassion” and comes from Meditations, Coltrane’s follow up album to his groundbreaking A Love Supreme. By this point, in his ever-changing search for expression in his music, Coltrane had become his most free and most spiritual. On the original recording Coltrane used two drummers, Elvin Jones and Rashid Ali. Appropriately, master drummer Hart starts this piece off for the first four minutes introducing several different rhythmic variations by his deft use of sticks, toms and cymbals.  A pulsing bass line by McClure and some stabbing piano notes by Markowitz lead into the dual tenors stating their lines in unison. Liebman is first to solo, a piercing, cascade of notes that occasionally shriek into plaintive cries. Lovano enters with his aulochrome, a twinned soprano saxophone, with its duality of voice that reminds me of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s ventures into the simultaneous use of multiple horns. Markowitz, McClure and Hart play an intuitive break that is rash, atonal, bombastic and percussive. The two horns re-enter this time with Liebman on soprano and Lovano back to tenor. This free, unstructured rant goes on for seventeen minutes and is , for me, the least enjoyable part of this album. As with some of Coltrane’s later unstructured, avant-garde work it is not for everyone, but true to the spirit of what the master was doing at this point in his career.

As with many of Resonance Records, and producer Zev Fledman’s recent releases, the packaging is rich, the liner notes informative and meaty, the sound quality is good and the music captures a group of master musicians paying homage to one of their greatest influences. For any Coltrane fan this one is a keeper.