Sunday, November 29, 2009

Eric Alexander's "Revival" Burns It's Way Into Your Consciousness

Artist: Eric Alexander

CD:Revival of the Fittest (HCD 7502)

Tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander has a prolific body of work starting with his debut album “New York Calling “ released in 1992.With his latest release “ Revival of the Fittest”, Mr. Alexander has created a memorable homage to one of his major influences, the under appreciated George Coleman, whose composition “Revival” is the highlight of the album.

Mr. Alexander’s pure, burnished tone and lyrical playing is seen by some as a throwback. It is steeped in the tradition of the hard bop players who he has chosen to use as a source for inspiration. “Revival” is one of those songs that you can’t seem to get out of your head. On a recent drive home from a disappointing Ravi Coltrane concert I was listening to WBGO and was struck by the way the tune, which I had previewed before, just grabbed my attention. It is no wonder this catchy song is getting airplay. The twists and turns of the melody are exquisitely executed with a creative wellspring of ideas and Mr. Alexander’s tone is warm and mellow while retaining a sense of drive and joy that is infectious. Joe Farnsworth driving, syncopated drums keep this memorable tune in high gear.

Mr. Alexander’s innate ability to bring emotionally charged feelings into exquisitely crafted, elegantly executed passages sets him apart. On the straightly played “Blues for Phineas” he conjures up images of the great masters of this medium- the Mobley’s, the Turrentine’s, the Newman’s. He plays the blues with a refreshing respect, no gimmicks and little mimicry.

On the Ivan Lins ballad “The Island” Mr. Alexander’s lush tone is especially moving as he plays the song’s sensuous melody with little embellishment. He blazes his own understated path delivering passages that are just so tastefully done they make you stand up and listen. Pianist Mabern, seemingly inspired by the Alexander solo, touches on a plethora of styles during his creative solo.

On Michel Legrand composition “ You Must Believe In Spring” Mr. Alexander seems completely at home as drummer Joe Farnsworth sets the tempo with a quick paced Latin beat. Mr. Alexander takes this cue to demonstrate his formidable ability to string together rapidly delivered crescendos of notes that all seem to lead in unified direction to a satisfying conclusion.

With the release of Revival of the Fittest, Eric Alexander has provided a rewarding musical offering. My guess is once you put “Revival” on your cd player or I pod’s rotation you may find it stays there longer than you might have thought.

CD: Revival of the Fittest (HCD-7205)

Musicians: Eric Alexander (tenor saxophone); Harold Mabern (piano); Nat Reeves (bass); Joe Farnsworth (drums).

Recorded: Recorded April 14 & April 28, 2009 Van Gelder Studios, New Jersey

Track listing: Revival; My Grown Up Christmas; The Island; Too Late Fall Back Baby; Love-Wise; Blues for Phineas; You Must Believe in Spring; Yasashiku (Gently). Tracks in bold are favorites

Friday, November 20, 2009

Q'd UP :Snow and Jazz Alive and Well in Utah

As any skier knows, Utah is known for the pristine, powdery snow of its Wasatch Mountains, but few people would think of this western state as the source for fine jazz. With Q'd Up's new album "Quintessence" ,that perception is bound to change.

Q'd Up is a Salt Lake City based group formerly known as FJQ or Faculty Jazz Quartet.
Made up predominantly of faculty members of the Brigham Young University music department; it now consists of multi-reed artist Ray Smith; keyboard player/composer Steve Lindeman; bassist, Matt Larson and the drums, mallet playing and percussion of multi-instrumentalists Ron Brough and Jay Lawrence On this latest release they are joined by Kelly Eisenhour on a several vocal tracks.

This group of talented musicians have produced a tight, well executed album that is a fine easy listening addition to anyone's jazz collection. On "Beyond Your Wildest Dreams" , Dexter Gordon sounding tenor saxophonist Ray Smith has you checking out the liner notes to verify who it is that is actually playing here. One highlight of the album is the imaginative "Dark City Streets" penned by drummer/composer Jay Lawrence. With a Henry Mancini feel evoking dark and perhaps sinister alleys, the tune features some distinctively husky sounding alto flute work by the talented Smith and some creative city sounds overdubbed at the coda by engineer Mike Chadbourne.

The Johnny Mercer/Jerome Kern standard " Dearly Beloved" melody is reminiscent of Benny Golson's "Killer Joe" and features some fine vocal work by Kelly Eisenhour that brings to mind the great Ms. Nancy Wilson.

"Skeches of Trane" is a Jay Lawrence composition that features a driving bass line by Matt Larson and a cooking organ solo by Steve Lindeman. The song just swings throughout. Smith's Dexter Gordon influence is again on display on the Julie Styne/Sammy Cahn composition "It's You or No One" where Smith and Eisenhour join on some nice unison work with sax and voice. There is a pensive sound to the alto flute of Smith and the hollow Marimba work of Bough on Lindeman's haunting dedication to pianist Stefan Karlsson, "Take Me To Wonderland Right Away".

"Don't Blame Me",featuring the voice and lyrics of Kelly Eisenhour, is a classic torch song of an unrequited love. Eisenhour shows she has a soulful side and she is ably accompanied by Smith's tenor and Lindeman's classic blues organ sound.

The title track is the most adventurous, most rewarding cut of the album. Quintessence is that often unachievable fifth element; that highest natural form of being. On "Quintessence", Q'd Up shows it is approaching this fifth element. The "Weather Report" sounding composition has Smith's bass clarinet deftly emulating the rapid bass lines ala Jaco, before he switches horns to a Shorter-esque soprano sound. The Zawinul feel is apparent and Lindeman's keyboard pays homage to the Austrian's sound. This tightly knit group of talented musicians know how to swing and get down. Q'd Up offers solid musicianship, good song selection and tight arrangements that are the result of musicians who have been playing together for some time. Together they prove jazz is alive and well in Utah.

Recorded at LDS Motion Picture Studio. Provo, Utah 2009

Album: Quintessence; Jazz Hang Records JHR100Q

Musicians: Ray Smith (sax & woodwinds); Steve Lindeman (keyboards); Matt Larson(Bass); Ron Brough (Drums, Mallets & Percussion); Jay Lawrence (Drums, Mallets & Perfcussion); Kelly Eisenhour (Vocals on tracks 3, 6 & 10)

Tracks: Beyond Your Widest Dreams; Dark City Streets; Dearly Beloved; Sketches of Trane; Rustyn's Lullaby; It's You or No One: Brother Jay; Cine Bossa & Starbush; Take me to Wonderland Right Away; Don't Blame Me; In Pursuit of Guacamole; Quintessence.
(Favorite tracks are in bold)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Description of How to Sing the Blues

My friend, the great drummer Jimmy Cobb, forwarded me this email with a hilarious description of what is and what is not the Blues. It was purportedly written by someone named
Stretch Melon Clinton (if there is such a person) but no matter what the source is this is funny material:

> HOW TO SING THE BLUES ... by Stretch Melon Clinton
> 1. Most Blues begin, "Woke up this morning."
> 2. "I got a good woman" is a bad way to begin the Blues, 'less you
> stick something nasty in the next line, like "I got a good woman, with the
> meanest face in town."
> 3. The Blues is simple. After you get the first line right, repeat
> it. Then find something that rhymes ... sort of: "Got a good woman -
> with the meanest face in town. Got teeth like Margaret Thatcher - and she
> weigh 500 pound."
> 4. The Blues are not about choice. You stuck in a ditch, you stuck in
> a ditch; ain't no way out.
> 5. Blues cars: Chevys and Cadillacs and broken-down trucks. Blues
> don't travel in Volvos, BMWs, or Sport Utility Vehicles. Most Blues
> transportation is a Greyhound bus or a southbound train. Jet
> aircraft an' state-sponsored motor pools ain't even in the running. Walkin'
> plays a major part in the blues lifestyle. So does fixin' to die.
> 6. Teenagers can't sing the Blues. They ain't fixin' to die yet.
> Adults sing the Blues. In Blues, "adulthood" means being old enough to get
> the electric chair if you shoot a man in Memphis.
> 7. Blues can take place in New York City but not in Hawaii or any
> place in Canada. Hard times in St. Paul or Tucson is just depression.
> Chicago, St.Louis, and Kansas City still the best places to have the Blues.
> You cannot have the blues in any place that don't get rain.
> 8. A man with male pattern baldness ain't the blues. A woman with
> male pattern baldness is. Breaking your leg cuz you skiing is not
> the blues. Breaking your leg cuz an alligator be chomping on it is.
> 9. You can't have no Blues in an office or a shopping mall. The
> lighting is wrong. Go outside to the parking lot or sit by the dumpster.
> 10. Good places for the Blues:
> a. highway
> b. jailhouse
> c. empty bed
> d. bottom of a whiskey glass
> Bad places:
> a. Ashrams
> b. gallery openings
> c. Ivy League institutions
> d. golf courses
> 11. No one will believe it's the Blues if you wear a suit, 'less
> you happen to be an old ethnic person, and you slept in it.
> 12. Do you have the right to sing the Blues? Yes, if:
> a. you're older than dirt
> b. you're blind
> c. you shot a man in Memphis
> d. you can't be satisfied
> No, if:
> a. you have all your teeth
> b. you were once blind but now can see
> c. the man in Memphis lived.
> d. you have a retirement plan or trust fund.
> 13. Blues is not a matter of color. It's a matter of bad luck.
> Tiger Woods cannot sing the blues. Gary Coleman could. Ugly white people
> also got a leg up on the blues.
> 14. If you ask for water and Baby give you gasoline, it's the Blues.
> Other acceptable Blues beverages are:
> a. wine
> b. whiskey or bourbon
> c. muddy water
> d. black coffee
> The following are NOT Blues beverages:
> a. mixed drinks
> b. kosher wine
> c. Snapple
> d. sparkling water
> 15. If it occurs in a cheap motel or a shotgun shack, it's a Blues
> death. Stabbed in the back by a jealous lover is another Blues way
> to die. So is the electric chair, substance abuse, and dying lonely on a
> broken down cot. You can't have a Blues death if you die during a tennis
> match or while getting liposuction.
> 16. Some Blues names for women:
> a. Sadie
> b. Big Mama
> c. Bessie
> d. Fat River Dumpling
> 17. Some Blues names for men:
> a. Joe
> b. Willie
> c. Little Willie
> d. Big Willie
> 18. Persons with names like Sierra, Sequoia, Auburn, and Rainbow
> can't sing the Blues no matter how many men they shoot in Memphis.
> 19. Make your own Blues name (starter kit):
> a. name of physical infirmity (Blind, Cripple, Lame, etc.)
> b. first name (see above) plus name of fruit (Lemon, Lime,
> Kiwi, etc.)
> c. last name of President (Jefferson, Johnson, Fillmore,
> etc.)
> For example, Blind Lime Jefferson, or Cripple Kiwi Fillmore, etc.
> (Well, maybe not "Kiwi.")
> 20. I don't care how tragic your life: you own a computer, you
> cannot sing the blues. You best destroy it. Fire, a spilled bottle of
> Mad Dog, or get out a shotgun. Maybe your big woman just done sat on it.
> I don't care.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Kandinsky :Improvisations with Color

Vasily Kandinsky exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum, NYC
November 14, 2009

Rainy days bring out the crowds to New York Museums. I had been wanting to see the Kandinsky exhibit at the Guggenheim for several weeks and Saturday gave me my opportunity. After driving from Connecticut and circling the block for a half an hour, I came to the conclusion that my usually faithful parking karma had taken a vacation day. With this realization, I succumbed to the inevitable and secured a parking space at a garage on 87th and Park that had a reasonable prix fixe for the time I had allotted. After walking in a fine mist that deceivingly drenches you, I made my way to the Gugg. I couldn't believe the long lines waiting in front of the ticket booths to get in. Seven rows deep, twenty people long and hundreds already making their way through the exhibit; quite an impressive turnout for an abstract artist!

The overcast light from the atrium's skylight cast a muted, cream colored light on the crowds below. It felt like we were all enveloped in a gauze,. seeing each other through mosquito netting. There is a thickness to the air a mixture of heavy humidity and perspiration emanating from the mass of humanity that inhabits the building. Most people lament about the long lines. Some succumb to their own creations of an seemingly endless wait,leaving prematurely an unfulfilled. Most suffer silently, braving the lines like homeless waiting for soup at a shelter. Gratefully the lines move fairly quickly, the mechanized efficiency of capitalism at its finest. Within fifteen or twenty minutes I get my ticket, an eighteen dollar entry pass to the world of Kandinsky.

Vasily Kandinsky is an artist whose transformative use of color and form was instrumental in the creation of the abstract art movement of the early twentieth century. Having never taken an art history or art appreciation class (it wasn't de rigueur for engineering school graduates), I have been drawn to Kandinsky's work for the purely visceral feeling that his dramatic use of color and shapes has elicited from me. I get a similar feeling when listening to a great jazz artist or group.

Looking up at the Frank Lloyd Wright designed spiral, I watch the flow of bodies surge through its serpentine corridors. This flow has the feeling of an orderly organic rush of plasma through a pulsating organ. I am sure the architect would have a smile of satisfaction on his face. It is perhaps the most symbiotic exhibit that could be presented at this facility. It was the abstract movement that was in some respects the inspiration for Guggenheim building this museum and hiring Wright for this commission.

The exhibit starts with a four panel display that Kandinsky was commissioned to paint for collector Edwin Campbell, for his Park Avenue apartment. It is sometimes referred to as "The Four Seasons". Painted between May & June 1914, these panels have apparently never before been displayed together in a museum They represent a stage of abstraction for the artist that was by this time highly developed.

With his abstract credentials firmly established, the exhibit regresses to Kandinsky's earlier works where he paints using more identifiable objects. The exhibit cleverly allows the viewing public to slowly experience the artist's progressive move into abstraction. Kandinsky's subject matter during his early period is predominantly landscapes. Objects like trees, mountains and people are readily identifiable. His quest for freedom from form is a slow process that he develops over a period of time and is well represented by various works in the show. For me his work from 1908 "Blue Mountain" is a most impressive painting where Kandinsky has started to use brilliant colors with minimally identifiable forms to inch us into his foray into almost total abstraction.

"Picture with an Archer" from 1909 still exhibits identifiable forms as well as a recurring theme of Kandinsky, the rider on the horse. This presumably represents Kandinsky's path to enlightenment and is a repeated motif in his work. Some of my other favorites from this period and brilliantly on display are his 1911 " Romantic Landscape" and his series of pictures titled "Compositions". By this time Kandinsky had been trying to free his art. His goal was to better approach the freedom he felt was implicitly achievable in the new music that was being concurrently presented by avante-garde composers like Arnold Schoenberg. His "Impressions III (Concert) from 1911 is a representation of a Schoenberg performance that he attended. He used numerous titles for his works like " Impressions" "Improvisations" and "Compositions" which have a definitive tie to his admiration of music. For me, Kandinsky represents the perfect visual representation of the beauty and expressiveness of improvisational jazz. Where jazz musicians use expressive glissandos of seemingly unrelated notes, rhythmic pulses of multiple meters free from apparent musical order to create expression, Kandinsky uses brilliant colors to form impressions and define his expression. Colors that flow into each other in seamless harmony. Flowing, organic representations that transcend normally definable objects creating a new reality that is both harmonic and atonal. It is this symbiosis with its expressive creative musical undertones that make Kandinsky a joy for me. There is a entire room dedicated to Kandinsky's more mechanically contrived etchings, inks and watercolors, but even these have an organic quality to them. He incorporates geometrical forms as well as from embryonic and microscopic objects in his work.

The exhibit is a splendid representation of the maestro's work in the perfect setting. A must see for any lover of improvisational art at its finest. The exhibit will continue at the Guggenheim through January 13, 2010. For a glimpse at the exhibit check out this link to the Guggenheim

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Abercrombie, Nussbaum & Versace Tear it Up at the Cole Auditorium

October 25, 2009

Autumn days in Connecticut are usually filled with the brilliant colors that embody a New England fall. Last Sunday, for those in attendance, the place for brilliant musical colors was the Cole auditorium at the Greenwich Library. Musical director David Waring, armed with a generous gift from patron Clementine Peterson, concluded his tasteful jazz series with a very special performance; a homecoming of sorts. Guitarist John Abercrombie and keyboardist Gary Versace, both Greenwich High graduates and drummer Adam Nussbaum, originally from Norwalk, brought their own special high-energy jazz to the comfortable confines of the Cole Auditorium.

As the musicians made their way to the stage it was obvious they were among friends and appreciative followers. The group seemed to be loosely led by Mr. Abercrombie, whose career spans nearly four decades of musical adventurism. Mr. Abercrombie was an original member of the groundbreaking jazz-rock super group Dreams, which included Michael and Randy Brecker, keyboardist Don Grolnick and the powerhouse drummer of Mahavishnu fame, Billy Cobham. Abercrombie’s breakout hit was the seminal fusion album Timeless
from 1975 which he did with keyboard wizard Jan Hammer and drummer extraordinaire Jack De Johnette. Since then he has continued to explore his own impressionistic style of music in many varied formats.

Mr. Nussbaum’s biography includes stints with the iconic tenorman Sonny Rollins and the saxophonists Dave Liebman and Michael Brecker . He was an important part of the John Scofield Trio, a progressive group with the guitarist John Scofield and the bassist Steve Swallow.

Mr. Versace is the youngster in this powerful triumvirate. Mr. Versace is a keyboard player who has made an indelible mark predominantly as an accompanist on organ and accordion. His has been named up and coming artist on the organ for the last three years in the Downbeat readers poll. I was particularly impressed with his work on the recent Loren Stillman album
“ Winter Fruits”.

The trio started the set with the standard “How Deep is the Ocean” which was played at a sauntering tempo, with Mr. Nussbaum starting out ever so lightly on brushes. Mr. Abercrombie plays his solid body guitar through series of electronic devices including a modulating volume pedal that he deftly uses to increase or sustain his thumb-strummed notes. Mr. Versace (pronounced Ver Says) was playing a Nord electronic organ which he had connected to a vintage Leslie speaker. Mr. Nussbaum’s drum kit included 3 toms, 1 bass drum, a snare, a hi-hat and 3 cymbals. As the trio played through the familiar changes of the song , increasing tempo and intensity, it was predominantly Mr. Abercrombie and Mr. Versace trading musical ideas as Mr. Nussbaum prodded them in suggestive directions.

On Mr. Abercrombie’s “Anniversary Waltz”, Mr. Nussbaum uses an assortment of rim and stick work to subtly build the rhythm over Mr. Abercrombie’s spacey guitar explorations. There was a demonstrable joy visible between the musicians as they interacted on this song. Mr. Versace played a particularly penetrating solo on organ as Mr. Abercrombie looked on approvingly. When Mr. Abercrombie soloed he built upon a series of repeating note patterns that drove the music into a funky, rock/blues direction.
Mr. Nussbaum pushed the song into a driving coda. Mr. Nussbaum’s strong left hand is particularly impressive.

On “Sad Song” from Mr. Abercrombies’s recent album “Wait Till You See Her” the audience was treated to the sensitive, impressionistic side of this artist. Mr. Versace and Mr. Abercrombie were particularly sympathetic in their communication of the melancholy spirit of this music. Mr. Nussbaum, who can be a tremendously muscular drummer, showed he is also capable of nuance with his deft use of padded mallets and shimmering cymbals work.

The trio performed several other pieces including “Retractable Cell” and a medley that featured Adam Nussbaum’s ‘We Three” and Ornette Coleman’s “Round Trip”. Mr. Versace weaved his solos with cascades of notes that darted deftly between Mr. Abercrombie’s atmospheric guitar. The young organist was pushed along by the ever-changing time signatures instigated by the playful Mr. Nussbaum, but more than held his own and had fun doing so.

The highlight of the performance was Mr. Abercrombie’s “Ralph’s Piano Waltz” from the guitarists watershed release “Timeless”. The driving nature of the song was the perfect vehicle for Nussbaum’s brand of power driven drumming. Mr. Versace ‘s electronic keyboard took on a rock fusion sensibility with a flurry of notes that showed influences reminiscent of my days of listening to Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman. Mr.. Abercrombie was particularly animated as he took on a distinctively blues tinged solo that demonstrated that he could still shred with the best of them. Together the trio breathed life into Abercrombie’s composition to the delight of the audience many of who were apparently musicians.

In talking to Mr.Versace after the performance it was clear that Mr. Abercrombie has influenced a whole generation of younger musicians as a leader, a teacher and a composer. They see his impressionistic art as one worthy of emulation and continued expansion.