Monday, February 28, 2011

The Rebirth of the Violin in Jazz: Majid Khaliq's "Basilisk"

The BasiliskMajid Khaliq’s   “The Basilisk”

Recorded at Park West Studios, Brooklyn, NY.

Starting formal lessons at age five, violinist Majid Khaliq has been a serious student of his instrument. With his father’s Ray Nance recordings as early influences, the young player finished Julliard in 2002. During that period he spent some serious time honing his skills in and around New York.  He continued his advanced musical education and in 2010 completed his master’s in jazz performance at the Aaron Copland School of Music at New York’s Queen’s College. He is presently a member of the faculty of the Waldorf School of Garden City. 

Mr. Khaliq possesses a rare sound on his instrument that bridges tradition while probing past fusion into new territory for the instrument.  He is a hybrid between the traditionalists like the aforementioned Nance, Joe Venuti, Stephane Grappelli and Stuff Smith. Pioneers who could make their instruments swing or make them sigh with exquisite emotional pathos. Despite being too young to be directly affected by fusion, he has absorbed influences of fusion pioneers like Jean-Luc Ponty, Michal Urbaniak and Jerry Goodman as well as his mentor John Blake Jr.  If that wasn’t enough of a wellspring to tap into, he has also been affected by the Hip-Hop influences of his own generation. The result is a completely unique amalgam of truly modern jazz violin.
The title track “Basilik” comes from Majid’s love of Chinese astrology, where his sign is the snake. “Basilik” is the king of the snakes in  Medieval European folklore. With an infectious urban back beat played by the dynamic Johnathan Blake on drums, the song snakes through its twists and turns, with Khaliq at times seemingly mimicing the scratching sound of a hip-hop turntable artist with his unique bowing techniques.

Charles Porters crisp trumpet lines are a welcome sound. His intuitive interplay with Khaliq’s violin on their synchronous duets is wonderfully complimentary on the title track as well as on the driving “Expectation”. Eric Lewis’s energetic piano solo on the aforementioned song bobs and weaves along. Blake’s drum solo is at times militaristic and at times bombastic. Khaliq’s violin is never predictable with its off-kilter sound always sending you in unexpected directions.

The waltz-like “O Hime” is a fetching composition that borrows elements of the classical style.  Khaliq, Porter and pianist Jeb Patton together weave their sounds into a delicate tapestry of gossamer elegance.  The young violinist has the ability to make his instrument sing with voice-like earnestness. Patton’s solo is itself expressionistic and heartfelt.

“Mansa Khan Musa” again finds Porter on the front line with Khaliq, this time with muted bell. The two have a rare affinity for playing together. Khaliq’a lines are always interesting, interspersing different stylistic choices by changing bowing techniques and string attacks in most unusual ways.

“Inner Glimpse” is a McCoy Tyner up-tempo composition that really cooks. Patton plays with particular inspiration as bassist Ivan Taylor and drummer Blake keep the drive pumping. Khaliq shows off a bit of his fusion chops here and Porter and Blake  both put in nice solo efforts.

“Spirals” is another Khaliq original that in an interview he called “…a post-apocalyptic view of  modern jazz, which circles deep into the depths of despair.”  The tune vacillates between an ominous cacophony and a Stuff Smith inspired blues swing, where all front line members get a chance to let out their stuff 9 no pun intended). The guitarist Andrea Vocatura contributes a nice solo.

“The Truth” is an original composition from trumpeter Charles Porter. Khaliq demonstrates his ability to elicit great emotional depth from this soulful song.

The finale is the Burke/Van Husen standard “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” which Khaliq plays with a true gypsy heart, doubling on his strings to great effect. Pianist Patton plays a beautiful solo of his own that is at first delicately wandering and then jaggedly purposeful. Khaliq ends in a magnificent embellishment that is Grappelli-like in all its grandeur. Very nice indeed!

Musicians: Majid Khaliq (violin); Charles Porter (trumpet), Jeb Patton (piano) tracks 3,5-8; Eric Lewis (piano) racks 1, 2 & 4; Ivan Taylor (bass);Johnathan Blake (drums); Andrea Vocatura (guitar) track 6 & 7 (not listed on album)  .

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Guitar Heros Exhibit of Legendary Italian Luthiers at the Metroploitan Museum of Art

at the Met February 9th through July 4, 2011

This past Saturday, I ventured into New York City to see an exhibit dedicated to master craftsmen who elevated their craft to true art. The Metroplotian Museum of Art on Fifth and 82nd is an iconic building.  With its grandiose entrance, its stately stairs and  its monumental granite facade, the Met  lends instant respectability to anyone who is so fortunate as to have there work exhibited there.

The museum, under the astute direction of associate curator Jayson Kerr Dobney, has created a fabulous exhibit assembling some exquisite examples of the work of several Italian-American luthiers (makers of stringed instruments).  Titled Guitar Heroes, the exhibit traces the history of some artisan craftsmen who, beginning with the wave immigration from Southern Italy in the late 1800's, brought the art of violin and mandolin making  into this country, . Eventually, as tastes changed, they adapted their skills to the construction of arch-top guitars mostly in Manhattan's Little Italy. As a one time guitar player and  a descendant of Italian immigrants; one a cabinet maker and another a skilled stone mason, I have a special affinity for this exhibit and for the justly deserved recognition it bestows on these master craftsmen

Originally hailing from towns whose names are virtually synonymous with instrument making like, Cremora, Venice, Naples and Padua, these artisans had their trade sustained by the early craze for mandolins in the New World. By the 1920's the luthiers found themselves facing a shrinking demand for mandolins. Many turned to violin and eventually arch-top guitar construction to support their shops. One of those who was able to make the transition successfully was the New York City based luthier John D'Angelico. From his shop on Kenmare Street  in lower Manhattan, D'Angelico started to produce his own arch-top guitars based on the the popular Gibson L-5 (made by the Gibson Guitar Co in Kalamazoo Michigan).  The arch-top guitar featured violin-like construction with F holes in the top, a slightly convex top and back and a floating bridge. The design was popular as a rhythm guitar because it projected chords so well and was used in the popular big bands of the time. D'Angelico's attention to detail  was his signature. Hand crafting each guitar, often times customizing details to his customers specifications, he innovated on his guitar making process. He incorporated an Art Deco design into his guitars, producing not only a fine playing but a beautiful looking instrument.

D'Angelico's apprentice was the young James D'Aquisto, who after studying with his mentor,  himself became a master luthier, carrying on the tradition and expanding it in his own artistic way. His signature pieces are hallmarked by his insistence on using only natural and sometimes exotic materials on his guitars, along with his own innovative designs. One of the highlights of the exhibit  is a continuously running  film from 1985 by Fredrick Cohen titled  "The New Yorker Special: Handcrafting a Guitar."   It documents luthier Jimmy D'Aquisto hard at work in his shop, demonstrating the many steps it takes to build one of his fine guitars.

Present day master luthier John Monteleone is the last of the three guitar heroes featured at this exhibit. His detailed work incorporating  innovative designs and concepts are on ample display. His beautifully conceived and finely executed masterpieces have all become highly coveted collector pieces and take the art of the luthier to new heights. One of his innovations was the introduction of adjustable side openings in the body of the guitar, allowing the guitarist to hear the sound his is projecting to his audience.

For any part-time guitarist or accomplished professional  musician this show is a joy. For those who simply love beautiful things, made beautifully this show has its own special appeal.

Steve Miller and Friends Present: Concert at the Grace Rainey Auditorium
featuring the guitars of Jimmy D'Aquisto

Later that evening the museum held a  special concert presentation of some master guitarists playing some of the legendary D'Aquisto guitars, as seen at the exhibit. Held in the beautiful Grace Rainey Auditorium, the full house of patrons was entertained by the buoyant octogenarian Bucky Pizzarelli. Accompanied by the fine guitarist Ed Laub, the  duo played a series of  standards with Bucky using his own D'Aquisto guitar seven string guitar. Bucky is known as the consummate jazz rhythm guitar player,. He is a master of the seven string arch-top guitar and he showed why as he emblazoned his mark on tunes like "Tangerine", Claude Thornhill's "Snowfall" and Django Reinhardt's "Nuages". Over his sixty year career, he has shared the stage with everyone from Goodman to Grappelli

The next performer, one of my favorite guitarists and the performer I was most anxious to see, was the unassuming but superb Jim Hall. Hall is now eighty years old and his appearance was a stark contrast to that of the elder but sprightlier Pizzarelli. The stooped Hall came on stage with the aid of a cane,and was accompanied by the fine bassist Steve LaSpina. Hall's masterful work has graced the albums of giants like Hampton Hawes, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans and Paul Desmond to name just a few. His subtlety and harmonic language has set the standard for many guitarist who have been influenced by his amazing body of work. Modern day masters like Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny cite him as a major influence. Despite his frail appearance his playing is undiminished, the essence of unassuming excellence.

Mr. Hall spoke in a quiet voice without the aid of the microphone and his guitar was poorly miked, so unfortunately there was some distinct fall off in the quality of sound during his performance. Jim was playing a D'Aquisto guitar that was made for him by the famous luthier. Mr. Hall  admitted that he has not played it much since  it became such a rare collector's item after the master craftsman's death. What we could hear was classic Jim Hall on his unusual take of the standard "All the Things You Are", his tasteful subtlety on the beautiful bossa"Beija Flor" and a 16 bar blues tune he called "Careful". Mr. LaSpina, who complimented the guitarist perfectly, was featured on  "Beija Flor". Check out the Jim Hall trio with Mr. LaSpina on bass and Joey Baron on drums on this video I found and I'll let the playing speak for itself.

The third performer of the night was the masterful Howard Alden.  Alden plays a seven string guitar and is extremely accomplished. His ability to play alternating bass lines and lead lines almost concurrently reminded me of the technique developed by the great Joe Pass. Alden wowed the crowd with his versions of "My Shining Hour", Duke Ellington's "The Single Petal of a Rose", Billy Strayhorn's  
"Lotus Blossom" , "Lap Piano" from the guitar virtuoso George Van Eps and  Django Reinhardt's  "Tears". For those who have not seen Mr. Alden before he is an impressive artist.

The finale of the event was guitarist Steve Miller and his band, playing his own custom made solid bodied James D'Aqiuisto guitar with Howard Alden sitting in. Mr. Miller related his own special story about his one time friend Mr. D'Aquisto and spoke of his own personal guitar collection of over 400 guitars.
He played a repertoire that was slightly jazz based. He covered a T. Bone Walker tune "Tell Me What's The Reason You Keep On". He offered a clever amalgam of Ma Rainey's "See See Rider Blues" sung to the music of Miles Davis's "All Blues" and  sang an evocative version of "Nature Boy", where Mr. Miller  demonstrated that  he could still can hold a tune with the best of them.  On the cool bossa "Lazy Afternoon" his voice took on a Michael Franks kind of removed cool sound to it. He ended the evening with his signature song the uplifting "Fly Like an Eagle".

The Met should be applauded for presenting such a well conceived and beautifully executed evening of music and a fabulous exhibit of  craftsmanship that aspires to and achieves high art.. The exhibit runs from February 9 - July 4, 2011. My advise, don't miss it.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Review of Donny McCaslin’s “ Perpetual Motion”

Perpetual Motion
Perpetual Motion
Donny McCaslin

Perpetual Motion Greenleaf Music
Recorded at Systems Two, Brooklyn, NY September 2010

Saxophonist Donny McCaslin is a stalwart of the New York jazz scene and has played as an effusive sideman for many of New York’s finest musicians. He usually can be found as a member of the Maria Schneider orchestra as well as the Mingus Band and has lent his talents to the works of pianist Danilo Perez, vibraphonist Gary Burton, trumpeter/composer
Dave Douglas and the progressive group
Steps Ahead ,where he replaced the late Michael Brecker. His development as a both a player and a composer of his own music has been like watching a rare flower unfold before your eyes. From his recent recordings as a leader
“Recommended Tools” and “Declaration” , McCaslin has left an ever expanding palette of music to listen to and savor. On this latest offering, he was purportedly nudged by friend, producer and fellow saxophonist David Binney,
to work in a more electric format. Recommended ToolsDeclaration

From the beginning notes of this new album from the saxophonist, you can feel the energy and enthusiasm that has been injected into this effort. With a rolling fusillade of action packed into the opening by master drummer
 Antonio Sanchez, “Five Hands Down” sets the tone for what is to follow. McCaslin’s angular attack is filled with aggression and frenzy, as he pierces the high register of his horn or stabs with punctuated notes in conversation with Sanchez.

On the title track, “Perpetual Motion”, McCaslin circuitously plays in concert with the Fender Rhodes and acoustic piano sounds of Adam Benjamin before he states the fragment of a melody that catches your attention, an ever escalating cry of exclamation. Tim LeFebvre’s bass and Sanchez’s drums follow McCaslin’s explorational solo, a cascade of notes, a plethora of changing tones, with multiple variations of attack and timbers. A demonstration of free and inspired playing. Benjamin takes an airy solo that makes perfect use of the Fender Rhode’s s late seventies fusion sound. When McCaslin returns to his barest of melody lines, in the last quarter of the song,  he whips it into a frenzy of poignancy.

The composition “Claire” finds McCaslin honking away in a staccato exchange with Sanchez. It is these dueling masters that make for some of the most memorable moments on the album. Sanchez seems to be everyone’s drummer of choice these days and it is easy to see why, as he is a master of percussive communication with seemingly inexhautible vitality. McCaslin, for his part, alternates between high screeches to mellow, low register sustained notes. Benjamin is again effective in utilizing the unique sound quality and feel of the Fender Rhodes. As Sanchez and Lefebvre dance in the background, Benjamin takes us on an astral adventure that is delightfully buoyant.

Much of McCaslin’s music uses the barest armature of a structure, be it melodic or rhythmic, upon which to build his musical excursions. On “Firefly”, the use of electronic sounds, presumably by Binney and Benjamin over Sanchez’s cymbals, set the background for McCaslin’s saxophone wandering. He flutters through the electronic haze like a firefly through a fog before reaching for daylight and clarity towards the end of the piece.

“Energy Generation” has a backbeat that that allows McCaslin to stretch out his more funky side, but even in this vein his playing has a sense of urgency and a lack of cliché. With Sanchez and Lefebvre driving the beat you can’t help but feel the groove.

The second part of this album takes a sharp turn into funky town and seems a bit disconnected to the first part. On “Memphis Redux”, the energy level is palpably turned down a notch to simmer like a slow cooking gumbo. McCaslin’s soulful side is on display here and he has some fine moments of raw, gutsy playing. Benjamin’s solo on piano is peppered by electronic sounds from Binney, making this music sound less dated.

On “L.Z.C.M.” the sound is an electronic funk with a driving beat by Guiliana and Benjamin on Rhodes. Despite the plethora of electronic sounds and McCaslin’s  clarion saxophone work, there is less excitement and less continuity to my ear.

“East Bay Grit” is thirty seconds of fading into a groove.

“Impossible Machine” has a quick paced, complex line that features a splendid duet with Binney on alto and McCaslin on tenor pacing each other in precise synchronicity. This is drummer Mark Guiliana’s best work of his four cuts on the album. McCaslin and Binney play extremely well together and the ending is tart, crisp and surgical.

Uri Caine’s solo piano on the finale “For Someone” is a pretty ballad but somewhat detached from the rest of the album and in my mind a strange way to end what is on balance, such a high energy outing.

Musicians: Donny McCaslin (tenor saxophone); Adam Bejamin (Fender Rhodes & Piano)tracks 1-7 &9 ; Tim LeFebvre ( electric bass) ; Antonio Sanchez ( drums tracks 1-5) ; Mark Guiliana ( drums) tracks 6-9; Uri Cane (piano) tracks 4 & 10 (Fender Rhodes & piano) track 8; David Binney (alto saxophone ) track 9 (electronics ) multiple tracks.