Sunday, February 26, 2012

Ted Rosenthal and his trio at the Watercolor Café in Larchmont, NY. February 17, 2012

I am always surprised at the dearth of good places to sit and enjoy first hand “live” jazz in the lower Westchester or Fairfield County, Connecticut area. For such a wealthy area with an art conscious community it has surprisingly few places that feature any live music let alone live jazz.

Perhaps it’s the proximity to New York City, with its plethora of clubs to choose from and its draw of world-class talent that inhibits entrepreneurs from venturing more boldly into providing local venues. There are certainly enough technically proficient musicians, pouring out of today’s music schools, looking for more gigs to play. Besides the obvious need to make a living, professional musicians need the necessary feedback that can only come from performing in front of an audience. So the precious few local places that do present the music are like delicate seedlings that need to be nurtured by our continued patronage.

This past Friday evening I made my way to one such local restaurant that has made a substantial commitment to live music and occasionally to jazz. The Watercolor Café, in Larchmont, is an intimate restaurant with a small bar positioned to the right of the entrance and a compact stage, squeezed into the left, that somehow manages to fit a piano, bass and drums in its limited confines. Owner Bruce Carroll has been presenting music since 2000. Sometimes he features folk or singer songwriter acts, occasionally jazz trios or quartets. On a recent Friday the Watercolor Café featured the talented pianist Ted Rosenthal and his trio.

Ted is a regular at the Café, an immensely talented player whom I first saw in the piano chair playing as a member of the Westchester Jazz Orchestra. His recent album Out of this World was one of my top picks for 2011 and is a must have for anyone who covets good piano jazz. On this evening his trio was made up of his longtime collaborator Noriko Ueda on bass and the young drummer Jason Berger.

I arrived halfway into the first set. The restaurant was fairly full with patrons enjoying dinner as I made my way to an empty seat at the bar. The trio was playing what sounded like a interesting version of Van Heusen/Delange standard “Darn That Dream.”

Rosenthal moved quickly to the Cole Porter classic “ I Get a Kick Out of You”. The arrangement was sprightly, with a theatrical feel to it. Rosenthal demonstrated his impressive fluency, effortlessly cascading up and down the keyboard of the house upright piano. Noriko Ueda’s dancing fingers played an equally spirited bass solo. Drummer Jason Berger colored the song with his judicious use of cymbals and traps. The only negative was a foursome of people who seemed oblivious to the generally implied “quiet during the music” rule. These morons kept babbling endlessly to the dismay of other patrons around and at times to the distraction of the musicians themselves. Some people live in their own special bubble.

The trio turned to a blues for the next piece, a Horace Silver composition titled “Strollin.” Rosenthal can be a stylistically romantic player. Occasionally he alternates his delicate, floating crescendos with deliberate block chording that lends a full sound to his playing. On this tune there was a nice call and response interplay between Rosenthal and Berger. Despite the drummer’s apparent youth, Berger showed some wise subtlety in his playing recognizing the limits of bombast that would be appropriate for this compact venue.

No set of piano jazz would be complete without a Monk tune and Rosenthal chose the perennial favorite “Well, You Needn’t” which the trio played in a double-time that was pulse quickening. Rosenthal is steeped in the tradition but with a wonderfully creative edge to his playing that always keeps you guessing where he’s heading next. The group used dynamics to great effect, allowing the music to ebb and flow, swell and compress at just the right times and to the delight of the crowd. Rosenthal isn’t inclined to Monk’s dissonance, but his interpretation didn’t suffer from its absence.

After a brief intermission the trio returned for the second set with the title song to Ted’s recent album “Out of This World”. Ted crafted the Mercer/Arlen song with an odd meter treatment that features Ueda’s ostinato bass line. The classic is reinvigorated by the syncopated beat and by Rosenthal’s joie de vive, as he spins endless magical ideas out of well-worn melody lines, at times briefly paying homage to Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” in the mix.

A stirring rendition of the Rodgers and Hart “Have you Met Miss Jones” left you tapping your feet in double time as Rosenthal created cascades of rippling piano lines over the melody. Ueda and Berger kept the pace flawlessly.

Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” featured some nice walking bass lines by Ueda. A rambling upbeat version of Johnny Mandel’s beautiful “Emily” had Rosenthal’s arrangement hinting at what sounded like something from the great Nelson Riddle playbook.

After a soulful, bluesy inspired version of Chopin’s “Nocturne in F Minor,” the trio ended the evening’s performance with another tune from Thelonious Monk’s songbook “Rhythm a Ning” performed in a quick paced, adrenaline-infused manner that pumped both the audience and the musicians, ending in rousing applause at the finale.

Ted Rosenthal is an exciting, inventive player steeped in the tradition of the great American songbook, who has found his own path to reinvigorating this timeless and familiar music in creative and unfamiliar ways. Catch him live if you can.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Contemporary Bassist & Composer Ben Allison plays Carnegie Hall and fittingly celebrates New York.

As the epicenter of modern jazz, New York City has always been a magical lodestone, irresistibly attracting talented musicians at every stage of their development and careers. The city offers an unparalleled opportunity for musicians to play and collaborate with legendary performers, teaching mentors and talented peers, providing the fertile environment essential for inspiration and creativity.

The composer/bassist Ben Allison came to New York City from nearby New Haven, CT in the late 1980’s, drawn by the same irrepressible need to participate, to absorb, to create. I first saw Allison performing in the inauspicious basement of the Brooklyn Public Library, at Grand Army Plaza, back in April of 2008 (see my review of that show here.) At that time Allison was performing with his group “Man Size Safe,” a tongue in cheek reference to a strongbox reportedly kept in then Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. Admittedly, being attracted to the audacity of the title of his group, I also found the music surprisingly fresh, intelligently conceived and masterfully executed. Allison was able to attract a variety of talented young musicians who bought into his music, making it come to life.

On Friday evening the Ben Allison odyssey achieved a significant milestone, playing a prestigious concert at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Auditorium. His music has steadily matured. His most recent album Action/Refraction made my best of 2011 list and I was anxious to see his latest group perform “live”. On this momentous evening Allison was joined by his long time friends and collaborators, the tasteful guitarist Steve Cardenas and talented saxophonist Michael Blake. His rhythm section was comprised of the effervescent drummer Rudy Royston and the amazingly adroit percussionist
Rogerio Boccato. Firebrand guitarist Brandon Seabrook provided edginess with raw, rock-inspired licks, his clever use of electronics and some unorthodox banjo playing. The performance and drag artist Joey Arias, who dressed in both elegant and proactive attire, lent a farcical, musical theater-like atmosphere to a few of the numbers.

Ben dedicated the show to his adopted home of New York and started the set with his composition “Roll Credits," a cinematic piece from his Little Things Run the World cd from 2007. Saxophonist Michael Blake stated the melody line, with guitarists Cardenas, Seabrook and bassist Allison keeping the ostinato background flowing. Blake is capable of a great range of emotions from his tenor. Eliciting a silky smooth, Dexter Gordon-like tonality one minute, instantaneously changing to a gruff, raw and guttural sound reminiscent of a back alley speakeasy in the very next breath.

Allison’s “Platypus” from his 9th album Think Free was next on the playlist. After Ben briefly extolled on the unique evolution of the Platypus, Brandon Seabrook introduced the song with an electronic guitar riff. The energy from Seabrook is frenetic and palpable and Allison seems to feed off the afterglow of this kinetic player. His solid bodied guitar sound can be searing and jagged in stark contrast to Cardenas’ more fluid, warmer toned, semi-hollow bodied sound. Blake adds soprano to the mix and the tune grooves behind Allison’s bass and Royston’s populsive drums which are explosive at the ending. Rogerio Boccato, who I first saw play with saxophonist Kenny Garrett, is an especially intuitive percussionist. Boccato's arsenal of sounds, in combination with Royston’s rolling toms and Allison’s snapping bass lines create as formidable a rhythm section as you’ll find anywhere.

Allison wrote a new tune for this very special concert and he titled it “DAVE” for "Digital Awareness Vector Emulation”. This is pure performance piece and a likely homage to the Kubrick/Clarke masterpiece “2001 a Space Odyssey” for the new digital world. Joey Arias, dressed in elegant drag, sang the droning automatronic words “I cannot allow you to disconnect me Dave.” as he danced robotic moves and used controlled screeches to match the errie sounds emanating from Seabrook’s guitar and Blake’s soprano. While not my cup of tea, the audience was mesmerized, as the group provided mind bending, experimental, musical performance art.

One of Allison’s most enduring melodies is the rambling “Fred” also from his Think Free cd. Brandon Seabrook played an impressive banjo that included some unorthodox strumming and wild bowing. I missed hearing Jenny Scheinman’s haunting electric violin from the original recording, but the combined voices of Seabrook’s banjo, Cardenas’ guitar and Blake’s soprano offered their own rewards.

From the Dick Cheney repertoire, Allison revived his song “Tricky Dick” with Michael Blake and Steve Cardenas playing melody as Seabrook and the rhythm section set the background.

The fractured “Broken” brought Joey Arias back to the stage, this time donning a provocative skin revealing, black lingerie outfit. Seabrook utilized multiple electronic synth-like effects on his guitar. Arias screeched, amazingly in tune, prancing across and fluttering his black stocking-clad legs from a prone position on the floor from center stage. Quoting the audacious queen Joey “Who needs words when you have vibrations.”

Often inspired by the music and events of his times, Allison’s witty deconstruction of popular songs is one of his most engaging attributes and has let him cross over into a wider audience than is generally afforded most jazz artists. He has included treatments of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy”, Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free”, Neil Young’s “Philadelphia” and P.J. Harvey’s “Missed” to his repertoire.

On “Green Al,” influenced ever so slightly by the pop/soul singer Al Green and equally borrowing from the cinematic music associated with James Bond movies, Allison somehow pulls off this weird juxtaposition. You find yourself relating to Ben’s creative blend of the familiar and the mysterious. The song featured exceptional performances by Rogerio Boccato, Rudy Royston and a tenor solo by Michael Blake that was particularly fetching.

This concert was as much a celebration of Allison the composer as it was as Allison the musician. Ben appropriately limited his musical selections to his own compositions. A growing body of work that speaks for itself.

The encore was the brilliant “Man Size Safe” from his album Little Things that Run the World. It was a joyous celebration and a good representation of the man's music; interesting, approachable, relevant and fun. The crowd was pleased and gave the group a well deserved standing ovation.
The Ben Allison Group will be on tour through June 22, 2012 at various venues around the country so if you get the opportunity to see them near you be sure to make the effort, you won't be disappointed.