Thursday, August 17, 2017

Trumpeter/ Composer Tim Hagans and the NDR Big Band bring renewed life to the films of John Cassavetes with his "Faces Under the Influence"

Tim Hagans and the NRD Big Band: Faces Under the Influence 

An artist always gleans inspiration from life, whether it be by personal interaction with others, by careful observation of the world around him, or sometimes, by being touched by the work of another artist. For the musician Tim Hagans, his love of cinema and his love of the work of the independent film-maker John Cassavetes, became a source of musical inspiration. The culmination is his new album: 

It’s not such a stretch to imagine two fiercely independent spirits, Cassavetes and Hagans, eventually finding some common ground. Cassavetes was known as an accomplished television and film actor- his work can be seen in both Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and in Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen, two nominally famous productions. As a filmmaker, Cassavetes wrote, directed and produced twelve independent films from 1959 through 1986. His most well received films are Faces from 1968, for which he was nominated for an Academy award for best screen play, and A Woman Under the Influence, a film that garnered him a Best Director nomination by the Academy Award Committee in 1974.

Hagans takes the main characters from six of Cassavetes’ films and composes six compositions that represent some notable characteristics of each of these character’s film persona.  The seventh and final composition is a tribute to the director himself and is a musical representation of Cassavetes’ passion for cinema as realized in his acting, writing and directing. To achieve this artistic goal, Hagans has teamed up with the NDR Big Band-a world class institution from Hamburg, Germany that he has worked with before- writing the music, playing on much of it and conducting it all.

The first composition is titled “Leila” and comes from the lead character in Cassavetes’ directorial debut from 1959, the film Shadows. This was a landmark of independent film-making, as it broached the then taboo subject of  interracial relationships, set in the Beat generation of the late nineteen fifties.
Hagan’s starts the film noir score of “Leila” with a sensuous alto saxophone solo by Fiete Felsch. The music has some wonderful interplay between guitarist Stephan Diez, bassist Ingmar Heller and drumming phenom Jukkis Uotila. Hagans utilizes a broad spectrum of tones to create the moody, Beat-era sound of cool. A sleek evocative score that has elements of transcendent beauty and aching poignancy.

“Richard Forst” is the main character from Cassavetes’ film Faces, a middle-aged husband who suddenly finds himself dissatisfied with his married life and seeks a divorce as the easy answer to his problems. Hagans allows the big brass sound of his orchestra to send out a powerful blaring intro that bespeaks of a sudden realization, an awakening. Hagans clarion trumpet solo is powerful, but purposefully waivers a bit, just like Forst whose initial bravado gives way to doubt and confusion. Hagans reaches the high registers effortlessly and slurs his notes with a masterfully controlled legato. The composition features some accomplished bass work by Heller, who breezily walks through the middle section solo, and in counterpoint to Edgar Herzog’s bass clarinet and Dan Gottshall’s rambunctious trombone work, before the swing comes back into the mix and tenor man Lutz Buchner is given a chance to blow.

The composition “Harry, Archie & Gus” is a reference to the three main characters of Cassavetes’ film Husbands from 1970. These are three middle-aged men who just lost a friend unexpectedly to death. Realizing their own mortality, they try desperately to recapture their fading youth. Hagans starts the raucous music appropriately with three musical voices playing off each other; Klaus Heidenreich on trombone, Claus Stotter on flugelhorn and Fiete Felsch on alto. The three seemingly trying to stay connected, but each following his own path, as demonstrated by their differing solo approaches. Meanwhile drummer Uotila, bassist Heller and guitarist Diez provide solid rhythmic backing until the whole band is reunited in brash harmony before Hagans introduces a brief cadenza that features the sparse, sensitive piano of Vladyslav Sendecki.

“Seymour Moskowitz” is one of the main characters in the film Minnie and Moskowitz, an unlikely love story between a lovelorn museum director and a parking lot attendant. Hagans uses a rock inspired driving rhythm with power chords provided by guitarist Dietz, with Hagans playing a series of frenzied trumpet lines. The whole band eventually joins the in the driving progression until Hagans relieves the tension with a short melodic horn-led break in the action. Christof Lauer provides a tenor solo of varying intensity as the band continues its march onward. The music takes another break in the action to allow the creativity of percussionist Marcio Doctor to shine. Hagans conducts the band through a series of escalating counterpoints that bring the action to another peak before the whole band shouts out, presumably a line from the film, “Baby, I think about you so much that I forget to go to the bathroom.”  The band has another short break where guitar, bass and drums carry on a nice shuffle over which Hagans plays a penetrating muted trumpet solo that is very reminiscent of Miles Bitches Brew sound.

Tim Hagans ( photo credit unknown)
“Mabel Longhetti” was the desperately tragic figure in Cassavetes’ Woman Under the Influence, and Hagans knows precisely how to evoke a bewildered melancholy that surely must have been part of this character’s psyche.  Hagans uses some breezy flute, clarinet and bass clarinet work by Felsch, Peter Bolete and Herzog to great effect, but it’s Sendecki ‘s perceptive piano solo that really sets this wistful stage. It’s as if Mabel is in a web of melancholic introspection that she can’t see her way out of. When the entire band swells up and plays this gorgeous melody, the orchestra acts in a unified voice, a glimpse of a life outside of oneself. Sendecki gets another chance to play with resplendent creativity on the next passage where he is shrewdly accompanied by Heller’s booming bass and Utopia’s airy brush and stick work. Hagans again builds the tension to a peak before reprising to Sendecki’s piano with an accompanying flute and woodwind chorus. This leads to the whole band finishing on a peacefully resolution. Sendecki’s solo piano finishes up this piece with two measure solo reprise.

The intro of “Cosmo Vitelli,” the protagonist from Cassavetes’ quirky The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, is a deep-toned, ominous chorus of horns, the prominent voice being Herzog’s looming bass clarinet. Guitarist Diez plays a disjointed, abstract solo on electric guitar that fades into an echoed dispersion. Hagans enters the second movement with a strangled-like sounding, muted trumpet as the band plays the repeating motif. Altoist Peter Bolte offers a squeaking high register solo that cries of frenzy. This band, under Hagans’ direction, is switchblade responsive, tonally diverse and mesh voices like the gears in a fine swiss movement.

The final composition is Hagan’s homage to the director, his passion and his dedication to a fiercely independent creative vision, titled “John Cassavetes”. Hagans is no stranger to this mantra. His music has consistently shown a penchant to chart its own course. Hagans runs his brass and woodwinds through complex passages that brim with vitality. He directs the band into a straight ahead swing at about the two-minute mark, soaring on his open trumpet like a caged bird set free to fly. Guitarist Diez always seems to be on the verge of breaking out into a raucous fusion solo as he, Hagans and Uotila let loose-a brash rumble that for me represents Cassavetes’ independent spirit. As is his habit, Hagans builds up the furor and then relaxes the tension as he brings you back with a tonally rich moderation in intensity. 

Throughout the album the NDR Big Band responds to the chicanery of his compositional twists and turns with the precision of the rack and pinion steering on a fine sports car. Hagans is a superb and fiery trumpet player and with Faces Under the Influence a Jazz Tribute to John Cassavetes, he has also proven himself to be a formidable composer in the big band format. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

"Layers of the City" : Ben Allison and Think Free

Ben Allison and Think Free Layers of the City

The bassist/composer Ben Allison is a rare breed, a multi-dimensional force. He has both the command of his instrument and the talent to write meaningful contributions to the jazz canon. His compositional acumen is inspired in part by his openness to explore popular and contemporary musical ideas and incorporate those ideas into his own brand of improvisational music. He is a dedicated educator, teaching at the New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music as an adjunct professor since 1996. His discography as a leader of now twelve releases, is a timeline of artistic development and experimentation. He is an in-demand sideman and has been recently heard on pianist Pete Malinevrni's  fine album Heaven. In his trio with guitarist Steve Cardenas and saxophonist Ted Nash, he has explored the music of Jim Hall and Jimmy Giuffre on Quiet RevolutionAll the while he has been a steadfast voice for the music; a founding member of the Jazz Composer’s Collective and its Artistic Director for its thirteen-year span; a prominent advocate for artist’s rights and now President of the New York Chapter of the Recording Academy, the sponsors of the Grammy Awards. He is also a record producer with his own label Sonic Camera records.

With such a busy and prolific schedule, it is encouraging to see that Allison has released a new album with his group Think Free, titled Layers of the City, which includes longtime collaborator Steve Cardenas on guitar, fellow Collective member Frank Kimbrough on piano, the lyrical trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and the tasteful drummer Allan Mednard. The album contains six original Allison compositions and one group free improvisation.  This album was made possible by a successful Pledge Music campaign that Allison started sometime back in November of 2016. It is noteworthy that more and more talented artists have found, through their followers, an egalitarian source of economic support that permits them the freedom to pursue their artistic goals-a promising development.

The music is distinctively modern, sometimes brash, sometimes atmospheric, with Allison favoring jazz-styled melodies over drone-like rhythms. The opener “Magic Number” is a re-working of a John McLaughlin song, a favorite of mine, originally titled “Argen’s Bag” and latter re-named “Follow Your Heart.” Allison’s bass lines are full and plump as he pulses the 11/8 blues based riff. Pelt’s viscous trumpet lines hang in the air like billowy clouds of spun cotton candy suspended in space. Cardenas’s guitar sings along with slinky lines and delicately picked harmonics and Kimbrough and Mednard play with sublime sparseness. A fine modern re-imagining of a song originally aired in 1972.  

“Enter the Dragon,” an eight-minute lead up to an eruption, begins with Kimbrough brushing piano strings before Allison’s bouncy pizzicato bass line introduces the rhythmic drive for the tune, over Mednard’s cadenced traps. Pelt and Cardenas play a weaving unison melody line that includes careful comping by Kimbrough, crystalizing over a few choruses before going into a repeating bridge. The sound is reminiscent of Allison’s “Man Sized Safe Group,” with Pelt taking on the role previously played by Ron Horton. After repeating the original melody and returning to a second bridge, the song abruptly morphs into a roiling, free-wheeling rumble of sounds driven by Kimbrough’s frantic piano, Allison’s churning bass and Mednard’s pounding drums. Pelt and Cardenas are slowly re-introduced into the fray, lightly maintaining the melody behind this musical riot. The front line returns once again to the tension building chorus where Pelt is given solo reign to blow over the boiling brew created by the other four-his soaring trumpet offering a blistering cadenza until fading out at the coda.

The eerie “Ghost Ship” is a cinematic composition that features Pelt’s airy, trumpet suspensions over Allison’s strong walking basslines- the armature on which all else is built. Kimbrough and Cardenas are both masters of subtle comping, adding delicate harmonies to this sparse piece. The passages of silence, where Allison’s plump bass notes are the lonely sound, are deliciously evocative. Mednard’s gossamery use of cymbals and snare are perfectly complimentary to the overall feel.

The title song “Layers of the City”-a reference to the diversity of New York City, Allison’s home in recent years- is a rhythmically, descending series of notes with a distinctively middle eastern feel to it.  Once again Allison’s leading bass lines are the driving force. Cardenas, Kimbrough and Pelt all meld their voices so well as to create the illusion one multi-toned instrument- the multi-ethnic rhythmic driven cacophony of the urban landscape of New York City. Allison, Mednard and Cardenas create a rhythmic force that has some roots in the power rock trios of old, with Cardenas offering a more nuanced guitar solo that is less crammed with notes and more steeped in flavor.

“The Detective’s Wife” is a thoroughly enjoyable Allison composition that again has a cinematic quality and can easily become a vehicle for future explorations.  The song is reminiscent of the music of Henry Mancini’s marvelous Pink Panther. Could this be a reference to Inspector Clouseau’s wife? Pianist Frank Kimbrough shines here with some of his most inspired playing, a tour de force. Trumpeter Pelt’s slithery muted horn is equally stirring. Bassist Allison allows himself a chance to extend out the theme in his own inimitable way with a playfully elastic solo that just dances to its own muse.

Allison’s fine 2008 release Little Things that Run the World was the album that introduced me to this remarkable musician and I have been satisfyingly following him ever since. “Blowback” is a re-work of the song originally performed on that album. Allison’s clever uses of throbbing bass lines that carry the tune through is again on display here. His heartbeat style gives a lifeforce to his music that makes it palpitate with possibilities. Here this lifeforce gives rise to some creative solos, first by Cardenas and then by Pelt.

The closing tune is a collective collaboration that borders on free improvisation titled “Get Me Offa This Thing.” With Cardenas and Kimbrough using string harmonics and Pelt using electronic augmentation of his trumpet, the song has an atmospheric feel. This is an exploration into sonic landscapes with Allison’s bass being the only anchoring voice.

As Allison once said, the idea behind the name of his company Sonic Camera Records is to capture a snapshot in time of the music an artist is creating in the present. As with any searching artist, Allison is not content to remain comfortably in a pocket. His present offering Layers of the City is just one more snapshot into his artistic development both as a band leader and more importantly as a composer.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Denny Zeitlin and George Marsh take you on an Electro/Acoustic "Expedition"

Denny Zeitlin & George Marsh Expedition Duo Electro-Acoustic Improvisations
There is a wonderfully free-flowing spirit to the new Denny Zeitlin & George Marsh CD Expedition. The music percolates like water from a newly tapped spring. It has an organic slipstream feel to it that comes from these two brilliant musicians capturing themselves exploring totally “in the moment” improvisations. Script-less forays into the possibilities; Zeitlin’s electro-acoustic keyboard artistry paired with Marsh’s intuitively complimentary percussive accentuation.

As the pianist writes in his liner notes, he has been toying and exploring with electronic instrumentation, integrating it into jazz, classical, funk, rock and free-form since the late sixties. Although considered by many to be one of the finest jazz pianists of his generation, Zeitlin is no stranger to the world of the synthesizer and electronic sounds.  His pioneer work with the then state of the art Prophet analog synthesizer, can be heard on his music for the 1978 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, (the composer’s only film score) which incorporated his dramatic symphony orchestra score with electronic sounds.

Here is a taste of that evocatively eerie soundtrack:

After an over thirty-year hiatus, Zeitlin’s fascination with the instrumentation and the technological improvements that have been made in the equipment, piqued his curiosity again. His fascination with orchestral arrangements was driven by his desire to have control over the expansive palette of tones, colors and textures that an orchestra can provide, and was realized to some degree in his1978 film score. But what if with the new technology, one could more easily control all those tones, colors, textures and sounds, by yourself, from a set of keyboards, some hardware and a computer? Zeitlin did just that in 2013. With an upgrade of equipment, he recorded his solo electro/acoustic recording titled Both/And. Then in a nod to minimal collaboration, Zeitlin rejoined with drummer/percussionist George Marsh, an alumnus of his old trio days, and the two released Riding the Moment, a duo electro/acoustic recording in 2015. 

Expedition is a continuation of that collaboration. The two seem to have developed such an intuitive sense of where each other is going that they overcome the obstacle of having to perform this “spontaneous composition,” as Zeitlin calls it, from the isolation of two separate recording booths with no visual contact.

There is no description of this music that can do it justice. You should just sit back and listen to it unfold and see where it takes you. Some of the songs like “Shards of Blue” or the beautiful “One Song” have a form that you can recognize; the briefest of melodies that you can follow. But for the most part listening to Expedition is like immersing yourself into another dimensional experience. 

Zeitlin conjures a treasure trove of exotic sounds; sounds that elicit haunting Gregorian chant-like voices, alien harpsichords, robotic oscillations, tin-can vibraphones, space-born calliopes, Pan flutes, ogre-like bass lines, majestic pipe organs and muted plectral sounds. But as always, his starkly beautiful piano anchors the music to this world in a brilliantly humanistic way. Like two minds fused at the cerebral cortex, Marsh and Zeitlin seem to be able to intuit each other’s thoughts; Marsh gently prodding the pianist ever so slightly. The percussionist offering shimmering cymbals, softly brushed snares, roiling rolls and a general sense of rhythmic surety that propels this music.

The music at its very best evokes a sense of wonder and delight. It also has a spiritual side to it, especially when Zeitlin’s poignant piano comes into play, the sound of human spirit juxtaposed so touchingly against the mechanistic, electronic swirls that he creates around it. 

Click on the link below to hear one of the songs from the album titled “Geysers”