Sunday, January 28, 2018

Grammy nominated Jazzmeia Horn Lights Up the Stage at The Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta

Jazzmeia Horn A Social Call Prestige 
Last night at Atlanta’s Woodruff Art Center, the rising star and Grammy nominated vocalist Jazzmeia Horn lit up the stage of the four hundred plus seat Rich Auditorium. This performance was the second of a series of exciting concerts given under the banner of Emerging Jazz Icon Series. The series is a synergistic collaboration between the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA) and the Atlanta Jazz Festival (AJF) under the direction of Camille Russell Love, the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC) and Public Broadcasting Atlanta (PBA) home radio station WABE-FM.

In a recent telephone conversation with Ms. Love, she spoke of being approached by Woodruff CEO Doug Shipman about doing something together that could further promote jazz at the Woodruff. The collaboration of these two entities along with Atlanta's PBA made possible the booking of three concerts for this series that promotes new and emerging artists in jazz.

The first concert was held back in November 4, 2017 and featured the rising star vocalist Charnée Wade. Wade placed second in the prestigious Thelonious Monk vocal competition in 2010, losing only to vocal sensation Cécile McClorin Savant and edging out formidable new comer vocalist Cyrille Aimée.

Last night was the second concert in this series and what a concert it was. Ms. Horn is a photogenic image of a youthful, vivacious and proud Afro-American woman. She wore here hair in her now emblematic traditional African headwrap and print Dashiki-like gown of purple, maroon and gold. 

Kenny Bank Jr., Kevin Smith, Jazzmeia Horn, Henry Conerway III at the Woodruff 

Full disclosure here, I wrote very favorably about Ms. Horn’s debut album A Social Call, back in June on my blog and in the Huffington Post (a link to that article can be accessed by clicking here.) At the time I called her “An impressive new voice.” I named her album on my year end "Best of 2017" list as well as best debut for the year, so needless to say, I was pumped to be finally getting the opportunity to see this promising vocalist perform.

The concert, which was advertised to start at 8:00pm, didn’t actually commence until after 8:30pm. The light rain and a snafu with some patron’s tickets at the door perhaps contributing to this delay.  When Ms. Horn entered the stage, she was greeted with warm and inviting applause from a dapperly dressed, enthusiastic albeit demographically older audience. Her band was a top-notch group of Atlanta based musicians. The ever-ebullient pianist Kenny Banks Jr., the stalwart bassist Kevin Smith and the percussive traps artist Henry Conerway III. Having had multiple opportunities to see these guys perform at various venues around Atlanta, I was convinced that any one of these musicians were worth the price of admission. But it was Ms. Horn who we came to see, and she made sure she didn’t disappoint.

The show featured seven selections from her album A Social Call and started with the Betty Carter tune “Tight.” Ms. Horn has obviously been influenced by the idiosyncratic style of Ms. Carter and it was especially evident on the lead song. The angular delivery of the lyrics in this serpentine song was quite impressive. Even more impressive was the ‘tight” arrangement and execution by this band that probably had no more than an afternoon’s rehearsal with the singer before the show.  The only thing missing from this one was the elastic interplay between Ms. Horn and the tenor of Stacy Dillard on the album.

Ms. Horn and company continued with the Rodgers and Hart classic “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was,” which has been sung by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Sarah Vaughan. The singer has a tremendous voice with an impressive range that allows her to do acrobatic intervallic leaps and she did so on this one. Drummer Conerway gently brushed his traps and bassist Smith offered a booming and creative solo. Ms. Horn twisted her voice at one point creating an almost yodel-like effect that was reminiscent of Leon Thomas’s work.

The third selection of the evening was “Up Above My Head,” a song written by Dallas based choir director Myron Butler, is a gospel inspired song arranged here with a funky break. Ms. Horn’s voice sometimes reminds me of the great Nancy Wilson, especially when she emotes into the lyrics, but for whatever reason she often chooses to wordlessly scat rather than pursue the depths of a lyric.  There is no doubt that her voice is marvelously flexible, dexterously controlled and often pitch perfect, but for me she would be better served to embellish but not abandon the lyrics and be more judicious in her use of scat and vocalese. 

On her debut album, Ms. Horn wanted to A Social Call to entertain but also make a social statement. On the next selection, she introduced the Stylistics soul classic “People Make the World Go Round” with a politically charged excoriation of the powers that be; those that seem to allow the continued deterioration of the earth and would rather promote divisiveness over community and love. This is a tricky thing to do in front of a paying crowd of undoubtedly mixed political persuasions that came to be entertained and not be proselytized, but she has a marvelously likeable stage presence and the audience responded positively.

The highlight of the musical evening may have come when Ms. Horn and Mr. Banks did their own intimate version of Jimmy Rowles “The Peacocks.” This beautiful composition is difficult to pull off because it has such a quirky melodic line, but Horn has mastered this one to perfection. I thought the studio version with pianist Victor Gould was exceptionally well done, but Banks own idiosyncratic approach in accompanying her was delightful and inventive, and the duo had the crowd in the palm of their hands.

Kevin Smith and Jazzmeia Horn at the Woodruff
When the group returned to the stage, the jubilant bassist Kevin Smith, a stalwart around the Atlanta area, shinned with his facile bass introduction to “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” Horn again had a distinctively Betty Carter coo to her voice. There was a point in the song where she took on the role of another improvising instrument from stage right, bantering in vocalese with Banks Jr. In the jazz tradition this is normally a showdown of sorts, a two-instrument call and response, with the gymnastic Ms. Horn's vocal improvisations sometimes hard for the smiling Banks Jr. to counter to in kind.

The finale was a medley of the gospel “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (where Horn got the compliant crowd singing along with her) and the Art Blakey classic “Moanin’.”  Ms. Horn scatted at times like a saxophone and at times like a trumpet. Drummer Conerway was rock-solid throughout the evening. On this one he was given a chance to break out a little and indeed he did with a percussive explosion and some marvelous interplay between himself and Ms. Horn.

The concert was a resounding success and an elated Ms. Horn received a bouquet of flowers from Ms. Love at the end of the show, a parting gift from the City of Atlanta.  Ms. Horn will be off to the Grammy awards tonight in New York City where she will perform and, if there is any justice, receive the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal album for 2017.

The Woodruff Arts Center, Camille Russell Love and the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs and Public Broadcasting of Atlanta should all take a well-deserved bow for creating such a wonderful showcase for up and coming jazz artists. It is thoughtful, progressive programs like these that ensure that this only truly indigenous American art form will not only survive but flourish, and that there will be a place for these artists to perform.  

The Emerging Jazz Icon series at the Woodruff has one more concert planned, this one by the piano phenom Christian Sands, on Saturday April 7, 2018. This young firebrand has toured extensively as part of the Grammy nominated Christian McBride Trio. Be sure to secure your tickets in advance as this one will surely sell out.

Monday, January 22, 2018

John Raymond's Real Feels Trio: Connecting to a Youthful Pulse on "Joy Ride"

John Raymon and Real Feels Joy Ride Sunnyside Records  SSC 1501
With four years of collaboration and two previous albums under his belt, the trumpeter/flugelhornist John Raymond and his Real Feels trio presents their clearest vision statement yet as to the direction they want to bring their music . Joy Ride, due for release on Sunnyside records on February 9th, finds Raymond choosing to use the warmer, rounder tone of his flugelhorn exclusively on this outing.  It is that tonal choice and the fact that he wanted to write music that people could sing to that gives this album its aura of authenticity making it so compelling. With fellow bandmates guitar wizard Gilad Hekselman and trap master Colin Stranahan, Raymond weaves a gorgeous tapestry of songs that reflect a refreshing indie sensibility with a penchant for understated improvisational skill. The result is an album that is modern and electric.

The songs are a combination of five Raymond originals and five reimagined pop and traditional songs.  The trio has been touring the US and recently appeared in our area at Rudy’s Jazz Club in Nashville, TN and The Velvet Note in Alpharetta, GA to sold out crowds.

The title track and opener “Joy Ride,” is reminiscent of  the music of indie-jazz crossover artist bassist/composer Ben Allison and his collaborative guitarist Steve Cardenas’ work. If you listen to the Little Things That Run the World from 2008, where the trumpet/flugelhorn of Ron Horton was an integral part of the mix, Raymond’s music seems to have a similar sound and pulse. Whether he was moved by Allison’s trail-breaking ideas, or perhaps, like Allison,  the indie rock sensibilities of his youth led him to this place, he has used these influences as a launching point to form his own musical direction. Raymond’s bass-less trio instead relies on the dexterous Hekselman, to play both bass lines and guitar parts using his formidable skill and electronic looping. The music is dynamic and pulsing, sweeping you up in Raymond’s slippery, honey-toned flugelhorn sound that plays in direct counterpoint to the choppy grooves created by his rhythmic partners. Hekselman has a light touch and a deft command of the electronics. His playing has elements that remind me of the atmospherics of the late great John Abercrombie’s work.  

Raymond has an inherent intuition as to what pop songs will fit his musical conceptions. Take Paul Simon’s “I’d Do It for You Love,” which is played with a fractured cadenced drum line by Stranahan giving it a slightly quirky feel. Raymond’s tone is pure and warm when he plays the melody with little embellishment but with an abundance of inspiration and feeling. Hekselman’s clever use of bass lines to accompany his own guitar solo reminds me of the seven string guitar work of Charlie Hunter.  

Raymond’s composition “Follower” has a wandering, enigmatic melody where his burnished tone is most effective over a shuffling groove. Hekselman’s solo here is feathery, floating and something to savor.  Where the horn player and the guitarist leave plenty of space in their soloing, Stranahan dances on his traps with a syncopation that seems to deftly fill in the voids without ever becoming overpowering. As the song progresses the interplay becomes evident as the trio finds a slipstream, meshing in intuitive unity.

The trumpeter originally hails from Minneapolis, Minnesota and the next selection is a song that one of his North country influences, Wisconsin native Justin Vernon from the group Bon Iver, wrote titled “Minnesota, WI.” The song opens with some effervescent guitar loops from Hekselman, a sort of agitated but controlled chaos, with percussive accents and shimmering cymbals that lead up to the prog-rock melody line that lingers in your brain. Raymond ‘s clarion horn is like a plaintive call to sanity bursting through the fog. Hekselman rips on a very impressive electric guitar solo that swells with power and passion. The guitarist soars to the heavens as Stranahan plays with a heavy back beat. This one could well become a new classic in the world of creative improvisational music.

On the traditional hymn “Be Still My Heart,” we find the flugelhornist at his most poignant. His mellifluous tone transports you into a place of serenity and calm. The sparse composition, with roots in Americana, showcases Raymond’s confidence, maturity and growth as a solo player. Stranahan’s brushes are whisper soft and Hekselman’s guitar lines float in the air like wisps of vapor. The trio builds the tension to an excitable climax, with Henkleman’s filigreed guitar work, Stranahan’s fills and Raymond’s slurs creating an other-worldliness to the ending.

Raymond’s “Fortress” features an indie-rock vibe with its laid-back vamp and repeating flugelhorn refrain. The group uses a descending motif at the bridge to good effect before returning to the loping melody. Raymond is judicious when he solos. He prefers using long lingering lines over abrupt bursts of notes and smooth transitions rather than jagged breaks.

Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” is opened with a straight playing of the melody on horn before the ever surprising Hekselman creates an astonishing solo. This guy is the real deal. In one solo you can hear he has absorbed the electric stylings of Bill Frisell to the distinctive percussive picking of Beninesian player Lionel Loueke. Raymond overdubs himself, he and the trio play a repeating refrain as his overdubbed solo horn rises above with authority.

The road song “En Route” is another Raymond original. Hekselman finger picks the sauntering feel good melody. The guitarist provides a country-flavored electric solo as Stranahan expertly plays his brushes.  Raymond’s horn solo is fluid and spritely. Listen to these guys play in unison at the end with such easy familiarity.

The album continues on its folk and hymnal path with the dirge-like version of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”  The 1964 protest song, is particularly relevant in today’s fractured world where common ground seems to be a chimera. Hekselman’s guitar is delicate and retains a country-inspired twang while at the same time adding sliding glissandos to the mix. There is a respect to the sentiment of the song heard loud and clear through Raymond’s nakedly sincere playing here. Dylan should be delighted by this skillful treatment of his folk masterpiece.

The closer for this excellent album is the Raymond composition simply titled “Hymn.” The unfeigned reverence with which Raymond plays, accompanied only by Hekselman’s scant guitar lines, reveals a deeply spiritual side to this musician. His music is uplifting and brimming with a sense of hope that is sorely needed in these trying times of divisiveness.

Joy Ride is indeed just that a joyous ride.We can only hope that Raymond and company will continue to mine more gems from contemporary music, play them with such informed and polished aplomb and in doing so connect to the pulse of a more youthful audience who wants the music of their generation being more thoughtfully portrayed. 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

A Voice to be Savored on Sinne Eeg's "Dreams"

Sinne Eeg Dreams  Artist Share AS0153
At forty years of age, the Danish singer Sinne Eeg is among that rare breed vocalists that can take anything they sing and make it their own. She has a voice to be savored. A force to be reckoned with in her native Scandinavia, her work is little known here in the US. The most recent recording Dreams is just her second release here despite nine outings as a leader. What immediately grabs you about her voice is the natural effortlessness with which she sings. Eeg has a warm supple tone, a wide range, exquisite control and an inherent sense of swing and phrasing that is impeccable. She cites Betty Carter, Nancy Wilson and Sarah Vaughn as influences, and one can certainly find some traces of their styles in her voice, but make no mistake, she is clearly on her own path and it is a refreshing one at that.

Her first US release was a duo album Eeg-Fonnesbaek from 2015 that she did with accomplished Danish double-bassist Thomas Fonnesbaek. The album’s darkly sparse treatment of some of the classics from the Great American Songbook, with Eeg’s gloriously fluid and tonally transcendent voice playing off Fonnesbaek’s warm, bellowing bass was deservedly well received.

Dreams, which just came out in December, took a different tact. It was recorded in Brooklyn, NY in January of 2017. It utilizes the multiple voices of  a very talented backing quartet.  The musicians are some of jazz’s crème de la crème, with the stellar rhythm section of bassist Scott Colley and drummer Joey Baron, the always tasty Larry Koonse on guitar and her longtime collaborator fellow Dane, Jacob Christoffersen holding down the piano chair. If Eeg was hoping to expand her audience on this side of the pond or for that matter around the world, then Dreams should certainly go a long way to achieving that goal.

Of the ten featured songs on the album, two are by Cole Porter, one by Rodgers and Hart and one by Gene De Paul, the remaining six are all Eeg originals and quite compelling.  The opener “The Bitter End” is a slow-cooked, funky blues that features Colley’s bass and Christoffersen’s piano, with Eeg’s expressive voice shining through with authenticity and feeling.

The perky “Head Over High Heels,” written by Eeg and Mads Mathias, has a musical theater, dance-like quality to it.  Eeg’s considerable scat abilities are on display as she and Colley parry in a complementary dialogue that is both slippery and simpatico.

Eeg’s “Love Song” is a torchy ballad that is gorgeously sung with a melancholic expressiveness and also features a gossamer guitar solo by Larry Koonse.

Listening to Eeg and drummer Joey Baron on the imaginative intro to the well-worn Porter standard “What is This Thing Called Love,” is to hear the song with new ears. The walking bass of Colley and the swinging piano of Christoffersen enter the fray with just enough juice to re-energize this classic. Baron’s traps are buoyant and Eeg’s vocals are facile and flawless.

On Richard Rodgers “Falling in Love with Love,” the singer, bassist and guitarist play like a well-oiled trio of seasoned instrumentalists.  Eeg’s vocal scatting is glass-like, so integrated with the music as to be seamless- sliding in and out of the group interplay with ease- you almost forget she’s singing until she returns to the lyrics. Koonse picks another masterful solo.

On the title song “Dreams,” Eeg goes totally wordless, instead using impressionistic vocalization. The song has a nebulous feel to it and Christoffersen’s piano has a  Jarrett influence to it, lightly skipping over the melody, with the rhythm section gently pushing the music along.

As if being such an accomplished vocalist isn’t enough, Eeg’s “Aleppo,” a song she wrote inspired by seeing images of the child victim who was tragically washed up on the seashore while trying to flee the Syrian conflict, is a moving political statement and a testament to this woman’s compositional skills. The evocative music is reverently somber, and her lyrics are sung with an emotional pathos that is quite moving. She proves herself to be a formidable story-teller, a forgotten talent few modern singers seem to have cultivated.  The slow beating bass line, the muted strings on Koonse’s guitar and the delicately sparse Christoffersen piano accompaniment are perfect complements to Eeg’s sincere plaintive verse. “At least we cry for the victims of war and let those children cry no more.”

There is a contemporary pop feel to Eeg’s “Time to Go,” probably my least favorite song on the album.

The arrangement of Gene De Paul’s “I’ll Remember April” is satiny and sleek. Eeg’s voice modulates with a calm assurance, like the steely nerve of an accomplished tightrope walker who works without a net. Her intonations are clear, unstrained and sinewy. Eeg has an abundance of “chops” but what is thoroughly refreshing is her astute awareness of when and how to use them. There is never even a hint of over the top showmanship that seems to be de rigueur with today’s female divas who revel is showing off their range or raspiness. Instead we find nuance, spacing and silky smooth transitions.

The finale is a sparse upbeat duo version of Porter’s “Anything Goes” featuring Sinne’s lilting voice and her accomplished pianist Christoffersen. The two musically dance with each other and around the melody in a comfortable rendering that accentuates the Porter wit.

If Dreams doesn’t make this Danish wonder woman, Sinne Eeg, into a familiar name in the world of jazz music than people are simply not listening.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Bassist Mark Wade & Trio : "Moving Day"

The bassist Mark Wade is a new name to me, but after hearing the warm booming sound of his bass on his sophomore album Moving Day, be assured I will follow his career more closely. In a world that has so many accomplished musicians it is often difficult to separate yourself from your peers. To have a voice that is all your own is important, but just as important is that indefinable quality that allows you to magically make a connection with your audience. Wade seems to have found that happy medium. He is an orchestral as well as a jazz player and teaches at the Jazz Studies program at Leigh University. His debut album Event Horizon from 2015 was well received.

On Moving Day Mark’s rich, burnished bass is complimented by his sensitive trio mates Tim Harrison on piano and Scott Neumann on drums. Together these three present seven of Wade’s compositions and two reimagined standards that simply delight and satisfy. By his own admission this album is less abstract and more personal than his last, drawing from his experiences.

The opening and title track “Moving Day” starts with a repeating piano motif over which Wade plays a moving melody. The composition captures the anxiety and anticipation of moving to a new place. Harrison’s piano has a light airy feel, dancing with hope, and Neumann’s splashing cymbals and rolling toms capture the organized chaos of moving. Wade’s fleet bass solo is agitated and full of excitement, but with an underlying sense of future promise. His articulation is so strong, clear and uplifting that even at its most boisterous you are carried away with its authenticity of feeling.

“Wide Open,” another Wade composition that utilizes a repeating motif, is a driving song that features odd meters, shifting rhythmic patterns and ascending piano lines. Harrison’s piano meanders over the changing time all the while building to an apex. Wade’s bass is featured on a percolating solo, while accentuated by the rolling tom and dashing cymbal work of Neumann, before once again ascending to the coda and a repeat of the original motif.

You can hear a bit of Wade’s classical leanings on “The Bells,” an interestingly impressionistic piece that integrates a melody fragment from Debussy’s “La Mer” (The Sea). Wade weaves the fragment into his own jazz rhythm with starts and stops that have their own internal dynamic. Opening with a declaratory piano intro, it then morphs into a more sauntering composition, with an ebullient walking bass line by Wade. Suddenly the tempo shifts and it’s like we enter a zone, an aural seascape made up of piano, bowed bass and cymbals with its own organic feel. The music becomes declarative, as Wade takes a deeply introspective and free sounding solo of placid serenity, before the group switches back again to a more defined tempo. Harrison’s piano is relentless, like a sea surge in his repeated motif at the close.

Where Wade seems to shine is his reimagining of songs from the canon. On his “Another Night in Tunisia,” a play on Dizzy Gillespie’s famous composition, he and his trio are not content to swing it in straight four time, but wind up finding ways to cut it up with multiple variations that often involve changing tempos that they execute flawlessly.

Wade puts a similarly interesting twist to the standard “Autumn Leaves,” which he cleverly juxtaposes with Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage" to great effect. The bassist effectively bends and slides his strings creating controlled deep glissandos of sound that are quite impressive. Harrison’s piano has a crystalline shimmer to it.

Wade’s other compositions include a ballad about the promise and excitement of budding love affair “Something of a Romance;” the evocative “Midnight in the Cathedral,” a musical, third stream stroll through a Cathedral at night where we are given a chance to listen to Wade’s concept of the universality of music from the medieval to the modern; and the lively New Orlean’s inspired march “The Quarter,” with its bouncy drum cadence by Neumann and Wade’s buoyant bass lines.

The closing composition is titled “The Fading Rays of Sunlight” and is the perfect way to end this impressive and enjoyable album. Wade and Harrison play an ascending melody line like the last shimmering rays of a setting sun, luminous and warm. Neumann offers a steady but subdued rhythmic sway as Harrison plays an uplifting solo that finds him at his most lyrical. Wade’s final bass solo is nimble, joyous and brimming with possibilities. It’s as if the fading rays of today’s sunset give promise to   tomorrows’ anticipated sun rise. The light dims, and the colors deepen in tone and majesty, but the promise of a return is implicit. The group ends in a triumvirate of satisfied calm.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Multi-Instrumentalist John Surman's "Invisible Threads"

John Surman's Invisible Threads  ECM 
The multi-instrumentalist John Surman has been on my radar since I first heard his resolute baritone and lilting soprano saxophone work on John McLaughlin’s superb album Extrapolation from 1969. At the time I made note of his playing which could be fiercely aggressive, dartingly ephemeral or wrenchingly poignant. His baritone work on "It's Funny" from that album is just a tour de force of expression. He was clearly someone to follow. 

Over the years I enjoyed his expressive forays into ambient soundscapes, progressive jazz and abstract minimalism on such albums as his The Amazing Adventures of Simon Simon with the drummer Jack DeJohnette from 1981, or his work with the late great guitarist John Abercrombie, the bassist Marc Johnson and the drummer Peter Erskine from the 1992 album November. 

His unique command of baritone and soprano saxophones, synthesizers and the difficult to master bass clarinet made him an in-demand player across the European continent.  The Englishman from county Devon eventually found a home in Norway where he now resides, but no matter how eclectic his work became he never lost his sound, a sound that at its core is based on English and Celtic folk music. He has recorded over forty albums as a leader and been on over a hundred recordings as a sideman. No matter how abstract the music or how unusual the setting,  listening to John Surman play is like taking a stroll through the English countryside.

His latest album Invisible Threads on ECM, is scheduled to be released in January 19th. The master multi-instrumentalist offers a suite of music on twelve original compositions, all but one composed by Surman. On this drumless, bassless trio, Surman is joined by the Brazilian pianist Nelson Ayres, who he was first introduced to by the drummer Jack DeJohnette, and the classically trained percussionist, vibraphonist and marimba player Rob Waring, who is New York born and now an associate professor at Oslo Academy of Music.

The pastoral quality of Surman’s music is evident from the first feathery notes of his soprano saxophone on the opener “At First Sight.” Ayres and Waring compliment his musings with deft and nuanced accompaniment.  

“Autumn Nocturne” is at first a slow dirge-like composition that starts with a solo piano intro by Wares before Waring’s tubular vibraphone enters. When Surman’s soprano is heard, the composition turns lighter, more uplifting with a Tango-like rhythm that the three musicians skillful weave patterns through like a troupe of accomplished dance partners.

The impressionistic “Within the Clouds” is a delightful display of the remarkable control, imagination and fluidity of John Surman on the bass clarinet. Clearly in a class by himself on this instrument, he conjures up images of weightless suspension using the deep throated woody sound of this marvelous instrument. The delicate piano vibes accompaniment is reminiscent of the work of Gary Burton and Chick Corea on their seminal work “Crystal Silence.” Just take a moment to immerse yourself in the beauty of the sounds these three create. It’s is like a musical meditation.

“Bynweed” is another pretty ballad of Surman’s and a clear example of his tendency to find folk-like melodies and expand on them. Ayres piano is delicate and willowy, Waring’s vibes have a clarity and tone that resonates like tubular bells. Surman’s sinewy soprano comes in late and immediately brings to mind a scene of horseback riding through an English pasture.

Surman’s evocative bass clarinet returns on the haunting “On Still Waters.”  His ability to let the deep woody tone of his instrument hover in the air like a dense morning fog on a still lake is remarkable. Ayres and Waring play in step with him adding a light, mist-like envelope for him to play in. The three have an amazing ability to create atmospheric surroundings that transport you to the place they are describing musically.

The remaining repertoire includes the beautiful “Another Reflection” with Surman on soprano; “The Admiral,” an Olde English seafaring tale with Surman on his bellowing baritone saxophone and Waring on his distinctive marimba. Ayres plays the processional melody majestically maintaining the pace and melody throughout as Waring and Surman harmonize around the nautical theme.

“Pitanga Pitomba” is a reference to two fruit trees found native to Brazil. Waring’s mellow marimba gives this one a distinctively playful feel and Wares piano opens more expansively and his interplay with the saxophonist is special. Surman chooses his soprano on this composition playing in a most light-hearted manner. His performance is Pan-like; a joyful dance through a magical forest.
On pianist Ayres’ composition “Summer Song,” we get another fanciful foray into the joys of a season, this one celebrating Summer. The group interplay is at its most unified here as the three musicians waltz around in empathetic simpatico.

The descriptive “Concentric Circles” is a study in converting geometry into music. The trio swirl their individual voices creating eddy currents of repeating motion. Surman’s baritone repeats circular patterns as Waring and Ayres delicately weave their two percussive instruments into complimentary vortices of sounds. The three create a whirlwind of circular motion that is somehow harmonically complimentary.

“Stoke Dameral” is a parish in the county of Devon, England and for Surman is a reference to home. The baritone’s lustrous sound that Surman produces here is so uplifting for such a deep registered instrument. He plays the lumbering instrument with such delicacy and lightness that it is hard to believe it is a baritone at times.

I’ve always loved the deep gutsy sound of a baritone saxophone, it is often used as a lower register adjunct to other instruments that play the melody. In John Surman’s hands, we hear an instrument released from its traditional role and expanded into a truly marvelous vehicle for expression. His playing on the closer “Invisible Threads,” is a wonderful opportunity for him to showcase his sensitive facility on the instrument and he simply caresses you with his warm, expressively throaty tone. There is a raw gentleness to his playing that is quite impressive. Ayres and Waring  both play with a deliberate delicateness and refined nuance that is delightful.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Jazz Saxophone at it's best, Walter Smith III "TWIO"

Walter Smith III TWIO Whirlwind Records 

Houston born Walter Smith III is now a West Coast based, no nonsense tenor saxophonist who is amongst the leading voices on his instrument. I have been following his work since I first heard him on his Live in Paris from 2009 and later on Ambrose Akinmusire’s When the Heart Emerges Glistening from 2011. At the time he was a strong ensemble player who worked particularly well with trumpet players like Terrence Blanchard, Christian Scott, Sean Jones and Ambrose Akinmusire on a front line.

On his latest effort Twio (think of Elmer Fudd saying trio), soon to be released on February 9, 2018, his playing as a leader has matured and become more confident. He is joined on six of the nine songs on the album, by the plucky bass of Harish Raghavan and the percolating drums of Eric Harland. For the other four songs Harland remains on traps while the bass chair is taken over by the ubiquitous jazz ambassador and uber-bassist Christian McBride. On two of the songs Smith is joined by the second tenor saxophone of Joshua Redman. As the saxophonist has said in his promo materials, the songs were chosen to be more accessible and are about community and having fun. It seems with Twio he has accomplished what he set out to do.

The set starts off with a loping version of Monk’s “Ask Me Now.”  Smith’s bold tenor sound starts off with Raghavan’s brash bass out front and deliberate in its steadfast march as Harland playfully, dances around the rhythm. It’s Smith’s smooth, lustrous tone that is front and center here, as he works the melody with a marvelous sense of confident mastery. His explorations, especially when he solos alone, naked with his horn with no background rhythm section for support, are marvelously free and inventive.

On the Jerome Kern standard “Nobody Else But Me” we hear some intuitive interplay between Raghavan and Smith as the freewheeling Harland mixes it up. Smith’s sax has a loose limber feel to it both within the melody line and when he delves into some quicker paced harmonic explorations, yet he always seems to maintain the core melodic line of the song when he is playing. He has a knack of keeping the listener always engaged even when he improvises.

The cowboy inspired “On the Trail” finds bassist McBride, his big round bass and his signature stutter step, double-time lines leading the drive.  Harland is more in the pocket on this song and we are treated to the dual tenor saxophone line of Smith and Joshua Redman. The song brings back memories of Sonny Rollins venture into cowboy songs with his Way Out West album. While neither saxophonist has quite the same big, biting sound of Rollins, they each have their own identifiable sound and play off the other with great dexterity and purpose. After alternating the melody between them, the two saxophonists offer their own take on the melody before trading licks in a friendly exchange of ideas;  a fine addition to the tradition of tenor saxophone sparring matches by the two young titans.

The C. Fischer ballad “We’ll Be Together Again” is played as a saxophone and drum duo. We hear an unusual metronomic drum entrance by Harland that has the cadence of a slow strip. Smith’s round Dexter Gordon-like tenor rings through the melody with a mellifluous warmth that is quite sensuous as Harland adds percussive accents around the slow tempo beat.

McBride and Harland return for the Sammy Fain classic “I’ll Be Seeing You.”  Smith’s languorous saxophone states the melody solo before McBride’s buoyant bass and Harland’s traps enter. At about the two minutes mark the group picks up the pace and turns it into a medium tempo swinger with McBride’s bass leading the charge. A fleet fingered bass solo gets you snapping your fingers before Smith returns and restates the melody with a nuanced sensitivity that is compelling.

On Wayne Shorter’s “Adam’s Apple” bassist Raghavan returns providing a throbbing backdrop. The trio takes on a more modern feel, with Smith winding his sinewy way through the composition and finding some common ground with Harland who is given an extended solo that crackles with energy.

Perhaps the most moving performance on this album is Smith’s poignant portrayal on Jimmy Rowles “The Peacocks.”  Smith correctly chooses a slow, languorous approach to this brooding song. His saxophone is beautifully nuanced and emotive as Raghavan’s bass down holds the bottom and Harland’s active traps swirl and shimmer beneath. The song has been in the repertoire of many a jazz great because of its haunting melody and it’s potential as a vehicle for expression. Here the thirty-seven-year old Smith makes it his own with a quiet confidence that is mature beyond his age.

Another perennial favorite is Gigi Gryce’s “Social Call” which starts off with Smith simply stating the melody line and playing a jaunty duet with a walking bass of McBride. Smith’s unadorned saxophone is a joy of fluidity and clarity and with McBride’s musical bass the two make wonderful music on this amusing Gryce classic.

The finale reunites the two saxophone voices of Redman and Smith in a unison chorus of Smith’s original composition “Contrafact,” a song based on "Like Someone in Love" in five meter. The two weave each other’s voices into an aural tapestry that is both willowy and colorful. McBride and Harland create a rumbling underbody over which the two saxophonists take turns finding common harmonic ground. It offers the listener a chance to compare the two saxophonists’ approach to improvising, which except for tone and attack have more similarities than differences. McBride offers a dazzling display of dexterity on his short but potent solo before the two saxophonists return to unison playing that is quite impressive in its precision.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Drumming phenom Dafnis Prieto scores big band gold with his "Back to Sunset"

Dafnis Prieto Big Band Back to the Sunset

There is something very stirring about a big band playing Afro-Cuban jazz. The music has a rhythmic core that is the armature upon which the horn and reed arrangements just swirl. Cuban born drummer Dafnis Prieto has been on his own personal musical adventure, utilizing his formidable rhythmic skills to create a unique vision for his Afro-Cuban inspired jazz. Since arriving from Cuba back in 1999, Prieto has brought an energy and flare to the music that is all his own. In 2011 his gift for being able to incorporate multi-rhythmic variations into his music was recognized by his receipt of the prestigious MacArthur ‘genius” grant. The drummer has taken his music a step further, writing and arranging a suite of big band charts that both pays homage to those who have inspired him while also blazing a trail forward into explosive new ground. The sound he creates is both imaginative and a primer of what we can expect further from this percussive hurricane.

Back to the Sunset is the culmination of his most recent energies. It features a suite of nine compositions played by the Dafnis Prieto Big Band and featuring some special guest soloists. Anchored and directed by a distinctly Latin rhythm section, the band includes Prieto on drums, fellow Cuban pianist extraordinaire Manuel Valera, the Puerto Rican bassist Rickey Rodríguez and the Venezuelan percussionist Robert Quintero on congas and percussion. There is an all American trombone section of Tim Albright, Alan Ferber, Jacob Garchik and Jeff Nelson; a trumpet section of Americans Michael Rodríguez, Nathan Eklund and Josh Deutsch and Russian born Alex Sipiagin and a reed section containing fellow Cuban Román Filíu, and Americans Michael Thomas, Peter Apfelbaum, Joel Frahm and Chris Cheek. This is one talented group and under Prieto's direction and drive they make magic.

The album’s lead off is “Una Vez Más,” a song dedicated to Latin giants of jazz Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente along with the Latin influenced trumpeter Brian Lynch. Lynch is featured on some shimmering, high register trumpet work here. The brass and reeds all work in sync with the infectious clave rhythm to transport you to the sunny realm of the southern hemisphere. Valera’s takes a solo that dances over Quintero and Prieto’s percussive explosion.

“The Sooner the Better” is a song dedicated to the Fort Apache bandleader Jerry González and Brazilian composer Edgberto Gismondi, and is a dense composition. The song begins with a pedal point by Valera and some fleet fingered bass work by Rodriguez. The fluttering woodwinds come dancing in as the brass bellow beneath. The repeating melody line is joined in rotation by each section until they merge in resplendent unison. Prieto has an ear for drama, building tension with soaring solos and releasing it masterfully, engaging the listener all the while keeping a tempestuous storm of rhythm roiling beneath. There are layers of color and texture here that paint a complex and masterful aural picture. Fluttering flute lines, boisterous baritone bleats lead up to a stirring and powerful tenor solo by Peter Apfelbaum. Alex Sipiagin introduces a fluid flugelhorn solo that hangs in the air like a bilious cloud. Altoist Filiu blasts out one last solo that filigrees around the repeating melody line to the coda. 

“Out of the Bone,” a song dedicated to pianist Michel Camilo and altoist and M base founder Steve Coleman, starts with a brooding baritone solo from Chris Cheek before the group goes into the Latin vibe. Prieto’s masterful drum rolls and syncopated lines along with Quintero’s active congas boil below the surface giving the band a base upon which to form layers of sound. A bass trombone solo by Jeff Nelson roars as the trumpet section squeals in the background.   A trombone duel between Garchik and Ferber is another highlight. There is a celebratory, festive Mexican hat dance feel to this one at the end that keeps you on your toes.

The iconoclastic alto saxophonist/composer Henry Threadgill is another of Prieto’s influences and here the drummer dedicates this lushly arranged composition “Back to the Sunset” to both Threadgill and to the pianist Andrew Hill. Hearing Threadgill’s probing, raspy alto in counterpoint to Prieto’s lyrical arrangement is quite a juxtaposition. The altoist’s jagged bursts of sound at first pierce Prieto’s lush arrangement like an intruding knife cutting through a delicate silk tapestry. But Threadgill’s alto finds a seam in the music, a line of raw beauty to explore, a vein that he discovers running through. To his credit he  mines it playing  poignantly and with great feeling.  The result is remarkable.

Perhaps one the most interesting arrangements on the album is entitled “Danzonish Potporrui,“dedicated to the pianist Bebo Valdes, the iconic jazz drummer Art Blakey and the Latin inspired Canadian soprano saxophonist Jane Bunnett. Prieto starts off with a flurry of percussive inventiveness before the band settles into a Latin driven vamp. Prieto is a master of changing rhythmic time between sections. He skillfully plays the brass off against the woodwinds in a display of arranging prowess. He introduces a beautifully Iberian sounding trumpet solo by Josh Deutsch and after a throbbing bass solo by Rodriguez, the band increases the tempo again; this time featuring a lilting soprano voice (presumably a nod to Bunnett) by Michael Thomas. An uplifting Valera piano interlude (presumably in deference to Valdes) is surrounded by fluttering flutes and brass. Prieto keeps an array of impeccable time changes that would put a smile on Blakey's face. The finale has the band building an ever increasing tension as  a bandoneon sounding, melodica solo by Peter Apfelbaum, lends a Tango-like feel to the mood of the closing section of this complex piece.

“Song for Chico” is a dedication to bandleaders Chico O’Farrill, his son Arturo O’Farrill and Mario Bauzá and has a big band sound that resonates with its Afro-Cuban drive. The powerful band plays the lines with unusual force and drive. The saxophonist Steve Coleman’s alto is the featured soloist on this one and his penetrating tone lends a distinctively modern, non-Latin element to the piece. The band alternates lines with Coleman in a dramatic call and response. He is followed by an edgy trumpet solo by Nathan Eklund that pierces the envelope. Prieto and Quintero trade percussive barbs in a wild syncopated interlude as the band raise their voices individually in sequence to lead into another Coleman alto saxophone solo at the coda.

Dafnis Prieto Big Band photo credit David Garten
“Prelude Para Rosa” features Valera at his most creative and independent. The band pulses behind building up to an apex of interest with dancing piccolo, blaring trombones and burnished brass before they settle into a breezy sway and offer the piquant melody. A piccolo solo by Michael Thomas floats above the music like a hummingbird in flight. A lilting soprano solo by Joel Frahm has a similarly weightless feel. Listen to the pulsing drive that Prieto writes for the different sections; all separate tasks but interwoven in a unified tapestry of sound.

“Two for One” is dedicated to the drum master Buddy Rich, the pianist Chucho Valdes and the percussionist Hermeto Pascal. The song features Quintero’s driving congas, Chris Cheek’s boisterous baritone and Nathan Eklund’s trumpet. The band pulses like a throbbing heart with Prieto pumping just the right amount of percussive adrenaline to keep it up to the task. A sinewy alto saxophone solo by Thomas is followed by an inventive piano solo by Valera.  Toward the end Prieto demonstrates some of his polyrhythmic skills in the manner of a Buddy Rich-like solo that would have made the master proud..

“The Triumphant Journey” is dedicated two contemporaries that brought Afro-Cuban Music into this country, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and the percussionist/singer/composer Chano Poza. A soaring trumpet solo by Mike Rodriguez and a tenor solo by Frahm with references to Gillespie’s ” A Night In Tunisa” are followed by a trombone solo by Tim Albright. Forceful arrangement of the
band over Filiu’s alto solo and roiling drums by the master Prieto concludes this adventurous album.

Monday, January 1, 2018

New Faces Starts the Year off with "Straight Forward"

New Faces; Straight Ahead  PT8176
The independent label Posi Tone Records has the mantra “…to provide the highest quality recordings of the most relevant musicians on today’s jazz scene.” Co-owners producer Marc Free and engineer Nick O’Toole have been doing just that since 1994.  It seems 2018 will be no different. Free assembled his New Faces group from musician members of the Posi Tone stable of artists and produced a very satisfying new album aptly titled Straight Forward which will be released on January 12, 2018.

It’s a group of like-minded, young musicians who, based on this successful outing, have a long future together if they want it.  The group includes Josh Lawrence’s trumpet, Roxy Coss’ saxophone, the gossamer touch of vibraphonist Behn Gillece and the young pianist Theo Hill with the rhythm section of Peter Brendler on bass and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums.

The group offers a tight, well executed set of music; compositions  that were culled partially from the Posi-Tone archives, but also includes two original compositions by trumpeter Lawrence and three by vibraphonist Gillece. There is one Herbie Hancock composition, “King Cobra,” that is particularly representative of the 50’s and 60’s Blue Note era, a recording model that Posi-Tone has clearly fashioned their own musical aspirations after.

The set starts out with a Jon Davis swinger titled “Happy Juice.”  Right away you perceive a chorus of instruments-trumpet, piano, saxophone and vibes-that have acquired the ability to meld their individual voices into a complimentary, unified sound that delights the ears. Trumpeter Lawrence has a clear easy flow to his playing. Coss’s saxophone tone is mellow and lustrous.Pianist Hill is rock steady throughout, but it is Gillece’s tubular vibe sound that subtly dominates here, driving the tune forward as the rhythm section of Brendler and Sperrazza provide the rhythmic base.

What I like about this group is that they relish ensemble playing over lengthy individual solos. The haunting “Delilah Was A libra” is opened with a penetrating lead in by Gillece. Hill and Coss offer two short but poignant solos before Lawrence enters with a brief but potent trumpet statement. It’s the group speak that you come away admiring here.

On Brian Charette’s jaunty “West Village” the front line states the melody in unison, before Josh Lawrence’s muted trumpet solo raises the heat. A brief but imaginative solo by Coss leads to Gillece’s darting vibes play. The notes seem to take flight off his mallets like wood nymphs alit in a forest. This song was originally played by an organ trio, but here the group utilizes the additional instrumentation to great effect as Brendler and Sperrazza drive the beat.

The Herbie Hancock classic, “King Cobra,” is played by a tight front line stating the serpentine melody in unison, with a sound reminiscent of the old Blue Note magic. Pianist Hill’s repeated chord lines sets the time throughout.  Saxophonist Coss’s tone is buttery soft, uncluttered and warm and Hill plays nicely off her changes of direction.  Lawrence’s trumpet solo is well paced and understated. The music captures much of the electricity of the original recording.

The album continues with bright “I’m Here” which offers solos by Lawrence, Hill, Coss and Gillece respectively. The first of Gilcee’s three compositions on the album is up next with “Down the Pike,” a medium tempo swinger that offers some clever changes. Josh Lawrence’s’ driving blues, “Hush Puppy” keeps the proceedings moving with some Tyner-esque-like playing by Hill and a pulsing beat by Brendler. Lawrence’s muted trumpet, Coss’s mellow horn and Gillece’s vibes all add to the mix as Sperazza dazzles on traps.

Perhaps my favorite cut on the album is “Vortex,” a circular composition that features some of Coss’s most evocatively sensitive playing and spurs the vibraphonist/composer Gillece into some of his most exploratory adventures on the album. This one is bound to become a classic.

The music continues with trumpeter Lawrence offering a Latin inspired composition titled “Fredreico.” Sperrazza and Brendler hold down the Latin groove admirably.

“Follow Suit” is another Gillece composition that was clearly influenced by those sterling Blue Note years. The vibraphonist double-times his playing here as Brendler and Sperrazza maintain the torrid pace.  Lawrence and Coss both offer fiery solos and Hill’s piano solo is frenetic.

 The set closes with the easy, feel-good gospel-influenced Jared Gold composition “Preaching.”  

Not sure if New Faces was intended as a one off to start the year, but with such an auspicious first album, perhaps New Faces is destined to become a regular Posi Tone featured group.

You can sample some of this album by clicking here