Saturday, June 23, 2018

Jamie Baum's "Bridges" Spans the gap between Multiple Musical Traditions

Jamie Baum's Septet + Bridges : Sunnyside SSC-1502
The New York based flautist Jamie Baum has made a name for herself as both an accomplished musician and a formidable composer/arranger. Her composing for mid-sized groups is some of the finest and most creative on the contemorry music scene. I've been a fan of her music since I first heard her brilliant 2008 record Solace

Despite some changes in personnel over the years, with her Septet+,she has always managed to assemble and lead a group of talented, like-minded musicians that each bring something special to her musical table. With Baum's music, she downplays her own individual viruosity, never seeming to have the inclination to feature herself in her work, content instead to let the whole of her musical compositions speak as a unified vision. 

On her latest album, aptly titled Bridges, she has released an album of nine original compositions that feature the unique musical skills of her seven bandmates. The music is a the result of a Guggenheim fellowship that allows artists such as Baum the time and resources to create. The instrumentation is itself a bit unusual- flute, trumpet, saxophone and bass clarinet, French horn, electric guitar, piano, upright bass, drums and even a Tibetan singing bowl. Special guests bring additional percussion, voice and tanpura to the mix.

The album is a adroit mixture, with elements of Middle-Eastern or Maqam, Jewish, Indian and Nepalese, Southeast Asian, rock, chamber music and jazz. 

Starting out with the driving “From the Well” the group shows how well this instrumentation can tackle this complicated frenzied beat. The music accelerates like a darting roadrunner across the desert sand until Baum’s flute emerges. Her lines flow like bubbling spring water from an oasis. Sam Sidigursky’s bass clarinet offers a sinewy, snake charmer-like solo before Amir ElSaffar’s clarion trumpet rings over the horizon like a cry to action.

Baum employs ElSaffar’s distinct voice to sing her poignant “Song Without Words,” which is a dedication to her late father. ElSaffar’s voice drips with emotional content. Sidigursky’s bass clarinet solo is a masterwork of expressiveness. Baum’s own solo is soft and feathery, floating on the wings of her fond memories. Baum uses Comer’s distinctive French horn, an instrument not normally heard in jazz, to great effect here.

“There Are No Words” starts with a pedal point by pianist Escreet over which Baum and Sagdigursky play a weaving synchronous line. Bassist Zach Lober offers a deep toned solo, which leads into a Baum solo that features a subtle echo effect giving it a windswept sound. Pianist John Escreet has been on my radar for some time.  His facile keyboard work is harmonically complex, always unusual and played with the utmost sensitivity.

The album then proceeds into a five-part suite that Honors Nepal and commemorates the catastrophic Gorkha earthquake that occurred in April of 2015. The natural disaster took nearly nine thousand lives and injured another twenty-two thousand.

The suite starts with Part 1 “The Earthquake” with the peaceful drone of a Tibetan singing bell which permeates the air before a somber, almost funereal horn movement gently plays over it. Then all hell breaks loose. Brad Shepik’s distorted guitar wizardry recreates the havoc of the quake in all its electric kineticism as Jeff Hirshfield’s roiling drums boil underneath. The sounds are disturbing but recreate the chaos and trauma of the event.

Part 2 of the suite, entitled “Renewal,” is appropriately uplifting. The music is played brilliantly by Sadigursky on alto and Baum on flute with Escreet’s flittering piano work, all conjuring up images of Phoenix-like new growth making its purposeful way into the sunshine and through destruction of the aftermath of the earthquake.

Part 3 “Contemplation” is a gorgeous chamber piece with sounds of French Horn, Bass Clarinet and trumpet all intertwining with booming bass lines, subtle brush strokes and carefully placed piano notes to create a tapestry of sound. Escreet’s piano solo is superb in both its flawless execution and aural beauty.

“Joyful Lament” is perhaps the most memorable of the songs on the album. It is based on a melody by the Pakistani vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahan called “Lament.” Baum admits to having arranged the composition with guitarist Brad Shepik in mind and he does not disappoint. The band plays on as Shepik builds his own searing guitar lines into an ascension of sorts, taking his solo into the heavens with his own blend of rock-inspired shredding. This is an easy candidate for most inspired instrumental solo of the year.

“Mantra” is a drone-like creation that finds Baum’s echoed flute in interplay with Navin Chettri’s haunting  voice and twanging tanpura. The music is mystical and the lightly played gongs make it a meditative piece.

“U Cross Me” is the album’s finale and starts off with some syncopated piano notes by Escreet and percussion by Jamie Haddad. The horns and reeds play in a downwardly cascading pattern that is quite unusual. Then they all come together in a display of precise synchronicity. Hirshfield and Lober lay down a more traditional driving rhythmic structure over which the group plays. The syncopation continues as all the instruments find their voice in a cacophony of expression before Shepik’s guitar breaks it all open with another scorching solo.

With Bridges Jamie Baum has somehow managed to span the gap between multiple musical traditions and successfully integrate them all into a coherent genre that is all its own.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Astral Traveling with Mark Wingfield on his "Tales from the Dreaming City"

Mark Wingfield : Tales from the Dreaming City MoonJune MRJ091

The British guitarist Mark Wingfield is new to me, but having grown up in the era of fusion, a genre that has been wrongfully denigrated by some jazz purists, I can still appreciate a man with a potent axe and the chops to make it sing the song electric. Wingfield certainly has those credentials and more. 

On his latest recording, Tales from the Dreaming City, produced by die-hard world fusionist producer Leonardo Pavkovic’s MoonJune records, Winfield takes you on a journey that is nothing short of teleportation or Astral traveling. He scrambles your atoms and reassembles them in a place that only he can see, a totally foreign environ. He is joined by bassist Yaron Stavi and drummer Asaaf Sirkis with special guest Dominque Vantomme adding some synthesizer magic.

The music is like the soundtrack to a space odyssey. With titles like “The Fifth Window,” “I Wonder How Many Miles I’ve Fallen,” “This Place Up Against the Sky” and “The Green-faced Timekeepers” you can kind of get where this man’s mind is at.

Wingfield doesn’t play much like any other guitarist I’ve heard, and that’s not an easy feat in and of  itself. His instrument sings in a language that is almost alien, extraterrestrial, but with an underlying humanity to it.  The songs are not so much melodies as they are aural constructions meant to take you into another dimension or across the time/space continuum.  The group pulses, moans, paces metronomically and roils in sympathetic, almost telepathic communion with their leader’s explorations. 

This music is not for everyone, but you’d be hard pressed not to admire the daring and complete immersion this musician and his bandmates have made into the unknown. The music can sometimes take on an almost dark, foreboding sound to it, but for the most part it is uplifting, piercing the glass ceiling of what it means to make traditional music.
My suggestion is to get yourself a copy of Tales from the Dreaming City and a pair of headphones and sit back and chew on this a while. It will either lose you completely or perhaps if your lucky transport you to another place, a place that suspends time and feels like the outer limits of our reality.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

John Pizzarelli Brings Sinatra, Cole, Jobim and Troupe to Decatur's Eddie's Attic

Mike Karn and John Pizzarelli
Like many an artist who follow a career that was trailblazed by their fathers, the guitarist John Pizzarelli will always be compared to his father, the now ninety-two-year-old and still swinging jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. The challenge-to be accepted for one’s own value- was even implied in John’s 1983 debut album titled I’m Hip (Please Don’t Tell My Father).

The now fifty-eight-year-old John Jr. has carved his own place in the world of jazz and contemporary popular music. He is in fact a very accomplished guitarist in his own right, with artful phrasing, a deft sense of time and a fluid facility on the fretboard. John’s true talent is in his vocal acumen and relaxed stage presence which was on bountiful display on Monday night at Decatur’s Eddie’s Attic.

This was the last set of the last night, of a two night gig. The previous night presumably were both sold out shows. On this Monday evening the venue was half-filled with an older crowd of fans that came to see Pizzarelli tell his stories, sing his songs and play his guitar. John was accompanied by bassist Mike Karn.

Pizzarelli was dressed in a grey pin-stripe suit and tie and projected a warm, friendly demeanor throughout the evening. He started with the tongue-in-cheek Bobby Troupe song “I’m Just a Hungry Man,” which set the tone of the evening as light and entertaining. From there he jumped into another quirky tune, written by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz and made famous by the chanteuse Blossom Dearie “Rhode Island is Famous for You.”  Another Bobby Troupe composition Rte. 66 came next. Here the jazz historian and entertainer in Pizzarelli came out. He talked about his conversations with Troupe and how Bobby told him the story of pitching the song to Nat King Cole who made it one of his staples. In many respects Pizzarelli has patterned himself after Cole. While Cole was a consummate pianist it was his voice and that relaxed polish that won him legions of followers.

Pizzarelli proceeded with a marvelous medley of songs that all contained the phrase “Hey Baby” and then broke into some Hot Club of Paris, Django Reinhardt-style guitar on another tune from the Nat Cole repertoire, “Errand Boy of Rhythm.” Pizzarelli is no stranger to gypsy jazz having once been recorded with the great Stéphane Grappelli on “Live at the Blue Note” from 1995.
John Pizzarelli on Edddie's Attic Stage
Ever the storyteller, John spoke of this very day being the twenty-fifth anniversary of him opening for another of his idols, Frank Sinatra, in Berlin, Germany in 1993. His introduction to Sinatra was brief and ended with the crooner admonishing him saying  “Get something to eat kid, you look terrible." Pizzarelli likened looking into the singer’s blue eyes “like looking into a natural gas flame, they were that blue.”  Pizzarelli sang two Sinatra songs-“You Make Me Feel So Young” and  “How About You” before treating the audience to a solo instrumental version of Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight” on his seven string custom arch-bodied guitar. You could really see how accomplished a guitarist he is on this marvelous piece. Bassist Karn returned for the SammyC ahn and Jimmy Van Heusen Song “ Ring A Ding Ding” that Sinatra sang on his inaugural record on the Reprise label.

The evening continued with “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” from the 1953 musical Kismet. A clever rendering of Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate on You” with a Tom Jobim inspired Bossa beat and Jobim’s classic “The Wave.” Being in Georgia, it was only fitting that Pizzareli included a Johnny Mercer tune in his repertoire and he chose a song about Football and music “Jamboree Jones.” The finale was a Medley ending in “I Got Rhythm” and the encore was Sinatra’s “Lady Be Good.”

It was a wonderful evening of great songs played by the fabulous talent that is John Pizzarelli. If the show was any indication of the music on John's latest album John Pizzarelli Sinatra and Jobim @50 then it should be a keeper.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Multi-Reed Artist Ted Nash and his Quintet at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola

Ted Nash Qunitet live at Dizzy's Coca Cola  Plastic Sax Records
Often musicians come from musical families and so is the case with the saxophonist/composer/arranger Ted Nash. Both his father and uncle were accomplished jazz and west coast studio musicians. Father Richard “Dick” Nash’s work can be heard on albums by discriminating arranger/composers like Lalo Schifrin, John Williams and Pete Rugulo. Perhaps his most important association was as Henry Mancini’s favorite trombonist, playing with the maestro for over forty years from 1959 through 2000.  Ted’s uncle and namesake, Theodore Malcolm “Ted” Nash, was also a studio musician who played with Les Brown and was also favored sideman in Mancini’s band. Here is a recording the brothers did together.

With this pedigree, it is no wonder that our now modern-day Ted, a seasoned fifty-eight year old professional musician, should follow in these imposing footsteps. Not only has Nash made his own mark as a first call multi-reed artist - for the last nineteen years he has been a key member of Wynton Marsalis' Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra- He has established himself as a top rate composer and arranger. In 2010 Nash's Portraits in Seven Shades, a creative work of seven movements, each depicting the modern painters Chagall, Dali, Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Pollock and Van Gogh, was nominated for a Grammy. In 2017 his ambitious Presidential Suite: Eight Variations on Freedom won two Grammy awards, one for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album and one for "Spoken At Midnight" for Best Instrumental Composition. 

Nash is the consummate musical explorer, he has never let his love for big band music get in the way of his playing creative improvised music in a myriad of settings. He has been an integral part of projects like his work with bassist Ben Allison on The Herbie Nichols Project or the trio with Allison and guitarist Steve Cardenas that celebrates the music of Jim Hall and Jimmy Giuffre on Quiet Revolution.  Not to be pigeonholed as a pure traditionalist he made his own free jazz explorations of the music of Ornette Coleman on his Quartet album The Creep.

With such an unquenchable thirst for ever expanding his musical horizons its nice to hear Nash play “live” on his latest album Ted Nash Quintet live at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. The line up is superb with trailblazers like Warren Wolf on vibes, Gary Versace on piano, Matt Wilson on drums and the glue that holds it all together the veteran bassist Rufus Reid.

Nash and company offers up seven delightful compositions two of which, the opener “Organized Crime” and the next to last song “Sisters” are Nash originals. The remaining fare is a thoughtful assembly of songs by Chick Corea, Herbie Nichols, Thelonious Monk, Johnny Mandel and Henry Mancini.

The pace quickens right from the opening lines of Nash’s “Organized Crime.” Reid’s bulbous bass notes accentuating the rhythm under Wilson’s polyphony of bombs and crashes. Wolf offers a distinctive solo before Nash plays a searing, Coleman-esque alto solo.  Wilson’s playful antics are fill the air with electricity. The energy is palpable.

The band moves on to Corea’s masterpiece “Windows,” this time with Nash on flute reminiscent of the work on this by the great Hubert Laws. Wolf’s vibes and Versace’s piano lend an airy feel to this as Reid’s steady hand is probing with authority. Nash has wonderful intonation on the instrument. Versace, a pianist who deserves greater recognition, dances with superb sensitivity along with Reid in a gorgeous display of intuitive grace that is a highlight of the album.

Herbie Nichols, a cult figure on the piano known for his unique style, composed the next tune “Spinning Song.” Nash on alto and Wolf on vibes play the main theme in step. As the song changes to a slow swing Wolf again shows why he is a master of invention. The song has interesting breaks which the group navigates with effortless polish. Nash’s alto tone is rich and luscious as he trades notes with a lone Reid holding the line. Nash finds a delicate balance between a classic and modern tone. His playing brings you to the precipice at times but you never feel like you re in danger of falling off. 

What would a set list be without at least one Monk tune. The one Nash chooses is “Epistrophy,” brilliantly lead off by Wilson and Reid and played in unison by Versace, Wolf and Nash on alto. Monk would be shaking his leg in approval. Nash wails on his alto expressing a deep affection for the changes here and showing how well he has absorbed the tradition. Wolf loosens up the tune with his own excursion, a fountainhead of ideas, while Reid relentlessly lays down the powerful bass line. Versace’s piano solo is a marvelously twisted piece of invention as Wilson lands bombs and crashes behind him. This one is just a delight.

Nash takes to the microphone to explain how the next piece, Johnny Mandel’s beautiful ballad “Emily” is a dedication to his transgender daughter once Emily now Elias. This is a special moment for Nash, a man publicly acknowledging his unconditional love for his child. Played gorgeously by Gary Versace in duo with Nash’s transcendent clarinet, this one is special. Nash and Versace make beautiful music together and from Nash’s reaction that is caught on mic, Versace surprises him at times with his spontaneous and nuanced inventiveness. 
I recently praised a duo album by Fred Hersch and Anat Cohen using the same isntrumentation where I thought the two showed remarkable afinity for each other. Nash and Versace reach that same unfathomable simpatico here and it is just a treat to behold. You can tell by the complete and utter silence that the two command the room. The audience is spell bound. Bravo gentlemen!

Another Nash original, "Sisters," finds the saxophonist returning to his alto with relish and gusto on this quick paced swinger. Reid's bass line is in double time and flawless. Nash, Wolf and Versace all take turns burning down the house with their fleet, adreniline-paced inventions. 

The Nash-Mancini connection is inescapable and so it was appropriate to end the set with Mancini's playful "Baby Elephant's Walk." Nash plays the piccolo, an instrument rarely heard in jazz. Like the legendary Pied Piper, Nash leads the group on this rousing blues with joyful abandon, ending the show and the album on the perfect high note.

Live albums can at times be spoty or unisnpired, but Ted Nash Quintet live at Dizzy's Coca Cola is one of those rare recordings that has captiured a special moment in time, a moment when all things were working at the highest level and the only regret is that you weren't there to witness this for yourself.