Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Musical Magic while "Hiding Out" Mike Holober and The Gotham Jazz Orchestra

Mike Holober:The Gotham Jazz Orchestra Hiding Out  Zoho  ZM201906

The pianist/composer/arranger/educator Mike Holober is a man of many gifts. His guiding leadership has been a quiet but effective force behind some creative and moving big band projects in the last several years. You may not be aware of his work, but that’s barely an excuse to miss this man’s excellent and modern contributions to the world of music. 

Holober is a classically trained pianist whose career in jazz started to emerge in 1986 when he moved to New York.  He began building a reputation as a pianist and arranger when working with the talented baritone saxophonist Nick Brigola in the late 90’s. His talent as a serious chart master is respected among his peers. Mike was the Director/Conductor of the Westchester Jazz Orchestra (WJO) for over six years where he wrote and arranged for artists as renowned as Joe Lovano, Kate McGarry, John Scofield and Randy Brecker, to name a few. I was fortunate enough to catch him and this band for several impressive performances when I lived in CT and I was immediately interested in this man's trajectory.

He has also been invited to write and conduct esteemed European big Bands like the HR Big Band and the WDR Big Band, where he wrote, arranged and conducted for noted artists like Kurt Rosenwinkel, Al Foster, Billy Cobham and Miguel Zenon. Mr.  Holober also served as the Associate Director of the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop with Director Jim McNeely for several years. He has maintained a working quintet whose debut album Canyon was released in 2003, and his big band The Gotham Jazz Orchestra (GJO) first recording Thought Trains is from 1996 but was finally released in 2004. Mr. Holober teaches at Manhattan School of Music and is a full professor at the City College of New York.

Mike’s latest release from the GJO is a meaty, two-disc project titled Hiding Out and will be released on Zoho Records on August 9, 2019. The album includes an arrangement of the Antonio Carlos Jobim composition “Carminhos Cruzados,” which Mike re imagined as a vehicle for virtuoso trumpeter Marvin Stamm,  two suites “Flow”, commissioned by the Westchester Jazz Orchestra, and the “Hiding Out” suite commissioned by The Philadelphia Museum of Art. As with many of Mike’s modern projects, his Gotham Jazz Orchestra is made up of a group of first call musicians based out of the New York area.  The “Hiding Out” suite was crafted at a 20,000- acre ranch in northeastern Wyoming with a view of the snow-capped Big Horn Mountains. The “Flow” suite was penned at the famed MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where artists liked Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein found a wellspring of inspiration at the bucolic setting.
Mike Holober (photo credit unknown)
Holober has often seen his work as a balancing act between his love of outdoors and his passion for creating music. It’s not surprising that these two suites balance the excitement and awe of nature with the urbanity and exuberance of the life of a New York based jazz musician.

There is a lot to listen to and absorb. “Rumble,” originally written for the US Army Jazz Nights in 2008,  opens the first cd and is  named for an isolated lake in the Sierra Nevada. The stream of sounds that emerge from this taut machine pulse and probe like a unified aqueous body in motion.  Holober guides his group with precision, but like an impressionistic painter, he allows for the band to have its own organic aspiration, its own distinct vitality. Like a painter, Holober loves to introduce colors to his palette, like the fusion-dated sound of  his Rhodes, Jon Gordon’s piquant alto and Jesse Lewis’ shredding electric guitar work too. The result is a thoroughly modern piece that just gets more enjoyable  the more you listen to it.

Movement one of “Flow” is titled “Tears of Clouds” and opens with a peaceful section that builds upon a wavy, undulating rhythmic feel. Holober piano and rhythm section creates a repeating motif that simulates the sound of falling water in a slow but persistent drip. The searching, urgent tenor saxophone of Jason Rigby is the sole voice that is featured above the band, as Holober’s arrangement allows the band to employ deft use of tension and release.  

“Opalescence” opens with Marvin Stamm’s clarion trumpet as the band plays the almost liturgical sounding music behind him. Stamm is a master of tone and expression and Holober’s song utilizes his strengths beautifully. Mid song, Stamm changes to the more mellow flugelhorn and Holober’s piano accompaniment is superb and expressive. As the pace changes, the vibrant bass of John Herbert beautifully anchors the song with a firm pulse.

“Interlude” is a short but potent composition that features what feels like a spiritual Native American inspired solo on penny whistle by Ben Kono. There is an authentic Americana feel ( in a true sense) to this peaceful song that transitions into a more urban inspired composition “Harlem” with the saxophone solo by altoist Billy Drews and joined by bassist Herbert and drummer Mark Ferber. The arrangement has a more traditional, almost Ellingtonian- inspired big band feel; full of swing and energy. Trumpeter Scott Wendholt offers a high energy, upper register solo that raises this one. Holober utilizes a series of rhythmic changes during the composition. He effectively employs the explosive drums of Ferber and the booming bass line of Herbert as the foundation to allow the big band to pulse using well timed sectional accents. About three quarters through, Holober’s piano shifts from lyrical to driving and this sends the band into a more excited fury, allowing several band members to break out in featured solos that erupt with passion.

The title of this suite “Hiding Out” has a dual meaning. Despite his respected reputation, the musician feels that he has previously “hidden” in a way by concentrating his musical skills  as a sideman, an arranger for others and an educator.  Holober also likens the title “Hiding Out” to his frequent escape to the reinvigorating environs of natural beauty and majesty-places that allow him to concentrate on creation.

Conductor Mike Holober (photo credit unknown)

“It Was Just the Wind” is perhaps the most adventurous composition of the suite. In many respects “Hiding Out” is the most recent effort by Holober to enrich the world of music by composing with his own personal vision in mind. The suite is bold, authoritative and imaginative. He and his band are consummately able to bring his vision to life. The introduction, with its serene use of woodwinds, supported by the more brilliant tones of the brass section on “Prelude,” is the perfect entre to the suite.  The probing “Compelled” carries the music forward, featuring Holober’s gentle and cadenced piano-his deft arrangements drift sections of spectacular sound into and out of the music with ebbs and flows of his music. Steve Cardenas, a superb guitarist, adds a modern, textural but lyrical solo that floats over the musical atmosphere created.  “Four Haiku” is a short piece that utilizes brilliant sectional harmonies creating a feel of majesty and reverence.   “Interlude” is our chance to hear solo pianist Holober weave a beautiful lyrical melody that is moving and just simply gorgeous.

Holober opening the piece with an exploring solo that morphs into a rhythmically driving pulse led by Herbert and Ferber.  The music escalates its sense of urgency with each bar, the brass and woodwinds melting into a unified wall of multi-timbered sounds. Soloists like altoist Jon Gordon and tenor saxophonist Adam Kolker bring persuasive individual improvisational voices into the forefront. Composer Holober fearlessly adds elements of fusion and Brazilian rhythms into the song, increasing the pace on his tubular sounding Fender Rhodes. This band responds to the adventure with true excellence and marvelous sectional precision.  The eighteen minute song ends with some soaring ethereal guitar by Cardenas and explosively roiling drums by Ferber, as this incendiary band brings the music to new heights at the coda. This is a modern big band at its best.

This two disc set closes with two takes of Jobim’s romantic “Carminhos Cruzados” which Holober has re-imagined for his band and for trumpeter Marvin Stamm. The lilting music is accented by the exquisite tone of Stamm’s gorgeous flugelhorn. You can’t help but be drawn in by the motion this music instills in your body. It’s like listening to a love song that caresses you with Stamm’s horn and is accentuated by Holober’s potently orchestrated band.

Here is a link to one of the new album's songs.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Scott Robinson: The Man in the reed hat: Tenormore

Scott Robinson sporting his reed hat Tenormore

It’s satisfying to see the multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson receiving increasing recognition for his artful and often adventurous playing. His versatility and proficiency on a variety of over three hundred instruments in his curated personal instrument cache is nothing short of a herculean achievement. His collection includes a battery of multi-sized and keyed woodwinds, an array of brass horns and an assortment of musical oddities. Some of the rarest are his contrabass saxophone (reportedly only one of twenty playable units in existence), his bass Marimba and his extraterrestrial sounding Theremin. Despite his notoriety of having the curiosity of a mad scientist, Scott is an expert who can deploy any number of breath and tonal techniques to serve his musical muse.  His expertise on the woodwinds has kept him most in demand by other musical composers and big band arrangers. Like any indispensable musician whose presence is crucial to the whole sound, he anchors the woodwind group in such estimable big bands as the notable Maria Schneider Orchestra, The Mingus Big Band, The Vanguard Big Band and even had an appearance with the Sun Rah Arkestra to name a few. Let’s face it, Robinson is one of those players that define the concept of being a virtuoso.

In recent years, Robinson has often been sought after for his impressive ability on the baritone saxophone but make no mistake it is the tenor saxophone that is this man’s first musical love.  Just to make the point, Robinson came out recently with an album that exclusively features his work on his vintage circa 1924 silver Conn tenor. The album titled Tenormore, is a joyful collection of five adventurous Robinson compositions, four standards that are brilliantly imagined and one Americana-styled ballad by bassist Martin Wind. Besides his compatriot Wind on bass, Robinson is ably joined by the accomplished pianist Helen Sung on piano and B3 organ, longtime associate and journeyman drummer Dennis Mackrel and on one song joined by his classically trained wife Sharon on flute.

It opens with a soulful a version of Lennon-McCartney’s “And I Love Her,” deliciously played with feeling by an artist who admits “I’m not a Beatles fan.” A four-note melody was stuck in his mind before he discovered it was from this Beatles song. Like being given a sign from his psyche, Robinson became determined to capture his thoughts on this music.  At the end of a long session, after all the other musicians had left, Robinson recorded the song in one take. He played it unaccompanied, squeezing every expression possible from his, by then, split reed.  Robinson’s take is a re imagination of this 1964 song in a way that elevates the once pop tune into an expressive declaration of earnest love.

Robinson’s compositions include a probing, eleven-bar blues titled “Tenor Eleven” where the tenor man’s effortless facility on his horn is apparent. He guides us through an improvisational path around the changes, the path is sometimes daring, unpredictable, but like a competent shepherd he never loses those who trust his lead. Near the coda, Robinson’s declaratory saxophone stirs a brief but excited give and take exchange with drummer Mackrel, whose intuitive trap work makes him Robinson’s perfect foil.

Standards worth exploring are Scott’s emotive, slow-paced version of “Put on a Happy Face,” from the Broadway and film show Bye Bye Birdie.  Scott’s distinctively slow and baleful approach chooses to project the sentiment of the composition from the place of sadness. His playing is heartfelt and simply exquisite.

“The Good Life,” originally sung by Tony Bennett in 1963, opens with an adventurous improvisational section that doesn’t give away the tune’s identity. Robinson loves keeping the audience in the dark until Scott’s sensitive saxophone introduces the melody.  Wind’s solo on bass is an exceptionally artful addition.

Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You” was first released in 1938, but here Robinson’s modern approach opens it with a funky bass line by Wind and some soulful modulating B3 work by Sung and some back beat trap work by Mackrel. Scott’s saxophone is soulful at times gritty but always joyful and inspired.

“Morning Star” is a happy, fluid, swinger that Robinson wrote for his wife Sharon as a Valentine’s gift. Pianist Sung’s keyboard work on this is beautiful and exceptionally buoyant, as Wind’s bass walks with authority and a bit of attitude. Robinson’s saxophone is distinctive and flawless.

“Tenor Twelve” is an F blues that Robinson originally released in 1988 on his album Winds of Change. Like the mad scientist never satisfied with stasis, he is always looking to improve his creations and so Robinson rewrote this tune for this date and by his inkling, made it better. With an exceptionally beautiful and swinging piano solo, Sung makes it clear that she is a pianist whose sensitivity and technique are not to be ignored. Like the inside works of a precision 
timepiece, this rhythm team of Wind and Mackrel percolates never losing a beat.

Martin Wind’s soulful “Rainy River” is introduced by Sung’s gospel inspired B3. Robinson explores the emotional depths of this revival-like composition with his breathy attack that captures his vintage saxophone’s beautiful depth of tone. He restricts himself to the melody, no improvising here, but he extracts the music’s emotional sentiment utilizing the instruments full range and soars into the higher register for effect.  

 “The Weaver” is composition dedicated to Robinson’s father David. It starts with a recording from his father reading one of his poems at Scott and Sharon’s wedding back in 2001. Sharon attended Boston Conservatory and is a classically trained flautist. Scott followed his own jazz muse at Berklee.  Here the song is both a description of the poem’s theme as well as a woven mixture of two musical themes and thus the name “The Weaver.”  Scott’s saxophone weaves beautifully with Sharon’s flute as the music follows a five, seven, five pattern that mimics the syllabic structure of a haiku. Scott’s ability to aurally notate his intellectual intentions so precisely is a delight. Wind’s strong bass line is structural to the song.

“Tenormore” is the title of the album and the final cut on the cd. A complex piece that has rhythmically challenging changes that could easily astound other less qualified band-mates.  Listen carefully to Robinson’s precise intonation, uncanny ability to utilize the full register of the instrument flawlessly and to send the listener to uncharted territories, sometimes on the fly! Sung’s feverish piano explorations are equally impressive.  Wind and Mackrel adapt to Scott’s inspired direction, never losing their rhythmic anchor, no matter how far out the adventurer takes the show. This group is a well-oiled machine that is up to any challenge this master throws their way, what a fitting present as this man recently reached his sixtieth birthday. Happy Birthday Scott!!!

Back in 2010, Scott and I had an exchange over my contention that some jazz was more accessible than others and consequently accessibility might lead to expanding the audience to jazz. His take was that adventurous music could be just as accessible to anyone who was open enough to give it a serious listen. I have come to agree with him as this album Tenormore surely confirms. You can read that conversation by clicking here.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Still killin' it: Randy Brecker Rocks and the NDR Big Band:

Randy Brecker Rocks Big Band Piloo Records PR010

I had the pleasure of interviewing the trumpeter/composer Randy Brecker back in August of 2016, at the time for a Hot House magazine cover article, and I published a much more extensive interview on this blog. The conversation was open, enlightening and often filled with humorous recollections from Brecker’s years of experiences as an in demand professional musician. You can read this  interview by linking to it here.

In April of 2017, I was lucky enough to meet Brecker when he came to Atlanta. He was a featured performer at the Rialto Theater. Brecker participated in musical workshops at Georgia State University’s Music Department, at the invitation of fellow trumpeter Gordon Vernick, musical coordinator of jazz studies at G.S.U.

Besides having a formidable musical history that spans over fifty years, Randy Brecker is an exquisite player. He was often one of the first call trumpet players for studio work in New York in the late nineteen sixties. A creative, confident,  jovial and surprisingly approachable individual, you cannot miss this man’s enthusiasm for the music when you meet him.  During his visit in Atlanta, he graciously agreed to perform with local trumpeter/bandleader Joe Gransden and his seventeen-piece big band at the club CafĂ© 290 in Sandy Springs one evening. The event was memorable, especially when Vernick, Gransden and Brecker exchanged trumpet lines mano a mano style, as the Gransden  big band cooked enthusiastically behind Brecker.

Randy Brecker

It is now three years since my original interview and the seventy-three-year-old Brecker is continuing to add to his musical legacy. His latest record, RandyBrecker Rocks & NDR Big Band is another example of this man’s seemingly unlimited wellspring of musical enthusiasm and creativity.  The record includes nine cuts, all written by Brecker, each a return to his musical heritage. 

The opener “First Tune of the Set” was a song that he used to open their concerts when he toured with his brother Michael in the Brecker Brothers Band. The NDR Big Band sets the driving charge of the music. Music that identifies much of Randy’s style beautifully and with his unfettered passion. Brecker’s opening trumpet solo is energetic, powerful and stratospheric. Alto saxophonist Fiete Felsch offers his own equally ardent solo that is impressive. Vladislav Sendecki sets the tone electronically on his synthesizer with a Jan Hammer inspired keyboard solo that is from another planet. Rock on!

“Adina” is a composition that Randy wrote for his saxophonist/wife Ada Rovatti. The music has a lighter, breezier feel. The trumpeter offers a distinctly lyrical flugelhorn solo. Rovatti introduces her own floating soprano solo that drifts loosely over the pulsing band. Arranger Jorg Keller knows his band and compliments Brecker’s music with his own tight horn section work.

The funky “Squids” from the Brecker Brothers 1977 album Don’t Stop the Music is treated here in a distinctively more contemporary way. The NDR Band create an electronic funk feel with synthesizer and amplified horns. Brecker’s trumpet soars with electronic augmentation as he penetrates the music with an urgency of high-pitched trills and fast glissandi to a frenzy. A nice solo by tenor man Frank Delle offers a musical change in pace, and the horn section provides a steady throb that authenticates the funk.

Brecker was once a member of Jaco Pastorius’ Word of Mouth band in the 1980’s and in 2001 he wrote “Pastoral,” a beautiful melody as a tribute to the bassist’s memory. Rovatti opens with a burnished tenor solo. Brecker’s flugelhorn is gorgeously warm, as he draws out the emotion with a poignancy that cannot be simply written into the music. The band plays this song with acute awareness of how special this is to their guest. There is an especially inspired bass clarinet feature by Bjorn Berger, but it is Brecker’s unfailing sensitivity that makes this one special.

If you prefer the sound of a boppish-like band, creating a finger-snapping melody, than “The Dipshit” will make you snap your fingers and move your feet. The song also serves as a reunion of two old Brecker Brothers Band members. Brecker’s trumpet penetrates the ozone level with intensity and altoist David Sanborn- not to be undone - lights up the scene entering the music like a man on fire. A blazing sound that raises the temperature with a heavy dose of urgency that ignites the band. These guys are cooking here as they feel the groove to the music and respond with gusto. 

The album includes some impressive, guitar-sounding synthesizer by Sendecki on Brecker’s “Above and Below.”  Brecker’s trumpet is never short of any inspired improvisational ideas, as his solo on this one demonstrates. Rovatti can wail her tenor with the best of them and yet she always has a sensitive side to her playing. This is some of Rovatti's most inspired playing on the album. Wolfgang Haffner has a precise drum solo on this, and the band is tight and powerful. A real tribute to the legacy of the Brecker Brothers Band  .

There is always room for a ballad, and here “Sozinho” provides a nice change of pace. This one features Randy’s mellifluous flugelhorn where he is at his lyrical best. Pianist Sendecki is a deft accompanist as well as a creative soloist of his own right.

The title song “Rocks,” combines a talented, well-oiled big band with the intense, impassioned solos from commensurate improvisers, Randy Brecker and David Sanborn. The music is quick-paced and incendiary. Listen to the charged solo that emerges from the alto of Sanborn. He is driven to heights by this constantly nudging group who just want to rock. Brecker’s trumpet is always probing, always reaching past what seems to be possible with this instrument.

The final composition “Threesome,” from the BBB’s 1981 album “Straphangin’” is another reunion of former band mates, Sanborn and Brecker. It is inspired by it’s  blues and gospel roots. Brecker utilizes the mute on his trumpet to great effect and creates a New Orlean’s style solo that howls. The format suits Sanborn’s penchant for the blues, as his alto is at home wailing out the notes of this revival style song. Guitarist Bruno Muller offers a tart solo that meets the songs’ sentiment nicely. This high energy European assembly, the NDR Big Band and their arranger Jorg Achim Keller, have embraced this music and though it will always be Randy Brecker's music, for this outing, the band has made it their own.