Monday, September 23, 2019

"Conjure" : The spontaneous improvisation of Karl Berger and Jason Kao Hwang

Conjure Karl Berger and Jason Kao Hwang

Every once in a while it is both exciting and challenging to let yourself walk on the wild side and openly  listen to an unscripted, free improvisational work. In this case, a work that centers around the spontaneous interplay that can occur when two talented musicians join together to stretch each other's perceptions and have faith enough in each other's creativity to let what will happen, just happen.

I recently received Conjoure, a work by composer/pianist/vibraphonist Karl Berger and composer/string master ( violin and viola)  Jason Kao Hwang. The album will be released on Oct 1, 2019.  Both of these musicians are well respected and appreciated for their creative work and the mastery of their instruments. They have both collaborated with some of the jazz world's most contemporary and creative musicians of this era and have explored music that probes areas on the outskirts of the mainstream. This album is free-wheeling, improvisational interplay, that is not necessarily based on a fixed melodic or rhythmic theme. It is more "conjured up" from the momentary cerebral inspirations of the artist who leads and influenced by his partner's responses. Clearly Conjoure is a totally apropos title to this album.

The two artists seem  perfectly at ease with each others directional inclinations and they add some unexpected twists and turns to the path that they spontaneously create, leading the music in a direction that is unpredictable to both the listener or the musicians. If you let yourself be taken by this music there is an eerie attraction to being sent directionless and totally afloat.

The music includes eight compositions made in collaboration with the two musicians and recorded in Berger's home studio in Woodstock, NY on March 20, 2014. The music has evocative titles like  "Prophecy," "Beyond Reach," "Vanishing Roots,", "Arise" and "Below Zero."

My favorites are "Silhouettes" that features Berger on a hollow, hauntingly echoing vibraphone line that sets the theme of being caught in a phantasmagorical loop, as Kwang plays his piercing violin like a captured entity, mesmerized by the repeating sounds. Caught like a silhouette entranced by  Berger's drone. There is a desperation and lack of resolution to this music that is just captivating and at the same time eerily spooky.

"Faith" opens with Kwang's poignant viola and features Berger on piano which rings with a beautiful resonance. The two explore and follow each other through the emerging music as it develops organically from the muse of the musician who takes the lead, which in most instances seems to be Berger, and then expanded on by his band mate, often Kwang.

"Water Finds Water" features a simulated flow of streaming water as created by Berger's masterful hammering vibes and Kwang's fluttering viola The two musicians manipulate their instruments to create a world of suspension, a liquid atmosphere of water and flotation. It is quite unreal to listen to this music with your eyes closed. You envision yourself being weightlessly propelled through an other world conjured up by these two musicians fertile imagination.

The music of Conjure may be lost to some listeners or fail to touch other listeners, who are harnessed to the norms of more traditional music.  If you allow yourself to listen to this music with an open mind and take an unfamiliar journey into foreign territory, then I can say listening to Conjure  will turn out to be an enjoyable and expanding experience.

  • Tuesday, September 17, 2019

    Sara Gazarek's "Thirsty Ghost" A Tour de Force

    Sar Gazarek's Thirsty Ghost
    The vocalist and rising star, Sara Gazarek, has released a new album titled Thirsty Ghost.  The release is filled with well-selected, theme-oriented compositions that both surprise and delight. The title alludes to Gazarek’s inner musical ghost,a desire always thirsting for creative expression and growth. After taking a close listen, an astute observer should conclude that Gazarek has certainly satiated those personal goals with this creative and rewarding album.

    Each song is thoughtfully arranged and impeccably executed with Gazarek’s crystalline voice always able to evoke an authentic sincerity that grabs the listener. She is a natural storyteller, a singer whose supple voice energizes the lyrics to life with skillful modulation, remarkable range and a spectral passion. The compositions are a carefully selected mix of classics and contemporaries, most theme-centered, around the human condition of love lost and how one chooses to respond. The collaborators that Gazarek has worked with are uniformly impressive. With all this going for it Thirsty Ghost is a tour de force and on odds on favorite for being included in the top vocal albums of this year.

    “Lonely Hours” finds Gazarek’s voice masterfully navigating the changes of the song by Hy Glaser/Jerry Solomon that was made famous by the great Sarah Vaughan back in 1964. Gazarek’s voice paired with Josh Johnson’s alto move almost as if a single entity at times, like empathetic dancers moving in sync through the music.  Johnson arranged this song and his alto adds a soulful mellifluousness to the music. Alex Boneham’s bass is especially buoyant. Almost as a homage to Vaughan’s vocal athleticism, Gazarek demonstrates her own precisely delivered vocalese skills, a wordless vocalization modernized by her own effervescent and vitality.

    Sara Gazarek ( photo credit Andrew Sotham)
    An under covered gem that came out of the Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley album was “Never Will I Marry,”  a brilliant choice. Arranged beautifully with Gazarek by pianist Stu Minderman, who has worked with Kurt Elling, the song takes on a funky, reggae-inspired rhythm that stakes out its own territory on this classic. Wisely never imitating Ms. Wilson’s approach, Gazarek pays homage to the master's work in her own contemporary style. It is expertly played by drummer Christian Eumon, bassist Alex Boneham and adds a tight horn section. Gazarek scats through the music with aplomb, comfortably executing an impressive leap between intervals during the song, showing her formidable range and control.  Gazarek’s ability to seamlessly move through the different styles of music on this album is a credit to her versatility and training.

    Not to be pigeonholed by the classic repertoire alone, the album includes the popular 2014 Sam Smith composition “I’m Not the Only One.” Gazarek sings in an emotional, alternative folk/soul style that is embellished nicely by Minderman’s electric Rhodes accompaniment. Erin Bentlage and Michael Mayo lend some beautiful harmony backup vocals and Josh Johnson’s soulful alto solo all bring this song into its own life. Gazarek’s voice is warm, flexible and emotionally moving especially as she hits the chorus with such strong confidence.

    “Easy Love” is a collaboration written with Gazarek and Larry Goldings, who also arranged this song. The pianist had previously produced Gazarek’s 2012 album Blossom & Bee, an album that revealed Gazarek’s respect for vocalist Blossom Dearie. On this swinging, free-flowing blues, with Goldings adding some of his signature organ touches, Gazarek brings out her most natural of voices. Gazarek gives this album a loose, happy, loose rendition that could easily have been inspired by Dearie’s refreshing approach. 

    The Hoagy Carmichael ballad, “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” is an unusual selection rarely covered and features Gazarek’s luminescent voice lightly accompanied by Stu Minderman’s sparkling piano, Boneham’s pacing bass and Christian Euman’s lightly feathered drums.

    The album adds the 1972 released Stevie Wonder/Yvonne Wright composition “I Believe When I Fall in Love” that adds the horn section of Johnson, Ido Meshulan’s trombone and Brian Walsh’s  bass clarinet.

    The  composition “Jolene,”written by Country star Dolly Parton, is creatively arranged to create tension by pianist Geoff Keezer. Gazarek and Minderman work together to transport this tale of desperation into a poignant plea of fairness. Gazarek rips at the lyrics demanding attention and consideration with a passion that is hard to ignore.  

    Goldings and Gazarek team up again to compose the gorgeous “Gaslight District” which is arranged here by pianist Minderman.  Alan Ferber’s arrangement for the horn section is precisely timed and flawlessly executed. Gazarek’s expressive voice is alive and fervent especially on the chorus, and Minderman’s piano solo is succinctly expressive. The song ends with Gazarek’s delicate wordless vocalizing as Goldings perfectly placed organ accents to the coda. This is one to savor.

    The record continues with “The River/River Man, “the first part, “The River,” a poetic-like composition from Sara Teasdale/Josh Nelson and the “River Man” is originally by Nick Drake from 1969.  Drake’s music is so ethereal and haunting. Gazarek sings this Josh Nelson arrangement, with an amazing sensitivity and personal attachment that is palpable. Minderman’s Rhodes floats like a cloud of notes that hover over the scene and the horns, arranged by Johnson, add to the dreamy feeling.

    “Intro: Chyrsalis” is a 33 second bass solo lead in by composer bassist Alex Boneham. This leads into the Bjork/Thomas Knack composition “Cocoon”. Gazarek’s vocal has such a versatile range and clear sustainability. The duet of bass and voice is beautifully executed. The band is quite adept at aurally creating an atmosphere that simulates the gossamer lightness of being in a Cocoon. Gazarek’s voice is like a whisper of clear presence within.

    The pianist Brad Mehldau collaborated with Gazarek on the final composition of this album titled “Distant Storm.”  This one is arranged by Minderman and Gazarek and the horns are arranged by Ferber. Gazarek conquers the lower levels of the register on the opening bars which she navigates brilliantly.  Josh Johnson offers a bright, fluid alto solo and the vocalist Kurt Elling adds his unmistakably burnished baritone.  Gazarek’s beautiful instrument tackles the higher register with equal aplomb and finishes the song with her own pristine control and clarity.