Monday, May 18, 2020

Awaiting "Our New World" the Sirkis/Bialas I Q

Sirkis/Bialas IQ: Our New World Moonjune MJR099

The Sirkis/Bialas I Q (International Quartet) is an impressive, global-based group, employing expressive creativity, virtuosity, and international folk-music influences to infuse their music making it authentic and visceral. 

On their latest Our New Earth, the leader and composer, Israeli percussionist Asaf Sirkis employs a variety of instrumentation (Crotales, Manjira and a Frame drum) and rhythmic vocal techniques including Konnakol (a southern Indian vocalized percussion technique.) to bring in a Middle Eastern and Southern Indian taste to his music.

Asaf Sirkis and Sywia Bialas

The co-leader, Polish vocalist Sylwia Bialas, wrote five of the compositions here and has a beautiful vocal instrument that she controls with skilled aplomb and elastic pliability. She has an impressive range and a well-developed sense of timing, dynamics, and presence.

British keyboard player Frank Harrison attended Berklee on scholarship and demonstrates his accomplished ability as an inventive soloist as well as an intuitively strong accompaniest.

Bassist Kevin Glasgow is an impressive six-string electric bassist who can anchor complex rhythms and is especially expressive in the upper register with his fluid lines that are very guitar-like.

This two-disc offering is stylistically packaged and displays beautiful cover artwork. Produced by Leonardo Pavkovic's progressive Moonjune records, the cd is musically teeming with creativity and optimism. There is an unabashed romantic hopefulness to this album and as Sirkis has explained they wanted “ …to reflect the change and turmoil that are happening globally right now…” and to use their music to “…express the wish that when all the madness subsides we will have a better place to live in…”Our New Earth.”

The original compositions are more like musical excursions where these four gifted musicians paint a hopeful horizon employing gorgeous sonic colors and simpatico interaction. The music swirls, elevating and mystifying the listener, utilizing deft orchestrations, beguiling vocalizations, and draws on a wellspring of rhythmic variations of international flavor.

There are classical, sometimes chamber-jazz elements to this music, albeit string-less. Harrison’s splendid pianistic creations are captivating and Bialas’ acrobatic vocalizations trace melodic lines precisely. Glasgow’s bass work also adds a burnished timbre and a fleet facility that compliments the songs with another component of interest.  Bialas sings predominantly in Polish, evoking a pure and transcendental quality to her voice. Undoubtedly Eastern European in lineage, her vocalizations to me, nonetheless evoke how Brazilian Flora Purim vocalized her work with Chick Corea back in the early seventies. Sirkis is an accomplished fusion drummer who can be bombastic, here he restrains himself, creating more subtle rhythms and provides a floating backdrop that accents the music beautifully with taste and sonic variety. 

Bialas’ high-pitched yipping on the opening of her “Rooting” from “The Earth Suite” has an almost primitive, indigenous-like feel both intriguing and skillful. Sirkis’ uses rythmic-driven vocalization-Konnakol, over his droll-like use of the Manjira on “Our New Earth,” and in conjunction with Bialas captures the essence of a southern Indian meditation-like music.

The album is like a suite and deserves being heard as a unified concept. The music includes Sirkis’ “Land of Oblivion,” with lyrics by Bialas “Letter to A.,”      "Our New World,” “The Message from the Blue Bird,” "The Spooky Action at A Distance” and “Picture from a Polish Wood.” Bialas’ compositions included the aforementioned “Rooting,” “If Pegasus Had One Wing,” “Reminiscence, ”Chiaroscuro, and ”Nocturnity.”  

There is much to hear, to savor,and to enjoy on Our New Earth so pick this one up and enjoy the possibilities.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Jerry Bergonzi's " Nearly Blue" Making the standards his own.

Jerry Bergonzi Trio: Nearly Blue Savant SCD 2180

The tenor saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi has released his latest album Nearly Blue on producer Barney Field’s Savant label and he once again proves that a passion for the standards imbued with enough personal creativity can make those songs your own. I have been following this iconoclastic, force of energy tenorist since I first reviewed his album Three for All back in 2010. I was impressed with his strong voicing and unusual, unpredictable harmonic approach to the music. He has a unique sound that is all his own and I found myself looking forward to his subsequent releases covering his Rigarmaroll in 2015 and Spotlight on Standards in 2016, both superb outings.

The Boston based musician came to note back in the early nineteen seventies, eventually holding the saxophone chair with Dave Brubeck’s quartet from 1979-1982, recording nine albums with this consequential pianist.

If someone can be labeled as a musician’s musician, then Bergonzi’s reputation, both in the industry and amongst his peers, is worthy of such an esteemed moniker. When Jerry Bergonzi ventures out of Boston to share his tenor magic, it is an event that most of the cognoscenti can’t resist to pass up. My astute colleague from the Chicago Tribune, Howard Reich, was dutifully impressed by Bergonzi’s rare performance in the Windy City back in 2019 and he noted that “…the saxophonist really ought to return to Chicago before another 40 years go by.”  No doubt his sentiment is shared countrywide.

The musician has followed his own path, cultivated a poignantly aggressive attack, and developed an uncompromising harmonic approach that is all his own. Bergonzi has dedicated a great deal of his last thirty-plus years educating, creating instructional guides that document his take on the art of improvisation. His work at the New England Conservatory of Music started in the nineteen-eighties, where he became a full professor and where he continues to teach. Working continuously in his Boston hometown as well as touring as a leader and a sideman, Bergonzi also teaches private lessons, and has run masterclasses at Berklee, Eastman, North Texas State University as well as institutions in Paris, Spain, Australia, Finland, and Sweden to name a few. Because he has maintained true to his own path, his influence amongst notable rising saxophonists is noteworthy.

Nearly Blue, is a compilation of songs that include seven iconic standards and three of the saxophonist's originals. His trio includes the intuitive bandmates, B3 organist Renato Chicco and his long term drummer Andrea Michelutti. 

“I just adore the melodies of these tunes.”  Bergonzi offered. He has an affinity to inject new and inventive approaches to these well-traveled compositions. His dynamic horn is like a shot of resuscitating oxygen providing a burst of welcomed vitality to these ageless but much-played standards.

The opening song, Rogers and Hammerstein “It Might As Well Be Spring,”  finds Chicco's  B3 moaning and throbbing organically as the drums precisely accent and maintain a swinging pace. Bergonzi’s muscular tenor punctuates the melody in his own inimitable way. The saxophonist never loses the essence of the material, always creating unpredictable paths through the structure of the composition. His sound is commanding and confident, whether he runs jagged, penetrating lines or develops rapid cascades of linked notes. His surprising ideas barrel from his horn like a torrent of liquid energy splashing against the jagged rocks of a cataract.

John Coltrane’s “Countdown,” is a normally a quick-paced standard that ascends and descends like an exercise up and down stairs. It is played here in a more medium tempo. The opening line is introduced by Chicco’s pulsing organ. Bergonzi’s tenor loosely navigates this song's direction, employing a slightly skewed direction, redefining the progression in slightly altered patterns. His tenor is confident but more jagged, the musical equivalent of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker character choreographically descending and ascending the steep city alley steps in the movie. The motion is irregular, but purposeful, up and down at will and played with panache and bravado.

“How About You” has a boisterous hop to it and Bergonzi’s horn is fast, enthusiastic, filled with fusillades of notes. Maintaining the pace and feel of the melody, he takes you on a journey that transports you,  punctuated occasionally by high register leaps from his saxophone. Michelutti drives the piercing swing and Chicco offers an interesting Larry Young inspired organ solo. 

Bergonzi's original, the clarion “Tectonic Plates,” was originally played on his Three for All from 2010. Is this a powerful declaration of the saxophonist’s admiration for enormous changes in nature that often occur without our awareness?  In fact, the music mimics shifting plates in a song’s harmony and features some of the saxophonists' most probing and reverential playing. 

“Nearly Blue,” is the second original composition.  A sauntering quirky shuffle by Michelutti generates just enough of the blues essence to provide the trio with a familiar base on which to build Bergonzi’s expanding harmonic explorations. Swirling lines of notes and layered levels of musical ideas seem to erupt from this man’s horn at will. It is like traveling with a seasoned explorer on a quest. Chicco’s B3 solo is especially warm and swells with emotion and authority.

Kaper and Washington’s classic “On Green Dolphin Street” is played at a more robust pace. It is such a treat to hear this trio respond so splendidly to the leaders' turbocharged approach to this song. Bergonzi creates a vortex of notes enhancing the melody and re-imagining the feeling that you are familiar with from this song. Here the energy and enthusiasm of the trio erupt, magnetizing the listener. The transformation of this song is inspired, and like water to a parched traveler reaching a welcoming oasis in the desert, their creativity sustains and re-invigorates this treasure.

If you like a well-played, moving ballad, Cart T. Fischer’s “We’ll Be Together Again” is just a gem in the hands of this tenor titan. He plays the melody straight, but with a copious amount of feeling and style, embellishing the coda with an exciting cadenza.

The album  includes another Bergonzi's original “While You Were Out,” Gershwin’s playful “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” and an energized ballad “Laura,” with some sassy B3 work and some inspired saxophone improvisation. This is an extremely enjoyable album that is a must for any jazz fan who appreciates an inventive saxophonist and his trio at the top of their game.

Friday, May 8, 2020

"Embrace" : A Vital Breath of Music from Chris Dingman and his Trio

Chris Dingman Embrace

The imaginative, vibraphonist Chris Dingman released his latest creation, Embrace, on March 6, 2020. This nine-composition, musically vibrant album by Dingman and his simpatico trio of bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tim Keiper veritably debuted as the eye of the hurricane known as world pandemic virus Covid-19 struck hard in the musician’s residing metropolitan New York City area. In these times of stress, uncertainty, and fear, it is precisely the reinvigorating qualities of sensitively rendered, emotionally honest and expertly executed music like Dingman’s that in fifty-four minutes can revive your tranquility and elevate your spirits. It is like a beautiful, vital breath of inspiration in these trying times.

I first heard Dingman’s work back in 2015 when he gathered a potent sextet and released his brilliant, five-part suite, The Subliminal and the Sublime. The album was perceptibly created to musically capture the elegance and splendor of nature and its wonders. Dingman musically admired the sublime majesty of the great Redwoods to the gentle undulations of a flowing stream, marveled at the subliminal shifts like the barely perceptible motion of Tectonic plates, to the whirling galaxy of light created by swarming fireflies at night in the woods. The album caught my attention, and I called it an “aural feast” that should be savored and named it as one of 2015’s best of jazz in the Huffington Post.

As with the previous offering, The Subliminal and the Sublime, Dingman's latest, Embrace, was made possible by a grant by the Inner Arts Initiative, part of the Chamber Music of America. It is so vital that critical groups like this still do their part to support promising and creative musicians and allow them the means to produce worthwhile work.

Embrace is a composition oriented album. Dingman's pared-down group created its own challenge. The limited tonal palette of the vibraphone as the sole lead instrument in the trio necessitated his instrument's voice becoming more prominent, carrying the melodies, and simultaneously, at times, offering rhythmic support. His astute band members provided a dynamic interaction, using Oh’s full sounding bass and Keiper’s airy drum work to drive the music and serve as complementary textures to Dingman's reverberating, tubular voice. The trio works in sync marvelously, well-matched and keen to each other's interactions and to Dingman's compositions.

Dingman acknowledges his playing of the vibes to be stylistically most influenced by the late vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. Other exposures when he studied at Wesleyan included Avant-garde saxophonist Anthony Braxton and fellow vibraphonist Jay Hoggard. The strong melodic, sometimes ethereal work that Dingman produces has incorporated elements of technique that follow the style of vibraphonist Gary Burton’s more melodic and atmospheric work. Over the past ten years, Dingman’s musical interests have been strongly influenced by the West African music of Mande, Wassoulou, and the desert of Mali areas.

In this album, the composition “Ali” is a gorgeous song dedicated to the hypnotic grooves of Ali Farka Toure, the late Malian singer and blues/folk guitarist. The song starts out with Dingman playing a gentle, effervescent ostinato pattern that has floating, captivating pace and intriguing emotional attraction before accented by skillful percussive patterning by Keiper and a subtly anchoring bass line by Oh.

“Inner Child” has a buoyant, playful sound that the musician offers as a healing song that embraces parts of himself that he often ignores. Bassist Linda May Han Oh, an in-demand bassist who tours with Pat Metheny's group, offers a potent, beautifully minimalist solo that compliments the vibraphonist’s ebulliently featured chiming lines as Keiper delicately splashes his cymbals.

“Forgive/Embrace” is a composition based on a kora-inspired line that came from Dingman’s studies with Toumani Diabate. Diabate is a kora master-a West African gourd and skin constructed, harp-like stringed instrument. The sounds created from this type of instrument are drone-like and can be spellbinding.

Dingman modulates the reverberation on his instrument masterfully, letting his hollow, floating sound hang in the air as he deftly plays both rhythm and melody. Oh’s bass lines are vibrant and communicative. Her bass carries the music so well in combination with Dingman’s chiming lines that the two seem to be mentally tethered. This is my first exposure to drummer Tim Keiper, who has worked with David Bryne. His trap work complements brilliantly, both utilizing intuition and subtlety, and his skills perfectly match to Dingman’s compositional needs.

 “Goddess” and “Folly of Progress” are credited by Dingman as being inspired by Oumou Sangare’s music. The fifty-two-year-old, Grammy Award-winning Mali Wassoulou vocalist has a strong voice, is a social activist, and known as “The Songbird of Wassoulu.”  If you are inquisitive and like to follow these world music rabbits down the hole, you can search them out, listen to their artistry, and experience a rewardingly different horizon of music.

Dingman has obviously used his exposure to several of these West African artists for inspiration, but he always finds a creative way to incorporate the essence of their musical style into his own re-imagination of their music. He uses his melodic and improvisational skills to instill his own sense of beauty in his compositions and performs them in a skillful, modern jazz-chamber style. I found the sources intriguing, original, and compelling, and Dingman has thankfully opened my eyes to some of these amazing world music creators. 

“Goddess” is particularly rhythmic with a driving beat that features Dingman’s buoyant vibes dance to over Keiper’s cadenced drums.  Dingman’s mallet work here is impressively quick and yet he always maintains a warm, radiant ripple of tone that hovers over the rhythm like a bilious cloud of joy.

“Folly of Progress” has its own mechanistic tempo, like an automated frenzy of bell driven machinery that never seems to relax, driven by unyielding production. The album also includes “Find A Way,” with some impressive bass work by Oh, “The Opening + Mudita,” “HiJinks and Wizardry,” and “Steps on the Path all worthy of your attention.

Embrace is a stunning treasure of musical tastes, senses, and sounds. Chris Dingman conceived and composed this set of transforming music that swells with its own world influences while retaining this talented artist’s distinct identity. The music has elements of Chamber music, modern jazz, and world music seamlessly transformed into the man's penchant for creating another tonally beautiful "aural feast."  Chris Dingman is a formidable vibraphonist, but he has once again found unique and unusual influences to develop his own growing mastery of compositional excellence. Take the time to absorb this music. This one deserves your attention.