Thursday, July 30, 2020

John Di Martino: "Passion Flower: The Music of Billy Strayhorn"

John di Martino Passion Flower: The Music of Billy Strayhorn Sunnyside SSC 4114
When a talented and seasoned musician like the exceptional pianist/composer/arranger John Di Martino takes a moment to create a new album under his leadership, it deserves attention. DiMartino’s latest release is titled Passion Flower, a thoughtful compilation of the music of Billy Strayhorn. 

John’s playing incorporates superb sensitivity, admirable facility, and an assured poise that allows him to extract the best qualities of the soul and spirit of these fine compositions.  Di Martino sums up his approach to playing, I “surrender to the ecstasy of making music… if I can feel that joy then I can also transfer that joy to the audience!” 

Strayhorn’s work is a cache of gems. With John’s imagination and his attuned band of tenorist Eric Alexander, bassist Boris Kozlov, drummer Lewis Nash and vocalist Raul Midón, these memorable compositions are reimagined and revitalized in new and surprisingly delightful ways.

The sixty-one-year-old Di Martino hails originally from Philadelphia, “The City of Brotherly Love,” like so many other notable jazz artists of the last half a century. His piano playing has been influenced by a diverse group of iconic pianists including Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Hank Jones and Horace Silver. He mastered his craft by studying with the enigmatic pianist/educator Lennie Tristano, pianist Jimmie Amadie, a Woody Herman alumnus, and with noted pianist and arranger Don Sebesky.  

Di Martino made his way to New York in 1988 after honing his skills for years as the keyboard player for a house band of a casino in Atlantic City. This “showtime” experience exposed him to a myriad of musical styles, genres, and international influences.

Di Martino’s musical skills permit him to “shapeshift,” - seamlessly adapting his playing to the requirements of the music at hand. No wonder he developed such chameleon abilities as he has found himself playing and arranging for such diverse talents as Houston Person, James Moody, Kenny Burrell, Jack Sheldon, David “Fat Head” Newman, George Mraz and Joe Lovano. 

Over the years he has become a sought after accompanist and arranger for such proven vocalists as Billy Eckstein, Giacomo Gates, Janis Siegel, Grady Tate, Gloria Lynn, and Freddy Cole. His inherent street-wise affinity for Latin music was refined by his stint with Panamanian flutist Marisco Smith. He later toured with Latin percussionist and bandleader Ray Barretto’s New World Spirit Big Band for several years. and continues that love for Latin music, continuing his present work with the distinguished clarinetist master Paquito D’Rivera.

Billy Strayhorn photo credit unknown

On the new cd, Passion Fruit, the music of Billy Strayhorn is a unifying theme, but Di Martino and his bandmates always seem to present the music in new and exciting ways. Take the opening “Johnny Come Lately” which is launched by a strutting bass line by Boris Koslov before the group enters the pace with a jaunty swing that is infectious. Di Martino’s piano skills are immediately on display as he probs the ascending and descending spirit of this melody. Tenor master Eric Alexander adds his own signature warm tone and the trap master Lewis Nash creates a swirl of inventive percussive enthusiasm. You cannot help but get drawn in by this band’s enthusiasm for the music.

Billy Strayhorn reportedly wrote his sophisticated masterpiece “Lush Life” at the age of sixteen, an almost unimaginable feat. The song is coveted for its lyrical maturity and musical complexity. Strayhorn originally debuted it with vocalist Kay Davis at Carnegie Hall in 1948. The composition challenges the vocalist with quick changes. It commands the singer to precisely execute slides and leaps, all the while maintaining a debonair, sagacious sensibility of forlorn. Notably successful recordings of this song have included a version by baritone Johnny Hartman, collaborating with saxophonist John Coltrane and a superb take recorded by chanteuse Sarah Vaughan. But even an iconic vocalist like Frank Sinatra, working to record this song with the great Nelson Riddle in 1958, was unsatisfied with his attempts to successfully navigate the complex changes and abandoned recording the song, never to make it part of his repertoire.

A sought after accompanist for countless vocalists of all types, John di Martino has developed his own inherent sixth sense of what makes a vocalist suited to render a specific composition. Here, his sensitive duet with the emotive vocalist Raul Midón is a stunningly effective treatment of this pensive Strayhorn classic. Di Martino’s yearning piano- expressive, complimentary but never overwhelming- creates the perfect tableaux for Midón’s expressive voice. Together they bring to life Strayhorn’s disheartening words and one would be hard-pressed to find a more genuinely moving rendition of this beautiful composition. Easily, this alone is worth the price of admission.

“Rain Check” opens with a slick, tight-brushed snare entry by Nash and features some mellifluous tenor work by Alexander that swells and ebbs with the changes. Di Martino’s piano solos always firmly guide you through the stated melody, but he can add short familiar musical ideas tangentially that he weaves into the music flawlessly.

John Di Martino photo by The Cuban Bridge
“Star-Crossed Lovers” is a gorgeous slow-paced composition that is played with delicate restraint as an expressive vehicle for both Alexander and Di Martino. Alexander’s tenor, at his best, is tonally burnished, emotively strong but purposefully subdued for emphasis. Di Martino’s piano is warm and shimmers with a beauty and sensitivity that radiates from his ability to find that joy in the music he is always looking for.

“Isfahan” is one of my favorite Strayhorn compositions. I have heard tenor master Joe Henderson play this one to great effect. Di Martino utilizes Alexander’s precise and gorgeous intonation and Kozlov’s plucky bass to make this one special. Di Martino creates an inventive solo that works so well over the strong walking bass lines and Nash’s subtle snare and cymbal driven pace. The group trades solos and the interaction of these simpatico musicians is a treat.

The remaining album is a cornucopia of expertly played Strayhorn classics. The slow languishing “Chelsea Bridge” delights and the imaginative “Daydream” is lively and uplifting. Drummer Lewis Nash creates a precise cadenced pulse for the exotic “Passion Flower,” with Alexander’s deep-throated tenor being featured as the lead voice. Di Martino’s piano and the rhythm section are predominantly adding deft accompaniment, judicially applied aural accents to the music, as Alexander is given the stage to subtly explore harmonic ideas on his saxophone. When Di Martino solos, he carves himself out a brief musical path, a flurry of gorgeous lines that seem to just dance with the melody.

“U.M.M.G.” is a more obscure composition that is one of the more energetically driven paces on the album. The cd also includes the Ellington Orchestra’s memorable “Take the A Train” and the middle eastern-inspired “Absinthe,” with some of Di Martino’s most inventive improvisations and Alexander stretching out. 

“A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” is one of Strayhorn’s more romantic compositions, as is the final cut “Lotus Blossom.” It’s great to hear John take the time to feature himself as a soloist on these gorgeous songs. Di Martino has a mastery of his keyboard with a skilled touch and an inventive harmonic grasp of how to make the songs draw out the best of the composer’s intentions.

“Blood Count” was the last composition written by Strayhorn at a time when the composer discovered that he was struck with terminal cancer.  The music drips of melancholy, almost desperation and was written specifically to be played by Ellington altoist Johnny Hodges. Perhaps one of the most memorable renditions of this music was recorded later by tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, who made the song one of the signature pieces of his repertoire. 

Di Martino smarty employs Alexander’s Getzian tone to bring out the sheer forlornness that the music evokes, and the tenorist plays with impressive emotion and depth.  Pairing these two musicians on this aching composition is a testimony to their affinity. Hopefully, this collaboration will be explored in the near future. The performance is one of the cd’s highlights, with Di Martino and Alexander together, artfully extracting some of the essences of Strayhorn’s most empathetic music. 

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Exploring Lost Art Treasures : Jason Palmer's "The Concert: 12 Musings for Isabella'

Jason Palmer The Concert: 12 Musings for Isabella GSA 004

Art often discovers inspiration in unexpected places. For trumpet talent Jason Palmer, inspiration came from a visit to the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston, while attending classes at New England Conservatory of Music,  and seeing the empty stark frames on the walls, an eerie reminder that art was not immune to violation.

On March 18, 1990, the Isabell Stewart Gardner Museum was the scene of a massive theft- the purported single largest property theft in the world. Thieves posing as police officers, duped the on-duty security officers to let them into the closed museum, tied them up and in eight-one minutes proceeded to remove thirteen priceless works of art. They made off that night, over thirty years ago, to never be seen again.  It is an amazing caper for its gall and confounding success. Fortunately, there were no casualties, but like the famous parachutist thief D.B. Cooper, who vanished never to be found, these careful burglars were amazingly never captured or even identified. These gorgeous and priceless pieces of art, reportedly worth $500 million dollars, were never recovered and so, for now, the robbery leaves humanity forever the poorer. 

For Jason Palmer, the artwork represented a series of beautiful stories in and of themselves. Although lost, they needed to be properly celebrated and memorialized. As an artist whose brush and easel was a chart of music and the voices of expressive instruments, Palmer went about to compose musical pieces that represent his concept of these lost works of art.

The album is titled The Concert: 12 Musings for Isabella and was produced by Jimmy and Dena Katz at Giant Steps Arts and features the potent and talented group of Mark Turner on tenor saxophone, Joel Ross on vibraphone, Edward Perez on bass, Kendrick Scott on drums and Palmer on trumpet and composer. The performance was recorded live in May of 2019 in the Harold S. Vanderbilt Penthouse at the InterContinental New York Barclay. 

The two-disc recording includes twelve compositions named after the stolen artwork or in two cases art artifacts “ A Lady and Gentleman in Black"
(Rembrandt), ‘Cortege aux Environs do Florence’ (Degas), ‘La Sortie de Pesage” (Degas), “Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee” (Rembrandt), “A French Imperial Eagle Finial” (uncredited artifact), “Chez Tortoni” (Manet), “Program for an Artistic Soiree” ( Degas), “An Ancient Chinese Gu” (uncredited artifact), “The Concert” (Vermeer), “Landscape with an Obelisk” (Flinck), “Self Portrait”
(Rembrandt) and “Three Mounted Jockeys” (Degas).

Palmer has taught in many universities and is an assistant professor at Berklee School of Music. He often plays with his own quintet at Boston’s historic Wally’s Café  and has appeared with many jazz prominent artists including Herbie Hancock, Roy Haynes, Phil Woods, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to name just a few.

Palmer and his astute bandmates have captured the aural aspects that the visual images that these exceptional artworks evoke. The staccato, darting pace of the music introduces you to Rembrandt’s rather decorous looking “A Lady and a Gentleman in Black.”  It features the tight, front-line synchronous work of Palmer and Turner. Palmer’s trumpet is precise and penetrative in his note selection. Turner offers a more resonant attack that darts in and out of the pulse. Ross’ sinewy vibes work nicely and complimentary to Scott’s rapid fired drum lines and Perez’s grounded bass. If the music is any indication, these two prim and proper figures of Rembrandt’s focus may have led a more robust life than their appearance seems to reveal.

Rembrandt's A Lady and a Gentleman in Black
Palmer’s clarion sounding trumpet leads off on Degas “Cortege aux Environs do Florence,” which is a pencil and sepia wash on paper, and one of the more understated of the works that were stolen. The mood established by Palmer and his group is atmospheric, carefree, and almost fanciful. Palmer, Turner and Ross each take turn soloing. The musicians are true to a feeling evoked by Degas’ figures, strolling on foot and leisurely being accompanied by horses on a procession through the pastoral scene outside of Florence. It is easy to imagine Degas’ revelers might enjoy this music if played for their enjoyment by a group of troubadours.

Degas’ “La Sortie de Pesage” is an expressive, muted watercolor that depicts a more urban setting that centers on the parading of jockey mounted racehorses as they saunter through the back streets of a city on race day.  The music has a rhythmic canter feel that in some ways mimics what the horses, in being walked through the streets of an 1850’s era European metropolis, might sound like. The music is carried rhythmically by the deft rhythmic whooshing created by Scott’s percussive mastery.  

Degas: La Sortie de Pesage
Perhaps one of the most valued artworks lost in the robbery was Rembrandt’s tumultuous “Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee.” The scene depicts a ship with Christ and his followers overwhelmed by a squall in turbulent seas. Rembrandt has often painted his own image, with purportedly as many as ninety self-portraits known to have existed.  Here he places himself in this biblical scene as one of the terrified fishermen. His face is seen holding his hat in one hand and grasping the ropes to steady himself with the other. Jesus is sleeping during the storm, and according to the gospel of Mark, he is frantically awoken by panicked followers. The awakened Christ calms the wind and storm with his exclamation “Peace. Be Still.” stopping the storm and fortifying the greatness of his divine authority. 

Musically Palmer opens this composition using Scott’s polyrhythmic drums as a tool that slowly builds the tumult in intensity, like a brewing storm. The front line of Turner and Palmer play lines in tandem, seemingly ascending with force like a cascading flow toward a pluming swell of water. The soloists alternate in quick succession over Scott’s tumultuous drums. This one captures the painting's fury aurally. They build the kinetic electricity of the rising storm until the group resolves the tension to a tranquil calm at the coda. 

Rembrandt The Storm at the Sea of Galilee
Two of the pieces taken from the Gardner heist were not paintings or drawings but artifacts. One was a Bronze Eagle Napoleon Flag Finial and the other a Chinese Shang Dynasty Ku (beaker) from the 1100-1200s.  Palmer creates a bit of a militaristic sound for his “A French Imperial Eagle” and on “An Ancient Chinese Gu,” Palmer's composition finds Ross’ vibes voice a tubular conversation with Scott’s percolating drums.    

“Chez Tortoni,” by Manet, is a portrait of a well-dressed gentleman in a top hat with pen in hand, as he is gazing at the observer with intention. The music starts off with a probing bass solo by Perez that morphs into a percussive rhythmic exchange with Scott before it emerges into the full group playing energetically in unison. Turner creates a warm and pointed sound that just intrigues and Ross adds a full mellow and floating vibe that elevates the music to the ozone. Palmer's trumpet often can erupt with piercing lines but can also caress a tune with lyrical mastery. These are all talented musicians with distinct voices on their instruments.

“Program for an Artistic Soiree” is another Degas’ pencil sketch that features multiple ideas from the artist-smoke stacks, sailing Clippers, musical instruments, and ballet dancer-all miniature studies. With the diversity of the subject matter, Palmer composes what is the most traditional straight-ahead jazz piece of the cd. The music has a pulsing drive led by Perez’s bass and Scott’s drive. Each musician has an opportunity to be featured on a solo with Perez’s facile bass standing out on this one. This is a "live" recording so often you hear how much the audience loves what they are hearing. The music swings and Turner and Palmer work exceptionally well together, meshing counterpoint lines as dual leads that sonically merge beautifully.

Vermeer’s “The Concert” is one of the artworks that a musician can easily relate to. It depicts three musicians in a sitting room. Vermeer features two other artworks placed on the walls of the scene and a landscape painted on the piano’s open lid. As with all of Vermeer’s artwork, the light is hauntingly realistic and illuminating. Palmer and his cohorts use this composition to create a sonic expression of how a small house concert could be played- softly, sensitively, and with a simpatico between the musicians. This composition has its own beauty, freedom, and transcendence.

Vermeer The Concert
The remaining compositions include Govert Flinck’s “Landscape with an Obelisk” with some fascinating cymbal and drum work from Scott. Rembrandt’s “Self Portrait,” a celebration of multiple ideas from these musical minds. Degas’ “Three Mounted Jockeys” ends the set with this jaunty piece played robustly and with feeling by Turner. Palmer’s mastery of the high register is used poignantly here, and the talented Ross’ vibes modulate with a buoyancy that again elevates the music. Scott and Perez keep the music moving seamlessly.

If an artist’s musical creativity can draw you as a listener into the sources of his inspiration, then one can only appreciate the musician for his curiosity, creativity, and dedication. Palmer is an unusual artist whose imaginative music captured me with his The Concert:12 Musings for Isabella. Beyond his facility on the trumpet, Palmer’s compositional skills show a bright future. He has created some thoughtful and expressive pieces of music here and this project had the added reward of piquing my own curiosity to learn more about those lost Gardner masterpieces that inspired this work.