Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Double Bass Virtuoso Marc Johnson Plays it Solo on his brilliant : "Overpass"

Marc Johnson: Overpass ECM Records

There is something very special, very visceral when a listener is given the opportunity to share a solo musical performance. It can be one of the most personal and intimate experiences that a musician can offer to his audience. Marc Johnson was said to have found inspiration to do his latest solo bass album Overpass after listening to fellow bass virtuoso Dave Holland's solo bass album Emerald Tears from 1977. Johnson's beautiful offering Overpass on ECM records, like Holland's, will clearly become another must-have inspiration to any musician who wants to tackle the formidable challenge of making a viable solo offering on such a beautiful but unforgiving instrument. 

Marc Johnson photo credit Jos Knapean

The album is bare, naked, and yet resplendent in its musical sensitivity and personal declarations. The bassist relies only on his skills, his instrument, and an internal compass that leads him to choose and interpret his musical selections so deftly. The album is a little over forty-three minutes and includes eight compositions that range from Eddie Harris’ stirring “Freedom Jazz Dance” to Miles Davis’ “Nardis” and Alex North’s moving “Love Theme from Spartacus,” the latter two made famous as standards in the Bill Evans’ repertoire. Johnson includes five of his own compositions that are both beautiful and deeply personal, “Samurai Fly,” “Life of Pai, ”And Strike Each Tuneful String,” “Yin and Yang,” and “Whorled, Whirled World.”

Bassist Marc Johnson was born in the heartland of America, Omaha, Nebraska, and grew up in Texas. He attended the then North Texas State University and was part of the school’s acclaimed One O’clock Lab Band with fellow alumni keyboardist Lyle Mays and drummer Steve Houghton. Mays and Houghton were enlisted into Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd, and later it was Mays who recommended Johnson to join Herman’s band. Mays stayed eight months with Herman before leaving to join with guitarist Pat Metheny and forming the Pat Metheny Group. Johnson’s stay with Herman brought him to NYC where an opportunity to sit in with the pianist Bill Evans resulted in his joining Evans trio in 1978. Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera would be the pianist’s last trio until his death in 1980.

By his own admission, Johnson was young and had limited experience when he joined Evans’ trio, but he had a fluidity, velocity, and melodic sensitivity that captured Evans’ attention. After Evans’ death, Johnson had to find a way to expand his growth and continue in the musical direction that he had only begun to explore in his brief time with the pianist. Instead of continuing in a piano-based configuration, Johnson looked toward forming a group that could change his musical pallet,  expanding on the group's musical possibilities. In 1996 he formed the influential Bass Desires with dual guitarists John Scofield and Bill Frisell and the drummer Peter Erskine. He also became part of guitarist John Abercrombie’s Trio, again with Peter Erskine in the mid-eighties and through 2007. One of my favorite albums of this group was November released in 1993. Johnson’s proclivity and skill for working with guitarists led him to be sought after by other notable guitarists including Pat Metheny, Ben Monder, Pat Martino, Ralph Towner, and Wolfgang Muthspiel.

Johnson’s proficiency on his instrument led him to work with a rainbow of musical artists including pianist Enrico Pieranunzi and saxophonists Stan Getz, Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano, Charles Llyod, Michael Brecker, John Surman, and drummers Jack DeJohnette, Paul Motion, Joey Baron and Armenian percussionist Arto Tuncboyaciyan to name a few.

It was in 1988 when Johnson first worked with his present wife, Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias. It was an Erskine project titled Motion Poet. A few years later he was asked to join Elias’ group and their musical and personal compatibility led to marriage in 1999. It has been a lasting relationship for over thirty years. His musical priorities since joining Elias once again changed back to working with a pianist. Johnson said in a Jazz Times interview from 2020 “My Musical choices ... have been dictated by prioritizing my work with Eliane…It’s wonderful that we can be together and play music together."" For me, it’s been the best of both worlds.”  

Johnson’s focus on his work with Elias has come with a greater appreciation for the important influence of Brazilian music. He has won two Grammys for co-producing Elias’ Made in Brazil (2016) and Dance of Time (2017.)

With all his achievements, Johnson’s work on Overpass is a welcome addition to his personal body of work. The album opens with the pulsing Eddie Harris composition “Freedom Jazz Dance,” an often-overlooked gem of free spirit. He does an incredible job of maintaining pace with throbbing pedal point and dances out the melody with liquid precision and enviable precise speed. It is no surprise that even alone, the bass in the right hands can really swing.

“Nardis” is a Miles Davis composition. The title was created by Davis reversing the last name of his friend Ben Sidran and was written for a 1958 Cannonball Adderley session Portrait of Cannonball. The tune was well explored by Bill Evans’ last trio. Here the bassist, perhaps under the spell of Evans’ preoccupation with the song’s many intriguing iterations, explores the composition on his own terms. Johnson uses his sonorous bass to create a drone. He juxtaposes a musical path through the sparse melody with his rich pizzicato facility and his inventive interpretation. His tone is deep, warm, and resonates with a sustain that hangs in the air like a warm gust from a sirocco.  The bassist creates an impressive meditative chant that will not be forgotten.

Johnson’s beautifully playful “Samurai Fly” is a reimagining of what he originally released as “Samurai Hew-Haw” on his Bass Desires album from 1986.  Here, without the distinctive dual voices of guitarists John Scofield and Bill Frisell, the bassist re-creates this East meets West song. He gently overdubs himself playing a dynamic lead on a slightly dissonant, almost buzzing arco. It at times reminds me of an Americana-style fiddle-like approach and he accompanies himself with an anchoring rhythmic pizzicato. The song conjures up fanciful visions of a militant Samurai fly that is buzzing defiantly to this east meets west war song. Priceless.

“Love Theme from Spartacus” was a theme from the Stanley Kubrick film Spartacus starring Kirk Douglas back in 1960 and was written by composer Alex North. Yuseff Lateef was apparently the first jazz musician to see the potential of this song in the genre, recording it on his oboe in 1961 on his album Eastern Sounds.  Bill Evans had purportedly gone to see the film several times and was taken by the beauty of the music. There is no doubt he made the song an important part of his repertoire, most famously being memorialized from his solo album Conversations with Myself from 1963. 

Marc Johnson finds this moving piece of music the perfect vehicle for his own singularly personal interpretation of this love ballad. It’s hard to imagine such a seminal love theme could be so well expressed by the single voice of a virtuosic double bassist, but Johnson makes it his own. He starts with several multiple-string plucks that set the stage. The sparse ringing of his decaying notes on the repeating theme resonates with sincerity and his playing barely waivers from the truth of the music’s original iconic essence.   

Johnson's composition “Life of Pai” is a dirge-like song that he has dedicated to the passing of both his father and his father-in-law. Sadly both transitioned within months of each other. “Pai” is Portuguese for father and thus " Life of Father." The music utilizes a somber descending feel, sometimes using multiple strings in tandem, and Johnson creates a solemnity that might be considered a sacred requiem.

“And Strike Each Tuneful String” is based on a folk song, “Wonderous Love,” that Johnson's mother used to sing in a church choir. Using these personal recollections- tiebacks to his life experiences and his upbringing- makes his music a living, breathing, DNA-like part of his creative process. You hear the bassist building on ideas, motifs that inspire him, and he expands on them like a meditation that he follows religiously to see what develops. During the process, other ideas emerge, other patterns are introduced, further extrapolations are developed and the music expands organically. Johnson creates a rapidly repeated pattern on his bass that hums, whirls, and vibrates like a turbine in action. There is a visceral connection to the turbulence he creates on his bass patterns that can draw you in, hypnotize you.

“Yin and Yang” is a song developed by Johnson when he was working on experimenting with the sonic aspects of his custom-made double bass made by the Brazilian luthier Paulo Gomes. In his interview with Bass Magazine, which was so valuable to understanding the bassist's thoughts about this album,  Johnson said “I got into this strumming thing one day and I said ‘Wow, listen to that.’  I put my ear down in front of the instrument and hit all the strings-when you hear all the harmonics bouncing off each other, it’s really cool.” 

Johnson strumming created this drone-like, harmonically rich background that has drum-like qualities. He overdubbed his Eastern-influenced arco to create this contemplative composition. Take a seat in a comfortable recliner, grab a set of good headphones and just lose yourself into this one. Guaranteed to lower your stress and blood pressure and leave you at peace for a little over four precious minutes.

The closing composition “Whorled, Whirled World” has a minimalist form that Johnson created in admiration of such composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. The bassist opens with a repeating, cyclical pattern that creates a whirl-like rush. He changes between time signatures without ever losing the flow. He minimally accentuates the whirlwind with improvisational accents that he creates in the moment. There is a feeling that more than one person is creating this gyroscopic-like storm, but it is only Johnson and his marvelous instrument. He modulates his velocity at times and eventually allows the music to fade out at the coda. He creates the impression that this energy-charged musical pattern has a perpetual life all its own.

You can sample some of the music of this great album by going to the ECM:

You can also sample some of the music of this great album by going to the ECM:


Friday, September 10, 2021

Eberhard : An Orchestral Homage by Lyle Mays

Lyle Mays : Eberhard Self Produced

The pianist/composer Lyle Mays, shockingly to many of us, transitioned on February 10, 2020. His niece Aubrey Johnson, a talented jazz vocalist, said only that his untimely passing was the result of
 “…a long battle with a recurring illness.”  No further clarification of Mays’ medical condition has ever been revealed publicly.

Lyle Mays Photo credit  Wayne Scott Jones

During his closing days, Mays devoted himself to honing, polishing, and completing a musical project that had consumed him over the years, a recordable dedication to one of his early inspirations, the progressive double bassist Eberhard Weber. Mays first started playing the armature of this composition back in 2009 at a festival in his home state of Wisconsin. The German bassist had suffered a stroke in 2007, and so Mays’ first public performance of this piece was as much a healing, a musical encouragement to Weber to recover, as it was a homage to the man, his work, and its influence. Sadly, Weber’s medical setback was more permanent than originally hoped for. The now eighty-one-year-old bassist has never played again. 

Mays came to national prominence for his work as the collaborator and co-composer of the Pat Metheny Group.  During that period Mays always left his unmistakable imprimatur on some of the group’s most endearing records. The artist won ten Grammy Awards and was nominated twenty-three times over the years.  Despite his importance to the success of the PMG, Mays was satisfied to work his musical and technological magic, mostly avoid the spotlight and be satisfied to play the sidekick to Metheny, his Doc Holiday to Pat’s Wyatt Earp at their musical OK Corral. Throughout his life he was always fascinated with technology, chess, architecture and mu

Mays was playing piano and organ from a young age. He attended North Texas State University (later University of North Texas) and won his first nomination as the composer/arranger for his work on the album Lab ’75 with the school’s One O’clock Lab Band.

North Texas State University Lab'75

While still a student, Mays performed at the Wichita Jazz Festival in 1975 and it is interesting to look at the festival’s performer list from that year as this event proved to be pivotal to Mays' future career. Exploring a musician’s trajectory is always of interest and timely intersections with other musicians often lead to life-changing paths.


From WJF 25 years of Great Jazz Compilation by Gary Hess

Mays’ Student Quartet included bassist Marc Johnson, drummer Steve Houghton, and woodwind player Pete Brewer.

It was unpredictable the way new connections casually made at venues like the WJF could be so important to a young musician’s future. For the bassist, Marc Johnson stars somehow cross each other’s paths and the festival likely served as an informal entre to the pianist Bill Evans. Johnson was eventually chosen to replace a departing Gomez in Evans’ last trio with drummer Joe LaBarbera, and he did so from 1978 until Evans’ death in 1980. No doubt a life-changing experience for the bassist. Johnson went on to a stellar career as one of jazz’s most respected bassists. He remained associated with his classmate Mays for years with his sonorous double bass heard on six of the keyboardist’s recordings as a leader including  The Ludwigsburg Concert from 2015. 

Drummer Steve Houghton continued his career as a respected sideman, eventually turning to academia, becoming a respected associate professor of percussion at Indiana University among other institutions. Woodwind artist Pete Brewer would continue his career as a successful freelance musician.

If you look at the artist roster for the 1975 Wichita Jazz Festival, the lineup had s a plethora of great drummers that included Max Roach, Ed Soph, Mickey Roker, and Bob Moses (with Burton), but you will also see other important acts including Woody Herman’s Young Herd, Bill Evans Trio, and Gary Burton’s group which included the young guitarist, Pat Metheny. Woody Herman, the legendary bandleader, and clarinetist must have liked what he saw of the Lyle Mays Quartet in Wichita. Shortly thereafter Mays, Brewer, and Houghton were recruited to become new members of Herman’s traveling Thundering Herd later in 1975. Mays was to be the keyboardist for Herman for eight months into 1976 until another Wichita twist of fate would change his path again. Mays and the Metheny first met at the Wichita festival in 1975. They mutually found that they had musically compatible goals. Metheny would leave Burton and Mays left Herman and the two decided to start a new group.  The group would record and release their first collaboration Watercolors in 1977 under Metheny’s name. The collaboration would be a rich one and it would last for most of twenty-eight years through their last recording together as the Pat Metheny Group This Way Up in 2005. By that time, traveling and presumably, health issues induced Mays to call it quits.

Watercolors ECM 1977

Watercolors would be Mays' first opportunity to work with the progressive European bassist Eberhard Weber. Metheny had worked with Weber while he was with vibraphonist Gary Burton on his albums Ring from 1974 and Passengers from 1976.  Mays again played with Weber on the bassist’s album Later That Evening from 1982. There is little doubt that the German’s playing influenced both these young American pioneers.

Despite being strongly influenced by his classical training, a musical history that he shared with Mays, Weber created his own minimalist, ostinato-based, ethereal, and melancholic approach to his work. He was most likely influenced by the avant-garde composers Steve Reich and Terry Riley. By the early seventies, Weber designed and preferred a five-string-electric bass that extended the instrument’s range, adding more depth and drama to his playing. He was never a boisterous performer who commanded attention. Instead, he wanted his music to speak for itself.  Like the free-jazz movement that went off in one direction that veered away from traditional hard bop jazz, or even the frenetic fusion of the early seventies, Weber’s music was a detour that embraced a gentler, more thoughtful approach. There is no doubt Weber’s musical approach, almost chamber-like, was a serious signpost that caught Mays’ attention.

Eberhard is a thirteen-minute opus of pure Mays’ magic. It is a splendid piece of mostly through-composed music. Mays explores elements of classical, jazz, chamber, minimalism, vocalization, and cinematic musical qualities. Typical of Mays’ work, the piece has a tonal depth and emotional reach that displays the man’s expansive concept of what music should be. While the work is a homage to Weber, the music is pure Mays.

Mallett artist Wade Culbreath opens the piece with a repeating tonal movement that creates an almost other-worldly atmosphere upon which Mays solemn pianistic probing floats. Jimmy Johnson’s electric bass bellows beautifully with authority and poignancy in what I have read is a fully composed part. Mays’ niece, the vocalist Aubrey Johnson, enters the scene with a feathery vocalization that has angelic elements as she vocally traces the music lines emphatically. At one point, Mays’ piano has a very bluesy crossed with Americana feel to it that has always been part of his style. Steve Rodby’s beautiful double bass anchors the time with its fluid bottom tone. Bob Sheppard’s flute is introduced for another tonal factor that adds to the orchestration along with some electronic synthesizing effects that seem to be a identifiable part of Mays’ signature style. A quartet of cellos seamlessly adds to the pallet of tonal possibilities. Mallett, piano, flute, bass, and drum interact swelling with energy, and Bill Frisell’s twangy guitar voice briefly makes its appearance. The separate voices of Johnson and Rosana and Gary Eckert almost conjoin. They meld like three pieces of gold transforming into one brilliant ingot by the heat of a scorching crucible that is Mays' music. Jimmy Branly’s drum work erupts like percolating lava, and Alex Acuna adds perceptive percussive accents that just increase the temperature of the rhythmic brew that Mays compositionally constructs. Culbreath and Johnson beautifully match each other’s notes like two empathetic savants.  Mays introduces a jazz septet that gets into a fiery vibe section that is the apex of the piece. The section includes some perceptive organ work by Mitchel Forman, with Mays on piano, the explosive Branly on drums, subtle Acuna on percussion, Steve Rodby’s strong acoustic bass, and the multi-reed master Bob Sheppard’s tenor saxophone. 

Sheppard’s improvised solo runs for a little over two and half minutes and starts at about the 8:24 minute mark. It is a masterwork of controlled passion powered by a internal sweltering fire that he can call on at any time as is needed. Mays’ orchestrates the music to the summit and then allows Culbreath’s gorgeous, resonant mallet work and some of his own synth accents to melt the piece away, like a fading crimson sunset, turns the sky into a brilliant pastel haze.

The more I listen to this, the more I aurally observe the nuances of his orchestration, the more I realize how much we will miss Lyle Mays and his beautiful world of sonic colors. Eberhard could certainly be positioned as Lyle Mays epitaph, his crown jewel, but while it certainly is his last recorded work, I am sure that Mr. Weber will listen to this piece, love it and it will certainly put a bittersweet smile on his face.  This work should excite those of us who have loved Mays'work for so long, to go back and revisit the body of this exceptional artist's life work. If we do this, we will undoubtedly honor this man’s legacy in the fashion he intended it to be listened to, with joy.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

"I Will Never Stop Loving You" a treasure of a piano solo album by Kirk Lightsey

Kirk Lightsey: I Will Never Stop Loving You JJR-001

The pianist Kirk Lightsey is perhaps a name that you may not be familiar with, but that is certainly not for lack of his possessing immense talent and sublime taste. The now eighty-four-year-old pianist and one-time flutist has certainly flown under many people’s radar, despite being a key participant and contributor to many of the music’s notable performers of the past fifty years. Lightsey’s sensitive imprimatur can be heard as a sought-after sideman for an impressive array of important performers in this music’s history. Lightsey’s piano work has been present on work with Yusef Lateef, Betty Carter, Pharoah Sanders, Sonny Stitt, and Chet Baker. He toured four years with saxophone titan Dexter Gordon and has recorded with such diverse artists as Woody Shaw. Harold Land and Blue Mitchell, Clifford Jordon, Gregory Porter and even The Roots. Lightsey’s leader work as a pianist has always been noted for his ability as an astute interpreter of many of the music’s most creative compositions. Back in 1984, Lightsey and the other underappreciated pianist, Harold Danko, did a duo album titled Shorter by Two. They astutely recognized the compositional brilliance of Shorter long before it was fully appreciated and took two inspiring and unique interpretations of the music’s possibilities.

Lightsey has lived in France since 2000 and over his storied career released close to twenty albums as a leader and numerous albums as a sideman. Lightsey’s latest release is a gorgeous solo album titled I Will Never Stop Loving You on JOJO records. The title song has become a signature song for the pianist. The music was written Nicholas Brodszky in 1955 with lyrics by Sammy Cahn for the movie Love Me or Leave Me. The song has been sung by Doris Day, Dinah Washington, Andy Williams, Nancy Williams, and even British pop singer Dusty Springfield and played by Ahmad Jamal. Lightsey has an innate ability to extract the beauty and sensitivity from this song and it is just an unhurried approach that is so rare to hear in today’s frenetic times. As his sparse liner notes Lightsey says :

Patience. A lesson in patience. My whole life seems to be about the lesson of patience. Patience with myself.

There is something undisputedly true about reaching that kind of understanding that is refreshing and revealing of this pianist at this point in his career. 

Lightsey mines compositional gems here, like Wayne Shorter’s “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum” which he gives a jaunty, almost stride-like approach. The pianist finds Tony Williams less explosive side by treating the drummer’s “Pee Wee” with sensitivity and respect. The touch, the pensiveness, and the emotive approach as he expands on the theme are just wonderful.

Shorter is again celebrated by Lightsey with another two of his compositions “Infant Eyes,” as good as a composition as had been created in the past fifty years, and the gem “Wild Flower”. Lightsey’s pianist approach to “Infant Eyes” is expansive and moving and filled with a bouquet of harmonic possibilities.

The composer/saxophonist Phil Woods once said “Goodbye Mr. Evans” was his best composition ever and acknowledged that Lightsey had probably made one of the most memorable renditions of this dedication to the pianist Bill Evans. There is no doubt that Lightsey revels in this song and evokes some of Evan’s spirit in playing this fine composition.

Lightsey resurrects John Coltrane’s epic “Giant Steps” here with his own unique take on this relentlessly climbing composition that always seems to be reaching for but never quite arriving at its destination. The pianist finds slightly angular approaches to this memorable theme, and he ends with his own creative take at the coda.

Shorter’s “Wild Flower” ends this marvelous album. The pianists accompanying left-hand sets the rhythmic pulse as his right hand explores, with a patience and richness that allows the music to blossom like the synanthesis of the wildflower it was named for. 

Kirk Lightsey has played and recorded many of these songs over his career and yet there are always new ideas to be mined by a seasoned artist. Like a traveler who frequents a familiar road, we can always find new things to explore, new ways to find alternate paths in the music. This album offers a most recommended way to spend just under thirty-five minutes of basking in this man's artistry.

Monday, August 23, 2021

"A Conversation:" Orchestral Communication by Tim Hagans and the NDR Big Band

Tim Hagans and the NDR Big Band  A Conversation  Waiting Moon Records

I have followed the trumpeter, Tim Hagans, for years and I always found his playing to be fiery, at his best exploratory, and always inventive. His musical horizons were never limited by his acumen as an accomplished trumpet player. Hagans has produced seventeen recordings as a leader. He has honed his skills and expanded his musical challenges to include composition, arranging, and now conducting. His latest release on Waiting Moon Records titled A Conversation, matches Hagans up with the excellent NDR Big Band for the fourth time. This five-movement piece of work is conversational, dynamic, at times cinematic, often raucous, and by any measure an important achievement.

Hagans has taken the instruments of the NDR Big Band, here nineteen pieces plus his trumpet, and formed four ensembles to play his challenging music. Instead of the instruments being deployed in traditional sections by type- Hagans has formed three mixed ensembles, each containing trumpet, woodwinds, flutes, and trombones in various configurations and one rhythm section that includes guitar, piano bass, drums, and percussion. He has written and arranged these groups like independent jazz ensembles that are directed to communicate in cooperation and at times vie with each other for sonic attention in his works. Hagans’ ensemble voicings are more related to their sonic identity and emotional effect.  Essentially, A Conversation explores possibilities of musical conversation in new, exciting, and perhaps unexpected ways. The music is a amalgam of elements from classical, jazz and orchestrated film music disciplines.

Hagans’ music is progressive, orchestral, and musically rich. Each movement is between twelve to sixteen minutes; each like an aural theatrical presentation that use the four groupings to create a vibrant, and at times, competing approach to the music.

"Movement I" utilizes alternating brass, flutes, and woodwinds in ascending statements that cascade with the help of Jukkis Uotila’s percolating drums and Marcio Doctor’s complementary percussion to maintain a perceptible direction. These ensembles are powerful and boisterous. They converse like friendly neighbors at a street party where multiple voices add their own identity to the gathering. Vladyslav Sendecki fires off an energetic and angular piano solo that has the lead voice of this conversation before the music stops abruptly and moves into a gentler stage, flute whispering over a throbbing rhythmic base. Individual voices, trumpets, flutes, trombones, and percussive accompaniment are orchestrated to build to a robust conclusion.

"Movement II" opens with modulating sections swelling into a raucous interchange of exchanging musical ideas. There seems to be no melodic anchor to these pieces, the music is more like vignettes that open and expand like a cinematic scene from one act to another. But in "Movement II" there is a repeated line in at about the three-minute mark that is maintained by one section and accompanied by others. This unfolds into a gorgeous, extended bass clarinet solo by Daniel Buch that follows the same established theme, improvising on it. The movement also features a beautiful and buoyant bass solo by Ingmar Heller whose sound is tonally rich and fluid and carries on to the coda. Here Hagans seems interested in the darker, lower tones and the aural effects they can evoke.  

"Movement III" starts off with a Heller meandering bass line upon which Sendecki offering an angular piano line that is accentuated by sectional accompaniment in ascending steps.  Hagans adds rash, boisterous trombone accents by Dan Gottshall and a high register squealing trumpet solo by Stephan Meinberg. At about the four-minute mark the rhythm section starts a swinging section that is lead by Uotila’s intrepid drum work and sections entering the fray. There is a searing and inventive trumpet solo that is followed by Buch’s rousing baritone solo, some powerful drum and bass work, and an impressive alto sax solo by Pete Bolte. This one joyously swings leading to an expressive muted Hagans trumpet at the coda.  

"Movement IV" is one of my favorite tracks on the album. It features an opening with the composer on his open trumpet.  Hagans has impressive control, modulating to create microtonal slurs of expression before opening the music up to the entire group. Fiete Felsch offers a rousing, Phil Woods-like alto solo that lights it up with his excitement. Marcio Doctor’s percussive skills make this one  move with a noir-like feeling that is delightful. The sections compete at one point in a boisterous, cacophonous outreach for attention, and it losses the flow a little for me, but Felsch’s strong sax voice maintains the drive. The movement ends with a rhythmic display of sonic riches by Doctor’s wind-like creations.

"Movement V" opens with an island-inspired rhythm that evokes memories of the cinematic work of master composer/arranger Henry Mancini. There is no doubting the theater-like qualities of some of Hagans' music on this album. His muted trumpet soars over the music like a clarion bird overwhelmed by the sight of approaching land. The section work is most unified here, lending tonal support to the ostinato sway. Sendecki’s piano comp is astute and minimal. A splash of Uotila’s cymbal opens an entry to a more robust section that features some vibrant solo trombone work by Klaus Heidenreich.  The sections are orchestrated to play sequentially in a explosive ending that is like a sonic eruption before ending in a structured fade.

Take a listen for yourself:

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Slither, Funk, Fusion & Blues from Dave Holland's Exciting Guitar Trio "Another Land"

Another Land Dave Holland, Kevin Eubanks, and Obed Calvaire, Edition Records 

For the last fifty years, the bassist Dave Holland has been at the forefront of traditional, modern, avant-garde/free, and fusion jazz. Born in 1946 in Staffordshire, England, by the age of twenty, Holland was a fixture as a reliable and gifted bassist at London’s Ronnie Scott’s. He was seen there by Miles Davis and Philly Joe Jones and was fortuitously enlisted by the trumpeter to replace the departing bassist Ron Carter in his progressive quintet of the late sixties. During his stay he was recorded on Davis’ Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968), In A Silent Way (1969), and Bitches Brew (1970). With this exposure came opportunities, but this immensely talented bassist did not settle into a predictable or safe career pattern.

Holland had a two-year stint with the Davis’ quintet, at that time including keyboardist Chick Corea, drummer Tony Williams (later Jack DeJohnette), and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. The bassist joined a short but potent progressive, openly free-swinging group titled Circle with Corea, reedman/composer Anthony Braxton, and drummer Barry Altschul. Corea departed the band, but Holland’s relationship with Braxton created lasting relationships with other progressive musicians including Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and saxophonist Sam Rivers. Holland composed and recorded his first release as a leader, the impressive Conference of the Birds on ECM with Rivers, Braxton and Altschul. All Music’s Steve Huey called this record “…one of the all-time avant-garde jazz classics” and Rolling Stone noted, “… it only gets more impressive as time passes.” 

In the early seventies, Holland joined forces with guitarist John Abercrombie and drummer Jack DeJohnette forming GatewayThe group had plenty of fire, and could also have a more pensive, ethereal approach to music.

Holland’s collaborations found him crossing paths with a who’s who of the music world. Besides those listed above, he has played with Stan Getz, Kenny Barron, Thelonious Monk, Joe Lovano, Pat Metheny, Roy Haynes, John Surman, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, John Scofield, and Dave Liebman to name just a few. Throughout his career he has constantly expanded his palette to create exciting music, utilizing changing formats ranging the gamut from solo to big band forms to follow his musical muse.

I was fortunate to last see Holland and his impressive world music-inspired trio Crosscurrents at Emory back in 2017. This trio included Holland, saxophonist Chris Potter, and percussion master Zakir Hussain. In my opinion, the east meets west album Good Hope was one of 2019's best recordings.

Holland's latest release came out in March of this year, again on Edition Records, and is titled Another Land. This music is a powerful musical statement. it is a confirmation of the musical breadth and depth of Holland as an artist who can never be pigeonholed or labeled by a specific genre or style. This offering reunites Holland with the excellent, in some ways underappreciated, guitarist Kevin Eubanks and the stalwart drummer Obed Calvaire. Respected reviewer, Will Layman, said in Pop Matters, Another Land was “…the best new Holland recording in a long time.” Whether you are hip to Holland’s body of work or not, Another Land is one smokin’ album and is sure to delight.

Kevin Eubanks, Dave Holland and Obed Calvaire (photo credit unknown)

Another Land resurrects the fusion guitar trio format that Holland previously helped create with Gateway. Here, Holland is a more seasoned player who allows the compositions to speak for him. He still plays with impressive verve and allows his bandmates, especially Eubanks, yards of room to create, but there is a real cohesiveness on this album. The guitar is often out front here, but the bass and drums are equal co-conspirators that perform more organically, allowing the music to naturally unfold and blossom.

Kevin Eubanks first recorded with Holland back in 1990 on Extensions with Steve Coleman on alto and Marvin “Smitty” Smith on drums. The album was Downbeat’s 1990 Album of the Year.  Eubanks would go on to establish a more noticeable name for himself as the personable leader of the Tonight Show Band from 1995 to 2010. Eubanks has since released several albums like Zen Food and The Messenger where his extraordinary, uniquely sinewy guitar playing is testimony to his status as one of this era's best guitarists. 

On Another Land, “Grave Walker,” opens with an infectious electric bass line joined by the interweaving playing of Eubanks' slippery, serpentine guitar and anchored by Calvaire’s responsive but subtle drum work. There is a funky, rhythmic flow that anchors the music and forms an armature on which Eubanks explores and expands. Holland’s rich bass solo is always a treat to hear as it throbs, and sways, with Calvaire expertly propulsive.

The title cut, “Another Land,” has its own infectious bassline. Holland's double bass resonates, the rhythmic grab he establishes is a signature part of the bassist’s modus operandi. Eubanks overdubs his delicate acoustic with his sleek electric guitar lines that mesh gloriously. Eubank’s taste is gorgeous and restrained, stunningly sensitive, and superb. Holland's solo is a sonic splendor that combines creative ideas with wonderful tonal acuity. About halfway through the duo creating a dream-like landscape, Calvaire’s brushwork is heard ever so unobtrusively. This song can simply hypnotize you into a Zen-like state, a musical meditation.

“Gentle Warrior” is driven by a Holland ostinato bass line that morphs into a more robust melody line. Eubanks and Calvaire walk a conjoined line of sympathetic interaction until Holland produces a rousing double bass solo that throbs like a heart on adrenaline. Eubank’s guitar solo is explosive, modulating, a little frantic, and at times Hendrix-like, but always retains that watery, slinky sound that is all-Eubanks. Supporting the music with a subdued but driving accompaniment throughout, Calvaire at the coda provides his own cadenced drum feature that is, syncopated and inventive by this superb trap master.

There is a lot in this album to relish. The fusion-like “20-20” opens with a deeply resonating bowed bass from Holland and a gentle guitar accompaniment. The music then erupts into a heavy, almost metal-like theme. Holland plays some generous solos on double bass that are expansive and energized. Eubanks’ mastery of his guitar is impressive. He can wail, serpentinely modulate or embellish with delicately fingered filigree notes to the music. These three artists are so well matched with talent and can trace each other’s serpentine lines with effortless aplomb.

The gorgeous “Quiet Time” features Kevin Eubanks’solo guitar and is a testament to the guitarist’s ability to embellish on a beautiful theme unaccompanied. He can capture the listener unaccompanied, like many of the greats, with his tasteful virtuosity. Guitar lovers will cherish this masterful display of the man's sensitive side.

The rocker of this album is “Mashup,” a fusion, rock-driven, atomization. Calvaire’s drums dance and Holland’s electric bass punctuates with what sounds like a Stanley Clarke-like attack. Eubanks shreds in the most outer limits guitar work of the album. Eubanks has a wellspring of ideas and they all unfold with rapid-fire accuracy and magical slickness. Calvaire's fusillade of drum work at the coda is like a force of nature eruption.

“Passing Time” is a slow-paced, soulful saunter that leads off with a catchy, signature Holland bass line. All of Holland's compositions utilize unique and at times complex changes that simply raise the level of the songs to so much more than just catchy grooves. The trio uses the armature of the music and expands it to a vehicle of pure improvisational creation. Eubanks Latin-inspired guitar work sends the listener to another place and Holland’s solo is a lesson on how many rhythmic techniques on the bass strings can be used to be expressive.

The opening of “The Village” is a study on how creative musicians can evoke an aural scene by skillfully mixing sounds, not unlike a fine painter who mixes an array of colors on his palette to achieve his desired effect. Holland sets the feel with his ostinato bass lines, and Calvaire accentuates with his skillful rim and skin playing. Eubanks expertly modulates on his guitar and the three go off into the daylight toward the Village. Eventually, Eubanks’ guitar lines punch into the opening ahead with authority, before Holland’s bass seems to lead the group into a calmer clearing ahead. The music elevates the tension with Eubanks’ willy guitar lines and harshly accentuated chording. The music then raises the excitement with a series of climbing arpeggios and an explosive drum eruption by Calvaire at the coda.

This excellent album ends with “Bring It Back Home.” What better way than to end with a funky, blues-tinged shuffle that lowers the temperature of the set and introduces an overall feeling of contentment at returning home. A sonorant double bass in the hands of a master like Holland is the perfect vehicle to give this an authentic blues feel. Eubanks’ slithery guitar is a whole new level of funk and grit and the guitarist never ceases to find his own way of expression and surprise. Calvaire is like a reliable pacemaker, all though capable of volcanic flares, on this one stays the course in this classic groove. Amen. 

Friday, August 13, 2021

"Shuffling Ivories" Musical Magic by Roberto Magris and Eric Hochberg

Roberto Magris & Eric Hochberg Shuffling Ivories JMood 021

The accomplished and swinging jazz pianist Roberto Magris has created a discography that many would consider diverse and impressive. Born in Trieste, Italy in 1959, the now sixty-two-year-old musician started playing at the age of four. It was a classical education before in 1977, the then eighteen-year-old pianist was exposed to  The Way I Play by the pianist Oscar Peterson and his infatuation with jazz would start and never release its grip on this pianist.

Living in Trieste, a city that is often referred to as a link to the Mitteleuropa or Middle Europe, Magris was exposed to a diverse cornucopia of ethnicities and cultures. The Italian port city is bordered by mainland Italy on its North and West, Slovenia on its Northeast and Croatia on its Southern border. Besides Italian links, the area boasts diversity, melding Latin, Slavic, Germanic and Greek cultural roots to the city’s historical fabric. 

Along the way, this artist has assimilated influences from a variety of pianistic sources. In addition to Peterson, Magris was touched by the works of Eubie Blake, Bud Powell, Bobby Timmons, Elmo Hope, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Paul Bley, and Andrew Hill. With these varied influences being absorbed into the man’s playing DNA, his playing is always his own and can always be counted on to swing and often evoke an emotional connection with the listener. 

Roberto Magris, a bit of a one-man historian of the music, has recorded over thirty albums to date. This pianist/composer always sought out collaborations with other notable, although somewhat obscure artists, using the chance to document these legend’s work with his own. He organized, played, arranged, and managed to record: Check-In 2005 with Hungarian saxophone talent Tony Lakatos; Kansas City Outbound 2006 with bassist Art Davis and drummer Jimmy “Junebug” Jackson; Il Bello del Jazz 2006 with saxophonist Herb Geller; Mating Call 2010 with the drummer Idris Muhammad; tributes to trumpeter Lee Morgan and pianist Elmo Hope with drummer legend Albert “Tootie” Heath and Sun Stone 2019 with trumpeter Ira Sullivan to name just a few.

Magris met the accomplished bassist Eric Hochberg at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago and later recorded Suite with him in 2019. Hochberg’s name is not known to everyone, an under-the-radar talent whose work with one-time Pat Metheny drummer Paul Wertico and Bella Fleck harmonica master/pianist Howard Levy speaks for itself. Hochberg is the perfect foil for Magris. The Italian pianist finds bright possibilities in working with artists like Hochberg who have all the talent and little chance to shine in the spotlight. The latest release, Shuffling Ivories, is a beautiful matching of these two artists in an intimate duo setting.

There is a noticeable simpatico between these two and together they create a delightful record that is easy to sit back with, listen to and enjoy. Magris records eleven songs and they include tributes to some of his pianistic heroes. The opening and title cut “Shuffling Ivories” is a homage-like reference to Eubie Blake who with Noble Sissel wrote “Shuffle Along” in the twenties. Magris is joyous on this blues-tinged swinger as Hochberg walks defiantly and then produces a rousing bass solo that punctuates things. There is fun in the air. 

Mining Clarence Williams 1926 “I’ve Found a New Baby,” Magris opens with some jaunty piano work and Hochberg’s playful response. Magris' piano is minimal at times to let Hochberg’s responses be the more featured. 

Magris’s “Clef Club Club,” a reference to a Harlem Social club for black Americans from back in 1910, opens up with a boisterous piano and some urgent bow work by Hochberg. These two create a sense of cinematic urgency.

Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You” is given a more embellished treatment by the talented Magris. You can hear the reverence in Magris’ playing and Hochberg offers a deep-toned pizzicato bass solo that emphasizes the moving melody with some fluttering accents. Despite being faithful to Blake’s sensibilities the pianist often embroiders the music with more modern approaches. Later in the album Blake’s The Chevy Chase” is played by the duet and the tact here is more stride-like by Magris. There is a bouncy buoyancy, a ragtime tradition seeping into the music and Hochberg follows suit. The music reminds me of music played in old silent music as accompaniment.

One of my favorites from the album is from the obscure pianist Billy Gault titled “The Time of this World Is at Hand.” Magris revels in this minor-keyed, dark but surprisingly moving melody. The music hooks you in its sway and Magris captures it wonderfully with a fluid verve and poignancy. Hochberg lays down the solid beat and offers some creative counterpoint.

The saxophonist Archie Shepp’s 1972 Attica Blues album featured the song “Quiet Dawn” from Cal Massey and here Magris and Hochberg do a moving rendition of this melancholic composition. Hochberg’s emotive bowing in the opening is a sonic treat. Magris’s superb accompaniment is subtle and tight. The pianist is most animated in his playing which he gets modernistic here when they expand the melody and Hochberg reverts to his astute plucking. Listen closely as Magris inserts a reference in his playing from Charlie Parker’s “Cool Blues” and as Hochberg’s impressive pizzicato soloing is featured around the 5:31 mark.
Just marvel at how much musical magic two instruments under the control of two talented players can produce.

In keeping with a dedication to his influences, Magris chooses one of Andrew Hills' more sensitive tunes “La Verne.” The slow-paced ballad features some of Magris’ most aggressive embellishments and Hochberg’s bass work compliments with aplomb. The duet has included two versions of this song. The reprise that closes the album is more romantic in its approach and Magris and Hochberg enjoyed rethinking this originally angular song into a 4/4 ballad that feels more true to the pianist’s idea of being a love song that Hill dedicated to his first wife. Magris’s piano work is splendid and Hochberg’s solo is pointedly clear and moving.

“Anysha” is a composition by Philadelphia soul and jazz keyboard artist Trudy Pitts and was first heard by Magris on Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s album Other Folks Music. Magris and Hochberg set the music to a light bounce that has a nice flow to it. Hochberg offers an agile solo that dances along with the music like a wood sprite in a magical forest. Magris subtly accompanies leaving some marvelous space to allow the bassist to shine. 

“Italy” is a tribute to Magris’ birth country and at the same time is a musical memorial to Italian American musicians that have one way or another influenced or touched the pianist. In the liner notes Magris mentions Lennie Tristano, George Wallington, Vido Musso, The Candoli Brothers, Sal Mosca Carl Fontana and singer Tony Bennett all as having impacted the music he loves. The music has been compared as a musical “postcard from Italy” to the audiences who hear it. I’ll leave you to experience this for yourselves.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

"All Without Words: Variations inspired by Loren": A Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra by Justin Morell w John Daversa

ALL WITHOUT WORDS variations inspired by Loren : Justin Morell and John Daversa and Jazz Orchestra

A special album was released this past April and it is a thoughtful and moving piece of music that deserves your careful attention. All Without Words variations inspired by Loren is a brilliant representation of the nonverbal sounds that a father, Justin Morell, carefully listened to and recorded of his autistic son Loren. From what I have read, Loren has been unable to verbalize since the age of three and he is presently sixteen.  It was one of those continuing attempts that a parent of an autistic child may take to broaden their understanding of how to connect with a child who cannot communicate in traditional verbal ways.

Commissioned by the trumpet master and educator John Daversa who is the chair of studio and jazz music at University of Miami’s Frost School, Morell used his recordings of his son as the launching point to create this dynamic concerto for trumpet and orchestra.  Daversa encouraged Morrell to expand his musical palette on this project and the work incorporates the sounds of a full string orchestra, a jazz quartet, guest artists and an eight-piece choir to create his aural panorama as seen from his son’s eyes. Morell is an accomplished jazz guitarist as well as a formidable orchestrator, composer, and arranger. His previous work includes his well-received Concerto for Guitar and Jazz Orchestra featuring Adam Rogers which was released in early 2019. He is currently teaching as an assistant professor at Lebanon Valley College in Anniston, PA.

The album is a twelve-piece concerto that, independent of the source of its inspiration, stands on its own as a gorgeous and impressive piece of work. Morell skillfully expands on the melody that he was able to harvest from his son’s voicings. He uses the compliant and expressive trumpet lead voice of Daversa and the magnificently arranged orchestra to musically open a universe into his son’s experience. A universe that was previously not well understood. The pieces are representations of an autistic’s world and become more understandable to the uninitiated by their titles. Compositions include “Loren’s Theme” the melodic  basis of the entire work, “Searching but Never Finding,” “Two Steps Forward,” “Seeing for the First Time,” “The Urgency of Every Moment,” “Invisible Things,” “Walking in Our Own Footsteps- The Circle Game,” ”The Smallest Thing,” “A Day Is Forever-Like Any Other,” “Three Roads Diverged,” Learning Simply to Be,” and “It’s Enough to Be Here, Now.”  

Justin Morell ( photo credit unknown)

This album is a suite that should be listened to in its entirety. Some pieces may identify with you more than others. These are the impressions that were evoked by my repeated listening.

The opening piece “Loren’s Theme” is perhaps closest to Morell’s original source melodically and swells with anticipation. “Searching but Never Finding” has a tension that is accentuated by the group’s building ostinato theme under Daversa’s high register searching trumpet. “Two Steps Forward” utilizes an orchestral and rhythmic section cadence that simulates the upward motion of moving ahead in strides. Daversa’s horn leads you in successful steps.  “The Urgency of Every Moment” is an aural feast of excitement and anxiousness, brilliantly projected by Daversa’s anxious, shrill sounding horn. “Invisible Things” opens orchestrally in an ethereal way, like you are entering a cloud and are surrounded by celestial voices.  “Walking in Our Own Footsteps -The Circle Game” is like a beautiful and joyful waltz. “The Smallest Thing” is like a revelation. The orchestra swells, ebbing and flowing with gorgeous use of horns and strings as Daversa’s subdued trumpet seems to discover unknown things with a cautious curiosity. The orchestra edges him on with patient prodding that lays out a path. The music has moments of majesty and poignancy accentuated by warm and achingly moving string section work. The metronomic opening of “A Day Is Forever-Like Any Other” is paced by drummer David Chiverton’s time locked pace on the rim. The strings hum in synch as Daversa awakens to the repetition of another day like any other. This is familiar territory repeated like a loop of life that never seems to change but awaits to be revisited. “Three Roads Diverged” open joyfully with a repeating string section counterpointed by a probing, darting horn section part. The music is grand and again features Daversa’s lead trumpet navigating the journey laid out by the orchestra.

John Daversa (photo credit unknown)

Daversa is an extremely creative artist who uses his trumpet as an expressive voice that he has employed throughout with aplomb and sensitivity. Morell’s magical arrangements for orchestra is quite impressive. He evokes a cornucopia of textures, rhythmic interest and aural beauty. “Learning Simply to Be” is obviously a task that often takes most of us a lifetime of conscious practice if ever achievable.  One can only imagine how an autistic person, who may have more than their share of challenges, can master this simple but essential state of mind.  Morell’s music is nonetheless hopeful and swells with a joyful sense of possibility. The finale is titled “It’s Enough to Be Here, Now,” a proclamation of what we all should take to heart.

Morell’s composing and arranging on this suite is beautiful, thoughtful, and evocative of what it might be like to live like a person with autism. I am reminded of University of South Florida Professor Chuck Owen’s great work from 2013 River Runs: A Concert for Jazz Guitar, Saxophone and Orchestra, which was also an evocative work that used similar orchestration. That one created a brilliant aural painting of the composer’s impressions of rafting on a tumultuously running river. Likewise, Morell has been equally successful. With All Without Words variations inspired by Loren, Morell has been able to creatively breach the gap between the difficulties of autism and those of us who do not have to deal with this spectral disorder. He has used his son’s singing and soundings, otherwise alien to many of us, as a vehicle  to explore the various challenges and experiences that a person on the spectrum may face, and he has successfully used his music to promote understanding and for that we must all be thankful. 

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Hungarian Guitarist Gabor Lesko's : "Earthway"

Gabor Lesko: Earthway 
The progressive guitarist Gabor Lesko has released his eighth album as a leader titled Earthway on the Creativity’s Paradise Music label and it will certainly appeal to many listeners on multiple levels. 

Lesko is a resident of Milan in Italy and is of Hungarian descent. He was educated in classical guitar, piano, and orchestration in Europe and studied at Berklee for a year in 1988. Along the way, he also studied briefly with guitarists Joe Diorio, Robben Ford and Frank Gambale. He is especially known as an accomplished acoustic guitarist, and he has incorporated his formidable fingerpicking skills in a unique way to his facile fusion/prog rock/jazz work on electric guitar.

Earthway is a project that found its genesis in Lesko’s need to continue to create, even though the pandemic effects of Covid 19 made playing with others or for audiences almost impossible. Lesko decided to write or resurrect- the title composition was written twenty years ago- eight compositions and re-imagine them for this interesting and creative album. Along with his formidable skills at acoustic and electric guitars, as well as piano and electric keyboard, Lesko wanted to bring together some talented musicians to realize this project. He had a long-standing friendship with saxophonist Eric Marienthal, who was able to enlist drummers Dave Weck. Other musicians used here include drummers Marco Fuliano, Sophie Alloway, Eugenio Mori and Gergo Borlai and bassists Jimmy Haslip, Hadrien Feraud and Federico Malaman. The Milwaukee Brass Ensemble directed by Eric Marienthal was used on two cuts and vocalist Guido Block sang on one song. 

Amazingly, most of the work was done in multiple studios at a distance when personal contact was not practical.  My biggest beef with this fine album is the lack of liner notes or identification of the many fine musicians that play on the various songs. How can you rightfully recognize the artists who contribute?  I can only identify a few from reading some recent interviews that discuss the album and hint at who plays where. This can be a bit maddening.

Gabor Lesko ( photo credit unknown)

The titled track “Earthway” opens the album with Lesko using atmospheric electronics on synth, accompanied by Block’s vocal improvisations and a pulsing electric bass line, most likely by Hadrien Feraud. Dave Weckl’s propelling drums build the excitement. Lesko offers deft and emotionally driven solos on electric and acoustic guitar that just stir the pot with passion. This is an orchestrated song that uses Block’s ethereal vocals. Weckl’s drive, Lesko’s piano accompaniment, and fleet guitar work to take on a Metheny-like feel to this gem.  

The music always changes the mood with the fusion driven “Fiesta” utilizing a (maybe Jimmy Haslip) bassline and Tower of Power-like brass section with horns by the Milwaukie Brass that introduces a funky element to this song. Large elastic bass lines and a soaring, electronically enhanced soprano saxophone solo by Marienthal take flight. Lesko’s fusion inspired electric guitar solo is here reminds me a little of Lee Ritenour, erupting with power and fast arpeggios

The ever-ascending ballad “Still Here for You” has a prog-rock feel that features some of Lesko’s impressive electric guitar work. This artist can be a little chameleon-like in his playing. He has an uncanny ability to morph his sound as the purpose serves him. He is definitely not a one-trick pony.

On the ballad “Igor” we find Lesko going back to employing the piano and acoustic guitar. He is aware of pace and the diversity of tone that makes this album never predictable. This composition gorgeously states the melody and uses the variation of tones employing Marienthal’s soprano, Lesko's own beautiful piano, and  acoustic guitar to explore tone.

Taking you to another place, “Gently Obsessive” is probably the gentlest song on the album, with piano and acoustic guitar by Lesko on a folk-like waltz. But don’t be lulled, Lesko’s delicate fingerpicking yields halfway through this song to a scorching electric solo that raises the temperature by a few Centigrade before returning you back.

Never one to let the music languish, Lesko comes back with the funk/fusion composition “Push It.” The arrangement is by the young English musician Sophie Alloway who plays drums here. Bassist Feraud makes his bass punctuate the music with presence and Lesko plays piano, synthesizer and utilizes a string accompaniment to make this pop. Lesko’s guitar is never too far from the mix and here he expertly makes his presence known with his versatile finger-picked-like facility on his electric Schecter Custom shop Strat. He can make his instrument sear. Alloway’s drum finale is explosive and noteworthy.

“Mickey Mouse Loves Jazz” is a straight-ahead jazz that features Weckl pushing the pace and Marienthal adding a soprano solo. The bass work is anchored but not sure who is in this chair. Lesko’s guitar tone is a little different again and flows effortlessly, creating fluid arpeggios that simply bloom like flowers in a Spring morning.

The finale is the more atmospheric orchestrated piece “Air (Lost Key Part Two)” which uses dynamic synthesized background that sets the scene for Lesko’s guitar to take flight. The bass and piano play in sync and it has a cinematic sense to this music. Lesko has impressively orchestrated synthesized strings, horns, and piano to paint an aural landscape upon which he overlays his guitar solo figures that create this ambitious visual.

Master musician Gabor Lesko has been busy creating Earthway and he has produced a marvelous piece of music that shows his facility for composition, arranging, and a virtuosity that takes you in rewarding and unexpected directions. 

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Canadian guitarist Lorne Lofsky: This Song is New

This Song is New Lorne Lofsky Modica Music 

The excitement about searching for and listening to new music is that if you explore enough, you can find out about some talented artists who have somehow flown under your radar. My recent discovery of the Canadian guitarist Lorne Lofsky is a case in point. A talented artist who prefers to eschew the use of electronic enhancements to modify his beautiful, melodic tone, he instead uses a precise, thoughtful exploratory approach and a warm, fluid attack that speaks volumes to his uncluttered expressivity. The now sixty-seven-year-old Lofsky is based in the cosmopolitan city of Toronto, where he is acknowledged as a sought-after educator at both York University and Humber College where he teaches.

Lorne Lofsky ( photo credit unnown)

Lofsky’s guitar sensitivity was employed by trumpeter Chet Baker and he toured with saxophonist Pat LaBarbera in 1983. Lofsky worked with guitar legend Ed Bickert from 1983-1991, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and he was part of pianist icon Oscar Peterson’s touring quartet from 1994-1996. Since the early 1980’s Lofsky and expressive saxophonist Kirk MacDonald worked as a local quartet and on his latest release This Song is New, they are joined by their intuitive rhythm section of bassist Kiernan Overs and drummer Barry Romberg. This recording is the first release of music from Lofsky as a leader in over twenty-plus years. After listening to this great album my only comment is what took him so long? 

The session was originally envisioned as a workout of new material that the guitarist had brought to try out in the studio with friends. Luckily the tape was running, and the decision was made to release the recording of this intimate and enjoyable session.

The music includes seven selections, five are Lofsty originals and two are the guitarist’s reimagining’s of standards like “Seven Steps,” a creative take on the Miles Davis/Victor Feldman composition from 1963 “Seven Steps to Heaven,” and Benny Golson’s “Stable Mates” which Lofsky dresses up as a Bossa.

“Seven Steps” is given a jaunty rhythmic treatment and provides the platform to display the intuitive simpatico that MacDonald and Lofsky have developed after years of working together. Bassist Overs and drummer Romberg go faithfully along keeping the pace. I especially like Romberg’s rumbling drum solo and Overs lingering last note at the end.

The gorgeous ballad “The Time Being,” is an ethereal piece that sidesteps the moniker of “straight-ahead” jazz and demonstrates the ever-exploring nature of the guitarist’s work for finding alternative ways of looking at music. He calls this “…a snapshot of where your at in your personal/musical life.” It is pensive, evocative of self-discovery and his guitar deceptively sounds at times more like a comping pianist.

“Live at the Apollo,” which is musically related to John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” finds a beautiful interaction between Overs and Lofsky, as Romberg percolates in the background. The guitarist offers a creative and silvery solo that teems with ideas and fluidity. MacDonald offers a Trane-inspired run on his horn that bristles, derivative but not imitative. Loving to create a play on words with his composition’s titles, Lofsky here refers to a juxtaposition of the famous Harlem Music venue The Apollo and Neil Armstrong’s famous “…step for mankind” trip from the Apollo 11 mission in 1969.

 “This Song is New” uses an unnoticeable change in key through the melody statement which some may say was derived from another song “This Song is You,” but the guitarist assures any comparison to the two is totally coincidental. The slowly sauntering rhythm is carried by Overs buoyant basslines and Romberg’s shuffling brushwork. Lofsky and MacDonald are especially melodic on this and the group creates a warm feeling that wraps you like a quilt in front of a wood-burning fireplace; just cozy.

Following his penchant for creating pun-like titles, “An Alterior Motif” fits Lofsky’s tendency toward tongue-in-cheek. The music utilizes alternate harmonies throughout and there is a tension that builds up in MacDonald’s angular saxophone work and Lofsky’s subtle comping. This is one is a thinking man’s delve into unusual musical possibilities and deserves attention.

Perhaps the most interesting of the compositions is “Evans from Lennie,” which honors Tristano’s penchant for harmonic freedom and rhythmic variation. Lofsky was playing with the music of “Pennies from Heaven” when writing this one and was reminded of the work of Tristano acolytes Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz. Lofsky actually studied briefly with Konitz. The multiple influences here include Tristano's angular approach, MacDonald’s Konitz-like saxophone statement, and Lofsky’s melodic guitar work that spans the gap between bebop and modern jazz, much like Tristano and Bill Evans did with their piano work. This one takes some deep listening to fully appreciate the nuances that Lofsky and friends achieve here.

The finale is a Bossa treatment of Benny Golson’s standard “Stable Mates,” which is like seeing your lady out on the town in an unfamiliar but spectacular new outfit. You know her, but she looks and sounds so different. The rhythmic variation enlivens the well-traveled tune with some vibrancy. Lofsky says, playing in different time signatures has become more familiar over the years, and he employs the time changes effectively in his compositions. 

Take some time, listen to and absorb Lorne Lofsky's This Song is New and you will be rewarded by this beautiful and expertly executed session.