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.