Monday, December 6, 2021

Notes on Jazz Best of Jazz 2021 : Post Pandemic Jazz Offers a Year of Beauty, Promise and a Look back.

The Year 2021 stubbornly evolved into what is a post-pandemic year for most of us. Miraculous and effective vaccinations effectively conquered the likelihood of getting seriously ill, or even worse, becoming a casualty from the mutating Covid virus. At least the science seems to have it at bay for now. Isolation, masks, and limiting traveling all added to our safety. For artists in all disciplines of the performing arts- music, theatre, dance, film & fine visual arts- the chance to meet safely with collaborators, to record with colleagues, or even to perform to a live and encouraging audience was practically nil and lingered on for an interminably long period. The shutdown was dreadful for most artists. The creative juices are often stimulated by the chance to interact,  collaborate,  inspire with peers, and receive valuable feedback that is best emotionally transmitted by the visceral response of a live audience. Was this pandemic going to be responsible for the total evisceration of the arts? Fortunately, many artists found the isolation that the angst that Covid brought on over the last year and one half became a chance to dig deeper into their creative wellspring. Strangely, we were all the beneficiaries of that self-imposed period that allowed some deep reflection, some serious reevaluation, and in the case of musicians some inspired creativity and brilliance in new music.

As the year of 2021 ebbs to its close, it is a tradition of those of us who review jazz and contemporary music, to select some of the music in the genre that we have heard and found worth noting over this past year. It is impossible to pick a "best of list" since it is a totally subjective opinion and certainly restricted to what this reviewer has been able to carefully listen to over this past year. Acknowledging those inherent limitations I humbly offer this one person's ideas of notable, creative, and often promising music of 2021. I also found some rewarding reissues and historical recordings that are definitely worth a listen. I list the music in no particular order. I know there is much more music that is worth your serious attention, but I hope my list helps you navigate and hopefully introduce to you the plethora of deserving artists who have created some magical music this year. Happy Holidays to all. Listen and have fun.

                                Reissues and Historical Releases: 

Roseanne Vitro: Listen Here  originally recorded in 1982

Roy Hargrove & Mulgrew Miller: In Harmony  recorded in 2006 & 2007: Resonance Records

Harvie S Trio w Mike Stern & Alan Dawson: Going For It: Savant Records recorded live in 1985

Wolgang Lackerschmidt and Chet Baker  w  Larry Coryell, Buster Williams and Tony Williams.  Wolfgang Lakerschmidt Chet Baker Quintet Sessions  recorded in 1979; Dot Time Records

                                        New Issues:

Jakob Bro: Uma Elmo : ECM Records w Arve Hendriken and Jorge Rossy

Chick Corea Akoustic Band: The Akoustic Band Live: w John Patitucci and Dave Weckl: Concord Records

Steve Gadd:  Steve Gadd Band At Blue Note Toyko: w/ David Spinozza, Jimmy Johnson, Walt Fowler, and Kevin Hays:  BFM Jazz

Lyle Mays: Eberhard: OIM

Chris Potter Circuits Trio: Sunrise Reprise: w James Francies and Eric Harland: Self-Produced

Alex Sipiagin: Upstream: w Art Hirahara, Boris Kozlov and Rudy Royston: Posi Tone Records

Lorne Lofsky: This Song is New: Modica Music w/Kirk MacDonald, Kieran Overs and Barry Romberg

Joe Lovano & Dave Douglas Soundprints: Other Worlds: Greenleaf Music w/ Lawrence Fields, Lind May Han Oh and Joey Baron.

Dave Holland: Another Land: w Kevin Eubanks and Obed Calvaire: Edition Records

Pharoah Sanders w Sam Shepherd and the London Symphony Orchetsra: Floating Points

Kirk Lightsey: I'll Never Stop Loving You: Solo Piano on JoJo Records:

Nnenna Freelon: Time Traveler: Origin Records

Marc Johnson: Overpass: Solo Double Bass ECM

John Daversa Jazz Orchestra featuring Justin Morell: All Without Words

Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette : Skyline : 5 Passion Records

Sinne Eeg and Thomas Fonnesbaek: Staying in Touch: Stunt Records

Carlos Henriquez: The South Bronx Story: Self Produced

Kate McGary + Keith Ganz Ensemble featuring Ron Miles and Gary Versace: What to Wear in the Dark: Self-Produced

Mike LeDonne: Mike LeDonne: It's Your Fault: w The Mike LeDonne Groover Quartet +Big Band: Savant Records

Dave Zinno: Dave Zinno and Unisphere :Fetish: Whaling City Sound

Rachel Eckroth: The Garden: Rainy Days Records w Tim Lefebvre, Donny McCaslin, Christian Euman, Andrew Krasilnikov and Nir Felder. 

Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trios: Songs From My Father: Whaling City Sound

The Baylor Project: Jean Baylor and Marcus Baylor : Generations: Be A Light Records

Roberto Magris and Eric Hochberg: Shuffling Ivories: JMood Records

Ross Hammond: It's Been Here All Along: Solo Resonator Guitar: Self Produced 

David Kikoski w Boris Kozlov: Sure Thing: High Note Records

Gabor Lesko: Earthway

Slowly Rolling Camera: Where the Streets Lead: Edition Records

Michael Wolff: Michael Wolff Live at Vitello's: w Mark Isham, Mike Clark, and John B. Williams: Sunnyside 

Jim Snidero: Jim Snidero Live at the Deer Head Inn: w Orrin Evans, Peter Washington, and Joe Farnsworth: Savant Records

Scott Reeves Quintet: The Alchemist: w Russ Speigel;, Mike Holober, Howard Britz, Andy Watson; Origin Records

Chuck Owen and The Jazz Surge: Within Us; Celebrating 25 Years of the Jazz Surge: Mama Records

Monday, November 22, 2021

Unlimited High Energy from bassist Dave Zinno's Unisphere on "FETISH"

Dave Zinno Unisphere Fetish  WCS130

Some great things come in small packages. As a  state, Rhode Island is according to its geographical area, the smallest in the country. Despite its’ small footprint, the state features many important universities, beautiful resorts and has some of the countries most beautiful beaches, so much so that it is known as the Ocean State. The bassist/composer Dave Zinno hails from Rhode Island, and his compact appearance belies the large and dynamic presence he projects when he plays his double bass. 

Zinno attended the University of Rhode Island and Berklee School of Music and is a teaching associate at URI, Salve Regina, and Brown Universities. Fetish is the third album from his group Unisphere, and was released back in September on Neal Weiss’ Whaling City Sound. For the musicians, this album came like a long-awaited breath of fresh air, a release of energy from the pent-up restrictions that held them hostage to restrictions for over a year during the peak of the pandemic. This album was their get out of jail card to return to playing and hopefully performing to a real audience.

Zinno energizes the music of this album with power, exuberance, and skill that sets the stage for an enjoyable listening experience right from the opening salvo of his title composition “Fetish.” Zinno’s double bass repeats the fusillade-like opening statement with fury and precision and the group takes the clue and lightens up the intensity with a controlled, tight front line of sax and trumpet, two pianists, and a spirited drummer. This music just shouts out with excitement and it's only the beginning. 

The Unisphere group has a formidable front line that includes tenor saxophonist Mike Tucker and trumpeter Eric Benny Bloom as they add to the intensity. The dual pianists include Leo Genovese and Tim Ray add texture and style and the rhythm section is anchored by Zinno and drummer Rafael Barata. 

Leo Genovese’s composition “Out of the Hole” is a driving outing that features this talented pianist who just shreds with an endless flow of ideas and intensity. Bloom’s trumpet sends it to the skies and Tucker wails with piercing intention as Zinno and Barata drive relentlessly. Zinno offers a fleet pizzicato solo at the coda that resonates with force.

“Unknown Mystery” is a powerful Bloom composition, with the front line sounding like they could be graduates of the Art Blakey Messengers school. Zinno’s booming bass just erupts with steady drive and authority. Genovese offers a spacey electronic keyboard solo and Barata’s drums percolate kinetically.

Dave Zinno ( photo credit unknown)

Tuckers’ “The Golden Age” is a jagged, energized piece that features some incendiary work by the saxophonist and some intense front-line work. Tucker also contributed “Melancholy Daydream” whose music creates the feel of catching you in a rising thermal, like you’re in a hang glider and reaching altitudes you never dreamed of. Tucker’s “Over the Horizon,” one of my favorites of this album, a more subdued ballad that features some somber arco work by Zinno, some well-matched front-line work by Tucker and Bloom, and Genovese piano accents that shine. The bassist anchors the song with his huge bass sound and offers a sensitive pizzicato solo that is a delight.

“So Close So Far” is a Zinno composition that just struts with confidence. Zinno’s bass chops almost explode with attitude as he demonstrates formidable facility and inventiveness. Genovese, Bloom, and Tucker pick up on the music’s raucous sentiment and with Barata’s energized drums make this one a family affair.

The album adds a sensitive Tim Ray arrangement to the Brazilian ballad by Edu Lobo titled “Beatrix”. Ray’s piano work is warm and moving. Zinno and Tucker add to the emotional impact of this song with their individual contributions. The beauty of this music obviously moved this group and it shows. The drummer Barata knew this one well having worked with the composer in the past.

One of the album’s standouts, Paul Nagel’s “Future History,” opens with a dark, fluttering bass entre before Zinno starts with the ostinato-driven bassline. Genovese’s cascading piano comps create watery lines that waterfall over the movement. Tucker’s sax is relentlessly probing and wails with a rabid sense of purpose, very Coltrane-inspired. Genovese’s piano work is captivating and teeming with speed and a flow of ideas that are hard to imagine can come from one bubbling mind.

Dave Zinno’s “Nile” is perhaps the most adventurous tune on the album. It includes the bassist playing the cuica (pronounced ku ike), a Brazilian percussion instrument that produces a high-pitched squeaky timbre which Zinno uses in the opening. The song was written by Zinno in the eighties after watching the Bogart and Hepburn classic movie “African Queen.”  The song emulates the aural sounds of the jungle and depicts the sauntering, swaying feel of traveling up a river by boat that is in no hurry to get where it is going. Bloom’s trumpet work here is entrancing, and Ray’s piano is expansive and splendid. Zinno and Barata maintain the slow, deliberate pace to perfection.

The album also includes Genovese’s “Into the Whole” a driving waltz, and it ends with Dom Salvador ‘s “Menu Fraco e CafĂ© Forte” which translates from Portuguese as “Weak Menu Strong Coffee.” The song was arranged by Brazilian trombonist Rafael Rocha who also plays as a guest on this one. The front line is enriched by the presence of Rocha’s trombone and the music has a joyous sway to it. Barata's drums add great power and joy to this one.The samba was recorded remotely and when the composer Salvador got a chance to preview this arrangement he said it all:  it was “…a beautiful rendition of this song…such a fresh approach…too wonderful for words.”

If you are into high energy music played skillfully and with highly skilled musicians that obviously love working together, Dave Zinno and Unisphere's  Fetish is an album that will surely please.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Jazz-Blues Brothers: Jeremy Monteiro and Alberto Marisco Cook up some Blues

Jazz-Blues Brothers - Jeremy Monteiro & Alberto Marsico Jazz Note 261084-99

It is always a pleasant surprise to discover musicians, unknown to you but admired and respected on an international level, defining the depth and breadth of people who carry on the tradition of jazz and blues throughout the world. Case in point, the latest album from Singaporean pianist Jeremy Monteiro and Italian organ master Alberto Marisco titled Jazz-Blues Brothers on JazzNote Records. While this music is an art form that was developed out of the African American experience, it has and continues to touch the hearts and souls of people of all races, ethnicities, geographical locations, and life experiences. It is a true communicating vehicle that never ceases to astound with its unequaled ability to bring people together and share an emotional expression of the human condition. This album just proves how well absorbed into musician’s DNA this music has become.

Singaporean-based pianist/composer Jeremy Monteiro and Italian-based B3 organ player Alberto Marsico are matched here in this unusual format of having two keyboards. The band includes Oklahoma-raised saxophonist Shawn Letts, drummer Shawn Kelley, who makes Syracuse NY his home, and the guitarist Eugen Pao who hails from Hong Kong. The album includes two performances recorded live in London at the Elgar Room in Albert Hall and includes the under the radar vocalist chanteuse Miz Dee Logwood on two blues classics “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water” made famous by Lou Rawls and an Etta James notable “I’d Rather Go Blind.”

The album starts with the Marsico composition aptly titled “Opening Act,” a swinging, sauntering blues. Monteiro’s piano comps perfectly.  Marisco’s funky B3 excites with his fluid and gutsy approach which is pure joy. Letts’ blows his tenor with ease and confidence as Kelley’s drums and Marisco’s foot-based bottom lines keep the pace swinging. Pao’s guitar work is a revelation. This man has some overflowing ideas that just fit without being trite or overplayed. Monteiro’s piano solo is exciting as it is appropriately funky.

Monteiro’s composition “Olympia” was first heard on saxophone great Ernie Watts album Stand Up from 1993.  Monteiro joked he was watching the Los Angles Summer Olympics back in 1984 and wrote this driving gem inspired by the sports event. There is the drive of sports competition and the regality event in this music.  Marisco’s feet set the beat. There is pushing tenor work by Letts (you can just hear Watts influence), and percolating drum work by Kelley setting up the locomotive rhythmic drive of this incendiary piece. Monteiro offers a scorching piano solo that demonstrates the mastery of this man. Marisco adds his own organ version of flame-throwing creativity. Pao’s solo dances on his fretboard with amazing tenacity and precision. This one just breathes fire.

Getting back to a swinging blues, North California-based Miz Dee Logwood gravely voice is featured here on “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water”. The group swings at a brisk pace and Monteiro’s piano sets the stage with his own remarkably athletic piano work that just lets loose. Logwood is a gem of authenticity and soul.

Eugene Pao. Shawn Letts, Jeremy Monteiro, Alberto Marisco Shawn Kelley

Monteiro’s “Mount Olive” has a funky, gospel-like feel that was inspired by and written for the Mount Olive Baptist Church in Washington D.C. a place that the pianist visited and was moved by the church's musicality. Marisco has his B3 set to be angelically inspired and Monteiro’s piano is as funky as if listening to the late Billy Preston in spirit.

Marisco offers four other compositions for this project. The first is the slow sizzling composition “Lou” which lasts for over eleven minutes. The song first features Letts on some burning tenor solo on this homage written to the great blues-jazz singer Lou Rawls. The music starts slow and builds to a white-hot apex with each soloist performing in progression. Monteiro’s piano gets the next chance to work on the build-up and goes from gospel to funk. Pao gets his turn on his ripping guitar work. Ultimately Marisco offers the finale with an inspired B3 solo that shows that this man’s organ voice is both inventive and very potent. B3 master Joey DeFrancesco has called Marisco “…one of my favorite organists.” and this kind of playing verifies his respect.

Probably the funkiest of the songs on this plethora of fun and moving music is Marisco’s composition “Jack-Pot” which is another homage this time to jazz organ great Jack McDuff. This one just gets into an infectious groove that just won’t kick. The gang starts with guitarist Pao who continues to surprise with his inventive language and formidable chops. Monteiro’s piano is just smoking and worth the price of admission. No wonder why Monteiro is called “Singapore’s King of Swing.”  He is also the go-to pianist for name artists playing in Asia. Marisco’s organ work on this one is just classic, steeped in  the style of veteran B3 legend McDuff ,who is a Marisco inspiration.  

“Catastrophy,” a "going to the races" composition that has the band stretch out and features some nice drum work by Kelley> The closer “Wish Washy” is a soulful end of evening piece that Marisco uses at his home performances and was recorded by the band remotely during the pandemic from worldwide locations including Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Italy.

The real closer to this album is the soulful live performance from London featuring some down-home blues by Miz Dee Logwood, just a treasure to hear sing on Etta James’    “I’d Rather Go Blind” which she just owns with sincerity and grizzle. The band, Marisco, Monteiro, and Kelley set the stage like a throne for the queen Logwood, and she rises to the challenge regally. Pao rips out a fantastic guitar solo that goes from soft and soulful to fiery and screeching then back again, inspired by the whole simpatico of this great performance.

Be assured Jazz-Blues Brothers is sure to give you many hours of enjoyable music listening.

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.