Wednesday, April 10, 2024

The Creative 'Flights of Fancy' of Multi-Reedist/Composer John Surman on "Words Unspoken"

John Surman : Words Unspoken ECM 2789

I have always been a fan of the British multi-reedist/composer John Surman ever since I heard his passionate baritone, scorch of the Earth playing, on John McLaughlin's seminal Extrapolation from 1969. I was an inspiring guitarist who was intrigued by the lightning-fast fretboard work, the melodic sensibilities, as well as the guitarist's penchant for unusual time signatures in his work. But what caught my attention was Surman's passionate, at times avant-garde yet still euphonic approach to the baritone saxophone. His pastorally influenced, folk-inspired soprano saxophone work caught me as quite beautiful while at the same time being exploratory. The perfect musical foil to the guitarist on that probing album.

Later I found Surman's work equally intriguing. The man was born in Devon, England in 1944, though he eventually relocated to Oslo, Norway with his long-term partner, the Norwegian jazz vocalist Karen Krog. This man's folk/pastoral sound is inspired by his native English countryside, with its sometimes Celtic influences, and has never seemed to leave this musician's creative psyche no matter how diverse his search for creativity has led him.

Surman's career follows a road map of experiences, a heuristic journey, probing and expanding to discover and follow what is true to his own inner musical gyroscope. During his trajectory, Surman has collaborated with the Rhodesian-born keyboard/composer Mike Gibbs; the classical/jazz bassist Chris Laurence; drummers John Marshall, Jack DeJohnette, and Peter Erskine; pianists Paul Bley, Chick Corea, and John Taylor; bassists Gary Peacock, Dave Holland, and Miroslav Vitous; guitarists John Abercrombie, John McLaughlin, Terje Rypdal and Mick Goodrick; trumpeters Kenny Wheeler and Tomasz Stańko: and also worked with arranger/composer Gil Evans. Along the way, he has written for String Quartets (Chris Laurence's Trans4mation Quartet) and Brass Ensembles (The Brass Project w/ John Warren). He once wrote and performed music in collaboration with bassist Barre Phillips for a ballet at the Paris Opera Sablier Prison with choreographer Carolyn Carlson. If there is one thing you can say about Surman's diverse musical career, he has certainly followed his own muse no matter where it took him.

John Surman Quartet
 John Surman, Thomas Strønen, Rob Luft, and Rob Waring (photo credit unknown)

Now approaching eighty, Surman is still creating distinct music that is relevant and often quite beautiful. His latest release Words Unspoken was released on ECM on February 16, 2024. Surman reunites with his American-born, Oslo-residing, vibraphonist Rob Waring who was also on Surman's 2018 beautiful release Invisible Threads. The rest of the quartet includes Norwegian drummer Thomas Strønen, the British guitarist Rob Luft, and Surman on baritone and soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, and synth effects. Surman has always been driven by the tonal aspects of the sounds he creates. That is why he has said that his use of three different reeds and the synth allows him an expanded creative palette that allows him to compose melodies that are outside of the jazz context. “The synthesizer allowed me to think in terms of landscape textures,”

The album has an ethereal quality to it, bewitching melodies that seem to invite the listener to be surrounded by the music's almost cinematic, landscape-aware feeling. There are ten compositions and the title track, "Words Unspoken," is an inference to how when a group of musicians tap into a vibe, there is a wordless musical connection that is symbiotic. These four certainly do find their common ground in Surman's articulation of this music.

"Hawksmore" starts out as a duo between Surman on his melodious baritone clarinet, with a Dolphy-like presence, and Strønen's deft snare work. Waring's tubular vibes come in to add another resonating tone to this ascending and descending romp. Luft's guitar is the final floating piece to this cinematic tableau. The music is light, playful, and an aural delight.

"Bitter Aloe" opens with Luft's picked notes played synchronously to Surman's undulant baritone. Luft as a young, somewhat ethereal guitarist is particularly sympathetic to Surman's musical goals. Waring adds his hollow, ringing vibe work to this intoxicating theme and creates a cloud-like airiness accentuated by Luft's delicate fretwork. Strønen's brushwork perfectly enhances this aerial adventure without ever weighing it down. Surman's reed work is transcendent.

The album continues with "Belay That" opening with Waring's vibes stating a brief wandering line. Surman enters with his sonorous baritone and the two have a friendly improvisational conversation. The song morphs into a repeating line laid out by Waring's ostinato and Rob Luft's facile guitar lines matched by Surman's resonating bari. There is a hypnotic feel to this music. A spell is cast and carries you into another almost surreal world of myth and wonder.

"Onich Ceilidh" is a Scottish folk-inspired composition that features Surman's serpentine soprano work. The music dances lithely like the title suggests. A dance party from the village of Onich in Scotland. You can feel the whirling dervish-like dance that the music inspires. Is it peat-flavored distilled spirits that bring on this feeling or is it infectious music that injects the spirit and frees you to dance? A phenomenal display of tonal artistry between Luft's soaring guitar, Waring's excited vibes, Strønen's percussive work, and Surman's at first soprano and later inspired bari work unifies this one so well.

The album continues with "Around the Edges," and it's gorgeously intoned baritone work. "Precipice", opens with some of Strønen's intuitive hand-driven percussion in conversation with Surman's sprite-like soprano and some resonating vibe work from Waring.

"Flower in Aspic," opens with some modulating sounds as Luft's delicate guitar leads to a plaintive Surman soprano, gently opening the landscape into a serene pastoral view. Waring adds his own tubular accents and Strønen's delicately wooshing cymbal work completes this aural picture.

Waring's vibes open "Graviola," with an ostinato pattern over which Surman plays his vibrant bass clarinet. He can be most expressive on this woody-sounding instrument and there is an otherworld-like feel to this. The music intensifies perceptively with Waring and Luft increasing the tonal range and pace, Luft especially adding a more urgent, excitable voice to the mix. Surman's bass clarinet also adds a bottom-end rhythmic roll here.

The title track "Words Unspoken," has a synth-like drone at the opening. Waring's vibraphone creates a hum in the background as Surman's reedy baritone and his bandmates get into what he calls "flights of fancy." Freedom of expression allows the group to organically create magic. A line is explored and the musicians respond which in turn directs how the group dynamic sound ultimately creates. Synergy in action with no need for words to be spoken.

The album ends with "Pebble Dance" with vibes making an opening intro before Luft's guitar, Waring's tubular sound along with Strønen's percussive mastery create a Middle Eastern motif, a drone over which Surman's soprano creates a slithery snake charmer-like trance. The alluring mood transports you into a bazaar-like scene with nomad onlookers mesmerized by the sinewy soprano of the English tonal charmer.


Thursday, March 28, 2024

Pianist/composer Taylor Eigsti's Lush and Challenging Musical Suite: "Plot Armor"

Taylor Eigsti: Plot Armor: GroundUP Music

The pianist/composer Taylor Eigsti released his latest album Plot Armor on March 1, 2024, and it promises to give the reflective listener a lot of good music to listen to and savor. Eigsti is a thirty-nine-year-old product of the San Francisco Bay Area. Considered a prodigy, Eigsti has been studying piano from the age of four. Despite having a brief stint of formal education at Southern California's Thorton School of Music, Eigsti's plunge into pursuing his professional musical career has proven to be an example of where learning by doing with the right people can still be incredibly fruitful. Quickly establishing himself as a New York-based pianist, Eigsti has been prolific and has released seven albums as a leader and over fifty albums as a sideman. He contributed a composition to the Donald Cheadle Grammy Winning Soundtrack for the film "Miles Ahead" and in 2022 his album Tree Falls won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album. In the world of jazz, his pianistic talents have been part of Terrence Blanchard's E-Collective, Kendrick Scott's Oracle, Eric Harland's Voyage, and groups led by Gretchen Parlato and Chris Botti. Eigsti, a versatile talent, has performed composed and orchestrated music in the classical, chamber music, and vocal/orchestral worlds as well, working with the New York Philharmonic, San Jose Chamber Orchestra, and the Chicago Symphony to name just a few. 

Taylor Eigsti's pianistic style is surely influenced by the jazz tradition, but he has absorbed the experiences of playing in so many diverse scenarios-classical, comping for vocalists, Chamber settings, jazz combinations, film scoring- that his music is a creative amalgamation of these multiple approaches to sound creativity. Within the execution of his own improvisational excursions, he never fails to tell the listener a story. He is gifted with remarkable facility and a sense of creative harmonic imagination.

Eigsti's Plot Armor released on Ground UP Music, utilizes a diverse choice of bandmates to tell his challenging musical story. The album features twelve titles, all but one, Rodgers and Hart's "Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered," are Eigsti's original compositions. 

The title Plot Armor is a reference used in literature where a character can experience and survive an almost unbelievable barrage of attempts at being foiled by injury, deception, or death but yet survives against all odds because the character is so essential to the story. James Bond, Ian Fleming's fictional counterintelligence agent who seemingly dismisses all attempts to be stopped, is an example of a character who possesses Plot Armor. Now, let us juxtapose a daring and exploratory musician like Taylor Eigsti. The path to creating inventive music, music that avoids the well-worn trails of rehashing what has come before it, might be likewise daring, full of trials, danger, and tribulations, and for what purpose?. By arming himself with his imagination, his own formidable talent, and a mind-whirling cadre of superb and like-minded musicians, might not Eighsti just achieve his own Plot Armor here and if doing so find his purpose? If so, with this release, he has certainly produced a piece of work worth paying attention to.

The album is in some respects a continuation of his previously released Tree Falls, this time with more players and greater detailed orchestration. Eigsti's experiment with the concept of using two parallel bands follows in the steps of others like Ornette Coleman's Double Quartet, although unlike Coleman he doesn't use double instrumentation on any one composition within the album. His enlarged tapestry of colors includes two saxophonists Ben Wendel and Dayna Stephens; two guitarists Charlie Altura and Julian Lage; two bassists Harish Raghavan and David DJ Ginyard, two drummers Kendrick Scott and Oscar Seaton, Jr. three vocalists Lisa Fischer, Gretchen Parlatto and Becca Stevens, flutist Rebecca Kleinmann, keyboardist Maya Kronfeld, the trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard and a splendid string section made up of Stephanie Yu, Corinne Sobolewski, Mia Barcia-Colombo and Jules Levy. The album is a lush and challenging production that took seventy days to record and mix. The result is impressive.

Taylor Eigsti (photo credit unknown)

The opening "Let You Bee" features Altura's repeating fingerpicking entry and a driving tight drum line laid down by I suspect Kendrick Scott. Eighsti skillfully weaves the swelling string section into his kinetic piano work, Altura's ethereal and almost relentless electric guitar lines soar, and some synth keyboard accents by Kronfeld add to the mix. The orchestration erupts with an organic pulse, a hive-like hum inspired by a relentless Bee that wouldn't leave the composer alone one day, and he gives the listener a taste of what it sounds like when nature is mimicked by art.

Like many of his compositions, Eigsti's "Buckets of F's" has another tongue-in-cheek title. He says it represents the celebration of chaos and challenges which may lead to the "Fs"( frustrations)?  This one is carried by a syncopated line that drives the music with an almost frenzied pace. Precisely and synchronously played piano, keys, guitar, sax, bass, viola, and drums trace each other's lines with frantic accuracy. The music extends into a complex ascending line that opens into a joyous bridge that features Ben Wendel's blaring saxophone, some viola work by Benjamin von Gutzeit, and is accentuated by the string section and some delightful flute lines by Kleinmann. Eighsti's piano flows with inspirational verve, excitement, and beauty. Wendel's solo is a powerhouse of inspiration intertwining with Eighsti's relentless piano over a drum-driven fade to the coda.

"Look Around You" is a haunting ballad that was adapted from Eigsti's "Imagine Our Future" which premiered back in 2022. It adds a distinctively folk/jazz quality to the set. It features Becca Steven's expressive voice, what is probably  Dayna Stephens' on tenor, Eigsti's gorgeous piano, and airy flute work by Kleinmann. 

The title track "Plot Armor" opens with a bass line by David Ginyard and has a cinematic feel to it with some layered sounds of the Andrew Balogh arranged string section, Maya Kornfeld's keyboard support work, drums by Oscar Seaton Jr., and probing guitar stream by Charlie Altura, along with a neo-classical-inspired piano work by Eigsti that just explodes with life. There is a dense but subtle richness to this music. The drum line changes time and Kleinmann's flute floats in the air as the music reaches its apex and the Seaton's drum work punctuates the trip.

"Light Dream" is a slow, eloquent meditation that honors Wayne Shorter who passed in March of 2022. It opens with Eigsti's expressive piano and Blanchard's plaintive trumpet sound. A musical ode to contemplation and clarity. Inspiration the pianist received from Shorter's approach to music.

The blue-tinged ballad "Fire Within" has lyrics that were taken from words  penned by Eigsti 's mother Nancy, who passed away two weeks before the album was set to be recorded. Vocalist Lisa Fischer lends her talents to bring this strong performance to life with her soulful grit. Guitarist Julian Lage adds his own distinctive string magic to the take.  

"The Rumor" is a two-minute musical miniature that opens with a moving string section entre, some moving violin work, and Eigsti's lush piano. 

This orchestrated suite continues with "Actually." Eigsti has a wide palette on which to express his expanding musical concepts. His arrangements are expansive and incorporate changing rhythmic time signatures, multiple tonal accents, and lush musical harmonies. It's often like listening to a cinematic concept made into an aural representation.

The album continues with "Beyond the Blues" which includes Gretchen Parlato's fetching voice and lyrics. The composition was conceived by Eigsti as another honor to his recently departed mother's memory. 

"201918" is a subtle and beautiful exploration with Eigsti's piano, Maya Kronfeld's Keyboard, and his bassist David Ginyard and drummer Oscar Seaton Jr.

Eigsti has often explored the Rogers and Hart classic "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and so here he orchestrates the music including Charles Altura's guitar, Ben Wendel's tenor, and his rhythm section of Ginyard and Seaton Jr.  Eigsti considers it a breakup song and as he explores the melody he brings it to a apex where the lover's confusion related in the lyrics of the song can be resolved and the confusion left behind. 

The U.S. version of the album ends with the cut "Bad Sport Lobby" where the music starts out with a piano and bass on fast paced jaunt that merges into a frenetic Rhodes-led section. The song ends with two or three different codas and some eruptions of joy and relief by musicians at the finale.

A bonus cut was included on the Japanese edition of the release, with Eigsti on piano and some soulful saxophone. It is another dedication to Eigsti's mother on a sensitive take of one of her favorite songs "Nancy with the Smiling Face" and a fitting end of this wonderful album. 


Thursday, March 7, 2024

The Biamp PDX Portland Jazz Festival: Sullivan Fortner Trio, Dianne Reeves & Band and John Patitucci Brazilian Trio

Yotam Silberstein, John Patitucci and Rogerio Bocacato at the Old Church

The Biamp PDX Portland Jazz Festival brought an amazing gathering of some of jazz music's most talented, diversified, and celebrated lineups to Portland this year. The festival ran from February 16 through March 2, 2024, and included a variety of venues -The Jack London Revue, The Old Church, Revolution Hall, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Alberta Street Pub, Newmark Theater, and the Roseland Theater [place a myriad of smaller locations to name just a few. True jazz fans should tip their collective hats to the producers of this year's festival. This year truly met and exceeded all reasonable expectations for supporters of this marvelous music. 

The festival included esteemed headliners-pianist Jon Baptiste, guitar master Julian Lage, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, modernist guitarist Mary Halvorson with drummer Tomas Fujiwara, piano master Bob James with guitar wizard Lee Ritenour, and some fine local artists that include guitarist Ryan Meagher and Dan Balmer, drummer legend Mel Brown and saxophonist Nicole Glover plus too many others to mention. Check the total lineup here. Suffice it to say, if there was music that you favored in this ever-accepting genre there was something to please almost any taste.

As a fan, it was a plethora of almost too many riches. The offerings were scheduled over a relatively short period, and the weather didn't always cooperate. I was lucky enough to pick and choose my events (with some help from a friend) and attended three superb events.

Sullivan Fortner and Tyronne Allen at the Old Church

The Sullivan Fortner Trio at Old Church:  February 27, 2024

I have been a fan of the pianist Sullivan Fortner for quite some time. He was born in New Orleans and started piano at the age of four. Blessed with perfect pitch, Fortner rapidly advanced with his keyboard skills. At age seven he began playing organ publically in his mother's Baptist Church. Gospel music made a permanent impression on the young man. Fortner went on to study music at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio and later received his master's degree from the Manhattan School of Music. The musician made his bones as a sideman with the likes of vibraphonist Stefon Harris and trumpeter Roy Hargrove. In 2011 Fortner came under the influence of the pianist master Barry Harris. He has been tapped as an astute accompanist for vocalists like Lauren Henderson and the recent sensation Samara Joy. He is most celebrated for his collaboration with the amazing vocal chanteuse Celine McLorin Salvant. He has received numerous awards including the prestigious  Lincoln Center Emerging Artist Award in 2016.

By now, the thirty-seven-year-old pianist has become a revered master of his instrument being one of his generation's most promising artists. I named his recent 2023 release

Solo Game
as one of my Notes on Jazz Best of Jazz for 2023. I was most interested in seeing this impressive artist play live and in the moment. His February 27th concert at downtown Portland's intimate Old Church was the perfect venue to see him perform his magic up front and personally. 

Fortner casts a short, sturdy, but graceful presence at his piano bench. He is soft-spoken and when he does speak, there is an unassuming confidence in his voice, a voice that also projects a wry sense of humor and a deep sense of joy about what he does. Fortner was joined by his working band of Tyrone Allen on upright bass and Kayvon Gordon on drums. There is an immediate sense of connection between these three. A connection of respect and of the kind of familiarity that is built slowly from being exposed to many hours of woodshedding together, honing their skills as a unit, and creating that level of simpatico that usually only is seen in working bands. 

The Maryland-born Tyrone Jackson studied upright and classical bass at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester and later attended Berklee in Boston where he was mentored by local giants like saxophonists Jerry Bergonzi and George Garzone and the late drummer Ralph Peterson. Drummer Kayvon Gordon hails from Detroit. He was mentored by trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and attended the University of Michigan where he studied with bassist Robert Hurst and pianist Benny Green. With this pedigree, there is no doubt this trio has the firepower and finesse to make this a memorable evening of music.

The trio entered the stage and immediately went to work on what sounded like a Monk-inspired piece of music. Jagged, angular and edgy. There was little doubt that Fortner's music would be inspired by his study and mastering of the music's history. Despite his familiarity with the material, he is like a bubbling caldron of creativity that never settles for using well-worn musical cliques. He is expressive and surprising and there is a spontaneity to his approach that is quite refreshing.

The group played for two sets and covered some fourteen compositions, a few of which were originals and some music from composers Thad Jones, Cedar Walton, and Bobby Hutcherson. Two highlights were Charles Trenet's "La Mer" which was played in a stunning calypso style and the gorgeously embroidered take on Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust," which was like hearing the well-healed classic in a new light. Throughout the performance, Fortner showed some amazing double-handed, Shearing-like block chording work. He has an impressive facility but he uses his skill to tell a story. Fortner's piano takes you time traveling. You can hear the art of Thelonious Monk, Erroll Garner, Eubie Blake, and even Art Tatum in his playing without it ever becoming mimicry. His bandmates are attuned to his changing directions and inventive excursions. Both are excellent soloists when called on. The set ended with the local tenor saxophonist, Nicole Glover, as a guest. She joined the trio for one ballad and two more energetic post-bop songs that added a new voice and some local flavor to the evening's music.

Diane Reeves and Reuben Rogers at Revolution Hall

Diane Reeves and her Band: Revolution Hall February 29, 2024 

One highlight of this festival was the chance to see Dianne Reeves and her band at the Revolution Hall. The Detroit-born Reeves is perhaps the ruling queen of current-day jazz singers in the world. Critic Scott Yanow called her "A logical successor to Dinah Washington and Carmen McRae..." In 2018 she was named a prestigious NEA Master. Her last album Light Up the Night: Live in Marciac was released back in 2016.

Reeves was joined this evening by the dynamic rhythm section of Reuben Rogers on bass and Terreon Gulley on drums, the talented pianist/arranger John Beasley on piano, electric piano and melodica, and the Brazilian master guitarist Romero Lubambo. 

Ms. Reeves is an eminent professional who captures the audience with her conversational rapport. Although the concert at Revolution Hall amazingly did not sell out, Reeves's buoyant stage presence never showed signs of being affected by the smaller but enthusiastic audience. She skillfully engaged with her fans and her warmth and ability to make the interaction personal made the event all the more special.

The band was exquisite. Keyboard artist John Bealey opened the set on a melodica, an air-activated keyboard device that created the closest thing to an electric saxophone sound. Beasley, himself an eight-time Grammy nominee, has won a Grammy for a song on his big band album Monk'estra Plays John Beasley released in 2020. Bassist Reuben Rogers hails from  St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands and plays both electric and upright acoustic bass on the set. He is a prolific sideman and has been a long-time member of Diane Reeve's band and Charles Lloyd's trio. Terreon Gully is presently an Atlanta-based musician and Reeves's longtime drummer. Gully also holds down the drum chair in Beasley's Monk'estra Orchestra and has worked with Christian McBride and Stefon Harris among others. Romero Lubambo is a superb guitarist from Brazil. He came to NYC in 1985 and is known for his fluidity and inventiveness on both acoustic and electric guitars. He first played in the US with singer Astrid Gilberto in the early eighties and met and played with flutist Herbie Mann shortly thereafter. In 1992 he formed the Brazilian Trio La Paz with bassist Nilson Matta and drummer Duduka da Fonseca. Subsequently, Lubambo became a prolific recording artist and in demand as a top-flight studio musician. This world-class group of musicians complimented Reeves's magnificent voice at the show with a seamless interaction that was smooth as silk.

The show started off with Fleetwood Mac's popular number-one single "Dreams."  Reeves has the depth, timbre, and strength to let this one soar.  

Gigi Gryce's  "Social Call" with Jon Hendricks lyrics came next. It was popularized by Betty Carter in 1980. Reeves and the group made it all their own with the vocalist's facile scatting strongly accenting the music. 

Horace Silver's "Peace" is a ballad that was released by the pianist in 1959. It is a meditation on finding inner peace and tranquility, often through contemplation of nature's beauty. Reeves's soulful interpretation here transforms the ballad into a moving prayer with her Gospel-inspired performance.

The Brazilian master composer/vocalist Milton Nascimento's "Ponte de Areia" was first released in 1975 on his Minas and famously reimagined on Wayne Shorter's seminal Native Dancer of the same year, with Nascimento singing this mournful song. Reeves beautifully pliable voice and her talented band recreate this breezy song- a nostalgic story about the loss of a railway station as a metaphor for lost personal connections and its emotional effects. Reeves's commanding vocal acrobatics deftly replaced Nascimento's high-pitched falsetto to great effect.  Lumbaro's authentic guitar playing and the added jazz sensibilities transformed the audience into being part of a true Brazilian experience.

Reeves with Lumbaro on acoustic guitar played as a sensational duet, one on Reeves's composition "Nine" and the other on the Gershwin standard "Love Is Here to Stay," both intuitively presented in a way that captivated the audience with a feeling of intimacy. Lumbaro's guitar work never fails to emanate with intelligence and sensitivity.  

The set included another beautifully delivered Gershwin standard "Someone to Watch Over You" and the more challenging Wayne Shorter masterpiece "Footprints," which featured this group's musical acumen. After receiving a sustained and admiring applause from the audience, Reeves returned for her encore with her endearing composition "Better Days." If there was any doubt that Dianne Reeves's enormous stage appeal and upper-tier vocal talent were diminished in any way by her recent disappearance from the public's spotlight, this evening's performance put any doubts firmly to rest. She remains the ruling queen of vocal jazz.

The John Patitucci Brazilian Trio with Yotam Silberstein and Romero Boccato at the Old Church March 2, 2024

It is always a treat to get to see one of the world's finest electric and acoustic bass players in the world and John Patitucci rises to that level. I have seen John play twice before. Once with Chick Corea and his Elektric Band in Tarrytown, NY, and recently with the Jon Cowherd Quintet at Portland's now-defunct 1905. Each time you see this master musician in his milieu, his artistry and love for playing transpose you into a happy place. As the music critic, Rick Mitchell said, Patitucci is "...both a master of tone on the double-bass and the best electric bass guitar soloist since Jaco Pastorius."  Praise that I certainly concur with wholeheartedly.

The evening at the Old Church, the fittingly closing concert of the festival, took on the rhythmic sway and lilting beauty of Brazilian music. The accomplished Israeli guitarist Yotam Silberstein, who had previously performed as a leader in one of the festival's other concerts, played beautifully. Brazilian master percussionist Rogerio Boccato offered exquisite authenticity to the trio with his understated but timely drum and percussion rhythmic work. To watch this artist provide the most subtle but powerful accompaniment was a real treat.

The group played a series of Brazilian compositions from artists like Ivan Lins, guitarist Garoto, Milton Nascimento, and singer-songwriter Djavan. One highlight of the evening was the fluid Brazilian piece "Nilopolitano" from master accordionist Dominguinhas, which showcased the rapid-fire synchronous playing of Patitucci on his six-string electric bass along with Silberstein's equally blinding guitar lines. Another treat was Chico Buarque and João Bosco's composition "Sinhá" which was opened by a facile solo on Patitucci's custom electric bass. Toward the end of the performance, there was a Silberstein composition, "Requiem for Armando," a dedication to pianist Chick Corea, which highlighted the guitarists' most sensitive skills and Boccato's brilliantly subtlety. Patitucci did a solo encore and chose to play a hard bop piece on his double bass that showed just how liquid this inventive master can be.

Monday, February 12, 2024

John Leventhal's Debut Album "Rumble Strip" Scores Big Marks for Uncluttered Excellence

John Leventhal (photo credit unknown)

The debut album from a man who is no stranger to some fine music, producer/songwriter/musician John Leventhal's "Rumble Strip" was released on Jan 26, 2024, and it is an understated delight.

Leventhal has won six Grammies, written over 200 songs, and has worked with a plethora of first-rate performers. One wonders why such a talented artist hasn't been recorded on his own before this?

"Rumble Strip" includes thirteen succinct and thoughtful instrumentals and three vocally performed songs- two as a duet with his wife Rosanne Cash. Leventhal has an impressionistic approach to his music, here using crystalline finger-picking, string-bending, slide and mandolin accents, and judicious use of bass and drum accompaniment where needed. He even uses Donald Sorah Horns to add to the colors on his aural palette. All the compositions on the album are his except for "That's All I Know About Arkansas" which was written and beautifully sung by Roseanne along with Leventhal and "The Only Ghost" which was co-written with Marc Cohen. All are miniature beauties that flaunt the art of understatement. The music is a testament to the art of uncluttered excellence. You can just sit back, put on your headphones, and sink into this man's music.

Let's face it I'm a diehard jazzer, but Leventhal's music is just plain good. He incorporates elements of soul, blues, Country, Gospel, Americana, and a storytelling hymn-like form to make it all intelligently conceived and relaxingly entertaining. Don't miss this one.

Friday, February 9, 2024

Ben Allison, Steve Cardenas and Ted Nash Play the Music of Herbie Nichols on "Tell the Birds I Said Hello"

Tell the Birds I Said Hello: Ben Allison, Steve Cardenas, and Ted Nash
: Sonic Camera Records

Herbie Nichols was a promising, enigmatic piano player/composer who lived from 1919 to 1963. His premature death at forty-four years of age from leukemia always left his followers with the feeling that somehow this brilliance was cut short. The lingering question here is-What more tantalizing inventions could this under-appreciated artist have come up with had he just had more time to explore his art?

The bassist Ben Allison has been one the stalwart supporters of Nichols' music. Allison, along with the late pianist Frank Kimbrough, started their Herbie Nichols Project in 1992. Kimbrough had been fascinated with Nichols's music since 1985 when he transcribed several of the pianist's works. Besides Allison on double bass and Kimbrough on piano, both members of the Jazz Collective, the HNP included, at various times, Jeff Ballard, Matt Wilson, and Tim Horner on drums, Michael Blake and Ted Nash on saxophones, Wycliffe Gordon on trombone and Ron Horton on trumpet. The ensemble released three albums from 1992-2001. Love is Proximity (1997), Dr. Cyclops Dream (1999), and Strange City (2001).

Herbie Nichols (photo credit unknown)

The music of Nichols has always been a magnet, a lodestone for artists looking for inspiration from this artist's individualistic approach to melody, harmony, and rhythm. Thelonious Monk and Nichols were both enigmatic artists, who were contemporaries and friends. But where Monk's body of work was more readily appreciated and mainstreamed into the canon, Nichols's work-perhaps because of his premature death- became less publicized and mostly preserved by a select group of avid admirers.

Nichols was born in the Juan Hill Section of Manhattan but descended from parents who emigrated from St Kitts and Trinidad in the Carribean Islands. Nichols' music is said to be an amalgamation of influences from West Indian folk, Dixieland, bop, and swing with classical overtones that find their way via Bartok and Satie. His sometimes fragmented lines feel to be directionally unpredictable. There is a jaggedness to his approach and his melodic development hints at an unstructured almost free flow. Some believe his music was a precursor to the free jazz movement. In support of this premise, progressive avant-garde and free jazz artists like soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, trombonist Roswell Rudd, Dutch drummer Hans Bennik, and Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg have all found Nichols's music worthy of being preserved and reinterpreted.

                  Ted Nash, Ben Allison, and Steve Cardenas (photo credit Kasia Idzkowska).

With this history in mind, the latest album Tell the Birds I Said Hello -released on Sonic Camera Records this month- is from the trio  Ben Allison on double bass, Steve Cardenas on guitar, and Ted Nash on saxophone. This is the fourth album released by these three creative modernists. This eight-song gem of an album includes eight Nichols' compositions never-before-recorded by the composer, six of which had been inexplicably stored away since the nineteen fifties and so have never before been recorded by anyone. For Nichols fans, this is like finding some hidden treasure. For anyone who loves creative music, this is a treat.

Nichols had composed over 170 different compositions many of which, like six of these songs, he never recorded. His first recording was The Herbie Nichols Quintet, which may be out of print. It included Danny Barker on guitar, Chocolate Williams on Bass, and Shadow Wilson on drums and was recorded in 1952. From 1955-1957 Nichols recorded and released just four albums. The two Blue Note albums Prophetic Herbie Nichols Vol 1 and Volume 2 with Art Blakey and Al McKibbon (1955); The Herbie Nichols Trio with McKibbon and Teddy Kotck alternating on bass and Max Roach on drums. (1956); The Third World was a Blue Note release that combined the first two recording sessions in a twofer album; and  Love, Gloom, Cash, Love with George Duvivier on bass and Dannie Richmond on drums (1957).

The music on Allison/Cardenas and Nash's Tell the Birds I Said Hello opens with "She Insists," a five-minute stroll that features the trio playing synchronous patterns of jaggedly ascending notes that they execute with beautiful precision and sensory aplomb. Allison's bass is big and buoyant. Cardenas' guitar lines are sinewy and supple and Nash's tenor tone is warm and Getzian. How much skill does it take to reimagine what basically was composed to be played by Nichols as a piano-based composition and skillfully reimagine it in a pianoless trio setting? The added colors and tones that the instrumentation brings to the table here seem to add a new dimension to Nichols' work.

"The Aferbeat" has that strong implied bop swing feeling that is almost a Nichols' trademark. Nash's tenor opens up strongly stating the melody. Allison's bass solo has a firm,  probing sway to it, and Cardenas' light electric guitar lines flow off his fretboard like warm maple syrup onto hot pancakes, never failing to surprise.  Nash comes back at about the three-quarters mark and adds his own distinctive tonal approach through the coda. Just a very satisfying piece of music that these guys play with such comfortable command.

The album's title song is Nichols' "Tell the Birds." Opening with Nash's brief plaintive saxophone and harmonic tones off Cardenas' fretboard, the song has a folk-like storytelling quality to it. The group states the sinewy melody line in concert before Cardenas' is the first solo musical orator. His delicate harmonic approach is Jim Hall-like-gorgeous, understated, and yet inventive. Nash comes from a lineage of reed men who played in Henry Mancini's orchestras, so his sound is attuned to cinematic expressiveness here. Besides anchoring these procedures, Allison offers a brief plucky bass solo that always adds to the trio's dynamism. 

"Enrapture" opens with a staccato line from Allison's bass. The trio follows the chicanery of Nichols' melody line with unruffled precision. These guys weave their aural ideas with an uncanny sense of intuition. It's a delight to be absorbed by the interplay from about the 2:30 min mark, as the three just seem to have telepathy and yet continue to push each other's inventiveness to the edge. "Enrapture" and "Swan Song" are the only of Nichols' compositions that Allison and his Herbie Nichols Project had previously recorded. 

On "Swan Song"  Allison's ostinato bass line sets up this one. Nash's saxophone lines serpentine plaintively and with expression. Cardenas counterpoints with jagged chording comps. When he solos his guitar has some bite and slight fuzzy distortion that adds to the urgency of the whole feel. 

"Van Allen Belt" is a jaunty piece that repeats the unpredictable lines with a distinctive bop feel.  "Games and Codes" is another shifting walk through the disjointed world of the music of Herbie Nichols. The music always has a destination but the direction is hard to predict. "That Moanin Blues" is the final cut on the album. It is probably the easiest for the casual listener to relate to, a simple blues with a little syncopation and a little change in time for good measure.

Herbie Nichols creates a slightly unfamiliar musical world for some. It doesn't fit the usual rules of music for most, yet intrigues those of us who revel in creativity and fearlessness. Ben Allison, Steve Cardenas, and Ted Nash not only know how to navigate Nichols' coded map they can reimagine it in modern and exciting ways! 

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Andres Koppel's Mulberry Street Symphony: A symphonic/saxophone concerto in the tradition of some of the best.

Mulberry Street Symphony: Cowbell Music
Andres Koppel, Benjamin Koppel, Scott Colley, Brian Blade, 
Martin Yates & the Odense SymphonyOrchestra

I recently took the time to listen to a Symphonic/Saxophone concerto released back in February of 2022- Yeah, I know what took me so long?- Danish composer Anders Koppel's splendid Mulberry Street Symphony which was actually recorded in October of 2017. This glorious music is in the tradition of some of other jazz/symphony collaborations like Duke Ellington's Black, Brown, and Beige, Miles Davis/Gil Evans Sketches of Spain, Stan Getz/Eddie Sauter's Focus, Claus Ogerman/Michael Brecker's Cityscape and even Michel LeGrand/Phil Woods/Images.  

Anders Koppel (photo credit unknown)

The now, seventy-seven-year-old, Anders Koppel, a new name to me, is an accomplished composer whose extensive work includes music for cinema, theater, ballet, and over one hundred and fifty classical scores for orchestra. 

The inspiration for his Mulberry Street Symphony came from viewing a retrospective of the photos of a fellow Dane, Jacob Riis'. The inquisitive lens of Riis captured the expressive,  poignant, sometimes unhealthy, and often desperate conditions of European immigrants who fled the hardships of their homelands to settle in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the late eighteen hundreds. Riis's photography became part of his important 1890 book "How the Other Half Lives."  

Jacob Riis

It's no surprise that Koppel-himself the product of a Jewish family lineage that fled Russian-controlled Poland and made their way to a temporary refuge in Denmark, before having to again relocate to Sweden from the Nazi occupation- would find such artistic simpatico with the refugees of Riis' moving photographs.

When art finds a compelling story, the artist often finds inspiration for creative expression, and Koppel's Mulberry  Street Symphony certainly is a testament to that creative process being inspired by real life. The piece includes seven movements based on seven specific Riis photographs that, in the hands of Koppel, create their own aural story to complement the moving images.

Benjamin Koppel (photo credit unknown)

To create this emotionally charged piece, Koppel enlisted his own son, Benjamin Koppel, as the lead alto saxophonist of the three-piece jazz-oriented trio that is the primary improvisational aspect of the symphony. This talented, multi-reed player, studied with Cuban saxophonist Paquito D' Rivera. He credits his mellifluous, liquid tone as coming from influences that include Cannonball Adderley and Johnny Hodges, his heroes. Besides being active in the improvisational world of jazz, he has performed with such current and past luminaries of the saxophone as Joe Lovano, Chris Potter, Phil Woods, and Lee Konitz to name a few. He is also proficient in playing in the classical music world. Benjamin Koppel brings a unique cross-genre expertise to this project.

The rhythm section of the trio includes two superb musicians. Bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade bring to this music their own unique, extremely virtuosic, and highly attuned sensitives to this symphony. Colley is an American double bassist and composer who has lent his talents to groups that include Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Jim Hall, Bobby Hutcherson, and Toots Thielmans to name just a few. Brian Blade, the American Louisana-born drummer, is perhaps the leading jazz drummer in the world today. Besides his award-winning group The Fellowship Band, Blade is the preferred drummer on a countless number of albums led by such notables as Wayne Shorter, Mark Turner, Billy Childs, and Joni Mitchell among others. 

Scott Colley and Brian Blade (photo credit unknown)

The other piece to this Symphony is the Danish Odense Symphony Orchestra led by conductor Martin Yates. This Odense, Denmark-based orchestra has its roots dating back to the 1800s and presently has seventy-three musicians from seventeen different countries. Anders Koppel has written for this orchestra on multiple occasions.

"Stranded in the Strange City" is based on a picture of an immigrant standing, stiff, hat in hand, anxiously staring with his one unpatched eye at the camera in a dimly lit tenement hallway. The music is cinematic and ranges from the cautiously walking sound of Colley's deep-toned bass making its way into an unknown environment. Koppel's alto and the orchestra's swelling sounds create the tension of bustling activity. Blade's percussive accents add to the scene in perfect sympathy which ultimately rises into a feeling of hopeful optimism. 

"Minding the Baby" is based on a gritty portrait of a young child minding his younger sibling outside on what appears to be a flagstone sidewalk. The two stare at the lens with a bleary-eyed gaze that is both inquisitive and careful. The music is like a lullaby to the two. Koppel's fluid alto playing is emotive, soothing, and at times majestic. Colley and Blade together create an extraordinarily intuitive pastiche under Koppel and the through-written work of the orchestra. 

"Tommy the Shoeshine Boy" captures a ragged young entrepreneur who stands against a soot-stained, white-washed brick wall in his dirty, unkempt clothes. His wooden shoeshine box is loosely slung over his left shoulder with his cocked stovepipe hat. His eyes are presumably squinted closed to protect them from the coming photographer's flash. The music runs for almost twenty minutes as it builds from an orchestral ebb and swell that creates a building tension. There is beauty and frantic kineticism to this as Koppel's improvising alto soars in ascending flights. There is a beautiful section midway in the piece that finds Blade's drum work, Colley's bass, and Koppel's beautiful alto all finding a common expressive connection as the orchestra creates the palette on which they create. This can't be written but just happens at the moment when intuitive musicians find their way to a common strain of creativity. As the orchestra creates a boil in the music, Blade is featured for a brief but combustive eruption that completes that section with authority. 

This is what Anders was hoping for in creating Mulberry Street Symphony when he says

"The piece is a meeting between a meticulously worked-out score, written with the discipline and care of the classical tradition, and the open, highly sophisticated and organic improvised lines played by the trio."

The cover photo of the album features  "The Blind Man," perhaps one of the most expressive of the Riis' pictures that inspired this music. A tall blind man is dressed in a long black coat and doffed in a black derby. He is leaning on a street lampost for both support and protection. There is a two-horse-drawn wagon and piles of bricks dumped on the filth-filled street behind him. He holds an open cigar box in one hand and a bunch of pencils in the other to a peering crowd off the picture. He is hoping to elicit some charity from any passersby who might be moved by his condition.  The music is a sober, melancholic tone poem that conjures up the loneliness, isolation, and darkness that awaits this man's daily struggle for life. A man who Anders says represents "a man who is very much himself, apart from society." 

"The Last Mulberry" is a revelation to me. The picture is of what became Little Italy in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The alleyway shows the encroaching squalor of an alleyway between two bustling tenements. A line of washed clothes is hanging on a slacked rope tied between buildings in the background. Trash sheds line the left side wall of the alley. Midway down, a lone crown of a spindly tree can be seen, its outline against the rear background of another row of tenement buildings and an upper sky. It's a solitary mulberry tree- once a part or descendant of a one-time mulberry tree grove of the revolutionary times- now the sole organic survivor of the humanity-impacted area. The music that Koppel creates has a blues sensibility. A requiem of sorts for the lost tree and to juxtapose that with the loss of innocence. The tolling bell, the cadenced processional rhythm, the counterpoint strings, Koppel's pleading alto, Colley's plucky bass lines, and Blade's impressionistic drum work all rejoice in the celebration of organic life even amongst squalor and the celebration of its memory.

"Bandit's Roost" is like a scene from a Scorcese gangster film. Riis' photo captures the neighborhood "hang." A small side street whose flagstones separate the entry stoops of four or five tenements. The Immigrant men- supposedly young Italian thugs- hang out like members of a gang, propped up on railings and standing on stoop platforms or in the street. Communing, maybe plotting, awaiting their next move. Koppel's music erupts with kineticism and swinging swagger. The music finds Koppel's alto loose and freewheeling, as Colley and Blade stir the pot with nervous energy that coincides with testosterone-driven energy that may have possessed the young men in the picture. The orchestra builds the scene's tension and later maintains a joyful, proud, strut-like feel that celebrates the fun that can come from male camaraderie and mischief. 

"The New House" is a picture that is counter to most of the other Riis photos in this suite of songs. It pictures a new structure created to house orphans and homeless children. The house sits on a rise in what appears to be a countryside setting that must have been some distance from the crowding sprawl of the Lower East Side. According to the composer it represents "...the hope and knowledge that...things will change-and it matters what you do."  His music naturally brings the suite to a positive and uplifting conclusion. Out of the squalor and hopelessness, the overcrowding and poverty, the fear and anxiety, people can rise above their lot and aspire to a life that offers them and their children a new future. Koppel's alto offers a Phil Woods-like solo that is gorgeously expressive as Colley's bass rings out with tonal richness and the orchestra fades out to the coda.

There is bonus track at the end of the album, titled "Puerto Rican Rumble" that doesn't relate to the Suite but finds the elder Koppel on organ, and in a live concert with the trio of his son, Colley and Blade. Just pure fun.

Andres Koppel's Mulberry Street Symphony is a modern tour de force and like any good music tells a story that is compelling to anyone, especially those of us who have emigration in our historical ancestry.