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!