Header Quote

"If you ain't got it in you, you can't blow it out."
— Louis Armstrong

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Microscopic Septet: Friday the Thirteenth, The Micros Play Monk

Any fan of The Microscopic Septet can tell you that the band is a Monk specialist.  The slightly off-center feel of The Micros over the years has always lent itself to interpreting jazz's most off-center—and brilliant—composer.

The surprise is that they have never devoted an album of arrangement to the master . . . until now.

Not that the band has had a long career in which to deal with this.  Joel Forrester (piano) and Philip Johnston (soprano sax) led the band actively from 1982-1992, recording four discs of mostly original material, which was reissued in 2006.  This led to 2008's Lobster Leaps In, a fresh set of tunes for this four-sax-plus-rhythm band.  2010 delivered the inevitable, new recordings of (some old, some new) arrangement of "Pannonica," "Wee See," "Bye-Ya" and the like.  (For Micro neophytes, you might recognize this band and its sound from NPR's great Fresh Air with Terry Gross—they composed and play that stuttering, tumbling theme song.)

And, boy is it fun!  The Micros load on the Latin grooves and a martial beat, sleek swing and avant-garde freak-outs.  They don't stray all that far from Monk's tunes or his ultimate intentions, but they bring a fresh sense of quirk to these (mostly) familiar jazz standards.  My only reservation is that the tunes are short and the players don't stretch out much.  But then again, long solos have never been The Micros' thing.  Even the leaders are not riveting soloists who regularly grip you with the narrative feeling of their instrumental solos.

You might feel that you don't need another Monk tribute disc, but this is a theme record that overcomes any sense of familiarity.  These guys have long been some of the few pranksters in jazz, and it's great to have them playing on the monkey bars of such a great composer.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Cassandra Wilson: Silver Pony

For me, Cassandra Wilson raised the bar for jazz singers in the last two decades.  High.  On the one hand she started out singing jazz from a rare perspective—from the fringe.  Her origins in jazz are with Henry Threadgill and Steve Coleman.  On the other hand, her recordings since she joined Blue Note (with 1993's Blue Light Till Dawn) have been singular successes at bringing rock-era pop and blues into a jazz singer's repertoire.

Cassandra, I would follow you anywhere.

But her latest, 2010's Silver Pony, is a disappointment.  Her voice is wonderful as usual: deep and elastic and insinuating.  But she is plainly coasting.  The first three tracks are live versions of songs from her last album.  And as much as I like her "Lover Come Back to Me" and her "St. James Infirmary," hearing them again live so quickly is not high on my list of Cassandra Wilson hopes and dreams.

Worse, there are a few tunes here that just seem like filler, particularly a couple of "songs" that are merely excepts of jams from a live show, one presented on its own and the other given lyrics and worked into something new.   "A Night in Seville" and the title track are going nowhere fast.

It's not all live, too, which adds to my sense that this is an oddly stitched-together program.  I dig some of the new stuff—a great "Forty Days and Forty Nights", which is a fresh take on Muddy Waters, and wonderfully spare "If It's Magic," from Stevie's brilliant Songs in the Key of Life.  I also like the new band, particularly young pianist Jonathan Batiste.

If you love Cassandra Wilson, you'll find other good stuff here as well—a duet with John Legend, a ripping slide guitar solo, a neat reharmonization of "Blackbird."  But Silver Pony is a grab-bag of stuff, not a great new album.  I expect something more impressive next time from my favorite jazz singer.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

JAZZ TODAY: Two Key Stories from 2010 — Mary Halvorson and Clean Feed Records

There are at least two important jazz developments from last year that I haven't written about yet.  One is the emergence—with great volume and creativity—of the Lisbon-based Clean Feed Records.  The other is the ubiquity and quality and fresh inventiveness of guitarist Mary Halvorson.

Read the full JAZZ TODAY column right here.

Clean Feed released almost 50 (!) disc last year, recordings that featured both very well-known jazz players and obscure artists on the rise.  Nearly every one is worth a deep, long listen.  This is thrilling, adventurous work where musicians are given the chance to stretch out, explore, be contemplative, recombine is interesting groupings.  In my column, I detail what I love about Clean Feed by reviewing music by James Carney/Stephan Crump, Rudresh Mahanthappa/Steve Lehman, Anthony Davis/James Robinson, Tony Malaby/Wadada Leo Smith/William Parker/Nasheet Waits, and the Tom Rainey Trio (featuring guitarist Mary Halvorson).  If your taste in jazz tends toward to fresh and new, then Clean Feed is something you should be eating for lunch.

Mary Halvorson played with a dozen interesting bands in 2010, but what brings her to mind is her triumphant recording Saturn Sings from last year.  It scooted past my "best of 2010" lists because my own ears took a while to catch up to it.  I heard Halvorson live during the 2009 Vancouver Jazz Festival, where she was playing with Taylor Ho Bynum's group, and at that time I found her fascinating but sour.  Her playing is a far cry from conventional jazz guitar, consistently largely of jagged melodic forms and scratched out textures.  While she can play beautifully, its the gorgeousness of the sour or unexpected—not a huge surprise when you consider that her training comes from the bands of Anthony Braxton, in part.

Saturn Sings pairs her trio (with John Hebert on bass and drummer Ches Smith) with two horns (Jonathan Finlayson's trumpet and John Irabagon from Mostly Other People Do The Killing on alto sax), and it contains crisp, wonderful writing.  While the horns on not on every track, they help to polish up Halvorson's musical instincts and to set off the off-kilter sound of her guitar trio with some of the polish and structure of an old Blue Note date.  Listening to Saturn Sings is just a wee bit like hearing an old Andrew Hill record if he had been a guitarist rather than a pianist—it lurches and surprises and thrills.  It takes you by surprise.

Clean Feed has already produced some great work in 2011, to be reviewed here soon.  I'm sure Mary Halvorson is cooking up delights as well.  The state of the music in 2011: just fine.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

African Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston

Randy Weston is surely an under-appreciated jazz pianist.  Most fans will know that Weston wrote the standard "Hi Fly" (about, it turns out, how tall he is) but not the real heart of his story.  It turns out to be not merely an interesting story but also a singular one.

In African Rhythms, Weston puts down his story in workmanlike but engaging prose (with the help of jazz writer Willard Jenkins), relating his connection to his father, who raised him in Brooklyn with great pride in being a man with roots in Africa, then his unusual jazz apprenticeship in the Berkshires where he started playing seriously in the mountain resorts, then his inevitable travel to and residency in Morocco.  My full review of the book on PopMatters is HERE.

Through all of this, Weston relates his story of being a musician primarily.  There is relatively little in African Rhythms about Weston's personal life.  Aside from his father, the most important 'secondary player' in the story if trombonist and arranger Melba Liston, to whom Weston would turn at the critical musical moments in this life.  For example, she arranged the music for Uhuru Afrika, which was the seminal work from 1961 that helped to propel Weston on his first trip to his real "home" and that he describes as his most important writing.  But even Liston comes off as a minor character compared to the music itself.

African Rhythms is a huge triumph in getting the reader to hunger to hear Weston's music.  It sent me back to his recordings with truly fresh ears.  And while the book itself was occasionally awkward or repetitious in its storytelling, the musical story it had to tell was riveting and unique.  Weston's has been a jazz life like no other.  For fans of the music, this is a fine and true jazz man's tale.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Dave Brubeck: The Definitive Dave Brubeck on Fantasy, Concord Jazz, and Telarc

The definitive recording of Dave Brubeck's entire career, people should know, are not on this new collection.  The sides for which the pianist is most well-known (indeed, the tracks that make up 95% of his reputation as one of the most accessible and, kinda, weird jazz musicians) were on Columbia, and they're not here.

Rather, this collection brings together the man's early recordings and then his late recordings: everything of note that is not on Columbia.  Thus, it is a kind of "best of" supplement, something for Brubeck completists to grab and mull over.

And it is fascinating.  The early Brubeck is curious and various.  There is the young man studying with Darius Milhaud who turns a standard ("The Way You Look Tonight") into an academic, mannered exercise.  There is also the trendy leader of a trio who chases down the interest in Latin jazz by letting drummer Cal Tjader go crazy on bongos and, eventually, on vibes.  Eventually we hear this guy encounter an alto saxophonist named Paul Desmond, and their immediate rapport creates the sound of the classic Brubeck Quartet.  The first sparks of this, including some freshly improvised classical-ish counterpoint, is a marvel to hear.

The late Brubeck is less bombastic, avoiding the crashing block chord solos that make the classic quartet so thrilling and, often, unswinging.  But these groups rarely seem as balanced, as Brubeck hunts around for a reed player as fulfilling as Desmond.  There are some lovely recordings here, however, and none more lovely that a version of "Forty Days" from 2004 that reminds us that Brubeck was always a great jazz composer even if he wasn't the most nuanced player.

If you grew up loving Dave Brubeck but have never hunted down his more obscure stuff, this could be for you.  For others, the Columbia recordings remain where it's at.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Chick Corea/Stanley Clarke/Lenny White: Forever

The industry that Return to Forever has become is offering up an intriguing new piece of product: Forever, the first release from just the trio of Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White.  It's nothing new exactly, but rather a concert recording of these three masterful jazz musicians playing live (mostly standards, a few tasty RTF classics like "Senor Mouse") or, oddly enough, rehearsing to play live.  I know, it sounds like filler material, fluff to keep fans of the old fusion juggernaut in candy.

But it's more than that and better than that, even though that's what it is.  My PopMatters review is HERE.

It's better because, no matter how you slice it, Corea and Co are stunning jazz musicians, and when they play without bombast and fusion-show-offiness they are take-your-breath-away wonderful.  There are two discs here, and on the first it is just the trio, playing acoustic on harmonically rich material.  It's hard to imagine too many jazz fans turning their nose up at this stuff.

On disc two, the trio is captured either in concert or in rehearsal with guests.  Guitarist Bill Connors is there to reprise the earliest of the RTF quartets, electric and searing.  Then Jean-Luc Ponty comes in on electric violin to reprise some material from one Chick's solo albums, My Spanish Heart.  Then the five of them play together.  Nice.  More out of left field, the trio brings in singer Chaka Khan to reprise two tunes from the Echoes of an Era band.  (Do any fans remember this oddly unbalanced album from 1982 with the fondness that I do—originally with Joe Henderson and Freddie Hubbard on horns?)  For jazz fans of that time, this disc recaptures some wonderful oddities.  Ponty's acoustic original "Renaissance" is a delight.  No doubt, this second disc is less timeless than the first, but for fans of Corea, it's a plus.

If this music were brand new today, would it delight me so, or is nostalgia doing its work?  I think that the superb playing transcends time, but you can find out for yourself.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Eddie Henderson: For All We Know

Eddie Henderson is best known for his trumpet work in Herbie Handcock's Mwandishi Band from the early 1970s.  That was a great band, no doubt, but that was over 40 years ago.  It turns out that Eddie Henderson is something else too.

For All We Know is Henderson's most recent solo recording, and it stands as a distinctive statement from an elegant, happening player.  My PopMatters review can be found HERE.   Henderson plays originals and standards, sounding a good bit like Miles Davis or Art Farmer but a whole lot like himself.  His playing has a lovely fluidity, and the construction of his solos is logical and clear.  He can buzz and skip and catch a neat rhythmic wave.  He is modern but not mechanical.  His playing is pretty.

The other star here is John Scofield on guitar, working as the only chording instrument and providing Henderson with a very orchestral backing.  His signature sound is here: jagged and Monk-ish, edgy but still beautiful.  It's great to hear Sco in a truly pure jazz setting, not jamming or bumping or funking at all but playing the changes and liberated from the need to energize things or excite things.  Here, his playing is plenty energizing without having to dive for the jugular.  And it's great.

Eddie Henderson: I bet you have some other brilliant solo work I've been letting slip past me.  Time to start hunting it down.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Amos Lee: Mission Bell

I enjoyed Amos Lee's Blue Note debut, a bunch of albums back.  He's not a jazz guy, not even as jazzy as Norah Jones, but he was playing with Jones's band and had a super-appealing voice and some good tunes.  Blue Note had itself another winner, all the better to finance more Joe Lovano albums!

But on his fourth disc, Mission Bell, Lee seems as generic as he can get.  A little lite-soul, a whole lot of mellow.  It's 1977 again, but without the awesome band that would have been on the latest Jackson Brown or Paul Simon disc.  And sure as hell without the songs those guys were writing.

Check out by PopMatters review here.

Mission Bell was produced by Joey Burns of the band Calexico, and that's the band that provides the backing here.  He has also called in some guests—Willy Nelson, showing up Lee on a reprise of one song and Lucinda Williams, wasted on another.  The big-name guests just underline that this disc, that these tunes, don't stand well on their own.  This is a very "mellow" album.  Mushy, sweet, soft.  The bad kind of mellow.  Making Norah Jones seems edgy—that kind of mellow.

And I read yesterday that the album had debuted at "number one" on some chart or other.  [Sigh.]