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"If you ain't got it in you, you can't blow it out."
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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Kenny Garrett: Seeds from the Underground

Seeds from the Underground boasts the sound of a tight-as-a-glove small jazz group, one that has played together for a while and knows how to let the sparks fly. Every tune here is an opportunity for ecstasy. Every solo tells a story. Fireworks or feeling are where every sequence is heading. This is straight-ahead jazz with the emotions turned up.

The sound of this band is generous. The Venezuelan pianist Benito Gonzalez is a maximalist, fusing plenty of world rhythms with his massive post-bop jazz chops, sounding occasionally like Herbie Hancock and more often like McCoy Tyner, but always like a young monster. Nat Reeves plays fat-toned acoustic bass, and Ronald Bruner is splashy and vibrant on drums. Then most tracks add Rudy Bird on percussion, who blends integrally with the jazz vibe, not seeming merely tacked on like too many percussions on straight-ahead dates. And, finally, several tracks add to the melodic ensemble some (mostly) wordless vocals by Nedelka Perscad—a great, soaring sound.

Here is the full PopMatters review: Kenny Garrett: Seeds from the Underground.

Most typical are the up-tempo workouts on Seeds. “J. Mac” (for Jackie McLean) is a rollicking modal tune that features thundering piano chords and a straight-ahead swinging feel. Garrett takes the first solo, and it is plain that he is charging up the hill at full speed, headed for the summit. As usual, the leader’s tone is pungent in the low register and squawking and raspy heading into the upper octave—in short, delicious. The solo builds to a peak of longer held notes, then it reloads into swirls that spin even higher. It is exhilarating. Or check out the opener, “Boogety Boogety”, with Bird percolating out front in a hip Latin groove that positively screams “Happiness!” Gonzalez’s solo here dodges and dances with smooth daring until it rises up on a series of upper register tremolos and fizzles back to the melody. Tasty.

Seeds from the Underground is not Kenny Garrett’s best record—he’s been around since the mid-1980s and has made a consistently solid string of records include several that aim higher than this one—and Garrett almost always achieves his goals. But Seeds is so satisfying because it is meat and potatoes jazz from a real working band and from a leader who never gets cute or pulls punches.

This is driving, cooking jazz—old school if you will. And that’s never been easy, even if the greats make it seem so.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

JAZZ TODAY: Esperanza Spalding Stays the Jazz Course While Norah Jones Gets Indie

Jazz has done so much to resist popularity since the end of the big band era: the squirrel-chase sound of bebop, the steely architecture of Coltrane, the raw honk and squeal of free jazz, the over-academic approach of neo-conservatives. So when a genuinely appealing jazz figure arrives—George Benson, Harry Connick, Jr., Diana Krall, Norah Jones—it’s only a matter of time before they leave jazz behind for real pop popularity.

The last few weeks have debuted mature recordings by the two most pop-worthy jazz phenoms of the last decade. One artist’s arrow aims back to the heart of jazz, while the other sends her into another orbit.

Both discs are discussed at length in my latest JAZZ TODAY column: Esperanza Spalding Stays the Jazz Course While Norah Jones Gets Indie.

This month, Norah Jones released Little Broken Hearts, a mature singer-songwriter type of recording that places her singular and beautiful voice in an indie-pop context. Not that Jones ever claimed to be a pure “jazz musician”, but she attended the esteemed jazz program at North Texas and records for Blue Note Records, the premiere jazz label. With Little Broken Hearts, however, Jones is writing songs with Brian Burton (“Danger Mouse”) and breaks her jazz ties entirely.

And to Jones, who has sold over 40 million records, I say: bravo, friend. Little Broken Hearts is a much, much hipper record than Come Away With Me ever pretended to be, drenched in processed guitar sounds, looped but static grooves, studio production style with the absence of any band feeling, and a different kind of vocal phrasing. A tune like “After the Fall” pulses with synthesizer patches and a syncopated snare sound and is built around Jones’s flat delivery in octave harmony with a male voice. “Travelin’ On”, similarly, puts a laconic Jones vocal over a strummed acoustic guitar (or is it just a digital simulacrum of that?), supplemented by a chilled-out cello line. Both have the cool vibe of something that might have been on the Garden State soundtrack

Radio Music Society is the fourth solo album for the singer and bass player Esperanza Spalding, though Spalding recorded with a rock band called Noise for Pretend as teenager. That is, Spalding and Jones are at similar stages in their recording careers.

Like Jones, who plays plenty of piano, Spalding was trained first as a bass player (acoustic and electric) and came to singing less formally. But in the marketplace, she is a singer first. And like Jones, Spalding made a first record (Junjo, 2006) that was closer to convention. The most critical similarity—and then difference—between Jones and Spalding is in the expectation and then execution of their 2012 releases.

Just as Little Broken Hearts was announced in advance as a further departure for Jones from her jazz-pop roots, a record meant very clearly for the non-jazz market, Radio Music Society was announced as Spalding’s attempt to make a commercial record. Understood as the flip-side companion-piece to Chamber Music Society, this new record would jettison the string group and, instead, embrace electric guitar and the sound of some great hooks. Rather than imagining that Spalding would make an indie-rock record like Jones, it was easy to imagine Spalding releasing an impeccably crafted soul album.

And that is almost what she has done. The difference, however, is that Spalding’s latest uses soul music as a form—but one that is essentially transformed by jazz practices. Radio Music Society may have a bunch of ripping hooks, but it’s equally rich in saxophone solos, tricky bebop vocal melodies, and complex contrapuntal forms. Spalding, at her core, is a jazz musician rather than a pop player who just happened to get singed to Blue Note. Centrally, Spalding is drawn to virtuosity and technical complexity.  She is so clearly a jazz musician that even her most commercial stuff has the swing and swagger of a fine jazz record.

In fact, both of these records stand as remarkable career highlights for Jones and for Spalding. Each seems to be refining a kind of essence. Jones may have started like a torch singer, but it turns out that she was really always “just” a brilliant pop voice, and one from a generation more likely to be influenced by Radiohead than by Blossom Dearie or Ella Fitzgerald. And Spalding’s debut, featuring the Jimmy Rowles classic “The Peacocks” and Chick Corea’s “Humpty Dumpty” as well as originals that use mainly wordless vocals, was also not a full expression of her musical personality, but it was in many ways her essence: a substantive jazz workout with a delicious sense of appeal.

Today, a generous handful of records into each career, however, Norah Jones and Esperanza Spalding seem like interesting examples of how jazz remains important to American pop music, even if jazz was long ago turned into a kind of art music. The impulses of jazz—to sing or play with interpretive style, to infuse the music of the day with syncopation and freedom, to force each musician to develop an utterly distinctive voice on the basis of personality and skill—still make the best pop more lasting.

This is not to say that jazz musicians make the best pop records, but rather that American popular music still works best when it embodies a taste of its past. And, it’s also true that jazz benefits from how it rubs shoulders with pop. May they forever be bumping into each other

Friday, May 11, 2012

Mary Halvorson Quintet: Bending Bridges

Mary Halvorson is a knotty player, a guitarist with an unadorned tone and an approach that could almost be called unmelodic. She specializes in jazz lines that lurch and twist and abrade the ear, finding freshness by avoiding the very musical familiarities that most listeners, well, enjoy.

Except that, in this avant-garde approach, Halvorson is finding fresh ways to sound great, to write catchy tunes, and to put a fire of urgency into hearing jazz in a new way.

Bending Bridges is the second beautiful and urgent recording from her quintet, with trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, bassist John Hébert and Ches Smith on drums. The band plays with precision and fire on a series of Halvorson tunes that entertain and tell stories. Every track here sounds like a journey: with repetitions but also fresh horizons, with sweeping vistas and moments of pure road momentum. Bending Bridges hasn’t the foggiest idea of how to bore you.

Read my full PopMatters review HERE.

Among the great things about the construction of this band is the way that Hébert’s woody bass tone contrasts with Halvorson’s unadorned guitar or her subtle forms of distortion. “That Old Sound (No. 27)” is for guitar trio only, but the sense of dynamic range is extreme. Hébert is natural and lovely in laying down the harmonies, and then the guitar continuously distorts and bends, with Halvorson laying in strange effects and supplementary tonal variations such that it almost seems as if the whole quintet must be hiding inside her Guild’s hollow body.

Halvorson, in the final tune on Bending Bridges, makes her very unconventional technique span the precise and the peculiar. “All the Clocks” could be a tune from Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch but it could also be the product of a “post-rock” experimental outfit like Tortoise. A tiny bit prog and a whole lot free, a decent part tuneful but a whole dollop adventurous, the Mary Halvorson Quintet is an ideal modern jazz ensemble.

Fans of the today’s beyond-category jazz should be lining up for this music, but so should indie-rock fans or guitarheads or noise-rockers or any other music fan who cares to hear the daring mix with the heady. This is another great record from an outstanding band. May they keep coming.