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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Rez Abbasi Trio: Continuous Beat

In past outings, jazz guitarist Rez Abbasi has created challenging bands that mixed and matched voices in ways that fostered cultural cross-pollination and dressed up his strong compositions. Continuous Beat is a different kind of collection, and it may just be the leader’s best. Certainly it is his most joyful and pure: a trio record that really makes us appreciate Abbasi as a guitar player, as an interpreter, and as a writer of irresistible tunes.

This band—with John Hebert on bass and Satoshi Takeishi on drums—plays as one but in a state on continual conversation. Hebert’s lines are strong and independent, ripe in low tone and interesting all on their own. Takeishi plays such that he is constantly creating a poly-rhythmic dance, pushing and pulling the groove without overwhelming the rest of the band. And with a leader who is as melodic as Abbasi, the total package is a joy to listen to in every measure.

While this is no “smooth jazz” outing, the spirit about Continuous Beat is as appealing and easy on the ears as a Pat Metheny record. Indeed, the inevitable comparison is to Metheny’s first trio record, Bright Size Life from 1975. As on that sparkling debut, this band achieves a perfect balance between consonance and departure. This is jazz that plays straight to what audiences love—melody and infectious rhythm—without sacrificing group conversation and adventure.

As the title implies, this new record is rich in a pulsating groove. “Divided Attention” uses a tricky time signature but doesn’t skimp of propulsion, with the guitar and drums rapping out a syncopated groove that becomes the melody itself. Abbasi’s ability to pluck a killer melody starts in his statements using a “clean” sound on the head, then it shifts to a more distorted sound for the true solo, with the lines of improvisation starting to get faster and harder over time. “Back Skin”, another original, works a memorable melody through both the bass line and the guitar lead (played here on a guitar-synth that uses a sound less grating than Metheny’s), leading to a strong solo that flows naturally like a river over the same hooky groove until the band increases the tempo and takes things forward with rushing momentum, twice shifting tempo. It’s a perfect example of how Continuous Beat refuses to play it too safe.

Read my entire PopMatters review here:  Rez Abbasi Trio: Continuous Beat

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

JAZZ TODAY: The Many Voices of Trumpeter and Composer Dave Douglas

The most moving music of 2012 for me has surely been the collection Be Still, by trumpeter Dave Douglas. A serene and shimmering marriage between jazz and devotional hymns, Be Still was inspired by the death of Douglas’s mother—and it extinguished any notion that jazz is all cerebellum and no heart.

That this great work should come from Douglas in 2012 is hardly a surprise. Douglas has been a critical voice—and recently a critical mentor to younger players—in jazz for 20 years. And that it should mean that much to me is also not surprise. Douglas and I grew up in the same place and the same time, and—as he reflects the loss of his parents in his music—has many of my own concerns in his heart.

His music is personal. Putting aside Be Still, that may seem odd, as he is mainly a voice in today’s post-modern jazz, a realm of much abstraction not usually given to autobiography or confession. But Douglas’s work is personal because its incredible range and diversity, taken as a whole, is a portrait of a brilliant and complete man.

The last year shows this with perfect clarity. You can forget the broad swath of his work from previous years: his music for silent movie soundtracks, his use of turntables and electronics, his immersion in Balkan music and his album of Joni Mitchell covers. Douglas’s released music in the last 12 months is enough to suggest that he is the most interesting and heartfelt jazz musician in recent times.

Greenleaf Records and “The Portable Series”

Since 2005, Douglas has been releasing his music—and increasingly that of others—on his own label, Greenleaf Music. Not that Douglas had previously seemed constrained in his artistic choices, but now he truly does what he wants when he wants. And so the full breadth of his artistic identity flies free.

At the end of 2011, Greenleaf made available three different records by Douglas reflecting three different angles on his remarkable trumpet voice. Called “The Portable Series”, these recordings were initially available by download only but were eventually pressed onto compact disc by demand. Each one, remarkable. Together, a revelation.

Read the entire column, including review of the latest by Linda Oh and Donny McCaslin at PopMatters at The Many Voices of Trumpeter and Composer Dave Douglas

Monday, November 19, 2012

Guillermo Klein: Carrera

Pianist and composer Guillermo Klein is a “jazz” musician because jazz is the only category that might comfortably hold his singular, fascinating music in its grip. Sure, Klein studied at Berklee in the 1990s, and there’s no doubt that his bands consist of trumpets and saxophones—played by jazz musicians. His large band had a residency at Small’s (a jazz club) in New York for a long time.

But his music ought to have it’s own name, somehow. It is that unique and intriguing.

Klein’s recent work, including the new Carrera, is with a mid-sized band (10 or 11 pieces) called “Los Gauchos”. This is a band that plays cool, intriguingly schemed-out music. The compositions and arrangements often have a puzzle-like quality, with many interlocking parts that wrap around and through each other. Klein gets the maximum number of colors from his group even as he specializes is a chill kind of impressionism.

Klein uses vocals (often in harmony) as well as horns, muted effects, interesting combinations of sound, and combining acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes electric piano. The result is music that is occasionally Ellingtonian, occasionally classical, and always beautiful. But it is a subtle beauty. There is little to Los Gauchos’ sound that has a sense of jazz swing or dynamic insistence. It is enigmatic music, perhaps. To its great credit.

“Globo” is a fine and astonishing example. This ballad sets up an austere vocal by alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon, usually shadowed by Klein’s baritone harmony an octave lower. The range of instrumental colors Klein accesses here has a gauzy beauty, from Ben Monder’s subtle guitar figures, to piercing muted brass, to buzzing low saxophones that barely register in the usual way. “AnteSano” embodies revelatory arrangement too, but in a different direction. Klein conjures fascinating sonorities by combining Rhodes and flute, handclaps and other percussion, Bill McHenry’s almost mathematical tenor sax solo with a set of written parts for other horns. This is music with the playfulness, say, of Chick Corea’s work, but it’s freighted with other unique flavors—kept close to the ground, for example, but a strong part for baritone sax. Wonderful.

Read the entire PopMatters review here: Guillermo Klein: Carrera

Shelby Lynne: Revelation Road (Deluxe Edition)

In 2001 when Shelby Lynne won the “Best New Artist” Grammy for the previous year’s I Am Shelby Lynne, she become a classic example of Grammy cluelessness—Lynne had been a professional singer and musician for over a decade at the time, having recorded a duet with no less a light that George Jones in 1988.

So that “new” thing was ridiculous, but the “best” part wasn’t. I Am Shelby Lynne was a ripe and wonderful record that reinvented Lynne as a country artist with unusual range and depth. With that recording, Lynne seemed not only “alternative” in that she sounded more like Lucinda Williams than like Faith Hill but also genuinely original—mixing rock and soul into her country sound with a bold clarity that contained bracing, confessional lyrics. The recordings that followed were not quite as stunning as I Am, . . . until the fall of 2011.

Revelation Road was released in October 2011, and it is Lynne’s finest recording. It’s also her most personal and most poetic. Lynne is the only songwriter here—but also the only musician. Released on her own label, this disc comes off as the most complete expression of Shelby Lynne there could be. Critics properly loved it.

A year later, Lynne is releasing a “Deluxe Edition” that includes five additional acoustic tracks of Revelation tunes or other exclusives, adding a sweet additional layer to this masterful record. If it seems too soon for Lynne to be re-selling what she released only a year ago, well . . ., maybe it’s never too early to celebrate something this good. Plus, the first disc comes in a collection with Lynne’s first live record, recorded earlier this year in Santa Monica, as well as two DVDs—another live show and a “making of” documentary about the 2011 record.

The climax of the disc is the devastating “Heaven’s Only Days Down the Road”, which seems to tell the story that can’t help but insist on itself in Lynne’s biography: the day that her father shot her mother and then himself, leaving Lynne and her younger sister (who happens to be the wonderful singer-songwriter Allison Moorer) as orphans. The brilliant stroke is that Lynne tells the story from the husband/father’s point of view, conjuring the pathos of a man who is doing a terrible thing and knows it beforehand, powerless to stop himself for tragic reasons. That Revelation Road provides one last tune, the sadly warm and generous “I Won’t Leave You” (“Oh, I can see the time / Has come for you to cry / Oh my, can’t say goodbye / Loving you’s the reason”) is just further proof of its emotional generosity.

The new music here will keep a listener happily busy for days or more. “Between the Rows” is the only new song among these bonus tracks. Like so many Lynne songs, it has uses strong and simple language to suggest a story of pain and downfall, laced with religious imagery and the landscape of her childhood home in the American south. The stabs of electric guitar and the gutty vibe of her voice more than make up for the simple acoustic backing. All of these songs combine the tough and the tender.

The live record from McCabe’s Guitar Shop is even more worth having. Lynne’s tells stories out front of several of these simple performances, putting the tunes even more in context and making them even more personal. Before singing “I’ll Hold Your Head”, she explains that she, her mom and her little sister (Moorer) learned to sing three-part harmony while driving to school each morning in rural southern Alabama. The performance of the tune is absolutely masterful—a vocal delivery that swoops and swings, rich in tone and conversational just when it has to be. When she sings “C’mon, Sissy, let’s close the door / Don’t want to hear the noise no more”, it’s plain that she is singing about the alcohol behind her parents’ tragic marriage, and the song’s title makes even more sense than when you first heard it.

Read the entire review on PopMatters at Shelby Lynne: Revelation Road (Deluxe Edition)