Header Quote

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

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Matt Wilsons Arts & Crafts: An Attitude for Gratitude

I like my jazz with some whimsy when possible, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be deep. Matt Wilson’s band, Arts & Crafts, fits this bill to a tee. They are loose and fun, but also capable of great emotion and subtlety. What a relief in a style of music that, too often, seems about precision and grandiosity. Wilson ambles and takes detours as a drummer, and his band follows. It’s a casual stroll, but the destinations are substantial.

Arts & Crafts consists of veteran trumpeter Terrell Stafford; the pianist, accordionist, and organist Gary Versace; new bass player Martin Wind; and the leader on drums. Wilson does not lead by being the loudest player but rather with a willingness to infuse his playing with a human looseness. It might be unfair to call his playing “messy”, but it has a spontaneous, shambling character that refuses to be straightened out by strict rules. The result is a band that has many modes and moods, each of which is truly genuine. Although we’re talking about instrumental jazz here, the music on An Attitude for Gratitude has heart and humor and soul.

Read my whole review here:  Matt Wilson's Arts & Crafts: An Attitude for Gratitude

Nearly half of the tunes on Gratitude are original, and all carry water. Aside from “Bubbles”, there is the bouncing Versace tune “Poster Boy”, which allows the pianist to unspool a great line of modern jazz that culminates in a set of jagged chords leading to a hypnotizing bass solo. Wind’s “Cruise Blues” is pure relaxation, and Wilson’s “No Outerwear” has an easy swing that could be fruitfully covered by a big band. Wilson drives it with authority, and then he even gets in a quick drum solo –clacking away like an old pro. His tune “Stolen Time” is the most open thing on the record: a form that turns some fast swing into an open plain of semi-organized freedom. Wilson gets to fragment his playing as the rest of the band gallops out over the landscape and plays with abandon.

“Play” remains the operative word with Matt Wilson’s Arts & Crafts. This is jazz that emphasizes a sense of childlike wonder. The full range of emotions is here, not just blues or ecstasy and especially not merely nostalgia. Matt Wilson is working, freely and with great pleasure, in the here and now, where jazz has always been at its best.

An Attitude for Gratitude has its finger, easily and pleasantly, on the present pulse.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Joshua Redman: Moodswing

 In 1994, Joshua Redman was the “It Musician” in jazz – a young guy getting a ton of press because he was a biracial guy who had gone to Harvard and decided to pass up Yale Law School for the life of a jazz musician. Plus, he was the son of the great tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman and took the top prize in the Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition in 1991. Oh, and the guy could really play – boasting a rich, round tone on tenor and a natural, conversational style that was utterly appealing. All this resulted in a major recording contract, rare for almost any jazz musician, on Warner Bros. And the young player delivered with a debut that showed him as equally adept at “Body and Soul” and “I Feel Good”, then a sophomore effort where he played even-Steven with Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins. The hype was not all hype.

For his third release, 1994’s just-rereleased Moodswing, Redman recorded with his working quartet. And it seems fair to guess that Warner Bros. decided to reissue this record because of that band. Pianist Brad Mehldau has become not only a top-flight jazz pianist but also a phenomenon of his own – a daring recording artist who tackles classical material and fascinating pop hybrids. Christian McBride has become jazz’s most prolific bassist, a man for all seasons and all styles. And Brian Blade has become not only the drummer in Wayne Shorter’s adventurous quartet but also an ingenious composer, arranger, and collaborator across musical styles. In retrospect, it is an all-star band, a supergroup. So how does Moodswing sound 18 years later? And how well does it fulfill its own mission, stated in Redman’s high-toned liner notes, to demystify jazz a bit, to rescue it from being seen only as an “intellectual music” and, instead, create feeling?

Read the full PopMatters review here: Joshua Redman: Moodswing

Without a doubt, Brad Mehldau is the secret ingredient on this disc. “Chill” finds a groove that lives somewhere in the Pink Panther/”Fever” zone: slinky and blue, set low in the tenor’s range, the bass and piano playing a lovely descending pattern. It’s a theme that isn’t, in and of itself, all that interesting, but it sets up the soloists just fine. Here is where the young Mehldau does his damage –playing light and easy, but with a melodic invention that is exceptional. It’s a solo that you might play for a skeptical friend who “doesn’t like jazz” and maybe win a convert. And when it’s Redman’s turn, things get interesting in a different way: the band sets of simple syncopated groove with no harmonic motion, and then the tenor and McBride’s bass trade blues rips. Nice.

Moodswing is appealing, but not anything truly new or daring for a jazz quartet to pull off. And that is where any judgment of Moodswing probably has to land. It’s terrific music, but it is played over well-traveled territory. In jazz, that’s common and just fine, but it doesn’t really live up to Redman’s liner-note manifesto in emotional directness. As great as the band is, with a vintage that now spins our heads, in 1994, this was a young working band making its first recording. I’d call it lovely but not essential, incredibly fun but not ... moving. Not that it doesn’t make me feel something. Good jazz always does. If that’s not true for every music fan, I’m not inclined to lay it at the feet of a single saxophone player, particularly one with such range, tone, and ambition. Josh Redman was under no compunction to lead a movement. Moodswing shows how fine even a merely good date is by a strong player.

JAZZ TODAY: The Vijay Iyer Trio Takes Over

The best band in jazz has made the best album of the year—or of the decade. Pianist Vijay Iyer and his trio (with Stefan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums) have been making great music, alone or with others, for some time. But Accelerando is an instant jazz classic, a record that is both accessible and daring at once, both in the tradition and wholly new.

On this recording, the trio plays with an incredible degree of integration, sounding like it has fully worked out a series of ideas about how a band should deal with rhythm and dynamic interaction in today’s jazz. The music on Accelerando is immensely elastic, but it’s not loose. Rather, the band plays with a roaring, united front of sound, within which the rich tradition of jazz plays out in scintillating conversation.

Read the full JAZZ TODAY column and review here: The Vijay Iyer Trio Takes Over.

The Heatwave tune, “The Star of the Story” (written by Rod Temperton in the ‘70s) is a classic piece of sophisticated groove music, and Iyer seems to understand it from the inside out. The trio begins by playing it with great fidelity to the original but then sets off into a wild section that is grounded by a pounding Gilmore pattern setting off a bowed bass solo that grows under a set of stuttering cross rhythms on piano. Once Crump drops back to playing a series of funky low notes, Iyer returns with a set of variations on the tune’s theme that, again, build to amazing unity of purpose.

Even better is the Michael Jackson hit “Human Nature”, which starts with the recognizable piano lick and then moves to a straight melody statement that is syncopated over an idiosyncratic, interlocking pattern that finds Gilmore and Crump mixing funk rhythms with sudden gaps of silence. In the way Iyer digs into the melody (especially the second verse), there is just a bit of how The Bad Plus attacks a pop tune, but then the band moves into an improvisation that shatters all expectations.

Nothing like regular “jazz”, this finds the rhythm section deepening the way it lurches through this groove, while Iyer plays largely like a drummer, striking his right hand in staccato jabs while his left thumps in an octave pattern. And this combination of elements evolves and builds until the waves of contrasting rhythms simply can’t be any more intense. And after a brief moment of silence, the melody returns until a long slow fade allows the song to begin all over again at the piano lick. Magically, it means that the band can intensify even more greatly the second time and into a shattering, beautiful ending.

All of the music on Accelerando sways and swaggers, surges and shudders with power. It’s the sound of a style of music rediscovering its ability to move a whole body or a whole room. It’s the power of three men, playing like ten but mainly playing like one, who have a single conception that requires then to playing in very different ways, simultaneously.

It’s the best album of 2012 in jazz by the best band in jazz, no doubt. The Vijay Iyer Trio sounds like jazz history in real time, unfurling for your personal revelation.

Listen up: this is why music matters.