Thursday, April 30, 2009

Vijay Iyer? Has Another New Record Coming Out? What Is This, Like, His Third in Two Years?

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has spent any time reading this blog over the past year or so that I would come out of hibernation to drool over new tracks on Vijay Iyer's myspace. Have you heard them? If you have not, you can find them right here, and they are KILLIN'. Of the five new tracks, three are going to be featured on his new album, "Historicity" and are played by his trio. The other two, "Thrash Anthem" and "Down to the Wire," are played by his sextet and were written as cues for ESPN (how cool is that?).

"Historicity" and "Helix" are classic Iyer, the former featuring violent, stuttering rhythms and equally percussive piano work, and the latter opening quietly, with seemingly improvised chord changes and eventually rising to crescendo, recalling "Threnody" from last year's Tragicomic. The rhythms featured about halfway through the track are completely new, however, and involve the shifts and stutters not uncommon in Iyer's compositions. The third of the trio tracks, however, is possibly the most interesting of all: a cover of M.I.A.'s break-out hit, "Galang." Iyer brings it, and "Galang" is possibly the craziest of the three. Drummer Marcus Gilmore bangs away while bassist Steven Crump attacks every hit; Iyer's own pianistic mimicking of M.I.A.'s voice is uncanny, and the whole thing reminds me of Jason Moran's Bandwagon on crack.

Check them out, if the rest of "Historicity" is as good as these three, we could have one of the best of the year on the way.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Julian Lage Sounds Off

Berklee student Julian Lage’s debut solo album, The Sounding Point, is all over the place in the best way possible. Showcasing his interest in classical music, jazz, and American folk music, it is a credit to the young Mr. Lage that The Sounding Point never sounds schizophrenic. In spite of the album’s huge scope, Lage never sounds like he’s stretching himself too far.

Lage, who became well known in 1997 as the subject of the academy award winning documentary “Jules at Eight,” has until now been known mostly as a child prodigy and as a collaborator of fellow child prodigy Taylor Eigsti. The Sounding Point, however, shows that he is more than just that; his integration of numerous idioms on tracks like “All Purpose Beginning” and “Quiet Through and Through” prove that he is a major talent in the process of finding himself as a musician.

While Lage’s band on the album largely consists of himself, cellist Aristides Rivas, saxophonist Ben Roseth, bassist Jorge Roeder, and drummer Tupac Mantilla, the best tracks on the album are arguably the three collaborations with banjoist Bela Fleck and mandolinist Chris Thile. These tracks showcase a relatively seamless dialogue between jazz and bluegrass, and are in many ways the culmination of a fusing of these two genres that began in the 90s with Bill Frisell’s Nashville.

“The Informant,” one such track, opens with a nimble banjo line from Fleck that is immediately mimicked and spun around by Lage. The three of them eventually enter into a fast, contemporary bluegrass jam that features some snaky guitar lines from Lage and later, a series of trade-offs between Fleck and Thile. These three tracks are alone worth the price of the album, as they showcase three great musicians from largely different backgrounds working together to create interesting improvised music.

The album’s other highlight is technically not on the album at all; a run through “All Blues” that features Lage’s compatriot Taylor Eigsti. While the tune is by now overplayed- and there is a clearly definitive and beloved version (that would be Miles Davis’)- Eigsti and Lage take the tune and turn it inside out without even altering anything that makes the tune great. It’s still in 6/8 (or 3/4, depending on your Real Book edition), the chords aren’t reharmonized (at least not initially), and it still swings like nobody’s business; the joy in it, however, is in hearing the two musicians really cut loose on a straight-ahead, old school jazz tune after hearing almost an hour of Lage’s classical and bluegrass fusions. The placement is jarring, and really does seem to prove that Julian Lage is capable of anything.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Bad Plus at the BPC With Wendy Lewis

While the lack of an encore may well have upset a number of fans, there is no doubt that The Bad Plus played at least two thirds of a great show on Friday, April 3rd. During the second half of their set there was something of a lull; they were joined by singer Wendy Lewis (the regular trio is comprised of bassist Reid Anderson, drummer David King, and pianist Ethan Iverson), and after rousing takes on Nirvana’s “Lithium” and Wilco’s “Radio Cure” focused on too many down-tempo songs.

The first half of their set was perfect. Everything, even down to song choice, was exactly what a fan of the trio could have hoped for. In addition to the trio songs on their new album (which include their idiosyncratic versions of twentieth century classical pieces by Ligety, Stravinsky, and Babet), the band played a few highlights from their older records.

These highlights included a run through Anderson’s “Physical Cities” that could only be described by an audience member as “insane.” The song, which begins with an odd-meter funk groove, moves into a series of hits that eventually become the center of the song before transitioning into another funk groove. After Anderson and Iverson solo, the band plays the same hits, extending them for what seems like an eternity. The insane part is that this new series of hits is different, has no defined pattern, and is played in perfect unison by the group, who have memorized it and play as if they are all one musician.

After “Physical Cities,” the undeniable peak of the show, the band invited vocalist Wendy Lewis to the stage for the second half of their set. The first half of the show was good enough that it was clearly going to be hard to continue the forward momentum going into Lewis’s songs.

Lewis, whose contributions on their most recent album For All I Care was essential to changing up the trio’s sound, was not quite as inventive live as the rest of the group, which is understandable due to the fact that the three of them have been playing together without her for more than ten years. Another problem with Lewis’ portion of the show was that for the most part, the live versions of songs were nearly identical to those on the record, and those tunes that didn’t appear on For All I Care were generally dirges (“Blue Velvet” and “New Year’s Day” come to mind). The band’s closer, “Comfortably Numb,” however, made up for these problems with the sort of disaffected energy usually reserved for a rock band.

While the second half of the Bad Plus’s show at the BPC was plagued by some issues stemming from the inclusion of Wendy Lewis, the first half was almost undeniably what any fan would have wanted. The only other major problem with the show, the lack of an encore, was notable more for the fact that audience members perhaps would have wanted to see the trio performing alone together for one last tune.

Next time I'll have a review of Julian Lage's "Sounding Point."

Monday, March 30, 2009

Christian Scott Rocks Out at Sculler's

Hey there all, I would like to apologize for the consistent inconsistency of this blog, and would like to say that it seems as though for the next few months it will probably be just as slap-dash, sporadic, and generally thrown together about two months after the last minute. I would say check back often for reviews and commentary, but the likelihood is that there will be nothing here. That said, I do have a review for you this time!

Also, a note for the haters: keep on hating, and keep on commenting about how much you hate me (I'm talking to you, vin); I suppose that the notoriety of being the worst blogger on the jazz blogosphere (Is there even a jazz blogosphere?) is probably enough to catapult me to a promising career as a jazz critic. So here's my review of Christian Scott's show at Sculler's, which is essentially a reprint of a review of that same show I wrote originally for The Berklee Groove.

With one notable exception, Christian Scott’s quintet did not swing on a single tune on Thursday May 26th at Sculler’s jazz club. Nor did they burn- at least in a traditional sense. With the exception of a cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Eye of the Hurricane,” taken at a breakneck pace, Scott’s group rocked out. Scott, possibly the best-dressed man in jazz, walked out sporting a near-trademarked pair of sunglasses and a collared shirt, waited for his band to set up their instruments, and immediately tore into the only new tune of the night, “Angola Louisiana and the 13th Amendment.” The tune, an elegy for a friend in prison, was loud and full of righteous anger.

Like his contemporaries Vijay Iyer and Andy Milne, Scott is clearly neither afraid to make topical music in the jazz idiom nor to mix jazz with R&B, Hip Hop, and loud rock music. Even Scott’s ballad, “Isadora,” was beautifully modern; drummer Jamire Williams’ incredibly intricate hip-hop brush-work somehow matched a traditionally gorgeous ballad solo from pianist Milton Fletcher.

According to Scott, this quintet is going to be around for a long time. “We’re bringing the band back,” he said. “A lot of times, you hear only about the artist, but the band is just as important. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if it weren’t for these guys.” Rounding out his group were the aforementioned Williams and Fletcher, in addition to bassist Chris Funk and guitarist Matt Stevens. Every member played an important part in the texture of Scott’s group; Stevens and Fletcher trading off on chordal duties, or playing single note grooves that recall a jazzier Radiohead circa “Kid A.”

The show was markedly different from the one documented in Scott’s most recent album, “Live at Newport,” due both to the lack of tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III and pianist Aaron Parks and to a crackling energy that could be felt in the audience at Sculler’s that was not to be found at Newport. Something about the intimate setting and the rapport between the five particular musicians on stage made Scott’s show one of the best I’ve been to in a long time.

By the time Scott made it to the anthemic “Litany Against Fear” and a raucous run through “Rewind That,” his two closest things to hits, it was clear that the audience was just as into the music as the musicians. There was shouting in the middle of solos and loud applause, and yet everything from the stage was audible due to Scott’s band’s propensity for making loud music. “Litany Against Fear” was absolutely transcendent, featuring a constantly shifting drum solo from Williams and some knotty lines from Scott, but the best solo of the night came in the form of a block chord piano solo on “Rewind That.” Fletcher barely played any notes, but instead chose to tear the house down using odd rhythmic ideas from hip-hop.

Scott is without a question one of the great young jazz musicians right now, and this new quintet of his will be recording a new album in May. Don’t wait to hear the record, go see him live as soon as he comes back to Boston.

A review of Julian Lage's new album is forthcoming. Probably in a couple months. Sorry in advance.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The New Fusion: New Records by The Bad Plus and The Bird and The Bee

When people hear the word "fusion," they generally think either of Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew," the slew of 70s bands that sprouted from those sessions (The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, etc) or the smooth jazz lunacy generally played on "fusion" or "soul-jazz" radio stations (Kenny G, Dave Koz, etc). Of course, the idea of "fusion" in jazz at all is pretty ridiculous, especially now that jazzers like Robert Glasper have day jobs playing with rappers and Charlie Haden is releasing an (amazing) album of old-school country songs. So when I refer to the new fusion, I'm talking about music that makes a sincere attempt at bridging the jazz-pop divide, and no two bands encapsulate that idea from the two different sides than jazz pranksters The Bad Plus and indie-pop duo The Bird the Bee. Just my luck, they happen to have released new albums within a few weeks of each other.

Inara George and Greg Kurstin first made waves as The Bird and The Bee in the jazz community when, upon the release of their self-titled review, some critic felt the need to mention that Kurstin had studied music with Jaki Byard. "Holy shit," said the hipster critic (I'm paraphrasing here), "Jaki Byard played with that famous bass player dude what's-his-face," and thus, the myth that The Bird and the Bee play jazz was born. The Bird and the Bee are not a lounge duo, and there is little to no improvisation in their music, with the exception of a guitar or piano solo here or there. "Also," said the critic, "Inara George has a smoky voice like that chick Norah Jones, and she's like, kinda jazzy, right?" The critic was correct, and I suppose there is something subtle about Inara George's voice that makes the band sound jazzy. Of course, there is also the fact that THEIR HARMONIC BACKDROP AND VOICINGS ARE TAKEN DIRECTLY FROM MODERN JAZZ, but most critics, who majored in English in college, are unqualified to make a statement like that.

I realize that I'm spending more time ranting about The Bird and the Bee's ridiculously inept critical reception than about their music. "Rayguns Are Not Just the Future," their new album, is pretty good. It isn't quite as good as their eponymous debut, and on "Rayguns" they sound stretched a little thin; the debut was full of simple arrangements that highlighted the catchy melodies and out-there harmony of their tunes, while "Rayguns" is overproduced at the expense of the group's songs. Also, there is something ironically old-fashioned about the writing in songs like "You're A Cad" that simply couldn't have existed on an album with songs like "Fucking Boyfriend." In some ways it sounds like The Bird and the Bee have traded in modern jazz for a hipsterized version of Tin Pan Alley on "Rayguns." But still, I would recommend it to those who liked their debut.

The Bad Plus, one of the two great young hipster jazz ensembles of our time (Moppa Elliot's "bebop terrorist band" Mostly Other People Do the Killing would qualify as the other), are infamous in the pop world for their covers of songs ranging from Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to "The Theme From 'Chariots of Fire'," but in general the best tracks on their albums have been their equally adventurous originals. Their new album, "For All I Care," is something of a departure for The Bad Plus: it is their first made up entirely of covers, their first with a singer, and perhaps their most accessible to a wide audience due to these two facts. It is also possibly their best, and their most experimental.

The singer, Minneapolis rocker Wendy Lewis, fits the band like a glove; she feels no need to add the inflections of a jazz singer, and her addition only underscores the idea that The Bad Plus are not a jazz piano trio, but in fact an experimental rock trio whose instrumentation happens to be piano (Ethan Iverson), bass (Reid Anderson) and drum kit (David King). 

Hopefully this new development will stop people from comparing The Bad Plus to Brad Mehldau's piano trio; while Mehldau's group treats rock songs like standards, The Bad Plus treat rock songs like rock songs. Just listen to Nirvana's "Lithium," which, in spite of a much more complicated rhythm and a disorienting key change in the verse, maintains both the energy and the sheer volume of the original, or to their take on Wilco's "Radio Cure;" their version, which begins as a duet between Lewis' voice and Anderson's bass, is perhaps even more cold, disaffected, and chillingly beautiful than the original. Highly highly highly recommended for non-purists, Nirvana fans, Bad Plus fans, everybody. I would go so far as to say that this is an early pick for one of the year's best.

Yeah, yeah, this was a really long post. Enjoy it while it lasts. Also, feel free to comment on the revenge of the double-review, I am aware of the fact that I haven't done one in a while.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Kind of World Music

The title of this post pretty accurately describes the music found on Gilfema's new almost-self-titled "Gilfema + 2." Gilfema, a trio made up of young internationals Lionel Loueke (guitar), Ferenc Nemeth (drums) and Massimo Biolcati (bass), was first heard on their fully-self-titled debut ("Gilfema," one of the best releases of the decade), and has since been heard on Lionel Loueke's "Virgin Forest" and "Karibu" as "The Lionel Loueke Trio." Now, on their new collaborative release, they have added clarinetist Anat Cohen and bass clarinetist (and occasional ocarina player) John Ellis to the mix.

While Cohen and Ellis each have occasional solo spots and play a large part in creating the texture for the band, the full responsibility for the group's vision still falls squarely on the shoulders of Nemeth, Biolcati, and Loueke. The three split writing duties (4 tunes are Loueke's, 3 each are Nemeth's or Biolcati's), although you wouldn't know that without looking at the liner notes; the tunes all make sense together, and there is clearly a Gilfema sound that is audible throughout this and their earlier album. Musical influence comes from all over the place (the three trio members are from Benin, Italy, or Hungary, and with the addition of Ellis and Cohen they can add America and Israel to their list of countries-of-origin), but the mix is Gilfema's alone.

The key difference between "Gilfema + 2" and "Gilfema" is, as would be expected, the addition of two horn sounds into the mix. Ellis' bass clarinet adds bottom without intruding on Biolcati's bass, and Cohen's clarinet makes for an interesting counterpoint to Loueke's guitar and voice. On the track "Your World," for example, Cohen and Loueke solo at the same time, bumping ideas off of eachother and eventually hitting a crescendo with a different texture than anything on "Gilfema." This addition, however, is also "Gilfema + 2'"s major weakness; Cohen and Ellis are not as telepathic as the original trio, who have been playing together as a unit since they attended college. This weakness is hardly major though, and the addition bolsters the original trio's texture in new and interesting ways; while "Gilfema" was a fairly loose mixture of jazz and world music, "Gilfema + 2" is a tightly woven tapestry in the same vein.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Avishai Cohen's Big Rain

Avishai Cohen's "After the Big Rain," which prominently featured keyboardist Jason Lindner and guitarist Lionel Loueke, was one of the best albums of 2007; the only problem brought up by the glossies, if it could be called a problem, was that the album sounded more like a Lionel Loueke record than an Avishai Cohen record. Cohen, who has probably had to spend his entire life contending with people asking "Avishai Cohen, you mean like the bass player," was probably miffed at these reviews. "Flood," the second part in his "Big Rain" trilogy, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the vision behind these albums is his and his alone.

Lindner and Loueke are both gone, and while their playing was part of what made "After the Big Rain" such a rich album they are not missed here. Cohen opted for a bass-less trio, and the only hold-over from "After the Big Rain" is drummer Daniel Freedman (the other member of the trio is pianist Yonatan Avishai, who together with Freedman and Cohen make up 3/4s of Third World Love). There are obvious differences between the two albums: "After the Big Rain" featured cutting edge electronics while "Flood" is all acoustic; "After the Big Rain" featured vocals on many tracks courtesy of Loueke. The differences are all surface though- Cohen's vision for the two albums is in many ways identical. Motifs from "Big Rain" resurface on "Flood," and his playing on the new album is related if not identical to his playing on "After the Big Rain."

Musically, "Flood" is exactly like it's title. The sounds- initial drips of Avishai's piano which lead to waves of Freedman's percussion and finally violent cascades of Cohen's trumpet- evoke quite literally the sounds of a flood. In a sense, "Flood" is a more unified album musically than "After the Big Rain," as the band has a tendency to act more like a single musician than on the previous album; on "Big Rain" there was usually a clear soloist, and while the band was interactive, it was easy to tell whose turn it was. On "Flood," however, the players weave in and out organically, for the service of the music and the concept. Highly recommended.

I'm curious to hear Cohen's next record, which according to his website will be the first part of this trilogy ("Before the Flood?" "Before the Big Rain?" "Clouds?"), and will be a big band date. After "After the Big Rain," an odd instrumentation combo record, and "Flood," a bass-less trio record, it will be interesting to hear how Cohen's concept fits into a large ensemble.