Sunday, June 29, 2008

Guess the Downbeat Critics' Poll 2008!

Yeah, I know, I'm about four days late with this post. I apologize. It won't happen again; I missed a few days because of a little bit of general topsy-turvey-ness. As far as I'm concerned, though, this post was worth the wait. It's time for my first annual "Guess the Downbeat Critics' Poll" post! Here's how it works: I'm going to name a category, name who I believe the winner will be, and then give my personal pick for who should win the category. Occasionally, where necessary, I'll add some kind of ad hominem attack or random side note.

Jazz Artist: Herbie Hancock. Should Win: Herbie Hancock. Downbeat loves people who get major non-jazz awards; case in point: Ornette Coleman last year.
Jazz Album: Herbie Hancock's "River: The Joni Letters." Should Win: Vijay Iyer's "Tragicomic."
Hall of Fame: Herbie Hancock. Should Win: Lee Konitz.
Record Label: Blue Note. Should Win: Sunnyside. Or Pi. The former if we're going for volume of good albums, the latter if we're looking for a label that puts out few records, but records that are consistently brilliant.
Rising Star Jazz Artist: Vijay Iyer. Should Win: Always Vijay Iyer. Even though he's a legit star.
Jazz Group: Dave Holland Quintet. Should Win: Dave Holland Quintet.
Rising Star Jazz Group: This is tough. I'm going to go with Vijay Iyer's quartet, as neither of last year's winners have released new albums in a while. But there could be an upset from anybody from The Bad Plus to the Chris Potter Underground.
Big Band: Maria Schneider Orchestra.
Rising Star Big Band: No idea.
Composer: Maria Schneider. Should Win: Vijay Iyer, who will be relegated for another year to rising star.
Rising Star Composer: Vijay Iyer. Should Win: Anat Cohen. We need fresh blood in this category, even though I love Vijay Iyer to death.

Female Vocalist:
Dianne Reeves. Ugh. Should Win: Cassandra Wilson.
Rising Star F Vocalist: Gretchen Parlato. Should Win: Gretchen Parlato.
Male Vocalist: Kurt Elling Should Win: Who cares.
Rising Star M Vocalist: Somebody. Should Win: Somebody else, probably.

Alto Sax:
Ornette Coleman. Should Win: Ornette.
Rising Star Alto: Steve Lehman. Or maybe Jaleel Shaw. Or possibly Rudresh Mahanthappa. This is a really tough one, to be honest. All three have either released good albums or done good side-man work this year. But I can't pick one so I'll just throw Steve Lehman out there.
Tenor Sax: Sonny Rollins. Should Win: Chris Potter. Are you kidding me? Sonny Rollins wins every year in spite of his senility. Chris Potter had two killin' albums out last year and was involved in the making of countless others.
Rising Star T Sax: Chris Potter. Should Win: Anat Cohen.
Soprano Sax: Wayne. Should Win: Wayne.
Rising Star S Sax: Steve Wilson. Should Win: Chris Potter.
Baritone Sax: This is a tough one. It really depends on whether or not James Carter's "Present Tense" was heard by critics before votes were due. If it wasn't, this category belongs to Gary Smulyan. Should Win: Either one.
Clarinet: Don Byron. Should Win: Don Byron. Always.
Rising Star Clarinet: Anat Cohen. Should Win: Anat Cohen.
Flute: James Moody. Perhaps Frank Wess. Should Win: Nicole Mitchell, but she's too young.
Rising Star Flute: Nicole Mitchell. Should Win: Nicole Mitchell.

Trumpet: Dave Douglas. Should Win: Dave Douglas. Dave Douglas beat out Wynton by more than a hundred votes last time. Here's hoping the gap gets wider...
Rising Star Trumpet: Jeremy Pelt. Should Win: Steven Bernstein. Duh. I'm keeping my fingers crossed though, this is a tough category. Expect Avishai Cohen to move up in this category.
Trombone: Steve Turre. Should Win: I have no idea, but Steve Turre always wins.
Rising Star Trombone: Again, no idea. Should Win: Josh Roseman.

Acoustic Piano: Herbie Hancock. Should Win: Kenny Werner, who won't even make the list.
Rising Star Piano: Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, or Vijay Iyer. Should Win: Either Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, or Vijay Iyer.
Organ: I'm gonna go out on a limb and say Dr. Lonnie Smith. Should Win: Sam Yahel.
Rising Star Organ: Sam Yahel. Should Win: Uri Caine.
Keyboard: Uri Caine. Should Win: Uri Caine. I'm crossing my fingers, this is probably the only category in which a "rising star" type figure has a real shot at getting one of the major awards, as last time he came in second after Joe Zawinul, who is now dead.
Rising Star Keyboard" Craig Taborn. Should Win: Craig Taborn. Or Uri Caine. Either one.
Vibes: Bobby Hutcherson. Should Win: Gary Burton.
Rising Star Vibes: Stefon Harris, even though he isn't a rising star by any stretch. Should Win: Chris Dingman; his work on "Prelude: To Cora" by Ambrose Akinmusire and "On Meaning" by Steve Lehman was brilliant.

Drums: Roy Haynes or Jack DeJohnette.
Rising Star Drums: Another tough category. I'm going to say Matt Wilson, but it could go to anyone from Jef Ballard to Eric Harland to Nasheet Waits. Should Win: Eric Harland. But I love Matt Wilson.
Percussion: Poncho Sanchez.
Rising Star Percussion: Suzie Ibarra or Hamid Drake.

Guitar: Bill Frisell. Should Win: Bill Frisell. "History, Mystery" is one of the two best albums of the year.
Rising Star Guitar: Either Lionel Loueke or Kurt Rosenwinkel. Should Win: Liberty Ellman! Pick a real rising star, fer chrissake...
Bass: Dave Holland. Should Win: Dave Holland.
Rising Star Bass: Larry Grenadier. Should Win: Larry Grenadier, but Esperanza Spalding could come out of nowhere and win this category on the basis of "Esperanza" and a recent article in Downbeat.
Violin: Regina Carter. Should Win: Jenny Scheinman. I really hope Jenny Scheinman can pull this one off, both of her recent albums are gems.
Rising Star Violin: Jenny Scheinman.
Miscellaneous: Toots Thielemans. Should Win: This is a stupid category.
Rising Star Miscellaneous: Erik Friedlander.

So there you have it. When the August issue of Downbeat comes out (in the middle of July, of course) I'll tally up my guesses and see how many are right. For the time being, though, if you disagree, agree, or want to gossip, please feel free to comment.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Killer Vocal Jazz. Yes, I'm Serious.

Alright, I know that I've had my scrapes in vocal jazz in the past months (I think my two least favorable reviews so far this year have been of Dianne Reeves' vomit-worthy "When You Know" and Roberta Gambarini and Hank Jones' terminally boring "You Are There"), but I'm here to make up for all of that so that the Gods of sung jazz can reverse my karma for the better. The two vocal jazz albums that I've heard recently to review for this blog (Cassandra Wilson's "Loverly" and Moss' self-titled debut called, well, "Moss") are totally different, but equally great. "Moss" is an innovative, folky, dare-I-say "rural jazz," album in which five luminaries from the vocal jazz world (Kate McGarry, Theo Blackmann, Peter Eldridge, Laura Kinhan, and my vocal hero Luciana Souza) sing originals and covers of the likes of Tom Waits, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, whereas "Loverly" is a more-or-less straight ahead affair featuring mostly standards done brilliantly with a stellar rhythm section (pianist Jason Moran, guitarist Marvin Sewell, bassists Reginald Veal or Lonnie Plaxico, and drummer Herlin Riley) that gets a lot of time to show off.

Upon first view, it seems as though Cassandra Wilson hasn't made an album as straight-ahead as "Loverly" in at least ten years, but the beauty of "Loverly" lies in its depth. While it is not a cutting-edge jazz record by any standard, Wilson has no problem allowing her sidemen play some extremely angular solos (check out the way Marvin Sewell holds some really weird notes on "Wouldn't it be Loverly"), and each member of her great rhythm section makes the most of their time in the spotlight. The highlight of the album is a version of "St. James Infirmary," a song played over and over and over that Wilson makes fresh by turning into a slab of hard-core, M-Base funk. Jason Moran plays a chopped-up, bluesy solo, while Sewell comps up a storm with some extremely dissonant voicings. Wilson even does some cool rhythmic scatting during Sewell's solo. Albums like "Loverly" are the reason that people like Roberta Gambarini keep on mining the same old standards; sometimes in the right hands they just sound great. Recommended.

"Moss" is totally different, and this is clear about five seconds into the album; as opposed to opening with a standard (or an original that sounds like it could be a standard), it opens with a neo-classical rendition of a verse of Joni Mitchell's "Shadows and Light." The rest of the album walks the line between jazz, classical, and folk-rock, hitting its apex with Kate McGarry singing a beautiful, enlightening version of Neil Young's "Old Man," that, with minimal changes to Young's arrangement, still sounds like jazz. Each of the five singers have spotlights (another highlight is Luciana Souza's vocal on her original "Home"), although the most interesting tracks are group passages like "Object Devotion" and the two versions of "Shadows and Light," which really show the group's interplay. Also, guitarist Ben Monder's work on this album alone makes it worth a listen; as opposed to taking up a lot of solo space, he opts to stay on the sidelines (with a few notable exceptions, such as on "Home"), comping brilliantly and innovatively throughout. Also recommended.

Vocal jazz can be good when it's done well. Moss and Cassandra Wilson do it well; Dianne Reeves, not so much. Both albums are definitely worth a listen if you can get your hands on them; "Moss" in particular is a great listen if you're looking for yet another splinter of the "rural jazz" direction that Bill Frisell and Jenny Scheinman have been moving in. Next time I'll either have a review of Marc Ribot's "Party Intellectuals" or my first annual Guess-The-Downbeat-Critic's-Poll post.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Freedom of Expression: Marc Ribot, Anthony Coleman and Brad Jones Tear it Up, Evan Parker Puts it Together

It's time for another free jazz round-up, everybody! After the overwhelmingly positive response (Well, actually, there were no comments... but on the plus side, there were no negative comments!) from the first one, a joint-review of new albums (or reissues) from the Free-Form Funky Freqs, Fieldwork, and Matthew Shipp from a month or two ago, I decided that as soon as I had enough obscure free jazz to write about, I'd jump on it immediately. For those of you who have not heard of Marc Ribot, Anthony Coleman, or Brad Jones, the three of them have played together sporadically over the past twenty years (and between the three of them have played with a lot of people in both the jazz and rock worlds), and after a few years of not playing together reunited at The Stone on Saturday night. Evan Parker is a brilliant European saxophone player who made his name by releasing one of the great solo saxophone records of the seventies, simply titled "Saxophone Solos," and his band on the new "Boustrophedon" is rounded out by a 14 piece orchestra that includes Roscoe Mitchell and Craig Taborn amongst its ranks.

To be frank, Saturday's concert at The Stone (John Zorn's cramped, non-air conditioned mecca for experimental music in New York City), featuring Marc Ribot, Anthony Coleman, and Brad Jones, was not for everybody. In fact, it probably wasn't for most people. All three of my friends wanted to leave at one point or another, but I wouldn't let them drag me out. The music was abrasive, occasionally boring, audience-bating- everything that can make a great free-jazz concert fall apart- but for some reason, the stars aligned and it just happened to hit the spot perfectly. Ribot, Coleman, and Jones tore music apart at its seams and made no effort to sew it back together; the three "songs" (I put "songs" in quotation marks because each piece was more of a lengthy improvisation than a standard) floated around the room, sometimes turning into outright noise with Anthony Coleman's prepared piano acting as a percussion instrument and occasionally anchoring the groove. The best "song" of the three was the second; it began as a folk dirge, complete with open chords and a triplet feel (although it changed arbitrarily between 3/4, 6/8, and 9/8), staying there for a while until moving into a lengthy portion devoid of time and finally move into a pulsating section that could only be described as funky Stravinsky. The concert clearly wasn't for everyone, and many people walked out. But man is it fun to just see great musicians bang on shit and see what kinds of cool noises they can make every once in a while.

Evan Parker takes the opposite tack on "Boustrephedon," recorded at a concert a few years ago; as opposed to simply deconstructing and rearranging music and rearranging music with life-affirming zeal, Parker is more interested in finding the meeting point between the worlds of free jazz and avant garde classical music. Some passages in "Boustrephedon" are clearly composed in some fashion (either written out or dictated), and in "Furrow 5" and "Furrow 6" there are moments in which entire segments of his 14-piece orchestra play in tandem. These backing figures- if you can even call them that- add a different back-drop for the soloists to work with, and in that sense they serve to make the music more interesting. The soloists themselves are all incredible, with a particularly interesting solo from clarinetist John Rangecroft towards the beginning of "Furrow 4." The portions during which the band freely improvises as a whole are just as cacophonous and dissonant as one would expect from a group like this, although anybody who actually goes out and buys and Evan Parker record probably knows what to expect. While, again, it's not for everybody, "Boustrephedon" poses an interesting answer to the question "How free should free jazz be?," and for those who are interested in this sort of music it's definitely worth listening to.

But that said, it doesn't offer the same catharsis as hearing a bunch of great musicians bang on shit and do things they aren't supposed to do to their instruments. Seriously, what a great concert. Next time I'll either have a joint-review of Moss' new self-titled album and Cassandra Wilson's "Loverly" or a review of Marc Ribot's new album with his band Ceramic Dog (whose 10 o'clock show at The Stone I would have gone to if not for my wussy friends).

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Don't Mess With the Zamir

I think that listening to new albums by artists who I've never heard of is one of my favorite things to do as a critic; counter-intuitively, I find that I actually wind up having much odder and specific expectations of what their albums will sound like than when I listen to albums by artists whose work I know well. Take Daniel Zamir, for example. I found out about his new album by looking at the Tzadik website (John Zorn's Tzadik label is probably my favorite indie other than Pi, although a lot of their releases are contemporary classical) and finding that the rhythm section was made up of some of my favorite downtown players: Joey Baron, Uri Caine, and Greg Cohen. I found the album online, but before listening to it I figured I may as well check out Zamir's myspace for any clues as to who he is; it turns out that Zamir is an Israeli orthodox Jew, and that his biggest influence (as a musician) is "Torah." And to top it off, the songs had titles like "You Are my G-D" and "Let Me In Under Your Wing." "Ugh," I said, "not another Jewish 'A Love Supreme'," and put off listening to the album so I could sit around and (happily) hear Esperanza Spalding complain about her love life for the fiftieth time.

I couldn't have been more wrong about "I Believe," Daniel Zamir's new album. As opposed to being "Another Jewish 'A Love Supreme'," it's a funky Jewish "Tales From the Hudson;" an accessible Mike Brecker record by a hacidic, soprano saxophone wielding technical monster. The second track, "Poem 51/52," exemplifies the aesthetic of the album perfectly. After a funky, straight-ahead head with a dash of klezmer, Zamir plays a passionate, note-intensive solo that manages to sound killin' in spite of it's wearing technique on it's sleeve. Uri Caine follows with a piano solo that sounds like it could tear the heavens apart; as straight as Caine ever plays with anybody, this solo shows off his chops in a modernist jazz setting as well as anything he's played with Dave Douglas. Greg Cohen also takes a melodic solo, and Joey Baron anchors the proceedings with the off-kilter charm you would expect from his playing with John Zorn and Bill Frisell over the past twenty years.

Other highlights on the album include the aforementioned "Let Me Under Your Wing," which gives Zamir a chance to show off his saxophone pyrotechnics in a three minute solo without accompaniment, and the opener, "7 Midot," which introduces Zamir's intentions on the album with a bang. The only major flaw with the album as a whole is the fact that occasionally the songs blend together; I can't remember the difference between "Poem 54 (770)" and "Poem 10," and a lot of the ideas in Zamir's various solos tend to cross over due to a tendency to put everything he knows into each improvisation. While the former is a problem for the album, you hardly notice the latter due to Zamir's ability to drum up (divine?) excitement during his solos.

On a whole, "I Believe" is a very good album, and showcases Daniel Zamir as a major talent, and one of the leading voices in what I like to call the "Jewish Jazz" movement. He has yet to deliver an album as brilliant as Avishai Cohen's "After the Big Rain" or Anat Cohen's "Poetica," and his compositions and performances aren't quite as mind-blowing as those of Masada or the Bar Kokhba Sextet (both run by John Zorn, his mentor), but "I Believe" is still an extremely promising showcase for Zamir's work. Recommended.

Next time I'm tempted to have a review of Girl Talk's "Feed the Animals," mostly because I can't stop listening to it and attempting to pick out samples... I know, I know, it isn't jazz by any stretch of the imagination, but who cares? Music is music... On the other hand, I could review a concert by Marc Ribot, Anthony Coleman, and Brad Jones. Check back next time!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Woah, Jenny

There seems to be an odd (yet pretty awesome) trend in the jazz world lately in which artists release two brilliant, completely different albums at the same time (Chris Potter did it with "Follow the Red Line" and "Song for Anyone" last year, and Vijay Iyer recently did it with his own "Tragicomic" and Fieldwork's "Door"). Violinist Jenny Scheinman has managed to do the same thing, releasing two seemingly completely different albums, "Crossing the Field" and "Jenny Scheinman," at the same time. To add to the confusion, "Jenny Scheinman" is the first album that she has released as a vocalist, and is by no means a jazz album but a low-key, gorgeous, country-folk-rock extravaganza.

"Jenny Scheinman" is one of those albums that begs to be forgotten, and it probably will be. Jazz publications will give it good-but-not-great reviews (4 stars out of 5, perhaps 3 1/2), while more pop-oriented magazines won't even review it (an alt country-folk album? By a jazz violinist? Yeah, right.). This is really a shame, because it's one of the prettiest albums I've heard all year; like the brilliant "Bill Frisell and Petra Haden" from a few years ago the music is so unlike anything else out there, and so low-key, that it will probably just wind up sitting on shelves in the jazz sections of record and book stores. Scheinman seems to know this, as all of the best songs on the album have a weary sort of quality to them; "I Was Young When I Left Home," a folk tune which opens the album and which is given an incredibly spare arrangement here, shines in a scrappy, back-porch sort of way. "Shame Shame Shame" rocks out, with Scheinman mustering up all of her ability to make it sound as bad-ass as possible. Tony Scherr is invaluable as a guitarist on this album; his slide work on every track but "Rebecca's Song" (which features Bill Frisell) adds bluesy gravity to the proceedings. Highly Recommended.

"Crossing the Field," at least on the surface, is incomparable to "Jenny Scheinman;" there are no vocals, and the spare proceedings of "Jenny Scheinman" are gone as Scheinman is accompanied by a jazz quintet (which features pianist Jason Moran, guitarist Bill Frisell in a rare sideman post, Tony Scherr, who plays bass here as opposed to guitar and drummer Kenny Wollesen) and, on a few tracks, an entire string orchestra (conducted by violist Eyvind Kang). "Crossing the Field" is something of a companion piece to Bill Frisell's "History, Mystery," as so many of the same musicians appear on both albums, but the aesthetic is quite different. Scheinman's version of so-called "rural jazz" (I love that term, I even tagged it to the end of my "History, Mystery" review) is much less pastoral than Frisell's, and "Crossing the Field" sounds a lot like Aaron Copland as filtered through Django Reinhardt's quartet, with random modernist flourishes. Frisell plays a characteristically brilliant guitar solo on "I Heart Eye Patch," an up-tempo country-jazz work-out, while Jason Moran gets a chance to stretch out on "Awful Sad," a swing throw-back. Scheinman herself solos on just about everything, but there is no point in going into specifics because every solo manages to be a highlight. Also highly recommended.

The odd thing about these two albums is that, in spite of the fact that on paper (or on online musings) they seem completely different, they compliment each other. Both albums are free to listen to on Scheinman's website, and I would suggest that if you are so inclined you listen to them back-to-back. There's something about the scrappy country-rock of "Jenny Scheinman" that makes the orchestral (yet still scrappy) jazz of "Crossing the Field" even more interesting; whether singing or playing violin, she manages to sound like Jenny Scheinman.

Next time I'll have a review of Daniel Zamir's "I Believe," although I will probably still be spending my time listening to "Esperanza" over and over again, and randomly diluting it with Jenny Scheinman's "I Was Young When I Left Home." I can't help it; they're that good.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Dave Douglas Cooks Something Up So Good It's Illicit

A little while ago I wrote a review of Bill Frisell's "History, Mystery" in which I said that his consistency from album to album was matched only by Brad Mehldau; I would like to append Dave Douglas to that group. In fact, I would go so far as to say Dave Douglas is even more consistent, and more consistently adventurous, if only because his recent output has been so much more frequent and varied than Mehldau's, and his sideman work so much more frequent and varied than Frisell's. Don't get me wrong, this isn't a knock to Bill Frisell of Brad Mehldau; both are brilliant musicians. That said, though, looking at, you realize that out of his twenty seven albums, Dave Douglas has only recieved lower than four stars on three of them. "Moonshine," Douglas' new live album with the group that recorded the brilliant "Keystone" a few years ago, continues with this dazzling consistency, and is just as adventurous as anything else by Douglas.

A major fear I had initially before listening to this album was that without the amount of post-production work that was done on "Keystone" (one of the great jazz-electronica albums along with Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd's "In What Language?," Kurt Rosenwinkel's "Heartcore" and Kenny Werner's "Lawn Chair Society") the Keystone band would either fall apart, or lose what made the first album so distinctive. I had always been curious to hear how a band from one of the jazz-electronica albums would manage to make the music work live; Douglas' approach is simple: the songs are looser, and the DJ (DJ Olive) is simply a fully integrated member of his band. The only song in which DJ Olive really comes to the fore is on "Flood Plane," which turns into a duet between a sample of George W. Bush saying the word "terrorism" and Douglas mournfully playing his trumpet. While the political motivation is obvious, the idea of Douglas dueting with a DJ is much more interesting. His reaction to the samples is inspired, and DJ Olive's selection of an Islamic singer for another sample fits Douglas' somber tone perfectly.

The other members are also just as inspired when working either with samples of simply playing with an essentially normal, hip-hop inspired jazz quintet. Keyboardist Adam Benjamin does some extremely cool stuff rhythmically to fit Olive's samples; on "Married Life" he plays one of the dirtiest, funkiest riffs I've ever heard on a jazz record. Marcus Strickland, who plays saxophone, trades off with Douglas on "Kitten," a bad-ass metal track.

The best song on the album, and the one that contains the most interesting solos, is the closer "Tough" ("as in 'too bad'," Douglas helpfully states in the liner notes), an old-school hip-hop jam where everyone in the band gets a chance to play for a while. Douglas' opening lick is classic; it's too funky to describe let alone equal, although his use of false fingerings in a passage later on in his solo comes close. Strickland plays a knotty solo that recalls Greg Osby at his most lyrical. Drummer Gene Lake plays a technically accomplished, killin' drum solo (one of very few on this album). Even DJ Olive takes a chorus, using samples of drums and shouting to build the song to it's climax.

"Moonshine" isn't a "great" album in the way that "Keystone" and few other albums are, but it kills, and it's definitely worth a listen if you can find it. Everybody plays their ass off, and "Tough" is probably the best track for your 80s hip-hop theme party that jazz has to offer. Recommended for people who like to dance and people who like Dave Douglas.

Next time I'll do a double review of Jenny Scheinman's two killer new albums. One of them has vocals. And barely any violin. But it's pretty brilliant.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Stop Reading This and Pick Up the New Downbeat

Uh, it's like the title says. If you don't already have your copy, you need to run, NOT WALK, and get the new Downbeat. I know, I don't usually act like a Downbeat PR guy, but seriously, the cover article is basically just Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran, and Matthew Shipp (known, as far as I'm concerned, as "the three most interesting working pianists in jazz") hanging out and talking about their craft. As if that weren't enough (I could sit through a twenty page article about how great Sonny Rollins still is in spite of his senility for the Iyer/Moran/Shipp dialogue), the next article is about Jenny Scheinman, who has two new albums (both of which have Bill Frisell, Tony Scherr, and Kenny Wollesen, and both of which I'm aching to hear) coming out in the near future. Even the excerpt of Victor Wooten's book, in spite of being a little bit patronizing (Woah! You can use a chromatic scale as a device in improvisation and notes outside of the key can sound good!), is enlightening.

Plus there's a hilarious Blindfold Test where Andy Bey manages to rival Gary Bartz (if you haven't read it, read it) for the "biggest schmuck during a blindfold test" award (He gives a track from Paul Motian's "On Broadway," with Chris Potter and Larry Grenadier, 0 stars. Uh-huh.). So go out and get it. You won't be disappointed.

In other news, the Thelonious Monk Institute (the birthplace of the careers of Lionel Loueke, Gretchen Parlato, Ambrose Akinmusire, Chris Dingman, Walter Smith III... well, basically everybody. If you didn't go to the Monk institute you've played with some young musician who did) decided it was worth risking being submerged and moved from USC to New Orleans. I don't think this will make any sort of difference to the jazz world, to be honest, but as long as the Monk Institute still exists I could care less where it is.

Next time I'll have a review of "Moonshine." Also, sometime soon I'll do a "Guess the Downbeat Critics Poll!" post.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Why "Cultural Survival" is Great When it's 99 Degrees Out

David Sanchez, one of a crop of (relatively, in his case) young jazz players who show a major latin influence, has released a number of good albums since his debut album, "Sketches of Dreams," in 1994. "Cultural Survival" is no exception, the compositions are solid, the playing is solid (and includes some good work from major people, like Lage Lund's guitar playing and Danilo Perez' occasional solos as a guest on piano), and the rhythm section (Ben Street on bass, and either Henry Cole or Adam Cruz on drums) is solid. But that's the problem: the album is all surface, without any emotion. It's a solid set of songs, but it comes off as more than a little bit cold and robotic; the majority of tracks sound like jazz modernism by numbers.

The biggest tell of this can be found in listening to Lage Lund, who, here at least, sounds like Pat Metheny's long lost twin brother. Listen to his voicings on "Ay Bendito," for example, and then listen to Metheny's on, say, Micheal Brecker's "Tales From the Hudson." The saxophone-guitar interplay (and occasional unison lines) also belongs on one of the many Metheny-Brecker collaborations. The compositions suffer from the same problem; solid, yes, but frozen cold. The only emotion in any of these compositions comes off as contrived, and many of the tracks have a tendency to bleed together. It's hard to tell where the aforementioned "Ay Bendito" ends and the title track begins even though Danilo Perez plays on the latter.

Additionally, a lot of tracks suffer from their length. Instead of being able to hold one's attention for long periods of time, as the best jazz musicians can (Dave Douglas could play a twenty minute trumpet solo without getting boring), Sanchez' tracks and solos seem to go on forever, with one notable exception. The closing track, "Le Leyenda Del Canaveral," which is also the longest song on the album at 20 minutes and thirty three seconds, moves through different sections and manages to maintain interest over a long period of time due to an inspired solo by Sanchez and Lund's best solo on the record by far. It's the only track where things heat up, and it almost makes the album worth a listen. That said, the rest is the equivalent of jazz air-conditioning; nice and cool, but probably bad for the environment. I'm sure a lot of young musicians will disagree with my thoughts on this album, and that many of them will wind up transcribing Sanchez' and Lund's solos because there is a lot of interesting, "modern" stuff going on. That said though, what's the point of modernism for modernism's sake?

Next time I'll have a review of an album that manages to be "modern," "innovative" and absolutely burnin' at the same time: Dave Douglas' new "Moonshine."

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Esperanza! (Spalding)

I'd like to set the record straight: I love the young bass player Esperanza Spalding's first album, "Junjo." I love the way it sounds like virtually nothing else in jazz; the wordless, expressive vocals sometimes highlighting a melody, occasionally sung along with the bass solo... the way that the band manages to sound minimal and huge at the same time due to the total lack of overdubs... the way you could hear Spalding's energy (albeit quiet, contained energy) just bursting at the seams of the recording, but never quite taking over to a point of destroying the piano trio aesthetic present. When I found out that Spalding would be singing much more (and with lyrics!) on her new album "Esperanza," I was afraid that the barely contained aesthetic of "Junjo" would be gone forever, replaced by a latin-flavored Norah Jones record; Esperanza would succumb to pressure from her other Monk-generation compatriot Ambrose Akinmusire to go R&B, and she would create the worst of all jazz travesties: a crossover record.

Upon first listen, I realized that all of my worst fears had been realized. After a second run through, all I could think was "why did she abandon the wordless vocals and obscure covers of 'Junjo' for this song-writer stuff?" Finally, about an hour ago, I realized that I've listened to this album ten times in the past two days. And then, as I began writing this, I figured it out. I love this album. All of the vocals with lyrics? Gorgeous; she has an incredible voice suited well for everything from Portuguese (the sing-song opener, "Ponta De Areia," is a cover of a tune by Brazilian song-writer Milton Nascimento) to Spanish. The R&B stuff? Beautiful. And somehow, in addition to all of this, she manages to throw in a track with the wordless vocals I loved from "Junjo," called "I Adore You," which will make it onto every mix CD I make for anyone in the coming year, and at least two brilliant straight ahead tracks, including a version of "Body and Soul," sung in Spanish and played in 5/4 (with a killer bass solo), and a post-bop instrumental dedicated to drummer Francisco Mela.

Even the most blatantly cross-over material on here manages to be worth listening to. "Precious," a song about being wronged by a lover that has no right to be anything but cliched, manages to come out as one of the album's most compulsively listenable tracks. "She Got to You," also about being wronged by a lover, contains some of pianist Leo Genovese's best work on the whole record. In fact, every band member does incredible work on this; Jamey Haddad's percussion is great throughout the album, as is Otis Brown's work on the drumset. As for the guest spots, which include Ambrose Akinmusire, Donald Harrison, and (not nearly enough) Gretchen Parlato, each only appears on a few tracks, leaving you wanting more.

I would love it if Esperanza Spalding were the next Norah Jones, and I think the world would be a happier place in general if people listened to this album in the least cynical way possible. Highly recommended.

Next time I'll have a review of David Sanchez' "Cultural Survival," and maybe something else. I was initially thinking I'd do a two-fer with "Esperanza," but I gave up on it when I started writing.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Marilyn Mazur's Potent "Elixir"

The small handful of people who know of Marilyn Mazur (I can't really say that I did up until I read a review of this album in Downbeat and wanted to hear it myself) know her as a late Miles Davis sideman and as Jan Garbarek's longtime percussionist. Out of those two, her latest, "Elixir," falls closer to the latter's work, but mostly because Garbarek is her only collaborator on half of the album. The rest is made up of short pieces and improvisations for percussion, all of which manage to straddle the (very thin, in this case) line between creepy and ethereal. Mazur understands that space is an incredibly important element in any kind of percussion album, and each of the 21 tracks contains its fair amount of silence and lengthy tones.

The real draw of this album, admittedly, is the ability to listen to Mazur and Garbarek, two nearly telepathic collaborators, play together in ways that they never get to play together in Garbarek's current new-age ensemble. "Joy Chant" and "Orientales" in particular contain some amazing saxophone work, with Garbarek playing like he hasn't played since his seventies stint with Keith Jarrett's classic European Quartet or at least since his early solo work for ECM. Those two songs are treat to hear, as is "River," on which Garbarek plays some incredible (and, oddly enough for Garbarek, incredibly bluesy) soprano saxophone; on "River," as in all of the collaborative tracks, Mazur creates a colorful rhythmic and melodic backdrop that Garbarek reacts to in the foreground.

Each of the solo percussion tracks, of which my personal favorites are "Creature Walk" and "Bell Painting," follows its own logic. Each song sounds like its title; "Creature Walk" created by a quick, rhythmically complex series of motifs that create the aural equivalent of some sort of small reptile, "Bell Painting" a simple, 55 second long static work of art create by bells as opposed to brush-strokes.

Obviously "Elixir" is not an album for everybody. It is not a straight ahead jazz or fusion album, and it has virtually nothing in common with the work of today's great young innovators (Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer, Lionel Loueke) other than its search for something new in the jazz idiom. In all honesty, it has more in common with the quarter-tonal classical compositions of an artist like Jo Kondo or Lou Harrison than anything by, say, Charlie Parker (with the exception of Garbarek's startling bluesy bop licks on "River"). That said, though, for adventurous listeners who are interested in different approaches to improvisational music (and especially for non-drumset percussionists), "Elixir" is a must-listen.

Friday, June 6, 2008

News Round-Up: Vision Festival Kicks off 12th Year, NEA Jazz Masters Announced

I had a major realization the other day while watching a rerun of VH1's "Maxim Hot 100" special on mute (I was listening to Brian Blade's "Seasons of Change" for this blog): I am probably the single biggest jazz nerd on the planet. I wasn't thinking "woah, that girl's hot," or "Dayumn, them Pussycat Dolls be some fine mamas" or whatever a regular red-blooded 18-year-old male watching the VH1 "Maxim Hot 100" special is supposed to think, but instead "where is Gretchen Parlato?! Gretchen Parlato should be on this list!" And she should be. Seriously, I have a friend who once said "Oh yeah, Gretchen Parlato is great. And she has a great voice too," and I don't think I've ever heard him say anything like that about anyone.

Anyway, though, onto real news. The Vision Festival, the yearly free and experimental jazz festival in New York, is kicking off it's twelfth year on Tuesday, and as far as I can tell, this year's festival promises to be great. Opening night alone has shows from William Parker and Hamid Drake and Dave Douglas and the Magic Circle (Uri Caine plays keys, Brian Carrott on vibes), and other shows are headlined by Oliver Lake, James Spaulding, and Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quintet (with Vijay Iyer!). So if you're in New York and you're looking for some great experimental jazz and you aren't into the Anthony Coleman-curated version of The Stone (I dare you to try and choose between Rudresh Mahanthappa and Steve Lehman's Dual Identity band at The Stone and Dave Douglas' Magic Circle), check it out.

In other news, the National Endowment finally decided that Lee Konitz was worth 25,000 dollars, and not a moment too soon. Maybe now he can pay for some of his medication. They've been giving out these "jazz masters" endowments for how long? Twenty six years? And they've only decided now to give an award to a man who is arguably one of the greatest and most consistent living improvisers? In the same year that they give it to George "BAAADDDDD" Benson?

Alright, that's a bit unfair. George Benson is a great guitar player when he decides to make real music and not soul-tinged love-jamz. But honestly, isn't Lee Konitz recognized as more than just "a pioneer of cool jazz" by now?

Anyway, that's the news. Check back on Sunday and there should be some sort of new review here.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Brian Blade Crawls Out From A Cave Somewhere, Releases Killin' Album

There are certain artists who I like to think of as the Osama Bin Ladens of the jazz world (I'm sorry, that was irrelevant, but I thought it was funny); not because they have a tendency to commit terrible acts of terrorism that harm people, but because they manage to toil as sidemen for years, only surfacing after long periods of hiding to release relatively short, taped records of their existence. Brian Blade's new "Season of Changes," like Kurt Rosenwinkel's recent "The Remedy" or James Carter's "Present Tense," is one of those recordings- and the fact that this is Blade's first album in eight years is only proof that it's the biggest news to come out since Bin Laden's latest video surfaced (or at least since one of the two democrats- I can't tell the difference between them in terms of policy- clinched victory last night). Alright, maybe it isn't that newsworthy. But it should be news to anyone who enjoys contemporary jazz.

"Season of Changes" has such a killer band that I barely even need to write a review of the record: Kurt Rosenwinkel on guitar, Myron Walden (alto) and Melvin Butler (tenor) on saxes, John Cowherd on piano, and Blade himself on drums. I may as well go through some of the highlights of each player's work on the album though, as so much of the playing on this album is good. Rosenwinkel's solo on "Return of the Prodigal Son" is pure Rosenwinkel; a knotty web of ideas and motifs that fit together brilliantly. Waldren's bass clarinet work on "Improvisation" manages to be violent, avant-garde, in your face, and beautiful all at the same time. Melvin Butler (whose own work I do not know well enough but have been inspired to check out due to this record) plays an interesting Albert-Ayler-by-way-of-Micheal-Brecker solo on "Stoner Hill." Blade, the man himself, provides a brilliant backbeat for everything, and Cowherd wrote the episodic title track.

The only problem with this album is that no one player has enough time to truly shine (the band is a septet; although I mentioned each member's work, there just wasn't enough room on the album to fit in as much solo space as I would have liked), a serious issue when the per capita talent in a band is as strong as in this one. Perhaps it would have been better if Blade had released a double album (the logical solution Dave Holland came up with years back with "Extended Play" and that Rosenwinkel himself worked out of "The Remedy"), but I suppose "this band is so good that I wish there was more music" is hardly a legitimate complaint. Hopefully Blade will have more time in the near future to devote time to his own work, but with the amount of sideman work he does (seriously, he's in Chris Potter/ Dave Douglas/ Larry Grenadier territory here) chances are he won't come out with another album for a while. Here's hoping Bin Laden's next record ("Osama Bin Singin' the Cole Porter Songbook?") doesn't come out first. Recommended.

As always, I'm living day to day with this blog, so I have no idea what I'm reviewing next time. Also, I'd like to apologize for this being the third day since my most recent post. But you should be honored by my lateness ("Like I'd even show up fa this fake shit..." sorry, couldn't help it). Feel free to comment if you think that a comparison between Brian Blade and Osama Bin Laden isn't warranted, or if you like Blade's album, or if you just love this blog.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Bobby Previte's New Record is Bumpin'

Well, to be fair, Bobby Previte is always bumpin'. It doesn't matter which of his countless groups he's playing with, be it Groundtruther, Latin for Travellers, or his dizzying fusion group Weather Clear Track Fast, Previte's playing and compositions are always brilliant, and his bands are always made up of some of New York's best musicians. "Set the Alarm for Monday," his recent record with his band The New Bump, is no exception; it features such luminaries as Steven Bernstein (who, as I've mentioned before, always hovers near the top of Downbeat's rising star trumpet list) and Ellery Eskelin (who should hover near the top of Downbeat's rising star tenor list by now) and a set of all new compositions from Previte.

The album opens up in an incredible mellow fashion with the title track before moving into film noir territory, an area the album occupies for the rest of it's time. Songs like "I'd Advise You Not to Miss Your Train" and "I'm On to Her" evoke scenes of depravity in side-streets, and Bernstein, Eskelin, and vibes player Bill Ware are all brilliant in adding colour and detail to that image during their solos. Just listen to "There Was Something in My Drink," in which Ware, Previte, and bassist Brad Jones provide a backdrop groove; Eskelin's solo is brilliant in it's simplicity and fiery passion, but Bernstein manages to outshine him by playing a solo with so many odd twists and extended vocal techniques that it would make Dave Douglas proud. In all honesty, however, comparing Bernstein to Douglas is unfair. Bernstein's work on this album in particular is much darker than anything Douglas has put out in a while.

Of particular note in addition to "There Was Something in My Drink" is "Were You Followed," in which Eskelin plays one of the single most interesting solos I've ever heard. Managing to meld motivic development, interesting scale and note choices, and a free jazz aesthetic, his solo shows that there is no one else in jazz quite like him. The album closer, "Wake Up Andrea, We're Pulling In," is a longer play on the opening title track, and features some good vibes work from Ware; by the time the album is over you barely even realize that it's been almost an hour. Recommended for people fond of downtown jazz-noir (If you love John Zorn's "Spillane," for example, you'll love this).

Next time I'll have something. I don't know exactly what that something will be yet, but check back! Seriously, it'll be worth your while.