Sunday, December 21, 2008

Carla Bley, Appearing Nightly On Your CD Player

I hate to be the one to say it, but it seems like there is no question anymore that professional Big Band Jazz is dying. I'm not saying that Big Bands are dying; they will always live on in high schools and in the ghost bands that tour the country with monstrous young players and subdued, well-written charts. Of course there are Maria Schneider and Dave Holland, the newest to enter the Big Band fray and the ones who win all of the awards, but Holland never tours with his big band (and hasn't played a big band date in years) and Schneider can hardly afford to keep hers together. Well, thank God for Carla Bley, one of the most idiosyncratic writers in generation and one of the best big band arrangers (and writers) ever, and for her new album, "Appearing Nightly."

"Appearing Nightly" is credited to Carla Bley and her Remarkable Big Band, and features such killer on-the-cusp-of-fame musicians as trumpeter Lew Soloff, tenor saxophonist Andy Sheppard, drummer Billy Drummond, trombonist Gary Valente, and bassist Steve Swallow, to name only five. The playing is stellar all around, and everybody in the long-standing band can (and do) play the hell out of Bley's arrangements, which, presumably, they have been playing nightly for years. The first two tracks, "Greasy Gravy" and "Awful Coffee," in particular feature some brilliant soloing from the aforementioned musicians. "Awful Coffee," an uptempo burner, features a mind-altering and quotation-filled solo from Sheppard, and "Greasy Gravy," a slower, medium swing number, showcases Valente's odd ideas on trombone.

An album like "Appearing Nightly" is not about the solos though, and Bley's tunes and arrangements are brilliant and idiosyncratic. Bley, like a master chef putting her stamp on a dish that's been cooked by many brilliant cooks before her, takes a format and tunes that sound like they could have been written in 1950, and then turns them inside out with odd voicings and backign-figures. Granted, Bley is more of a traditionalist than, say, Bill Holman, who can take a Monk tune and make it sound like an acid trip in a house of mirrors (just listen to his "Brilliant Corners: The Music of Thelonious Monk" for a taste), but her charts are too weird and creative to simply be labled a rehash. She throws dissonant minor ninthson top of the melody on "Awful Coffee," and randomly inserts a rhythm changes bridge out of nowhere in the middle of the tune just for the hell of it. Quotes abound, and my personal favorite is a random interjection of the melody of "You Stepped Out of a Dream" in the middle of "Appearing Nightly At the Black Orchid," the 25-minute suite that makes up the heart of the record.

A killin' big band record, there should be more like it. Recommended.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Jazz 08 Part Three: Top Ten Albums of the Year

I understand that it is now in verve for critics to replace their annual top ten lists with alphabetical, formless, un-fun lists of albums that are "the best, in this critic's humble opinion." Anyone who reads this blog knows by now that this sort of meaningless, politically-correct list isn't quite my style. Hence, I'm kicking it old-school: numbered from ten to one, here are the best jazz albums of the year. Feel free to disagree with the picks or lament the lack of your favorite record in the comments section:

10. "Invisible Cinema" by Aaron Parks: Parks, who is shaping up to be the pianist of choice for the current crop of youngsters on the jazz scene, made his Blue Note debut as a leader with "Invisible Cinema," a record with a ridiculously opaque plot that doesn't seem to actually matter. The music is like prog rock with jazz musicians; Mike Moreno's guitar pyrotechnics recall Pat Metheny and Johnny Greenwood in equal parts.

9. "The Remedy" by Kurt Rosenwinkel: With "The Remedy," Kurt Rosenwinkel has proved yet again that he deserves to be this generation's most influential voice on guitar. As opposed to playing licks, Rosenwinkel plays fluid, seemingly random lines. There is a tragic element of this record though; saxophonist Mark Turner recently lost two fingers in an accident, and the jazz scene's loss is monumental.

8. "Party Intellectuals" by Marc Ribot: PARTY PARTY PARTY PARTY... Marc Ribot's free-rock trio is so good that you forget that you're listening to a jazz musician who plays with John Zorn. Like last year's "Draw Breath," by The Nels Cline Singers, songs alternate between noisy, violent free improvisations and the loudest, booty shaking party music ever.

7. "Live" by The Brad Mehldau Trio: For my money, Brad Mehldau is the best piano player alive and working in the jazz idiom. While older musicians like Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett recieve all of the accolades, Mehldau has proven himself repeatedly with his trio on records like live. The interplay between him, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard recalls both Jarrett's standards trio and Bill Evans' great trio, but creates music all its own. Mehldau covers pop songs ("Wonderwall" and "Black Hole Sun" here) without a hint of irony, and plays them like standards. Every track is a highlight.

6. "Kinsmen" by Rudresh Mahanthappa: Mahanthappa's septet on this record consists of a jazz quartet augmented by an Indian classical music trio. While there have been numerous other attempts to fuse the two musics, "Kinsmen" sounds like nothing else ever released in the jazz idiom. Saxophonists Mahanthappa and Kadri Gopalnath duel brilliantly on the tracks "Ganesha" and "Convergence (Kinsmen)."

5. "Crossing the Field" by Jenny Scheinman: "Crossing the Field," which features a full orchestra without sounding even remotely corny, is violinist Jenny Scheinman's best album yet. Her scrappy rural lyricism shines next to Bill Frisell's guitar and Jason Moran's piano, and her original compositions are alternatingly haunting, quaint, and beautiful. It makes sense that her other release this year was a set of spunkily sung versions of folk songs; her violin playing has the same weary, gorgeous quality as her voice.

4. "Esperanza" by Esperanza Spalding: Guilty pleasure of the year. Hands down. I could listen to Esperanza Spalding go on and on about her boy trouble for hours straight, and have. While her first album, "Junjo," was a straight-ahead date that showcased her bass playing, "Esperanza" is more of a contemporary R&B record with acoustic instruments and a latin-jazz tinge. Just listen to "Precious" and try not to get indignant about Esperanza's awful boyfriend (Can you believe he wanted her to change for him?), or, if you're in a jazz mood, get a hear of the catchy and wordless "I Adore You," the album's best track.

3. "The Door" by Mathias Eick: There are videos on youtube of Mathias Eick exploding with incredibly fast high-note runs, but that could not be further from "The Door." The quietest album of the year, "The Door" features the sort of lyricism expected from someone much older than the young Eick. His debut showcases the influence of earlier ECM artists and a little bit of the sound of his main gig, Jaga Jazzist, but really sounds like nothing else. If you could translate the feel and look of an intricate ice-sculpture into a jazz album, you would wind up with something a lot like "The Door."

2. "History, Mystery" by Bill Frisell: "History, Mystery" is easily Bill Frisell's most cohesive album since "Nashville," if not since "Have A Little Faith." The band is something like a who's who of the rural jazz movement: Jenny Scheinman and Eyvind Kang take up the strings, Ron Miles plays trumpet, and the perennial rhythm section of Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen anchors the proceedings. The album's sound is evocative of Americana circa 1950 or 1960; a melting pot of blues, country, bebop, soul, tango, Copland-style classical music and pretty much anything else Frisell sets his sights on. The record is set up as two different suites that go together, the first framed by different versions of "Probability Cloud," and the second by versions of "Monroe."

1. "Tragicomic" by Vijay Iyer: While "History Mystery" presents a beautiful fantasy version of the world, "Tragicomic" presents the world precisely as it is: dark, claustrophobic, complicated, and more often than not downright scary. Of course, Iyer treats it as a joke: the second track is named "Macaca Please" after former Virginia senator George Allen's now famous slur, while the music bludgeons you over the head like a blunt weapon. The album's only moment of respite, which comes in the form of a beautiful solo piano take on "I'm All Smiles" ends in an unsure vamp, and is almost immediately drowned out by the death march and subsequent riot of "Machine Days." Iyer's long-standing quartet with Rudresh Mahanthappa, Stephen Crump, and Marcus Gilmore has made a record that isn't for the faint of heart, but has more to say about the state of the world than most jazz. I said in April that this was going to be Iyer's year, and it was.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Jazz 08 Part Two: Superlatives!

Chances are you read my end-of-the-year essay on the state of jazz (I pronounced it alive and well, albeit in a sub-cultural way) and said to yourselves, "damn, what insight," but I'm glad to see that someone disagrees with me on Sonny Rollins. I have heard from numerous (occasionally reliable, but mostly drunken) sources that Sonny is as great as ever live. I heard his new record (review forthcoming), and I suppose it's good; there just isn't anything new or ground-breaking about it, especially in a year in which Marian McPartland plays free jazz and Lee Konitz releases albums with teenage wunderkinds. I also saw him live a year or so ago at Lincoln Center and was dully unimpressed; granted, word on the street is that Sonny has on nights and off nights going back to the fifties. Either way, the point of this post is not to argue about Sonny Rollins' relevance to the jazz world right now, but to name some superlatives as a companion piece to my top ten, which will make it to this site in the near future.

Biggest Upset: Jon Irabagon's surprising (yet well deserved) win at this year's Monk Competition

Craziest Saxophone Solo: Greg Tardy's absurdly funky, out choruses on Bill Frisell's version of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come."

Most Likely to Cut An Idol: Rudresh Mahanthappa; just check out the fours he trades with Kadri Gopalnath on the title track of "Kinsmen."

Best Straight Bluegrass Record from A Jazz Musician: Charlie Haden's "Rambling Boy"

Most Meteoric Rise: This one's a tie. Esperanza Spalding, who was pretty much unknown outside of dorky jazz circles last year, released a hit record and was named Rising Star Bassist of the Year in Downbeat. Mathias Eick, who has played on every Norwegian record with a trumpet in the past few years, gained international acclaim at the final IAJE Conferencer ever and released one of the best albums of the year with "The Door."

Hippest Singer You've Probably Never Heard of: Becca Stevens

Jazz' Most Beloved Indie Pop Duo: The Bird and the Bee

Jazz' Most Beloved Bluegrass Duo: Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer

Movement to Gain Most Steam: Rural Jazz

Least Likely to Release an Album for Another Ten Years: Brian Blade

Most Predictable Yearly Downbeat Poll: This is a tough one. Most years this category would wind up being a tie between Downbeat's annual Critic's Poll and Downbeat's annual Readers' Poll, but I suppose the edge this year goes to the readers, who were so predictable that I wish I had done a "guess the Readers' Poll" feature.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Jazz 08 Part One: This Year in Jazz!

I'm just going to come out and say it- disagree if you want, but this is an honest belief of mine- 2008 has been the best year for new jazz in a long, long time. Everything seemed to come together in 2008; 90 year olds released some of the best albums of their careers (Marian McPartland and Buddy DeFranco) and other well-established artists made some major leaps (Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Brad Mehldau). Most of the best records came from artists on the periphery of the jazz establishment, either too weird or too young: artists like Vijay Iyer, his cohort Rudresh Mahanthappa, Esperanza Spalding, Jenny Scheinman, Mathias Eick... the list goes on and on.

Even the disappointments weren't that bad (of course there are exceptions; the Wynton and Willie record was deathly boring, and Dianne Reeves' latest was unlistenable); when Ambrose Akinmusire's "Prelude to Cora" can be put on any kind of list of disappointments you know it was a good year. Perhaps the most surprising moments of the year came with the announcement of the year's MacArthur Fellowships (in a bad way) and Monk Institute Competition winners (in a surprising and sorta good way).

Of course the jazz media fixated on the same boring old people it always does (Sonny Rollins is, for probably the fortieth year in a row, the tenor saxophonist of the year according to Downbeat critics in spite of the fact that he doesn't perform regularly and didn't release an album this year) as opposed to focusing on the cool old people it tends to ignore (McPartland and DeFranco spring to mind- and I'm convinced that the only way Lee Konitz can get into the Downbeat Hall of Fame at this point is by dying).

The music this year speaks for itself, however. Rural Jazz has hit its peak with records like "History Mystery" and "Crossing the Field," and the Jewish Jazz scene only gets better with every barely-heard Tzadik release by somebody like Daniel Zamir or Paul Shapiro. And of course there's Esperanza, the girl of the moment, who deserves to be the next Norah Jones (perhaps the only Norah Jones). Young Ms. Spalding came out of nowhere (well, I'd heard of her, but I also go to Berklee), was suddenly featured on the cover of every jazz magazine and played on Letterman and Kimmel over the course of a week, not to mention her emergence as one of the go-to bassists of the Monk generation.

All in all, a stellar year. Next time on the Jazz Monster I'll have part two of my Jazz 08 series: The Superlatives, all leading up to the final edition of the Jazz 08, my top ten. So tune in a few days, because there's more to come.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Rudresh Mahanthappa Finds Kindred Spirits

I know what you're thinking. I know, I know. It's been a while. My dinner's been getting cold, and you were worried sick; I'm only hoping that you haven't remarried while I was lost at sea. Yes, I have been listening to tons and tons of jazz music while I was gone, and there are tons and tons of records I could have chosen to review for my first one back from hiatus ("Petit Oiseau" by William Parker, "Flood" by Avishai Cohen and too many others to mention are coming in the near future), but I picked my personal favorite of the past month: Rudresh Mahanthappa's "Kinsmen."

"Kinsmen," the new album from Rudresh Mahanthappa, fuses Indian Classical (Carnatic) music and jazz, and shows that Mahanthappa’s idiosyncratic technique can translate to genres other than straight jazz. "Kinsmen" is Mahanthappa’s first album since 2006’s "Codebook," and marks a huge departure for his sound. 

"Codebook" featured a number of fast, rhythmically and harmonically advanced jazz tunes as played by Mahanthappa’s quartet. Kinsmen, on the other hand, features a jazz quartet made up of himself (alto sax), Rez Abassi (guitar), Carlo Derosa (bass) and Royal Hartigan (drums), augmented by a Carnatic music trio of Kadri Gopalnath (saxophone), A. Kanyakumari (violin), and Poovalur Sriji (mridangam).


The music sounds on record like it does on paper: a clean fusion of jazz and Indian classical music. Parts of "Kinsmen" feature only the quartet or trio, but for the most part the instrumentation is mixed; a section of “Ganesha” features Rudresh’s saxophone along with Sriji’s Mridangam and Hartigan’s drums, and parts of the title track have Mahanthappa and Gopalnath trading licks across musical disciplines.

Mahanthappa’s sidemen are stellar, and Abassi’s odd background fits this date perfectly; in addition to playing straight ahead jazz, Abassi has been one of a small handful of young Indians to adapt the electric guitar for Carnatic music. On some tracks, such as “Snake!” and “Longing,” Abassi’s guitar sounds like an electrified sitar, while on others his tone is almost identical to the clean, modern sound of young jazzers like Lage Lund or Mike Moreno. Kudos also goes to Derosa and Hartigan for being able to keep up with Sriji’s mridangam, which is no easy task.

While other projects in the past that have attempted to fuse Indian classical music with jazz, Kinsmen is probably the first that represents a total fusion as opposed to the many one-sided attempts. Highly recommended.

In the next few days I'll have the first of my three-part "2008 In Jazz" series, so check back!