Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Ed Maina's In the Company of Brothers on CD

Ah, smooth jazz. There was a brief time in the late '80s where I liked the genre, but that was probably just before I dove headlong into be-bop and started insisting on some bite and some edge to my jazz. I'd go as far as to say that I don't really like it but it's hard to be that critical of something that is, on the surface, so inoffensive and somewhat cheery. It reminds me of the time when an acquaintance asked me what type of music I liked. When I mentioned jazz he replied, "Oh, me too. Kenny G. is great!"

When I stuck Ed Maina's new CD, In the Company of Brothers, into my CD transport I immediately thought one thing: "smooth jazz alert." Maina's band consists of guys who play instruments such as electric basses, electric guitars, wind synths, synth strings and synth kalimbas. There are three individual percussionists here. More than once you'll hear the gentle brush and sparkle of a wind chime. It's THAT kind of music.

Nevertheless, I still enjoyed this album for a number of reasons. First, the sound quality is gorgeous--this is a full, lush band that explores dynamic contrasts in an enjoyable way. Maina, who has been a part of University of Miami's jazz department, plays soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxes with emotion and skill--he also plays piccolo, flute, clarinet and keyboards as well. Despite my dismissive attitude toward the electric bass in modern jazz, Maina did manage to enlist the help of a master--Abe Laboriel. That's sort of the theme of this album--Maina states that he is fortunate to have played with so many great musicians over the years that he gathered as many of them as he could to play on this album. That, of course, results in a polished, professional mixture of standards and Maina originals.

Yes, a part of me wished for something wilder. These guys obviously have the chops. The way they blend Latin jazz influences into most of the songs is playful and intriguing. They're obviously not trying to push envelopes or express themselves through a series of improvisations. They are tight and controlled...and oh so smooth.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Jason Kao Hwang's Sing House on CD

After the last few months I've learned one surprising thing--contemporary free jazz is far from dead. I know, because I've reviewed plenty of it. It's not easy to do because it's hard to talk about chaos in measured terms. Either you get it or you don't. When I review albums like Jason Kao Hwang's Sing House, I have to put my head in a slightly different space because the vast majority of jazz listeners will hit the stop button on their CD players about fifteen seconds into the first track. Others love it, get it and are challenged by it. I'm always concerned that someone will run out and buy these albums based upon my recommendation and then think WTF. Caveat emptor.

Sing House is different than most of the free jazz out there because Hwang's violin is out there, front and center. In the context of free jazz, the violin can make unusual sounds that other more traditional jazz instruments cannot. Is that a reason to put this album on a pedestal? Of course not. But Hwang is a superb performer and he can extract unique sounds from his violin--buzzing insects, percussion, random machines.

Hwang's approach to these four lengthy tracks (they range between 11:14 and 13:55) is a headlong critique of western concepts of "theme and reiteration." These original compositions are designed, in fact, to challenge the listener in unusual ways--melodies delivered in unusual intervals, strange call-and-response patterns and an endless array of musical textures. The energy levels throughout the album are disjointed in a fascinating way, since there are moments of genuine and familiar melody. Hwang's sensibilities, however, are an evolving puzzle. There's a method to the madness, but a well-defined solution may not be the point.

As I dig deeper into this genre, I realize that the point may be to find hidden treasures within the cacophony--not moments of recognition or reference, but a way to expand beliefs about what music is and isn't. Deep focus and commitment are prerequisites, since anything less results in leaps for the CD player remote. When you do find that elusive point of reference, the trick is to stretch it out and notice how it relates to the more abstract and manic ideas. If you can do that, you can't count yourself among the few.

I have to admit that I'm still working on it. One day I may work it out in my mind, or I might just go back to my Dean Martin, Julie London and Harry Belafonte albums.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Gregory Lewis' Organ Monk, The Breathe Suite on CD

This new CD from the man who calls himself the Organ Monk starts off like so many other jazz albums I've heard of late--loose, free and delirious. The only difference to the chaotic, guttural rumblings that begin this album is the presence of a big, meaty Hammond B-3 which adds an almost surreal and almost sinister feel. On first listen, I thought about the fastening of seat belts in preparation for a long and bumpy ride, especially after spending so much time with the Oliver Lake CD I just reviewed. Then, after a couple of minutes, Gregory Lewis and his band settle in and start jamming like there's no tomorrow.

The Breathe Suite, while funky and full of energy, also has a dark and serious side that underlines a tight set performed by a quartet headed by the ever-likeable B-3. Lewis has composed a suite in five movements, with each one dedicated to "an African American who had been killed during confrontations with police officer." So we have five distinct pieces for Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Aiyana Jones, Eric Garner and Osiris Ausar. Each piece sustains a different feel and mood, and you can easily see how the circumstances of each death inform that feeling.

Lewis and his sidemen (which include Marc Ribot and Ron Jackson on guitar, Reggie Woods on tenor sax, Riley Mullins on trumpet, Nasheet Waits and Jeremy Clemons on drums) have always had a reputation for playing loud and fast. They're also known for their fun, revisionist treatments of Thelonious Monk, which explains Lewis' nickname. But this crew has been wowing audiences over the last couple of years with this new, original work. Lewis chose not to include lyrics, either sung or spoken, so that the music could "serve as an outlet for a deep emotional interface with a topic that can transcend an immediate reaction to a fleeting headline."

That's one reason why many of the passages are so contradictory in mood--there are periods of sadness and regret evident everywhere, but the almost jubilant sections exist as tributes to these human beings and the lives they led. A cursory listen reveals all these moods in an almost jarring manner, but once you sit and inform yourself about these five tragic figures you'll start to hear the fluid transitions that alternate between anger and resilience.

Even if you choose to take a step back and not submerge yourself in the important questions that get raised in the aftermath of tragedies, you'll still be moved by Lewis' exquisite and instinctive work with the B-3. If you love the Hammond as much as I do, you'll appreciate the newness he brings to these keys, the clarity and the speed and the energy. If you're willing to take a step inside to find out what's really going on, however, The Breathe Suite is a dizzying masterpiece.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Oliver Lake Featuring Flux Quartet--Right On Up

Oliver Lake is a saxophone player who has built a career upon daring, progressive jazz. He plays with his noteworthy Organ Quartet, as well as a number of big band ensembles. He's dipped into world music with some success, having teamed up with Meshell Ndegeocello and Vijay Iyer. It's clear he's not afraid to expand beyond the borders of jazz--even free jazz that lacks traditional boundaries.

So it's fascinating that Oliver Lake has chosen to work with the Flux Quartet, an equally celebrated and adventurous string quartet. Right On Up sounds like a jazz album in title only--the majority of these seven tracks, all Lake originals, blur the line between avant-garde, "modern" classical music and the aforementioned free jazz. Even when Lake plays his alto saxophone on three tracks ("Hey Now Hey," "5 Sisters" and "Disambiguate"), it's not to provide an anchor toward the jazz side of the compositions. There is no beat to speak of, only pure improvisations by a string quartet that is eager to explore new sounds and states.

That's what is so tricky at first. This isn't a jazz album per se, and those looking to revel in Lake's saxophone improvisations will be scratching their collective heads. This isn't so much an album for fans of Lake's previous works--it's an invitation from the composer to follow him down this particular road and see if you can connect the dots between the foundation he has previously laid to this new ground, which pulses and fluctuates without the expected rhythms.

Instead, you get what the liner notes describe as daring, unique and uncompromising, which means this won't be easy listening for the average jazz fan. These original compositions are so full of pure improvisation by design, but the magic is in those moments where the quartet starts to breathe as one. It's clear, in other words, that Flux is one of those quartets that consists of members (leader Tom Chiu and Conrad Harris on violins, Max Mandel on viola and Felix Fan on cello) who have been together for years. In a world without boundaries, each performer carefully notes where the others are standing--with one exception.

Right On Up closes with a twenty-minute epic, "Einstein 100!" Written back in 2005, it was composed to celebrate the centennial of Einstein presenting his Theory of Relativity to the world. In that generous space, each member is given the chance to improvise without the structural support of the others, It's a fascinating exercise since you can almost work yourself into the heads of each musician and closely observe their physical relationship to both their instrument and the composition itself. That's where the listener can dig deep into wood and string and discover both the complete freedom and the intense focus.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Stale Kleiborg's Mass for the Modern Man on Blu-ray Audio and CD/SACD Hybrid

"Ståle Kleiberg's Mass for Modern Man is about the loss of existential meaning as an antithesis to faith and belief. The work commutes between these two extremes, and raises the following underlying question: Is belief possible for modern man? In this work, the answer is 'yes'; not a resounding 'yes', but a 'yes' in spite of all."

This is such a fascinating concept to me personally. Every time I review a piece of sacred music--and 99% of the time it's been something from 2L Recordings--I have to mention something about my own religious beliefs, or lack thereof, and my attraction to music that is strongly spiritual "in spite of it all." Masses and requiems and hymns have such a delicate beauty to them because of the density of feeling and how the very idea of worship of a higher being conjures up such a complex set of emotions. They never fail to move me on some level.

Upon casual listening of Kleiberg's Mass for Modern Man, however, I immediately sensed a difference from the usual themes of belief and faith. On the surface, this piece is structured like sacred music, but there are themes that border on the earthly and the exotic. This is a piece for two soloists (soprano Mari Eriksmoen and baritone Johannes Weisser), and backed by the magnificent Trondheim Symphony Orchestra and Choir, and it is uncommonly lush with its imagery--uncommon for sacred music but not for the talented folks involved.

Kleiberg, whose music has been featured prominently on 2L Recordings prior to this, was commissioned to write this piece for Munchner Dommusik, and his inspiration was drawn from the fact that he knew it had to relate to "our modern condition" and not some divine piece of folklore from centuries ago. He enlisted the help of British writer Jessica Gordon to write the text, which has been supplied in the liner notes. This is where you can explore the daunting yet poetic aspects of the mass.

"I am forgotten, like a dead man out of mind; I have come to be like something lost." These are the first lines, uttered by a refugee who has lost his homeland, and while they superficially resemble so many traditional hymns ("I once was lost, but now I'm found"), there is a deeper lament that seems to originate from centuries and centuries of propagation and diaspora and even technology, the oft-covered loss of individuality. "No eye looks kindly on me, no friendly hand, no greeting called out in the morning air."

Fortunately, there's sort of a happy ending for modern man, something more tangible than "good news!" Kleiberg could have ended Mass for the Modern Man with the line "This is the valley as dark as death. I will sleep now." But his goal, as mentioned above, was to find solace in belief in spite of loneliness and despair. Kleiberg therefore ends his modern mass with a Gloria, albeit one that is not quite traditional. It is hesitant, as it should be. It's conditional and realistic.

It goes without saying that this recording sounds utterly beautiful in every aspect. Despite the heavy subject matter, it can be enjoyed on a purely aesthetic level, one that embraces beauty and majesty and a sweeping sense of wonder hidden under the sadness. I'll even go out on a limb and say that this is one of the most listenable recordings 2L has ever made--not because the others aren't imminently listenable, but because this one is so moving. The usual intellectual challenge is there, of course, but you can also choose to forego the epic ideas in favor of an exceptionally beautiful mass.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Words & Music by Jeannie Tanner on CD

Jeannie Tanner is a Chicago-based jazz musician known for her singing, songwriting and trumpet playing. I'm unfamiliar with her work, which means that I feel a little out of the loop when I receive this, a 2-CD set of her compositions featuring 12 talented vocalists from the Windy City. Who is she? Why should I know her? More importantly, why don't I know her?

The concept is certainly simple--Tanner writes jazz songs that sound like they belong in the Great American Songbook. That's both ambitious and little problematic; Words & Music contains 19 of these songs, tunes that sound familiar with lyrics that constantly discuss lips, promises and the fact that someone's heart belongs to somebody else. I'm sounding flippant and dismissive here, and not because there's a lack of talent behind the project--and that includes Ms. Tanner. It's just that, well, it sounds like an album where somebody hired somebody to write a bunch of songs that sound like standards.

"And we need 'em by Friday!"

That's too bad, because I don't like to disrespect musical performances since it's always a matter of taste. I'm certain that this LP, which is generous in quantity, will be loved by a great deal of people, and I also suspect that a significant percentage of them are from Chicago and know who Jeannie Tanner is. Maybe I shouldn't be reviewing this. Maybe I should discard this post. Not every album that crosses my desk is my cup of tea.

I will be positive by saying that the sound quality is exceptional, and the musical side of these compositions are crisp, lively and professional. The singers--including Rose Colella, Andy Pratt, Tammy McCann and of course Tanner--possess an interesting cross-section of styles, and it's clear that Tanner took extra care in choosing the right singer for each song. I just wish that the "words" part of Words & Music was a little more daring and adventurous and not so prone to cliches. For instance, a song titled "Vegas" shouldn't be discussing the danger of the town as something naughty, exciting and adventurous unless it mentions standing at the ATM machine at Cheetah's or winds up with a final stanza that takes place in an Albertsons parking lot in the north part of town after midnight and involves a 90-year-old guy with no teeth named Joe.

But that's just me.