Tuesday, May 23, 2017
When I think of a recording of a classical duo, any one, I don't usually think of a piano and a trumpet. I have nothing personally against either instrument, it's just that they are both so expressive and dynamic and it seems they might need a middle-man, say a violin, to provide a smooth transition. If you have a huge selection of piano and trumpet duos in your record collection, you might think I'm an idiot and that I need to hear "this" or "this" before I make such broad generalizations. On the other hand, you might agree. If you do, I can write the phrase "classical trumpet and piano duo" and I bet you think you have a pretty clear idea of what that sounds like.
That was my problem when I first approached the latest release from 2L Recordings in Norway, Furatus. I even sat and listened to the first piece, Edvard Grieg's "Holberg-Suite," and thought yes, this is a fine recording of a trumpet and a piano captured in yet another spectacular Norwegian church. The two instruments in question sound properly expressive and properly dynamic, two very focused voices in a rather large space. But, as general Akbar once said a long time ago, it's a trap.
The Grieg piece is dignified and structured. The four pieces after that, composed by Kosaku Yamada, Dmitri Shostakovich, Geirr Tveitt and Carl Nielsen, will confound your expectations with a tutorial on emotional depth. Suddenly you're absorbed. Suddenly it's no longer about a trumpet and a piano. It's about two musical extroverts learning how to weave and waltz and play off the other's energy. It's about moods and feelings and distinct visuals you might not normally associate with these two instruments.
This understated success is obviously due to the performances of trumpeter Ole Edvard Antonsen and pianist Wolfgang Plagge. (In addition to his C trumpet, Antonsen also uses a cornet and piccolo trumpet to accomplish these textures.) As usual, the musical program has a rewarding and cerebral subtext--in this case it's pieces of music that "borrow ideas" from much older pieces. According to the liner notes, this practice became very popular during the Romantic Period and was considered a true art form...if it was done with intelligence.
The Grieg piece was written in 1884 and uses many ideas from dance music from the 18th century. Nielsen's Humoresque-Bagatelles, which serves as the other bookend for Furatus, also pays tribute to light, happy and energetic dances from Western Europe--although it has a much more reserved tone because it's been tempered by what songs preceded it. It's those three pieces in the middle--Yamada's Songs, Shostakovich's Three Fantastic Dances and Tveitt's Hardingtonar--that provide the beating heart and the weathered soul of the album, the sense of a sometimes dangerous journey that needs to be taken between the two celebrations. This is where the trumpet and piano begin a dance of their own, away from the dancers, to a new locale where crystal chandeliers and opulent horse-drawn coaches are not the norm.
That's why Furatus is so breathtaking--it takes you to a lot of places in your heart, places you weren't expecting to visit with a pianist and a trumpeter. While the "borrowing ideas" motif is challenging in an academic sort of way, I think the true passion and the attraction of this album is how it takes two common instruments and blends them into something new. If you make it well into the heart of this album and come out the other side, you'll understand.
Thursday, May 18, 2017
When I first saw the title of this new Billy Jones CD, 3's a Crowd, I instantly thought of trios. Jazz trios. Drums, bass and piano. Drums bass and sax. And then I started listening to the opening title cut, with its beautifully recorded but suspiciously sparse arrangements and thought that something was missing. In this case it would be the upright bass or any other musical instrument that could join the sax and the drums. Because just the sax and the drums and nothing else, well that's...uh, a duo. Of course it's a duo and of course the phrase three's a crowd implies two is better.
I got all the way through this ten track CD before this idea occurred to me. Jazz duos.
Most of the jazz I listen to is from small ensembles--usually quartets, sometimes more, sometimes way more--but I've always thought that jazz and rock require three elements to keep everything in balance, just like the proverbial three-legged stool. Drums, bass and some sort of solo/lead instrument create the types of sounds that we best associate with a complete ensemble, therefore we can safely say that trios are about as minimalist as you want. Drummer Billy Jones came up with a different idea.
"This project, that I have been conceptualizing for years, places the drums in constant dialogue with one other instrumentalist. The challenge now--to raise the drums from its traditional role as accompaniment, to that of partner to that other voice."
Once you wrap your head around that idea, these ten tracks start to take shape. Jones enlisted help from a variety of musicians from both coasts in two different sessions. That means you get Jones' earthy and imaginative beats with George Young's alto sax or Mick Rossi's piano or George Genna's vibraphone or Scotty Wright's vocals or Gary Meek's bass clarinet or Kenny Stahl's flute. I think that's what makes this album so engaging--the constant shifts in tone and structure that the different instruments bring to the song. On an even deeper level, you'll notice how Jones adapts his own playing to the "personality" of that partner, that other voice. When you think of musical projects like this, you might think of a big star working with lesser stars who just do their best to keep up. But Jones is very generous with his guests and that warmth fills in the cracks of the spaces.
Again, this is yet another contemporary jazz recording on redbook CD from a small indie label (Acoustical Concepts) that sounds absolutely incredible. The space is immense, but the perspective is close. You can hear every little detail in Jones' drumming, which is necessary because he plays with so much subtext. It's a strikingly original album, and it's quite fun.
Saturday, May 13, 2017
I've waded into this sea, and it's full of riptides. It's not easy to find an entry point for music like this. I don't know who Rocco John is (his full name is Rocco John Iacovone), I don't know who Will Connell is and I've never heard of the Improvisational Composers Ensemble. This is a recording however, where Rocco John uses the Improvisational Composers Ensemble to pay tribute to Will Connell in front of a very small but appreciative audience.
Next we can establish that this is free jazz because the first tune, the 23-minute long "Aurora Borealis," starts off with a section that begins in a troubled mood and then slowly builds into a cacaphony. The first time I heard this, I had to hit the stop button and yell out "Enough." There are rewards when you stick with it--the middle section is calmer and makes more sense. But this is advanced stuff, noise for those who understand noise and practically no one else. Toward the end we get an interesting drum solo before returning to the somber themes of the first couple of minutes. It's a challenge.
That's just the opening track. "Evolutions" is the second of three cuts on the album and it's well over 16 minutes long. It's also far more melodic, bluesy and sexy and I actually really like it--even through the more jagged passages. You might want to start here if you're not in the mood for a 23-minute baptism by fire. The album ends with "What If the Moon Were Made Out of Jazz," which clocks in at a mere 22:30, borders on lovely with its rich combination of saxophones and bass clarinet until it too falls into the sea.
If you've been reading my reviews, you know I ain't afraid of no free jazz. Here I almost have to step back and recuse myself because, well, let's just say of all the free jazz records I own, this one is the most free. There might be someone out there who believes this is the greatest recording of all time, and that I just don't understand it.
That could be absolutely true.
Tuesday, May 9, 2017
I have to admit, I'm kinda sweet on this one.
Antonio Adolfo's HYBRIDO is Brazilian jazz, and I'm not necessarily the biggest fan of Brazilian jazz. Oh, I adore Getz/Giberto as much as the next audiophile, but I honestly think I burnt out on this genre back in the late '80s or early '90s when it was everywhere and people were dancing to its sexy and fluid rhythms. It's a satisfying sound, energetic and lush, but there was just a point where I said enough, I think I've heard all the Brazilian jazz I want to hear.
HYBRIDO is different. Its Brazilian-ness sneaks up on you behind a dazzling wall of beauty. Pianist and composer Antonio Adolfo has been playing this kind of music for most of his life, and I believe his success and his accessibility is due to his understanding of the parallels between jazz and Brazilian tradition. He treats them differently and doesn't try to melt them into a whole--you can see the dual sensibilities weaving in and out of each other. Does that sound sexy? It is.
Subtitled From Rio to Wayne Shorter, HYBRIDO has a simple concept--Adolfo has taken eight Shorter tracks such as "Deluge," "Prince of Darkness" and "Ana Maria" and merged them with his own musical style. He points to Shorter's concise lyricism along with his "rich harmonies and melodies" as an ideal blend, and the result is incredibly balanced and pleasing. It's not easy listening--there are plenty of musical challenges here--but you will be soothed and caressed along the way. In fact, I'll come right out and say you'll be seduced.
Adolfo has also enlisted an all-star band to coax a genuine sensuality from these songs including guest vocalist Ze Renato, guitarist Lula Galvao. His core band consisting of sax/flute player Marcelo Martins, drummer Rafael Barata and bassist Jorge Helderis is exceptional and well-oiled. But the richest flavors are supplied by Adolfo himself--he isn't flashy but he is persistent and the momentum of his subtle phrasing provides deeper textures that prevent HYBRIDO from being too soft and pliant and moody.
This record, of course, sounds fantastic. The tone is warm and vibrant, which is perhaps why I keep suggesting that it's such a sexy collection of songs. It's full of tone and yet pleasingly dynamic. Recommended.
Sunday, May 7, 2017
My latest music review for Positive Feedback is now live. This one is from one of my favorites, Robt Sarazin Blake, and I believe he just laid down a masterpiece titled Recitative. You can read it here.
Wednesday, May 3, 2017
It's probably not fair to say that Carry Illinois is Lizzy Lehman, 'cuz there is a whole big band standing behind her and playing solid mid-tempo rock. But she's the one out front, exposing her vulnerabilities, her fears and her longing. Behind the scenes, however, it's this Austin-based quintet as a whole that's been through the so-called ring of fire, and this new six-song EP is all about putting things back together after they've fallen apart.
I reviewed Carry Illinois' album Alabaster back in 2015 and described it as "empty and reverberent and reminds you of a late night performance that started long after midnight because the opening acts couldn't get their shit together." (I meant empty as a compliment, as in a sparse sound in a big space.) Since then the band has been struggling to deal with the suicide of original bassist John Winsor. As Lehman has said, "Why is it so hard to restart? Why is it so hard to put the parts back together?"
It's good news that Carry Illinois has put the parts back together with new bassist Andrew Pressman, along with drummer Rudy Villareal, guitarist Darwin Smith and keyboardist Derek Morris. I liked Alabaster but found it to be composed of familiar pieces. Garage Sale is more of an honest expression of where the band and its music fits into the world--sad and wounded but trying to move to the next phase. It's disheartening when a band can't quite manage this--think of Lush--but Lizzie's strength and persistence is present in every word she sings. That adds another layer of depth to the music which is mighty compelling.
If this sounds like a bit of a downer, it isn't. If you listen to Garage Sale without knowing the backstory, you'll find these six songs to be positive and encouraging and even hopeful. If you know what the band's been through in the last couple of years, however, the sadness is right there staring back at you. In the closer, "Goodnight," you can't help but feel all of the pain and the wondering and the confusion. Lehman sings that she wants to be able to "look at all my friends, my dearest family, wishing happiness to call and take the place of agony."
As an anthem, it's a bit heavy. But as a closing thought, a conclusion, it's the very definition of hope.
Tuesday, May 2, 2017
I feel like it's been forever since I've blogged. I've just returned from the 2017 AXPONA Show in Chicago and trade shows traditionally take me out of the groove for at least a couple of weeks. Sometimes, and this is something I admit reluctantly, I even get tired of listening music and I need at least a few days of silence so that I can re-calibrate my ears.
This live solo piano CD from Bill O'Connell, Monk's Cha Cha, is therefore a soft landing, an easy way to assess the growing pile of review CDs and LPs without stressing out over deadlines and such. That's because O'Connell's playing can be lush and fluid like Bill Evans' playing. It just sort of flows over you and carries you along and fills your head full of intriguing yet sanguine ideas while it does so.
I'm not that familiar with Bill O'Connell's work--perhaps that's because this is his first solo piano recording as well as his first live recording. That's surprising since he's been playing professionally since 1977, starting off with the legendary Mongo Santamaria. He's played with Sonny Rollins, Gato Barbieri and Jerry Gonzalez as well. He's the real thing when it comes to jazz piano, and it seems to be a bit of a mystery in the industry as to why his recorded output is so limited. This recording, live from the Carnegie-Farian Room in Nyack, mixes standards with originals and cements his reputation among his fellow musicians as not only a strong composer but a pianist who masters the worlds of Latin jazz and bebop with equal grace and authority.
These Latin influences are one of the things that separates O'Connell's playing from Evans, however. Those jagged and dynamic rhythms are very much established in the music, even without percussion. But O'Connell possesses the same ability as Evans to produce a lot of notes in seamless and sinewy tangents. You'll definitely hear those wondrous cadences in tunes such as Santamaria's "Afro Blue" and Jobim's "Dindi."
I'm too exhausted right now to come up with vivid new ways to describe a solo piano recording. The parallels between O'Connell and Evans may be more elusive to you than me at this point. But what a recording like this does for my sanity cannot be underestimated--beautiful playing that gently prowls between genres without gaudy alerts announcing its intentions. It is a perfect tonic for right now.