Saturday, October 20, 2018
Many years ago I purchased, on a whim, a copy of Gonzalo Rubalcaba's Suite 4 Y 20. Not only did that 1993 LP introduce me to Cuban jazz and its many sub-genres years before Buena Vista Social Club came along, but it also helped to cement my love for all jazz during a period of my life where I had become bored with pop and rock. To this day I still have a warm spot in my heart for that album, especially in the way those subtle afro-Cuban polyrhythms burrowed their way into my deep subconscious and still occasionally emerge as delightful little earworms. Saxophonist Carlos Averhoff Jr. has helped me to revisit some of that magic in his new album Qba!. He has subtitled the album Jazz Meets Cuban Timba, which refers to one of those Cuban sub-genres that blends Cuban folk music with salsa, funk and R&B. It's a sound that instantly takes me back 25 years to Rubalcaba, back to when jazz was a largely unspoiled frontier for me.
While the overall flavor of the album is fairly straightforward jazz, heavy on improvisation, Averhoff has enlisted the help of Cuban jazz musicians who have played with plenty of Timba dance bands, folks such as trumpeter Alexis Baro, pianist Rolando Luna, bassist Nestor Del Prado and drummer Oliver Valdes. That gives these eight tunes, classic compositions that have all been arranged by Averhoff, space to reflect the Timba approach. The result is romantic, abetted by plenty of liveliness that isn't necessarily spurred on by huge dollops of percussion. Averhoff is able to suggest these native rhythms through a pure lyricism, especially when it comes to his saxophone and Baro's trumpet. Their phrasing is distinctly Cuban in feel and transports standards such as Wayne Shorter's "Yes or No" and Jimmy Van-Heusen's "It Could Happen to You" right into a public square in the middle of Havana.
It's exciting to watch the two halves of this music come together, the sweetness and longing of the exquisite melodies and the pulsating rhythms, although they're not necessarily competing with each other at the same time. Qba! ebbs and flows with its energy, and it's designed to be enjoyed whole in a single sitting--almost like a travelogue. While Averhoff's arrangements fuse these disparate elements together with grace, it's Valdes' drumming that truly forms the bridge. He is able to communicate the idea of complex percussion while sitting behind his kit, often sounding like at least two men and sometimes even three.
Many of today's jazz fans are already primed for this type of music by Buena Vista, but the most illuminating part of Qba! is how the music chronicles Averhoff's love for Timba throughout his life, especially when he was a young boy and this type of music was being played all through his neighborhood in Cuba. Averhoff has come a long way from those days--he studied for years in the top conservatories in Cuba before moving to the United States and graduating from the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music. That rich, sultry sound coming from his saxophone will always be his touchstone, however, since it's so evocative of Cuban jazz. Once you hear it, you'll never forget it.
Friday, October 19, 2018
My latest show report for the 2018 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest is now live at Part-Time Audiophile. This one covers the Joseph Audio/Doshi Audio/Cardas room. You can read it here. Enjoy!
Thursday, October 18, 2018
While listening to trumpeter Mark Masters' new album, Our Metier, I started thinking about European influences in jazz and how to properly define them--a fool's errand, of course. Perhaps it's because of the impressionist painting on the cover, or Masters' propensity for using ethereal elements in his music such as voice and vibes, but these ten original compositions are dense and complex and moody and because of that they seem to be from somewhere else, somewhere more cultured. Masters is known for re-imagining the music of others into jazz idioms, most notably his adaptations of Steely Dan, but here he seems to be traveling abroad, at least in his mind, soaking his forward-thinking jazz in a sea of pastels.
That's the key here, colors, because that's what I hear when I listen to Our Metier. I'm not talking about synesthesia, of course, but the simple act of ascribing colors to moods. That apt cover was wisely chosen and sets those moods, and Masters has assembled what he calls a "free bop" large ensemble that can move and improvise in a way that highlights those natural and light-filled hues. There's a lightness to his music, the sense that everything is floating in space as one despite the focus on improvisation.
These impressions are mostly due to Masters' vivid arrangements, and his ensemble is unique enough to bring the composition and the execution together. He's enlisted two trumpets (Scott Englebright and Les Lovitt, a French horn (Stephanie O'Keefe), two trombones (Les Benedict and Ryan Dragon, plenty of woodwinds, including a bass clarinet (Kirsten Edkins and Bob Carr,. a piano (Ed Czach and thate ghostly, shimmering vibraphone (Craig Fundyga). That implies a horn-heavy presentation, which is certainly true at times, but that ethereal sheen levels the playing field so that the horn and woodwinds are balanced with the core sextet of soloists and the lovely, wordless vocals of Anna Mjoll. That's right, each track contains a solo from what Masters calls The Sextet: drummer Andrew Cyrille, bassist Putter Smith, trumpeter Tim Hogans and saxophone players Gary Foster, Oliver Lake and Mark Turner.
That's almost a big band right there, and at times it sounds like one. For the most part Our Metier has a much more intimate feel to it, however, a softer countenance that, despite all those horns, is smoother and lighter than you'd expect from such a large ensemble. For me this music offers only a passing resemblance to big band jazz--it is far more subtle and moody, and far more loose and exploratory. Perhaps that's why I keep thinking of this album as European in character--it seems to me that European big bands such as the WDR are far more willing to go beyond the boundaries of any particular jazz genre and give in to intuition. This is jazz from an impressionist master, with all those wonderful colors intact.
It's not often that you can call a big band jazz recording timely or topical, but here we are with American Dreamers, a project from John Daversa's Big Band that brings together DACA artists who can also play musical instruments and otherwise perform within a big band setting. Daversa worked with several non-profit immigrant organizations and was able to locate 53 Dreamers in 17 states, children of immigrants from such countries as Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Nigeria, Pakistan and even Canada. American Dreamers, in its final form, is a busy, ambitious mixture of songs chosen by the Dreamers, songs such as "Living In America," "Immigrant Song," "Stars and Stripes Forever" and "America" from West Side Story, all interspersed with stories of growing up in America from the Dreamers themselves.
As you can guess, this is a very unique big band recording, and not just because of the themes. Musically, Daversa's band is willing to take all kinds of crazy risks. You probably noticed that I mentioned "Immigrant Song"--yes, we're talking about the Led Zeppelin song, and it blends the big band sound with lots of churning, electric guitars and--wait for it--sections of pure hip-hop. It's wonderful and exciting and like nothing you've heard. In other tracks these dreamers perform musical and vocal solos, complex percussion grooves, spoken word poetry and more rapping. Did I say this project was ambitious?
The beating heart of this album, however, is the stories. One Dreamer talks of earning a university scholarship and being unable to take advantage of it because of his immigration status. Another explains that she became a drummer and percussionist because it helped to alleviate her stress about her immigration status. Another describes how her family came to America to get medical help for her sister. These stories are not casually told, but conveyed with heart and emotion.
"Music has always been tied to the fight for justice." This quote from U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, along with another from Senator Lindsey Graham, are featured prominently on the back cover of American Dreamers, and that provides the momentum for the album, the call to action. To appropriate an old musical cliche, Daversa's big band plays with feeling, but it's more real and sincere than usual. This album could have been shrouded in earnestness, but the skill and cohesiveness of these arrangements brings the cause to another level, one that should garner significant attention once the word gets out. Listening to American Dreamers also begs the question: why don't they take this on the road? Put it on Broadway! Keep fighting the fight.
Wednesday, October 17, 2018
My review of Sunny War's extraordinary new LP on ORG, With the Sun, is now live at Positive Feedback. You can read it here. Enjoy!
"I've never been a huge fan of those purists that think jazz stopped after 1960."
That's why trombonist and composer Marshall Gilkes has named his latest album Always Forward, to push the idea that big band needs to evolve just as much as it needs to honor traditions. He's enlisted the help of the Germany-based WDR Big Band, which I've previously reviewed in the Zoho Records release Rediscovering Ellington. While I was floored by the WDR's precision and grace, I was less impressed with the overall sound quality of the release--a rare occurrence for the otherwise excellent Zoho.
Always Forward is on a different label, Alternate Side Records, and this is a whole new ball game (sorry, but it's the MLB playoffs right now). My first reaction to hearing this big band play Gilkes' stunning original compositions is how wonderful it all sounds, especially from the point of view of an audiophile. Big band jazz can sound fantastic, of course, but if you don't have huge speakers and a big room you can lose the illusion of a BIG BAND, if you know what I mean. Gilkes and the WDR are so seamlessly joined together that the music, whether dynamic or intimate, is incredibly cohesive and easy to absorb. The best way to describe the sound of Always Forward is that you are swept up in its ocean of sound, as opposed to being constantly jolted by the obligatory crescendos from the horn section.
The superb sound quality of this recording is the key to this sense of unity. It helps that Gilkes' music is beautiful and lush, particularly by big band standards, but my current test for the fidelity of these recordings is whether or not intimate moments can be conveyed with the same honesty and realism as those maximum-impact blasts. Gilkes' trombone, for instance, is a marvel in the way it can sound so soft and fluid and full of emotion when it's isolated from WDR. His horn just floats easily in space, a few feet off the floor, backed by all those other musicians on the stage who know it's better to let this man blow his beautiful horn without a lot of fanfare or artificial excitement.
In this way, Always Forward is revolutionary. It takes careful listening to determine what makes a big band recording unique and worthwhile, but here the excellence is nebulous since it all feels so right. There's a flow, a sublime feeling of perfection that comes from this album which is created through the synergy of a trombone, a big band, and a man who knows how to bring it all together without succumbing to the temptations of too big of a presentation. If that's the future of big band jazz, I'm all for it.
There isn't much to clarinet player Adam Price's bio sheet. It contains just the basics--where he grew up, where he studied music and what he's doing now (teaching clarinet and theory at the Ferrwood Music Camp in Pennsylvania). Oh yes, it also mentions that in addition to the clarinet he is also proficient "on all saxophones and flutes, and has recently been deeply exploring ethnic woodwinds such as the Native American flute and didgeridoo." That seems like plenty of information, I know, but there's something missing. His new album, House Ghosts, is an enormously engaging debut album, surprising in the broadness of its scope of jazz clarinet. Where's all the copy about his dreams, aspirations and hopes for his wonderful vision of jazz?
This is one way of saying that we should let the music speak for itself. Price and his core quartet--pianist Isamu MacGregor, bassist Jack Synoski and drummer Spencer Inch--aren't reinventing the wheel here, but they do have an honest and lyrical approach to these tunes that's charming and affable without glossing over the details. MacGregor, who coincidentally was featured on the Orkestra Eustoria album I reviewed yesterday, adds the same melodic strength and conviction through his detailed style, while Synoski and Inch are a capable and focused rhythm section. Jeff Hatcher's additional percussion adds texture and depth, and Kristina Rajgelj's gorgeous and seductive voice graces "Chameleon Colored Eyes" and "Summer Thunder." But this album is centered around one thing--Price's powerful and forward clarinet.
Personally, I have strong feelings about the clarinet. My youngest son played it for many years, and I was surprised that I was able to catch on quite quickly thanks to some basic training I had with saxophones many years ago. The clarinet, therefore, is relatively easy to play compared to other woodwinds and brass instruments--I still can't manage to produce a single smooth note on a flute--but the secret in the art of the clarinet is to capture that unique and evocative timbre of the instrument and convey feelings and emotions that are extremely specific. Price excels at this. Every note from his clarinet establishes the mood, the direction for others to follow.
House Ghosts, therefore, is a love letter to the clarinet, an album to listen to when you really want to hear this instrument soar. It's a pleasure to hear a talent like this emerge so confident and masterful the first time out, and I look forward to what Price attempts in the future--even if it's with a didgeridoo.
Tuesday, October 16, 2018
Orkestra Eustoria sounds like an exotic jazz ensemble based in a far away land--there's something about the "eu" and the "k" that reminds me of the Basque Country--but this space-age modern fusion ensemble is based in Astoria, Queens. Saxophonist Peter Sparacino, the leader of the Orkestra, has adopted this esoteric moniker in honor of Astoria, which is home to a very diverse population. That theme carries over into the music, of course, with its melding of styles and influences from all over the planet. Sparacino grabbed a few of his friends, musicians who represented "some of the most innovative and internationally recognized tour musicians working today," and started rehearsing with them extensively so that he could "solve his own musical shortcomings."
That's an odd thing for a band leader to admit, but it's not a reflection of his own sax playing, which is superb. It does refer to Sparacino's interest in odd time signatures, however, and his attraction to organic compositions with difficult time signatures such as 11/8 and 5/4. He took a lesson from legendary NYC pianist Fred Hersch and wrote compositions in 45 minutes or less, which is Hersch's "antidote" to excess in his own compositions. That's not to say that Orkestra Eustoria sounds like Hersch and his angular yet effortless style. But this method does create a loose style of music that is busy and spontaneous without losing its accessibility.
On this debut album, HyperGiant Hi-Fi, the Blue Plate Special is a dense fusion with liberal doses of pure funk, wild and brash and yet contained in a loose wrapper. Sparacino's sax is front and center most of the way, but the overall theme is one of a strange cohesion among the band members. It's weird to state that these musicians are simultaneously loose and yet contained, but there is a complicated structure that lurks just beneath the surface, a scaffold that affords each member to explore and wander while paying attention to those challenging time signatures. It sounds like a tough listen, akin to free jazz, but it's not. This is the kind of jazz that Weather Report used to accomplish more than thirty years ago, swinging, wild stuff that does have a firm foundation in jazz traditions--even when producer David Binney adds a steady diet of synthesizer throughout these 11 originals.
The other band members are based in New York as well but bring all those worldly influences into focus--bassist Panagiotis Andreou and drummer Engin Gunaydin are members of the Gypsy All-Stars, guitarist Aki Ishiguro can play in a variety of styles and isn't afraid to shred on occasion, and keyboardist Isamu MacGregor isn't so much a world traveler as a time traveler, delving into classic modes that come straight out of the '70s. This is the kind of album that attracted so many jazz fans to fusion all those decades ago, a bridge from intelligent rock towards mainstream forms of jazz. HyperGiant Hi-Fi jams and rocks all the way through, and you can enjoy the exciting tension on the surface even if you're not quite able to crawl into the catacombs and discover its hidden treasures.
My first show report in nearly eight years is now live at Part-Time Audiophile. Over the next two or three weeks I'll have a couple of dozen reports published on the 2018 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. This first one is on the Old Forge Audio room, featuring PureAudio, The Wand and Rethm loudspeakers. You can read it here. Enjoy!
Wednesday, October 3, 2018
It's been more than a year since I've been to a high-end audio show, and about seven years since I went to one wearing a press badge instead of an exhibitor badge. But tomorrow I leave for Colorado to attend the 2018 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. This is one of my favorite shows to attend because it's in Colorado, where I lived for a few years, and where my parents have retired. So I mix business with pleasure every time I go.
I'll be covering the show for Part-Time Audiophile, so watch for my coverage. Eric Franklin Shook, my colleague, has gotten the ball rolling with this preview.
I'm be roaming the halls, camera around my neck, so if you see me say hello!
Tuesday, October 2, 2018
It's been at least a couple of months since I've tackled any free jazz. It's interesting how jazz recordings seem to come in waves sometimes, one genre or another. I can think of a period, maybe a year ago or so, where I was inundated with free jazz releases. At first I felt challenged by this avalanche of chaos and doing my best--as I always say--to extract the structure from the cacophony. A funny thing happens when you dive into difficult music, however. It comes together. It makes sense. You don't shy from it. You might look around, as I often do, to see if anyone's nearby who's silently judging you. But my initial questions of who still listens to free jazz for enjoyment have been slowly replaced by the notion that every music has its place, and you just need to find the right mindset to explore that.
I mention this because I have this new CD from Enrique Heneine, a composer and multi-instrumentalist who was born in Mexico City but now plays in New York City. Haneine's new CD, The Mind's Mural, is free jazz by definition, but it is incredibly easy to digest--perhaps even to newbies. I couldn't put my finger on the reason until I read the liner notes. "[Through] the use of innovative rhythms in odd meter contexts and driving intervallic yet lyrical melodies, the free jazz conversation is achieved in a high caliber, sensitive linear setting." That hits the nail on the noggin, because Haneine's unusual compositions are framed in a percussive strategy that borrows from Latin and Middle East influences. (Haneine is also Lebanese.) Once those motifs are set, Haneine slowly builds the tension until he reaches those free jazz crescendos of noise, but the momentum is sure and helps to guide through the wilder ideas.
While Haneine plays the piano, he is also a thoughtful and curious drummer--he chooses drums, cymbals and an udu drum to push sax players Anna Webber and Catherine Sikora, along with bassist Carlo de Rosa, down this treacherous and exciting road. It's his drum work that stands out as the driving force since he's so fast and exact. It's quite simple--his drumming acts as the hand that's holding yours, while his sax players dance around and tempt you to stray off the main path. Drums and bass are forged together at points in a guttural conversation that whispers in your ear and tells you to keep moving forward.
In many ways, this free jazz is about vibration and resonance, which makes it intriguing on an almost subconscious level. Regardless of your feeling toward free jazz, you might find yourself surprised at Haneine's seductive instincts, that building of tension that echoes the faraway beating of drums somewhere deep in the Amazon jungle. I won't blame you if your cautious about free jazz, especially if you've been burned in the past, but this is such a mesmerizing entry point, one that will beckon you to come closer while it slowly unleashes the fury in a confident, measured way.
Everything about saxophonist Javon Jackson's new album, For You, is so simple and direct that it's incredibly refreshing. The cover, the name of the album, the straightforward approach to these standards--it's all sounds like my early days of exploring jazz, back in college, when I hit the record stores and started buying all the Davis, Coltrane, Rollins and Pepper I could find. Perhaps that's because Jackson has such strong ties to the past. He used to be a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers for one, and he's also played with Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton and Ron Carter. Those are some serious credentials in the world of jazz, of course, but it's also important to note that For You is Jackson's 20th album as leader. He's worked with the best because he is the best.
For You is a mixture of original compositions and standards, and I write those words down quite often. The difference here is that Jackson has this type of jazz flowing through his veins, and it's just a matter of getting it out into the world. There is such a timeless ease to his originals, and he excels at blending those seamlessly with standards like "I'm Old-Fashioned," and "Backstage Sally." But let's go back to the Kern-Mercer tune, which opens the album. It is old-fashioned in spirit, so gentle and calm of a ballad, but it's also old-fashioned in the way it digs deep into the ground and finds something ancient and untouched. This isn't jazz that's trying to find something new, an angle or innovation. It is pure and from the past and there's a wildness about it that is just as exciting as it would have been in 1958.
I do come across jazz albums like this once in a while, albums that are so beautifully ensconced with the past that they exist on a different plane of existence. Jackson, who is a youthful 53-years-old, accomplishes this magic with a quartet that includes pianist Jeremy Manasia, bassist David Williams and drummer McClenty Hunter--all seasoned jazz musicians as well. That's probably another reason why this album is so timeless--it's one of those superstar albums you used to see fifty or sixty years ago. Everyone has been somewhere else, learned a few things, and have come back around to learn a few more. Manasia's been playing with Jackson at the Village Vanguard for the last few years, Williams was a long-time fixture with Cedar Walton Trio and McClenty Hunter is, well, a young man who has been making quite a splash in the last few years. His debut as leader, The Groove Hunter, is one of the stand-out jazz albums of 2018.
For You is clearly a jazz album for people who know their jazz. To the uninitiated, it might seem polished and perfect, but the real jazz aficionado will instantly recognize how masterful these four musicians are, and how they settle into a unified whole that is a living, breathing definition of the finest of the genre. If you're looking for that next lost jazz classic that's been remastered and is selling for $50, try this out instead. It's everything you need.
Monday, October 1, 2018
Example #2,776 of how not to judge an album by its cover--I give you saxophonist Jeff Rupert and pianist Richard Drexler's R&D. Maybe it's Drexler's long ZZ Top-style beard, or the dark, smoky black and white photo on the cover, but when I first looked at this CD I thought one thing, and that's blues. You know, rough-and-tumble jazz with an edge, with maybe an all-electric ensemble that included one or more guitar players who really knows how to shred, within the parameters of jazz of course. What I didn't expect was this thoughtful, somewhat introspective live album, recorded at the Timucua Arts White House back in 2015. It's just the two men, veterans in the jazz world, playing a handful of standards with uncommon chemistry. It's an intimate performance, with a small but enthusiastic audience present, and it's one of those crystalline moments in jazz that's not just about a piano and a tenor saxophone. It's about the men behind the instruments and how they interact with each other and the rest of the world.
This is one of those splendid live performances that's so much more than tone. These two men have been playing together since the 1980s, and they are completely comfortable in each other's company. Both have played with the greats--Rupert has worked with Maynard Ferguson, Bob Berg and Kenny Drew Jr., and Drexler has played with Mose Allyson, Tony Bennett, George Benson, Diahann Carroll, Vic Damone, Amy Grant and Al Jarreau. Rupert's better known as the founder of Flying Horse records, and director of the Flying Horse Band from the University of Central Florida. I've reviewed two of their albums: Big Man on Campus and The Bat Swings!. Drexler is also part of the faculty at UCF.
It's a pleasure to hear these two musicians apart from their usual big band surroundings. This is the type of recording I usually hear from the likes of 2L Recordings, that deep sense of being able to walk among these two performers and hear their human presences deliver this wonderful music. Rupert has a soft, breathy way with his sax, full of the personal mechanisms that are usually associated with greats such as Stan Getz. Drexler's piano is lush and emotive, and his reach across the keys is impressive in its agility. They share their space with an enormous amount of vivaciousness, always sensitive to what the other is feeling. In other words, this is an ideal recording for gauging that aforementioned chemistry, that magic that only happens between old friends.
Was I disappointed that this album was so different than what I expected? No, I was delighted. I'm listening to this on a cold, rainy day, that time of the year when we can finally say that summer is gone and now we can look forward to another deep winter in Western New York. This is yet another wonderful and simple recording that begs you to move closer and dig around, to bask in the closeness and yes, the love these two performers have for each other, the music and the audience.
My latest Vinyl Anachronist column is now live at Perfect Sound Forever. This column is about tonearms, and how they contribute to the overall analog system--based upon my recent experiences with mounting The Wand tonearm from New Zealand. You can read about it here.