Saturday, October 20, 2018

Carlos Averhoff Jr's Qba!--Jazz Meets Cuban Timba

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

Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2018: Joseph Audio, Doshi Audio and Cardas

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

Mark Masters Ensemble's Our Metier

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.

John Daversa Big Band's American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom

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

Sunny War's With the Sun Now Live at Positive Feedback

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!

Marshall Gilkes and the WDR Big Band's Always Forward

"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.

The Adam Price Group's House Ghosts

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.