Thursday, August 16, 2018

Sasha Mashin's Outsidethebox


How do you feel about Russian jazz? Yes, I don't know much about it either, although I have no doubt that it not only exists but on a rather large scale. I tend to think of Russia as the motherlode of great classical music, and I have many outstanding classical records from Russia. It's not a coincidence that some of my favorite classical composers are Russian--Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Mussorgsky--and I tend to classify most of this music according to its nationalistic traits. I'm talking mostly sad and somber, borne from a tough land where nothing is easy. But Russian jazz? Lay it on me.

Sasha Mashin is a Russian jazz drummer, born in St. Petersburg in 1976. Through the '90s he studied and played with everyone in Russia, it seems, and he eventually settled into the Moscow jazz scene and played with all the big names--in Moscow, of course. In 2005 he joined the Open World USA Program in New York and wound up playing with other greats, more Western-friendly names such as Clark Terry, Jimmy Heath and Kenny Barron. He was even a fixture at the Blue Note Jazz Club for a while. Since then, he invites many of his colleagues from all over the world to play in Russia and discover how vital the jazz scene has become. Outsidethebox, his first album as leader, comes from those global collaborations.


Working with a simple ensemble consisting of trumpet player Alex Sipiagin, alto sax player Rosario Giuliani, keyboard player Alexey Ivannikov, bassist Makar Novikov and vocalist Hiske Oosterwijk, Mashin sets out to reveal Russian forms of jazz as something far more universal. Oosterwijk's voice, in particular, will remind you of Brazilian jazz the way it flutters and skips on top of the notes. Giuliani's sax is also earthy and sexy in a way that naturally evokes New York City during the summer, that storied grittiness. As for Mashin's drumming, it's quick and light and hardly echoes the seriousness of his classical counterparts. The music, especially in the melodies, does have a plaintive quality that reminds me of wide open spaces, but these are spaces that aren't too far from the similar fields frequented by Pat Metheny and Bill Laswell.

Outsidethebox is, for all intents and purposes, different and unique. But it's not distinctive because it's Russian jazz per se, something alien and never heard before. It is, instead, a summary of a vast amount of musical knowledge, how musicians bring their own experiences to the stage and the leader's job is to make it all fit without changing too much of those instincts. Mashin is so resolute when it comes to preserving this energy that he often calls these collaborations mashups, and it's more that a play on his name. It's the idea that two musicians, from different parts of the world, can come together and play jazz and make it sound absolutely terrific.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Max Moran & Neospectric


Max Moran is the man, a 28-year-old bassist and composer, and Neospectric is his concept, a hard-driving funk band that uses legendary bands such as The Meters, Kool & the Gang and of course Parliament/Funkadelic as a jumping-off point--

Wait, did you hear that? The drumming! Are you listening to this?

...uh yeah, a jumping-off for a 21st century version of--

Man, listen to how fast he's drumming! Listen to those time signatures! Man, this is amazing drumming. Who is this?

It's hard to focus on the writing of this review, because I keep hearing that magnificent drumming, that mind-blowing rhythm. The first time I listened to Max Moran & Neospectric, I wrote myself a little note that simply said "incredible drumming." I saved the reveal for today, the day I decided to write the review--I didn't even want to know the name of the drummer until I was ready to dive deeper into this extraordinary funk. By the time I started reading the liner notes, I was thoroughly confused since there were several drummers credited. They're all awesome. But the one who really blew my mind was Alfred Jordan. Write that name down.

Max Moran is the bassist, so you'd imagine this album be more about him, and in a way it is. But he envisions himself as more of an architect, and his compositions use the bass primarily for the melodies. He starts off with the bass line, in other words, and builds the song from there. Neospectric was a longtime vision of his, to create a funk band made up of his close friends who knew how to jam and improvise along with him. Moran was looking for "Like-minded musicians who can just relish in the joy of simply playing music, lingering inside the grooves, and encouraging listeners to join them for the audible ride."


This album, however, doesn't come off as one of those interminable jam records where everyone doodles for half and hour per turn. It's ambitious, structured and varied. It's precise in the way it shifts gears. It's the best kind of jam music, the kind that holds amazing surprises for you around every corner. It reminds me of Thurston Moore's great album from last year, Rock and Roll Consciousness, and how every moment of those epic-length songs were exciting and interesting due to the constant change-ups. While the music here is wild and unpredictable, it's performed by musicians who are extremely disciplined and talented, people who aren't flying by the seat of their pants. Moran's bass, in particular, isn't quite as prominent as most funk bands because he loves to stay low, building that foundation. When he does kick it up a few notches, he's supremely musical and doing so much more than holding down the groove. In his own way, he's the lead--when he can avoid that freight train named Jordan.

I'm always looking for great modern funk, stuff from the '70s that's just down the block from R&B and jazz but still driving its own car to the downtown clubs on the weekends. I'm often disappointed with something small, an over-reliance on electronica, the lack of a distinctive rhythm section...something. Not here. If you're looking for a spark, the next big thing in funk, this might be it. Between Jordan's drumming, Moran's adventurous compositions and surprise after surprise after surprise, the future is right here. Highly recommended.

Carmela Rappazzo's Howlin' at the Moon


Carmela Rappazzo's a little different than most contemporary jazz singers. First of all, she writes most of her own material. Her lyrics have that quick yet conversational tone that sometimes borders on something you might hear in a Sondheim musical, a rush of words that cuts through the melody and provides you with an additional dense plot to consider. In Howlin' at the Moon, her sixth album, Rappazzo uses her storytelling skills to document her recent move to New Orleans as well as her friendship with actress Margaret Whitton (who passed away in 2016). Her voice has plenty of Broadway in it, that playfully clear way of advancing the story that comes naturally from being a seasoned stage actress.

This album isn't the same type of grand production presented in Tom Hook's amazing 62; the stage is much smaller and intimate. Rappazzo deals mostly with a piano trio (drummer Gerald T. Watkins Jr., bassist Jasen Weaver and pianist Oscar Rossignoli), accented with a few horn players--including Steve Glenn's tuba--to give it that "marchin' down Bourbon Street" feel. While there are nine distinct tracks here, including one cover of "Lullaby of the Leaves," the music flows continuously and often features recurring themes--especially in regards to Rappazzo's phrasing.


This unity gives Howlin' at the Moon the feel of a stage musical, or more specifically a one-woman show. Rappazzo is generous with the amount of time she offers to her ensemble--Rossignoli's piano fully supports the drama she introduces, while Watkins' percussion supplies the exclamation points. On her explicit tribute to Whitton, "State of Grace," Rappazzo enlists lutar player Mahmoud Chouki to provide that perfect touch of the esoteric, suggesting the mystery and sophistication of her friend. It's the most interesting track on the album.

The rest of the album has that wild, rollicking feel you might expect for music dedicated to living in New Orleans--even if it functions as an elegy. Then again, we all know about funerals in the Big Easy. A very high level of energy is maintained throughout Howlin' at the Moon, right up to the closing ballad "Making My Way Back to You." So much of jazz is focused on supplying personal emotions to lyrics that hundreds have sung before, but in this case you have an expressive, intelligent singer who is also an expressive, intelligent songwriter who is telling you about her life in a truly unique way.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Vivian Lee's Let's Talk About Love


I feel like I've been on a wonderful lucky streak with female jazz singers lately. There's Jacqueline Tabor, Lucia Jackson and a few others over the last several weeks, women with appealing voices backed by incredible jazz musicians who always lend a huge dose of classiness to the affair. My bias against female voice recordings, mentioned many times over the last couple of years, has nothing to do with the genre but rather the slavish devotion to them afforded by audiophiles. I think this will be the last time that I mention that peccadillo because it has become moot, especially when I have another fantastic new recording right here.

Vivian Lee is incredibly appealing and sweet. I use the world sweet deliberately, because that's the primary quality I notice in her voice. So many singers, especially in jazz, have that much larger-than-life sound, something so big and impressive that you tend to forget these are mere mortals. Vivian Lee has an incredibly sweet voice, the kind of voice you want to curl up next to, the kind of a voice that makes you want to introduce yourself to her and get to know her better because, if you're lucky, she might decide to sing for you one day. Her lovely and somewhat quiet delivery is gentle and soothing and makes you float off into the ether. That's fortunate, because she's singing a collection of standards that are, as the title suggested, devoted to the subject of love. She has an extraordinary touch.


Lee hails from Sacramento, which isn't exactly a hotbed for jazz--at least I haven't heard about it yet, and I've been in that city plenty of times. None of that matters, because Lee is the type of jazz singer who holds such tunes as "Wives and Lovers," "Some Other Time" and "Waltz for Debby" close to her heart, so much so that you might be convinced that the songs were written for her. Her soft voice can sound a little understated at times, but it's forward enough in the mix so that you might be tricked into thinking her head is on her shoulder. (It sounds like I have a huge crush, and I might.) She surrounds herself with an equally simple and quiet ensemble, mostly a trio of pianist Brenden Lowe, bassist Buca Necak and drummer Jeff Minnieweather. They come off as the perfect piano trio, that kind that might be wandering from studio to studio fifty or sixty years ago.

That perfectly measured sound of the trio, taken from the vibrant past, also influences how Lee's voice comes off--she's deep in the past as well. She's playful when she needs to be, like Julie London in one of her lighter moods, and she often sounds like some undiscovered treasure from long ago. These days there's such a propensity to belt out the songs with all your might, to show off that talent so no one will hesitate to be impressed. Lee does something entirely different. She charms you over time, and she finds the way to your heart by just being herself. Needless to say, highly recommended.

Allen Austin-Bishop's No One Is Alone


With Allen Austin-Bishop, it's all about interpretation. He's known for having a warm, conversational tone, and he bend the notes into something unusual, something you haven't heard before. On his new album, No One Is Alone, he tackles some of the softer jazz ballads in the songbook in a way that will make you feel like he's in your living room, sitting next to you, putting that proverbial new spin on everything from "The Way We Were" and "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" to "Amazing Grace," and he does it with the road-worn weariness of someone who's been out there for decades. He's doing nothing by the numbers, and it might challenge you if you're expecting someone more, well, forgettable.

This is a slow album, one that takes its time because it's about something--the interpretation. His back-up ensemble is minimalist, a trio consisting of pianist Alex Maydew, bassist Mao Yamada and drummer Rob Hervais-Adelman, and they understand the pace. They're also sensational in the way they set the mood behind Austin-Bishop, providing music in an unusually grounded manner. On the other hand, they understand the drama that is so essential to a big, warm voice in the middle of it all.


If I'm suggesting his voice is different, it is. Some people, as I've hinted, might not get the way he injects the tangible sadness into the discussion. The first time I listened to this album, in the background, I was struck by the fact that Austin-Bishop doesn't care about hitting those high-notes that can deliver the goosebumps. He sings with authority, and he also sings with plenty of ragged edges, the kind of edges that might throw off the listener during a cursory listening session. Focus on what he's doing, however, and you'll unearth something else, a naked honesty that comes from living a life marked by a singular vision. He doesn't bow to convention, and that might not appeal to everyone.

When you look at the whole picture, however, a different perspective emerges. Honesty, as I've already mentioned, is sometimes a rare commodity among jazz singers. He sin't afraid to toy with the tempo, or find another key that fits what he is feeling. It's different, as I've said. But it commands your attention in a way that's refreshing. There's a deep resonance in his voice, something that gets pulled deep from within this man, and it means something.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Rocket 3's What's the Frequency?


It's been a while since I heard from my longtime Facebook friend, Ramune Nagisetty--March of 2017 to be exact. That's when she sent me a digital copy of a new album of her side project, Avalanche Lily. In that review, I noted that "what Avalanche Lily does, thankfully, is transport me back to that same period of the early 1990s where so many pop genres blended together which resulted in a general broadening of young minds." It's been about four years since her last album from her main band, Rocket 3, which I found to remind me of half a dozen '90s girl-led bands such as Letters to Cleo, Clouds and Elastica. I found Avalanche Lily to possess a cleaner and more stripped-down sound than Rocket 3, although I loved both albums.

Now it's time for a new album from Rocket 3, which sort of takes the best parts of those two albums and combines them into a beautiful pop valentine. What's the Frequency is, as you might imagine, a nod to that famous REM song from Monster, but it's also a loving poke at new bassist Kenneth Foust, who joined the band in 2015. Ramune, of course, sings and plays lead guitar, and she has that fabulously breathy and innocent kind of voice that takes you once again to the '90s when indie bands like Belly were taking over college radio. Ramune's guitar has always taken her bands down a different road--it's clean and relatively lacking in effects, which brings an unusually present and alive sound to the mix. Drummer Andy Anymouse also returns--I've been always been a big fan of his energetic approach on his kit that matches so comfortably with Ramune's style. A fourth member, Gavin Duffy, contributes saxophone and keyboards that broaden the sound.


Like the other two albums, What's the Frequency catches you off guard with its friendly demeanor. I've used words such as "sunny" and "crisp" to describe Ramune's music. It's the kind of upbeat pop/indie rock that instantly puts you into a good mood. What I hear in this album, however, is the inevitable maturing that comes with recording, the playing around with the recipe until it tastes incredible. Ramune's lyrics are more bittersweet here, as they should be with anyone who's sharing the same time-space continuum as the rest of the world, but these nine songs are so consistent with that encouraging demeanor that makes you step back and wonder if we should all start listening to music as content as this.

Another thing I've always liked about Rocket 3 (and Avalanche Lily, of course) is the devotion to great sound quality. Since this is a basic, uncluttered ensemble, the music has always come off as unusually bright and clean--not audiophile bright, which is a bad thing, but crystalline. If you want to check out What's the Frequency right now, and you should, check out their website. If the world is gettin' ya down, this will fix you right up.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Carol Liebowitz and Bill Payne's Spiderwebmandala


Difficult and dissonant, Carol Liebowitz and Bill Payne's new album Spiderwebmandala is not the type of easy jazz you want to reserve for a rainy day. Liebowitz plays the piano and Payne plays the clarinet, and this series of duets was improvised on the fly during a live performance at the Output Performance Space in Albuquerque. Poet Mark Weber presided over the two-day event, and he punctuates these duets with his ethereal poetry. The overall effect provides many of the same challenges as much of free jazz, even when Liebowitz and Payne occasionally wander into somewhat recognizable melody structures that ease these songs into a more lyrical and softened state.

The simple fact that this is just a piano and a clarinet in a live, open space helps to avoid the cacophony that free jazz sometimes creates. The simplicity of this ensemble allows you to climb into the notes from each instrument, and you'll start to hear both the sophistication in Liebowitz's style and the unique jazz timbre in Payne's clarinet. It's intriguing how the clarinet, through a seemingly spare progression of notes, can establish jazz themes and provide a firm foundation for the rest of the improvisation--it almost serves as the rhythm section and establishes the musical structures while the churning piano provides all of the dense and troubled emotions.


The duo has been performing together since 2010, and their first release featured a trio ensemble that included violinist Eva Lindal--hence the eponymous title Payne Lindal Liebowitz. That 2015 release generated a lot of buzz for the three musicians and was actually voted one of the Top Ten Jazz CDs of the year in an NPR poll. This release is a tad more esoteric, perhaps because the violin might serve as a middle ground for the other two. Your appreciation for it might just depend on your personal relationship to the piano and the clarinet. In addition, both musicians are skilled at coaxing unique phrases that often mimic sounds in nature, and the rapid shifts in theme suggest animal behavior--which reminds me, of course, of Diane Moser's Birdsongs.

What makes a pure improvisation like this so special is the fact that it can't be replicated. It can't be taken out on tour. It is a fleeting, one-time occurrence that would have only been heard by the 150 people present in Albuquerque if it had not been recorded. I've been hearing more and more recordings like this lately, the flowing uncharted improvisations, the kind of music Keith Jarrett used to put out regularly. This type of music is daunting to novices, but the joy comes from deeply knowing the physical characteristics of these instruments and how musicians are inspired by them to produce something that's truly one-of-a-kind.