Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Black Science's Worlds Within Worlds, Worlds Without End

"Can samplers be used to summon the 5th dimensional God entities that hide within us all?"

That's a pretty heady question, posed by those who have created an interactive musical experience far beyond the psychedelic. Black Science is a musical project from Thad McKraken, who is following up his 2012 psych-rock album An Echo Through the Eyes of Forever with this daunting, noisy and yet cosmic album that addresses such issues as "contacting star people from the heavens" through a combination of "chemical mind manipulation" and "bitchin' guitar noise." McKraken, who writes, performs and produces these seven spacey, reverb-soaked tracks, is suggesting an old idea with new gleaming surfaces--mixing hallucinogens with music to uncover the mysteries of the universe.

Unfortunately, I didn't have any mind-altering drugs for this review, so I have to tackle this straight. This is very much an album that is on the fringe, albeit with a fairly conventional foundation. McKraken does have a way with beats, melodies and song structures that suggests he has experience as a indie rock musician. Each track seems to possess a conventional center, one that's wrapped with sequencers that spiral out of control. This is a nightmarish world he presents, the antithesis of meditative, and there might be something to this idea of gobbling a few shrooms before attempting to navigate this sonic minefield. Then again, what am I missing? I remember hanging out with fans of the Grateful Dead back in the day, and more than one suggested I would "get it" if I only dropped some acid first. To this day, I still think the Dead are just okay because I didn't indulge.

On the other hand, is this real, or is it tongue-in-cheek? The one-sheet promo is downright hilarious, with McKraken's quotes about psilocybin-fueled listening parties where his consciousness "was suddenly invaded by an unbelievable cavalcade of mutating surrealist imagery filled with sea spiders, mollusks and various other shellfish." My favorite part is the end, where this question is posed: "Can you summon beings from the outer reaches just by getting high and wigging out to a psych record?" Answer: "Probably, dudes, dudettes and dudercopters." In my younger days I'd give it a shot, but my vices no longer include being a drugstore cowboy.

So I'm going to make a suggestion. If this sounds like something you might want to tackle, even though you kids should probably say no to drugs, then I won't mind if you get back to me and tell me how it went. At the same time, I have to be honest and admit I'm missing something in the translation. Is this music cool? Undoubtedly. I'm always in favor of expanding my horizons, but these days I'm a little too old for the chemical methods of doing so. But if there is some kind of stargate here, I'll color myself intrigued. Until then, I'll choose to enjoy the humorous aspects of this project--just in case I'm missing the joke and taking this all too seriously.

Autogramm's What R U Waiting 4?

A few months ago while I was on a road trip, I found an FM station that was on quite a rip playing so-called New Wave tunes from the early '80s. We're talking Tommy Tutone and the Plimsouls and Broken English and even The Knack, which was more of a '70s thing. You know the sound, however, straight-ahead rock bands that are peppier than the dinosaur rock that was petering out at the same time--it was more of a return to the concise three-minute pop song than anything else, and it changed our landscape in Southern California. What's funny was how all these songs sounded so different today, perhaps because it's been so long since I've heard any of them on the radio. With everything that's happened in the last thirty years, the New Wave had more in common with old-fashioned rock-and-roll than I remembered. But it was still mighty fun to listen while the signal held.

Autogramm understands that. This pop trio, based in Vancouver BC, bill themselves as "new wave revivalists." I've heard plenty of bands, even ones based in the Pacific Northwest, that capture many of those common new wave characteristics, but it's been a long time that I've heard something so fresh and so directly connected to the music that was happening during my college days. Autogramm's members--vocalist, keyboardist and guitarist Jiffy Marx, bassist and singer CC Voltage and drummer and singer The Silo--accomplish this by playing it straight. They're not interested in paying homage to an era as much as remembering the energy and excitement and optimism that was New Wave, and putting it down as if it was still 1983. That means there's no winking at the audience...there's only love and respect, presumably captured through a lot of research.

If I had to chose an attitude that defines this type of music, it's earnestness. The New Wave was about ditching that rock star mentality and all of its excesses, the twenty minute guitar solos and the decadent lifestyles and the hairdos. There was a nerdiness to it, but it was a nerdiness that redefined cool instead of opposing it. Autogramm brings this thinking to the foreground on songs such as "Cool Kids Radio" and "The Modern World" (which starts off with the line "I don't quite fit in"). That was one of the most appealing parts of new wave, that it seemed to turn the page on pop music by appealing to an entirely different sort of kid, one who was smart and got good grades and was tired of the scroungy, drugged-out youth scene of the '70s. I can remember the day I finally cut my shoulder-length hair and replaced my black t-shirts with rock band logos for nice button-down Oxford shirts and dress shoes--it was liberating, just like this music.

Where Autogramm gets it absolutely right is in its use of keyboards. Back then, synthesizers weren't necessarily lead instruments. They added texture and foundation, much like a bass, echoing the melody in a way that was a clear update from music of the past. Casios replaced Hammond B-3s and Rhodes electric piano, and everything became simpler and more streamlined. Jiffy's keyboards define Autogramm's sound without dominating it, and that's where you'll hear all their new wave influences shine through--everyone from Gary Numan to The Cars to even a little Devo. The fact that they do this without once being mawkish is a major event, and it's the best reason for checking out this wildly entertaining album.

Friday, February 22, 2019

James Fernando's The Lonely Sailor

Solo piano works aren't that rare in contemporary jazz, but pianist James Fernando has done something unusual with his debut solo album, The Lonely Sailor. Fernando is classically trained, as you can hear in this ambitious and sweeping work, but he aims to set down these eight instrumentals by "blending classical textures with jazz vocabulary, thus expanding the concept of jazz." Fernando feels that jazz pianists are usually limited to playing "chord changes in the left hand and melodies in the right hand," which limits the ability of the piano to cross into new frontiers of sound.

The result is a solo piano work about a sailor crossing the ocean, with subtle references to Debussy's La Mer in its rising and falling patterns, mixed with occasional melodic flourishes that conjure up a bit of Gershwin. Fernando takes this a step further by using an "electronically augmented piano," which means that the beautiful sound of his Steinway piano occasionally veers into more modern, synthesized textures. He achieves this by using contact microphones placed on the piano, and running it through computer software that he controls through a separate foot pedal. Sometimes it sounds as if Fernando is running everything through a Leslie speaker, which should be a familiar sound to most, but occasionally the distortion gets ramped up and takes on a life of its own. There are points where this becomes nightmarish and coincides, of course, with trouble on the open sea.

While this qualifies as an experimental piece, it wouldn't succeed as much without the beautiful, haunting melodies that emerge from the acoustic side of the recording. The idea of sailing across the ocean--"looking into unknown territory, looking for a better place"--is quite vivid, and it won't be difficult to imagine the waves, the weather and even the horizon. You can easily tell how those influences enter into each piece through the interface between old-fashioned melody and the completely novel way of mixing the acoustic and electronic halves of the compositions.

That makes The Lonely Sailor an unusually intriguing work, one that can appeal to both traditional ideas about beauty and a yearning to slip past the boundaries of both jazz and classical composition into a new realm of sound. The quality of that sound is equally beautiful and challenging--it's fascinating to hear the interaction of the piano, the way it excites the boundaries of the studio, and the nearly alien sound of the notes running through the software. I do love the sound of a prepared piano--one of the reasons why I'm so mesmerized by Arvo Part, for example--but Fernando has found a new way to do that, one that opens a multitude of doors for other composers.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Gary Dean Smith's Awakening

Jazz musicians are often fascinating people, and guitarist Gary Dean Smith's story is quite unique. He started off playing guitar in heavy metal bands and southern rock bands, which definitely requires a different touch on the strings than jazz. After finding a lucrative career in Los Angeles working with Joe Diorio, he gravitated toward jazz fusion styles and he currently leads a quintet named Xpansion of a Sum which features bassist Spencer Pyne, keyboardist Donald Young drummer Steve Fitzgerald and sax player Phil Reyes. All of this was nearly sabotaged by a recent surgery that impaired his vocal cords--he didn't know if he was ever going to speak again. So he grabbed his guitar and played and played and played, and after recovering his voice he set out to record this five-song EP, Awakening.

This album is a calling card, the kind you hand out when you're back and ready for action. Smith covers a lot of ground with these five songs, jumping from a clear-headed '80s R&B mode with the title song, which features a vivacious turn from vocalist Mer Sal of The Symbols, to a variety of styles, none too entrenched in the esoterica of fusion. The album even ends with satisfying organ jazz--"Lenny's Lament" is smooth and relaxed and swinging, and it's nearly lifted into straightforward rock and roll with Smith's blistering solos.

There's a clean quality to these five songs, and that's partially due to the production values of legendary bassist Jimmy Haslip (who also plays on "Lucky" with guests Jeff Lorber on keyboards and Gary Novak on drums). This is a sound that leaps out at you and is rife with the feeling that everyone is so happy to be there, playing, not long after Smith was truly worried about continuing. I suppose that word is joy, and it's tangible throughout. That '80s sound that's so vivid in the title track lessens somewhat over the course of Awakening, but there's a smoothness that follows through like a stray thread, one that demonstrates the sheer amount of experience and professionalism of Smith and his friends.

EPs can be strange--sometimes they are too brief, especially if the results are good. The listener is left wanting more, which most people think is a good thing. Awakenings, however, feels very complete. It feels like Smith set out to accomplish something, to jump back into the studio and play and create something that makes him happy. Perhaps that's why this album feels so upbeat.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

2L Recordings' Ljos

Let's play a musical game using logic. I think that 2L Recordings in Norway puts out some of the best-sounding recordings available, something that regular readers of my blog will know all too well. I also think that 2L's choral recordings are my favorite within the scope of their vast catalog. And I think that Ljos, the latest voice recording, is their best yet.

Suffice it to say, this is one special recording.

I love 2L's choral releases because of what they are--a mass of voices recorded in a huge church somewhere in Scandinavia. You can hear all the details in these recordings that would register if you were actually there in person, the separation between the massed voice sound, the rise of individual voices, and the way those voices travel throughout the big room and bounce off all the walls, rafters and pews. Ljos is a tad different from those releases, mostly since this is performed by the Fauna Vokalkvintett. If you say that last word over and over, you'll realize that there are only five voices here, and that shifts the dynamics of the recording so that you'll focus on different things this time around.

First of all, the five singers--Christina Thingvold, Silje Worquenesh Ostby Kleiven, Gudrun Emilie Goffeng, Camilla Marie Bjork Andreassen and Beate Borli Lokken--are standing in a circle when they perform, with the microphones situated above their heads. This placement results in a recording where you can clearly see where each woman is standing in relation to the others. That means you'll be able to "see" the distances between the singers as well as their distance from you. If your sound system is up to it, the realism will be eerie.

Ljos celebrates the holidays, which means I got my hands on it a little too late, but that doesn't matter. This is wintry music, as is typical for 2L, and it's still very much winter outside. "Autumn and winter bring months of cold and darkness to the North. This is why we have always so warmly embraced the Christmas season in our part of the world." That sentiment fuels the beauty of these Norwegian Christmas songs, which are mostly unknown to me. They have wonderful titles such as "I Am So Glad Each Christmas Eve," "The Most Radiant Rose" and "The Mound-Goblin," and that helps to push the celebration past the New Year and out toward the spring. It's a warm, wonderful feeling.

If I had to pinpoint what makes this album so astonishing, it's the fact that this quintet is small enough so that you can hear the vocalizations in their naked wonder. This isn't an ocean of voices washing over you, but five humans with very tangible presences forming words with their lips and their tongues. It's a natural sound, just as natural as if these women were standing in front of you and talking to you. That said, the sound they make as a group is so joyous and beautiful that you begin to love the songs themselves, as unfamiliar as they may be, and perhaps one day these melodies will be a permanent fixture in your home during the holidays. That's what I'm thinking, anyway. Highly recommended, of course.

Kevin Quinn's Paramedic

Guitarist Kevin Quinn's debut album, Paramedic, starts off on a somber note--the album is dedicated to his father, who "selflessly gave his life to save others from the World Trade Center on 9/11/01." This is interesting for a variety of reasons, but particularly because it seems to suggest that there's an upcoming generation of artists--writers, musicians, visual artists and more--who have come of age in a post-9/11 world. How will this perspective characterize their works as a whole? Paramedic is certainly not a somber album since Quinn and his cohorts engage in a lively and forward brand of jazz, one that occasionally brushes up against rock thanks to a two-guitar line-up. But it will be interesting to see how 9/11 informs these artists over the next few decades.

There are plenty of underlying signs that show Quinn is an introspective performer. Look at the album cover and you'll see an intense young man focusing on his playing, and when you sit down and listen you'll hear that same focus, the feeling that every note is carefully chosen and to lose just one would diminish the result. After receiving a degree in Jazz Studies from SUNY New Paltz, he headed off to ShapeShifter Lab in Brooklyn to start his career as a sound engineer. You can imagine him hovering over the sound board in the studio with the same serious expression as he has on that album cover. He seems like a guy who has a lot on his mind, and you can hear it in the way he plays.

As I mentioned, Paramedic features two guitarists, which is unusual for jazz. Fellow guitarist Mark Dziuba was Quinn's teacher at SUNY, and he provides a "quirky but melodic style of playing" that serves as inspiration. The two guitarists play seamlessly, despite the different tones. Sax player Dave Savitsky provides much of the jazz seasoning, so to speak--it would be a very different sound without him, which you can hear for yourself whenever he steps back and takes five. The rhythm section of drummer Jeff Siegel and bassist Ira Coleman are part of the reason why this album moves as it does, which is a major accomplishment in the wake of two guitarists. Their playing is intricate, and they never fade into the background.

As you move through Paramedic, you'll start to hear it. You'll start to hear the city and its influences, that special New York City jazz vibe that comes from busy streets filled with people from all over the world. You'll hear it when Savitsky's sax takes off and heads over the rooftops, and you'll hear it when Siegel's playing starts to sound more Latin in origin. Most of all, you'll hear it in the guitars and the way they deliver that edge, that bustling feeling like anything can happen. Quinn seems like a Serious Young Man, and there's nothing wrong with that if you can pull it together and say something with enormous feeling and conviction. He's certainly on his way, and I'll look forward to the directions he takes in the future.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Lori Goldston & Judith Hamann's Alloys

One of my favorite musical pieces of all time is Arvo Part's Fratres. It's such an emotional and edgy piece, full of sadness yet so ethereal that it sounds like it was captured by some ancient, primitive recording device. Fratres can be performed with all types of ensembles--everything from a violin and piano duet to, and this is my favorite, a dozen cellos. That sound, of a gathering of cellos, is a wondrous thing, all full of odd textures and subtle shifts in melodies that may or may not have taken place in real time. Perhaps that's why I responded to Lori Goldston and Judith Hamann's new CD, Alloys, in such an immediate and positive way. We have just two cellos here, not a dozen, but the actual numbers are obscured, just like they are in Fratres, because so many different layers of sound emerge and intertwine.

Alloys is one of those mystery discs that came out of nowhere. While Goldston is a noted cellist--she's toured with Nirvana, for instance, and can be seen on that incredible MTV Unplugged performance--there are many untested variables here such as a new recording label, Marginal Frequency, which is aiming its recordings at both audiophiles and music lovers who embrace the avant-garde. (That's me.) Alan F. Jones, a sound engineer who is based in Tracyton, Washington, handles mixing, mastering, audio restoration and sound design for film projects, so there's plenty of attention to the sonic details deep within Alloys. Working under the aegis of Laminal Audio, Jones seems to be the impetus of this project--he's the one who originally contacted me to listen to this unusual and satisfying duet.

Alloys is, among many other things, a full dissection of the cello and how it interacts with its human counterparts. There's the sounds I usually discuss, the human cues that occur simply by standing next to a musical instrument and to resonate with it. Goldston and Hamann, who hails from Australia, are like most skilled players of string instruments in the way they manipulate the angle of the bow to produce a wider canon of sound--not unlike the embouchure of a trumpet player. That's why Fratres is so hypnotic and mystical. Sounds come from the stage and you wonder where they are coming from since that was no cello, or was it? In these two extended compositions, which are largely improvised despite their exacting structures, the two cellists dig deep into the wooden caverns of their instruments and extract strange sounds you might not have heard before. It's not noise, though--it's something deeper and more guttural. It's haunting.

The cello is one of my favorite musical instruments. It has a warm, lush and romantic sound most of the time but it can take you down dark alleyways and leave you there, wondering what's going to happen next. Alloys is more dependable than that--this is a raw, windswept landscape that isn't for the passive or fearful, but Goldston and Hamann are there, holding your hand, telling you to stick close. It's a trip worth taking, even if you keep looking back over your shoulder.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Nicky Barbato Project's Every Day Is a Bad Hair Day

I can tell guitarist Nicky Barbato put this album out just for the looks on people's faces, that look that says "which kind of music is this?" Nicky's vision cuts through surf rock, jazz, '70s prog rock, funk and rockabilly--and that's just in the first song and a half. I stand by the theory that the best kind of music is the music you get from borrowing diverse ideas from others, and then throwing it back as something that's purely your own. I'm not saying this new CD, Every Day Is a Bad Hair Day, is something you've never heard before, but it's going to an easier ride for you if you're already predisposed toward Zappa, Captain Beefheart or any rock band that colors outside of the lines and onto the table and maybe a little bit on the walls.

This album takes a couple of steps further into pure goodness, however, by Barbato's incredibly dry song intros, delivered with that same ironic flatness that makes me think again of Jonathan Richman--for the second time in the last couple of weeks. A typical one of these intros goes like this: "This next one is about dating an au pair. It's called 'Au Pair.'" Secondly, the mix between Barbato's original, evocative and often hilarious arrangements are juxtaposed against some intriguing cover choices..."Dancing Queen" and "Norwegian Wood." Barbato and his core band--drummer Tony Mason, sax player Jon Irabagon and bassist Chris Anderson--perform a balancing act between these two modes, especially when the originals are often odes to the everyday such as "Space Heater" and "50 Dollar Chevy."

This is the formula for Barbato's well-known live shows, which are known for their energy and unpredictability. That's the focus of this album, Barbato's debut. Producer Irabagon and Barbato made the decision to grow the ensemble out with some string arrangements, a choir and various keyboards. That could be a risky move, and hijack some of the intimacy a smaller ensemble would have delivered. Instead, we get a mood that is closer to a big live show from a big live band, perhaps even at the holidays. This extended musical support is much of the glue that hold these songs together as a whole, a necessary thing since the shifting of gears between the songs--and within the songs--can be dizzying.

Nicky Barbato Project has one major strength, besides Barbato's ability to really shred on guitar, and that's sounding like four talented musicians who decide to meet on the weekends and play whatever they want. I've mentioned the shifts in tone, and there are times during this album where you simply lose your place. You forget how the song began. You have no idea where the song is going. And right now, in the present, you have no idea where you're at within the song. That's an exciting place to be if you're up to it, and I am.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

June Bisantz & Alex Nakhimovsky's Love's Tango

There's a happy little place in the music section of my brain where I really respond to tropical jazz, that smooth yet enormous sound that floats along with the tradewinds, that stuff made so popular in the '50s and '60s by people like Martin Denny and Henry Mancini. The perfect trigger for me, for this kind of connection, is Mancini's "Lujon," which I'd never heard until I watched the 2000 film Sexy Beast with the amazing Ben Kingsley. Or perhaps Annette Bening's character in American Beauty playing an old recording of "Bali Hai" during dinner also evokes that same sense of adventure, coupled with a supreme sense of being at rest while enjoying the spoils.

Singer June Bisantz and pianist Alex Nakhimovsky have toured together since 2005. They also love a lot of the same things--classical music, for instance, and Latin rhythms. The first few minutes of this new album is directed right at the heart of the world of tango, which shouldn't be a surprise, but you'll start to hear those same shifts in the music, toward Mancini and Denny, and that's when those emotional connections are made and it all sounds so lush and beautiful. Actually, it sounds Lush and Beautiful, because this is the type of music I think about when I hear those two words. Remember the old Calgon bubble bath commercials? Like that.

It's the classical training this duo shares--they both played violins as "their first instrument"--that really stretches out that gorgeous Tahitian sunset, the one that was filmed in Technicolor. Bisantz's voice is smooth, mellow and beckoning--by that last word I mean that she's calling out to you to pack your bags and come along. Nakhimovsky's piano is stoic and provides that stability for the soloists to shine--Norman Johnson's guitar, winning horn and string sections and Ed Fast's amazing support on all sorts of percussion. The perspective can shift depending on Bisantz--it moves in close when she's singing, and then it pulls away and spreads out when she steps back to enjoy the solos.

Love's Tango really sails when all decks are on hand, and I promise to stop using nautical terms after that. But that's the essence of this music, the big string sections, the sound of musical notes skipping along the tops of waves, the feeling of that warm wind across your face. That's not a bad thing in the middle of winter. I warned you that that a lot of tango was coming this way, and it was going to be "a thing" in 2019. Now I'm just wondering if it's a seasonal thing, a way to comfort jazz fans and get them through the winter in one piece. I see no problem with that; it's working.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

2L Recordings' Ujamaa

There's a time of the year, this time I guess, when the 2L Recordings release schedule quiets down. Most of the year there's a fairly steady flow of music from this Norwegian label, but there's always a point, right around the holidays, where I stop and suddenly wonder if I'm missing anything. But I've grown to expect the gap, and now I'm wondering if it has anything to do with the Grammy Awards. You see, Morten Lindberg gets nominated for Grammy Awards pretty much every year, mostly in tech-slanted awards such as Best Surround Sound Album. See, it's not just me raving about some tiny record label. No, 2L Recordings is a big deal now, something that's slowly carving its way into the mainstream of the US music industry.

They're getting a ton of recognition for both content and the technological advances they employ in the recording studio, but this year's Grammy coverage included a couple of stories about Morten's his dubious new record--most nominations without a win. He's 0-26, and 2L in general is 0-34. Morten and 2L have become the Susan Lucci of Norwegian audiophile record labels, which is absurd. It's more than just sounding the best of course--this year, Ujamaa lost the Grammy to Alan Parson's 35th anniversary tribute to Eye in the Sky. (I'm just laying that out there, with no judgment whatsoever.) If you listened to just a handful of 2L Recordings, random picks out of the proverbial hat, you'd be very surprised to learn that they haven't locked up this category over the last seven or eight years.

It's no longer that time of year. I've received three new releases from 2L Recordings, and they are called Ujamaa, Ljos and Lux. Together, they form a trio of performances of original compositions with similar sizes and scopes as well as similar themes. Also, there's a strong vein of folk music running through these three impressive new releases. That's part of the point, and why I haven't started disassembling Ujamaa yet. These three recordings flow so evenly, even though we're dealing with different composers and arrangers and ensembles. Ujamaa, I suppose, blooms even further once you hear all three CDs in a row.

The title of this album is either Ujamaa & The Iceberg or just Ujamaa, depending where you look. This album, performed by the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra and Choir, features two cantatas from Henning Sommerro, a Norwegian composer who was born in 1952. Ujamaa, by the way, is Swahili for "coming together in brotherhood," and this suggests a long distance bonding between two very different cultures. The thunderous rhythms in "Ujamaa" do sound less "Scandinavian" than usual until you realize that so much of Norwegian folk music, like Sami, has drumming that will remind you of Native American music. (That's just a loose interpretation, of course, since the links to Africa are clearly drawn here.) Sommerro has done something unusual, however, in placing that small folk ensemble in the middle of a big orchestra. This arrangement allows all the musicians more space to deliver all the history.

Because the approach is so expansive and varied over the course of these two cantatas, you'll hear an incredible amount of those 2L treasures--the ability to map out the walls and the ceilings of the old church where these recordings take place. For some reason this feels like one of the biggest ensembles Morten has put into a single room, except for maybe a couple of the choral recordings, and that flexibility gives this lush, tropical music from Norway a fascinating glow. As I mentioned, I listened to Ujamaa once before I also listened to Lux and Ljos, and then I went back to the start and felt like I was listening to some completely different.

I'll say one thing right now--the release of these three CDs in a row was an inspired decision.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Peter Kogan's The Green Album

The other day I mentioned that tango's going to be a big thing in 2019--at least in the world of contemporary jazz. Here's another trend that isn't slowing down one bit--the idea of a drummer leading a group, especially when that person also composes and arranges. Maybe I should write a book about this because I feel like I'm getting obsessed, but here's the thing. Am I the only one noticing and talking about this, or am I Captain Obvious and everyone else is rolling their eyes and saying yeah, we all knew that? What else you got? It might just be a matter of doing a little research into the subject, but I am intrigued with this sort-of genre of jazz.

Peter Kogan's new album is out, The Green Album, and it's very different than Weezer's The Green Album. It's far closer to the Charlie Dennard album I reviewed earlier today, strong and steady jazz that maintains an aura of calm. This doesn't challenge my drummer-as-leader thesis--drummers can insert of lot of emotion in those well-placed silences. Kogan as drummer, however, is a subtle enterprise. He's one of those drummers' drummers who avoids the loud and the fast in favor of setting the mood. Focus on him and you'll start to sense that energy he's giving to the others, through tiny details on the blocks and plenty of satisfying ride cymbal action. There's a lot of goodness hiding in that style, and you drummers will know exactly what I'm talking about when you zero in.

The Green Album's title seems to suggest an answer, believe it or not. The liner notes are a little vague, talking about the idea of green being tropical or fertile, and how global traditions in jazz have emerged in places such as Cuba and Africa and Brazil and New Orleans and deep into the heart of the US. Kogan's from Minnesota, as are many of his fifteen cohorts on this recording, and he tells a story of how jazz is "a towering oak with deep roots," which also suggest the fertile aspect of the color green. The Green Album, as far is I can tell, is ultimately about growth, the will we need to ensure jazz styles survive and endure.

That sounds almost melodramatic, but it isn't. Just recently I was eavesdropping on a couple of jazz musicians, and one of them mentioned that "everyone needs to keep playing the old stuff because we've already lost more than we'll ever know." The Green Album features eleven tracks, a mix of originals and classics such as "My Little Suede Shoes" and "The Mooche." That's when you discover Kogan's skill in the change-ups, and how he's staying authentic to the spirit of each piece of music. It also possesses a fun, casual spirit, more so than the fairly serious Deep Blue from earlier. Most importantly, it's a quiet and confidant example of a thrilling new trend, coming from an energy that only percussionists create.

Charlie Dennard's Deep Blue

It hasn't been a bad winter this year, but it's been a strange one. We've been dipping into sub-zero temps for the first time since I moved to New York, three years now, but then we'll have a couple of warm days and all the snow will melt and we'll be looking at our still green lawns and uncollected piles of dead leaves for at least a week. We had a White Thanksgiving--heck, we almost had a White Halloween, but Christmas was not white. Neither was the New Year. Then you wake up on a day like today, close to the middle of February and you wake up to a big snowstorm and suddenly everything seems to be chugging along like it should. So you stay indoors, and you listen to jazz, and the two forge together into one memory.

I think there's a strong bond between jazz and winter, and albums such as Charlie Dennard's Deep Blue prove that. Dennard is a pianist, based in New Orleans, and that seems a little odd since there isn't that much of New Orleans in these seven compositions. To me, there's the somber and reserved tone to everything, a measured calmness that feels all snowy New England to me. This is the same place, the same geographic region where the Vince Guaraldi Trio provided the legendary soundtrack for some animated TV show in the mid '60s. At least that's how I see it.

Deep Blue has all those subtleties down, knowing how to be whimsical without cracking a smile, coaxing you into floating by its side with just a shade of the hypnotic. This is impressive since most of the album is performed by a core trio that includes bassist Max Moran and drummer Doug Belote. Occasional guest appearances from a wide swath of musicians allows some of the songs to expand and contract into specific moods, but that same steady flow keeps moving forward, never veering and never looking down. That comes from the trio.

Dennard's been around for a while, spending the last 20 years playing the clubs in New Orleans with famous friends including his teacher, Ellis Marsalis. If I hear New Orleans anywhere in this album it's when there are more performers on the stage, or even a single electric guitar solo that strolls over to the blues for a song or two. Dennard's switch to organ on a couple of numbers also changes the mood significantly, one where the nights are a lot warmer. But the entire point here is that link this music has made to this day, and how this superb album will always remind me of a snowy, windy yet relatively peaceful morning.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Tony Monaco's The Definition of Insanity

Yesterday I hinted that I had already noticed a trend in contemporary jazz, but I didn't say what that was. I'll go ahead with the reveal--it's tango. I'm looking at a lot of new CD releases right now, and it's surprising how many of them are tango or at least full of Argentine influences. A lot of this music is downright beautiful, but I'm not quite done yet with last year's trend of organ trios. You know, Hammond B-3 organs, one of my favorite instruments in jazz, the big jazz trend of 2018. It seems like it's been a while since I've reviewed an organ trio, but Tony Monaco has come to my rescue with one of the most enjoyable releases in some time.

Organ trios are unusual for a couple of reasons. First, there's no bassist--the lower notes are handled by the B-3's pedals. There was a time when I thought it would be a good idea to learn how to play the B-3 since it seemed so easy. But throw in the pedals and I'll immediately crash and burn. It's not easy at all. Second, organ trios can use the Hammond in two distinct ways--as the soloist, or as the supplier of endless textures and moods, sort of like a rhythm guitarist in a rock band. Monaco has taken the road in between--he takes equal turns with drummer Tony McClung and guitarist Derek DiCenzo so that this trio is something more than a well-oiled machine--it is a singular entity in constant motion.

This ensemble, in other words, is tight. It's driving music, full of momentum and groove. Monaco has recorded ten albums up to this point, mostly of his original compositions. On The Definition of Sanity he has chosen covers, but the trio approaches them in a sly way that lead up to a moment of surprise halfway into the song--oh, this is "Truckin'" from The Dead? Or Floyd Kramer's "Last Date"? Or Leon Russell's "A Song For You"? Or "Cars Trucks Buses" from Phish? It's sort of a cliche to say that Monaco goes out of his way to make each one of these familiar songs "his," but he does. It's only once in a while, such as "Never Let Me Go," where the trio plays it straight--with Tony singing and his wife Asako Monaco taking a lush, romantic turn at the piano.

Monaco is in complete control on this album--he arranges, produces, mixes and masters, and does a great job of it. He even adds playing the piano and the accordion to his portfolio. "He's particularly proud of the high production values," the press kit explains. "He recorded it at a very high resolution to create its crystal clear sound." That's something you might find in the liner notes of an audiophile production, not a mainstream contemporary jazz release, but yes--the sound quality is magnificent. It's easy to keep it simple and pure with small ensembles, but it can be tricky to capture all those sounds a B-3 makes in addition to the mere notes. That's why I love the B-3, quite frankly, because it's such a human instrument. So far, Monaco is one of the most gifted humans I've heard when it comes to playing this wonderful organ.

Beverley Church Hogan's Can't Get Out of This Mood

I keep looking back and forth between the photos in the press kit and the bio, and I still think there's been some sort of mistake. "But now, after a nearly 60-year-detour, she's finally releasing her debut CD...despite her age--she recorded the CD when she was 83..."

I don't want to get hung up on appearances here, especially when I'm talking about music, but Beverley Church Hogan does not look 83 years old. I even checked on Google Images, hoping for a photo that wasn't taken by a professional who specializes in glamour shots and, well, let's just say Ms. Hogan possesses extraordinary genes. I shouldn't care about any of this, but here's why it's pertinent--her voice is equally well-preserved. Once singers reach a certain age, you can usually hear it in their voices. The gift is still there, but you can hear the years and it adds something unusual, something valuable to the delivery. Beverley Church Hogan still sounds like she's at her peak, and it was a good idea for her to come back to the studio after that 60-year absence.

I think I've heard this story before, about a jazz musician who started off with a promising career only to have "life get in the way." I totally get that--I was once an aspiring novelist who had to put everything on the back burner so I could support a family. Hogan grew up in Montreal, back in the days when listening to the Great American Songbook on the radio was the best way to pass by those long winters. At the age of 21 she headed to Los Angeles and was immediately offered a contract with Capitol Records. That involved considerable touring, and she was already married with a new baby. You probably already have a good idea about the rest of her story, so let's just cut to the part where she started singing in clubs once again after the kids were all grown, and she started packin' them in.

Can't Get Out of This Mood is the result of Hogan's collaboration with pianist, arranger and producer John Proulx. The two of them have been performing together for the last ten years, and he's been able to witness her graceful return to the stage. The two of them enlisted a talented ensemble that includes horn player Ron Stout, guitarist Graham Dechter, flute and sax player Doug Webb, bassist Lyman Medeiros and drummer Clayton Cameron. Most of these covers, everything from Sondheim's "Losing My Mind" to Sammy Kahn's "Time After Time," are played softly, slowly and with great care so that the silky sound of Hogan's voice can come through. It's amazing to just sit and listen to it, knowing that those years of life are still in evidence but coated with just enough honey to make you wonder if this is all really true.

"It is said that patience is a virtue," the liner notes begin, "and vocalist Beverley Church Hogan must have an abundant supply." There's almost a sadness about that, the realization that she could have been producing wonderful albums over the last few decades. That sadness disappears once you hear Hogan talk about performing into her nineties. (By the way, she's now 84.) Perhaps, as they say, the best is yet to come--and that will be truly a gift.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Dave Rudolph Quintet's Resonance

We're back to discussing drummers as leaders and how they infuse so much excitement into their arrangements. I don't know if this will be an ongoing theme like it was last year since I'm already seeing several new trends in contemporary jazz, but I stand by my thesis that drummers make great leaders because they're not as distracted by being out front with their backs turned to their ensembles. Maybe that's the key. Dave Rudolph is a Tampa-based drummer, and Resonance is his debut as leader. He was inspired by the passing of a close friend to tackle this project, and you can tell that a lot of heart has gone into this set.

This is a gentle album, surprisingly so from a drummer-leader. Rudolph's original compositions do have that drive that I talk about with such ensembles--he is a busy leader and his percussion has a vitality to it that raises the energy levels within the calm. (His kick drum work is especially subtle and satisfying.) It is a surprise, however, that so many of the lasting impressions come from guitarist LaRue Nickelson. His guitar tone will instantly remind you of Metheny and Frisell, that Midwestern dryness and openness that I often mention when bringing those two up. It's so distinct in the mix that I wasn't even surprised when the two were mentioned as "being felt in spots" in the press release.

That shouldn't suggest that Rudolph is languishing at the rear of the stage. He's assembled a quintet of dynamic musicians that also include tenor sax player Zach Bornheimer, pianist Pablo Arenciba and bassist Alejandro Arenas. But it's interesting to use terms such as "dynamic" and "calm" to describe the same musical compositions. These nine tracks offer different levels of excitement, but the engagement is consistent--there's a certain restraint surrounding this quintet even though all the boxes (dizzying solos, a keen sense of history) are checked.

Perhaps that dichotomy can be expressed by Rudolph's frame of mind throughout the recording. He's hurt by the loss of a friend, but the show must go on. There's a braveness to this music, an unusual focus by all five, but there's also a peacefulness that floats above, one that comes from savoring good memories. When the bridge between the two modes appear, it's found in Rudolph's drumming. That's why the whole drummer-as-leader dynamic is so fascinating for me. There's always a puzzle to solve, something that creates an additional level of enjoyment.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Jentsch Group No Net's Topics in American History

First of all, I have to give guitarist and composer Chris Jentsch some credit for an ingenious album cover design. You don't notice it at first because it's so, well, generic, and it took me a while to get it. Look carefully and you'll eventually notice the significance of the title, Topics in American History, and how the bland, out of focus image is straight off any number of textbooks. I didn't really notice the CD for quite some time--it just doesn't jump out at you like so many other album covers do. It's a wallflower of a design, and it's deceptive since the music inside is so smart, so unusual and so distinctly American.

The subtle joke is that Jentsch earned a degree in history from Gettysburg College, but the seriousness beyond that joke is that Jentsch has written seven distinctive jazz compositions based on historical events. That's why these complex and detailed compositions are christened with names such as "1491," "Manifest Destiny" and "Lincoln-Douglas Debates." He's named his ensemble the Jentsch Group No Net, which is also sly because it's a nonet--not including him. Everything about this album possesses that same sly humor, that cerebral playfulness where everything is more rewarding when you take a much closer look the second time. Like with that cover.

This recording was captured live at the Shapeshifter Lab and IBeam in Brooklyn, which was the premiere for this work. It's rich and heady in sound, skirting just on the intimate side of big band jazz, with plenty of solo flavors added from flutes, clarinets and horns. Jentsch's electric guitar isn't shy about its rough edges, and there are times when he's playing more rock than jazz. He has that same economy with notes and love for sustain that reminds me of David Gilmour, and the wails from his guitar often split the ideas of the piece into two symbiotic halves. Often he'll let someone else drag the machine back into the jazz lane, perhaps a nice sax solo from Jason Rigby or a fluid run on the piano by Jacob Sacks, but Jentsch will grab the wheel in jerk it back toward the fast lane whenever he has a point to make.

It's those points that make Topics such a rich work. By delving into the liner notes, you'll notice the historical context of each piece. "Tempest-Tost" is a play on the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty, for instance, a poetic reference to those huddled masses crossing the Atlantic. "Dominos" examines the strategies behind the Cold War, the "existential dread" as Jentsch describes it. One of the most intriguing subjects--or should we call it a chapter--is "Suburban Diaspora," which explores the idea that the growth of suburbia as a result of the Baby Boom created new "shared heritages." That sounds like a subject I'd love to study in more depth, and that's the most fascinating part of this excellent album, that it can teach you so much about history without uttering a single word.

Ernie Watts Quartet's Home Light

Over the last couple of days I've received a truckload of new releases, and I spent most of yesterday listening and trying to catch up--something that's easy to do when the outside temperatures struggle to reach zero. Many of these new releases are quite strange, in a wonderful way of course, and I have a feeling that February is going to be defined by the dark and murky waters of the avant-garde. Home Light, the new CD from the Ernie Watts Quartet, stands out as a beacon of normalcy in this whirlwind of the different. We're talking about four guys playing straightforward jazz with both expertise and emotion and there's a comfort to that, a feeling that despite the ominous sounds on the horizon I can still jump back and declare myself safe if I need to.

Sax player Watts is technically the leader of this foursome, but as he explains in the liner notes, "the music is a communal thing." Watts, drummer Heinrich Koebberling, bassist Rudi Engel and pianist Christof Saenger have been playing together off and on for 18 years. Each member has an almost equal role in creating music whether it's writing music or borrowing something from old friends. You'll notice this in the track listing and how the credits are distributed almost evenly between the quartet.

Despite this aura of calmness and familiarity, there is still plenty of excitement in Home Light. These four friends may be relaxed in their delivery, but they are always fully committed to the whole and never afraid of the occasional risks. Koebberling, in particular, has that restless and curious demeanor of a great jazz drummer. He rarely settles for merely keeping the beat, and his energy keeps the others on their toes. Watts is fond of his improvisations and creates phrases that slowly turn and evolve and burrow into the notes like a rabbit in winter.

As I mentioned, some of the new stuff I've received is daunting--especially in regards to fomenting sorrow and anger and sadness. Home Light is a joyful embrace from the purest of jazz, a recording that conveys the sense that these four gentleman would rather be up on a stage and performing with each other more than anything else. It's a great way to kick off February, a troublesome month in my neck of the woods (polar vortex!) and a reminder that music isn't any less vital when it only explores the happiness of being.