Saturday, February 06, 2016

Book: Slumberland by Paul Beatty (Bloomsbury USA, 2009)

Just before the end of communism, Ferguson W. Sowell also known as DJ Darky has done the impossible: he has concocted the perfect beat. Or, it would be perfect, but it needs just one last thing, a few new notes from the legendary and currently missing avant-garde jazz saxophonist Charles Stone or as the DJ's know him, The Schwa. Powell has fallen on hard times, he won't sell the nearly perfect beat, instead scraping through by scoring pornographic films. One day a mysterious videocassette arrives from East Berlin, a film of man-on-chicken carnality, but beyond that is the music scoring it. Tones of saxophone that shouldn't exist in nature, that seem to stop time and curl space upon itself, and it could only be made by the Shwa. Armed with the "chicken fucking tape" he gets himself hired at the Slumberland bar in Berlin, the return address on the cassette's envelope. He's hired as a Jukebox Sommelier, using everything from old school rhythm and blues to bebop, disco and beyond to transform the bar and its patrons as the Berlin Wall crumbles and the world is irrevocably changed. It is through this backdrop of nonstop music, hedonism, and the strangeness of being a black man in Germany, he finds the Shwa, and then music itself is irrevocably changed. This was a great novel, alternately hysterically funny and deeply poignant, Beatty's characters are very memorable and his story within a story, the question of the black man becoming passé in the post-modern world is fascinating and thoughtful with Stone and Sowell seeing the world through the lenses of different generations and perspectives. This is definitely a must read for music fans and readers who appreciate thoughtful humor and satire. Slumberland: A Novel -

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Friday, February 05, 2016

Rich Halley 4 - Eleven (Pine Eagle, 2015)

For the past several years saxophonist Rich Halley has reliably released a series of excellent acoustic jazz albums with his quartet consisting of Michael Vlatkovich on trombone, Clyde Reed on bass and Carson Halley on drums. The music is reminiscent of the early Ornette Coleman quartet, with short themes giving way to wide open improvisational fields for the band to explore collectively or individually. “Retroactive” opens the album with a bracing theme and Carson Halley’s powerful drumming pushing Vlatkovich’s solo spot. The elder Halley takes the helm for a spiraling saxophone solo, pushing the tempo faster, before his son takes a deeply percussive solo and eases the music outward. “Radioactive” follows, just as strong, with torrid and ripe saxophone soloing over strong and supple bass. Tight and loud trombone and drums follow, and the music settles into a fine concluding groove. “The Dugite of Strikes” has an urgent tone of bowed bass and harmonized horns before Halley breaks out with a complex saxophone feature that grows in power and majesty. Flighty horns usher in “Glimpses Through the Fog” and they grow faster as Carson Halley’s drum playing reaches John Bonham like intensity and drives his father’s saxophone ever forward. There is a well thought out trombone feature supported by excellent elastic sounding bass, before Halley comes back with some of his freeist saxophone playing on the album before the music suddenly drops into a closing melodic coda. “Adjusting the Throughput” also comes rampaging out of the gate with the band plowing forward, Halley’s fast saxophone solo climbing skyward with a fiery blast, and bass and drums equally fast and powerful full band back and fast out. “Convolution” develops a proud strutting theme, and features some a biting saxophone tone and thick bass, which explore the musical landscape before spitfire trombone and rapid fire drumming develop rhythms that work together well. “The Animas” comes bounding out with strong brass and drums letting Halley’s saxophone loose and he gets a freer sensibility, sounding raw and excoriating in an extended in a very impressive solo. Vlatkovich‘s strong trombone follows with hollow sounding drums making for a cool combination. This is a very good jazz album, playing in a freebop manner that in continuously exciting. It is to Rich Halley’s credit that he has developed a working band that has great empathy for each other but never falls into patterns, always keeping the music fresh and invigorating. Eleven -

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Thursday, February 04, 2016

Naima - Bye (Cuneiform, 2016)

Naming themselves after one of John Coltrane’s most beloved compositions, the Spanish trio Naima is an electro-acoustic jazz band reminiscent in some ways to the greatly missed Esbjorn Svensson Trio in their use of electronics integrated within an acoustic trio. The band consists of Enrique Ruiz on piano and electronics, Luis Torregrosa on drums, and Rafael Ramos Sania on bass. The album opens with “A Father’s Anthem” which has dark bowed bass, and a fractured drumbeat accentuated by droplets of piano notes. “Bye” has a swirl of windy electronics mirroring the trio in a light fashion that recalls the post-rock group Tortoise. The electronics swirl ahead while the acoustic trio remains underneath before surging to a dynamic conclusion. The fast and tight “Al Llegar Sabríamos Tanto Como Ella” moves dynamically from tense speedy areas to sections of more openness with spare piano and a very nice bass solo. The electronic at work on “Future Imperfect” are loud and grinding, ominous and imperious. The trio is thrown up against it and plays through the slabs of raw sound. The science fiction nature of the piece moves forward as the group has to rattle and clank to keep up with the massive edifice of sound that warping the space and time around it. “Les Debris” also has an ominous and cinematic feel, with heavy drumming, piano and electronics worrying about the nature of the music. The dark, shadowy nature of the music continues with Ruiz’s piano having a dark pitch and covering the musical window live a heavy velvet drape, as the trio navigates the rainy pre-dawn streets. The sun finally peeks through on “Animal Chin” a Jaga Jazzist cover, with the music becoming upbeat, uptempo and happy. It is a bright interlude in the previously dark and ponderous music. The slamming drums and screeching electronics drive the music home. A hanging piano chord is met with skull crushing drums on their version of Elliott Smith’s “Can't Make a Sound” where the sadness that permeated Smith’s short life is echoed in the music as the music slows to a haunting motif only to be slammed back against the rocks again like the inexorable tide of his mysterious death. An alternate take of “A Father’s Anthem” has a slow, spectral opening before Ruiz adds heft to his piano playing and Torregrosa develops a complex flutter to his percussion. The music then devolves into chaos with blasting dark piano chords and fast drumming ultimately giving way to electronic distortion like a transmission from a spacecraft being lost to static. This is an interesting group; their music is electro-acoustic and has a flair for the dramatic, with dark textures and tight rhythms. Bye -

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Monday, February 01, 2016

Bill Frisell - When You Wish Upon a Star (Sony Masterworks, 2016)

Guitarist Bill Frisell has made several albums in the past that have examined different parts of the American experience from the Old West to country music, the blues and beyond. On this album he examines classic film and television music with mixed results in the company of longtime associates Petra Haden on vocals, Eyvind Kang on viola, Thomas Morgan on bass and Rudy Royston on drums and percussion. The music is played immaculately and that is not part of the problem, it’s just that the arrangements on some of the songs lead a bit to be desired. There is a yearning to the instrumental two-part “To Kill a Mockingbird” which fits well with the story it echoes, but following that with the James Bond theme “You Only Live Twice” is a bit of a shock. The pace is slow and languid, and Haden’s vocals drift over the music before rising to a crescendo, and then dropping out into a dreamy section for the band.  This is Haden’s best performance as she is allowed to really breathe dynamics into the music and have the band follow and support her. The theme from “Psycho” is split into two short parts as well and it is one of the highlights of the album, with complex viola, excellent drumming and wordless vocals combining for a sense of unease and dread, before turning on a dime into a haunted aftermath. The theme from “Bonanza” is right up Frisell’s alley and he makes the most of it playing a twangy guitar lead with the rest of the band following him for a short and sweet performance that could have gone on much longer. “As a Judgment” has a great ominous opening, with shrieks of viola and jabs of guitar and drums. There is a dark feeling of danger in the sweeping grandeur of the performance, which lies in stark contrast to the poppier moments. Another winner is “Farewell to Cheyenne” with a clear western feel, loping along on horseback, as Haden sings wordlessly la-la-la and there is a light and jaunty feel to the performance, with Frisell taking an old time understated country and western solo. “Tales From the Dark Side” is from an animated special that Frisell worked on before and is really feels like the dark side as he really leads the band thorough a terrifying and truly awake section of the album. Although these are really nice moments, I must say that I can’t get behind the versions of “Moon River” and “When You Wish Upon A Star.” The schmaltz level is just off of the charts and while it doesn’t completely ruin my enjoyment of the album is does lend the album a duality between the easy listening music and the more challenging fare. Frisell’s music is very frustrating for me because I feel that it has become lighter and less substantial, although I remain a fan. He’s the only musician to win album of the year twice from me for Silent Comedy (2013) and The Intercontinentals (2003) so I’ll continue to wade through the dross in hope for another gem. When You Wish Upon a Star -

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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Jon Davis - Changes Over Time (Posi-Tone, 2016)

Pianist Jon Davis has performed in a wide variety of settings from rockish fusion to big bands and jam sessions. On this recording he leads a fine mainstream trio with Ugonna Okegwo on bass and Jochen Rueckert on drums. They open the album with the classic Mal Waldron composition “Soul Eyes” with the band taking the music at a medium loping tempo. The music is played in a very classy and melodic fashion and the band has a rich sound that takes up quite a bit of space. “Just For Fun” has a subtle cymbal rhythm from Rueckert leading Davis to respond with strong percussive piano that drives the band forward and swings hard with rippling and confident playing from the keyboard. There is an excellent bright sound to this performance that carries through to the end. The title track “Changes Over Time” has some excellent thick bass from Okegwo and develops a bouncy and funky vibe, with the trio playing jazz that is expressive and straightforward with good humor. Rueckert has a short drum interlude, before Davis takes command with hard charging deeply percussive and commanding piano that drives the performance to its conclusion. The wonderfully titled “Jazz Vampire” has Davis taking a slow solo opening probing the music before the bass and drums enter and begin to ramp up the pace. Davis leads with some fast rippling piano and the bass and drums respond making for a full band breakout and an electrifying performance. “It’s for Free” bumps things up again with a nice rhythm from drums and excellent insistent and propulsive bass pushing everything forward, and Davis develops a powerful touch that is akin to McCoy Tyner’s early 70’s recordings, layering a blizzard of notes over the proceedings. This was a very well done and accessible mainstream jazz album. Davis has a powerful and exciting way of playing that keeps the music moving briskly forward and Okegwo and Rueckert complement him very well, either supplementing or soloing the group works as a united whole and deserves to be heard. Changes Over Time -

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Friday, January 29, 2016

Matt Mitchell - Vista Accumulation (Pi Recordings, 2015)

Pianist Matt Mitchell has become one of the most in demand musicians in jazz, playing with the likes of Dave Douglas, Tim Berne and Rudresh Mahanthappa. This is his second album as a leader for Pi, a double CD that allows him to stretch out and explore longer forms of his original compositions. Chris Speed on clarinet and tenor saxophone, Dan Weiss on drums and Chris Tordini on bass join him on this album. The music is complicated but accessible and Mitchell uses Speed’s hollow, open sounding clarinet and alternately soft and gritty tenor saxophone to great effect in setting the tone for these performances. “Utensil Strength” is very powerful, moving into a dynamic format that begins with deeper toned saxophone and then an eerie middle section of uneasy calm punctuated by Tordini’s creatively raw bowed and strummed bass. This develops into a beautiful duet with Mitchell who adds quiet drops of piano to the proceedings. The full band comes together at this languid but attractive pace, before taking their bows and closing the piece. Speed brings a gravelly form of saxophone to the intricate “Wearing the Wig of Atrophy” where the music deals with tension and release with a section of bass and milder saxophone followed by crystalline piano shimmering through the music, that is quietly emotional but never melodramatic. “Hyper Pathos” sets a tone of mystery, with mummers of percussion bubbling underneath and the other musicians harmonizing above. There is a sad quality to the music but never pity, and Speed’s clarinet is particularly melancholy as if he is pining for something lost that can never be regained, as Mitchell’s piano swells around him. “The Damaged Center” comes out of the gate hard with the full band pulling, but Speed is the key, jabbing and weaving his way through the music with Tordini playing thick powerful bass alongside him. They edge faster in a very exciting manner, really pushing and the music surges forward. Mitchell drives the band forward from the lower end of the keyboard and everybody responds, as the music keeps getting heavier, and then he develops one of his best solos on the album. This is a double album that doesn’t feel overlong in the slightest, Mitchell’s compositions and the band’s performances are very exciting and consistently engaging throughout. It’s a group of team players, and Mitchell is not flashy but thoughtful, allowing his music to speak for itself in a very affirming fashion. Vista Accumulation -

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