Monday, February 23, 2015

Charles McPherson - The Journey (Capri Records, 2015)

Alto saxophonist Charles McPherson was one of the many great jazz musicians to come out of Detroit in the 1950’s, beginning an active solo recording career in the 1960’s in addition to taking advantage of high profile sideman opportunities. He is known as one of the foremost bebop inspired saxophonists on the modern scene and is still blowing mightily on this record, in the company of Keith Oxman on tenor saxophone, Chip Stephens on piano, Ken Walker on bass and Todd Reid on drums. “The Decathexis from Youth (For Cole)” kicks things off in a splendid fashion with a jaunty, swaggering opening laying the groundwork for a jubilant ripe alto saxophone solo. Full sounding piano along with bass and drums take a propulsive interlude before the saxophones return to harmonize and conclude a rousing opener. Bop and ballads are the order of the day and the fast paced version of “Spring Is Here” charges ahead mightily with the bright sounding and locked in rhythm section backing the horns along with soloing and occasionally boiling up to push the saxophones ever forward. McPherson is also an excellent and patient ballad player, as evidenced with “Manhattan Nocturne” where the saxes weave together using the piano, bass and drums team to provide subtle shading. The leader takes a very sweet sounding solo followed by a nice bass interlude. “The Journey” opens the music back up again as the twin saxophone attack bobs and weaves around the opening riff before the tenor sax races to the front for the leading solo. McPherson takes the next solo, rooted in bebop but stretching to incorporate the length and breadth of his horn. The album is rounded out by two well played uptempo performances, “Tami’s Tune” which features an another excellent Walker solo, and the Bud Powell tribute “Bud Like” that is a blasting, twisting and complex bebop tune with a fantastic McPherson solo which references Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy and his own brilliant playing. The round robin format of solos leads to a strong tenor saxophone feature, before appropriately enough, Stephens’ piano takes center stage, followed by a brief drum solo, all of which crackle with energy. This is mainstream jazz immaculately played and lead by a master musicians who has spent his life in the musical trenches and will hopefully get some long overdue attention with this fine album. The Journey -

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Vijay Iyer - Break Stuff (ECM, 2015)

Pianist and composer Vijay Iyer’s most recent album for the ECM label shows him reuniting with his long standing trio of Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums. They present a wide ranging program of originals, adaptations from a jazz and spoken word project and jazz standards from John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Billy Strayhorn. On this album Iyer looks to explore the breaks and spaciousness that can develop within songs and between musicians. Previously the trio had been invited by the novelist Teju Cole to accompany him on a reading of his novel Open City and Iyer was particularly impressed by the evocative description of birds within the work. Pieces of that overall suite are interspersed through this album with the performances “Starlings”, “Geese” and “Wrens.” The music of famous jazz composers is one of the highlights of this album, ranging from the fragile and contemplative reading of Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count” to the very fast version of John Coltrane’s “Countdown” which starts of solo and builds ever faster as the other members of the trio join into the fold. Iyer has stated that Thelonious Monk is one of his greatest inspirations and this is shown quite readily on their version of Monk’s “Work.” The make the song their own by ducking and weaving around in their improvisations, then hinting at the melody and working off of it. “Hood” takes the idea of breaks even further, incorporating aspects of hip-hop into the music which takes things in a deeply rhythmic direction. This was a very well done album, one that did not focus on soloing, but rather the interaction between the musicians and their engagement with the material. They take the music and use it as a basis for evolving and exploring by deeply listening. Break Stuff -

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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Mostly Other People Do the Killing - Hannover (Jazzwerkstatt, 2015)

Hard on the heels of their divisive Blue album released last fall this follow up is a live album that plays to their strength as a forward thinking but accessible band that has one thing that lifts them over many of their colleagues: a wonderful sense of humor. This was lost during their atom by atom reconstruction of the Miles Davis Kind of Blue LP, but here they are on home turf, ripping through lengthy medleys of their own original music, as always mostly named after small towns in Pennsylvania. MOPDTK consists of Jon Irabagon on saxophones, Moppa Elliott on bass, Kevin Shea on drums and Peter Evans on trumpet. The medley of “Pen Argyl / Ulysses at Troy / Andover / Blue Ball / Effort, Patience, Diligence” runs over thirty minutes and shows the near clairvoyant telepathy that exists between the band members which allows them to shift between different tempos and themes taking cues from each other and allowing for both solo space and collective playing. The winkingly fun “Is Granny Spry” leads off the next collection of MOPDTK themes including “Dunkelbergers / Baden / Little Hope” allowing each member of the band to make their own statement and even adding some light electronics for spice. The relatively compact “President Polk” ends the first set of this live recording, before the band returns to pull out all of the stops with “My Delightful Muse / Hideaway / A Night in Tunisia” which shows their ability to work with different speeds and thematic material, as well as using a bracing shot of a jazz standard to conclude. The audience seems a little bewildered with the music and the between song banter, but in a good way. This is a group that is always full of surprises (see Blue) but is at the core a group of wonderful and highly talented musicians dedicated to making their own original statement. Hannover -

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Sunday, February 08, 2015

Jeremy Pelt - Tales, Musings and Other Reveries (HighNote, 2015)

Like clockwork, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt releases one album per year of solid mainstream jazz. He has flirted with electronic instruments in the past, but this is an purely acoustic album featuring Simona Premazzi on piano, Ben Allison on bass plus Billy Drummond and Victor Lewis on drums. “Glass Bead Game” by Clifford Jordan was an inspired choice to open this album, with the group playing in a fast and urgent fashion, and spotlighting some excellent percussive piano and drumming which lead the charge. Pelt plays with a raw, pungent sound, cutting through the heavy drumming like a snowplow and developing an empathetic relationship with the drummers along the lines of Miles Davis and Tony Williams. The disc alternates between fast paced performances and ballads like “Vonetta” where lush and light piano notes fall like a gentle shower, laying a path for Pelt’s clear and patient trumpet tone. “Ruminations on Eric Garner” is dedicated to the Staten Island man who was killed by a New York City police officer in 2014, sparking a wave of protests. The full band comes blasting out hard and fast, featuring strong punching trumpet and heavy drumming. The twin drummer setup was an excellent choice, paying dividends throughout. Drummond and Lewis’ drumming is excellent on this album as a whole, but they reach a phenomenal peak here, before the music is drawn down to a majestic and respectful conclusion. Urgent piano and a restrained and polished trumpet sound open “Nephthys” before the drummers stoke the fire once more and the band really starts to burn, making way for a ripe piano solo over propulsive bass and drums. “The Old Soul of the Modern Day Wayfarer” concludes the album by setting up a march like feel with piano and rattling percussion before the drums take flight and the rest of the band follows. Drummond and Lewis are two excellent drummers and while it would have been easy for them to dominate the proceedings, this is really a group effort a a whole, and Pelt’s fine compositions lay the goundwork for a very good album. Tales, Musings and other Reveries -

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Thursday, February 05, 2015

Chris Potter - Invisible Cities (ECM, 2015)

Chris Potter’s signing to the ECM label has marked a distinctive turning point in his evolution as a saxophonist and composer. While on his earlier playing as a bandleader or as a sideman with the likes of Dave Holland and Pat Metheny, he took a “traditional” modern jazz approach, and beautifully so, growing into one of the finest soloists in jazz on tenor saxophone. This is his second album at meeting the unique ECM aesthetic head on and it shows remarkable open mindedness on his part to embrace new musical concepts and settings. On this album, there’s an interesting symbiosis between his Underground group, Adam Rogers on guitar, Craig Taborn on keyboards and Nate Smith on drums with a wider cast, made up of a string quartet, two bassists, vibes and marimba. It’s an audacious concept, beginning with “Lament” where Potter picks his spots, not overwhelming the proceedings, but adding a wonderful soft ballad tone at times recalling Johnny Hodges or Ben Webster. One of his most risk-taking propositions follows, the four-part suite “Invisible Cities.” It is kind of a shock hearing him in this string laden dreamy setting, with “Part 1: Compassion” being something of a stoic ballad where he patiently navigates the almost but not quite sappy strings, building a majestic solo statement, followed by some tasteful guitar. Dancing plucked strings usher in "Part 2: Dualities" and nimble playing from all concerned launches Potter on a more organic solo flight, followed by a nifty marimba solo from Steve Nelson. “Part 4: Rebuilding” concludes the suite with a very wide scale cinematic performance with a fine saxophone solo in the middle and a hopeful air all around. “Firefly” works with swelling strings to propel saxophone and guitar to flight, while “Sky” is a mini-suite in it’s own right moving through sections of strings, saxophone and showing a distinct Pat Metheny influence in it’s open structure and wide palette of sound colors. I must confess with regret that "with strings" albums are not my favorite. The arrangements here are ambitious and Potter's playing is simply magisterial throughout, but I found the strings to be a distraction. Your milage may vary. Imaginary Cities -

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Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Sleater-Kinney - No Cities to Love (Sub Pop, 2015)

Another surprising development in the latter half of the 2014 music year was the news that the legendary punk/rock (associated with Riot Grrrl) band Sleater-Kinney would reform to release an album and play selected concert dates. They were one of the finest rock and roll bands of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s with critic Greil Marcus going so far as to call the best band in America in Time Magazine. The three members went their separate ways in 2006 with guitarist and vocalist Carrie Brownstein transitioning to a popular television career, Janet Weiss as a freelance drummer to a number of bands and guitarist and vocalist Corin Tucker to raising a family and to embarking on a solo career. This album is really a triumphant return, the songwriting is top notch and the band sounds as tight as ever musically and vocally. Topical songs are a focus of much of the music with the leadoff song “Price Tag” whose prescient lyrics about trying to make ends meet while doing a medium wage job for a soulless corporation and keeping a family together sounds like something out of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed. “No Cities to Live” looks at the transitory nature of the American landscape and the urban culture juxtaposed by the threat of annihilation by forces beyond any regular person’s control. It’s not all that heavy though, “Hey Darling” is poppier song, before blasting into blistering takeoff. The love and relationship song “A New Wave” and “Bury Our Friends” takes a deeply rhythmic approach, with soaring vocal harmonies and guitars intertwining with pummeling and forceful drumming. It’s great that they are able to slip back into their distinctive sound like a comfortable pair of old shoes, but this is far from an exercise in nostalgia or a cash in. This band truly has something to say and an urgent need to say it. This was a short album, little over a half an hour long, but that sounds just right, giving the music a lean distilled punch. Was it worth the eight year weight? Oh yes. No Cities To Love -

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Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Jon Lundbom and Big Five Chord - Jeremiah (Hot Cup, 2015)

Guitarist Jon Lundbom is a fascinating figure on the modern jazz scene, releasing subversive and fascinating music. His memorable compositions and the generous amount of solo time allotted to his accompanists make for music that is strong and vibrant throughout. He is accompanied on this album by Jon Irabagon on soprano sax, Bryan Murray on tenor and balto (hybrid baritone/alto) saxophones, Moppa Elliott on bass, Dan Monaghan on drums, Sam Kulik on trombone and Justin Wood on alto saxophone and flute.“The Bottle” opens the album with strong, punishing saxophones, flinty guitar with powerful drumming. This is heavy stuff and the band really bears down with some awesome raw caustic saxophone goaded on by fine percussion leading to completely epic and over the top joy. Blending horns swirl saxophones ebb and flow on “Frog Eye” building strength and power in a wild and woolly collective improvisation. Lundbom takes a knotty guitar solo backed by splashy drumming. Harmonizing horns open “Scratch Ankle” before they throw caution to the wind blowing hard with some epic drumming forcing their hand. The horns joust and parry looking for an opening, taking the raw and wild sound to exciting new levels. “First Harvest” slows things down with soft, subtle near ballad guitar, horns appear, rather more gentle and build with majesty, leading to a tenor solo with brushed percussion. The horns build quite an edifice, strong and structurally sound. “Lick Skillet” goes off the beaten path for a spell with guttural sounds that bounce and fracture, saxophone gymnastics of pops ands slurs before the full band kicks in, making way for a spotlight for nimble light percussion and flute, Strong filling-rattling drumming opens “W.P.S.M.” then saxophones and drums develop a ripe and fun collective improvisation, followed by a section of guitar and saxophone with the drummer hot on their heels, very exciting. This is great stuff and the sense of enjoyment and exploration is palpable. Squalls of saxophone and guitar are intercut with bass solos, making wondrous music. Lundbom finally takes center stage on “Screamer” initiating full out guitar led onslaught. Horns punch brutally before laying out for a reverberating guitar feature, stretching out nicely abetted by strong drumming. There are breaks for a slower section of bass and saxophone before the full band returns for a strong conclusion. This was a tremendously fun and exciting album to listen to, where Lundbom continually challenges the listener and the band, getting great results in the process. Jeremiah -

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