Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Masabumi Kikuchi: Hanamichi

  The late Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi seems to have entranced everyone who ever met him or played with him. As saxophonist Greg Osby has noted, Kikuchi “can’t, or won’t, contour his thinking or approach to fit somebody’s ideal. You call him because you want what he offers.” He had a long career in Japan and the United States, and performed frequently with drummer Paul Motian starting in 1990. After hearing Kikuchi perform with Motian at the Village Vanguard in 2011, Sun Chung, a producer for ECM Records, struck up a friendship with the pianist that lasted until Kikuchi passed away in July 2015. Chung tried several times to organize a recording session, and was finally successful in December 2013. The resulting album, Hanamichi, is Kikuchi’s final studio recording, a solo effort. The program starts, improbably enough, with Mabel Wayne’s 1928 tune Ramona. This atomized rendition puts plenty of space into what was written as a waltz, allowing the listener to concentrate on Kikuchi’s gentle touch and mindful improvising. Up next is a piece that’s much more familiar to music fans, Gershwin’s Summertime. Kikuchi takes his time with the song, freely exploring the rich harmonies. Another well-known standard, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s My Favorite Things, appears in two versions. The first is loose and free, a meditation on the song’s structure. The second rendition is much sparser and supremely elegant. Ending the disc is Little Abi, a peaceful ballad written for his daughter, and per Kevin Whitehead’s informative liner note, a staple of his sets for decades. This version invests it with a nearly overwhelming tenderness. The album’s title comes from Kabuki theater. A hanamichi is a narrow raised platform which crosses the auditorium and connects the back of the hall to the stage. Sun Chung tells us in a liner note that in contemporary Japanese, the term “indicates the perfect way to end a career, the honorable way to leave a stage ...” This deeply inspirational music is a fitting capstone to Kikuchi’s remarkable life in music, and an impressive start to Chung’s new Red Hook Records imprint. Highest recommendation! 

Red Hook 1001; Masabumi Kikuchi (p); NYC, December 2013; Ramona/ Summertime/ My Favorite Things I/ My Favorite Things II/ Improvisation/ Little Abi; 41:08.  redhookrecords.com

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Dan McCarthy: A Place Where We Once Lived

  Vibraphonist Dan McCarthy, originally from Toronto, moved to New York in 2004, but returned to Canada in 2019 to pursue an advanced degree in music. With the intrepid team of Thomas Morgan on bass and Rudy Royston on drums, McCarthy recorded A Place Where We Once Lived in Brooklyn the day before he left town. Morgan and Royston, who have been playing in a trio with guitarist Bill Frisell for a few years now, bring their sensitivity, careful mutual listening, and resourcefulness to this elegant and moody program of McCarthy’s original compositions. There’s also one cover, a version of bassist Steve Swallow’s I’m Your Pal from Gary Burton’s 1967 album Lofty Fake Anagram. This lovely melody receives a tender reading from the trio with an appropriate emphasis on Morgan’s sturdy bass. The influential vibraphonist Gary Burton is well-respected for his technical innovations, and McCarthy dedicates Desert Roads to him. One of the set’s many highlights, the piece is gentle and genial to start. The trio slowly accelerates the tempo as they build up quite a head of steam, extending the groove to a bit over eight minutes. Another high point is reached with the taut Sombre Sleep, a gem of carefully balanced swirling vibes and bass with beautifully modulated drumming by Royston that makes the music ebb and flow unpredictably. The general mood of the disc is wistful and pensive, as befits someone on the cusp of big changes, but the trio channels whatever anxiety McCarthy might be feeling into some lovely and distinctive playing, including three compositions that serve as interludes between more developed tunes. The uptempo Go Berserk is a feature for Royston’s dynamic drumming, ably shadowed by Morgan’s simple bass lines and McCarthy’s clouds of notes. Goodnight Sweet Cat, which concludes the program, is simple and low-key and utterly beautiful. A Place Where We Once Lived is a pleasure from start to finish, and is heartily recommended. 

Cat & Turtle no#; Dan McCarthy (vib) Thomas Morgan (b) Rudy Royston (d); February 27, 2019; Sonder/ Trail Marker/ A Short Story About Birds/ Cloud Hopping/ A Place Where We Once Lived/ A Short Story About Distance/ Desert Roads (For Gary Burton)/ I’m Your Pal/ Sombre Sleep/ A Short Story About Quiet/ Go Berserk/ Goodnight Sweet Cat; 55:20. www.vibraphonedan.com

Brandon Seabrook & Simon Nabatov: Voluptuaries

  The on-line Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Voluptuaries as people “whose chief interests are luxury and the gratification of sensual appetites.” Those “sensual appetites” surely include the deep pleasures of making purely improvised music, and Brandon Seabrook & Simon Nabatov take a day of recording at Köln’s well-regarded LOFT to prove the point. Since his 2003 debut on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, guitarist Seabrook has recorded with a broad range of sonic explorers, including trumpeter Peter Evans, alto saxophonist Jeremy Udden, bassist Ben Allison, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. Pianist Nabatov, who made his first record in a trio with bassist Ed Schuller and drummer Paul Motian back in 1986, when Seabrook was just a couple of years old, has an impressive résumé that includes work with the likes of clarinetist Perry Robinson, trumpeter Franco Ambrosetti, trombonist Nils Wogram, and many others. There’s a relatively calm core to the pair’s improvisations for the first few pieces, as they grow accustomed to one another. The combination of Seabrook’s biting and unabashedly electrified guitar sound with his penchant for angular leaps between notes and plenty of silence gives an improvising partner plenty to work with - or against. By the time the raucous Squalid Simplicities rolls around, the sparring is aggressive and noisy. The ebb and flow of Foam is a highlight, as a detuned Seabrook and a pumped-up Nabatov chase one another in sound. The pianist takes the lead on Grosbeak with expansive chords and lush harmonies. Seabrook joins the fray with clipped tones and bursts of pure noise with plenty of pedal effects. As the disc proceeds, it’s obvious that Seabrook and Nabatov are thoroughly attuned to one another. Their quick reaction times and a shared sense of forward motion mean that the music always sounds like a genuine duet and not merely two players side by side with very little interaction. While it’s not the kind of music where the details will stay with you afterwards, it’s a thorough delight to listen to, from the fragmented call and response of Daggers to the startlingly beautiful title track that concludes the disc. Happily recommended. 

Leo CD LR 894; Brandon Seabrook (g) Simon Nabatov (p); Köln, Germany, November 4, 2019; Daggers/ Who Never Dies/ Dust Storms/ Fresnel Lenses/ Squalid Simplicities/ Foam/ Grosbeak/ Spirit of the Staircase/ Diamonds and Dust/ Vex Me/ La Femme Makita/ Voluptuaries; 48:37. www.leorecords.com


Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Art Pepper: Unreleased Art Pepper, Vol. 11: Atlanta

  I’m sorry I never had the opportunity to take in a performance by the great alto saxophonist Art Pepper. But Laurie Pepper, his widow, co-author, and sometimes recording engineer, has been keeping his music in circulation by issuing a series of carefully curated live performances on her Widow’s Taste label. The latest is Unreleased Art Pepper, Vol. 11: Atlanta, featuring Pepper’s quartet with Milcho Leviev on piano, Bob Magnusson on bass, and Carl Burnett on drums, and it’s almost like being in the room.. Recorded by Laurie Pepper with a Sony cassette recorder, the sound is surprisingly good, probably thanks to both optimum microphone placement and the patient ministrations of studio whiz Wayne Peet. In addition to the glorious sound of Art Pepper’s alto saxophone on a good night with an appreciative audience in attendance, this release includes a generous dose of his inimitable stage patter. He talks about playing standards before messing around with Avalon, about Straight Life, his autobiography that had just been released, and more. Pepper loved to play fast, as pieces like Blues For Blanche and Straight Life prove, and I love that, but his ballad playing is what really gets to me. The quartet’s lengthy excursion on Patricia, an older Pepper composition written for his daughter, is one of the set’s absolute highlights. It’s not always easy to play for more than 10 minutes at such a slow tempo, but the music never flags. The musical joys of the Widow’s Taste series are amplified by Laurie Pepper’s liner notes, full of reminiscences of Art, stories about the musicians, the songs, and the tours. Because this unit was Art’s first regular group, lasting from 1978 to 1981, Laurie has included profiles of the various ensembles that he led until his death in June 1982. Volume 11 is a first-rate release, adding another fascinating chapter to the singular story of Arthur Pepper. Definitely recommended. 

Widow’s Taste 11/2020; Art Pepper (as) Milcho Leviev (p) Bob Magnusson (b) Carl Burnett (d); Atlanta, GA, May 17, 1980; Disc 1 (71:01): Blues For Blanche/ Talk: Band intros/ The Trip/ Talk: about playing standards/ Avalon/ Talk: about “Patricia”/ Patricia/ Talk: about “Landscape”/ Landscape/ Talk: about new book/ Straight Life. Disc 2 (40:34): Untitled #34/ Talk: about How Milcho Escaped from Bulgaria/ A Song for Richard/ Talk: about Swing Journal/ Mambo Koyama. artpepper.bandcamp.com

Sunday, February 21, 2021

David Kikoski with Boris Kozlov: Sure Thing

  Pianist David Kikoski and bassist Boris Kozlov have shared a lot of stages and recording studios since they first appeared together as members of the Mingus Big Band at the end of the 1990's. So it makes perfect sense for the pair to record as a duo, and the resulting session, Sure Thing, is a real delight from start to finish. As Kozlov told Bill Milkowski for the liner notes, “there’s a lot of history at this point. And when you play together for a long time you learn how a person thinks, how things flow ... it’s this familiarity that makes it really pleasurable to play together.” The program includes four of Kikoski’s evocative compositions, plus the Jerome Kern standard that gives the album its name, Chick Corea’s Quartet #1, John Coltrane’s Satellite, and the set’s biggest surprise, Keith Emerson’s Fugue from “The Endless Enigma.” Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Trilogy album, released in 1972, was a big Kikoski favorite when he was a pre-teen. He’s always wanted to play the fugue section, and here it is, deftly arranged for the duo and lovingly performed. Other highlights include the gentle sparring on Kikoski’s Strength for Change (previously known as New Old Ballad), the vigorous and expansive rendition of the Corea tune, and the duo’s romp through the Coltrane number. Kozlov notes that he heard Kikoski playing Satellite in a club years ago, and then started practicing the piece “like mad.” All that practice has paid off handsomely here, with an impressive solo and powerful accompaniment to Kikoski’s elaborations of the melody. The pair engages in the most-freewheeling dialogue of the session on Winnie’s Garden, a Kikoski tune based on the popular changes of Sweet Georgia Brown. They’re flying high on this one, the last tune of the disc and the final tune they recorded on a winter’s day in 2016. The teaming of Kikoski and Kozlov offers a bold partnership of improvisational invention, and Sure Thing is cheerfully recommended. 

HighNote HCD 7336; David Kikoski (p) Boris Kozlov (b); Brooklyn, NY, February 3, 2016; B Flat Tune/ E/ Fugue from “The Endless Enigma”/ Strength for Change/ Quartet #1/ Satellite/ Sure Thing/ Winnie’s Garden; 57:11. www.jazzdepot.com

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Franco Ambrosetti Band: Lost Within You

  I was quite taken with Long Waves, a 2019 release by trumpet veteran Franco Ambrosetti, so I was glad to receive his new disc in the mail. I’m even happier to report that the rapturous Lost Within You by the Franco Ambrosetti Band is just as deeply satisfying as its predecessor. Recorded almost exactly a year later, the new release gathers the same world-class musicians that appeared on Long Waves: pianist Uri Caine, guitarist John Scofield, bassist Scott Colley, and drummer Jack DeJohnette, with Renee Rosnes, new to Ambrosetti’s orbit, substituting for Caine on 5 tracks. Ambrosetti, who first recorded as a leader back in 1965 for the Durium label, continues to exude enthusiasm and display his endless improvisational imagination. Mostly heard on flugelhorn here, his clear, burnished sound is a delight throughout the lengthy set. Horace Silver’s Peace, given a relaxed rendition with DeJohnette on piano, is the first number in this well-chosen ballad-oriented program, including a pair of new tunes by Ambrosetti. His tender Silli in the Sky, with an echo of My Funny Valentine, is dedicated to his wife (and executive producer), while the charming Dreams of a Butterfly takes its inspiration from a story by Jorge Luis Borges. The band’s delicately paced eleven minute foray into the classic Body and Soul is stunningly beautiful, featuring a richly emotional solo by Ambrosetti and a fine solo by Caine, with exemplary playing by the Colley-DeJohnette team. Flamenco Sketches, the Miles Davis and Bill Evans collaboration from Kind Of Blue, is another highlight, with a lovely Rosnes solo. McCoy Tyner’s You Taught My Heart to Sing, a love song without words, concludes the disc, featuring a masterful solo by Scofield. There’s plenty of good feeling and palpable warmth in this music, resulting in a session worth revisiting again and again. Happily recommended. 

Unit UTR 4907; Franco Ambrosetti (tpt, flgh) Uri Caine* or Renee Rosnes# (p) John Scofield (g) Scott Colley (b) Jack DeJohnette (d; p on Peace); NYC, January 20-24, 2020; Peace/ I’m Gonna Laugh You Right Outta My Life#/ Silli in the Sky#/ Love Like Ours#/ Dreams of a Butterfly*/ Body and Soul*/ People Time*/ Flamenco Sketches#/ You Taught My Heart to Sing#; 72:47. www.unitrecords.com

Monday, January 18, 2021

The music I most enjoyed in the plague year

 Yes, it was an awful year. I'm glad it's over. Here's some of the music that helped me through it:

JD Allen - Toys/Die Dreaming (Savant

Ran Blake & Frank Carlberg - Grey Moon (Red Piano)

Joe Fiedler’s Big Sackbut - Live In Graz (Multiphonics Music)

Bill Frisell - Valentine (Blue Note)

Gato Libre - Koneko (Libra)

Lafayette Gilchrist - Now (Lafayette Gilchrist Music)

Fred Hersch - Songs From Home (Palmetto)

Ray Mantilla - Rebirth (Savant)

Aruán Ortiz with Andrew Cyrille & Mauricio Herrera - Inside Rhythmic Falls (Intakt)

Jason Palmer - The Concert: 12 Musings for Isabella (Giant Step Arts)

Ivo Perelman & Matthew Shipp - Amalgam (Mahakala Music)

Jorge Roeder - El Suelo Mio (self-released)

Jim Snidero - Project-K (Savant)

Micah Thomas - Tide (self-released)

and, like every year, there was some special music unearthed 

Art Blakey - Just Coolin’ (Blue Note)

Paul Desmond - The Complete 1975 Toronto Recordings (Mosaic)

Hank Mobley - The Complete Blue Note Sessions 1963-1970 (Mosaic)

Sonny Rollins - Rollins In Holland (Resonance)

and heartfelt thanks to the publicists, labels, and musicians 

who persevered in spite of the obstacles