Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Piano Trios: Jerry Granelli, Denny Zeitlin, Micah Thomas


Pianist Vince Guaraldi had a huge hit single in 1962 on Fantasy Records with Cast Your Fate to the Wind and went on to compose some much-loved music in a collaboration with the Peanuts comic strip franchise. Mose Allison, pianist and songwriter, had his “hit” when The Who blasted his Young Man Blues on their Live At Leeds album. One other thing they have in common is having led trios with Jerry Granelli on drums. Granelli, who played with Earl Hines (!) in 1961, was with Guaraldi on most of his Fantasy recordings, and played with Allison starting in the mid-Seventies. Other recorded associations along the way include Denny Zeitlin in the Sixties, Ralph Towner, Gary Peacock, and Jay Clayton in the Eighties, and Jane Ira Bloom and Charlie Mariano in the Nineties. Starting in 1988, he’s also recorded frequently as a leader. Pianist Jamie Saft was a member of his Badlands ensemble that made a couple of CD’s for the Songlines label in the late Nineties, and he joins him in the Jerry Granelli Trio for the admirable new release, Plays Vince Guaraldi & Mose Allison. On bass is Bradley Christopher Jones, a stalwart of the New York scene. Together, the trio tackles a batch of some of the better-known tunes by Guaraldi and Allison and has a ball with them. Kicking off the proceedings is a fairly straight-forward reading of Cast Your Fate to the Wind, and it’s apparent from the start that this is a formidable trio that’s having a grand time with this material. Allison’s Parchman Farm rolls right along, featuring an extended break by Saft. At 8:04, it’s the longest piece of the date. A pair of bass and drum improvisations (Mind Preludes 1 & 2), fit nicely into this program of songs from the Guaraldi and Allison songbooks. Guaraldi’s Star Song is the most obscure number, taken from an album the pianist made with guitarist Bola Sete in 1963. Tunes like Allison’s Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy or Guaraldi’s Christmas Time is Here are so pretty that they hardly need any embellishment, and Granelli’s crew is happy to play them just that way. The Jerry Granelli Trio Plays Vince Guaraldi & Mose Allison is an unexpected release, to be sure, and one of the better surprises in a year that’s had way too many unhappy ones. Listening to this music will absolutely improve your day, so don’t miss it. 
RareNoise RNR120 (CD)/RNR120LP (violet vinyl); Jamie Saft (p) Bradley Christopher Jones (b) Jerry Granelli (d); Brooklyn, NY, no dates indicated; Cast Your Fate to the Wind/ Parchman Farm/ Baby Please Don’t Go/ Mind Prelude 1/ Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy/ Star Song/ Young Man Blues/ Mind Prelude 2/ Your Mind is on Vacation/ Christmas Time is Here; 50:08. www.rarenoiserecords.com

Pianist Denny Zeitlin made his first recordings in 1964 in a trio format. While he has performed in a variety of contexts since that debut, he always comes back to the standard acoustic piano, bass, and drums lineup. His latest is Live At Mezzrow, an intimate New York club, in the company of bassist Buster Williams and drummer Matt Wilson. Zeitlin delights in stretching familiar themes every which way, and he needs musical co-conspirators that are on the same wavelength. After 18 years of playing with Zeitlin, the absolutely reliable Williams and the exuberant Wilson are right there with him at all times, and the music just flows and flows. Selections include the Monk-Hawkins composition I Mean You (great trades between Wilson and Zeitlin), Gershwin’s The Man I Love, a fresh look at Arthur Schwartz’ 1931 Dancing in the Dark, Wayne Shorter’s Paraphernalia, and a pair of Zeitlin’s original compositions, Echo of a Kiss, a waltz first played as a duet with bassist David Friesen 1994, and the challenging 10 Bar Tune with what the composer describes as its “circular structure.” Zeitlin has a special affinity for the music of Billy Strayhorn, and the thoughtfully sequenced program includes three pieces from the pen of one of the masters of jazz writing. The Star-Crossed Lovers is played with cool restraint. The inimitable Isfahan, as Zeitlin notes, “lends itself to many approaches.” The trio styles it as a slow bossa nova, with a gentle piano introduction and graceful drumming from Wilson as Zeitlin explores the melody in typically incisive fashion. Strayhorn’s The Intimacy of the Blues was originally a vehicle for an Ellington octet in 1967. Here it becomes the occasion for some upbeat and tasty swinging. The finale is the Shorter tune, introduced on Miles Davis’ 1968 album Miles In The Sky, and a Zeitlin favorite for decades. The trio gives it a free interpretation, with the pianist’s brooding introduction setting the tone for the group’s exploration. Matt Wilson’s drive and forceful but understated playing is especially impressive on this number. Indeed, his playing is a total joy throughout. His playing, in conjunction with Williams’ sensitive bass work and Zeitlin’s deeply probing piano, will keep me coming back to this date again and again. Happily recommended. 
Sunnyside SSC 1582; Denny Zeitlin (p) Buster Williams (b) Matt Wilson (d); NYC, May 3-4, 2019; The Man I Love/ Echo of a Kiss/ I Mean You/ The Star-Crossed Lovers/ 10 Bar Tune/ Dancing in the Dark/ Isfahan/ Intimacy of the Blues/ Paraphernalia; 71:56. sunnysiderecords.com

Pianist Micah Thomas is out with his first trio album, after appearances on discs by Immanuel Wilkins and Walter Smith III. There are eight original compositions on the self-produced Tide, recorded in performance at the Kitano Hotel in New York. He proves in the first two minutes of Tornado, the opening track, that he’s more than ready for the spotlight. With bassist Dean Torrey and drummer Kyle Benford contributing spirited accompaniment, Thomas takes flight and soars. The piece is aptly titled, a whirlwind of intriguing chord progressions and a quick pace that at some points threatens to overwhelm pianist and the audience alike. Torrey’s bass solo slows things down somewhat, and we get to hear some lovely comping from Thomas before he comes roaring back in. The title track is calm at first, then picks up steam after a Torrey bass solo, with an energetic Thomas exploring every nook and cranny of his song. Benford, another newcomer, sounds great here, with a strong sense of pacing and dynamics. From their tightness and empathetic playing, it sounds to me like this trio has been playing together quite a bit. Across My Path is a pretty ballad that’s carefully caressed by the band in a crafty arrangement that has Thomas alone at the beginning and the end. Grounds is a happy cooker, the kind of tune that you might be humming on the way home from a gig. It’s the kind of piece that gives you the feeling that they could keep it up for hours in an endless series of variations. At just under 9 minutes, this is one of the disc’s highlights. The fun continues with the multi-sectioned The Game, with plenty of tempo shifts and fresh motifs along the way. The Day After is hushed, with bowed bass and gentle chords from the piano in a rather precious and unconvincing performance. The music is back on track with the mellow Vänta, a solo excursion for Thomas in an exploratory vein. It almost feels like he’s having a conversation with himself. Closing the session is Wanderer, which picks up where Vänta leaves off. The trio moves into a light-hearted melody that leads to some delicate interplay and features some fine deep bass playing and convincingly understated drumming. I expect that jazz fans will be hearing a lot more music from Micah Thomas in the future. Don’t miss this one. 
self-produced; Micah Thomas (p) Dean Torrey (b) Kyle Benford (d); NYC, March 2019; Tornado/ Tide/ Across My Path/ Grounds/ The Game/ The Day After/ Vänta/ Wanderer; 64:09. micah.io

Monday, August 3, 2020

Piano Trios: Lafayette Gilchrist, Kjetil Mulelid, Jeff Hamilton

A trio of piano, bass, and drums forms the bedrock of the modern jazz combo. As a format, it seems virtually inexhaustible, limited only by the imaginations and talents of the musicians. A steady supply of trio music arrives at Mr. Stu’s Record Room. In a pair of posts, I’ll discuss six recent projects. 

Pianist and composer Lafayette Gilchrist and his trio with Herman Burney on bass and Eric Kennedy on drums come ready to rock the house and rile things up on Now, with a generous running time of nearly two-and-a-half hours on two CDs. Gilchrist has mined a number of musical areas to come up with his own approach to composing and playing. In his irresistible melding, we find the blues, of course, the spirit of early jazz piano styles like stride and ragtime, a healthy dose of gospel, echoes of Hollywood scores and television theme music, the musical knowledge gained over two decades performing with saxophonist David Murray, and crucially, the funk-soul feeling of go-go music, the long-lasting Washington, D.C.-based musical style and one of the few remaining regional musics in America. Gilchrist and company easily avoid the trap of set routines that a piano, bass, and drums combo sometimes falls into during the course of an evening’s listening. Bassist Burney is a steady ensemble player and fine soloist, and the group picks his solo spots wisely. It’s the same with the eminently tasty drumming of Eric Kennedy. Instead of showy drum solos, we’re treated to his deep in the pocket groove and his consistently rewarding lock with Burney. I’m of the mind that there are different ways to listen to any given album, and while Gilchrist’s formidable pianism is obviously the main event, taking the time to concentrate on the bass and drums throughout this set will be seriously edifying. Touches like the bowed bass and mallets on shimmering cymbals approach to the relatively gentle Say a Prayer For Our Love or the dynamic free-flowing give and take that they bring to the next track, Bmore Careful, are just two examples of their knack of getting it just right every time. Gilchrist’s last release was a solo effort, Dark Materials, one of the best discs of last year, and when I get around to compiling a list for this strangest of all years, I’m sure Now will on it. Memorable melodies, unstoppable invention from Gilchrist, and a solidly rocking and swinging beat seal the deal: Now is music for right now and many tomorrows to come. Strongly recommended. 
Lafayette Gilchrist Music; Lafayette Gilchrist (p) Herman Burney (b) Eric Kennedy (d); Bowie, MD, no dates specified; disc 1 (75:36) : Assume the Position/ Bamboozled/ Rare Essence/ Old Shoes Come to Life/ On Your Belly like a Snake/ Say a Prayer for Our Love/ Bmore Careful/ The Midnight Step Rag. disc 2 (73:25): Tomorrow Is Waiting Now (Sharon's Song)/ The Wonder of Being Here/ Purple Blues/ Newly Arrived/ Enough/ Get Straight to the Point/ Can You Speak My Language/ Specials Revealed. www.lafayettegilchristmusic.com

I was so taken with the first CD by the Kjetil Mulelid Trio when I reviewed it that you might expect their next effort, What You Thought Was Home, to soar to the top of my review pile. But humans are notoriously perverse, and slim discs in slim cardboard sleeves are too easily overlooked. Or maybe I just needed to wait until the right time to start listening to it, with the news all bad and getting worse. It can’t hurt to have some eminently pleasing and almost startlingly optimistic piano trio music on hand to change your mood. Mulelid, who composes the bulk of the material, has a knack for one enchanting melody after another. His trio caresses his genial songs with enough rhythmic vitality and energy to keep the music in motion. Bassist Bjørn Marius Hegge, who composed the gentle Bruremarsj (Wedding March), and drummer Andreas Skår Winther work together very well, making their presence felt without drawing much attention away from pianist Mulelid. The overall feeling of Mulelid’s music is best summed up with his song When Winter Turns Into Spring. The title alone evokes an immediate positive response from anyone who has ever lived with a cold and snowy winter. And Mulelid is from Norway, so the change of seasons is an especially noteworthy event. Particularly fine are Homecoming, a calm processional that has echoes of Keith Jarrett and Abdullah Ibrahim, and the exploratory flow of Far Away, a solo feature for Mulelid. There’s also a bit of musical humor in the appropriately titled A Cautionary Tale Against a Repetitive Life. Hummable melodies, pleasing interactions among the musicians, and the overall feeling of music delivering the equivalent of a warm embrace make What You Though Was Home an eminently worthy follow-up to their first release. Warmly recommended. 
Rune Grammofon RCD2208 (CD/lp); Kjetil André Mulelid (p) Bjørn Marius Hegge (b) Andreas Skår Winther (d); Halden, Norway, November 15-16, 2018; What You Thought Was Home/ Folk Song/ Bruremarsj (Wedding March)/ Tales/ Far Away/ A Cautionary Tale Against a Repetitive Life/ Waltz For Ima/ When Winter Turns Into Spring/ Homecoming; 37:06. runegrammofon.com

The drummer and leader of the Jeff Hamilton Trio has amassed hundreds of credits in a distinguished career that began in the Seventies with Monty Alexander and Woody Herman. He was a member of the L.A. Four from 1978-82, played with prominent figures like Ray Brown, Barney Kessel, and George Shearing, and in 1985, co-founded the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra with bassist John Clayton and alto saxophonist Jeff Clayton, which still plays gigs and records. He’s also managed to keep a trio together with pianist Tamir Hendelman for the last 22 years. Their latest effort is Catch Me If You Can, with bassist Jon Hamar joining the trio to replace Christoph Luty. The trio’s crisp rapport is in evidence from the first notes of Make Me Rainbows, an early piece by composer John Williams that swings right along at a bright tempo. Hamilton plays a lot of sessions, which exposes him to songs he might otherwise miss, like the Williams song he encountered while playing a Holly Hoffman date. It’s a lovely melody that sets the tone for the entire disc. Hamilton is close friends with pianist George Cables, and Cables’ timelessly beautiful Helen’s Song is treated to a charming, finger-snapping arrangement. Hendelman’s title track arose as a challenge from Hamilton, who asked for “a medium up-tempo piece.” Hamilton adds “Big mistake!” as the pianist wrote a devilishly tricky tune, but they have a lot of fun just the same. Hamilton studied with drummer John Von Ohlen, citing him as a major influence on his playing. Von Ohlen was a pianist as well as a big band drummer with Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, and The Pond is one of his tunes. Hendelman handles it with care, and Hamilton’s brushwork is impeccable. Lapinha comes from the repertoire of Sergio Mendes, and it cooks in a lightly swinging bossa groove. Bassist Hamar contributes two songs. The Barn is a bluesy mid-tempo swinger named for the trio’s rehearsal space, and a feature for Hamar’s sturdy bass playing. His other piece, Bucket O’ Fat, starts off with a powerful yet relaxed bass solo, then develops into a sort of blues. Hamilton, once again on brushes, is impressive on this one. The last three tracks were associated with big bands. Bijou is a Ralph Burns composition that the drummer used to play with the Herman band, played here as a tribute to the great Herman drummers. Thad Jones’ Big Dipper was played by the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, and Hamilton tells us in his friendly liner notes that as a teen, he would start every day by playing along to the recording. Here he lays down a slightly up tempo that works perfectly for the tune. The finale is Moonray, an Artie Shaw song brought in by Hamar, and played with bright panache. Catch Me If You Can is a well-crafted and enjoyable mainstream piano date that swings like nobody’s business. Recommended. Capri 74163; Tamir Hendelman (p) Jon Hamar (b) Jeff Hamilton (d); Hollywood, CA, August 14-15, 2019; Make Me Rainbows/ Helen’s Song/ Catch Me If You Can/ The Pond/ Lapinha/ The Barn/ Bucket O’ Fat/ Bijou/ Big Dipper/ Moonray; 58:02. caprirecords.com

Monday, July 27, 2020

Dave Sewelson: More Music For A Free World

Baritone saxophonist Dave Sewelson is probably best known as a member of the long-running Microscopic Septet. He steps out on his own with More Music For A Free World, a brawny, take-no-prisoners excursion into freely improvised music. His companions are the well-traveled trombonist Steve Swell, the inimitable William Parker on bass, and the relatively obscure Marvin “Bugalu” Smith on drums. Smith played in the Sun Ra Arkestra in the Eighties, then reappeared on the scene in the early part of this century, recording with pianist David Haney and saxophonist Teodross Avery. The quartet comes out wailing on Memories, with everyone listening closely and contributing to the overall effect. The attractive combination of baritone sax and trombone has not been exploited very much in jazz over the years. Offhand, I can only think of a 1957 Curtis Fuller session with Tate Houston on baritone, Gerry Mulligan with Bob Brookmeyer on valve trombone in the mid-Fifties, a couple of obscure Serge Chaloff live recordings made in 1950, and Music For A Free World, this group’s debut (FMR, 2018). Sewelson and Swell have both been members of Parker’s large ensembles, and so their dynamic interplay comes as no surprise. Parker is well-known as a powerhouse soloist, and he’s adroit in that role, but it’s his rock-solid ensemble work that stands out here, along with his occasional dialogues with drummer Smith. Smith kicks off the second track, Dreams, with a grooving drum solo, and the band moves into nearly a half-hour of inspired activity. Most often, it seems like four people are soloing at the same time, popping in and out of the musical scrum as the circumstances demand. I love the way that Smith comments on the proceedings and subtly ups the tempo around the 4-minute mark, adding more grit and force to the ensemble. From that point, the music takes off for parts unknown. Once again, the horns drop out for a spell, leading to a particularly fine bass and drums section, before Sewelson and Swell come back to toss riffs back and forth over mildly agitated rhythms. The finale, Reflections, eases up on the tempo, but maintains their core approach of open-ended improvisation. This is the kind of free jazz that will have you nodding your head and tapping your feet in response to the quartet’s freewheeling power if you haven’t fled the room at the first hint of their forceful attitude. Count me as one who happily sticks around for all of it.
Mahakala Music MAHA20-002; Steve Swell (tbn) Dave Sewelson (bari s) William Parker (b) Marvin "Bugalu" Smith (d); Brooklyn, NY, December 17, 2018; Memories/ Dreams/ Reflections; 59:00. sewelsonics.com

Friday, July 24, 2020

Pago Libre: Mountain Songlines & John Wolf Brennan: Nevergreens

As we’ve seen, the musical madcaps of Pago Libre take their influences from anything and everything, from the great world of the movies to the Dada movement. So why not mountains and hiking for their latest effort, Mountain Songlines? It seems that pianist and composer John Wolf Brennan really likes to get out and walk. And when you do that in Switzerland, well, you’ve seen pictures of the Alps even if you haven’t been there, so you can just imagine the combination of will, stamina, and conditioning one needs to get out on the ridges for a hike. As Brennan says to Peter Monaghan in the liner notes, when “you hike in the mountains, especially in bad weather ... every step has to be taken cautiously. And standing still is not an option.” In a sense, that’s also true of music that combines improvisation with composition. Pago Libre is celebrating 30 years of doing just that with their music. In the current edition of the band, hornman Arkady Shilkloper and Brennan, who’ve been there all along, are now joined by violinist Florian Meyer and bassist Tom Götze. Brennan’s beautiful Hornborn Hymn, emphasizing the chamber music aspect of his influences, starts the proceedings, with Shilkloper leading the way. The more experimental side of the band comes into play with another Brennan composition, GTE (Grande Traversata Elbana), his impression of walking a 60-kilometer trail that traverses the island of Elba. Brennan uses his piano variations of arco- and pizzicatopiano on this one, giving the piece an other-worldly feeling, probably not dissimilar from the disorienting sense of standing atop Monte Capanne surrounded by the land which is itself surrounded by the ocean. On one hand, there is so much theory and background for this music that Monaghan takes six pages of small type in the booklet to describe some of the many aspects of life and music that become transformed into sound. We read about Brennan’s fascination with the work of ethnomusicologist Alfred Leonz Gassmann (manifested on Hol-di-o-U-ri!), Shilkloper’s tongue-in-cheek explanation of how he composed his ravishing The Melody of the Earth, dedicated to the dolphins of the world, and Mayer’s experience of mysterious voices in the middle of the night which led to Urwuchs, his first composition for the group. On the other hand, there is so much beauty amid the often unexpected combinations of sound from these four inventive musicians and guest yodeler and vocalist Sonja Morgenegg that, although helpful in detail, you don’t really need too much of the background to enjoy their blend of jazz sensibilities, folk song orientation, Swiss motifs, and sheer creativity in the context of a drum-less chamber group. Mountain Songlines is an absolute winner, heartily recommended.
In addition to his endeavors with Pago Libre, pianist John Wolf Brennan has recorded many sessions of his own in an array of contexts. He likes to think big, and the notes for Nevergreens, his anthology of solo performances, reveal that the tracks first appeared on six different albums, released between 1989 and 2009. They’re conceived as the “blue trilogy,” on the Creative Works label, followed by the “yellow trilogy,” with two titles on Creative Works and The Speed Of Dark (Leo). A third trilogy is promised, but in the meantime, we have this mash-up of tracks from half-a-dozen projects, plus The Homing, a short work composed for a “radiophonic play” in 2009. Faithful chronicler Peter Monaghan contributes a thoughtful essay that touches on Brennan’s career and the life experiences that inform his wide-ranging music making. In brief, the Irish-born Brennan’s family moved to central Switzerland when he was young, and between the Irish lullabies that his mother would sing, music lessons that he started at age 11, Swiss folk songs, and much more, Brennan has developed an especially inspired life in music. Monaghan describes him as “a musical explorer and geographer, crafting jazz-related soundscapes,” an assessment that gets it exactly right. For anyone not familiar with his work, Nevergreens seems like an awfully good place to start, as Brennan has assembled and sequenced this CD with an ear towards representing the key aspects of his work. There’s the lovely dance of Belles ‘n’ Decibels, the nuanced exploration of minimalist music via Para.Ph(r)ase (a gloss on Steve Reich’s Violin Phase), the mellow strains of Strollin’ down Memory Lane, the stately and stunningly beautiful Circle of Coherence, and the ruminative Fake Five, to pick just a few pieces. A Brennan recital is likely to include explorations of the piano’s innards. One variation he calls arcopiano, created with fishing line and bow hairs, which achieves a surprisingly clamorous drone on Isle of View. Then there’s the pizzicatopiano, which duets with Brennan’s melodica via overdubbing on Lost im Violin. There’s also a piece with prepared piano, the ghostly dance he calls Rump-L-Rumba. There’s plenty to enjoy here, and clearly there’s a lot more music to explore alongside one of creative music’s most intrepid figures. Happily recommended.
Mountain SonglinesLeo CD LR 886; Arkady Shilkloper (horn, alphorn [9,13], alperidoo [3], vcl [8]) Florian Mayer (vln, vcl [8]) John Wolf Brennan (p, arco-/pizzicatopiano [2,3,5,11], vcl [8]) Tom Götze (b, vcl [8]] Sonja Morgenegg (yodel [9], vcl [12]); Winterthur, Switzerland, February 19-20, 2020; exc. 13, Dresden, Germany, February 8, 2018; 1.Hornborn Hymn/ 2. GTE (Grande Traversata Elbana)/ 3.Urwuchs/ 4. ...von der armenischen Prinzessin (Armenian Princess)/ 5.PreGap: At the Abyss of Nothing/ 6.Cümbüs/ 7.Ridge Walk/ 8.Hol-di-o-U-ri!/ 9.Tü-da-do/ 10.Selbsanft/ 11.Vertical Vectors/ 12.The Melody of the Earth/ 13. Bonus track: Medley “Mountain Songlines” (YouTube video soundtrack); 55:24.
Nevergreens: Leo CD LR 865; John Wolf Brennan (p, melodica [6,12], arcopiano [7], pizzicatopiano [6], prepared p [11]); Ludwigsburg, Germany, 1989 (1,2,5,10,13,14,19) or 1991 (4,9,18), Weggis, Switzerland, 1998 (7,11), Boswil, Switzerland, 2002 (20), Winterthur, Switzerland, 2009 (3,6,8,15-17), and Zurich, Switzerland, 2009 (12); 1.Did U see the Way?/ 2.Parto/ 3.Ever for Never/ 4.Belles ‘n’ Decibels/ 5.Kerava/ 6.Lost im Violin/ 7.Isle of View/ 8.Para.Ph(r)ase/ 9.Phi/ 10.Strollin’ down Memory Lane/ 11.Rump-L-Rumba/ 12.Homing/ 13.Circle of Coherence/ 14.Goofy’s Waltz/ 15. Auf Valser Pfaden -Läntahütte/ 16.Auf Valser Pfaden -Murmelitanz (Marmot’s Dance)/ 17.Auf Valser Pfaden -Zerfeila/ 18.Fake Five/ 19.Song of the Moon/ 20.Kyoto; 73:24. www.leorecordsmusic.com www.leorecords.com

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Pago Libre: Cinémagique 2.0 & platzDADA!!

The intertwined history of music and the cinema is a vast, complex topic. Back in 2000, the international quartet known as Pago Libre recorded an album for the Swiss TCB label that they called Cinémagique. Now reissued as Cinémagique 2.0, two short tracks from the original disc have been removed and three compatible bonus tracks from a 2004 concert recording have been added in a resequenced and remastered edition that also includes a booklet with brief notes for the tracks, an appreciation of the album that appeared in the All Music Guide, a band discography, and photos from the quartet’s 30 years of activity. Subtitled Sixteen Soundtracks for an Imaginary Cinema, the set includes compositions from all members of the group, usually alone but sometimes in collaboration. The CD also features an arrangement by pianist John Wolf Brennan of music by Erik Satie (the evocative Entr’acte: Le Tango d’E.S.) and a lovingly straight-forward adaptation of a Brahms lullaby by Tscho Theissing, the group’s violinist. One high point among many is Arkady Shilkloper’s Folk Song, which features some vigorous solo work by violinist Theissing. It’s characterized by Brennan as “a marriage of Ireland and Moldavia.” The pianist’s Suonatina, which he describes as “a little flirt with the classical sonata form,” is another standout piece, with delicate and beautifully balance playing by the ensemble. Brennan’s descriptive liner notes lead off with this quote from the great director Alfred Hitchcock: “We try to tell a good story and develop a hefty plot. Themes emerge as we go along.” I can’t think of a better way to conceptualize what these improvisers are up to. The quartet makes delicious music for headphone listening. You can concentrate on the deft interplay of the quartet while you conjure up cinematic images to go along with the music. Pago Libre’s basic instrumentation of Shilkloper’s horn, Theissing’s violin, Brennan’s piano, and Daniele Patumi on bass (replaced by Georg Breinschmid on the live tracks) allows the music to go in any direction at all, and they frequently surprise the listener by taking the non-obvious path. Echoes of jazz, classical music, folk songs, bits of and much more coalesce in this long-running ensemble’s unique vision and deep-seated commitment to free expression, while having plenty of fun along the way. Musical magic indeed! 

These days, Switzerland is widely known for its political neutrality, breathtaking scenery, chocolate, and clocks. But let’s not forget that the world-changing art movement known as Dada started at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich, Switzerland, in 1916. The members of the Pago Libre Sextet certainly haven’t forgotten, and they also recall that Vladimir Ilych Lenin lived across the street. If you Google the word ‘dada,’ you’ll get something like 248 million hits, but I think that all you’ll need to gain an understanding of dada is to press play on platzDADA!! This set was originally issued in 2008 by Christoph Merian Verlag in Basel, now remastered and reissued on Leo Records, home for many of Pago Libre’s projects. Dada, at the start, was as much an verbal art as a visual one, thanks to contributions by memorable individuals like Hans Arp, Kurt Schwitters, and Tristan Tzara. Arp and Schwitters are the main sources of the poems on platzDADA!!, along with original bits of nonsense by pianist John Wolf Brennan, bassist Georg Breinschmid, and Russian poet Danlil Charms. To set the scene, the lengthy CD opens with Breakfast at Vladimir Ilych, a sort of dramatization of Lenin taking a phone call at home. From there, the sextet plunges into Dadábylon, written by the band, followed closely by the title track, the first of the Hans Arp settings with music by Brennan. The enclosed booklet includes all the texts and their sources, plus notes on the poets and a few reviews from 2008. Because of all the nonsensical verbiage and widely varied musical settings, this is actually quite a funny disc, but in its relentless cacophony of voices and instruments, it also works as a way to clear the room. Anybody who stays for the whole thing will have one hell of a good time. Dada lives!!
Cinémagique 2.0: Leo CD LR 863; Arkady Shilkloper (horn, flgh, alphorn on 7,11; alperidoo on 6; voice on 5,12) Tscho Theissing (vln; voice on 1,4,5,12,16) John Wolf Brennan (p, arcopiano & melodica on 7; voice on 5,12) Daniele Patumi (b, voice on 5,12) George Breinschmid (b on 14-16); Winterthur, Switzerland, April 2000, exc. 14-16, Feldkirch, Austria, 2004; 1.Enticing/ 2. A bout de souffle/ 3.Synopsis/ 4.Kissing Joy (as it flies)/ 5.Tikkettitakkitakk/ 6.Alperiduo/ 7. Nostalghia/8.Entr-acte: Le Tango d’E.S./ 9.Folk Song/ 10.Suonatina/ 11.Little Big Horn/ 12.Dance of Kara Ben Nemsi/ 13.Aimez-vous Brahms?/ 14.Tupti-Kulai/ 15.RMX/ 16.Rasenade Gnome; 73:44.
platzDADA!!: Leo CD LR 887; Arkady Shilkloper (horn, flgh, alphorn, vcl, ratchet) Tscho Theissing (vln, vcl, ratchet) John Wolf Brennan (p, vcl, ratchet; pizzicatopiano on *) Georg Breinschmid (b, vcl, ratchet) Patrice Héral (d, vcl, ratchet) Agnes Heginger (vcl, ratchet); Winterthur, Switzerland, May 2006 & October 2007, except for #, Lucerne, Switzerland, May 15, 2005; Breakfast at Vladimir Ilych/ Dadábylon/ platzDADA!!/ SinnDong/ Sankt Ziegenzack St. Fassanbass/ Die gestiefelten Sterne/ te gri ro ro/ Uhrmusik: Sekundenzeiger/ Weltwunder/ Wolkenpumpentango/ Schnauze, Puppe!/ ETANOSRU EUTONARS (Largo/ Rakete/ Durchführung/ Tillll, Jüü-Kaa? What a beauty!/ Schwitters gruuft)/ Die Welt/ ¿Nana?*/ Ich bin ein Schwein/ trains.plains/ Das fröhliche Greislein/ Drone Dance/ A klanes Brabitschek/ Schnickschnack#; 73:44. www.leorecords.com

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Larry Willis: I Fall In Love Too Easily

Pianist Larry Willis had a long and varied career before he passed away in September 2019, not even a month after he convened a quintet at the Van Gelder studio to record I Fall In Love Too Easily. Interestingly enough, it’s the same studio where he appeared for his first session in January 1965 for Jackie McLean’s Right Now! album. Over the decades, he was associated with McLean, Hugh Masekela, Joe Henderson, and Woody Shaw, among many others. His best known gigs were in the groups Blood, Sweat & Tears (1972-77) and The Fort Apache Band (1993-96). While he didn’t record much as a leader until the late Eighties, he made up for lost time with recordings on SteepleChase, Mapleshade, and HighNote. His crisp touch and deep blues orientation always make his work a pleasure to listen to, and this release is no exception. He’s joined here by fellow HighNote artist Jeremy Pelt on five tracks and alto saxophonist Joe Ford on four tunes, with Blake Meister on bass and the always-enjoyable Victor Lewis on drums. Ford was Wallis’ partner in the Fort Apache band and many other situations over a 30 year span. Ford’s Today’s Nights, a mid-tempo swinger, starts off the proceedings in style. Willis’ Heavy Blue follows, a quick funk line that the pianist first performed with Blood, Sweat & Tears back in 1976. The band is on fire for this one, with Lewis’ exciting drumming a key component. Santi Debriano’s Anna, a pretty ballad played by the rhythm section, cools things down considerably. Willis plays it tenderly and with great feeling. Kirk Lightsey’s Habiba, played at a finger-snapping tempo, becomes a real showcase for the horns. Ford is first, with an excited and fluent solo, then it’s Pelt’s turn to delve into the tune’s attractive melody. The Meaning of the Blues, a Bobby Troup composition from 1957, features an arrangement that puts the band to the test by having them play very slowly. Trumpeter Pelt takes the first solo gorgeously, and the success of this performance is never in doubt. The quiet mood is sustained on Let’s Play, a Willis original that served as the title song for a 1991 SteepleChase album and is played without the horns. Jack DeJohnette’s Climax was one of the numbers on the McLean date that began Willis’ recording career in 1965. He hadn’t put it on tape since then, so it’s interesting that it’s included here. The quintet has a ball with it, with powerful solos by Pelt and Ford. In his dynamite accompaniment and a brief solo, Victor Lewis proves once again why he’s been a first-call drummer since he first came on the scene in the mid-Seventies. Ending the set is a charming and insightful solo piano version of I Fall in Love Too Easily, the 1944 Jule Styne composition (with lyrics by Sammy Kahn) that’s been a favorite of improvisers ever since. It’s a truly lovely way to end the CD, and a fitting coda for a journeyman pianist. Recommended.
HighNote HCD 7326; Jeremy Pelt (tpt on 1,2,4,5,7) Joe Ford (as on 1,2,4,7) Larry Willis (p) Blake Meister (b, exc on 8) Victor Lewis (d, exc on 8); Englewood Cliffs, NJ, September5, 2019; 1.Today’s Nights/ 2.Heavy Blue/ 3.Anna/ 4.Habiba/ 5.The Meaning of the Blues/ 6.Let’s Play/ 7.Climax/ 8.I Fall in Love Too Easily; 50:34. www.jazzdepot.com

Monday, July 20, 2020

Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers: Just Coolin’


It was passed over for initial release, then omitted from a series of Blue Note vault issue programs, but now, 60 years after it was recorded in Rudy Van Gelder’s Hackensack studio, we all get to hear Just Coolin’, a March 1959 session by Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers. This was a short-lived edition of the band, with tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley back in the group for a few months, Lee Morgan on trumpet, Bobby Timmons on piano, and Jymie Merritt on bass. Four of these pieces were recorded live for the band’s At The Jazz Corner Of The World double-album about six weeks after this studio session. Mobley’s three numbers (Hipsippy Blues, the finger-snapping M&M and the title track) plus Bernice Petkere’s Close Your Eyes made it to the Birdland stage, so this album stayed on the shelf. There are plenty of flashes of brilliance throughout, especially from the perennially underrated Mobley (who suffers from a squeaky reed on Timmons’ hip but otherwise unrecorded Quick Trip and elsewhere) and the much-praised Morgan. But as a band effort the music doesn’t always cohere, and for a ensemble that had so many great days in the studio and documented in performance, this set seldom rises to the heights. Still, previously unheard solos by Lee Morgan are always a plus, and from a historical perspective, this set adds insight into a transitional period for the band. It’s also a curious fact that this 60-year old music sounds as fresh as yesterday, while in 1959, styles that were prevalent even just 30 years before seemed terribly dated. Recommended.
Blue Note; Lee Morgan (tpt) Hank Mobley (ts) Bobby Timmons (p) Jymie Merritt (b) Art Blakey (d); Hackensack, NJ, March 8, 1959; Hipsippy Blues/ Close Your Eyes/ Jimerick/ Quick Trick/ M&M/ Just Coolin’; 38:57. www.bluenote.com