Friday, January 10, 2020

Piano Trios, Part 2: Eckemoff, Weiss, Magris, Goldberg, Meder

Sometimes a trio is not just a trio ...

For her latest recording, Nocturnal Animals, pianist and composer Yelena Eckemoff is joined by bassist Arild Andersen and two drummers, Jon Christensen and Thomas Strønen. The set was recorded in Oslo’s Rainbow Studio, the location of many ECM releases, including a number with Andersen and Christensen onboard, and the music does have some of the artful poise of the famed label. This is Andersen’s sixth project with Eckemoff since 2012's Glass Song, and they’ve established a rich and fruitful rapport. But that’s nothing compared to his relationship with drummer Jon Christensen. Both men played and recorded with saxophonist Jan Garbarek starting in the late Sixties, and they’ve crossed paths many times in the intervening decades. Second drummer Thomas Strønen limits himself to adding subtle percussive textures to the mix. Fourteen new songs are presented, each named for an insect, mammal, or bird that comes out at night. Even with her poems of the same names that are printed in the booklet, I have a lot of trouble sussing out the connection between, for instance, the music of Fox and the creature itself. (Maybe I’ll listen to the track the next time I have a fox in my back yard and see if that helps!) But no matter: Eckemoff’s bright and attractive melodies, committed playing and command of the music’s flow make her private meanings besides the point. Andersen, a potent and commanding soloist, is given plenty of space in Eckemoff’s supple arrangements. Standouts include the quietly blues-like Walkingstick, the enchanting Rattlesnake with powerful solo work by Andersen, the exuberant dance of Lynx, and the hypnotic rhythms of Owl. Nocturnal Animals is an enchanting project, well worth your time and attention.
L & H Production cd806151-29; Yelena Eckemoff (p) Arild Andersen (b) Jon Christensen, Thomas Strønen (d, perc); Oslo, Norway, April 16-17, 2018; Disc 1 (45:14): Cicada/ Bat/ Walkingstick/ Fox/ Grizzly Bear/ Rattlesnake/ Wolf. Disc 2 (42:11): Hedgehog/ Toad/ Lynx/ Scorpion/ Firefly/ Owl/ Sea Turtle.
Dan Weiss is one of the most fascinating percussionists on the scene today, with interests as varied as heavy metal (his Starebaby group) and Indian music (he’s a skilled tabla player), plus work as a sideman for leaders including Dave Douglas, Joe Lovano, David Binney, and Rez Abbasi. He leads his Dan Weiss Trio Plus 3 through a varied set of original compositions on Utica Box. Jacob Sacks is on piano, and the “plus 3" part is the inclusion of two bassists in the group, Thomas Morgan and Eivind Opsvik. Duke Ellington’s orchestra used two bassists at times in the late Thirties, and John Coltrane did the same in some of his early Sixties projects. I’m sure Weiss has spent some time absorbing the lessons of the double double bass lineup, since Morgan, playing pizzicato, and Opsvik, using the bow, get right to the broad expansion of the bottom end on the opening title track. The loping movement of Utica Box is downright hypnotic for the first four minutes, with Sacks playing repetitive patterns on piano and Weiss keeping a steady beat with occasional accents while the bassists bounce lightly off of one another. After that, this lengthy episodic piece breaks down into a passage of quiet ruminations before Weiss reasserts the circular groove of the opening section and builds it into a frenzy of aggressive sound, only to turn it down again. Melodic invention is at the heart of the brief and straight-ahead Jamerson, dedicated to the great Motown bassist James Jamerson. Rock and Heat starts off with a spirited bass duet before Weiss kicks in with a hard swinging attack. Eventually Sacks joins the fray before the music breaks down in surprising ways. Orange is a sort of ballad, unwinding very slowly with knife-edge timing and surprising silences. Delicacy is the key here, with a careful Sacks and Weiss’ tightly modulated drumming commanding equal attention most of the way. It’s overlong at eleven and a half minutes and somewhat off-putting at first listen, but Orange is a well-mannered exploration of the porous boundary between improvisation and composition. Please Don’t Leave is a gas, with a funky Afro-Cuban beat from Weiss, lush chords from Sacks, and dual bass commentary. Last Time One More Time is far and away the prettiest melody of the date, a hushed lullaby and another chance for Morgan and Opsvik to blend their basses in song. The finale is dedicated to Led Zeppelin’s drummer. The 16 minutes of Bonham moves through a number of sections, usually with Weiss’ drumming as the focus. This is a piano combo that sounds like no other, thanks both to Weiss’ iconoclastic composition style and subtle realignment of instrumental roles within the band. Utica Box offers a provocative and fresh approach to small group improvisation; well worth a listen.
Sunnyside SSC1573; Jacob Sacks (p) Thomas Morgan, Eivind Opsvik (b) Dan Weiss (d); Brooklyn, NY, April 15, 2015; Utica Box/ Jamerson/ Rock and Heat/ Orange/ Please Don't Leave/ Last Time One More Time/ Bonham; 64:48.

Pianist Roberto Magris adds percussionist Pablo Sanhueza to his trio with bassist Dominique Sanders and drummer Brian Steever on the thoroughly enjoyable World Gardens. Magris gathers his repertoire from all over, getting to the heart of material as disparate as adaptations of folk songs from Yunnan (the tender Blue Bamboo with its mysterious opening section) and Slovenia (the rhapsodic solo feature Vse Najlepse Rozice (All the Most Beautiful Flowers), and Clifton Davis’ smash hit for the Jackson 5 (the lead-off Never Can Say Goodbye). There are also a few originals, a couple of standards including a particularly moving version of I’m Glad There is You, and more, generously spread over 74 minutes. If Magris has a signature tune, it’s Song For an African Child. I’ve heard it on two other Magris releases, in trio and sextet renditions, and with its hopeful melody and uplifting high-life feel, it always puts a smile on my face. The feeling of the blues is never far when Magris sets up to play, and two of his originals, the down-home Another More Blues and the intricate Blues at Lunch!, are among the disc’s highlights. Another is the adventurous outing by the band on Andrew Cyrille’s High Priest, a surprising choice that’s done justice by the energizing congas of Sanhueza coupled with the simmering drumming of Steever and Magris’ percussive attack. Magris and friends seem to delight in making music, and their pleasure is easily transmitted to the listener. My only problem with the set is the last track, titled Audio Notebook, where executive producer Paul Collins talks for a few minutes about the music we’ve just heard. It seems totally unnecessary, but since it’s at the end, it’s easy to skip. Apart from that, World Gardens is warmly recommended.
JMood JM-016; Roberto Magris (p) Dominique Sanders (b) Brian Steever (d) Pablo Sanhueza (congas, perc); Lenexa, KS, September 29, 2015 or *November 1, 2016; Never Can Say Goodbye*/ Pilgrim*/ Blue Bamboo*/ Another More Blues/ Song for an African Child/ Blues at Lunch!*/ Vse Najlepse Rozice (All the Most Beautiful Flowers)/ High Priest/ I’m Glad There is You*/ Stella by Starlight/ Audio Notebook; 77:01.

To start, pay no attention to the cover photos of pianist Brandon Goldberg on his debut release, Let’s Play! Just put the disc in your player and press play. As drummer Donald Edwards leads the way into Thelonious Monk’s Well, You Needn’t, and as the trio starts to really swing, it might just be time to glance at the cover. Yes, he’s really that young. Goldberg was just 12 at the time of recording (he turns 14 early in 2020), though you wouldn’t guess that by listening. He’s got a nice touch at the keyboard, a bouncy rhythmic attitude, and he interacts very well with Edwards and bassist and producer Ben Wolfe. Evidently, he knocks out everyone who has the opportunity to hear him perform, with appreciations by pianist Monty Alexander and Vita Muir of the Litchfield Jazz Festival printed in the booklet along with informative liner notes by veteran jazz journalist Bob Blumenthal. Tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland adds his distinctive voice to two tracks. First we hear from him on the funky You Mean Me, an original composition by Goldberg that mirrors Monk’s I Mean You. The astute youngster explained to Blumenthal that he realized that he “should do to one of Monk’s tunes what he did to jazz,” and it works out very well. Strickland’s other appearance is on Goldberg’s subdued arrangement of Herbie Hancock’s Dolphin Dance. The deeper you get into Let’s Play!, the more you sense that this newcomer is astonishingly gifted and that it isn’t just technique. Displaying such technical prowess at a young age is inspiring enough, but the emotional depth that he displays as the trio plays a very slowly paced version of the standard Angel Eyes is deeply impressive. Goldberg also wrote the charts for all the songs, quite successfully. Only the version of the Duke Ellington-Juan Tizol tune Caravan, with some unappetizing tricks with the rhythm and some cheesy electric piano, fails to connect. His solo performance of another Ellington song, In a Sentimental Mood, is quite lovely, and will make a great blindfold test recording for some unlucky pianist in the years ahead. Pay a lot of attention to Brandon Goldberg and Let’s Play! You’ll be amply rewarded. Happily recommended.
Brandon Goldberg Music BSG1001; Brandon Goldberg (p; Rhodes el p on #) Ben Wolfe (b) Donald Edwards (d) Marcus Strickland (ts on *); Astoria, NY, January 19-21, 2018; Well, You Needn’t/ Blackbird/ You Mean Me*/ Angel Eyes/ The Understream#/ Dolphin Dance*/ Caravan#/ In a Sentimental Mood/ McCoy; 52:07.
Passage leads off with pianist Dave Meder having some fun with Thelonious Monk’s Work. It sounds more like play when Meder, bassist Tamir Shmerling, and drummer Kush Abadey pull it apart and put it back together. The Old Rugged Cross, a lovingly played hymn by George Bennard that’s more than a hundred years old, and Meder’s closing solo vehicle, the Gershwin brothers’ For You, For Me, For Evermore from the mid-Thirties, are joined by seven of Meder’s engaging original compositions. The pianist has enlisted a couple of prominent musicians as guests for one track apiece. Alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón brings his intense sound to This Road, while the versatile Chris Potter, on tenor, is poignant and forceful on Elegy. The twisty blues that Meder calls Break Points is particularly moving, a performance with nearly perfect dynamics that lives up to its title. Consciously sequenced to make the music flow with a kind of story arc devoted to “those central moments and transitions ... in your life journey,” Passage is one of those relatively rare discs that starts out well enough and just gets better and more involving the more you listen. That’s even more unusual for a debut, which makes this release happily recommended.
Outside In Music; Dave Meder (p) Tamir Shmerling (b) Marty Jaffe (b on #) Kush Abadey (d) Miguel Zenón (as on *) Chris Potter (ts on #); Brooklyn, NY, February and June 2018; Work/ For Wayne/ The Old Rugged Cross/ This Road*/ Break Points/ Golden Hour/ Passage/ Healing Heart/ Elegy#/ For You, For Me, For Evermore; 49:10.

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