Jazz music, news and views

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Modeling to Mingus

The first time I saw this Dolce & Gabbana commercial, I only heard the last few seconds. I thought, "Hmm, a big band. And Gisele. OK, cool."

Some time later, Scott asked me if I'd seen "that commercial with that model with Mingus's 'Moanin'' as the music."

I finally saw the whole thing and nearly fell out of my chair. Damn, that's cool.

Some may object to the use of jazz to sell a designer fragrance. But this is Mingus -- and "Moanin'," at that -- on TV! (The one with Matthew McConaughey that uses Miles Davis's "Generique" from "L'Ascenceur pour l'Échafaud," however, may suffer from too much coolness.)

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Aaron Parks: Invisible Cinema

If I had to name just one album from this past year that I'd consider essential listening, this would likely be it. Invisible Cinema is a beautiful representation of Aaron Parks's talents both as a composer and pianist. I noted in an earlier gig review that his most laudable trait isn't just his technique but also the wisdom to know precisely when to withhold and unleash it. This album has an extremely rewarding balance of virtuosity and restraint. From the opener, "Travelers," he weaves dazzling, lithe lines over elegant chords with a skittering drum pattern and driving ostinatos, and you can tell he's right at home.

Of course, his bandmates -- guitarist Mike Moreno, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland -- are equally formidable. Harland is in constant, complex dialogue with the group and enhances everyone's performance. His crafty, nimble playing is truly the propulsive force behind "Travelers," "Peaceful Warrior" and "Karma." Meanwhile, more overtly "indie rock meets jazz" tunes like "Nemesis" and "Riddle Me This" benefit from his understated yet funky backbeats. Moreno is one of my favorite guitarists, and other fans of his fluent, melodic, other-worldly tones should expect to be "typically" enthralled by his playing here. "Nemesis" surprised me at first, though, where he opts for a dry, buzzy, grungy sound that I grew to enjoy, and it suits the song's "evil" atmosphere.

The quartet's interplay is naturally the main ingredient for Cinema's success. Penman's chemistry with the whole group is remarkable. He anchors their sound in the right places but also injects tons of rhythmic gusto, especially on the aforementioned "Warrior" and "Karma." Parks's compositions clearly have written bass lines in some areas, and Penman's own embellishments in freer sections add a lot of flavor while staying true to Parks's musical world. Moreno's voice is such a trademark one might think it hard to incorporate into an "ensemble sound," but the leader and he have an obvious mutual affinity, and sometimes I actually find it difficult to tell where one stops and the other begins. I thought Harland and Parks connected well on Terence Blanchard's 2003 album Bounce, but this album evinces an even deeper musical kinship. And Parks's subtle chording throughout lets the group straddle between darkness and light.

I'm woefully late in writing about this April 2008 release. In all honesty, I hesitated for so long because I wasn't sure I could write anything convincing or eloquent enough for this album. I try never to resort to clichés like this, but this is one of those special cases where the music has to speak for itself. For my other thoughts, you can check out this previous post on Parks's debut at L.A.'s Jazz Bakery, but I'll leave you with the advice that this album is not to be passed up.

Invisible Cinema (Blue Note)
Aaron Parks (piano, keyboards)
Mike Moreno (guitar)
Matt Penman (bass)
Eric Harland (drums)

A cool EPK-style look into the album:

[photo from bluenote.com]

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Christmas Is Coming

Like so many others, I pull out A Charlie Brown Christmas each holiday season. As a jazz fan, I'm usually ambivalent about the music I hear this time of year. On one hand, it's good to have jazz in people's ears. On the other, it reinforces the mainstream view of jazz as background music.

But how can someone feel bitter about music during the holidays? In spite of myself, I'll lean towards optimism: people hearing a good deal of jazz, even for only one month out of the year, is a great thing. And I can't possibly hold a cynical attitude when my holiday stress is broken by hearing Vince Guaraldi. "Christmastime Is Here" and the "Linus and Lucy" theme are familiar to most, but I've always been more excited by "Christmas Is Coming" and "Skating."

A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy)
Vince Guaraldi (piano)
Fred Marshall (bass)
Jerry Granelli (drums)

I wrote a bit more about Mr. Guaraldi's classic soundtrack at the "Talkin' Jazz" blog here last year.

Happy Holidays, whatever you're celebrating.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Jazz creep

The following items were gathered fairly randomly, but they all seem to illustrate jazz quietly and marginally entering the mainstream, which I thought was happening less and less these days:

>> The December '08 issue of Blender has several year-end lists of recommended songs to download. (I don't regularly read this magazine. It's my roommate's, I swear.) For whatever reason, a jazz list is buried in there (the parentheticals below are theirs):
Jazz: They Still Make That?

1. Medeski, Martin & Wood: "Bubblehouse"
2. The Flying Luttenbachers: "Fist Through Glass (94A)" (Terrifying face-painted drummer Weasel Walter's ensemble gets as close to death metal as instrumental jazz ever will.)
3. Sonny Rollins: "G-Man"
4. William Parker & the Little Huey Creative Orchestra: "Sunrise in the Tone World"
5. Masada: "Piram"
6. Don Byron: "I Want to Be Happy"
7. David S. Ware: "The Way We Were"
8. The Bad Plus: "Karma Police"
9. Clusone 3: "Tico-Tico No Fuba" (The Netherlands have become an unlikely mecca for jazz, thanks in part to this trio, who particularly liked to deconstruct old standards named after birds.)
10. Henry Threadgill: "Try Some Ammonia"
11. Ornette Coleman: "Sleep Talking"
>> I've been listening to TV on the Radio's Dear Science for the past week, and only recently noticed Matana Roberts is credited for alto sax and clarinet on "Lover's Day," which was great to see (and hear). By the way, her blog, Shadows of a People, has come to a close. There are some seriously heavy ideas there, so peruse* it when you have some time.

>> Speaking to TVOTR, there was also a curious quote from Anne Hathaway elsewhere in the aforementioned mag: "I just started listening to them [TVOTR] and they're terrific. I was, like, 'Where have I been? What rock have I been living under?'" Not that Hollywood starlets can't listen to great music, but this made more sense when I saw that Tunde Adebimpe has a role in a new film starring Hathaway called Rachel Getting Married. I'd only heard about this film to begin with because Donald Harrison is in it.

>> My roommate introduced me to the sitcom "The Big Bang Theory," which I really don't care for. This "vanity card", however, revealed the former musical aspirations of its producer, Chuck Lorre. ("Vanity cards" are mini-essays penned by Lorre himself and displayed at the end of each episode where a production company credit would normally be.)

* Misuse of the word "peruse" is a pet peeve of mine.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Miguel Zenón: Awake

Well, here's a post that's long overdue. A lot's happened for Miguel Zenón since the April release of his album, Awake. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for Music Composition that same month, he was featured in June's issue of Downbeat, and he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in September. That's a lot of media attention, and I believe his work will live up to (and outlive) the hype. I'd only just heard of him when Jibaro came out back in 2005. That was an impressive record -- a great balance of virtuosity, control, innovation, and honesty. He makes complex ideas sound natural, even easy, and he plays with a palpable degree of confidence. He does it again on Awake, his third album for Marsalis Music and his fourth as a leader.

The first thing that struck me about this album is Zenón's compositional depth and breadth. Listening to "Awakening," the opener, segue into "Camarón," it's clear he has a gift not only for beautiful playing but also for different approaches to songwriting. Harmony, melody, and structure are all solidly conceived for every piece. His full-bodied, fluid alto sound blends wonderfully with a couple lush string quartet arrangements, and the headier numbers feature some incredible quartet interplay. Those familiar with Zenón will recognize Luis Perdomo's prodigious pianistics, and bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole create a bold, new universe of grooves with the leader's fertile compositions.

Even at his fiercest, Zenón's speed and articulation seem to come effortlessly. The propulsive rhythms of "Penta" and "Ulysses in Slow Motion" become a natural springboard for some creative solo statements, and he maintains a clear, almost liquid tone throughout. Perdomo deals in sonic colors as much as in chops, especially when he gets on the Rhodes for "Camarón" and "Lamamilla," giving each piece a dark kind of warmth. And I can't say enough how the bass and drums truly elevate the group in the most cathartic (and acrobatic) way. The aforementioned "Ulysses" is a real tour de force, in that respect. As for individual features, Cole sounds especially crisp on "Third Dimension" and "Santo" turns the spotlight on Glawischnig's melodic bass solo.

It's actually hard to tell what Awake's primary virtue is. Ensemble chemistry, crafty, catchy songs, and the strong soloists all make it a well-rounded album. Similarly, it's hard to say that Zenón has just one dominant, identifying characteristic. All areas of his musicianship are highly developed. And it's just as startling to think that even though he's earned so many accolades this year, he's only just begun.

Awake (Marsalis/Rounder)
Miguel Zenón (alto sax)
Luis Perdomo (piano, Rhodes)
Hans Glawischnig (bass)
Henry Cole (drums, percussion)

Also featuring:
Michael Rodriguez (trumpet)
Ben Gerstein (trombone)
Tony Malaby (tenor sax)
Orlando Wells (violin)
Marlene Rice (violin)
Judith Insell (viola)
Nioka Workman (cello)

Did you know you can also get mp3s of his live performances at his website? Also, note that Esta Plena, the work sponsored by his Guggenheim Fellowship will be premiered at the Jazz Gallery, December 4th through the 6th.

And speaking of well-deserved press, by now you've probably seen this clip of the Colbert Report? ("Excuse me! It's not 'genius'-level jazz if it sounds like music!")

Friday, October 24, 2008

Aaron Parks Quartet @ the Jazz Bakery

Pianist Aaron Parks's group hit the Jazz Bakery this past Tuesday in support of his new album Invisible Cinema, and they brought a crafty blend of jazz, classical, and indie rock atmosphere. Marcus Gilmore kept the quartet moving with some trashy, sure-footed backbeats on the groovier numbers. I'm used to hearing him in funkier settings (his work on Christian Scott's Anthem, also with Parks, and Parks's labelmate Gonzalo Rubalcaba's Avatar, in particular), but he was very comfortable playing it like more of a rocker. Thomas Morgan was in charge of "low end" duties that night. Guitarist Mike Moreno's crystalline tone couldn't fit more perfectly with Parks's bright touch on the keys. Their gorgeous lines were indistinguishable from each other during unison melodies.

The quartet avoided the pitfalls of jazz convention by shifting constantly and fluidly between the composition, soloing, and group interplay. (No "head-solos-head" arrangements here, thank you very much!) And it was easy to see how their individual performances were mutually supportive. Their sympathy was apparent from the opener, "Peaceful Warrior," which kept yielding surprises as new textures were explored.

Since I can't totally ignore the baggage I have as a listener, I'm initially inclined to compare Parks to Keith Jarrett -- his firm keyboard attack, thick chords, sparkling high-register lines, and a very intuitive, "letting the music happen" approach to solos. But naturally that's not the whole story. Parks is solidly in his own aesthetic, with his insistent ostinatos, pop-influenced harmonies, and deep vamps that burn into your brain. And he can take some startling departures when given the room. His playing serves not just the song itself but the compositional world he's created.

There were some killer solos, of course. Parks was excellent throughout, straddling several worlds on "Peaceful Warrior" or nodding at Bill Evans for a poignant rendition of "Blame It on My Youth." "Mirror, Mirror," a Moreno original that could easily belong on his leader debut Between the Lines, began with a characteristically intriguing, lyrical fingerstyle intro from its composer. Parks, who saw this tune for the first time that night, gave his solo a classical touch. "Con Alma" was done with such personal flair I might've thought they'd written it themselves. (That tune was only marred by a rude audience member who kept crackling something noisily during a solo from Morgan, who appeared undeterred.) Moments of rawer energy included Gilmore's explosive solo during "Harvesting Dance" and the lurching, sinister "Nemesis," for which Moreno dirtied up his usual milky tone. Apart from the solos, however, Parks's tunes are quite strong by themselves. The aforementioned "Nemesis" was very accessible to the young crowd (good live version here), and they kept everyone's head nodding along with the smart, ridiculously catchy, tango-gone-indie "Riddle Me This."

I mentioned earlier that I first heard Parks as youngster with Terence Blanchard. We often think of prodigies as conspicuously well-trained players with a precocious kind of virtuosity. Mature prodigies balance this with good taste -- they know they don't have to prove themselves. Parks and his cohorts have some obvious chops, and they use them only when necessary. Furthermore, they know how to blur the lines between composition and improvisation (a seemingly fundamental yet still-emerging characteristic of modern jazz). There are indeed spots to showcase each instrumentalist, but Parks's approach to sonics and structure revels in the mystery of avoiding the obvious. And the quartet kept the audience surprised with each turn.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Shows this week

It's a good week to be a modern jazz fan in LA. I'll be out and about more than I usually am, and if you're in the area, you should too for the following reasons:

Tues., 10.21: Aaron Parks Quartet with Mike Moreno @ the Jazz Bakery
I've mentioned both of these guys on this blog a few times. It'll be great to see that level of melodic guitar technique from Mike again. Aaron first floored me when I saw him perform with Terence Blanchard's sextet several years ago. The group got through a harrowing, powerful performance of Aaron's composition, "On the Verge," then Terence announced that Aaron was only 17, at which point the audience sucked most of the oxygen out of the room. (That tune can be found on Terence's album Bounce from 2003.) No doubt we'll be treated to tracks from Aaron's newest, Invisible Cinema. Check out some recent footage from a New York appearance.

Wed., 10.22 – Sat., 10/25: Larry Goldings Trio with Peter Bernstein & Bill Stewart @ the Jazz Bakery
I had the enormous pleasure of doing an extended interview with Larry a couple years ago. You'll find the audio files of the two parts here. This is the most modern organ trio around. Even after two decades together, they keep the format fresh with mindbending yet musical innovations.

Sat., 10.25: Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition @ UCLA's Schoenberg Hall
I'm expecting great things from two saxophonists I've interviewed before. Walter Smith III has had a pretty full gig calendar over the past couple years and some very hip associations (the aforementioned Parks, trumpeters Sean Jones and Christian Scott, drummer Kendrick Scott, vocalist Gretchen Parlato, guitarists Matt Stevens and Lage Lund, bassist Christian McBride, and pianist Jason Moran). One of his recent projects, Bronze, includes alto saxophonist Mark Small. Gian Tornatore is someone I'd been introduced to through a mutual friend. He's focused his career thusfar on music education as a high school teacher in New York (which I understand is an adventurous feat in itself), but he's also found enough time to progress as a player and composer.

More information about the competition (the semi-finals and finals are this weekend) is here.

To entice you to check out these two sax talents, I'm re-upping some mp3s I posted with earlier reviews of their albums. You can grab them from the earlier posts:

Walter Smith III: Casually Introducing Walter Smith III (Aaron Parks is on these tracks, as well)
Gian Tornatore: Sink or Swim and Blackout

Sat., 10.25: Kathleen Grace @ The Hotel Cafe
I thoroughly enjoyed Kathleen's albums Sunrise and Songbird and am eagerly anticipating her latest, Mirror. Whether it's a jazz standard, popular tune, or an original piece, she always treats it with the emotion and intelligence a jazz audience is accustomed to. The term "crossover" gets bandied about so much that it's become meaningless at best (pejorative at worst), but Kathleen expertly demonstrates that her various influences can be united earnestly with the right approach.

I suppose it's implied that an enthusiastic mention of any artists on this blog is a call to support them. All the same, I'll make it explicit: go.

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