Jazz music, news and views

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Tom Beckham: Center Songs

I find myself fascinated with vibraphonists' compositions, which often exercise the instrument's tonal possibilities, negotiating between melody, harmony and color. The pieces on Tom Beckham's recent album Center Songs are no exception. He's as much a tunesmith as a performer.

A Washington, D.C. native, Beckham first studied classical music, playing marimba, drums and orchestral percussion before discovering the vibes. While the earliest jazz sounds in his ear included Milt Jackson, Wes Montgomery and Count Basie, he also tells me his interest in jazz was ignited by Miles in the Sky -- quite a hip, funky entree into this world, if you ask me. He started attending Berklee in '86, studied with Gary Burton, graduated in '90 and moved to New York four years later. Nowadays, you can catch him with his own group as well as with Joe Phillips's Numinous orchestra (see also the Pulse composers' collective, which employs Beckham as a performer). Now, years after his 1999 debut, Suspicions, the vibist's sophomore effort features a second good look at an evolving player.

The leader proudly admits to being influenced by the presence of saxophonist Chris Cheek, a bandmate from his first album and a classmate back at Berklee. Cheek's pure, assertive tone and controlled vibrato really warm things up -- sonic syrup, in a good way. He seems to be as much a tone colorist as Beckham is. "Two Part Convention" is a case in point, a ballad with a gorgeous swelling and subsiding vibe/sax melody, furry around the edges. Cheek's solo is tender and personal, and he has a way of stretching the time with his phrasing. Beckham is equally clever and lyrical with his lines here. His gentle rubato intro on "Visitation" is incredibly mature. He uses a slightly harder attack on "Zero Gravity Situation," a brilliant melody with some bright harmony to match, and Henry Hey's piano work is luminescent.

The rhythm section clearly both respects and affects Beckham's compositional world. Voglino is deft and springy on the waltz, "The Mansion," and his presence seems to inspire a more percussive solo from Beckham. He and bassist John Hebert lay it down on "Roll 'Em," which might be heard as Monk and Mingus channelled through Beckham's own pen. Hebert gets some space to voice some dexterous ideas without losing any groove. Similarly, they drive everyone hard on the post-boppish "Sleuth," where Hey's shape-shifting ideas flow continuously.

The tune "Center Song" might be a good metaphor for the album as a whole: modern groove, artful harmony and melody, and a coherent presentation of how previous inspirations can bring about new voices. Albums like Bobby Hutcherson’s Total Eclipse, Stick Up! or Patterns might be "traditional" predecessors that use the vibe/sax quintet instrumentation, but while Beckham might come from a tradition, Center Songs seeks to carve out a space for his own strong voice -- influence meets invention. This album is rife with hooks that won't lose their wonder.

Center Songs (Apria/Sunnyside)
Tom Beckham (vb)
Chris Cheek (ts)
Henry Hey (p)
John Hebert (b)
Diego Voglino (d)

See his website for a few full-length mp3s.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Other KD

Bassist Kermit Driscoll is best known for his association with guitarist Bill Frisell, but he's long been a presence with other venturesome outfits, having performed with John Zorn, John Hollenbeck, and Ben Monder among others. And don't forget New and Used with Dave Douglas. After about a decade of suffering its symptoms, Driscoll was recently diagnosed with Lyme disease. In an effort to meet the costs of medicine and care, there will be a benefit concert for him Monday at Tonic in NYC for those who can attend. The lineup includes Frisell's 858 Quartet, Zorn, Hollenbeck's Refuge Trio, John Patitucci, Kendrick Scott and saxophonist John Ellis.

Dr. Jazz, Ph.D of the Jazz Clinic spoke to Driscoll earlier this month who said he was paying about $5,000 a week on antibiotics. That's no way for things to be.

Jambase has the story, and here's a brief Kermit Driscoll bio via Gerry Hemingway.

For the Love of Kermit
A Benefit Concert for Bassist Kermit Driscoll
Mon., Jan. 29, 2007, 7:30pm
107 Norfolk St.
New York, NY 10002
Tickets: $23/$25

If you can't attend, consider sending a tax-deductible donation to:

Kermit Driscoll Emergency Relief Fund
ATTN: Bill Dennison
Musicians Union Local 802
322 W. 48th St.
New York, NY 10036
(Write "Kermit Driscoll" on the memo line on the check.)

And tell your friends.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Now Playing (01.25.07)

David Binney: Cities and Desire
John Coltrane: Stellar Regions
Deftones: Saturday Night Wrist
Duke Ellington: The Far East Suite
Frank LoCrasto: When You're There
Lee Morgan: The Last Session
Alex Sipiagin: Equilibrium
Steely Dan: Katy Lied
Charles Tolliver Big Band: With Love
Miguel Zenon: Jibaro

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

RIP Alice Coltrane

On the same fateful day the world lost Coltrane-inspired tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, Alice Coltrane passed away as well. Her health had been faltering lately, and she died of respiratory failure at 69 years old Saturday, January 13th in West Hills, CA.

While she's best known for her piano work with her husband John Coltrane with his adventurous groups of the mid-'60s, she actually started off as a bop-based pianist. Born and raised in Detroit, she played piano with notable local musicians Yusef Lateef and Kenny Burrell. She eventually joined vibraphonist Terry Gibbs's band in the 1960s. She met Trane in '63 at Birdland while playing with Gibbs, marrying the saxophonist in 1965. She filled McCoy Tyner's piano chair in the saxophone giant's band shortly afterward and took up the harp at her husband's request.

Naturally, her playing exhibited the same exploratory spirit her husband embodied, and after his death she became the guardian of his estate. Her own career as a leader began in 1968 with A Monastic Trio with Pharoah Sanders, and she would also record with Joe Henderson, Rashied Ali, Leroy Jenkins, Charlie Haden, and Jack DeJohnette among others, including her sons Ravi and Oran.

Having extensively studied Eastern religions, she founded an ashram in the Bay Area before moving it to Woodland Hills, CA. A convert to Hinduism, she also composed numerous chants and hymns for meditation. After 26 years of staying off record as a leader, she recorded her final album, Translinear Light in 2004.

Upon replacing McCoy Tyner after the pianist's voluntary departure from Coltrane's legendary quartet in the '60s, Alice was the subject of undeserved criticism and controversy. In an interview in The Wire, she revealed how Trane inviting her into the group was a completely natural choice (at least for Trane, at first):
When he asked me if I would like to join the band after McCoy [Tyner] had left I just said, 'Are you sure? Is this what you want?' and he said, 'I'm positive.' Well, I hesitated. I didn't know whether to accept because I'm considering there are so many other people who'd be more qualified. But he said, 'You know you can do it and I want you to.' Because of his assurance, his encouragement and his belief in me, I never felt half or less than anyone. I never felt like, 'Oh I'm going to have to come up to par and make myself favourable or acceptable because of him.' His confidence in me was so strong. One day he said to me, 'For you to come out from Detroit, this music is like a second nature to you, it's just like it's a part of you, a part of your life.'
L.A. Times
NPR Jazz
N.Y. Times

Destination: Out
ear fuzz
Orgy in Rhythm
Straight, No Chaser
There Stands the Glass

S.F. Chronicle (Nov. 2006)
Tavis Smiley (NPR, Sep. 2004)
The Wire (Apr. 2002)

Saturday, January 13, 2007

RIP Michael Brecker

Very sad news to start off 2007: saxophonist Michael Brecker passed away. About two years ago, he had been diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), which affects the blood and bone marrow. He died of leukemia today at 57 years old in a New York City hospital.

Over his career, the Philadelphia native performed and recorded with innumerable musicians in and outside the jazz world. No doubt, avid Brecker fans have a special place in their hearts (and their collections) for his earlier jazz-rock/funk/fusion projects -- Dreams, which he founded in the '70s, and Steps Ahead, which he joined in the '80s. And even the uninitiated may have heard of the legendary Brecker Brothers band from the '70s (they later reunited for a tour in the '90s). His career on record has found him with some wide-ranging talents, among them: Horace Silver (one of his earliest notable sideman gigs), Pat Metheny, James Taylor, McCoy Tyner, John Abercrombie, Paul Simon, Bob James, Mike Stern (Steps Ahead bandmate), Idris Muhammad, Steely Dan, Larry Coryell, Billy Cobham, Billy Joel and Herbie Hancock (Directions in Music bandmate, recently).

What else to say? A brief listen to nearly any Brecker track reveals much of why his fans adored him so. He had an incredibly hearty tenor sound, absolutely mind-bending technique, and, for me, his strong, personal phrasing was another standout trait. I saw him perform only once (in Philadelphia with his quartet), and it was as though the songs were being hammered into new shapes and directions with each phrase -- such intution and intelligence. He had not only an incredible command of the saxophone but tremendous authority over his music in general.

Though his death was sudden, he did manage to record his final album two weeks before his passing. With about a dozen albums to his own name and countless sideman credits over the thirty-plus years of his career, Brecker's discography is vaster than most, so we're not lacking in material to remember him by. And yet, he left us too soon -- with so many appreciative, awestruck fans hanging on every powerful, venturesome and vigorous phrase.


L.A. Times
NPR Jazz
N.Y. Times
Philadelphia Inquirer

Do the Math (the Bad Plus)
Intervals (Dave Liebman)
The Jazz Clinic
Orgy in Rhythm
Rifftides (Randy Sandke remembers Brecker)

Michael Brecker: "Delta City Blues"
Michael Brecker: "Madame Toulouse"
The Brecker Brothers: "Some Skunk Funk"
Steps Ahead: "Trains"

Some of my favorite albums of Brecker as a leader...:
Tales From the Hudson
Time Is of the Essence
Wide Angles

...and just a few as a sideman:
Moncef Genoud: Aqua
Don Grolnick: Medianoche
Horace Silver: In Pursuit of the 27th Man
McCoy Tyner: Infinity
Find some more!

Friday, January 12, 2007

Gian Tornatore: Blackout

Saxophonist Gian Tornatore's maiden voyage in 2003, Sink or Swim, revealed a young but mature player with a clear gift for composition and a strong melodic sense. Blackout, his sophomore release on Fresh Sound New Talent, documents the next step of his evolution with some ambitious new tunes and players. The NYC-based NorCal native has a considerable resume, having studied with well-known jazz educators George Garzone, Hal Crook and Billy Pierce and earned degrees from Berklee, NYU and Columbia. And while his music is intelligent and deceptively complex, it's more melodic than mathematical. He admits an affection for Pat Metheny's songwriting but arrives at a very different vibe when his ideas are realized. This quintet works admirably well with these fine-tuned compositions.

The opening track "Phase 3" shows their aptitude for atmosphere -- creamy guitar and Fender Rhodes textures, pure saxophone tone, wide dynamic range. Tornatore's tenor solo cleverly connects motivic ideas and builds to some focused and cleanly executed "outside" playing. Nate Radley's guitar work here is abstract but sensible, and his milky tone is the main attraction as his plucked chords ring out. Keyboardist Jon Anderson is the hold-over member from Tornatore's last album. His lyrical ideas unfold over a walking-tempo section of "The Swan," also a feature for Tornatore's liquid, voice-like soprano work.

Drummer Jordan Perlson's contributions to the date are actually just as significant as the leader's. He bolsters the group with leisurely grooves or peppers the textures with polyrhythms, particularly during his relentless feature on "Blackout." This thirteen-minute-long title track actually takes a bit to get going but later builds to a cathartic percussive flurry. In contrast, "Wingman March" waltzes coolly with subdued solos from Anderson and bassist Thomson Kneeland before leading to a gorgeous outro with Tornatore's pure tenor and Radley's cloudy guitar lines sailing over a luminous sea of Rhodes.

As with all of Tornatore's compositions, each tune here has its own arc, an audible path that's so natural it almost seems inevitable. This isn't the kind of album that turns heads right out of the gate, though; it takes its time in revealing its charms. In a deeper sense than its predecessor, Blackout's sound is shadowy, comfortable, calm, even hushed. This album holds a secret.

Blackout (Fresh Sound New Talent)
Gian Tornatore (tenor sax, soprano sax)
Nate Radley (guitar)
Jon Anderson (Fender Rhodes)
Thompson Kneeland (bass)
Jordan Perlson (drums)

Drop by HisSpace, as well.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Free Spirits Friday

British guitarist John McLaughlin turned 65 yesterday. He's renowned for his tenures with Tony Williams's Lifetime band and Miles Davis's group in the late '60s, not to mention the seminal Mahavishnu Orchestra from the '70s, but McLaughlin also shined in the '90s in his trio, Free Spirits.

Check out this video of the Free Spirits doing Carla Bley's "Sing Me Softly of the Blues." McLaughlin's tone is especially plaintive but his solo has plenty of fleet-fingered fire as well. Organist Joey DeFrancesco's playing here bridges the traditional and modern: his accompaniment has that natural, deep blues feeling, and his improvisations have some clear links to McLaughlin's own licks. Clean, crisp and funky Dennis Chambers ably assists on drums.

You can find a good version of this tune on his excellent 1995 album After the Rain with Joey D. and Elvin Jones.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Adam Rogers Feature

Just by glancing at his discography, it initially seems like guitarist Adam Rogers is a studio musician. He's performed as a sideman in vastly different settings, spanning genres as diverse as pop, rock, funk, folk, acoustic and electric jazz, and he's classically trained as well. A short list of notable associations includes: Randy and Michael Brecker, Alana Davis, David Krakauer's Klezmer Madness, Edward Simon, Brook Valentine, Giora Feidman, Alex Sipiagin, Chris Potter, Norah Jones, Dennis Chambers and an eleven-year affiliation (as a founding member) with funk-jazz-prog-rock-and-more group Lost Tribe with David Binney, Fima Ephron, David Gilmore and Ben Perowsky.

But while he's able to accompany the best artists of any genre, Rogers says he doesn't consider himself to be a "studio guitarist" per se. Rather, he simply enjoys the challenges and rewards of enhancing and influencing other artists' music when he's called upon. Versatile and virtuosic, his unique and creative contributions have made him a well-loved studio partner, but he also wants to focus on his own career as a leader. He has three albums to his own name so far and fourth is soon to be released. Armed with mind-blowing chops, a cerebral yet logical compositional style and an ears-wide-open approach to music, Rogers is definitely an artist to watch.

In this feature, Rogers talks about his earliest guitar and jazz influences, his classical background, his approach to songwriting, his various experiences as a sideman and leader and more.

Listen to: an Adam Rogers feature.

Discography (AllMusic)

Albums (as a leader):
Art of the Invisible
Time and the Infinite (due Feb. 2007)

AAJ (Phil DiPietro, Apr. 2002)
AAJ (David Miller, Sep. 2005)
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