Jazz music, news and views

Friday, March 23, 2007

Frank Foster: Well Water

Like the renowned orchestra led by his fellow Basie alumnus Thad Jones, Frank Foster's Loud Minority Big Band was focused on forging a more advanced big band identity. Foster is intimate with Thad's MO, having spent a few years in his band in the '70s, and this experience undoubtedly informed his own ensemble from that same decade -- harmonically complex arrangements combined with passionate playing. And while the results might have sounded rough in parts, the compositions always had their virtues –- shapely melodies, high-energy orchestrations and a wall of sound. With the release of Well Water, we can now hear some tapes that were previously assumed to be lost, providing a more complete portrait of Foster's vision. The recording sounds remarkably well-preserved, too. But unlike the funky, fusion-tinged maiden voyage of the Minority from 1974, Well Water is more straight-ahead.

Foster's arrangement of "Joy Spring" takes Clifford Brown's already-complex piece to new levels of intricacy with a muscular reading from the band. Kiane Zawadi (who appeared on some notable '50s and '60s dates as Bernard McKinney) does admirably on trombone, and trumpeter Charles Sullivan gives a bright nod to the song's author, but tenorist Bill Saxton's agile, hard-blowing solo is the high point here. The title track is an adaptation of a Russian folk song, rendered as a driving 3/4 modal composition. Foster's tenor is intense and buoyant, leaping out from a well-blended reed section orchestration.

Second only to "Shiny Stockings," "Simone" is probably Foster's best-known composition, and while it lends itself to a delicate interpretation, its creator isn't afraid to be bold. Saxton solos like he owns the tune. Here and throughout the session, pianist Mickey Tucker is luminescent, with flashes of Tatum and McCoy. It's Elvin Jones's wide-swinging cymbal work, though, that makes this a heavy and powerful chart, and his own solo is as much about texture and musicality as strength. His own composition, "Three Card Molly," appears as a bonus track -– a true workout for a quintet with Tucker, bassist Earl May, percussionist Babafumi Akunyun and a pure-toned, wicked, chromatic soprano solo from Foster.

The other reedmen have most of the sax solos here, but Foster's voice is apparent enough in the music. His colleagues do him proud, of course, and often show a hint of his influence: virile, searching and touched by Trane. Just as Foster himself evolved beyond the mannered, swing-based saxophone stylings of Basie's band, his efforts with the Loud Minority furthered the possibilities for the large ensemble, and Well Water is a fitting example.

Read Foster's interview with Mel Martin. He discusses, among many other things, the formation of the Minority.

Well Water (Piadrum)
- Frank Foster (ss, ts, arr)
- Sinclair Acey, Charles Sullivan, Don McIntosh, Joe Gardner, Cecil Bridgewater (tp)
- Bill Lowe, Janice Robinson, Charles Stephens, Kiane Zawadi (tb)
- C.I. Williams, Leroy Barton (fl, as)
- Bill Cody, Bill Saxton, Doug Harris (fl, ts)
- Kenny Rogers (bars)
- Mickey Tucker (p)
- Earl May (b)
- Elvin Jones (d)
- Babafumi Akunyun (perc)

Friday, March 16, 2007

Alain Perez: En el Aire

With a resume that includes names like Fort Apache Band frontman-trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez, flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, the late vocalist Celia Cruz and keyboardist Chucho Valdes's band Irakere, it's even more remarkable that Alain Perez has earned these credentials only in the last dozen years. Born in Cuba, conservatory-trained as a classical guitarist, the 29-year-old bassist broke through when he was tapped to play in Irakere at age 17. After immigrating to Spain, Perez began exploring a new idiom in his work with de Lucia. While applying his classical guitar knowledge to his bass, Perez shows his admiration for modern innovators of the instrument who helped unlock its possibilities and brought its voice to the foreground -- Jaco Pastorius, John Patitucci and Victor Wooten. As you'd expect with many low-end virtuosi, Perez gets compared to Jaco a lot, but he has a lot more than his influences to show in his music.

With a band of expat Cubans currently based in Barcelona (where the Ayva label is also located), Perez brandishes some wicked bass chops as well as potent arranging skills on En el Aire. The opening title cut boasts a bright horn fanfare peppered with polyrhythmic percussion and a slinky, driving B-section. Perez patiently builds his ideas, beginning with gentle melodies and gradually incorporating more forceful, funky figures. Trumpeter Carlos Sarduy's strong, brassy lines head paradoxically into darker melodic territory. The beauty of the looser "120 & 9" is Ivan Lewis "Melon"'s airy piano floating over the drums, cushioning the light horn melody. His leisurely and sunny solo is followed by Inoidel Gonzales's like-minded soprano sax feature, prodded on by Perez underneath. The high-low dialogue of the latter two is also the attraction of "Descansa El Sol (The Sun Rests)." Bass and soprano slip into and out of melodic lines together over a velvety bed of Rhodes and spacious drums that give off a modern R&B vibe.

From an arranging standpoint, the album's standout track is "Donna Lee," which opens with a radiant, breezy two-chord piano vamp with a vocal-and-horn melody on top. In Perez's hands, this is a completely new song. Charlie Parker's original melody is actually treated like an extended fill rather than the centerpiece of the tune, and it's remarkable how well it fits in a Latin jazz context. With a slight nod to Stanley Clarke's chordal approach in parts, he gives a thoughtful, hushed solo with ideas both lyrical and linear or funky and fragmented. Roman Filiu gets a chance to shine here with a sinewy, insistent alto sax tone and probing lines. Powerful voices also surface on "La Razon," an artfully stuttering chart punctuated by keyboard jabs, elliptical horn lines and memorable vocal melody. Pianist Pepe Rivero's ideas sing over the rhythm section, and Gonzales's voice on tenor sax is full of dark fire.

While En el Aire obviously has well-grounded Latin roots, it also has clear modern jazz values, and Perez and his cohorts comfortably straddle the line between both worlds. And even with seemingly rigid polyrhythmic, Latinized structures, there's a certain looseness about the music here -- the coolly contemporary harmony, infectious melodies and that edge of discovery.

En el Aire (Ayva)
Alain Perez (b, voc, kbds, perc)
Carlos Sarduy (tp)
Roman Filiu (as)
Inoidel Gonzales (ss, ts)
Javier Masso “Caramelo” (kbds)
Ivan Lewis “Melon” (kbds)
Pepe Rivero (kbds)
Georvis Pico (d)
Kiki Ferrer (d)
Pepe Espinosa (perc)

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Fred Dalton Thompson for 2008?

When worlds collide...

My impressions might be best encapsulated by this exchange between Sam Waterston's and Elizabeth Rohm's characters. At the beginning of "Law and Order"'s 13th season, they discuss the incoming DA Arthur Branch (played by Thompson):
Jack McCoy: Nice fella.
Serena Southerlyn: And his politics?
Jack McCoy: ...Nice fella.
And I'll close with a quote from Thompson himself: "After two years in Washington, I often long for the realism and sincerity of Hollywood."

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Kenny Werner: Lawn Chair Society

Piano trio enthusiasts are likely familiar with (and fond of) Kenny Werner's trio excursions with Ratzo Harris and Tom Rainey, or recently, Johannes Weidenmuller and Ari Hoenig, but it's great to see Werner in different settings. He's recorded with a quintet before, but Lawn Chair Society, his first outing on Blue Note, truly sports an "all-star" cast: trumpeter Dave Douglas, reedman Chris Potter, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade. The album incorporates some electronics, which may sound a bit startling at first pass, but the effects generally color the performance once the listener gets deeper into the tunes. In a press release, Werner says, "I knew I didn’t want to make a record that was purely acoustic or purely electronic. I wanted to blur the lines and create something a little bit surreal." Dig the fitting Magritte-inspired album cover.

"New Amsterdam" opens with some grunts and warbly keyboard riffs before giving way to a jazzy JB with a signature Blade groove. Potter isn't afraid to get dirty here. Douglas's solo is bright but also lets a lot of light in -- and Werner artfully uses the spaces. "Uncovered Heart" has a bit of a history. Not only has it appeared on a Sunnyside release by the same name, but it was also written on the day his daughter Katheryn was born. He'd already decided to re-record the piece when, in a tragic turn of events, she died in an auto accident last October. The composition clearly has poignant associations, and Colley's solo is respectful and emotive. Werner himself takes flight here.

"The 13th Day" has plenty of the fluid playing Werner's audience recognizes. His chops are obvious, but his ideas unfold naturally. Upon hearing Colley's full tone and Blade's papery, peppery textures in conversation our hero's playing, it's clear this is a highly empathetic -- and intuitive -- trio. Another standout piece, "Kothbiro," is actually the closing theme to
The Constant Gardener." Douglas and Potter trade some beautiful melodic gestures after a reverent, cascading piano solo.

The track "Lawn Chairs (and Other Foreign Policy)" Werner says, "is a comment on American culture that is living in its own unreal world, yet completely unaware of the desolation and darkness that half the world is experiencing." Appropriately, Werner's solo is spare and shadowy, while Potter's solo is both graceful and slightly sinister. Alongside other song titles like "Inaugural Balls," his political commentary becomes visible, but Lawn Chair Society isn't built on a concept -- just strong playing. Werner himself hates the notion of "themes" as marketing devices. He wrote this in an article for the Fall 2005 issue of Jazz Improv:
Have you noticed that there always has to be a theme?... Why, for God's sake, can't we say anymore, "The Music of (fill in the name of the artist who's actually playing on the CD)"? Isn't the music of thinking, feeling, brilliant jazz artists living at this moment something we want to honor?
No matter how you like your electronics or your political-musical messages, Lawn Chair Society is a strong, modern, melodic album. And obviously, it could be subtitled "The Music of Kenny Werner."

Lawn Chair Society (Blue Note)
Kenny Werner (p, kbds, comp)
Dave Douglas (tp, c)
Chris Potter (ts, bcl)
Lenny Pickett (wooden fl)
Scott Colley (b)
Brian Blade (d)

Friday, March 02, 2007

And... We're Back

Wow. It's been a while. I've been occupied with some other random projects, which I may reveal in due time. Sorry for the unannounced hiatus, but I figure you haven't been lacking for places to visit recently:

- The Jazz Clinic has a transcript of Ornette Coleman's acceptance speech for the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys earlier this month.

- Eclectic Grooves gives us a bit of Nels Cline and Wilco buddy Glenn Kotsche.

- Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus recently sat down for a lengthy conversation with Stanley Crouch. In the interview and his book Considering Genius, you may find the latter has some disturbingly questionable things to say about Dave Douglas.

- More controversy available at the Lefsetz Letter: an e-mail from a Berklee student regarding Bruce Lundvall prompted a flood of comments as well as a response from Lundvall himself.

- Recent passings:
Violinist Leroy Jenkins (D:O has tunes; Darcy has links.)
Guitarist Ronald Muldrow
Guitarist Al Viola

- In honor of his Academy Award win, there's an Ennio Morricone sampler at Dinosaur Gardens.

We'll be back soon... definitely sooner than last time.
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