Monday, February 28, 2011

Ken Fowser/Behn Gillece Quintet

Ken Fowser/Behn Gillece (sax; vibes)

Getting excited about new jazz music is very easy for me. While there are very few artists who are trying to reinvent the wheel; there are quite a few that just trying to keep tradition alive and sounding fresh. One of those groups is the Ken Fowser/Behn Gillece Quintet.

One of the instruments outside of the piano and saxophone that I love the most is the vibraphone. It may seem like an easy instrument to incorporate into the mix of any group but you would be gravely mistaken. It does add an ethereal element to mix but it is difficult to get it to the point where the instrument is one of the leading parts of the group. The greatest players, Bobby Hutcherson, Lionel Hampton, Gary Burton, Dave Pike, Milt Jackson to today's new guard, Joe Locke, Jason Adasiewicz, Stefon Harris, Mike Mainieri and Steve Nelson have made it look easy. While all of these artists (past and present) have shined as leaders; they have had the dueling counterparts to accompany them and challenge them.

Now I think we are all about to stumble upon another group that hopefully will stand the test of time and be mentioned in the breath with the new guard of vibraphonists and their co-leaders. Ken Fowser and Behn Gillece already with two albums under their belt are those co-leaders who really posed for much larger attention.

Seeing Ken Fowser and Behn Gillece live fully convinced me that this pairing, with a bit of longevity could live up to some of the great groups like Chick Corea/Gary Burton, Milt Jackson/John Coltrane, Bobby Hutcherson/Herbie Hancock, etc. Big lofty claims--maybe. But this quintet is the real deal.

Both Both Fowser and Behn Gillece honed their skills together in Philadelphia before continuing their studies in New York. They performed together and separately with various local groups in the late 2000s but it wasn't until 2009 that they paired up and released their first record together as the Fowser/Gillece Quintet with the debut Full View (PosiTone Records).

Full View featured veteran pianist and One For All member, the great, Dave Hazeltine, Adam Cote on bass and Paul Francis on drums. While the majority of the music is written by Gillece you wouldn't really notice it because its so fluidly perfected for both sax and vibes that you don't realize who really is the leader on any particular piece.

Full View is a wonderful and exciting debut, rich with a modern hard bop, romantic styles that shows these guys know exactly what their doing and where they want to take the listener.

"The Hutch" gets the proceedings jumpin' and immediate interaction between Fowser and Gillece shows that they have worked together for years. Fowser then takes the lead and shows some impressive chops with Hazeltine handling rhythm masterfully in the background. Fowser then turns the duo over to Gillece and Hazeltine. Cote and Francis rise later to the occasion, both with considerable voice and emotion. As expected Fowser and Gillece close this out on a gentle but still uptempo note.

On "Act Of Disguise" the group adds a little funkier groove but it's still in the hard bop tradition. Hazeltine's solo work here fabulous. "Act Of Disguise" could settle nicely on a Hazeltine or Eric Alexander record. The group perform a lovely rendition of Mal Waldron's "Soul Eyes" that with the element of vibes makes this already sombre piece seem a bit more ethereal and kind of uplifting. A precious moment indeed.

Ken Fowser's "Two Pair" features some great work from Adam Cote on bass in addition to Fowser and Gillece's seamless communication making them almost the same note inside your head. It's a young group outside of the veteran Hazeltine but they perform with a maturity that is far beyond their years.

That maturity would soon explode wide open with their latest release, Little Echo (PosiTone Records). This time out with a whole new lineup featuring young but also veterans in the New York jazz scene, Quincy Davis (drums), Ugonna Okegwo (bass) and Rick Germanson (piano). Okegwo recently performed with saxophonist, Alexander McCabe and pianist, Uri Caine (on McCabe's Quiz album), Germanson has been lighting up the scene for awhile now with his own group and the always dynamic, Quincy Davis (worked with Tom Harrell, Walt Weiskopf and Ted Rosenthal) has added a unique timbre to this session.

While "Resolution" sets a swingin' tone on the outset, its the Fowser penned "Ninety Five" that really shows the collaboration of Fowser and Gillece have taken the step up from Full View. The playing is more bold and well developed. Fowser and Gillece sound fully comfortable and the rest of the group are higher up in the mix and involved from every note. The material on Little Echo is for each member and each member stands out more as a result.While Full View had the classic mixture of originals and interesting covers, Little Echo screams with colourful and expressive self-penned material.

"Sap" is a fiery piece which Gillece and Gemanson have some great back and forth conversations. Gemanson is the real revelation for me form this session. His playing is solid with a really high energetic voice. The whole group gets in on this one with some fantastic solo performances both from Germanson, Davis and Fowser. And while Okegwo's bass may sound down in the background you can hear he's tearing it up as well.

"Vigilance" is another moment in which the quintet delivers a sizzling performance and you really get a feel for how Fowser and Gillece interact with the rhythm section on their respective parts. Gillece is killer with Davis and Germanson while Fowser is a bit more refined letting the rest of group construct the colour and shape around him. But together the quintet is smokin' and you really want "Vigilance" to go another five minutes.

"You" is a lovely midtempo piece where you don't really notice the leaders as much as you notice the cohesion of the quintet. At this point you realize this is probably the quintet that should record together all the time. It's a group that challenges and follows each other with a dynamic and unique vision and a sound that is beautiful in execution and hopeful together again despite the commitments of the various groups they all oversee.

Both Ken Fowser and Behn Gillece perform separately and together throughout New York City (mainly Smoke and Smalls in particular). You need to check them out because it's the live experience that will really make the final connection for you. This duo is and will be formidable for year to come. Little Echo is a great document of quick maturity from the first album and a real statement on the quality of the new generation of jazz. Excellent stuff.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Irene Schweizer

Irene Schweizer (piano; b. 1941)
Portrait (Intakt Records; 2005)

One artist that I have been really late getting into was Swedish native, Irene Schweizer. I own a few records that she is a guest musician on but never venture into her own material. I think a lot of it had to do with my noticing how many albums she had and not knowing where to start. Then I was in a record store and randomly looking around (money burning in pocket to be spent) and I stumbled across what would turn out to be a really great compilation, entitled Portrait (Intakt Records). And I've been listening repeatedly ever since.

Irene Schweizer's style is firmly set in improvisation but she weaves between traditional and free jazz quite smoothly. There is a direct, forceful nature to the way she handles the keys but you can hear her mission is to take you to a different place altogether.

Schweizer has been compared to Cecil Taylor throughout her career but I'm starting to think that is truly unfair. Portrait covers material done with duos, trio, quartets and solo. The more interesting pieces for me are the duos. The settings are challenging and Schweizer plays and battles with the best of them (Fred Anderson, Hamid Drake, Andrew Cyrille, Louis Moholo, Hans Bennink and more).

Portrait begins with the wonderful solo piece "Sisterhood Of Spit" which feels like an Earl "Fatha" Hines or Thelonious Monk piece. It's jumpin', thoroughly intuitive and is the best evidence that she should not be compared to Mr. Taylor (not that there's anything wrong with that). The mix of collaborations and solo material on Portrait is perfectly balance and gives an excellent example of Schweizer's capabilities in various settings. "Willisau" performed with a trio including Fred Anderson (sax) and Hamid Drake (drums) is a brilliant piece of improvisation. A dueling interplay between all three musicians where each stands tall but never seem to overtake the other. Schweizer's performance is complex but with a great deal of rhythm.

Schweizer delivers a great version of Monk's "Hackensack" as a duo with drummer Han Bennink which almost feels like a tribute to New Orleans thanks to Bennink's timing. Schweizer's arrangement stays true to the original but with a little more improvising and surprisingly more buoyancy than the original (if you can believe it).

The most diverse piece on this compilation is "Come Along, Charles" recorded as the trio Les Diaboliques, featuring the magnificent Maggie Nichols (voice) and Joelle Leandre (bass). It's a short piece and only gives a brief taste of the full live performance. Schweizer's playing standouts here because of the subtly. Unlike the other settings, she allows Nichols and Leandre to take the fore. "Come Along, Charles" is a nice bit of classical avant garde.

I have a feeling a lot of you may be like me in that you didn't know where to start with Irene Schweizer's music. I have to say Portrait is a great primer and entry point. After this I would suggest any of the duo recordings. Portrait was a great find for me. I hope that you guys can find it as well. Enjoy...

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hugo Carvalhais...WOW!

Hugo Carvalhais (double bass, electronics; b. 1978)
Nebulosa (Clean Feed Records, 2010)
Gabriel Pinto (piano)
Mario Costa (drums)
Tim Berne (sax)

You know those situations where you are about two songs in and you know this album is going to be amazing before the second song is even finished playing? Well, I've been having that moment every since I put Nebulosa (Clean Feed) into the CD player. Hugo Carvalhais' debut as leader is really phenomenal. The compositions have a depth and electricity that captures your attention immediately. All this from a musician who is self taught on double bass.

The use of electronics are integral to the compositions but are delicate and never overwhelming to the structure of the tunes. The electronic element gives the album an atmospheric nature built inside of acoustic improvisation that the group delivers, especially on "Nebulosa I." "Nebulosa I" has some wonderful moments presented by Pinto on synths sounding like Herbie Hancock circa Headhunters, and some excellent exploratory phrasing by guest member, Tim Berne. Carvalhais adds subtle touches in background like a young Miroslav Vitous or Eberhard Weber. Carvalhais and Costa increase the pressure as the group hits a beautiful piece of cacophony towards the end.

On "Impala" Pinto and Carvalhais share some interplay and utilize space to maximize effect. The overall impact is emotional but its masked wonderfully in an appropriate amount of lyricism on Carvalhais' part. And while there is a lot of experimentation going on throughout Nebulosa, there is a definitely a large dose of structure as well. This is crystallized on "Nebulosa III" and "Cobalto", where the group stay in traditional format and pace with the exception of one member crafting designs along the edges. Costa stretches broadly on "Cobalto" while Berne has well a constructed explosion of sound after what is essential a Pinto solo piano piece on "Nebulosa III."

The beauty of the closing number "Redemption" while short, is probably the perfect ending to an enlightening journey. A melodic piece that for me has shades of David Sylvian's instrumental work. The trio is measured but glorious in its directness. A really transcendent piece.

Hugo Carvalhais wrote all the material and surrounded himself with a supremely talented pair of musicians in Pinto and Costa. Berne's addition only adds an extra dose of excellence. Nebulosa is a masterful debut from a trio that I hope is around for long time. I'm still trying to figure out why I didn't pick up this record last year. It would have easily been in my top ten albums of the year. But anyway, it's on constant play now. Hope you have a chance to pick it up too.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Return Of Denys Baptiste

Denys Baptiste (sax; b. 1969)
Identity By Subtraction (Dune Records)

I have been waiting for this record for a long while. It's been seven years since his third album, the epic Let Freedom Ring (Dune Records), based around the legendary speech by Martin Luther King Jr. But it doesn't matter, Denys Baptiste is back with Identity By Subtraction (Dune Records). A more intimate affair than it's predecessor, Identity By Subtraction explores just that--looking back at his history, heritage and the search for self understanding.

The intimacy of Identity By Subtraction is conveyed in Baptiste's choice of just a quartet setting unlike his previous albums which have included a large ensemble of players and vocalists. Baptiste has kept is core players with him--the increasingly important Andrew McCormack (piano), Rod Youngs (drums) and Greg Crosby (bass). On "Special Times" the quartet creates a beautiful sculpture of melodies that left me weeping and looking introspectively at my own life. "Special Times" was dedicated to his family, for which the album is essentially about. Baptiste's family has shaped his career and personal outlook in recent years and this album maybe his strongest as a result of that experience.

While Baptiste has stated Courtney Pine as one influence, I have always seen elements of Sonny Rollins throughout his music over the years. That thought showed up for me again as I listened "Dance Of The Maquiritari" which relates to his Caribbean heritage (his parents are from St. Lucia). It's a wonderfully upbeat number with island vibes moving throughout. One of the standouts for me is "Song Of You", an midtempo ballad which demonstrates Baptiste at his best on sax. His playing is bold and crisp with a sense of colour, shape and romanticism. His interplay with McCormack is superb.

Identity By Subtraction keeps a compassionate and interpersonal outlook to its proceedings but the title track and "Evolution From Revolution" both present the quartet in more uptempo scenarios. Each having some wonderful and dominant solo statements by Youngs (on Evolution...) and McCormack (on Identity...). It seems Baptiste purpose throughout Identity By Subtraction is to focus the listener on the performances and emotions of the song and not big large themes. These are quality performances from a group that has played with each other for years.

I have been listening to Identity By Subtraction at least once every other day since it came out last December only for digital (the actually CD is released next week). It's great to have Baptiste back on the scene. Identity By Subtraction is a deep and personal look inside the history of a man and a musician. But is also a statement that Baptiste is becoming one of the most important players on British jazz scene (just like Courtney Pine). No matter how long between records, it was always going to be worth the wait. Highly Recommended.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Yo Miles! More Than Just A Tribute...

Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet) / Henry Kaiser (guitar)
Yo Miles: Lightning (Three Records)
Yo Miles: Shinjuku (Three Records)

Originally released between 1998 - 2003, these two live recordings (a collection of tracks from albums Sky Garden, Upriver and Yo Miles) and were celebrated and derided within the avant garde jazz circle. Yo Miles was a series of three albums dedicated to the music of Miles Davis' 70s electric era material.

The albums might have gotten overlooked due to the plethora of Miles material that came out at the time (official reissues) and the Bill Laswell project Panthelasa (a Miles Davis remix album). I personally wasn't a big fan of the Laswell project although it has grown on me over the years. Yo Miles on the other hand, follows a different path. Smith and Kaiser assembled an all star line up including Zakir Hussain, Rova Sax Quartet, John Medeski, Elliot Sharp, Nels Cline, among many others to construct a dazzling collection of re-imagined versions of that era which breath new life into the already psychedelic, rock and funk monolith that Miles built over three decades ago.

Lighting and Shinjuku were two of the four releases that focused more on original material from both Smith and Kaiser. What's so amazing is, that the songs would easily sound at home on any Miles album from that era--especially Bitches Brew, Agharta, Pangea or Live Evil. "Cozy Pete," "Thunder & Lightning" and "Miles Davis--Great Ancestor" all exhibit that deep exploration for new sounds, rhythms, patterns and a direction that Miles was achieving with his epic albums of the time.

Kaiser and Smith seem like kindred spirits here. They along with the entire ensemble of musicians develop a synergy throughout the session that melds into one unified theme. You do get a spiritual vibe from these songs especially "Muhammad Ali," "Tsapiky Frelimo" and the all out assault of "Shinjuku" which could give Agharta and some of the tracks from On The Corner a real run for their money.

These two editions of the Yo Miles series originally came out on the label Cuneiform and almost as quickly as they were released they label folded. So these two records now go for a slightly hefty price tag if you can find them. Some stores like Downtown Music Gallery in New York City still have physical copies at a very inexpensive price.

Now in our digital age Yo Miles! Lightning and Yo Miles! Shinjuku albums are only available as downloads (you can find them on iTunes) but they are still potent and worth seeking out. Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Kaiser created a series which now after a decade is finally being truly understood (along with Miles' material 3 decades early) and you should investigate these two records fully. It's extraordinary and keeps to the spirit of what Miles had perfected. A beauty tribute that stands solely on its on a separate work altogether. Enjoyable again.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Jonathan Parker

Jonathan Parker Group (self produced)
* Only available as a download: Bandcamp
Jonathan Parker (alto sax)
Sean Higgins (piano and rhodes)
Curtis Ostle (bass)
Alex Ritz (drums)
Theo Croker (trumpet)
Lawrence Ku (guitar)
Andres Boiarsky (tenor sax)
Mindy Ruskovich (trombone)

Sensibility, buoyancy, soulfulness and refreshing. That's what you'll be saying after the first listen to "Clearyism", the opening track from the young talented new saxophonist, Jonathan Parker. It can also sum up the majority of his self released debut, The Jonathan Parker Group.

Jonathan Parker, a Washington D.C. native, spent his development years at Oberlin Conservatory. The experience was he gained in school with such mentor as Gary Bartz, Billy Hart, Marcus Belgrave and others is immense and it shows throughout his debut. But like so many of us it was his formative years that catapulted him to jazz. A chance encounter with an excellent Charlie Parker collection set Parker on the way to establishing his musical vision. After College he moved to Shanghai, not necessarily the first place you think of going when you are budding jazz musician.

But while he was there he spent a great deal of time shaping his craft with fellow Oberlin graduates. This probably turned out to be a blessing in disguise. There was no pressure the jazz meccas of NY, London, Chicago, San Francisco, Tokyo, Oslo etc., Parker could just play and experiment with sound and rhythm. The two year journey was capped off with a return to the U.S. and stronger outlook on his own music. But now the real journey begins as this young talent sets forth with an excellent debut and chance to mix things up across the country.

The beauty and freshness of "Clearyism" shoots out a you with all forms of joy. It's like a late night with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers or for a more contemporary comparison, One For All. His group are smokin' from the outset. You really can't escape this track and therefore you have to listen onwards. And what you get will surprise you and delight you.

Shifting gears slightly is "CO86" a more romantic and some might say "smooth" R&B filled midtempo piece. But you would be fooled to stay in such a static mode over "CO86", Parker's phrasing is fantastic and shows that he can shift from hard bop to modern romantic in seconds. His band are incredible as well, Sean Higgins, really shines here on keyboards. He adds an element of Roy Ayer's soul that envelopes the piece nicely.

His group again show this soulful side to themselves on "East Lorain" which Ostle and Ritz keep a melodic soulful groove around Parker's bold proclamations on sax. It's a piece that has a late night club atmosphere to it but you immediately hear the delicate compositional structure Parker has created and that's what is enlightening for me. "Jacqui" is an elegant blues based ballad that see the group expressing itself but remaining within the confines of composition. Lawrence Ku adds a Kenny Burrell element that this piece that I think gives it an understated beauty. Parker seems to gain a lot of strength from each musicians as the song moves along.

While I know there are a billion new artists out there and there are hundreds of established artists out there. Our choices as music fans are endless. For those of you looking for something new and refreshing--Jonathan Parker might be it. A great new talent who's got excellent compositional skills and a cool head when it comes to the musicians he's learned from and the one's he has surrounded himself with--The Jonathan Parker Group is a wonderful debut. A beautiful balance of hard bop sensibilities and modern romantic themes.

The Jonathan Parker Group is currently only available as a download from Bandcamp. Probably the best way to get it. And I would recommend most artists if you aren't on a label this is the best way to get your music out there. We loved Jonathan Parker's debut and hope you will too. Highly Recommended from your friends at JazzWrap.

JazzWrap also took time to speak (through email) to Mr. Parker about his journey and many other thoughts. It was a long conversation but I thought it best to bring it to you in its entirety.

The album is a wonderful blend of hard bop and soulful rhythms (particularly "Clearyisms" and "East Lorain"). What artists or albums inspired you when you were first starting out?

Well, I’d have to say the first artist who really piqued my interest in Jazz was Charlie Parker. I was about 14 when my first saxophone teacher moved out of town and she recommended that I take from another teacher close by. His name was Bill Mulligan and he had recently moved to town to play in the United States Navy “Commodores” Jazz Band based in DC. Shortly after I began studying with him he told me to check out a saxophonist named Charlie Parker. Of course at this time in my life I was more interested in listening to pop radio, but for Christmas that year, my mother got me The Essential Charlie Parker on Verve Records. 

Even then I really give the album a chance, but I think there was one time when I decided to give the CD some play in my Discman. A lot of what I heard I didn’t exactly like too much but there was one song that immediately grabbed me – Confirmation. I honestly had no idea what Bird was playing but just listening to him play gave me goose bumps. Eventually, I just got hooked on that entire album and began to discover all the bebop musicians Bird was associated with. I suppose that was the one album that “opened” my ears, so to speak, to jazz. From that time on, my high school CD collection grew at a voracious pace – and it certainly hasn’t slowed down one bit since then.

You've traveled a lot in the last few years and worked with a number of great musicians. Has the experience of performing with such great talent in both America and China influenced your music or your debut?

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have traveled and performed abroad for the last two years. The whole experience was extremely beneficial for my own playing for two reasons - in Shanghai although the music scene is relatively small, there many extremely talented players who I was able to play alongside and the decent amount of work afforded me the opportunity to really improve my craft and become a stronger all-around player. Shortly after moving to Shanghai in September 2008, I was offered a contract to perform at a jazz club in Beijing from October through the end of January. This was a serious gig – we played 3 or 4 sets a night, 6 nights a week. When you play that much, you’re forced to become a much more consistent player.

As for the musicians residing in Shanghai, they hail from many different countries: Columbia, Brazil, France, Australia, Mauritius, Japan, The United States, and of course China. While I was able to perform alongside most of the players in town, I really kept close to the players I knew from Oberlin Conservatory. There are currently 6 or so Oberlin graduates playing out there and we all had our own little clique. One group that I played with in Shanghai was led by Theo Croker, a trumpet player and Oberlin alum, and we were constantly playing original music. For awhile, we had a weekly Monday night gig at The House of Blues and Jazz and Theo and I would both bring in music we had been writing to play. This was a unique opportunity to test out new material.

Theo has a unique compositional style – one that isn’t too easily categorized. He’ll write a lot of different material in many different styles. It’s hard to say if his writing chops rubbed off on me – our styles are pretty different from one another. But it was nice to be in a group where several people were bringing in original work. It made our band have a much more eclectic sound – the group wasn’t just the voice of one person and the drastically different compositions from Theo and me I think ended up complimenting each other.

One other gig that I played constantly throughout my time in Shanghai was at The Cotton Club. They have a house band that’s been playing there for a long time now (at least 10 years). Led by Utah-born guitarist Greg Smith, the group plays music from the American Blues and R&B songbooks. The singer, Jacqui “Sugar Mama” Stanton, actually just recently left us but she was a musical legend. Having performed in Ike and Tina Turner’s band, among many others, you couldn’t get more authentic than Jacqui. She was an incredible singer and musician and I feel extremely privileged to have play next to her for as long I did. This band was (and still is!) incredibly tight and night after night they delivered great sets and Greg and Mama were just always giving 110% up there on stage. Playing with people on this sort of level night after night really does make you a stronger player. And even though we weren’t playing straight-ahead jazz, I learned plenty from being there - whether it was how to play a short and sweet solo on a Donnie Hathaway tune or really getting my blues chops down cold on a slow blues in Db.

Your band sounds incredibly tight and seems to have a lot of freedom. How long have you worked with them?

Most of my band mates I’ve known for quite some time now. Curtis Ostle, Alex Ritz, and Theo Croker all went to Oberlin while I was there. We all played in different groups with each other throughout our time at Oberlin and had already developed some sort of rapport so when we all ended up in Shanghai, it was only natural for us to link back togethe.

As for the other members, Sean Higgins is originally from Massachusetts and had worked in New York City with Winard Harper’s group for several years before moving to Shanghai. He is a terrific pianist and he’s coming out of a lot of the music that I’m really into, so he was a great fit for the piano chair. Andres Boiarsky is a phenomenal tenor player who only recently ended up in Shanghai. Originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Andres spent a long time playing in New York City and he worked a great deal with The Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band. I know he’s also done work separately with Slide Hampton, Claudio Roditi, and Dennis Mackrel – to name a few. I am very honored and thankful for Andres to have played on this record. And finally, Lawrence Ku is originally from Los Angeles and has been living in Shanghai for quite some time now. Aside from being a great guitarist, he’s also very involved in the music education scene in Shanghai and is the principal at the JZ School – an independent music school providing music instruction to Chinese and Expat children alike. I really enjoy Lawrence’s playing and thought he would be a perfect addition to four of the songs on the record.

What are your touring plans for this year?

Well that’s tough question… Unfortunately, moving to New York City meant giving up all the steady work I had in Shanghai and starting anew. I’ve been here about 5 months now and I feel like I’m only now beginning to really figure out how go about getting work. I’ve been fortunate to have linked up with fellow Oberlin alum, Andy Barnett who is currently living in New Haven, CT. and directing his own group – The Theodicy Jazz Collective. The Theodicy is a church group based out of The Episcopal Church of St. Paul and St. James that incorporates elements of jazz and contemporary R&B. We play regularly in New Haven, but this coming spring we’ll have a bunch of dates throughout New York City. I’ve also started to book shows featuring my own group throughout the city – we were just booked at Miles CafĂ© on May 3rd. Also since moving to New York, I’ve returned home to Alexandria, VA. several times to play one-offs with various groups around the DC area. I’m hoping sometime this summer to get my group a bunch of shows lined up throughout the greater DC Metropolitan Area. I recently haven’t had quite as much time to focus on touring because I am right now in the process of applying for graduate school. I plan on attending school this coming fall, but I’m not quite sure where I’m going to end up – as I write this, I’m on a train to Rochester, NY. to audition at The Eastman School of Music. But I’m trying to remain as close to NYC as possible for my next two years in school, so that I may still involve myself with the jazz scene here.

How would you describe your writing process?

For me, the piano is the main tool I use when composing although I do keep my saxophone handy as well. I try to always set aside a certain amount of time everyday to composition and general piano practice and whether I’m playing a standard or something more modern, the piano helps me find an idea to start tinkering with. It can be a certain chord progression or just a short melodic line, but once that kernel is discovered, I’ll spend a good deal of time extrapolating material from it. Sometimes the process is pretty fast – I penned Clearyisms within a day or two, but then it can also take quite awhile – Minimum Wage took almost two months to complete. I also try to simultaneously write the melody and chords at the piano. I believe that writing both the harmony and melody together will make a composition more cohesive. If wrote a chord progression first and then placed a melody on top of the chords, I’d be worried that the composition would be disjointed and just not sound natural. Harmony and melody are equally important in my mind and therefore deserve equal amounts of attention.

Have you been listening or reading anything that is pushing your creativity forward?

The great trumpeter Tom Harrell is one composer whose music I really enjoy. His music is at both times accessible and cerebral. If I had to recommend just one album of his, it’d have to be Sail Away - every composition on that record is impressive. I think it’s definitely too early to describe my own personal style when it comes to composition, but he’s a player who is doing something I’d like to try and emulate. In addition, I’ve recently been revisiting the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. These guys were masters at composition and arranging. I was just recently working on Prelude To A Kiss and Isfahan – these two songs are just simply beautiful.

And I suppose I should at least cite one alto player who I’m checking out. David Binney is a player who is probably not that well-known outside of jazz nerd circles, but he’s both a tremendous saxophonist with brilliant technique and a gifted composer who releases new work at a prolific pace. Binney is a guy with really eclectic tastes and influences and it should come as no surprise that his music is just as diverse. A couple of years ago he released an album entitled Cities And Desires, which I couldn’t stop listening to. On that record he collaborates with the tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and the results are a joy to listen to. I know he just released a new album called Graylen Epicenter, which I have heard a bit of and it’s definitely going to be the next CD I purchase. Compositionally, he has a very unique voice and although I feel as though I’m many years behind understanding what he’s doing compositionally, I find myself drawn to his music nonetheless. I hope that I can absorb some of what he’s doing and incorporate it into my own compositional language in the future.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Rare Thing

The Thing with Otomo Yoshihide
Shinjuku Crawl (Smalltown Superjazz, 2009)

Mats Gustafsson (sax; electronics)
Ingebrigt Haker Falten (bass)
Paal Nilssen-Love(drums)
Otomo Yoshihide (guitars)

Shinjuku Crawl must be some sort of secret document. For me at least. It's been extremely difficult to find. I finally gave in and downloaded it from iTunes. Not what I wanted to do with one of my favourite bands. This is always been a band that I want to hear on the physical disc or vinyl. But for some reason the physical version of Shinjuku Crawl is now unavailable and the only way to get it is on digital. I guess for now that's fine. Because either way my JazzWrap friends, this is a fantastic record.

Shinjuku Crawl is built on two beautiful suites, "Shinjuku Crawl I-III" and "Dori Dugout Parts I&II" along with the short but enchanting "Uramando". This is first time The Thing have sat with avant garde guitarist, Otomo Yoshihide all as on group. This session was originally recorded in 2007 which makes the wait for its actually release even more painful. They have worked together separately in various groups, most notably in Yoshihide's New Jazz Orchestra but Shinjuku Crawl is a whole different affair.

For me it feels like a combination of recent Gustafsson projects with Sonore and Fire! wielded together. There are moments quiet minimalism as "Shinjuku Crawl (First Attempt)" makes its slow build through with just gentle/slightly audible taps on the drums and phasing in and out of Otomo and Gustafsson instruments. I almost wanted to Genesis P. Oridgide to step up and start singing Persuasion (a classic Throbbing Gristle number). As we began to make into climax of the piece, the explosion of sound begins. Otomo seems the perfect accompaniment to The Things wall of sound. The group are taking you a deliberately long journey.

Then "Shinjuku Crawl (Second Attempt)" travels through the wonderful tribal elements of Nilssen-Love drumkit and dynamic work delivered by Falten and Gustafssson. Yoshihide is almost understated except for his lovely feedback drone that packs a solid punch to the listener on first impulse but eventually delivers you to a soft landing.

While the entire suite follows the standard tempo conventions of slow, moderately slow and very fast, The Thing and Otomo have slightly warped this thinking by utilizing within each suite. So what we are hearing is in the traditional sense--Adagio, Allegro Moderato/Prestissimo, Moderato/Prestissimo. Okay cutting to the chase its a journey through slow, fast, midtempo/frenetic, midtempo and fierce. In short, pure beauty. And that's really how you can wrap "Shinjuku Crawl (Third Attempt)" with blistering variations you will most certainly been amazed by the pace and movement. Great stuff.

The calm of "Uramando" explores the atmospheric side of Yoshihide playing as it is paired with a more reserved backing from The Thing. Not so much an interlude as moment of reflected and watching where we go next.

And next is our denouement, "Dori Dugout" which the quartet drills further into the center of our cerebral cortex with some magnificent playing by Nilssen-Love and enigmatic dexterity from Gustafsson. This is brilliant piece which each member is performing and bombastic pace but the recording levels must be set up differently because eventually Gustafsson takes over the piece with the rest of group blistering away underneath. This is sound that you achieve only with a select group of musicians and The Thing are one of those select groups. Otomo Yoshihide matches this perfection with delicate beauty.

Shinjuku Crawl is now either out of print or unavailable in CD/Vinyl form but I highly advise my free jazz friends to download this (legally) from iTunes or Amazon. It is buried treasure that hopefully we'll see back in circulation sooner rather later. Highly Recommended.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Esperanza Spalding: Well Deserved

Esperanza Spalding (bass; vocals; b. 1984)
Chamber Music Society (Concord Music)

So Esperanza Spalding won a Grammy last night while I was watching the BAFTA's. This was a shock and actually well deserved. If you don't own this record now--you better by the end of the week. I decided to go back and take a look at what we said about Chamber Music Society last year.

I was trying to avoid this record but I finally gave in and decided what the hell, let's listen and see how it goes. Well for someone who really hasn't heard her previous two albums, I can say that Esperanza Spalding is definitely the real deal and does bring something different and unique to the table.

The Portland, Oregon native was classically trained which is very much on display throughout her newest release, Chamber Music Society (Concord). Spalding's has a terrific voice and her lyrically poetry especially on the opener "Little Fly" is spiritually moving and rich harmony. There are moments where her vocals remind me of nu-soul singers, Monday Michiru and Angela Johnson. Chamber Music Society is an extraordinary mixture of classical, soul, jazz and Latin themes that are expressed with ease and comfort of a talent that has been at it for years. But Esperanza is only 23 years old. Esperanza's complex rhythms, vocal delivery and mastery of the bass make Chamber Music Society a real adventure as you wait to see what's going to come next.

The freshness of record is also highlighted by the manner in which Esperanza allows her band to expand and take center stage throughout. This to me, is the sign of a great upcoming musician and leader. The work of pianist, Leo Genovese, David Eggar on cello and veteran drummer, Terri Lynn Carrington bring and exquisite shine to the proceedings (mainly "Chacarera" and "Really Very Small"). Esperanza delivers two wonderful interpretations that demonstrate her arresting vocal talents on "Wild Is The Wind" and "Inutil Paisagem" that took me by surprise but on second spin I was hooked. Spalding also recruits the Brasilian legend, Milton Nasimento on the self penned "Apple Blossom" which turns out to be a fabulous meeting of generations.

I have to say since I didn't know much about the previous two albums, Chamber Music Society took a few listens to grow on me. Now after listening, Chamber Music Society is ambitious, exciting, refreshing and easily accessible. It's not going to change the face of jazz but it is one more interesting contemporary jazz records so far this year. Well worth your listening time.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Undiscovered Soul: Angela Johnson

Angela Johnson (vocals, keyboards, electronics)
It's Personal (Purpose Music, 2010)

Probably known more inside music circles than the wider populous (a shame really), Angela Johnson has been on the scene for almost two decades. Her positive message and soulful rhythms have help transform indie Soul music both in the US, Europe and Japan. While Patrice Rushen is a documented influence, Angela Johnson is making a case as a highly influential figure in her own right among today's indie Soul singers.

There have been a lot of indie US Soul singers in the last few years who have gained considerable exposure; N'Dambi, Ledisi, Anthony David and Donnie quickly come to mind. Angela Johnson is well deserving of the same wider reach. She has not only been a supreme deliverer of passionate themes and beats--Johnson has become a magnificent songwriter (delivering hits for Conya Davis, the groups Reel People and Seek to name a few) over the course of her career.

Originally a member of short-lived underground soul outfit Cooly's Hot Box, Johnson left the group to launch her solo career. This past year she released her fourth album, It's Personal (Purpose Music) and it is truly a slice of soulful strength and personal insight. Mainly revolving around her family and personal experiences over the last few years, It's Personal can still be reconstructed for one's own life. Opening with intimate yet funky "Only One" which asks the question that even after all this time "Em I still the only one for you?". A great love song that is thoughtful, lovely and beat-friendly.

"Hurts Like Hell" discussing the loss of love and how it has affected her life. Something we can all relate to. The harmony and tempo of "Hurts Like Hell" reminds me of early soulful Jamiroquai tracks. It's Personal isn't just about personal and emotion themes, there are also infectious head bouncy, body moving movements like "On The Radio" where Johnson asks the question we are all want to know, "Where has all the good music gone from the radio?". Last night a DJ was supposed to save my life but apparently you just can't get find that on the radio or in a record store. Angela Johnson delivers the question with all the right beats of a late club night.

The title track also hits the dance note perfectly with keyboards, trumpets and sax (by the way an all female band with Johnson on keys). A song stating her strength and independent spirit. "It's Personal" is wonderful closing statement from Johnson and for me the best album since her solo debut, They Don't Know (Purpose Music in US, Dome in UK; 2002).

Angela Johnson writes, performs and produces all of her material which is rare even among indie Soul singers. It's Personal is a brilliant and poignant document of one of the best singer, songwriters on the soul scene today. A real undiscovered treat for any music fan. I plead with everyone to check her out. You won't be disappointed. They don't make soul like this---period.

Friday, February 11, 2011

George Schuller: Life's Little Dramas

George Schuller Trio
Life's Little Dramas (Fresh Sound/New Talent; 2010)

George Schuller (drums)
Dan Tepfer (piano)
Jeremy Stratton (bass)

You may not know George Schuller but you've probably heard him at one point or another. Schuller comes from a family of jazz musicians (brother Ed and father/legend Gunther). His talent extends across an array of recordings, either as member, producer or writer. He's worked with Joe Lovano, Tony Malaby, Ran Blake, Luciana Souza and one of my favourite groups, Conference Call to name just a mere few. Schuller is a highly versatile and artistic drummer but an even more prolific and masterful composer.

Schuller's recorded discography as leader isn't that long considering his been performing since the early '80s. George Schuller's latest, Life's Little Dramas (Fresh Sound/New Talent) is wonderful example of Schuller's versatility and compositional brilliance. Now I don't own any of George Schuller's material as leader so this was a bit of a revelation for me when I got a copy of Life's Little Dramas. Joined with him are two other exciting and highly skilled musicians in Dan Tepfer (piano) and Jeremy Stratton (bass). Both musicians have stellar recording careers of their own but within Schuller's arrangements they all shine. The number of tracks Life's Little Dramas were written over the span of the last 3 decades and Schuller as he mentions briefly in the notes wanted to readdress them in a different way.

Opening with the Schuller penned "Glass Notes", Tepfer takes center stage with some lovely and dynamic moments throughout. Schuller and Stratton keep a slight yet quietly upbeat tone in the background. Schuller's arrangements are extremely inventive and utilize various chord changes that may not be noticeable to the non-musician (myself included) but they will hit you subtly. One such moment is "House Of Blue Lime", written by Lee Konitz, which Schuller arranges with great beauty and craft. Stratton and Schuller both have exquisite solos during this piece. And I think its Schuller voice (someone correct me if I'm wrong) that can be heard underneath the chords in an almost Keith Jarrett-esque channeling.

Schuller's compositions really do allow the trio to stretch and feel extremely wide and open. The richly diverse "Newtoon" is evidence that Schuller can be complex in his structure while still building a marvelously touching tune. The drums are awash everywhere while Tepfer tenders delicate yet playful chord changes. "Salad Days" is simply a wonderful ballad strangely enough about salad. Stratton again shines with emotive delivery. Schuller message is carried with firm brushes of rhythm while Tepfer delivers story on top.

Life's Little Dramas is compelling, diverse, and filled with energy on multiple levels. It's not drummers record. It's a composer's record. And this composer has delivered a superb document of post bop skill and brought out the best in his trio. I'm hoping these guys get a chance to record again because Life's Little Dramas is a real treat from start to finish.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Mitch Kessler: Der Erlkonig

Mitch Kessler (sax, flute)
Der Erlkonig (Sun Jump Records)

John Esposito (piano)
Peter O'Brien (drums)
Ira Coleman (bass)

Working with longtime friends and fellow upstate NY musicians The John Esposito Trio, Mitch Kessler has produced a marvelous second album, Der Erlkonig (The ElfKing) (Sun Jump Records) which somehow surpasses his debut Erratica (Sun Jump Records; 2009). This is a spiritual/free jazz outing in the vein and quality of Pharoah Sanders, Eric Dolphy and Alice Coltrane; or even the soulful elements of Detroit's Tribe which featured Phil Ranelin, Marcus Belgrave and others.

Der Erlkonig, a poem written by Johann Wolfgan Von Goethe tells the story of young boy who is killed by a mysterious being while riding home with his father on horseback. It's is dark and unsettling story that leaves a lot to the imagination. Here Kessler has made the piece more haunting by delivering the poem in its traditional German. The performances "Der Erlkonig" are spectacular. The opening bassline from Coleman suggests a beat generation like journey over the next 70 minutes. And it delivers. The quartet are smokin' and make the haunting tale seem more like a journey of a higher order.

"Indo Eurasian Folksong" has all the elements of A Love Supreme-Acknowledgement with an added level of urgency. The timing and interaction between the quartet tells you that while they've only recorded a small amount of material together they are still tight and rhythmically adventurous. The floating hypnotic nature of Kessler's flute combined with Coleman's addictive bassline just underneath is sublime.

"Non Sequitur" bursts through with some wonderful improvisational exchanges between Kessler and Esposito. Coleman and O'Brien are not to be outdone as they emerge midway with an excellent yet delicate exchange that leads to a lovely closing.

"Vietnamese Waltz" closes out this session and it's a blisteringly beautiful track with excellent solo work from each musician. Kessler's playing is far-reaching, exploratory and touching all in a matter of nine minutes. This is great stuff, people.

For me, Kessler's compositions are an interesting and intricate balance of the latter works of both Coltrane's (John and Alice) and Monk. With only his second release, Der Erlkonig, Mitch Kessler has estabished himself as a soon to be dominate talent on the scene if he continues with this type of consistently strong and creative output. Mitch Kessler is an undiscovered treasure and more than worth the purchase (You can find it at Downtown Music Gallery). Enjoy.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Miles Davis Live

Miles Davis (trumpet)
Bitches Brew Live (Columbia/Legacy; 2011)
Chick Corea (electric piano)
Jack DeJonette (drums)
Dave Holland (bass)
Gary Bartz (sax)
Keith Jarrett (organ)
Airto Moreira (percussion)

Well, its always easy to talk about Miles Davis here at JazzWrap, this week sees the release of another Miles Davis document--Bitches Brew Live (Columbia/Legacy). While there is a plethora of live Miles material out there, its probably pretty tough to decide what to get. There are definitely some excellent "unofficial" live albums available--particularly from the Lone Hill and Gambit labels which if you find them--buy them. But you should put Bitches Brew on your list of Miles albums to pick up because it ranks up there as one of the best Miles live albums out there "official" and "unofficial".

Bitches Brew Live contains two dates, one prior to the release of the seminal album and one during the following summer (July 1969 and August 1970). This set is different than last years Bitches Brew deluxe edition which included a live disc recorded in Copenhagen. Bitches Brew Live features material from the Newport Jazz Festival and the legendary Isle of Wight Festival. The Newport set only features a quartet including Chick Corea (electric piano), Dave Holland (bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums). Wayne Shorter (sax) was supposed to make up a quintet but according to the story he was stuck in traffic on the way to gig.

The performance here is incredible to hear with just Miles as the horn sections along with funky, swirling and psychedelic rhythm section. They plow through a brief ten minute version of "Miles Runs The Voodoo Down" in addition to the "Sanctuary," and "Its About Time", all with fierce accuracy. This was only a few weeks before Miles would go into the studio with his full twelve piece ensemble to record the groundbreaking album.

The second set recorded in the following summer after the release features that ensemble. This was kind of like Dylan going electric. While Miles had already starting thinking and utilizing electric in his performances this was sort of the coming out party that would make the ultimate statement to his current and new found audiences. Right from the start with "Directions" and "Bitches Brew" Miles and company get to the point that this was going to be a funky, raucous and adventurous affair. This version of "Bitches Brew" flows through some lovely Far East spiritual moments midway through that for me make it one of the highlights of that touring period. "Spanish Key" was always a soulful piece but the solo work from Gary Bartz on sax and how he leads the group is unbelievable. This becomes full throttle when Miles joins back in towards the end.

The rock influence shows definitely explodes during this concert and that makes Bitches Brew Live well worth picking up. Unlike the later live albums Miles would record during the 70s this year of show is probably the most focused and cohesive even for the non-Miles-fusion era fan. A real treat for everyone listening.

Further Recommended Miles Live Albums

Live at Pasadena Civic Auditorium '56 (second disc of Round Midnight deluxe edition on Columbia/Legacy)
Live In Stockholm '60 (With Sonny Stitt and John Coltrane on Dragon Records)
At Carnegie Hall '61 (Columbia/Legacy)
Live In Berlin '64 (Columbia/Legacy)
Winter In Europe '67 (Gambit)
In Concert at Philharmonic Hall '72 (Columbia/Legacy)
Agharta '75 (Columbia/Legacy)
Live In Poland '83 (Gambit)
Live At Montreux ,91 (Warners)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Jake Fryer: In Good Company

Jake Fryer (sax)
In Good Company (Capri Records; 2011)

Bud Shank (alto sax)
Bob Magnusson (bass)
Joe La Barbera (drums)
Mike Wofford (piano)

Jake Fryer is already an accomplished saxophonist on the British scene. Working and leading four different groups including this collaboration with the legendary Bud Shank, Fryer has always shown a deep respect for Bebop and displays his talent amazingly well. This pairing of legend/mentor and student if you will is perfect blend of past, present and future. There is really no where for the listener to find objections with In Good Company.

Recorded unfortunately hours before Bud Shank's passing, In Good Company is a bright, affectionate outing that brims with energy and joy. Predominately containing original material from Jake Fryer, in particular, the lovely "Agnieszka" in which Fryer shows some touching and relaxed phrasing on alto. The addition of Shank's full rhythm section is an adding bonus for the listener as well. Mike Wofford, a longtime member of Shank's band delivers some unbelievable work throughout this recording but for me "Agnieszka" packs the loveliest of punches.

"Bopping With Bud" is an obvious but respectful tribute to the legend. The tone and tete-a-tete that Shank and Fryer share is superb. Bud Shank's delivery is tight and thin tone but with the voice of distinction. Fryer displays a bold, round sound that surrounds proceeding. There is real reverence here but also a great deal of playfulness that is exciting to hear.

The standards "Almost Like Falling In Love" and the perennial "Caravan" both display a sense of romance and vibrancy that make In Good Company a compelling and energetic session. "Speak Low" a Kurt Weil classic, boils over with Bebop vigour. While Fryer and Shank are delightful in their exchanges, Wofford, Magnusson and La Barbera are really smokin' with urgency.

Jake Fryer's dream of performing with one of his heroes was fulfilled with In Good Company. But it is we the listener who are honoured with a wonderful document of a legend and a beautiful vision of the future of Jake Fryer.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Lars Fiil Kvartet: Reconsideration

Lars Fiil Kvartet

Lars Fiil (piano)
Jens Mikkel Madsen (bass)
Lis Kruse (sax)
Andreas Skamby (drums)

So I've been eagerly awaiting the album that would knock my ears off at the beginning of 2011. And I think I've found it. Danish quartet, Lars Fiil Kvartet led by pianist Lars Fiil, saxophonist Lis Kruse, bassist Jens Mikkel Madsen and drummer Andreas Skamby. Their debut album Reconsideration, is a sublime piece of work.

In the same manner which Dave Stapleton's Between The Lines was both British jazz and beyond British--Lars Fiil has created a document filled with original material that is clearly post modern and European. But Reconsideration aims much higher and beyond many of it's Scandinavian counterparts.

Reconsideration is thoughtful, respectful of its influences (so much so, it's sometimes it hard to find) and improvising when necessary. "Reconsideration" is a beautiful opening number that is reminiscent of the quieter moments of the great Esbjorn Svensson and Tord Gustofsson pieces but things really set fire on the next track. "The Opener" moves from forceful hard bop to groove-laden melodic harmonics without missing a beat. Fiil's playing is truly impressive. I don't know if McCoy Tyner was an influence but for me there are shades--more so in the calmer moments on Reconsideration.

The performances from the rest of the quartet should not be understated. This is demonstrated excellently on "After..." in which Kruse, Skamby and Madsen share some emotional passages before Fiil comes in to round out the sound. The band then jump headlong with steam into some improvised but well structured movements before Kruse and Fiil bringing everything to gentle conclusion.

The full stretch moment is "Xenophobiaphobia", a jumpin' piece that I think Monk would be proud of. Fiil's playing is rich, spirited and challenge when it needs to be. Lars Fiil has a voice and character that far surpasses this debut.

Reconsideration is impressive from start to finish. An album filled with all original material played at a high level and well crafted and delivered by each individual member. Lars Fiil has delivered the first great record of 2011 and I believe we will be talking about this album again as part of our Best Albums Of 2011 in twelve months. Reconsideration is Highly Recommended.