Monday, June 27, 2011

Daniel Levin: Inner Landscape

Daniel Levin (cello)
Inner Landscape (Clean Feed; 2011)

Daniel Levin has been at the forefront lately in the creative circles of jazz. His recordings (both in duo, trio and quartet settings) have been some of the most inventive and challenging in improvised music. It is amazing to think that after seven albums as leader that he has never recorded a solo cello album. Until now.

Inner Landscape contains six fully improvised pieces that feel more contextual than spontaneous. It's a journey of individual passages with distinct stories interwoven between the chords. Levin takes the listener from a well focused starting point, then catapults you into a realm where the boundaries of free jazz, improvisation, classical and jazz just fall by the wayside. It becomes MUSIC. No defined genre (only for you, the listener, to decide).

"Landscape 2" displays these thoughts brilliantly. It is a piece with endless possibilities. It begins with some loose but fast paced finger work from Levin. He sets the tempo by utilizing the space around the composition. There are short gaps between each moment before he really begins to focus and let loose. The improvised sections on first listen may be hard to grasp but on second listen you are full engulfed by the structure and patterns Levin has created.

"Landscape 6" is Levin walking you through forest at dusk. At first it seems peaceful and you delight in the beautiful trails. But then darkness falls and your psyche creeps in and your thoughts start to betray you. Levin quickly scrambles the pieces and you are left to guide yourself to the exit. But the music moves up in pace, and the journey seems in all directions--Levin brings the listener back only slightly and only for a few moments before literally stretching you right out of the piece (you'll understand that when you hear the piece).

Inner Landscape is a collection of multiple themes with various shapes, colours and patterns that need deep repeated listens. Emotional. Moving. Unexpected. And yet well rounded. There are only a few cellists on the scene today that can make the instrument sound more than what it is in addition to taking you on an other-worldly journey.

Daniel Levin continues to do this with ease. Inner Landscape is a superb first solo outing and I'm hoping he sprinkles more like this in between his other projects. Brilliant.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Intersection: Ebo Taylor

The Intersection is an ongoing feature on JazzWrap that looks at artists that have blended jazz, world and electronica in new and highly creative ways.

Ebo Taylor (guitar; vocals)
Love And Death (Strut Records; 2011)

When you talk about Afrobeat most people will immediately think, Fela Kuti or his now famous son, Femi Kuti. There are also other African artists throughout the scene that have made an impact and are still doing so. Some are just now being noticed by the wider audience.

While most African artists started out playing jazz and a hybrid of American R&B, many of them eventually came to develop the sound known as Afrobeat. Ebo Taylor played with and in the same circles as Fela and after both spent some time in London during the 60s, he would return to his homeland of Ghana with a new verve and the new sound--Afrobeat. Ebo did finally start to record solo material during the 70s and 80s with great success throughout Africa. But it wasn't until recently that others throughout Europe, the U.S. and the rest of the globe got the chance to learn more about this living legend. Through various African compilations (in particular Ghana Soundz and Ghana Special) Ebo Taylor's name began to spread.

This year saw the release of two amazing documents that are a must have for any music fans. First, Ebo Taylor's first international release, Love And Death, a high-spirited, upbeat session of what amounts to some seriously intoxicating rhythms. The production is superb and enclose the vocals in a fresh updated Afrobeat sound (in the same vibe of many Femi Kuti releases). The album kicks off with "Nga Nga" with fierce horns and a pulsating bassline. Taylor blends in jazz, soul and African aesthetics with great ease. His vocals are upfront and crisp. His voice has aged but its now more the hip and all-knowing elder statesman than one trying to grasp on to the latest new vibe. Taylor's guitars are looping and his compositions are complex and well organized to take the band and the listener on a very extended journey.

"African Woman" again jumps with heavy percussion and horns before quickly heading into Taylor's loving vocals on the beauty of the African woman. It's a dance song that really needs very little explanation. The keyboards contain a vintage vibe but all the while Taylor holds things solid. The title track "Love And Death" could sit along side the best of Burning Spear material. A moving tribute of spirituality and love. Love And Death closes with the mid-tempo "Obra," which really highlights Ebo Taylor's guitar work that contains elements of blues, jazz and soul (imagine early George Benson mixed with Bob Marley). "Obra" contains a lot fluid grooves that will undoubtedly have you bobbing your head and swiveling your feet.

Love And Death gets it roots from Ebo Taylor's earlier groove which are captured in brilliant form on Life StoriesLife Stories captures almost a decade's worth of material from Taylor as leader and band member. Featuring some killer tracks like "Atwer Abroba" which includes a heavy dose of funky horns and dark organ grooves making Life Stories one of a few perfect history lesson on African music.

The music is rawer than Love And Death but gives the listener a great overview of the origins of Taylor's writings and how beautiful his melodies were and what they would soon become. Life Stories also contains original versions of tracks from Love And Death including the title cut. Here the song is rough but includes vocals from Taylor's band in addition to himself. "What Is Life?" includes some awesome keyboard work as well as sizzlin' flute passages.

Both Love And Death and Life Stories are great introductions to one of the under-the-radar Afrobeat legends who is still on the scene today. A real fusion of genres and highly potent material that is a true treasure to experience. Love And Death is one of the best records you hear all year. Highly Recommended.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Danny Fox Trio: The One Constant

Danny Fox Trio
The One Constant (Songlines Records; 2011)
Danny Fox (piano)
Chris Van Voorst (bass)
Max Goldman (drums)

One of the qualities that makes a great trio is the ability to reach deep into its own consciousness and bring out structures and harmonies that make the listener think. That's the reason why I'm really enjoying the debut from the New York based, Danny Fox TrioThe One Constant.

The material on The One Constant is dense, complex and exploratory. While the compositions feel very European, the trio make clear distinction between themselves and any overseas counterparts. On the "Next Chapter", Fox's playing has the feel of John Taylor, Tord Gustavsen and Thelonious Monk. It's rich and layered with little swathes of playfulness. As "Next Chapter" moves forward, I felt I could be listening to more recent Dave Brubeck material. Fox's playing is brisk with both a mixture of classical and improvised jazz aesthetics.

On "Easily Distracted", Fox displays hypnotic duplicity in both performance and writing. The later interplay between the members (especially with Van Voorst) is superb. The trio have been together long enough and know when to challenge and when to lay back and let the melody move freely. The ballad "Even Tempered" is beautiful and sits more in the classical tradition with what felt like a small bit of ragtime just underneath (probably my mind playing tricks but that's what I felt). It's a brief piece but it shows the real diversity of Fox's writing and the impressive dynamics of the trio.

"The One Constant" again takes the listener on a journey that builds slowly and rises with cinematic flare. It's an emotional piece that feels like a suite with various chord changes and mood settings.

The One Constant is an excellent debut from an American trio with bold, expressive ideas. The Danny Fox Trio might be one of those under-the-radar groups that you better get to know quickly because we may be talking about them for a long time to come.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Kit Downes Trio: Quiet Tiger

Kit Downes Trio
Quiet Tiger (Basho Records; 2011)
Kit Downes (piano)
Calum Gourlay (bass)
James Maddren (drums)

James Allsopp (sax)
Adrien Dennefeld (cello)

Quite simply--not what I expected. After the delicious Golden, debut from London's Kit Downes Trio, I was expecting a similar mellow, introspective outing. But after Downes work with both Neon Quartet and more importantly Troyka, I should have expected the new album Quiet Tiger to be a bold and imaginative statement of intent. is.

The British scene as been dominated by a few new/young names over the last five years (Seb Rochford, Neil Cowley, Tom Cawley, Liam Noble and Kit Downes among others) that are delivering very impressive sets. Kit Downes Trio have made that step to the next level look very easy with Quiet Tiger. The trio's use of sound and space on this recording is expansive and thoughtful. They use every bit of their surroundings to create distinct soundscapes.

"Tambourine" with it's funky but dark groove still plays on the earlier Keith Jarrett/Brad Mehldau influence Downes has, but as the tune moves forward it really becomes the Kit Downes Trio's original vision. Each member delivers wildly impressive solo on this piece. "Tambourine" is post bebop/post modern dream that captures a lot complex elements and turns them into a simple experience for the listener.

"...With A View" is a ballad that moves peacefully all the while demonstrating Downes unique character on the keys. The addition of James Allsopp as guest musician on sax adds a level of intimacy that hearkens back to Golden but still capturing a the forward direction of Downes new material.

"Wooden Birds" and "Frizzi Pazzi" both show a more experimental and free flowing side to Downes. "Wooden Birds" sees the trio reaching and improvising more than you may have heard before (even live). With Gourlay becoming the real standout on this track with some impressive manipulation on the bass and work from guest cellist, Adrien Dennefeld. "Frizzi Pazziz" is Downes just letting loose. It aggressive, playful but all the while well structured. "The Wizards" is a big bold piece with Allsopp acting as Coltrane to Downes, McCoy Tyner in their interplay.

"Quiet Tiger" closes out this phenomenal set with incredible resonance. The opening chords from Allsopp's clarinet are deep yet spacious. Downes allows the group to create the atmospherics here and joins in towards the final moments adding to a lovely, melodic and introspective tone.

Quiet Tiger is more than just an impressive step up from the brilliant debut Golden. It tells the jazz community that The Kit Downes Trio has a well of ideas and are utilizing this diverse thoughts a pulling them into well focused pieces. All of which will make Quiet Tiger one of the best albums of the year for most jazz fans. Especially all of us at JazzWrap.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Wadada Leo Smith: Heart's Reflection

Wadada Leo Smith's Organic (trumpet)
Heart's Reflections (Cuneiform Records; 2011)

A real propagator of intense, creative sound sculpture, Wadada Leo Smith has been challenging how we experience music for over four decades and over 30+ albums.

He has become one of the most revered elder statesmen of jazz as well as an educator and theorist. He developed a compositional style he called Ankrasmation. It is a theory in which sound relies more on graphic notation than musical notes. This is something that may lend itself more to free jazz than contemporary jazz. And while it may sounds like it's free/avant garde it actually has a lot of melody and direction which may shock even the most novice jazz fan.

Smith's style, especially in recent years has been compared to fusion era (e.g. Big Fun) Miles Davis but where Miles was still molding funk and jazz, Smith has taken those ideas one step further. As we discussed in our piece on Smith/Kaiser's Yo Miles series, the music is funky, anarchistic and forward-looking. Wadada Leo Smith's newest album with one of his three main groups Organic, is entitled Heart's Reflection. It's a blues/funk influenced work that spans two discs but also is probably one of the best and exciting records from Smith in years.

Upon first listen to the lengthy but vibrant opening track "Don Cherry's Electric Sonic Garden", Smith details a groove that is both funky, exploratory and filled with improvised moments. His group Organic uses of electronics, guitars and piano give the album an out of this world vibe (in vein of Sun Ra). But Smith keeps the groove in flow and you may not even notice you've been bobbing your head for twenty minutes. "The Black Hole" hearkens back to Organic's previous set called Spiritual Dimensions which has much more of an experimental, free flowing feel to it. There are guitars, drums, piano and percussion all in point/counterpoint but still somehow remaining in rhythm. Smith's playing is superb throughout. He really allows the ensemble to move freely and without warning. "The Black Hole" is enveloping and expansive. It's driving force is more the rest of ensemble than Smith himself and that is always the sign of a great leader.

"The Majestic Way" and "Certainty" both have moments where not only Smith but his bandmates (in particular, Angelica Sanchez (electric piano), Josh Gerowitz (guitar) and Pheeroan AkLaff (drums)) really move into interstellar regions with their performances. It's funky in a Big Fun, Bitches Brew kind of way but still wholly original. Sanchez's performance on "Certainty" is deep and swirling with Hancock-esque quality. Great stuff.

Heart's Reflection is one of those secret weapons in an artist's arsenal that very few people may hear about. In the vast catalogue of Wadada Leo Smith, Heart's Reflection is an album that deserves your undivided attention.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Bruce Barth: Live At Smalls

Bruce Barth (piano)
Live At Smalls (Smalls Jazz Records)
Rudy Royston (drums)
Vincente Archer (bass)

Bruce Barth has been one of my favourite musicians over the last the couple of years. Unlike a few of my other favourite pianists, Barth's style is more relaxed and inviting. In more of a Thelonious Monk or McCoy Tyner mode, this album tends to be highly enjoyable and a good opening for even the newest fan of jazz.

For many of my friends, if Bruce Barth is in town I usually try to drag them to a show. In my opinion, I believe its probably the best and first way to absorb Bruce's music. So when Bruce Barth released Live At Smalls, I was ecstatic.

While he has already released two live recordings (Hope Springs Eternal and Live At The Vanguard as well as Live At The Cafe Del Teatre DVD), Live At Smalls demonstrates Barth's continual growth as a composer, performer and leader. The only unfortunate part to this piece is, I didn't go to this show. Why? Because like an idiot, I didn't check the jazz listings until the following week and then noticed the show had already happened.

The evening opens with the jumpin'  "Oh Yes, I Will", a piece that shows off the fun but efficient character of the trio. Barth's playing is crisp and very upbeat. Both bandmates, Archer and Royston, come together with nice punch. This trio session is much different than the previous live sessions (except Cafe Del Teatre) in that with a parred down group, the pieces become more crystallized and the listener can hone in on specific instruments, notes and mannerisms. On "Sunday", Barth shows signs of his Monk influence with a sharp playful harmonic tapping on the keys and some rolling rhythms.  "Yama" is a somber ballad with the trio sounding lush in unison. Royston's brushes sound exquisite moving in and out of the background. Archer's basslines are also subtle but never secondary to Barth's piano. 

"Looking Up" is soft but delivers a down home Southern vibe that is clever, and joyful. Royston counters Barth's piano with some fierce improvising and later is altered by Archer's solo. Archer bends the notes with some soft touches provided by Royston just underneath. Bruce Barth gives the trio the room to breath throughout this evening but on "Looking Up" everyone shines with their own unique talents.

While there is a considerable amount of bias for this record and artist, I have to tell you Live At Smalls is a killer set that is probably the perfect primer for anyone approaching Bruce Barth's music. I was really upset I missed this show but it's great to have this document of what must have been a stellar evening. Highly Recommended.

The video below is from a live quartet performance. But this track is also featured in trio form on Live At Smalls.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Rob Mazurek's Starlicker: Double Demon

Double Demon (Delmark; 2011)
Rob Mazurek (cornet)
John Herndon (drums)
Jason Adasiewicz (vibraphone)

I have been a fan of Rob Mazurek for only a couple of years, after picking up a copy of one of his many collective groups, Exploding Star Orchestra. One of the great things I've always liked about Mazurek's records is how different they are from each other. There are many artists in recent years who collaborate with different group and ensembles but the material somehow ends up sounding very similar. For the most part that's not a bad thing. But it does leave the listening with the question, "What's next?".

Rob Mazurek's latest project, Starlicker, and there debut Double Demon, is definitely in the category of "what's next". A collection of deep exploratory sounds built on a number layered themes. In all it works beautifully. Double Demon while recorded by a trio has the muscle and dexterity of an ensemble. Those you will familiar with this trios individual works will know that they all enjoy the use/manipulation of space and sound. Together this unique lineup (no bass) have created a highly enjoyable and other-worldly recording. There have always been comparisons with Sun Ra when it comes to the compositional structure Rob Mazurek writes but this trio plants a different seed in the listener's ear.

Double Demon was born out improvising sessions and then a brief tour to coordinate material in front of an audience. The music and the trio work as tight well, organic unit. The title track illustrates this wonderfully. It's a fierce opening number with rolling patterns and moments where vibes, drums and cornet become one. It may sound like a cacophony but it's actually beauty in rhythm. "Triple Hex" moves with delicate low level sonic patterns with Mazurek and Adaisewicz combining with well balance ambient tones. The tune finally erupts with the inclusion of Herndon with some impressive percussive work. It's hypnotic and challenging and highly illuminating. "Andromeda" gives off a vibes of the title tracks little brother. Except here, Herndon is the driving force with Adaisewicz and Mazurek both adding the harmonic to exciting effect.

Double Demon is a unique session in the Mazurek catalogue in the way he has stripped his usual quintet, quartet or ensemble format. It has allow for more focus and concentrate build up on song structure than previous outings. Rob Mazurek still might not everyones cup of tea but his ability to make varied and exciting recordings every time out is just one of many reason you need to take the journey and listen to Starlicker. Enjoy...

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Nicole Mitchell: Awakening

Nicole Mitchell (flute)
Awakening (Delmark; 2011)
Avreeayl Ra (drums)
Jeff Parker (guitar)
Harrison Bankhead (bass)

Well, I always get a few friends who ask me about jazz flute. Unfortunately most of them are joking (e.g. Will Farrell as Ron Burgundy in the film AnchorMan), but when it comes to jazz flute there are very few out there. Yes, there are a quite a few who double as sax players. But sax is usually the main instrument and flute comes second. So it was a bit of a surprise to receive the new album Awakening (Delmark) by Nicole Mitchell. I really don't own any of her recordings but I have a number of albums she's played on (including the recent Exploding Stars Orchestra, Mike Reed, and Anthony Braxton). Even more surprising was when I told my friends about her, they already knew about her and were shocked I didn't know. Apparently I'm the one who looks like the arse now.

Over the course of the decade Mitchell has been a stalwart on the Chicago scene (as a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music along with legend Fred Anderson and new trailblazer, Matana Roberts), as well as abroad. Her style is very spiritual, African and richly improvisational. Fans of the work by James Finn or John Esposito should definitely take a spin with Nicole Mitchell. Setting the tone for this project, Mitchell utilized a slightly stripped unit from her more complex larger ensembles. These groups also explored larger themes and motifs as you would expect. Awakening with its small group set up allows the quartet to experiment more with sound and space.

"Center Of The Earth" and "Momentum" both are illustrious and expansive pieces where Mitchell's flute is more like Coltrane on sax and not flute. Parker's playing is fluid and highly expressive. Bankhead and Ra keep a steady hypnotic groove that helps both tunes rotate with a real sensuality. "Momentum" contains a few lovely passages from Parker. This is another instance in which Mitchell allows her bandmates to explore structures on the own terms. At times throughout Awakening I felt as though I was listening to the Phil Ranelin era The Tribe, Doug Carn or poetic verse from 70s under-rated poet Wanda Robinson. I was thinking, it might even be nice to spin this at a party along side material from Soweto Kinch. What a way to throw a crowd straight into a history lesson, eh!?!

The quartet gets funky and humorous on "There", a solid number where Mitchell's calm playing guides the group into a rawer but subtle fusion style motifs. The title track "Awakening" closes the album in a midtempo groove with Parker and Ra having some stellar individual moments. Mitchell's playing rises above here with some strong and intense harmonic passages. When listening to Awakening you realize this group has taken a number of subtle but urgent themes and stretched them with excitement and beauty; this makes listening to Awakening a real pleasure. At the end of it all I became a fan in a matter of hours and then went back to a few of the albums I had where Mitchell performs to listen even closer to her vision. Wow. This Awakening is awesome stuff.

Monday, June 6, 2011

A Giraffe: Under A Table

A Giraffe (group)
Under A Table (self produced)
Joe Santa Maria (sax)
Mike Lockwood (drums)
Emilio Terranova (bass)
Steve Blum (piano)

Different than what you've been listening to so far this year. That's what I said to myself as I was taking a spin through the self produced debut, Under A Table from A Giraffe.

A Giraffe started as group of musically similar friends who met during their time at California Institute Of Arts. This surprisingly well equipped LA outfit delivers a contemporary gem with past, present and future written throughout. In a similar vein to how another LA band from two decades ago, Black/Note, caused a stir and a bit of seismic shift of the scene, A Giraffe could do the same. Another sign that the California jazz scene is becoming more and more significant by the month.

Under A Table opens with "A Ranger", a tune with what feels like an infinite loop of Steve Blum pulsating yet hypnotic keys. They are joined by the Santa Maria's muscular tone on sax and as the tune builds the quartet gain more strength and the dynamics and improvisation really start to come to the fore. "A Ranger" and its follow up "Silo" have a feel of mid-period Branford Marsalis Quartet at its peak with Kirkland, "Tain" Watts and Robert Hurst. "Silo" opens with playful crossrhythms from both Blum and Terranova that lead way to some beautiful patterns from Santa Maria. "Silo" continually shifts pace and features a great interchange between Santa Maria and Blum midway through.

A Giraffe show that they can be more than just a straight ahead jazz quartet with the complexed passages included on "You Shouldn'tven't." Steve Blum's playing starts in a classical fashion before evolving into a free form pattern which allows the rest of the band to improvise and play around within the space. "Finding Yourself" is a lovely ballad that still features some complex structures for which, you would almost mistake the group being European than Californian. The title track, beautifully and effectively closes out the album. "Under A Table" is highlighted by some stellar solo patterns from Terranova with Blum adding colour on top of the beat.

Under A Table is a phenomenal debut from a quartet that seems to be developing a lot of ideas at once. But there ability to combine them into agile yet free flowing journeys in sound is one of the reason I've been impressed and listening to this album almost twice a day. For me it was refreshing to hear a number of combinations that were still different than a lot the music I've already been listening to this year. This is one my favourite albums this year.

JazzWrap had the honour of discussing the album and various other thoughts with the band recently.

JW: While A Giraffe are originally from LA, you're now based in New York. Do you feel a difference in the two musical communities?


Yes I feel that there is a large difference between NYC and Los Angeles.  Besides the most obvious differences of population density and weather, which I feel have very strong influence on the mentality of the people, I think that there are different reasons for people to "arrive" at these two special locations.  I have seen both sides and I believe that I can sum it up in this way:  

Los Angeles is technically still the wild west.  It's where people have gone traditionally to break new ground, get away from oppression in their home environment, and find some sort of new and foreign territory to explore.  The kind of musicians that I came in contact with there were very experimental and open minded.  Even to the point that they demanded that things they were involved in were cutting edge and crossing borders.  The influence of Asia, Latin America, and Africa are very apparent and not compartmentalized adding to the openness of the scene.  Artistic people in LA travel the massive city in search of each other and in search of a feeling of beauty and connectedness.  It in some ways is a more lonely city then NY, because it takes more effort to expand your physical borders.  Monetarily it was very difficult to be an artist there.  There are very few venues to see or perform acoustic music, even though there are many many great artists.  I was actually disappointed that it was so difficult to find and be a part of the creative scene.  Had I not been at Calarts, which is an oasis of creative potential, I imagine it would have taken me a very long time to come in contact with the people I did in the 2 years I lived there.  That said, I think that the type of artist in LA is a very special breed.  They are extremely creative and determined, nomadic by nature and willing to try anything once without complaint.  However, they are not willing to sell short on their beliefs if faced with opposition.  The members of the Los Angeles avant-garde constitute a very long and illustrious list.  And besides the avant-garde, there are also many "straight ahead" musicians there that are second to none.  

Now New York on the other hand is in a class all it's own.  I feel that people come here to "Conquer" as well as "Explore."  There is an air of urgency in the city and as a resident you are constantly surrounded by people of all shapes and sizes.  In such a small region there are more people then any other city in the country.  This fact can not be underestimated.  People are physically on top of each other like cookies in a jar.  I believe the constant stimulation awakens an animal instinct in everyone.  There is constant danger as well as inspiration and peace (when you can find it).   I feel that in this city you can really explore your imagination and hone your "killer instinct" so to speak.  Your reaction time has to be quick and you can't afford to be too relaxed.  I feel that for this time in my life the amount of stimulation is perfect.  Unlike any other city on the planet I can go see multiple shows a day, sometimes for free.  In the Jazz world this is absolutely impossible anywhere else.  Not to mention that NYC is also a Meca for many other art forms.  In the time I've been here I've seen countless performances of music as well as some classical dance, performance art, theatre, and even a robotics concert where a young guy did a rap alongside an animatronic doll.  All these things are happening in Los Angeles, but here it seems that if I even have the notion that something may exist or would be interesting to see I can find someone doing it and i can go see for myself today...  not in a few months.  Surprisingly enough, I've also found that the rent is comparable to LA if not cheaper here.  I've also found luck, albeit after a year of searching, finding work.  I teach woodwinds out on Long Island and intern for a startup music website  I've had a pretty easy time finding good jobs, but when I got here I couldn't find a service job to save my life.  It seems like New York is a city looking for specialists of all kinds.  Which is good for me, because I'm over qualified in some very niche areas.  

JW: Have the two scenes influenced "Under A Table"?


Yes absolutely, all of us in the band are well traveled and have been heavily influenced by New York musicians.  Although I'm the only one currently living in the city Mike has come to visit on several occasions and thoroughly enjoys the environment.  I think that as a Jazz musician or an artist of any kind there is no way to avoid the influence of the NY scene.  But, then it's not to say that many spectacular artists from all over the world didn't develop their styles somewhere else and bring in to New York fully formed.  A great teacher of mine in LA pointed out to me that Charles Mingus spent his early development in Los Angeles and he is someone who's music I had always associated with a "New York" sound.  New York is a real melting pot.  Also, as a musician in the modern era I think that my influences are coming from all over the world.  I personally have studied many genres  (Jazz, Classical, Folk, Brazilian, Indonesian, Balkan, Indian, Japanese, Celtic, and African music to name some).  Of course I'm no jack of all trades, but I have taken away very important lessons from this exposure. 

JW: There are moments on Under A Table where the band really stretch and seemed to be having a lot of fun ("You Shouldn't'vent," and "Live Oak"). Can you describe the group composition/writing style?

Joe : 

It's interesting that you should mention both of those songs.  They both had quite a different process or at least very different material.  "Live Oak" is my composition and It developed over several months.  It is based off of a palindrome rhythm i created (3+8+3+4+3+8+3).  It started simply enough as an exercise in that pattern (which actually fits into 4 bars of 4/4 time if given 8th note value).  Eventually I created the melody line, which wound up breaking up the symmetry of the pattern.  Then came the triplet section which is found at the end of the "A" section.  These two parts make up the area of the song where I play my solo.  After my solo the song goes into a section that reflects the original palindrome in the bass line.  Steve takes his solo in this part of the song and so does Mike.  It's an interesting composition because at the same time that it is pretty complicated rhythmically, the way it moves seems organic and like an ocean to me.  There are peaks and valleys built into the structure and it makes it very fun to perform.  We had a very challenging time with this piece, because it was difficult to define the rhythm structures, but to also interact and really enjoy the performance.  We needed to get past the complexity somehow and listen to each other very hard.  This is I think very indicative of our group dynamic.  We are trying to flush out complicated ideas in a way that keeps them alive.  Not to perform complications for their own sake, but to use them as a platform for exploration and to take chances and perhaps break the structure.  There is nothing less interesting to me in modern music than a song that constantly pounds you in the ear with it's base concept, unless its absolutely beautiful.  I think a piece should always build from it's original inspiration into something more and not be afraid to evolve.  

Mike's song "You Shouldn't'vent" represents another part of our spectrum.  His piece has a rather complicated solo between Steve and I before my sax solo, but other then that it is a very simple 8 bar melody with a tag in mixed meter.  We start out with a piano solo where Steve explores the material in a free environment.  We have a tendency to take "free jazz" sensibilities and incorporate them into more complicated song structures.  In this piece we use the cyclical nature of the harmony to move in and out of different zones.  We don't play a literal form for the solo sections, but because of the strength of the melody we don't stray too far away from the sounds implied in the writing.  The most free that it becomes is towards the end of the Alto solo when we reach some very pensive and beautiful moments, which strikingly contrast the beginning of the sax solo.  I feel that this is a very unique composition and that it is also very representative of our collective approach and attitude towards modern Jazz.  Mike's compositions have a very special energy and this one is on the edge of his aggressive, but still playful side.  

Steve B:

There is always a certain balance between composition and improvisation in jazz - each group approaches that balance differently. In our case, each tune has a different amount of weight placed on the compositional elements, and a certain amount of liberty is allowed by the composer. In most cases, this is discovered as a band as we work our way through the rehearsal process. We discover what sections should be more open, and what sections we should play more literally. Though compositions are written and then brought to the group, we usually discover our approach to them as an ensemble, and this can even change over time.

JW: What albums or artist have the group been listening to that you're currently digging?


I've been checking out a pretty wide variety of things.  Most recently I've been listening to a lot of Balkan music including Trifon Trifonov, Ivo Papasov, and the Bulgarian Women's Choir (Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares).  Some of my all time favorite albums (that I still listen to constantly) are:  

Aphex Twin - Richard D James and Melodies From Mars 
John Coltrane - Ballads, w/Johnny Hartman, Live in Seatle, and Plays the Blues.
Cannonball Adderly - Know What I Mean w/Bill Evans
Diabate-Sekou Kouyate - Mali: Ancient Strings
David Murray & Jack Dejohnette - In Our Style
Andrew Hill - Black Fire
Battles - Mirrored 
Air Mali Music - Djembe And African Drums
Ahmad Jamal - Live at the Pershing 
Bill Evans Trio - The 1960 Birdland Sessions
Marvin Gaye - Lets Get It On
Duke Ellington - w/Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong - Porgy and Bess
Gnawa Halwa - Rhabaouine
Guines, Tata - Aniversario
Potato y Totico - Patato y Totico
Redman/Blackwell - Red & Black In Willisau
The Shaggs - Philosophy of the World
Sun Ra - Calling Planet Earth
Sonny Rollins - Live at the Village Vanguard
I Nyoman Windha - Kreasi Pilihan
Street Music of Java - Various Artists 

A few from Steve Blum

Steve B:

Personally, I have been pretty obsessed with Shane Ensley's latest album. I love Craig Taborn. The Claudia Quintet's latest album is another recent favorite of mine. Kneebody's newer album as well. I have also been listening to a lot of solo piano music - Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans.

JW: While Under A Table is rooted in more a hard bop style, members of the band have experimented with different soundscapes as evident on your bandcamp page. What's next for A Giraffe?


I believe that we will stay the course as an acoustic quartet for some time.  Although Mike and I both have aspirations to join the world of electronic music (Mike is further down that path then I) "A Giraffe" is a fantastic outlet for us to explore our love of all music and find creative ways to bring these influences back to our collective roots as instrumental acoustic improvisers.  We will likely in the next 5 years expand our sound pallet and branch out, but we certainly haven't exhausted our acoustic possibilities.  In fact I think we are just at the very beginning.  

Steve B: 

I think A Giraffe has a pretty specific niche we are carving for ourselves, though we are a young band. Hopefully soon we will be touring and exploring new material, and developing further as an ensemble. We all have other projects we are involved in, but I very much look forward to discovering all of the possibilities this band is capable of. I imagine we will stick with our acoustic format for some time and try to broaden our palate of musical possibilities within our current context.

JW: How does A Giraffe feel about jazz in this digital age?


I think that music is benefiting incredibly from technology.  If not in the improvement of certain instruments (notably keyboards and recording equipment) then with internet as a forum for exploration and marketing.  If it weren't for the improved communication of this age it's likely I would have never come in contact with you or your blog!  There is a rich community out there in the world that appreciates new art.  I have been extremely lucky to encounter more art in my short 26 year lifetime then many of my predecessors could have in a lifetime of striving.  Technology brings the foundation level of knowledge up many levels.  The art we will see in the near future (as exhibited by the current trends) is going to be the art of the world, made by people who have real knowledge of different cultures and who appreciate humanity as a whole, taking the best from everyone across the globe and making it sing through their own personalities.  

Steve B: 

Personally, I feel that jazz is more alive than ever. More people have access to a wider variety of records. It's easier to exchange information. It's easier to share your music with people than ever before. The internet allows both the producers and consumers to cut out the middlemen, and everyone benefits from this. This is not just true in jazz, but in all styles of modern music. Remember the stylistic diversity of music in America 75 years ago. Compare it to the diversity of music on the scene in 2011. It is orders of magnitudes greater. One will find that in every niche music there is a set of devoted fans. It is pretty incredible.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

David Gibson: The End Of The Tunnel

David Gibson (trombone)
The End Of The Tunnel (Posi-Tone Records; 2011)
Julius Tolentino (sax)
Jared Gold (organ)
Quincy Davis (drums)

Getting praise from the great (and one of my favourites), Curtis Fuller, is one thing. Backing it up is another. David Gibson has been able to do that for quite some time. With five albums under his belt as leader, his latest, The End Of The Tunnel is yet another fine effort that solidifies his status as one of the most dynamic (along with Steve Davis) on the scene today.

Unlike Davis, Gibson tends to move back and forth through jazz, soul and R&B. I think this versatility gives Gibson alot room to experiment. On The End Of The Tunnel, Gibson utilizes the same quartet as his previous soul-jazz effort, A Little Somethin'. Both albums reflect a new direction for Gibson. His previous efforts, while still containing elements of funk, were grounded in the hard bop of his influences (Curtis Fuller and Slide Hampton). This time out the funk flies further as evident on the swirling "Wasabi" in which the quartet take rampage on the sound, creating a smooth and infectious dancefloor groove. Jared Gold's playing here has all the hallmarks of a Jimmy Smith or Jimmy McGriff session. The gospel/blues tinge of "Sunday Morning" where Gold and Gibson share interweave perfectly, giving the number a real Southern American quality to it.

Gibson is a dynamic player and the passion of his compositions can be felt further on ballad "A Place Of Our Own." While thematic in nature, it still manages to give the listener a feeling of introspection. Gibson continues the gospel element on the Jared Gold penned number "Preachin'" which has a real New Orleans vibe to it and travels lightly. This quartet have only been playing together for a few years but the chemistry over two albums is amazing. Gibson has created material which truly matches and challenges each member's talents. The End Of The Tunnel is bright, fresh and full revolving performances. A funky record based in some of the best soul-jazz of the 60s and 70s, but still presents an exciting twist for the listener. With The End Of The Tunnel, David Gibson has found an intoxicating formula and a smokin' quartet to deliver it.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Marcin Wasilewski Trio: Faithful

Marcin Wasilewski Trio
Faithful (ECM Records; 2011)
Marcin Wasilewski (piano)
Michal Miskiewicz (drums)
Slawomir Kurkiewicz (bass)

Six albums on and the Marcin Wasilewski Trio (originally known as Simple Acoustic Trio) have evolved into a relaxed, introspective and now adventuresome outfit.  The trio's stint with Tomasz Stanko and some warm production work from Manfred Eicher of ECM have helped the group hone its sound as well as their performances. Their use of space is clever and precise and makes their latest album, Faithful, one of their best and one of JazzWrap best albums so far this year.

Adventuresome is one of the aforementioned words I used to describe MWT's advancement. On the opening of Faithful, "An den kleinen Radioapparat", the group explore German composer Hans Eisler classical standard sans vocals. Without the vocals the listener is clearly focused on the instrumentation. And the delivery from Wasilewski is sublime. Miskiewicz's subtle brushes add a layer of mystery that still reflects upon the original composition. "Night Train To You," moves a with lovely but rapid pace. Wasilewski while setting the structure has written a piece that still allows the group to improvise throughout.

One of the things I've always enjoyed with MWT's albums is their ability to reshape and re-imagine other artist's material. As evident on Paul Bley's "Big Foot" where by the very nature of the composition, the trio strive and deliver a powerful yet playful performance. Kurkiewicz's movements are dense and propulsive. Wasilewski's uptempo rhythms really give Bley's original a run for the money. It's one of the best versions of this piece I've heard (not that there are a whole lot). While on "Oz Guizos" (originally written by Hermeto Pascoal) the trio are wonderfully melodic and add a sense of spaciousness that gives the members wide breathing room. Kurkiewicz strumming is sublime and helps the piece move gently up and down.

The delightful "Lugano Lake" closes the album and for me encapsulates the trio's recent form of the last few years. It's peaceful, agile and dynamic all the while holding a sense of mystery  that many listeners will gravitate to. Marcin Wasilewski has emerged as a colourful and daring pianist in the last few years. The trio as a whole continue to solidify their name on the global psyche. The diversity of Faithful may finally send the Marcin Wasilewski Trio into the next level of recognition. This is a brilliant piece of work from a group that gets better and better with every outing. Deep. Personal. Reflective. And Highly Recommended.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Flaten/Kornstad/Christensen: Live At Oslo Jazzfestival

Ingebrigt Haker Flaten (double bass)
Jon Christensen (drums)
Hakon Kornstad (sax, flute)
Live At Olso Jazzfestival (Compunctio, 2011)

This live recording features two of Norway's more recent and revered musicians, Ingebrigt Haker Flaten (member of The Thing and Atomic) and Hakon Kornstad with homeland legend, Jon Christensen. This is a follow up to aforementioned duo's wonderful Elise release. Both explore Norwegian folk hymns. But the exciting thing about this live recording is the ability of this evening to be both improvisational, playful and accessible.

A calm, introspective affair that allows the listener to experience the depth and space of each instrument. Beginning with Keith Jarrett's "Death And The Flower", the trio cut an intricate and powerful path. Christensen and Kornstad both deliver bold performances that reshape Jarrett's minor classic into a something beautiful and all their own. Kornstad really shines throughout this evening with a Sonny Rollins-esque playfulness. "Skulde jeg min gud ei prise" highlights this spirited aesthetic as Kornstad runs through bright and expressive passages with ease.  Kornstad, Flaten and Christensen all plow throughout "Du hoye fryd for rene sjele" with midtempo force and some great interplay that has a lot of lyrical strength.

Live At Olso Jazzfestival is a brilliant work documenting a live session of folk songs from a trio playing freely and opening with the time and space. And the results are sublime. This is a rare opportunity for jazz fans to experience past, present, future legends in one evening. The trio also recorded a second concert in Uppsala which will be release soon. Both are fascinating and outstanding recordings. A real music listen and highly recommended.