Saturday, July 30, 2011

Zero Centigrade: Unknown Distances

Zero Centigrade
Unknown Distances (Audio Tong; 2011)
Tonino Taiuti (acoustic guitar, found sounds)
Vincenzo De Luce (trumpet, found sounds)

Duo recordings are nothing new. But what makes Zero Centigrade so interesting is the combination of guitar and trumpet. Not your usual duo. We saw this last year with the duo Nate Wooley and Joe Morris done expertly. Zero Centigrade have been recording since 2009 but have built up a small and intriguing body of work.

On their latest release, Unknown Distances (Audio Tong) Tonino Taiuti and Vincenzo De Luce bring a set of subtle, spacious and erie sounds to life with a real sense of adventure. It's a bit less deconstructive than their previous 2010 effort, I'm Not Like You (featuring one of my favourite pieces by the duo "Dirty Times") and you can find some structure within all the improvisation.

There's a combination of folk, blues, jazz and avant garde circling throughout the session. "Snake's Tail" moves slowly with Taiuti's mild stretches across the guitar, and fluctuations back and forth from De Luce's trumpet. It all turns into an interesting ride that has you wondering what sound comes next. "Now & Them"'s dark quality feels like moments out of Sonic Youth's Evol (think "Halloween"). Taiuti's playing is pretty straight forward with De Luce adding the improvised moments with striking passages of brilliance.

"Dry River" is probably the most well structured piece on Unknown Distances. Opening quietly with a bluesy theme from Taiuti and slowly expanding into an experimental exhibition of manipulated trumpet, guitar tapping and random sounds.

While Taiuti's guitar does dominate this session "Cloud #2" is a beautiful listening experience with both musicians working in tandem creating an emotional and minimalist soundscape. De Luce rips loose towards the end with real vigor and it carries over in the track "Upward" which De Luce uses varies breathing techniques to create some inspiring sounds. Unknown Distances closes with "Other Voices," a calm two chord piece with some warm passages crafted by De Luce.

In all, Unknown Distances is rich in its simplicity and deep in its desire to utilize space, minimalism and improvisation. It will be a hard listen for most but it is very rewarding. It's a small leap forward but retains the Zero Centigrade spirit for exploration and discovery. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Craig Taborn: Avenging Angel

Craig Taborn (piano)
Avenging Angel (ECM; 2011)

Stripped bear of the technology of Taborn's last few outings as leader and sideman, Avenging Angel (ECM) is simply put---PERFECT. Taborn has always been a musician who loves to play with space and technique and here you get to experience the heart and soul of his compositions.

Avenging Angel has the elements of a classic recital as well the energy of a intimate improvised session. Opening gently on the rolling patterns of "The Broad Day King", Taborn gives a good indication of the albums main themes--expressionism along on a journey of unknown discovery. Taborn is making a massive statement utilizing very little space. The notes are sparse but crisp. The intimacy and intensity of these pieces is gripping, chilling and enveloping.

"Glossolalia" with it's repetitive theme and roller coaster movements invites you on a trail that builds to great yet subtle highs and quickly disappears. "Spirit Hard Kick" is a similar movement in which Taborn exercises the space on the keys with fast paced rhythms and thoughts which eventually encompass the listener in a wash of beautiful sounds. "Forgetful" may be the most lush and focused piece on Avenging Angel. A romantic ballad with a European classical feel to it. Touching, drifting and affective.

The piano is at the heart of Avenging Angel and Craig Taborn has made it sound more simple, sweet and beautiful than you can imagine. His compositions stripped bare allow you hear a musician who will hopefully gain wider recognition from this album and who is thinking on a divergent path than many of his contemporaries. Excellent stuff.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Nadav Remez: So Far

Nadav Remez (guitar)
So Far (BJU Records; 2011)
Shal Maestro (piano)
Jmaes Wylie (sax, clarinet)
Avri Borochov (bass)
Ziv Ravitz (drums)
Steve Brickman (sax)
Itamar Borochov (trumpet)

For some reason, I've been really enjoying a lot of the guitar albums I listened to over the last few months. The obvious stand outs have been Mary Halvorson and Travis Reuter. But each album I've heard has its own amazingly moments that have me coming back again and again. The debut album from Nadav RemezSo Far (BJU Records) is one of those albums--surprising and rewarding. Subtle. Beautiful. And gets into your psyche after a couple of spins.

The arrangements on So Far play while tightly woven, still manage to give space to the musicians, allowing them to create some beautiful and encompassing passages. The ensemble really moves as a unit. Even Remez seems a member, allowing his group to speak for itself not as group of session musicians following its leader.

"Pinchas" sets out providing the ethereal space the album is laid in. The movements are free and Nadav provides a soft guide map for his mates to follow. James Wylie and Steve Brickman both give "Pinchas" an added element of punch when needed. "Last Exile" a tune Remez describes as a conversation about the time after wars is delightful and does has a "dream journey" quality to it. It's a song of hope. The group have time to expand and stretch a bit with this composition. Remez and Brickman's exchanges are boisterous but provide the much needed dialogue for the conversation.

"Untitled" sees Maestro moving to organ which gives the track a grittier feel. Ravitz and Borochov both move the rhythm along with some stellar patterns on drums and plucking of the bass. Remez's has a lovely mastery of his instrument. For me it was reminiscent of some of the better Pat Metheny works. "From Above" is a relaxing ballad written for Remez's late grandmother. It really shines with the interchanges between Maestro and Remez. This group has played together in various forms. So it would be expected that they are comfortable with each other and know the others movements. "From Above" is a group working in and around different structures and timings. The piece moves up and down in tempo but remains a ballad in spirit. And an emotionally effect one at that.

So Far closes with another tribute, "Susu" written for Remez's grandfather. It's a solo piece that combines both Remez's improvising and song structure in a very intimate setting. The material carved out on So Far really is rich, thoughtful and altogether beautiful to experience. It really requires a few spins before ever songs sinks in and has an emotional impact on you. Remez spent a good time under the studying and playing along some great musicians in Boston and New York after moving to the States from Israel just over five years ago. With So Far, Nadav Remez has shown himself to be an emerging talent on guitar in addition to being a well structured leader. This is one of those silent albums that you will returned to over and over again...

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Intersection: Jachna/Buhl

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.

Niedokonczone Ksiazki (translated: Unfinished Books) (Audio Tong Music, 2011)
Wojtek Jachna (trumpet, electronics)
Jacek Buhl (drums)

A recent and unbelievably exciting discovery from fellow blogger Maciej at Polish Jazz is the second release from the duo Jachna & Buhl, Niedokonczone Ksiazki (translated: Unfinished Books).

Utilizing elements of jazz, electronica, early prog and found sound, Jachna and Buhl have created a wonderful and riveting document of rhythms, tones and ideas that will have you decidedly beside yourself as to what to call this - Jazz? Avant Garde? Third Stream Jazz? Electronica? World? Or what? There are places on Unfishised Books, where you may hear influences of Faust, My Bloody Valentine or Jon Hassell. I have been listening to this record non-stop for the last two weeks (twice a day in some cases).

In a similar vein to Mikrokolektyw from last year, this duo consist of drums and trumpet/electronics. But that's really where the similarities end. Jachna/Buhl employ their acoustic instruments with limited electronic manipulation. This gives the record a raw feel but also adds an experimental quality when the electronics are introduced. On "Modlitwa", the duo utilize all the space available and conjure a rich and expansive acoustic dialogue that is both exciting as it is exploratory. "Bernstein's Mood" rolls out with a funky repetitive pattern from Buhl and phrasing from Jachna that could fit neatly along side a piece of West Side Story (if West Side Story were an experimental musical). 

"Przyplyw Odplyw" has an ambient-dub quality to it that is reminiscent of mid-period Jon Hassell. It's a slow developing piece that is mainly dominated by Buhl's rhythmic passages. Jachna's performance is layered in beautifully. "Przyplyw Odplyw" moves upward and out but still maintains a melody, expression and direction that holds your interest throughout. Both musicians along with the electronic elements deployed in this piece are truly sublime. "Zmeczony Los" closes out the session with a slow moving rhythm, manipulated trumpet and other found sounds that feel more ethnological in structure than jazz based. The drums feel very tribal and Buhl's playing is eerie and emotional. It's ambient, dub, experimental and electronica rolled into six minutes of solitude. 

This is one of those records that is always up our alley at JazzWrap. Wojtek Jachna and Jacek Buhl have created an album that is strikingly different than most of the material you will hear this year. Fusing various elements of the musical spectrum, they have maintained the acoustic richness of their instruments with the far-reaching spirit of third stream jazz to create an album--Unfinished Books -- that is worth every dollar, euro or pound it takes you to find it. Highly Recommended.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Beverley Knight: Soul UK

Beverley Knight (vocals)
Soul UK (Hurricane Records; 2011)

Beverley Knight has been turning out some of the best Soul on either side of the Atlantic for well over a decade now. She has moved elegantly between Soul, garage, dancefloor, rock and Northen Soul with ease and dominance. On her latest and seventh album, Soul UK (Hurricane) she delivers a massive "thank you" to the British artists that have inspired her.

Soul UK isn't your typical covers albums. It really is a step above that. What makes a covers album brilliant is the ability for the artist to make the songs their own. Not just a straight translation. Beverley does this and more. The other great thing about Soul UK is Beverley's choices of tracks to cover. They aren't the typical hits. Yes, we will all know most of these songs, but they aren't the "number 1 hits" you would expect. Which says something about the artist again--she respects the original big hits and doesn't want to tamper with that perfection. She wants to educate the audience on the greater but lesser known hit.

Beverley Knight does a marvelous job of deconstructing and revitalizing some of these tracks. On "Southern Freeez" (originally written by Freeez featuring John Rocca), Knight strips away the synth parts but leaves the infectious bassline and upbeat fun aspect of the song. By doing this she creates a joyful soul number that sounds completely Beverley Knight. It's a love song and a celebration and the lyrics to song stand the test of time (almost 30 years...jeez, I'm old).

"Say I'm You're Number One" (written by Princess) is a song I really didn't remember. On first listen I thought this was the lone original from Beverley on the album. I then looked at booklet and realized wow, this is Princess, and this midtempo ballad suited Beverley's voice perfectly!  She delivers a wonderful rendition that other artists today destroy with a load of unnecessary vocal histrionics. The Young Disciples are given an incredible homage through "Apparently Nothin'". Beverley Knight pulls the speed back on track and gives it a deeper soulful feel then the Acid Jazz tempo of the original. Carleen Anderson is another one of my favourite soul singers so this is a tough call on how to treat both versions. I'm giving a tip of the hat to Bev for the addition of Roots Manuva on the track.

Probably the godfathers of late 20th century British soul, Loose Ends, were also an influence of Beverley Knight (not surprising, really). "Don't Be A Fool" is a really lesser known track for American audiences but its a track with a powerful message for uplifting the spirit. Knight's version doesn't stray too far from the original but her focus is more on the lyrics and less on the production. One of the problems I always had with the original is the lyrics were amazing but drowned out by the electronic production. Beverley's version brings those words to life with a real emotional impact. Probably one of the least known artists outside of England is Andrew Roachford. Beverley gives him the respect he deserves with "Cuddly Toy". Roachford at the time (early 90s) was great mixture of Soul, Pop and Rock - very hard for people to grapple with that at the time (why, I will never know). Knight turns "Cuddly Toy" into a fiery Ike & Tina romp. It's probably the most fun on the album, bringing back memories of Beverley's Motor City Soul album from a few years back.

It seems lately that Lewis Taylor is also finally getting the wider audience he deserves as well. While Taylor never wanted the fame, the people he has influenced continues to grow. Recently Robbie William's covered  "Lovelight"; now Beverley Knight pays her respects with "Damn", a killer love letter that keeps the musical structure of the original but in Knight's hands has a deep blues vibe to it. Soul UK closes in style with George Michael's "One More Try". Knight retains the gospel dialogue of the original but strips away the keyboards in favour of the acoustic piano/organ to drive the message home. The music boils with emotion and actually blows the original into little tiny pieces.

Soul UK includes a much longer list of re-imagined classics from Soul II Soul, Jamiroquai, Omar, Heatwave and more but I would still be writing and you really need that time to go and purchase this album. Beverley Knight has turned these modern day Soul classics into her own and in some cases brought out an even more powerful essence from the lyrics. The stripped down quality of music allows Knight to explore the pieces from both structural and vocal standpoints. This is a perfect introduction to some of the missing and missed soul classics of the last 3 decades, as well as one the best "standards" albums you will hear all year. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Intersection: Fania

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

Fania Records 1964 - 1980: The Original Sound Of Latin New York (Strut Records; 2011)
Various Artists

On this blistering hot afternoon in New York City what better music to be spinning than Fania. In the last few years there has been a resurgence of interest in the highly influential Latin rhythms of Fania Records. A plethora of releases have been reissued and unreleased recordings bubbled to the surface. All these can be extremely overwhelming, especially when you only have a brief knowledge of the label and some of its artists. The recently released Fania Records 1964-1980: The Original Sound Of Latin New York (Strut) is hands-down one the best compilations to represent the label and the artists with the respect and glamour it and they so richly deserve.

At a time well before the music industry started to accept Latin music as a viable source of income on the popular music side and well before Santana emerged on the scene, there was the Latin and Afro influence of Fania. The original creation of the now legendary clarinetist and bandleader, Johnny Pacheco, the label fused the interests of Spanish Harlem and the young vibe of the city into an infectious dancefloor groove that would influence countless artists to come. This compilation collects some of most important tracks spanning almost two decades. For many, you will recognize classics like Celia Cruz & Johnny Pacheco's monster groove of "Quimbra." This duo recorded a slew of records for the label and this was one of their most popular tunes. Cruz is in prime form and shows why she is considered the Queen of Latin music.

Johnny Pacheco's own "Dakar, Punto Final" has all the roots of salsa, merengue, charanga and other Latin sub-genres. It's hip-shaken' bass/percussion mixed with the cacophony of horns will make you want to throw an impromptu party after listening. Mongo Santamaria is featured here with the classic "O Mi Shango". Mongo Santamaria was already becoming a star on the jazz scene as a result of John Coltrane's rendition of "Afro Blue" a few years earlier. Along with artists such as Ruben Blades, Hector Lavoe, Joe Bataan and the great Willie Colon, Johnny Pacheco would later develop what most people may know these artists by--The Fania All-Stars. This massive collective performed around the world to insanely large audiences. This was the real spreading of the Latin vibe and would have a profound affect on jazz and world music from America to England to Africa.

Fania Records 1964-1980 is a real treasure trove of Latin classics spanning 2 discs (29 songs) but it is also a document of one of the most important labels and artists to come out of the New York City at the time. These artists influenced generations both in jazz, rock and world music. Their impact really can't be questioned or overstated. Even if you only know a small bit about Latin music you need to own this compilation. It's not just a history lesson its a party album to beat all party albums. And if you are a jazz fan its should be in your collection. Period. A real must have. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Ralph Alessi: Wiry Strong

Ralph Alessi (trumpet)
Wiry Strong (Clean Feed; 2011)
Ravi Coltrane (sax)
Drew Gress (bass)
Mark Ferber (drums)
Andy Milne (piano)

Ralph Alessi's music always has a well structured, complex and cinematic feel to it. He was raised and trained as a classical trumpeter, and it shows throughout all of his releases with a supreme mastery of his instrument. The combination of that classical technique and his love of modern jazz structures makes for exciting and diverse albums every time out.

His work with fellow trailblazing musicians such as Jason Moran, Don Byron, Uri Caine, Steve Coleman among others has put him in an almost indescribable category. Most jazz fans would describe his music as avant garde but his latest, Wiry Strong (Clean Feed Records) feels like his most accomplished and accessible album to date.

Wiry Strong magnificently weaves together diverse ideas, turning them into romantic adventures and in some cases fun excursions. "Station Wagon Trip" has a big orchestrated tone but it is also enveloped a sense of a group moving forward in sound. There are spiraling rhythms that are enhanced by Andy Milne on piano and Ravi Coltrane. Alessi's performance carries the listener on what feels like a surreal journey but this all works as an enjoyable experience that can easily be grasped by even the newest fan to Alessi's music. 

"Halves And Wholes" is probably the most beautiful piece on the record. It definitely highlights Alessi's contemporary/straight ahead abilities both in composition and performance. This is a ballad which the band is integral but Alessi carries the tune with a soft touch that is match wonderfully by Milne.

"A Dollar In Your Shoe" and "20% Of The 80%" are both fun pieces combining multi-layered structures with some crisp performances by Gress and Ferber (in the case of "Dollar"). Alessi's muted trumpet of "20% Of The 80%" adds a level of mystery to the piece along with rolling, repeating patterns from Ferber that keep the avant garde and forward thinking spirit of this group alive. "Wiry Strong" closes out the session in a searching yet forward thinking mode. Alessi and Coltrane lead the group upward in both timing and adventure.

With Wiry Strong, Ralph Alessi has created an album of incredibly rich concepts and captivating melodies that will be rewarding for fans new and old. Ralph Alessi like his many collaborators is among the rare group of musicians who are continuing to push jazz forward and beyond its traditional definitions. Highly Recommended.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

JD Allen: Victory!

JD Allen (sax)
Victory! (Sunnyside Records; 2011)
Rudy Royston (drums)
Gregg August (bass)

I don't own a lot of JD Allen records but after this truly astounding effort I really have to do some more record shopping this weekend. Victory!, JD Allen's third album for Sunnyside Records (fifth overall) is a shinning piece of brilliance that celebrates the unity of his trio that has been together for five years. 

The compositions on Victory! are big, bold and definitely ambitious. There are shades of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders for those not familiar with his material but you soon become absorbed in the direction of Allen's compositions and you realize he has his own voice and vision. Allen's choice of working specifically in the trio format for the last few years definitely makes his unit stand above some of the other trios (mainly utilizing the piano, bass, drums lineup) currently on the scene today.

"Victory!," opens the session in meditative fashion with Royston and August slowly building up the tone for Allen to burst into with exuberance upon the mountain top. It's a melodic piece that feels like a funeral march but it's a celebration of life and all of one's victories over adversity. It's a contemplative but gritty tone that should have everyone stopping what their doing and focusing inward.

Victory! circles around many motifs but one that is omnipresent is that of Eastern thought. "Sura Hinda" will definitely have you in a more spiritual mode as Allen illustrates his complex and reflective writing style. Allen is matched perfectly by Royston's bombastic movements on drums and the low level strumming from August that evokes moments of spirituality to most listeners.

"Motif" while extremely short, has a steady, muscular bounce. The band cuts loose in a post bop manner with a hard melody and some very crisp passages. All of this is rolled together in just under three minutes. It's striking, blissful and leaves you begging for more. "Mr. Steepy" is joyful and full of bop sensibilities that, while reminiscent of that influential era, still manages to deliver a present-day attitude and energy that is looking and searching for the future.

The JD Allen Trio never seems to overshadow each other. A really great sign of a group that has been together a long time. Allen's thinking and writing continues to grow on the records that I've listened to and he is definitely one the brightest new talents of this young century. Let's hope his work in the trio format stays for a long time to come. Victory! is one of those superior records you must experience.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Arni Karlsson: Boundaries

Arni Karlsson Trio
Boundaries (Dimma Music; 2009)

Arni Karlsson (piano)
Gunnar Hrafnsson (bass)
Matthias Hemstock (drums)

Iceland is quickly becoming one of my favourite jazz spots in the last few months. With exciting young thinkers like Asa Trio and Sunna Gunnlaugs, the scene is on the cusp of something great.

I reached back into my decks and I found an album I hadn't spent much time with in quite a few months--the lovely Arni Karlsson and one of his rare releases, Boundaries (Dimma Music)

After spending most of his younger years training as a classical pianist, Reykjavik based Arni Karlsson then began to balance both his studies and his love for jazz. But he has also experimented with deep house grooves as well writing classical compositions. The interesting thing is how Karlsson has been able to separate his alter-egos. By listening to each varying identity you wouldn't know he was the mastermind behind any of them. That's real talent.

Karlsson has so far only recorded two jazz influenced sessions but Boundaries has always struck me as the most satisfying as it's an intimate date in a trio setting. This is an album that really took a long time to seep into my consciousness. Once it did the melodies couldn't escape me for weeks. There is a gentle tone to the proceeding that is bettered by the superb performances of each member.

The title track "Boundaries" has an element of Keith Jarrett but it is still intimate and reflective enough to present a few twists and changes that give the listener a sense of the creativity and direction Karlsson wants to take you. The Latin rhythm of "Endless Journey" builds beautifully with rolling patterns that move the hips back and forth. It reminds me of lighter material from the Oscar Peterson Trio. Hrafnsson and Hemstock lay a firm but understated groove just below Karlsson's chord lines.

"Confuciousness" demonstrates Karlsson moving in an improvised direction that provides a number of stop/start moments that may take the listener by surprise, but just hang with it. As the piece unfolds and the melody moves in and out, you begin to find your own home and rhythm within the abstract structure. Its exciting, bold, bluesy and improvisation, all of which I love rolled into one piece. "Unborn" is a solemn number that evokes American gospel and a search for some order within confusion. "Unborn" contains a passion that should connect with every listener upon first listen. A wonderful way to close out the session.

Arni Karlsson released Boundaries two years ago but it still resonates for me. It's an album I've really wanted to talk about but only until a few months ago did I start listening to again on a regular basis. If this were from 2011 it would definitely be an album of the year listen. Exquisite lyrical structure, passionate performances and a real sense of adventure when there needs to be. This is what makes Boundaries an album worth seeking out. Highly Recommended.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Nick Hempton: The Business

Nick Hempton (sax)
The Business (Posi-Tone Records; 2011)
Dan Aran (drums)
Marco Panascia (bass)
Art Hirahara (piano)
Yotam Silberstein (guitar)

I first encountered Nick Hempton through Smalls Jazz Club in New York. The group is tight and fierce. It's a true, swingin' yet basic hard bop outfit that should instantly attract the attention of even ardent non-jazz fan. Nick Hempton, originally from Australia then transplanted to New York, has been on the scene for just a few years. Hempton's style is like a young Dexter Gordon, but don't underestimate Nick Hempton or his band for just another revivalist of hard bop. Hempton can craft a tune and his long standing quintet can cut some powerful chords.

After fighting it out to get gigs at the various venues around the city, Hempton finally landed a fairly regular gig at Smalls. That open environment definitely permeated the group's debut album, Nick Hempton Band (self produced; 2009) which included some terrific numbers including the infectious opener "Get This" and the midtempo rhythms of "Serenity". Marco Panascia and Hempton share some wonderful passages throughout. Hirahara and Aran also add a strong element of unity for the group as evident on the groovy "The Artful Roger" which could feel at home on any Tubby Hayes record. A solid debut that really shouldn't be missed.

The freedom and cohesiveness of the group are tightened on the new release, The Business (Posi-Tone; 2011), now adding Silberstein as guest on a couple of tracks. The group and Hempton  display a real sense of growth over the last two years. Hempton sounds bigger and mature. His compositions are also very well rounded as the buoyant, "Art Is In The Groove" demonstrates with great toe-tapping beats from Aran. But even more delicious is the killer organ and guitar work from Hirahara and Silberstein that gives the track a sizzlin' Jimmy Smith flavour. Hempton wails but is more determined to let his bandmates shine. The standard "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good To You" (one of my favourites), is exquisitely executed by the group. The bluesy, gospel delivery by Hempton has all the elements of a late night club date. The rest of group lay back and follow but tone is rich and unified.

"Encounter At E" is a lovely original ballad that is the best number I've heard from Hempton so far in my short time following this group. The group adds a great deal of colour to Hempton's material here but it still retains a soft tone and glides gently along allowing the listener to absorb every note. Panascia delivers some great lines late that are moving, and accompanied by Hirahara's smooth well balanced touches on the keys. Hempton's performance is romantic and very lyrical while the composition itself brings out the best in the group.

The band closes out with a high spirited "Carry On Up The Blues" featuring astounding performances from both Silberstein and Hirahara. Hempton rockets the group through most of the beginning of the piece before turning the show over to the group. It's a great display of what this band does live. The Nick Hempton Band seems to do what most groups have trouble with - delivering the same patterns and energy that are conveyed in the live performance and translating that to record. The Business is evidence that bop is alive and well and can be delivered both on stage and off. An excellent second record from a group and a leader that are getting better and better with each outing.

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Users Guide To Robert Mitchell

Robert Mitchell (piano)

One of the brightest stories in British jazz over the last decade has been the rise of pianist Robert Mitchell, who has taken a slightly different direction than most UK jazz artists. While many of his contemporaries have set themselves squarely in the free jazz of European/Bitches Brew era, Mitchell has amazingly melded the structural standards of classical with the emotional elements of '70s soul-jazz and modern jazz themes into a beautiful and creative new model for the new century.

Mitchell has performed and recorded with a wide array of artists of the last decade, including Courtney Pine, Soweto Kinch, Norma Winstone and most recently Matana Roberts. He has developed into a multi-faceted artist with a soul-jazz ensemble Panacea, a trio (3io), his solo work, as well as, commissioned classical compositions.

I first discovered Mitchell when I randomly bought his first album Voyager (Dune Records; 2001) while on vacation in London. It blew me away. It felt like an extension of the soul vibe that Courtney Pine had been developing during the mid-'70s. But it also features some phenomenal work by Mitchell on piano along with some wonderful soulful vocals from Eska Mtungwazi (especially "July For The Smile" and "I'll Be Around"). "Days And Nights Waiting" is another display of Mitchell's ability to combine his classical training with modern jazz aesthetics.

It would be almost four years before Mitchell's Panacea would next release Trust (F-ire; 2005), an album that was more thematic in nature but still retaining the soulful elements of its debut. The album featured more uptempo funky beats like the opener "The Brink," which had a midtempo rhythm with shades of drum 'n' bass. It was also a more focused album with tracks like "The Thief Of Dimensions," "Trust" and "A Heart (Full Of You)" containing more poetic and ethereal qualities that were only eluded to on the debut. A great step forward for Mitchell's Panacea.

Taking a small break from the soul-influenced Panacea, Mitcheel team up with violinist, Omar Puente for the classical focused duet album, Bridges (F-ire; 2006). A peaceful outing that puts Mitchell squarely back in his roots. "Somebody Backstage" is a heartwarming and effective opener that sets the tone and pace for this session. "Mambo Infleuntiado" is fueled with a Latin tempo. Mitchell and Puente play off each other nice and add some nice yet subtle improvised touches. "Almendra" has joyous yet bouncing quality that could sit well alongside side some of the traditional classical duets by even Yo Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax. Bridges is a wonderful divergence and stellar introduction to Mitchell's past.

The one album that should really turn heads is Equinox (F-ire; 2007),  which is Mitchell at his most raw and beautiful. The solo piano material is gentle and complex. This transitional album is a journey through what he has learned and what he will produce later. There are moments where I felt I was listening to a young Chick Corea or Friedrich Gulda, who also explored jazz and classical styles. "Equinocturne," "Priceless" and "Passion Radar" all display an artist shaping beautiful melodies as well as creating new patterns of thought for the listener. Equinox is definitely not run of the mill among British jazz albums. It's very European in thought but retains the inventiveness and character of its British creator.

Robert Mitchell would take a further step forward with the creation of his trio, simply called, 3io. The group consists of members of his Panacea project, Tom Mason (bass) and Richard Spaven (drums). They would record the critically acclaimed The Greater Good (Jazz Services; 2008), which is more contemporary and straight ahead than his soul-jazz based work with Panacea. It's will definitely have you thinking of E.S.T., Brad Mehldau or Keith Jarrett, but Mitchell's 3io stands on its own. The trio show a great deal of strength and diversity on  tracks like Wayne Shorter's "Dance Cadaverous" and strikingly out-of-nowhere Massive Attack's "Teardrop". The aforementioned covers are re-imagined beautifully, but it's the group own material that is insightful and effective. "The Greater Good" and "Quantum" are both examples of the trio thinking and performing big and bold. These are very tight performances from musicians who have been together a long time. There is a small shade of Panacea soul/funk that is executed here and would be the model for Mitchell's next project.

Mitchell's writing has matured. His ability to move and blend his influences and still have the material sound exciting and different with each record is truly astounding.

That excitement and creativity would once again be on display as Mitchell returned to the soul of Panacea with The Cusp (Edition Records; 2010), which featured material from The Greater Good that included vocals by Deborah Jordan ("A Map Of The Sky" "The Blessing" and "Quantum"). Jordan's vocals and the new arrangements make for interesting comparisons, but both versions stand on their own. Jordan does seem to fit these recordings perfectly. This is most fully realized of all the Panacea records. Mitchell's compositions are more complex and deeper than ever before. "The Essence" is a great example of his technical skills and his leadership. Panacea may be Mitchell's ensemble, but he definitely allows his bandmates their freedom. "The Cusp" is reminiscent of both Headhunters and 4hero. With trip hop beats, soulful melodies and an infectious organ groove from Mitchell.

It's unfortunate that most people stateside don't know about Robert Mitchell. He has carved out a direction that feels inspired by elements of Keith Jarrett, Roy Ayers and Alfred Brendel. These are rare qualities. Robert Mitchell's work is definitely worth checking out. I'm not sure I want to point out one specific album to start with but if I had to I would recommend starting with Equinox and The Cusp. They give two radically different sides of a dynamic and inventive composer. With another 3io record coming later this year I think now is the time everyone take a good, hard listen to one of the UK's best kept secrets.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Aaron Alexander/Julian Priester: Conversational Music

Aaron Alexander (drums)
Julian Priester (trombone)
Conversational Music (Self Produced; 2010)

A pleasant surprise. That is one of the things I have to say about this fantastic collaboration between legendary trombonist, Julian Priester and the hugely under-rated Aaron Alexander.

Both have been on the scene for a combined six decades. Priester's worked since the late 50s and 60s, mostly notably in Sun Ra's band plus he was also a member of John Coltrane group that recorded Africa/Brass (as well as his own work with Sam Rivers). Alexander is an amazing talent in his own rite. He studied under Priester in the 80s and later formed the New York based Midrash Mish Mosh and worked with the famous Klezmatics in addition to releasing his own solo material. This meeting seemed inevitable albeit long overdue (15 years).

The fruit of their recent meeting became Conversational Music. And it is in a nutshell just that - a beautiful conversation and exploration between two talented and forward thinking musicians. There are dedicated solo pieces from each member interwoven between the duo sessions, all making this a very enjoyable and delicate listen.  With the diverse/dynamic background the musicians have, you would expect something a bit more avant garde but this is a more tempered outing. "Gerald Stephen" begins with some terrific rolling from Alexander and countered by bouncing patterns laid out by Priester. It may feel like a number of notes at once but there is a melody just underneath that Priester has spontaneously created after the two musicians delicately improvise. Well worth a second listen to find the groove, so-to-speak.

"Kocmierozki's Shed" is the one moment where Alexander shows his avant garde credentials. It's a piece with gongs, ambient streams and soft washes of sound. It sets a perfect mood that rides right into "Ode To Lucius Harper" a solo piece from Priester. Priester's deep tone builds over the course of the piece and adds a level of emotion that is both exciting as it is touching. "Bulaga Bugalu" sets out in tribal fashion with Alexander pounding away in what I think is a 4/4 pattern (I'm not a drummer so I could be completely wrong). Alexander quickly comes in with a corresponding pattern that is rich and dense in tone but allows Alexander to experiment as the piece moves further along.

"Gingging, Bongbong" is an experimental soundscape where both musicians explore different found elements through percussion and various vocal treatments to Priester's trombone. The piece is fascinating in the knowledge that you don't know what the next note is going to be. The closing number "Evolver" has a bluesy motif underneath, but the road the two men travel is more searching and waiting for the next improvised note from the other. "Evolver" is a great way to close the album showing the session may have actually led to more similar opportunities for the two musicians.

Conversational Music is one of those buried treasures that I hope fans of interesting duo projects will gravitate to. It should not be missed. There are pieces here that even fans of contemporary jazz might like (in small doses). But avant garde fans--you should definitely seeks this record out. Aaron Alexander and Julian Priester are two artist who deserve the recognition that seems to be missing. Highly Recommended.

Friday, July 1, 2011

David Weiss: Snuck In/Snuck Out

David Weiss (trumpet)
Snuck In (Sunnyside Records; 2010)
Snuck Out (Sunnyside Records; 2011)
Jamire Williams (drums)
J.D. Allen (sax)
Matt CLohesy (bass)
Nir Felder (guitar)

David Weiss has been on the scene for over two decades. He has learned from and played with some of the best in the business such as Charles Tolliver, Eddie Henderson, Freddie Hubbard and James Moody to name a small few. It's amazing that he has such as small catalog but the material as leader is dynamic, bold and features multiple layers of complexity.

He may be more well known for his work with one of his many projects; The New Jazz Composers Octet which is how I discovered him. The group performed and Weiss wrote material for one of Freddie Hubbard's last recordings, New Colors (Hip Bop).  Weiss' recent collective, Point Of Departure, has released two live recordings Snuck In (2010) and Snuck Out (2011).  Both are recordings from an evening at New York's Jazz Standard in 2008. The evening is a series of mostly standards with the addition of a small amount of originals. The real achievement here is the group's ability to make these pieces their own.

Weiss' playing is superb, hip and inventive. The bristling impact of Weiss' playing on the opener for Snuck In, "I Have A Dream" shows that he has learned a lot from Hubbard, Henderson and maybe Woody Shaw. Jamire Williams is also crackin' on "I Have A Dream," and challenges the quintet to keep pace. Weiss and J.D. Allen deliver some killer chord changes, and fluid poetry battles on Tony Williams "Black Comedy" and "Number 4". The band tackles the great Andrew Hill on "Erato" and delivers beautiful justice to this complex ballad. The guitar work from Nir Felder is rich and a real surprise over the evening and the two discs.

Snuck Out opens with a powerful "Revillot" (by Charles Tolliver) where Nir Felder conjures up some mystical soundscapes that give the piece a dark adventurous vibe. Weiss has a modern style but adds both free form and hard bopish element to it, especially on Wayne Shorter's "Paraphernalia" where the group creates an excellent avant-fusion moment. Weiss is crisp and direct with his message and you get an all around sense of solidity flowing through the audience and quintet. Weiss' own "Hidden Meanings" is a midtempo number where J.D. Allen and Felder both show a loving and tender side to their playing which emits a different tonal atmosphere for the audience on this night and for the listener at home. 

David Weiss & Point Of Departure, a cohesive unit and documented over two discs and one evening of killer performances, all amounts to a sublime experience. But also making clear what a lot of fans inside jazz circles already know -- David Weiss is a serious composer that deserves wider appreciation. Both Snuck In and Snuck Out are must-listen purchases. Enjoy.