Monday, October 5, 2015

"Two": The magic of Bela Fleck and Chick Corea comes to Emory's Emerson Hall October 3, 2015

Two BelaFleck & Chick Corea Concord Music

On Saturday night, in the magnificent crimson and cream surroundings of Emory’s  Emerson Hall, two magicians of music came to play- Chick Corea and Bela Fleck
 Pianist Armando Antonio Zacone “Chick” Corea, now a spry seventy-four years old, has been stunning the world of jazz and fusion music since the release of his seminal recording Now He Sings Now He Sobs in 1968 with bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Roy Haynes.  Corea has long been a restless innovator. He has explored avant garde jazz with collaborators like saxophonist Anthony Braxton, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Barry Altschul in the group  Circles and  joined  in  on iconic trumpeter  Miles Davis’ seminal jazz fusion recordings Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way.  His collaborations with vibraphonist Gary Burton on such albums as Crystal Silence, could be considered a foray into jazz influenced chamber music.
 In the early seventies, swayed in part by his admiration for fellow Miles Davis alumnus John McLaughlin’s fusion group Mahavishnu Orchestra, Mr. Corea started Return to Forever, a rock/jazz fusion band that featured electronic music played at incredible speed , with stunning virtuosity and uncanny synchronicity.  Mr. Corea’s music has always had a Latin flavor, influenced by his ethnicity and his early association with Latin players like Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo. His musical compositions are a complex amalgam of Latin rhythms, European classically influenced lyricism and complex improvisations taken from the jazz canon. During his long and illustrious career Mr. Corea has been nominated for over sixty Grammy awards and has won the prestigious award twenty-two times.

Bela Anton Leos Fleck is perhaps the world’s most preeminent banjo player. He has mastered his instrument to previously unseen levels of proficiency  and has been able to expand the possibilities of the sound he can create far beyond the traditional confines of Bluegrass music. His full  name is an  honorific to three classical composers- Hungarian Bela Bartok, Austrian composer Anton Weber and Czech composer Leos Janacek. With this legacy it is not hard to imagine his fascination with classical music  and his goal to somehow want to expand the boundaries of his instrument into this musical realm.

 Mr. Fleck’s first exposure to the banjo was listening as a child to the great Earl Scruggs play the theme to the television show The Beverly Hillbillies. He was smitten by Scruggs and he remains one of Mr. Fleck’s acknowledged influences along with bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker and his current collaborator Mr. Corea.  Mr. Fleck’s  contributions to the Bluegrass canon  include his  participation in  such groups as Spectrum and New Grass Revival.

Always looking to push artificial boundaries,  Mr. Fleck formed the successful crossover group The Flecktones with bassist Victor Wooten and drummer Roy Wooten and the multi-instrumentalist Howard Levy.  The Flecktones emerged as a super group in the late 1980’s bridging the gap between progressive bluegrass, jazz and fusion and garnered several Grammy awards in the process.  When not working with the Flecktones Mr. Fleck has continued his pursuit of expanding his musical pallet. Following  his muse into classical music, Mr. Fleck won a Grammy in 2002 for best Classical Crossover Album for his work Perpetual Motion, a collaboration with the double bassist Edgar Meyer. 

Eventually  Mr. Corea and Mr. Fleck’s  paths crossed in 2006 and they recorded an album titled The Enchantment from that collaboration which led to an international tour. Fast forward to 2015 and Mr. Corea and Mr. Fleck have  recently  released a “live” album capturing  some memorable moments culled from those concerts. The album is simply titled Two. 

The casually dressed duo made their way onto the stage  in front of a capacity crowd. The mood was exhilarating as the set started off with “Senorita”, a Corea composition and  the first cut on the new album. The two men had sheet music on their respective stands but it was obvious it was more about unspoken communication right from the start. This was especially evident on the lead in to the songs.  Mr. Fleck would throw out a phrase and Mr. Corea would answer it, neither quite knowing where the other would take them until they settled into the prepared music. The duo cruised through complex passages, building on a flurry of notes, navigating the shoals of their musical  jet-stream,  but  somehow always ending precisely in unison and to the admiring astonishment of the audience who responded with appreciative applause. 

Mr. Fleck’s “Menagerie” came next . The complexity of the music and its polished execution could not entirely mask the distinctive sounds coming from their respective instruments, sounds that have  identifiable roots. Mr. Fleck’s banjo with its bluegrass inflections and Mr. Corea’s piano with his classical flourishes and Latin inspired  rhythmic approach come from two  vastly different musical worlds, but these two wizards made these variants work for the most part to a surprising degree. 

Mr. Fleck’s “Waltse for Abbey”  was written for Mr. Fleck’s wife Abigail , her self an accomplished banjo player. Mr. Corea starts out with an elegant introduction to the piece, itself was a beautiful pianistic miniature that commanded attention.  The two are most lyrical here, playfully dancing around  each other’s musical ideas on this Americana inspired melody. 

Some of the most daring musical excursions of the evening came when the two delved into the classical repertoire.  Mr. Corea went to exaggerated lengths to erect a cardboard and ductape music stand  above on his piano as Mr. Fleck entertained the audience describing the timeline of the next piece of music- a Sonata by  Domenico Scarlatti. It was here where Mr. Fleck most impressed, as he showed his amazing ability to make his banjo conform and actually flourish within the rigors of this complex classical piece. Mr. Corea is an accomplished classical player, but to see a banjo being utilized in such an unorthodox way was a delicious treat. Mr. Fleck’s technique magically transformed his sound into that of a harpsichord, lending  to the baroque sound of the piece that could hardly be imagined if not seen for oneself.

The set ended with a rendition of Mr. Fleck’s  bluegrass  staple “Mountain.”  Here the tables were turned. Mr. Fleck was clearly in his wheelhouse  performing with  fluidity and  appropriately emphasizing the rough and tumble,  unpolished twang of this roots music.. Mr. Corea, venturing into somewhat unfamiliar territory, seemed less at ease, doing his best to achieve the rootsy  feel of this music. Mr. Corea’s approach seemed more formulaic  and for the most part lacked that genuine, honky-tonk feeling one comes to expect out of Bluegrass music. 
The duo called for an intermission before returning for a second set. In between Mr. Corea changed into a more relaxed red-plaid shirt, perhaps feeling the need to help get himself into mood of the bluegrass  part of the program. 

The two played an engaging Fleck composition before surprising the audience with a more familiar tune Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed.”  Played with sensitivity and without too much embellishment, Mr. Corea  commented after the piece “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love Stevie Wonder’s music?”It is good to see that more and more prominent artists are incorporating some of Mr. Wonder’s vast treasure trove of material into their repertoire, recognizing his music as a natural progression from the Great American Songbook. 

Returning to the Classical realm Mr. Corea demonstrated why he is one of the most captivating pianists on the planet as he introduced a beautiful composition by the relatively unknown French composer Henri Dutilleux, whom he likened to Ravel and Debussy. The work titled Prelude en Berceuse (Lullaby) is also on the album Two. The audience was enthralled by the beauty of this short but powerfully melodic piece of music.  Mr. Fleck started off with an ostinato line on his banjo that Mr. Corea played counter to in a delicate dance of notes. It was a tour de force in genre bending neo-classical music for banjo and piano. 

The set continued with a Fleck Composition titled “Juno.” Mr. Fleck related how about two years ago he was traveling and stranded in a Dallas airport when his son was born and so unable to attend the birth chose to compose this song, named for his son,  to mark the event. 

Mr. Corea created a gorgeous introduction to his composition “The Enchantment” which captivated the audience with its cascading harmonies. Throughout the evening you could see the mutual respect  the artists shared,  Mr. Corea often standing up and clapping in acknowledgment of Mr. Fleck’s performance and Mr. Fleck seated, equally acknowledging his admiration of Mr. Corea’s playing. 

There was no doubt the audience came to hear some of Mr. Fleck’s bluegrass influence and he brought it all to bear on the finale,  a rendition of “Bugle Call Rag”  Starting off the familiar three finger picked banjo part slowly, Mr. Corea’s piano surprisingly took on the sound of a calliope. Mr. Corea encouraged  the audience to clap to the easy beat, but when the two started to accelerate  the tempo to a more rapid pace the two speedsters left the audience in the dust. While bluegrass is not Mr. Corea’s forte, he was clearly more at ease on this piece adding notes and chords that gave the  tune authenticity. After a thunderous applause the duo returned with an encore of two more songs. 

After playing with a few musical ideas from the stage, the duo  settled in on a sauntering, bluesy rendition of Mr. Fleck’s “Sunset Road” where their jazz inclinations were most on display.

 Mr. Corea’s “Armando’s Rhumba.” was the parting finale with its swinging vibe and Latin inspired rhythms leaving the audience in a satisfied state of delight having witnessed a truly unique concert going experience.  For those who missed this once in a lifetime event , the one consoling grace is that you can experience some of this magic on the duo’s “live” performance on their latest two disc CD Two

Monday, September 28, 2015

Scott Robinson and Julian Thayer Explore the Sounds of the mind on "?" ( huh!)

Multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson is perhaps one of the best kept secrets on the jazz scene in NYC today. Despite his prolific work- he has been recorded on over two hundred recordings since  1981- he is relatively unknown to the general public for the superstar musician that he most certainly is.
He is an avid collector of some of music’s most unusual instruments and has mastered many of them. Appreciated by his peers as a musician’s musician for his phenomenal reed work,  he  has enlivened the palette of such varied groups as The Maria Schneider Orchestra and the Village Vanguard Orchestra, as well as The Ron Horton/Tim Horner Tentet or his own Scott Robinson Doctette.  Mr. Robinson is also the founder of his own record label ScienSonicLaboratories where he wants to explore the depths of the rare and unusual instruments that he owns and plays. He is, to coin a word, a Musicientist, who is fascinated by the frequency and modulations of sound. His more adventurous work is like a step into another world where mystery and adventure are more important than melody or rhythm.

We once had a discussion on what made music accessible to the general listening audience. It was Mr. Robinson’s position that all music, no matter how atonal, un-rhythmic or  for that matter unmelodic, was accessible to all those who spent the time and effort to access it on its own merits. 

Scott Robinson (photo credit unknown)

Mr. Robinson’s forays can reach into a universe of sounds that for some can be disconcerting and for others fall outside any classical definition of music, but no one can deny they are interesting.
Julian Thayer was a roommate of Mr. Robinson when they both attended Berklee College of Music back in 1977. Mr. Thayer is an accomplished bassist and has collaborated with Mr. Robinson on a previous album titled Nucleus from 2010.  Mr. Thayer continued his education after Berklee earning a PhD in Psychophysiology.  He is the Eminent Scholar Professor of Health Psychology at Ohio State University. There is no doubt that these two gentlemen have more than just music on their minds. They seem intent on exploring the boundaries of sound as they relate to human emotions and sensory perception. 

On “?” which seems to have the unspoken tagline of “huh?” featured as track number seven on the cd, Mr. Robinson and Mr. Thayer seem to be playing freely with no specific written  music just a symbiotic love of the unknown, the absurd and the bizarre. The titles are equally telling; "expanse," "veil,""unearthly vision,"" misterioso"- the only semi identifiable nod to a well known song by Monk-"molecular inquiry," "search the skies,"" rare imaginings," "I wonder," "sub-molecular inquiry," "enigmatic entity," "outer-sonic oracle" to name a few of the twenty-nine distinct pieces .
You  can hear the ominous voices bellow from Mr. Thayer’s bowed bass or cry from Mr. Robinson’s  mournful  C Melody Saxophone. The alien sounds of Mr. Robinson’s Theremin also prevail on the opening track “expanse.” Or simply a bent bass line on “JT poses a question.” The Hammond Organ Pedals juxtaposed against the bow-legged bass sounds on ‘dark mystery.’ Need something to sound grating? Try the junk banjo of “quick question.” More melancholy is elicited from Mr. Robinson’s woody alto clarinet on “three investigations.”  The static sound of an old radio and the eerie sine wave emissions of the Theremin are captured on the aptly titled “un-earthly vision.” The absurdly low walking contrabass sarrusophone counterpointed against Mr. Thayer’s percussion and string bass.

The list goes on and on, some of these instruments I confess to having never heard of before, including sounds from Mr. Robison’s arsenal : the Hammond Organ, clarinet, tenor saxophone, bass marimba, clavioline, trautonium, bass flute, echo cornet, slide saxophone, tuned cowbells and Korean gong.

I am truly at a loss for words to describe what Mr. Robinson and Mr. Thayer have done here except to liken the album to a soundtrack of a Sci-Fi movie from the fifties and to say it is certainly adventurous. As Scott labels on his album this is a "Certified Space Imagination" product. Hearing the unbridled laughter at the end of track 17 “what in the world,”  one can only assume these gentlemen had a lot of fun making this album.

 Here is video of these two mad musicians in action:

Friday, September 25, 2015

Graffiti: JD Allen's Art of the Saxophone Jazz Trio

JD Allen's Graffiti Savant SCD 2147

Forty-three year old tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen is a man on the rise. He was named as Downbeat’s Rising Star in 2011 and has matured nicely in the succeeding  four years. Witness his latest creation Graffiti ,  a tour de force of purpose and inventiveness. With this album Mr. Allen has developed a much clearer vision for himself and his sound. Together with the propulsive drums of Rudy Royston and the rooted bass of Greg August, the music sounds like it harkens back to the past while pointing us forward to  the next step in the evolution of the jazz saxophone trio. The album is both a celebration of form and measured free improvisation.

JD Allen (photo credit unknown)

From the opening salvo of Royston’s exploding drums to the clarion voice of Mr. Allen’s tenor on “Naked,” Allen does indeed bare his musical soul. His fluent grasp of the language  makes for an immediately visceral connection with the listener, a free form cry that one can still relate to by virtue of its recognizable form.
“Jawn Henry” is an inspirational tune based on the folktale of John Henry the Steel Driving’ Man.  On this song Mr. August’s plucky  bass provides a low register respite from the dynamic dueling of Mr. Allen and Mr. Royston. The two seem to be musically bent on recreating the man versus machine theme of the folk tale’s legendary duel of strength and they do so effectively.

Allen composed all of the songs on this album and described his intention for each one in the liner notes. On “Third Eye” he writes  “The saxophone and bass play rubato while the drums have the option of playing against type.”  To this end we find Mr. August establishing the heartbeat of the song  . Mr. Royston playing against the tempo, as he so often does, with Mr. Allen left to find his own ground either with the tempo or as a counterpoint to what Mr. Royston is doing. Through it all Mr. Allen returns  to a plaintive call that seems to unify the whole for the listener.

The song “Graffiti,” as the title suggests, is a potpourri of color, rhythm and texture much like the radical, free form of wall art the name implies.  With the short repeated line from Allen’s saxophone as the only basis, Royston pulses, bobs and weaves like a fighter in the ring. August reaches for some grounding  beat for the group to hold onto and Allen explores the color palette, disciplined but carefree. Allen’s tenor has an implied sense of earnestness that is not something that can be contrived.

My favorite piece is the loping “G-dspeed , B, Morris“ perhaps because its melody is memorable and  heartfelt. August is particularly effective in anchoring the tune’s march-like cadence as Mr. Allen plays between the bass lines with an easy swagger that is laid back and mellow.  It is a dedication to the late Butch Morris who originated Conduction, a form of structured free form  improvisation  that allowed the musical conductor to direct an improvising group through the use of his baton and actions. Perhaps this association with Mr. Morris is the guiding light that has allowed Mr. Allen to create this delicate balance between the form and the formless, a  balance he navigates so expertly on this album? 

Butch Morris (photo credit unknown)
The economical “Little Mack” is buoyed by the walking bass line of Mr. August who keeps the pace of this blues right where it should be. Mr. Royston lays back on this one,  punctuating the air here and there with a rim shot or a splash of his cymbal as Mr. Allen  swoons over the melody with succinct clarity. 

On “Sonny Boy”  Mr. August’s bass is again the lead, repeating a motif that allows Mr. Allen to play an ascending and descending line harmonically over the top.   

On the liner notes Mr. Allen says about “Indigo (Blue Like)” Sometimes I feel like the most avant garde thing a jazz musician could do today is to try to straight up and down swing.”  My sentiments exactly. Swing he does with Mr. August and Mr. Royston keeping the tempo as Mr. Allen rides above it, simmering in a slow burn on his saxophone. His sound is uncluttered, heartfelt and swinging

“Disambiguation”  is another take on the aforementioned “Jawn Henry,” a seemingly endless source of  inspiration for Mr. Allen. This time he does so with an openness of form that uses only the barest implication of the original melody to inspire the ensemble improvisation Allen is trying to achieve. Royston and August are free to roam the periphery of the melody finding their own way. This leaves Mr. Allen in the role of foil, responding to the free form dynamic created by his band mates.  Clearly there is trust with this triumvirate of musicians, co creators of this ensemble sound.

With Graffiti Mr. Allen and company have created a body of music  that leaves a lasting impression  and hopefully promises more to come. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Spirit of Shirley Horn: The Jack Wilkins Trio featuring Alexis Cole at the SCA Jazz Alley September 18, 2015

On Friday September 18, 2015 the Stamford Center for the Arts, will launch the first of its new jazz series at its Jazz Alley venue. The Jazz Alley is located on the second floor level of the Palace Theater; an intimate cabaret- setting .

Ms. Shirley Valerie Horn was a jazz pianist and vocalist, often compared to great jazz vocalists like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. Although she never reached their popularity with the general public she was praised for her accomplished piano playing, her sensuous ballads and the deliberate phrasing of her vocals. Ms. Horn’s work was so admired by the great Miles Davis that he famously insisted she open for him at Max  Gordon’s Village Gate , refusing to play if Gordon didn’t acquiesce to his demand.  Davis saw in Horn a musician of similar sensibilities, who cherished  the space between sounds allowing songs to linger and breathe. She was a master of the slow burn. She once said of her singing  “ I want you to feel what I feel… I want you to be beside me. Be inside me. That’s the way I feel.”

 She was a principled person who balanced home life with her professional life refusing to tour far from her hometown of Washington, D.C. in favor of raising her daughter Rainy. These choices probably had an effect on her commercial success. But ultimately, Mr. Davis wasn’t the only one to realize Ms. Horn’s talent. Fittingly,. after being nominated nine times for a Grammy Awards, she won the Grammy 1998 for Best Jazz Vocal Performance for her  work on I Remember Miles, a tribute to her late friend and mentor.  She also received the NEA Jazz Masters Award, the highest honor the United States bestows upon jazz musicians, in 2005.

Ms. Horn passed at the age of seventy-one in October of 2005, but her music lives on in recordings and in the spirit she infused into every singer that has been influenced by her penetrating style.

Vocalist Alexis Cole has her own story to tell. After studying music at Miami University, William Patterson College, Queens College and a stint studying classical Indian Music at the Jazz Vocal Institute in Mumbai, Ms. Cole decided to join the Army.  There she auditioned and won the jazz vocalist position at the head of the West Point Jazz Knights band.  A finalist in the prestigious Sarah Vaughan vocal competition in 2012, she has recorded ten albums with some of contemporary jazz’s most celebrated instrumentalists. Her latest album is collaboration between her and eighty-nine year old guitarist extraordinaire Bucky Pizzarelli titled A Beautiful Friendship.  Well known Radio Host Jonathan Schwartz has said of Cole, she has “one of the great voices of today.” Stephen Holden of the New York Times called Ms Cole’s singing “exquisite.”

Ms. Cole has often patterned some of her vocal stylings after Ms. Horn and so felt  it would be fitting  to do a show using some of Ms. Horn’s material for this very special tribute.

Accompanying Ms. Cole is the virtuoso guitarist Jack Wilkins. In addition to being known as a master technician with blazing speed on the guitar, Mr. Wilkins has a long and storied history  playing behind world class jazz vocalists when he was with the great drummer Buddy Rich’s orchestra  Mr. Wilkins has played with Sarah Vaughan, Mel Tormḗ, Tony Bennett, Chris Connor and Morgana King to name just a few.  Forever  an admired  contemporary player, Wilkin’s version of Freddie Hubbard’s Classic   “Red Clay”  from his album “Windows” continues to fascinate modern listeners.

The rhythm section is comprised of two accomplished veterans. Bassist Andy McKee likes to say he went to the Elvin Jones School of music having played with John Coltrane’s  legendary drummer  for several years.  Drummer Mike Clark is a man who needs no introduction in the world of jazz and funk. Mr. Clark has played with legends like Chet Baker and Herbie Hancock and is probably one of the most sampled drummers by hip hop artists today.

Ms Cole ,Mr. Wilkins and company should make this opening evening at the Jazz Alley a night to remember.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Tony Hightower’s Re-release of “The New Standard" at 800 East Studios, Atlanta, GA

Tony Hightower "The New Standard"

Tucked away adjacent to the Freedom Parkway in the  Old Fourth Ward in Downtown Atlanta  is a recording studio that occasionally doubles as an intimate performance space. It is called 800 East Studios and on Wednesday night it was the scene of a performance by Atlanta’s own Tony Hightower.

Mr. Hightower is a vocalist whose sound is an amalgam of Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Nat King Cole. It was a coming out of sort, billed as re-release of his latest album “The New Standard.”   He was backed by pianist Kenny Banks,Jr., bassist Kevin Smith and drummer Henry Coneway III, collectively known as the  HC3 trio. 

The evening, scheduled  to start at 8pm didn’t kick off till closer to 9.  I was fortunate enough to get a front row seat and had the pleasure of sitting next Mr. Hightower’s Grandmother Martha, who was an absolute delight and an unequivocal fan of her grandson, as is to be expected. Talking with her, I found out that Tony started out playing the drums, but always had a penchant for singing a tune.  There is no doubt Mr. Hightower has music in his DNA. His mother, Teresa Hightower, is a well know vocalist on the Atlanta music scene. A working musician herself, she had a standing gig at the Ritz Carlton in Buckhead for an amazing  nineteen years, among her other musical credentials. Tony found a mentor in the brother of his musical idol, Nat King Cole. Freddie Cole, the brother of the great crooner/pianist  and a fine singer in his own right has been a guiding light , encouraging Hightower to pursue his career in jazz .

The evening started with the HC3 trio playing a fine rendition of “Dolphin Dance.” Mr. Banks demonstrated some elegance on the Yamaha grand, Mr. Smith produced large, plump notes from his upright bass and. Mr. Coneway kept the music swinging.
Mr. Hightower came into the room wearing stylish sunglasses, in a gold lame smoking jacket, with brushed velvet loafers, an upturned pork pie hat and a large diamond stud in his right earlobe.  In the current vernacular he was “fresh.”Part of Mr. Hightower’s mantra is to try to bring back the style and grace of the former performers like Sinatra and Cole, and so his dress and demeanor all play to that theme.
Kevin Smith & Tony Hightower photo by Ralph A. Miriello
The opening song was one of Mr. Hightower’s originals, “All Belong to You.” He sang this with an almost uncanny resemblance to Nat Cole’s voice. Mr. Hightower delivered the silky lyrics to perfection and you felt like you were temporarily  transported back to a night club in the nineteen-fifties.. The evening featured standards like “Kiss Me Baby,” “Gee Baby a’int I Good to You,” and a Cole-like version of “Nature Boy.” The most poignant song of the evening was Mr. Hightower’s “ Plain Jane,” a song that laments about  having a career  that never quite makes it to the front row.  The lyrics ache with the emotional angst of being teased with success only to have it suddenly removed. 

Perhaps the most jazz-like song of the performance was a deft handling of Thelonious Monk’s “I Mean You.” You could see this was a vehicle for the band to stretch out a bit from the confines of the repertoire and Banks, Smith and Coneway had fun with this one. The song t also allowed Mr. Hightower’s to use his voice as the instrument it is.  There is no denying the R and B in him, ala Smokey/Marvin, and he has great control of the falsetto aspects of his voice, but judicious use of this facility would be highly recommended if he wants true jazz cred.  I particularly found his Carpenter inspired version of the Bacharach song “:Close to You” painfully dragged out.. I was never a fan of this syrupy concoction and I am one that believes this song would be better left unearthed from the crypt from where it came.

Mr. Hightower has style and his voice is quite beguiling when he settles it in the middle register and his talent should not to be underestimated. He is on a quest to bring sophistication and savoir-fare back to the music and on many levels he is accomplishing just that; bridging the gap between soulful R and;B and Jazz in a way that few people are doing today successfully. My hat is off to him and I anxiously wait to hear where he takes it from here.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Brian Landrus Explores the Depths of Music on "The Deep Below"

Brian L:andrus "The Deep Below

Multireedist Brian Landrus is making a name for himself utilizing a creative approach to exploring the depths and textures of the lower register sounds that can be produced on his array of bottom instruments. People are apparently catching on as he has been named rising star on the Baritone Saxophone in this year’s Downbeat Critics poll. On The Deep Below, his latest effort, he probes into the lush and evocative sounds of the lower register, utilizing his signature baritone saxophone, the bass clarinet, the bass saxophone and the bass flute to make his point. Low can be intoxicatingly sexy and poignantly moving when played with thought, precision and passion. Mr. Landrus has no shortage of any of these qualities in his playing and his writing. On this album Landrus is joined by the consummate bassist Lonnie Plaxico and the veteran trap master Billy Hart. Together they make beautiful music of a kind and quality that is not often enough heard today.

Of the ten songs on this album all but three are Landrus compositions.  The three standards are Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.” I suspect this is a tip of the hat to baritone master Harry Carney. This is a marvelous tribute to Carney's contribution to the canon, as well as a masterfully played rendition of an all time classic. Landrus’ sensuous tone melts into Plaxico’s plucky bass lines in a symbiotic way-this one’s magic. Coltrane’s “Giant Steps “is a solo performance of melting crescendos of sound that are as fluid as you’ll find on baritone.  “I’m a Fool to Want You,” the last standard on the cd, opens with a bellowing bass introduction by the plucky Plaxico. Landrus’ baritone lingers on every note, taking this one at a pace so slow as to almost be somnambulant, but somehow they make it work to their advantage. The song’s anguish is dripping in the painfully plaintive cry of Landrus’ horn. Hart’s brushes are barely perceptible except at precise accents and the song is hauntingly moving.

Landrus’s compositions are their own reward, from the playfully loping feel of “Fly” to bellowing bottom sounds of Landrus on the bass saxophone on “The Beginning” where you feel like you have entered another dimension somewhere dark and foreboding. Landrus utilizes the woody sound of the bass clarinet on the darkly rich “Fields of Zava,” and the shuffling “Orebro Treaty.” His bass clarinet is unaccompanied on both the mystical “Just a Fading Memory” and the peaceful “Open Water.”Playing  a beautifully evocative bass flute on “Will She Ever Know” and “Ancient,”, Mr. Landrus  shows that he has no limit within the confines of these lower register instruments, making beautiful and expressive music.

The album ends with Landrus returning to baritone on “The Age,” where the group’s has a chance to open up and the interplay is buoyant and playful. Plaxico’s bass anchors the theme and Hart is a master of understated precision. “Once Again” ends the cd on a somber note with Plaxico bowing deep into the lowest notes on his bass and Landrus' fluttering woody tones on the Bass Clarinet. The piece has a chamber music quality to it.

Brian Landrus has created homage to the bottom register with The Deep Below, a proclamation that lingering in the lower depths of the musical scale can yield surprisingly beautiful results. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Simon Phillips: Protocol III, Revitalizing Rock Fusion

From the opening sound of Satnam Singh’s  tablas on the lead off song “Narmada” , a fusion piece of World music inspired by the late Weather Report keyboard wizard Joe Zawinal’s work with his Zawinal Syndicate, we are transported into the world of drummer Simon Phillips super group on his latest release Protocol III.  The former drum slinger, who has pounded his toms for the likes of Toto, the Who , Jeff Beck and Judas Priest has formed a monster group with chops to spare and a driving sound that resurrects my lost love of well played fusion music.  The group features Phillips on his enormous set of drums, the masterful Andy Timmons on guitar, the indefatigable Ernest Tibbs laying down his anchored bass lines and the creative keyboard artist Steve Weingart. Together these guys bring back the fun and awe of rock-inspired , jazz fusion. Labeling musical styles is a pointless exercise and clearly the emphasis of Phillips music is on technically proficient, hard driving rock, but no matter the album kicks butt. The band has absorbed some of the best sounds of the masters, Jeff Beck, Mahavishnu, Return to Forever and Weather Report to name a few.

The catchy “Imaginary Ways” is a case in point with Tibbs throbbing electric bass laying down the bottom and Timmons  tasteful  guitar singing out the repeated melody as Weingart layers the song with a myriad of electronic accents. The breaks are crisp and executed impeccably as they mix a  hard rock bridge that could satiate any head bangers desires. The rapid-fired, synchronous bridge at the end is a bow to Mahavishnu and a stunning display of precision.

“Outlaw” is just a down and dirty electric blues with Timmons doing some tasty guitar work clearly inspired by Jeff Beck’s body of work.   ”Catalyst” has the most fractious breaks creating and electro-mechanical sound driven by Tibbs relentless bass, Phillips thunderous driving drums and Timmons Jimmy Page like guitar solo. 

 On “Amirta, a billowy suspension of sounds that crescendos into a Return to Forever like romp,  Timmons  voicing’s takes on more of a Larry Carlton inspired sound, sustaining wonderful nuances from each note.  When Phillips isn’t laying down the sauntering  beat he occasionally pounds his toms into rolling submission and Weingart creates an aural backdrop of other-worldliness.

”Circle Seven” starts out as Timmons bow to Beck’s “Diamond Dust” period before it turns into a Return to Forever romp.  Tibbs lays down a gorgeous bass line that is then repeated by Timmons guitar before Weingart struts his Wurlitzer/Rhodes chops beautifully with Tibbs matching him skillfully on bass. Phillips interjects timely fills over and eventually yielding to a rambunctious and tumultuous drum solo. The song is  a hard driving celebration of synchronicity.  The album finishes off this excursion into fusion with the funky  “You Can’t But You Can” and  the drum heavy “Undercover.”   With Protocol III  Simon Phillips and company have provided  a skillfully executed album, strongly influenced by those who came before them, but that brings rock/jazz fusion back into relevance.