Saturday, April 12, 2014

Balance by Adam Unsworth, Byron Olson and John Vanore ; Orchestral Jazz At Its Finest

Balance : AC-48

The French horn is an unusual instrument in jazz, first prominently used by Claude Thornhill in his Orchestra of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Thornhill employed Sandy Siegelstein and John Graas to play French horn at various times in his band. Their symphonic tone along with a powerful woodwind section gave that band its distinctively cool sound.  Gil Evans , a Thornhill arranger who used the distinctive instrumentation as a laboratory for developing his own sound,  famously commented on the Thornhill Orchestra’s unique sound.  “The sound hung like a cloud.” 

On Balance,  French Horn player Adam Unsworth, a member of Ryan Truesdell's Gil Evans Centennial Project,  teams up with  conductor/ arranger Byron Olson and trumpeter John Vanore and created an eminently listenable experience. They seamlessly  integrate a sumptuous symphonic sound with the exhilarating excitement of improvisational ensemble playing. The music has an ethereal beauty with cinematic undertones mostly provided by Olson’s deft arrangements and Unsworth’s  billowy sound.. With songs like the title track “Balance,” composed by Unsworth, Olson’s arrangement is resplendent with strings and counterpointed by some masterful soloing by Unsworth, pianist Bill Mays  and saxophonist Bob Mallach. The song transports you to a place of mental balance and tranquility interspersed with a dynamism that is kinetic and revitalizing.

On “Flow”, another Unsworth composition,  the lyrical pianism of Bill Mays and the warm clarinet work of Jeff Nichols carries you into the slipstream of this piece with effortless ease.  The rhythm section of Mike Richmond and Danny Gottlieb are propulsive but unobtrusively  supportive. John Vanore’s warm flugelhorn, Unsworth’s richly expressive horn and the brilliant string arrangement of Byron Olson make for pure magic.

“Bittersweet” an Olson composition, is the musical invocation of the word. Trumpeter Vanore lifts this tune from its melancholy into a more spirited ensemble playing that includes a tasteful tenor solo by tenorman Mallach.

“Tilt” starts out with an ostinato line by pianist Mays and saxophonist Mallach. The orchestration by Olson gives this piece a cinematic feel of action. There is a section of controlled cacophony that is punctuated by Gottlieb’s precise drumming. The tune takes a film noir turn with Mallach and Unsworth playing in unison before Mays enters with a stirringly original piano solo. Unsworth returns with a French horn solo that almost pulsess like a rombone. The tune ends with a bounty of multiple instruments all working in controlled frenzy.
“Blues Nocturne” features exquisite ensemble playing with Vancores muted trumpet, Unsworth’s bellowing horn surrounded by Olson’s swelling strings. Pianist Mays dances on the keyboard with a marvelously floating crescendo of notes leading into a soulful solo by bassist Mike Richmond, including his expressive sighs.  Saxophonist Bob Mallach's playing is robust and fluid. Olson’s ” Michele” is a mournful ballad played to perfection by Unsworth’s moving horn and made all the more poignant by arranger/conductor Olson’s deeply emotive orchestration. Vancore offers a subdued but effective muted trumpet solo.

The album finishes  with Olson’s “One Last Fling” a swinging ensemble piece that showcases some nice individual playing by Unsworth, Mays, Mallach, Gottlieb and Richmond and  “Find Your Way” an Unsworth composition that features Mallach’s lyrical playing along with Unsworth’s own emotive French horn work, supported by a the full orchestra arrangement by Olson.  Balance is orchestral jazz at its finest, a feast for the ears that can be enjoyably left in your cd player’s rotation without losing its appeal over multiple listenings. 

Personnel: Adam Unsworth, French horn; John Vanore, trumpet and flugelhorn; Bob Mallach, tenor saxophone; Bill Mays, piano: Mike Richmone, bass; Danny Gottlieb, drums, Byron Olson, arranger/conductor Philadelphia Session: Violins: Richard Amoroso (solo); Jose Blumenshein, Jason Depue, Daniel Han, Dana Morales, Yayol Numazawa, William Polk, Paul Roby, Marc Rovetti; Violas: Che-Hung Chen, Kerri Ryan, Burchard Tang; Cellos Efe Baltacigil, Yumi Kendall; Bass Harold Robinson; Clarinet/Bass Clarinet: Paul Demers; Bassoon, Holly Blake; New York Session: Viola Richard Brice, Cello Allison Seidner; Bass, David Kuhn; Flute/Alto Flute, Pamelea Sklar, Obe English Horn, Charles Pillow; Clarinet, Jeff Nichols; Bassoon, Kim Laskowski, Vibraphone, Bill Hayes.

Here is a link to adam Unsworth's website where you play selections from his album Balalnce

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Guitarist Freddie Bryant's "Dreamscape" A Son's Dedication

Freddie Bryant Dreamscape  GJK Sounds #0011
Guitarist Freddie Bryant has released a  new album that is as much a celebration of his fine guitar virtuosity as it is a dedication to his Mother, the great operatic soprano Beatrice Rippy Hollister, who passed away in 2012. A picture of Bryant’s  parents grace the inside sleeve of the album in soft sepia tone.  Mrs. Hollister toured around the world with her husband the pianist Carroll Hollister before dedicating her life to education at the Third Street Music Settlement, the Henry Street Music Settlement and the Harlem School of the Arts. She was known for her effortless lyricism in such memorable performances as Serena in a touring production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, as Mimi in La Boheme and as Nedda in I Pagliacci. With such a formidable musical legacy it is no wonder that the apple has not fallen far from the tree.

Dreamscape is a delightful album that is lyrical, moving and interesting. Armed with an array of guitars that include an acoustic nylon six-string, a twelve-string, an arch top and a solid-bodied electric guitar, plus the talent to explore the nuances of each, Mr. Bryant presents a tour de force of tasteful musical expression 
with a style that blurs the lines of  classical, Flamenco,  Brazilian, Middle Eastern music, blues and  jazz. 

Joined by the impeccable talents of multi-reedist Chris Potter and bassist Scott Coley, Bryant opens the album with his evocative composition “Dreamscape.”  The song features a finger-picked twelve-string vamp over which Potter plays the most gorgeously light soprano solo musings that I’ve heard in a long time. Bryant overdubs a probing electric guitar solo as Colley lays down big plump bass lines in deft accompaniment.

On “Vignette #1” bassist Colley  finds simpatico with Bryant’s sensitive nylon guitar work, using both arco and pizzicato techniques in this Bryant composition, a song reminiscent of the work Pat Metheny did with bassist Charlie Haden on Missouri Sky. “Vignette #2” is a more upbeat duo with Colley, with Bryant on electric guitar. The two trade rapidly developing musical ideas while maintaining an inherent swing.

The trio re-enters on Bryant’s “Songs” with Potter taking up the bellowing tones of the bass clarinet and Bryant on arch top guitar. The composition leads off with a blues-based riff that then morphs into a hymn-based melody that could easily be heard as part of a Sunday service. Potter explores the timbres of the woody bass clarinet on his heartfelt solo, as Bryant and Colley provide the subtle rhythmic core upon which he builds.

Bryant and Potter work as a duo on the traditional spiritual “I’m Going to Tell God All My Troubles.” Potter continues with the bass clarinet for this heartfelt rendition arranged by Bryant. Bryant employs the soft sensitive sound of his nylon string guitar to play a nuanced rhythm, over which Potter plays a stirring solo. Potter’s work is warm and reverent, showing just how soulful this usually powerhouse of a player can be when given inspired material. This is an emotionally charged song for Bryant, as the same song is rendered by Bryant’s mother and father from their 1974 appearance at Alice Tully Hall as the closing track of the album. 

The trio takes on Bryant’s shifting “Every Day is the End and the Beginning of Life Beautiful…” which features Potter on his more familiar driving tenor and Bryant on electric guitar. The group negotiates the changes with precision and aplomb.

Freddie Bryant photo by  Elmar Lermes
Despite the brilliant interplay throughout the album it is Bryant’s solo work that showcases the artist’s prodigious talent. Bryant’s solo guitar is inventive and pristine on such classic songs like Monk’s “Ask Me Now” and Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” The guitarist demonstrates his affinity for the self-accompanied solo guitar genre most identified with the great Joe Pass’s album Virtuoso from 1973. In many respects this is Bryant’s virtuoso performance. His styles are diverse and accomplished. He explores a Flamenco style on Bruno Martino’s “Estate” and on Sammy Fain’s “Secret Love” Bryant employs loops to play against himself. On his own composition “Serenade” Bryant’s nylon strings ring with warmth and sensitivity as he demonstrates his ability to accompany himself with a vibrato lead that hovers over his rhythm like a hummingbird’s wing’s over a flower. Bryant shows his funkier side on Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” but this man’s strength is in lyricism and beauty.  “Fantasia on a Theme by Charlie Haden for Turiya” and Haden’s “Silence” are beautifully rendered in a Spanish style that is evocative of red-tiled roofs and stucco walled haciendas.

Dreamscape is a celebration of virtuosity and lyricism as well as a dedication to the spirit of a mother’s musicality, from a son who was inspired to find  his own musical voice. 

While not from this album here is a sample of Freddie's playing :

Monday, March 17, 2014

Drummer Matt Wilson Summoning All Parties to His "Gathering Call"

Matt Wilson Quartet with John Medeski Gathering Call:PM2169
In music and especially contemporary improvised music, the role of the drummer has greatly expanded beyond the traditional role of a simple keeper of time. Witness the current crop of albums that have recently been released by drummers who have taken on the role of leader and oftentimes composer; albums that demonstrate just how diverse and I might add exciting the art of contemporary drumming has become.

Matt Wilson is a case in point. Wilson is a celebrated drummer whose resume speaks for itself. Wilson made his bones with saxophonist Dewey Redman and in Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra. Along the way he has lent his sideman talent as the first call drummer for piano trios led by luminaries like Denny Zeitlin, Bill Mays and Paul Bley.  In the various iterations of his own groups, usually quartets, Wilson has consistently shown the ability to create a steady stream of creative music that spans the gamut from hard-bop to the avant-guarde, with his music always retaining an inherent sense of joy, a Wilson trademark.

On Wilson’s latest, Gathering Call, the prolific drummer has enlisted the cornetist Kirk Knuffke, the reed player Jeff Lederer, bassist Chris Lightcap and guest pianist John Medseki. The music can be traditional  big band with a contemporary twist as in the opener Duke Ellington’s “Main Stem” where Knuffke can sound like Lee Morgan and Lederer takes on a sound not unlike Gene Ammons big boss tenor to great effect.

The music can be playfully raucous like on Wilson’s three compositions “Some Assembly Required,”, “Gathering Call” or “How Ya Going?” Wilson is a practitioner of the art of rhythmic chicanery where he uses various sounds and stick techniques to create a cacophony of clicks, bangs and splashes all brilliantly timed and masterfully in tune to the music. The iconic saxophonist Lee Konitz, who has played with Wilson, was quoted saying  " I don't think I've ever heard him play an unmusical hit on the drums and cymbals." All the while Wilson deftly interjects just the right amount of humor into his music.

Matt Wilson Quartet
Lto R Wilson, Lederer, Knuffke,
 Lightcap photo by Tom Foley

The music can embrace old style swing like on Duke Ellington’s rarely played “You Dirty Dog” where Knuffke plays with polished style in contrast to Lederer’s salty tenor solo, played with an exceptionally gut bucket brashness, taking the music to another level. Or as on Charlie Rouse’s wonderful “Pumkin Delight”, the music is evocative of the Blue Note hard bop hey days.

The music can also be beautiful, like on Wilson’s shimmering “Dancing Waters,” where bassist Lightcap is featured on some impressionistic playing or on Butch Warren’s hopeful “Barack Obama,” where John Medeski’s piano layers a cascading shower of notes and Lederer warm clarinet tones mesh synchronously with Knuffke’s moving cornet.

The music can be delicate and uplifting like on Wilson’s “Hope (For the Cause)” which features some subtle piano work by Medeski, showing the sensitive side to this player, often associated with his hard driving organ trio Medeski, Martin and Wood.. 

The music can be heartfelt and contemporary like on the beautifully rendered version of the Beyonce tune “If I Were a Boy,” a highlight of the album. The album ends with a piece of Americana, the quietly rendered duet between Wilson and Medeski on the traditional song “Juanita.” The song transports you to an age of simplicity and honesty that has its own special appeal.  With so much diversity in music all expertly played, Gathering Call is another addition to Mr. Wilson’s growing joyful and creative repertoire that should be listened to and relished.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Natalie Cressman's Turn The Sea: Is this the course of Indie-Jazz?

It is becoming an increasing cliché to talk about music being genre-crossing as it seems almost every week I come across music that defies categorization.  After reading many interviews by some of the most accomplished practitioners of contemporary , improvisational based music, often lumped together in a category labeled “ jazz" ( link to  my review here of Radhika Philip’s book of interviews titled Being Here), it becomes apparent that most musicians shun having their music pigeon-holed by  labels at all.

Along comes Turn The Sea, a new album from the twenty-two year old trombonist Natalie Cressman, who also happens to sing and compose,  and you realize how labels become a waste of time. Ms. Cressman comes from a musical family- a jazz vocalist mother and a trombone playing father-so it was a natural progression for the young woman to explore her own musical career. Her father was a one-time member of the band Santana as well as a touring member of the jamb band Phish. Admittedly, Ms. Cressman had a distinct advantage when her father decided to quite touring with Phish and suggested his daughter to replace him in the brass section. She was just eighteen at the time. Getting a once in a lifetime opportunity is one thing but making it on tour as a professional musician and completing an education at Manhattan School of Music is a feat few could handle at such a young age. She certainly seems to have managed nicely.

 Turn the Sea incorporates many diverse elements including Ms. Cressman’s trombone, her compositional tendency toward storytelling  and her beguiling voice. Ms. Cressman’s voice has an indie-folk, softly spoken sound- a modern version of Jacqui McShee comes to mind- and she harmonizes with herself nicely through overdubs, especially on Bon Iver’s “Blindsided,”  one of only two tunes on the album that are not her own compositions. 

The  music is expertly played by her band Jonathan Stein on acoustic and electric bass, Gabe Schnider on guitar, Samora Pinderhughes on keyboards, Ivan Rosenberg on trumpet, Steven Lugerner on flute, clarinet and bass clarinet , James Casey on tenor saxophone, Michael Mitchell on drums and of course Ms. Cressman on voice and trombone. 

The music is well conceived exploring multiple rhythmic patterns, adept arrangements and vocals that linger hauntingly in their purposeful unpretentious beauty. The result is a surprisingly fresh approach that incorporates some of the best elements of jazz and indie music and defies categorization. 
Natalie Cressman

As a brass player herself, Ms. Cressman is well aware of the impact a good brass and reed section can lend to a song when incorporated into the mix effectively. To her credit she uses the various voices in her ensemble to great effect especially  on the opening of the title tune “Turn the Sea.”   The synchronous front line playing of reed and brass lend the song a jazz sensibility and cues the listener to be on the lookout for creative arrangements.

"Fortune’s Fool” is propelled by an interesting rhythmic pattern developed nicely by Stein’s serpentine bass lines, Mitchell’s syncopated percussive drive and the ethereal keyboard work of Pinderhughes.  This song utilizes echoed guitar chords and a dancing flute to give it a light atmospheric sound accentuated by the airy Celleste sounding Rhodes work by Pinderhughes and Cressman’s deft vocalizations.

Cressman’s successful reworking of the Bon Iver song “Blindsided” is the most Indie sounding of the songs on the album. Cressman utilizes overdubs of her own mid-ranged voice juxtaposed against some tasty bass clarinet work by Steven Lugerner to great effect in the chorus. This opens to a poignantly played trombone solo that is surrounded by dancing reeds. Jonathan Stein’s acoustic bass anchors the song with a large firm tone throughout.

“New Moon” is a mixture of modal groove, Ms. Cressman’s storytelling accentuated by flute and reed orchestration and  West African inspired chants and rhythms. One might suspect the mixture could tend toward the schizophrenic, but Ms. Cressman manages to make the seemingly disparate elements work quite well together. At times on this song, when she harmonizes with her own voice, she sounds strongly reminiscent of the Polish singer Basia Trzetrzelewska, but the music is a prime example of a blurring of genres.

On Hanne Hukkeberg’s “Do Not As I Do,” perhaps the most melodic of the songs on the cd, the cautionary lyrics are recited by Cressman who talks of past mistakes without judgment and no regrets. Her voice is light and confident as she sings the chorus with an innocent beauty. 

“Checkout Time,” uses multiple overdubs of Cressman’s voice to create an eerie repeating rhythmic pattern over which she sings the main lines accompanied only by Rhodes. A deeply echoed voice is electronically enhanced as she sings accompanied by Gabe Schnider’s sparse guitar. The song has a an electronically enhanced minstrel-like quality to it, but doesn’t seem to be fully realized.

“Winter Chill” is Ms. Cressman’s most pop oriented of the songs on this album. The lyrical content of the song is predictably about a lost love and the orchestration is the least daring of her compositions,  the chorus being the most memorable part.

On “Stolen Away” Ms. Cressman returns to the rhythmic influence of West Africa. Mr. Schnider keeps the beat with his syncopated rhythm guitar as Ms. Cressman gives us a taste of her musical muscle on a rousing trombone solo.  The band creates an irresistibly danceable groove that is only reinforced by Ms. Cressman’s repeated catchy vocal refrain of “Stolen Away.” This one could be prime for repeat radio play.

The finale is an electronically produced version of the title tune “Turn The Sea,” a remix version produced by the band’s bassist Jonathan  Stein. Ms Cressman’s trombone solo is drenched in electronic sounds and synthesized sounds have been incorporated throughout. The production sounds a bit too busy for me and I prefer the original version.

Though a bit uneven Turn The Sea is for the most part an enjoyable offering and deserves a serious listen.  It just goes to prove that improvisational music can successfully take off in any number of directions and it’s up to us to be open enough to consider the possibilities.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Dewa Budjana's "Joged Kahyangan" or "Dancing Heaven"

Dewa Budjana; Joged Kahyangan
MonnJune Rcords MJR059
The route from pop music star to jazz master has been a long developing trend in the music of guitarist Dewa Budjana( pronounced Dew a Bu dzana) . As the lead guitarist and songwriter for the pop/rock group Gigi for the last twenty years, a wildly popular band in Indonesia, Budjana’s music has been heard by millions of adoring fans. But Budjana’s music is the distillation of many diverse influences outside of the world of rock and pop, including the fusion music of Mahavishnu and Soft Machine, and the Indonesian music rooted in his heritage and the Balinesian Hindu religion.

On Joged Kahyangan (which translates into “Dancing Heaven”) Dewa is joined with a talented group of  American, west coast based musicians including the saxophonist Bob Mintzer, the bassist Jimmy Johnson, the keyboard artist Larry Goldings and the drummer Peter Erskine. Together they who play eight compositions, all original music by Budjana. It was the guitarist’s initial email contact with drummer Erskine back in 2002 that led to a recording titled Samsara and a continued relationship. Erskine, the one time Weather Report drummer saw in Budjana a unique and creative sound that could be further developed and explored.  

At fifty years old Budjana’s music has matured, as evidenced by some of the sophisticated themes he has written for this cd.  From the opening title “Foggy Cloud,” written while in the East Javanese Mountains, you get the sense that Budjana’s music is strongly tied to memorable melodies. The ostinato phrasing is used as a structure upon which he builds tension employing various tones and textures on his guitar. On this song Budjana’s sound ranges from the smoothly slurred, studio precise lines of a Larry Carlton, to the power driven lines of early Mahavishnu, to the expansive atmospherics’ of early  Pat Metheny. The band superbly drives the rhythmic energy with taut precision and inventive soloing, especially by keyboardist Larry Goldings, whose is a fountainhead of taste and subtlety.

The title song “Joged Kahyangan” is an uplifting aural dance using a fascinating mixture of eastern and western musical styles. A Balinesian minuet if you will. Bassist Jimmy Johnson’s spritely solo on electric bass is a miniature delight.  Bob Mintzer on bass clarinet and Budjana on acoustic guitar trade elegant dance steps in magical time, as Goldings’ synthesizer work conjure a mystical backdrop. This one flows so smoothly that it requires multiple listening to appreciate all the nuances.

“Dang Hyang Story”, inspired by Budjana’s Hindu faith,  is the most purely fusion sounding composition using an exotic Middle Eastern sounding head that breaks into a more melodic core. The complex serpentine lines are done in precise unison by Mintzer on tenor, Budjana on searing electric guitar and Goldings on synthesizer. It features some rhythmically complex drum work by the impressive Peter Erskine who seems at ease with the eastern influence imbedded in Dewa's music. When he solos, Dewa’s guitar takes on a heavy fusion tone, a ripping sound that is reminiscent of early Alan Holdsworth. The composition is a powerful driven but yet strangely hopeful song, a marvelous mix of both energy and beauty.

The ballad “As You Leave My Nest” is a bit too soppy for me. Vocalist Janis Siegel lends her considerable talents to this pop oriented ballad with some soaring vocals that have an ethereal texture.

“Majik Blue” again uses a series of repeating, descending lines as the basis for the composition. Mintzer takes up soprano saxophone and Goldings trades his piano and keyboard for what sounds like a B3 organ for part of the song. Budjana sets his guitar into piercing mode and Johnson plays a brief but potent solo in a song that sounds like a tip of the hat to Weather Report. The complex repeating lines are expertly matched by the entire band in a show of precision and solidarity.

“Erskoman,” a composition dedicated to the drummer Peter Erskine, is a groove based song that has all its participants in exquisite form. Budjana’s guitar is perhaps most musical here with a pleasant, single line tone that he occasionally juxtaposes at the breaks into powerful chording and octave work. Goldings is a delight on his B3 organ, the perfect instrument on this swinging groove. Erskine lets loose with a series of syncopated breaks that demonstrates his formidable rhythmic prowess. Budjana returns with his synthesized sounding guitar pulsing out inventive lines that defy categorization or predictability. The music was mostly recorded in one or two takes. As this track ends, the running microphone catches the band acknowledging what any listener can easily surmise, this was a good take.

“Guru Mandala” is perhaps the funkiest of the songs on the cd, with Erskine’s driving back beat prominent. Budjana plays some expressive lines on what sounds like an acoustic guitar, but for the most part the song sticks to a simple repeating melodic line that fades into a eastern chant-like coda.

“Bora’s Ballad” is an instrumental version of the previous song “As You Leave My Nest” with Erskine’s barely perceptible brush work and Golding’s hushed organ work. The song offers a peaceful conclusion to an otherwise stirring album. Budjana has a delicate side to his playing, a side that is both pretty and sensitive, but that can at times border on overtly sentimental as it does here. 

Dewa Budjana has impressive skills both as a player and as a composer. On Joged Kahyangan he manages to skillfully mix the music of his native Indonesia with pop, jazz, fusion and rock into an impressive amalgam that is unique to him and worth watching as it continues to develop.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Violinist/Composer Dana Lyn's Aqualude: An Aquatic Adventure

The violinist/composer Dana Lyn is a Brooklyn based musician who late last year released a genre defying album titled  Aqualude, a musical suite of compositions that tell a story of a fantastical aquatic adventure with an underlying environmental message.  This instrumental suite combines rock rhythms and jazz-like improvisations with chamber music instrumentation. For lack of categorization some have labeled it Disney on crack.

 The music follows the adventures of a mythical boy who is magically transported through a whimsical undersea adventure, an Aqualude. The journey sets out on land in a Glacial territory that is showing signs of warming. A boy is thrown into the water by agitated flying carp. This unexpected journey requires no oxygen apparatus and  turns into an underwater fantasy becoming  an  amusement park-like diorama  complete with images of an albino mother octopus  judiciously protecting its eggs,  a magical branch ( given to him by the Octopus)  that allows the boy access to the an underwater cavern and  an encounter with a white whale that takes the boy on its back, diving to darkest depths of the ocean. The boy experiences a unique menagerie of fascinatingly diverse aquatic animals that he views while riding on a living carpet of near transparent Yeti crabs.

Composer/violinist Dana Lyn

 The allegory in Ms. Lyn’s work interrupts this otherwise playful journey, when the boy ultimately comes across an unsettling discovery; the existence of a robotic powered, man-made, energy generating machine at the ocean floor. The strangely out of place apparatus clandestinely disrupts the natural order of things in the ocean, causing unwelcome and life threatening consequences both underwater and on the earth above. The thermal energy generated by the machine jettisons the boy to the surface where he is eventually re-united with his distraught family. The boy has been permanently changed by his journey, whether it was real or imagined. He realizes he has unfinished business. He has been given a gift of understanding- presumably about the conspiratorial nature of greedy energy companies and their blatant misuse of natural resources-and he must take this enlightenment and use it for the greater good.  Was Ms. Lyn commissioned by the environmental group Greenpeace one might ask?

Angel Door

This moralistic tale is played out musically by Ms. Lyn and her fellow musicians Jonathan Goldberger on guitars, Clara Kennedy on cello, Mike McGinnis on clarinet and bass clarinet and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums. Ms. Lyn skillfully composes the music that creates an aural image of the story she is relating. The rock orientated drum-driven frenzy of the flying fish in “Carping,” the loping chamber-like cello sounds of Clara Kennedy representing  the aging octopus, the sound of being suspended in the bubbling waters created beautifully by Ms. Lyn on violin and Mr. Goldberger’s electric guitar, all on ”Mother Octopus.” A fascinating study in how music can shape images in our minds.  

The music often mimics a sense of being emerged in the ocean’s depths, conveying a sense of being suspended from reality. Is this really happening or is it merely a fantastic dream? One can only imagine listening to this music under the influence of some psychotropic drug. 

The most identifiable melody in the suite is the “Yeti Crab Theme Song.”  The music starts out with Ms. Lyn on an instrument called an Angel Door. It is a musical sculpture piece, the creation of Shelby and Latham Gaines, a stringed instrument created by modifying an old wooden door and fitting it with strings. Originally made on commission from the actor/director Ethan Hawke for a play Clive, the sound it creates has an old music box quality. Mr. Goldberger plays an echo enhanced guitar ostinato over which Mr. McGinnis floats the buoyant sounds of his clarinet. Ms. Lyn and Ms. Kennedy weave intricate patterns with their strings as Mr. Sperrazza keeps the cadence of a muted march in the background. 

The first “Aqualude” (oddly there are two compositions with this title) is a short piece that feels like you are descending deep into the ocean in some enclosed diving bell. This leads into “Pyramid”  where the man-made, automaton-operated machine is discovered. Ms. Lyn and company create a sense of climax through a series of spiraling and ever ascending notes played in unison with her band. The boy returns to the surface on “The Snow in General” and is reunited with his family on the second “Aqualude,”  a somber piece of music that has the sound of a distant horn, a beacon leading you  out of a dense fog. The boy shares his new found knowledge with his family. The knowledge curiously supersedes any robust feeling of joy over his fortuitous return. The suite ends with “Yeti Sleeps” a poignantly played piece that has a melancholy flavor. The boy has an unsettling restlessness from his new found discovery. Was the voyage real or imagined?  Is his discovery of the dreaded machine something that requires his action?

Labels are pointless in music as each artist has a right to explore all possibilities wherever inspiration may take them with no regard to how it fits into some predetermined schema. Ms. Lyn has disregarded labels to tell a fantasy, an aquatic adventure that she has chosen as a vehicle to somehow speak to a greater problem, global warming. For the most part her efforts are a success. But the pairing of the fantasy and the message seem incongruous. Disney meets Exxon? Ms Lyn excels at instrumentally creating an aural underwater world of wonder and beauty. But when she attempts to attach a moralistic message to this fantasy her otherwise beautiful music seems to be insufficiently evocative in its musical portrayal of the real menace.
 Here is a you tube sample of Dana Lyn's violin work with Guitarist Kyle Sanna:

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Michael Blake's World Time Zone Plays his latest work "Contrasts in Indivdualism" at the Kitano

Michael Blake at the Kitano

On a Thursday night at the elegant Kitano Jazz club in Manhattan the saxophonist Michael Blake premiered his latest work Contrasts in Individualism,”  a series of compositions inspired by two of the twentieth century’s most influential pre-bop tenor men, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young.

Mr. Blake, a Canadian born in Montreal and raised in Vancouver, Canada, has made New York his home since 1986. The mild- mannered musician has been playing with some of the most progressive musicians on the scene as a member of John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards, Ben Allison’s Medicine Wheel, The Herbie Nichols Project, Steven Bernstein’s  Millennial Territory Orchestra, and the progressive instrumental  group Slow Poke with Dave Tronzo, Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen, along with several self-led groups.  

In a world littered with saxophonists who prefer to play a fusillade of notes to express their ideas, Michael Blake has refreshingly chosen to follow a more measured approach.  As a student of the pre-bop masters Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young and predecessors in their lineage, Mr. Blake has a developed a style that incorporates many of the techniques that made them so unique, combining them with his own signature sound that has been strongly influenced by soul, funk, rhythm and blues and rock. The result is a unique voice on the instrument that plays with conviction that is refreshingly free from pyrotechnics or affectation.  An accomplished technician, Mr. Blake is comfortable playing at those difficult slow tempos that often can require holding a note with pristine intonation or uttering a gut bucket growl to make a point. That’s not to say the man can’t swing or dazzle, his tenor can flow like a spring-fed mountain stream occasionally bursting into fast paced waves of swirling eddy currents. Having been touted as an up and coming voice on tenor saxophone for quite a while it’s time to acknowledge that Michael Blake is one of the leading proponents of the instrument today. He debuted this music with his all-star band  World Time Zone which features Ben Allison on bass, Frank Kimbrough on piano and Rudy Royston on drums.

Mr. Blake’s compositional skills were on display with Contrast in Individualism, a commission made possible by a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Trust. Comparing and contrasting two iconic players like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young could be a daunting task for any saxophonist.  Mr. Blake’s told the audience that his own approach was to share what he loved about their music through his own contemporary lens.

The set started out with a song titled “Skinny Dip” a slow, strip club like shuffle that featured some pointillist bass lines by Ben Allison and some raspy Hawk-inspired playing by Blake. His escalating tenor solo built in measured crescendos with tasty licks that had a very sensuous side to them.  Mr. Kimbrough took a solo spot that was contrastingly more jagged but steeped in the blues. Mr. Allison and Mr. Royston kept the rhythm going in the spirit of the song.

Mr. Blake related the story behind the title of his next composition “Some Tiddy Boom Please” a reference to something Lester Young said to a drummer wanting him to kick it (the beat) a little. Mr. Blake starts out with an unaccompanied  saxophone solo that  is both expressive-he hums into his reed creating harmonic distortions- and rhythmically flowing as his horn pours out a funky groove, a pattern of notes that remind me a little of Eddie Harris’ work.  The band picks up the vamp as Blake continues, occasionally using some Hawkish rasp to his tenor. Some nice playing by pianist Kimbrough takes the whole thing into a loose swing mode.  Drummer Royston and bassist Allison have great chemistry and they carry the rhythm with a joyous bounce that is infectious. Blake ends the piece with a rousing solo that has elements of Young, Getz and a playful Blake in it to the delight of the crowd.

Mr. Blake introduced the next composition as a mini-suite titled “Letters in Disguise.” The slow ruminating opening featured some facile bass work by Ben Allison who plays with child-like excitement. Mr. Royston conjures up percussive sounds that somehow fit perfectly as Mr. Blake plays in a slow, sensuous tone that darkly aches with pathos and expression. Mr. Kimbrough then opens the second part of the suite with a quickened pace that bursts us into the daylight. The pianist is an accomplished player who had moments of inspiration during his solo that brought a smile to the faces of his fellow musicians as well as an appreciative audience. Mr. Kimbrough took the song to a new height of excitement that then allowed equally inspired playing by Mr. Blake. Blake’s soloing produced a series of measures that were inventive and at times derivative of the style of the masters he was acknowledging. The song ended as it began with Mr. Blake holding the final softly blown notes from the lowest register of his horn in a guttural hum that faded to a hushed whisper.

The next song was a straight blues in the style of Lester Young titled “Good Day for Pres.” Mr. Blake can certainly play with the beautiful lyricism of the “Pres.” when he wants to. He has a command of tone and attack that is quite impressive and like Lester he knows the value of space.  Mr. Allison, who besides being a talented composer in his own right, is a helluva bass player,  played an impressive extended bass solo, incorporating slides, bends and leaps, as Royston played gingerly on hi-hat and rim accompaniment. Not to be outdone Mr. Kimbrough provided his own impressive Monkish solo that had a way of making this simple blues into a far from simple song. The song ended in a slow, deliberate musical drawl that showed just how in tune these musicians are despite having little practice with the material.

The Coleman Hawkins inspired  “Hawk’s Rhumba " was the next composition. Mr. Blake nailed the Hawk’s tawny, luxurious sound on his tenor. The phrasing was impeccable and the warm, liquid tone was a treat to behold. Mr. Royston, never content to merely hold a beat, colored the song with flourishes of old time chick-a-boom style snares and shimmering cymbals. As Michael said to the audience at the conclusion of this one “If that didn’t get you in the mood I don’t know what would.”

The final composition of the set titled “The Ambassadors” had a slightly Caribbean beat mildly reminiscent of Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas.” Over the cadenced trap work of Royston, Mr. Blake played his free flowing tenor, interjecting s unique humming into his reed that created some interesting harmonic overtones. This was perhaps the most modern and contemporary music of the evening. Mr. Kimbrough played with sensitive accompaniment as Mr. Blake wailed. The band stopped in mid-stream allowing Mr. Blake center stage to develop ideas on his solo horn which again included his harmonic overtone work.  The band then, led by Mr. Kimbrough, went into a more funky groove that was steeped in R & B and had the audience bobbing their heads to the beat. Mr. Blake’s compositions and the nature of his band mates is such that the music is not rigid and it seems to develop organically as ideas percolate between these musicians, who have a rare rapport. It is as much a product of the written chart as it is of the ether from which these artists pull ideas and build upon them in sympathetic union.

For that reason Michael Blake’s World Time Zone is one of those bands that is best savored live. Catch them perform Mr. Blake's Contrasts in Individualism if you can.

While not this particular music, here is a sample of Michael Blake's work: