Thursday, August 17, 2017

Trumpeter/ Composer Tim Hagans and the NDR Big Band bring renewed life to the films of John Cassavetes with his "Faces Under the Influence"

Tim Hagans and the NRD Big Band: Faces Under the Influence 

An artist always gleans inspiration from life, whether it be by personal interaction with others, by careful observation of the world around him, or sometimes, by being touched by the work of another artist. For the musician Tim Hagans, his love of cinema and his love of the work of the independent film-maker John Cassavetes, became a source of musical inspiration. The culmination is his new album: 

It’s not such a stretch to imagine two fiercely independent spirits, Cassavetes and Hagans, eventually finding some common ground. Cassavetes was known as an accomplished television and film actor- his work can be seen in both Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and in Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen, two nominally famous productions. As a filmmaker, Cassavetes wrote, directed and produced twelve independent films from 1959 through 1986. His most well received films are Faces from 1968, for which he was nominated for an Academy award for best screen play, and A Woman Under the Influence, a film that garnered him a Best Director nomination by the Academy Award Committee in 1974.

Hagans takes the main characters from six of Cassavetes’ films and composes six compositions that represent some notable characteristics of each of these character’s film persona.  The seventh and final composition is a tribute to the director himself and is a musical representation of Cassavetes’ passion for cinema as realized in his acting, writing and directing. To achieve this artistic goal, Hagans has teamed up with the NDR Big Band-a world class institution from Hamburg, Germany that he has worked with before- writing the music, playing on much of it and conducting it all.

The first composition is titled “Leila” and comes from the lead character in Cassavetes’ directorial debut from 1959, the film Shadows. This was a landmark of independent film-making, as it broached the then taboo subject of  interracial relationships, set in the Beat generation of the late nineteen fifties.
Hagan’s starts the film noir score of “Leila” with a sensuous alto saxophone solo by Fiete Felsch. The music has some wonderful interplay between guitarist Stephan Diez, bassist Ingmar Heller and drumming phenom Jukkis Uotila. Hagans utilizes a broad spectrum of tones to create the moody, Beat-era sound of cool. A sleek evocative score that has elements of transcendent beauty and aching poignancy.

“Richard Forst” is the main character from Cassavetes’ film Faces, a middle-aged husband who suddenly finds himself dissatisfied with his married life and seeks a divorce as the easy answer to his problems. Hagans allows the big brass sound of his orchestra to send out a powerful blaring intro that bespeaks of a sudden realization, an awakening. Hagans clarion trumpet solo is powerful, but purposefully waivers a bit, just like Forst whose initial bravado gives way to doubt and confusion. Hagans reaches the high registers effortlessly and slurs his notes with a masterfully controlled legato. The composition features some accomplished bass work by Heller, who breezily walks through the middle section solo, and in counterpoint to Edgar Herzog’s bass clarinet and Dan Gottshall’s rambunctious trombone work, before the swing comes back into the mix and tenor man Lutz Buchner is given a chance to blow.

The composition “Harry, Archie & Gus” is a reference to the three main characters of Cassavetes’ film Husbands from 1970. These are three middle-aged men who just lost a friend unexpectedly to death. Realizing their own mortality, they try desperately to recapture their fading youth. Hagans starts the raucous music appropriately with three musical voices playing off each other; Klaus Heidenreich on trombone, Claus Stotter on flugelhorn and Fiete Felsch on alto. The three seemingly trying to stay connected, but each following his own path, as demonstrated by their differing solo approaches. Meanwhile drummer Uotila, bassist Heller and guitarist Diez provide solid rhythmic backing until the whole band is reunited in brash harmony before Hagans introduces a brief cadenza that features the sparse, sensitive piano of Vladyslav Sendecki.

“Seymour Moskowitz” is one of the main characters in the film Minnie and Moskowitz, an unlikely love story between a lovelorn museum director and a parking lot attendant. Hagans uses a rock inspired driving rhythm with power chords provided by guitarist Dietz, with Hagans playing a series of frenzied trumpet lines. The whole band eventually joins the in the driving progression until Hagans relieves the tension with a short melodic horn-led break in the action. Christof Lauer provides a tenor solo of varying intensity as the band continues its march onward. The music takes another break in the action to allow the creativity of percussionist Marcio Doctor to shine. Hagans conducts the band through a series of escalating counterpoints that bring the action to another peak before the whole band shouts out, presumably a line from the film, “Baby, I think about you so much that I forget to go to the bathroom.”  The band has another short break where guitar, bass and drums carry on a nice shuffle over which Hagans plays a penetrating muted trumpet solo that is very reminiscent of Miles Bitches Brew sound.

Tim Hagans ( photo credit unknown)
“Mabel Longhetti” was the desperately tragic figure in Cassavetes’ Woman Under the Influence, and Hagans knows precisely how to evoke a bewildered melancholy that surely must have been part of this character’s psyche.  Hagans uses some breezy flute, clarinet and bass clarinet work by Felsch, Peter Bolete and Herzog to great effect, but it’s Sendecki ‘s perceptive piano solo that really sets this wistful stage. It’s as if Mabel is in a web of melancholic introspection that she can’t see her way out of. When the entire band swells up and plays this gorgeous melody, the orchestra acts in a unified voice, a glimpse of a life outside of oneself. Sendecki gets another chance to play with resplendent creativity on the next passage where he is shrewdly accompanied by Heller’s booming bass and Utopia’s airy brush and stick work. Hagans again builds the tension to a peak before reprising to Sendecki’s piano with an accompanying flute and woodwind chorus. This leads to the whole band finishing on a peacefully resolution. Sendecki’s solo piano finishes up this piece with two measure solo reprise.

The intro of “Cosmo Vitelli,” the protagonist from Cassavetes’ quirky The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, is a deep-toned, ominous chorus of horns, the prominent voice being Herzog’s looming bass clarinet. Guitarist Diez plays a disjointed, abstract solo on electric guitar that fades into an echoed dispersion. Hagans enters the second movement with a strangled-like sounding, muted trumpet as the band plays the repeating motif. Altoist Peter Bolte offers a squeaking high register solo that cries of frenzy. This band, under Hagans’ direction, is switchblade responsive, tonally diverse and mesh voices like the gears in a fine swiss movement.

The final composition is Hagan’s homage to the director, his passion and his dedication to a fiercely independent creative vision, titled “John Cassavetes”. Hagans is no stranger to this mantra. His music has consistently shown a penchant to chart its own course. Hagans runs his brass and woodwinds through complex passages that brim with vitality. He directs the band into a straight ahead swing at about the two-minute mark, soaring on his open trumpet like a caged bird set free to fly. Guitarist Diez always seems to be on the verge of breaking out into a raucous fusion solo as he, Hagans and Uotila let loose-a brash rumble that for me represents Cassavetes’ independent spirit. As is his habit, Hagans builds up the furor and then relaxes the tension as he brings you back with a tonally rich moderation in intensity. 

Throughout the album the NDR Big Band responds to the chicanery of his compositional twists and turns with the precision of the rack and pinion steering on a fine sports car. Hagans is a superb and fiery trumpet player and with Faces Under the Influence a Jazz Tribute to John Cassavetes, he has also proven himself to be a formidable composer in the big band format. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

"Layers of the City" : Ben Allison and Think Free

Ben Allison and Think Free Layers of the City

The bassist/composer Ben Allison is a rare breed, a multi-dimensional force. He has both the command of his instrument and the talent to write meaningful contributions to the jazz canon. His compositional acumen is inspired in part by his openness to explore popular and contemporary musical ideas and incorporate those ideas into his own brand of improvisational music. He is a dedicated educator, teaching at the New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music as an adjunct professor since 1996. His discography as a leader of now twelve releases, is a timeline of artistic development and experimentation. He is an in-demand sideman and has been recently heard on pianist Pete Malinevrni's  fine album Heaven. In his trio with guitarist Steve Cardenas and saxophonist Ted Nash, he has explored the music of Jim Hall and Jimmy Giuffre on Quiet RevolutionAll the while he has been a steadfast voice for the music; a founding member of the Jazz Composer’s Collective and its Artistic Director for its thirteen-year span; a prominent advocate for artist’s rights and now President of the New York Chapter of the Recording Academy, the sponsors of the Grammy Awards. He is also a record producer with his own label Sonic Camera records.

With such a busy and prolific schedule, it is encouraging to see that Allison has released a new album with his group Think Free, titled Layers of the City, which includes longtime collaborator Steve Cardenas on guitar, fellow Collective member Frank Kimbrough on piano, the lyrical trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and the tasteful drummer Allan Mednard. The album contains six original Allison compositions and one group free improvisation.  This album was made possible by a successful Pledge Music campaign that Allison started sometime back in November of 2016. It is noteworthy that more and more talented artists have found, through their followers, an egalitarian source of economic support that permits them the freedom to pursue their artistic goals-a promising development.

The music is distinctively modern, sometimes brash, sometimes atmospheric, with Allison favoring jazz-styled melodies over drone-like rhythms. The opener “Magic Number” is a re-working of a John McLaughlin song, a favorite of mine, originally titled “Argen’s Bag” and latter re-named “Follow Your Heart.” Allison’s bass lines are full and plump as he pulses the 11/8 blues based riff. Pelt’s viscous trumpet lines hang in the air like billowy clouds of spun cotton candy suspended in space. Cardenas’s guitar sings along with slinky lines and delicately picked harmonics and Kimbrough and Mednard play with sublime sparseness. A fine modern re-imagining of a song originally aired in 1972.  

“Enter the Dragon,” an eight-minute lead up to an eruption, begins with Kimbrough brushing piano strings before Allison’s bouncy pizzicato bass line introduces the rhythmic drive for the tune, over Mednard’s cadenced traps. Pelt and Cardenas play a weaving unison melody line that includes careful comping by Kimbrough, crystalizing over a few choruses before going into a repeating bridge. The sound is reminiscent of Allison’s “Man Sized Safe Group,” with Pelt taking on the role previously played by Ron Horton. After repeating the original melody and returning to a second bridge, the song abruptly morphs into a roiling, free-wheeling rumble of sounds driven by Kimbrough’s frantic piano, Allison’s churning bass and Mednard’s pounding drums. Pelt and Cardenas are slowly re-introduced into the fray, lightly maintaining the melody behind this musical riot. The front line returns once again to the tension building chorus where Pelt is given solo reign to blow over the boiling brew created by the other four-his soaring trumpet offering a blistering cadenza until fading out at the coda.

The eerie “Ghost Ship” is a cinematic composition that features Pelt’s airy, trumpet suspensions over Allison’s strong walking basslines- the armature on which all else is built. Kimbrough and Cardenas are both masters of subtle comping, adding delicate harmonies to this sparse piece. The passages of silence, where Allison’s plump bass notes are the lonely sound, are deliciously evocative. Mednard’s gossamery use of cymbals and snare are perfectly complimentary to the overall feel.

The title song “Layers of the City”-a reference to the diversity of New York City, Allison’s home in recent years- is a rhythmically, descending series of notes with a distinctively middle eastern feel to it.  Once again Allison’s leading bass lines are the driving force. Cardenas, Kimbrough and Pelt all meld their voices so well as to create the illusion one multi-toned instrument- the multi-ethnic rhythmic driven cacophony of the urban landscape of New York City. Allison, Mednard and Cardenas create a rhythmic force that has some roots in the power rock trios of old, with Cardenas offering a more nuanced guitar solo that is less crammed with notes and more steeped in flavor.

“The Detective’s Wife” is a thoroughly enjoyable Allison composition that again has a cinematic quality and can easily become a vehicle for future explorations.  The song is reminiscent of the music of Henry Mancini’s marvelous Pink Panther. Could this be a reference to Inspector Clouseau’s wife? Pianist Frank Kimbrough shines here with some of his most inspired playing, a tour de force. Trumpeter Pelt’s slithery muted horn is equally stirring. Bassist Allison allows himself a chance to extend out the theme in his own inimitable way with a playfully elastic solo that just dances to its own muse.

Allison’s fine 2008 release Little Things that Run the World was the album that introduced me to this remarkable musician and I have been satisfyingly following him ever since. “Blowback” is a re-work of the song originally performed on that album. Allison’s clever uses of throbbing bass lines that carry the tune through is again on display here. His heartbeat style gives a lifeforce to his music that makes it palpitate with possibilities. Here this lifeforce gives rise to some creative solos, first by Cardenas and then by Pelt.

The closing tune is a collective collaboration that borders on free improvisation titled “Get Me Offa This Thing.” With Cardenas and Kimbrough using string harmonics and Pelt using electronic augmentation of his trumpet, the song has an atmospheric feel. This is an exploration into sonic landscapes with Allison’s bass being the only anchoring voice.

As Allison once said, the idea behind the name of his company Sonic Camera Records is to capture a snapshot in time of the music an artist is creating in the present. As with any searching artist, Allison is not content to remain comfortably in a pocket. His present offering Layers of the City is just one more snapshot into his artistic development both as a band leader and more importantly as a composer.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Denny Zeitlin and George Marsh take you on an Electro/Acoustic "Expedition"

Denny Zeitlin & George Marsh Expedition Duo Electro-Acoustic Improvisations
There is a wonderfully free-flowing spirit to the new Denny Zeitlin & George Marsh CD Expedition. The music percolates like water from a newly tapped spring. It has an organic slipstream feel to it that comes from these two brilliant musicians capturing themselves exploring totally “in the moment” improvisations. Script-less forays into the possibilities; Zeitlin’s electro-acoustic keyboard artistry paired with Marsh’s intuitively complimentary percussive accentuation.

As the pianist writes in his liner notes, he has been toying and exploring with electronic instrumentation, integrating it into jazz, classical, funk, rock and free-form since the late sixties. Although considered by many to be one of the finest jazz pianists of his generation, Zeitlin is no stranger to the world of the synthesizer and electronic sounds.  His pioneer work with the then state of the art Prophet analog synthesizer, can be heard on his music for the 1978 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, (the composer’s only film score) which incorporated his dramatic symphony orchestra score with electronic sounds.

Here is a taste of that evocatively eerie soundtrack:

After an over thirty-year hiatus, Zeitlin’s fascination with the instrumentation and the technological improvements that have been made in the equipment, piqued his curiosity again. His fascination with orchestral arrangements was driven by his desire to have control over the expansive palette of tones, colors and textures that an orchestra can provide, and was realized to some degree in his1978 film score. But what if with the new technology, one could more easily control all those tones, colors, textures and sounds, by yourself, from a set of keyboards, some hardware and a computer? Zeitlin did just that in 2013. With an upgrade of equipment, he recorded his solo electro/acoustic recording titled Both/And. Then in a nod to minimal collaboration, Zeitlin rejoined with drummer/percussionist George Marsh, an alumnus of his old trio days, and the two released Riding the Moment, a duo electro/acoustic recording in 2015. 

Expedition is a continuation of that collaboration. The two seem to have developed such an intuitive sense of where each other is going that they overcome the obstacle of having to perform this “spontaneous composition,” as Zeitlin calls it, from the isolation of two separate recording booths with no visual contact.

There is no description of this music that can do it justice. You should just sit back and listen to it unfold and see where it takes you. Some of the songs like “Shards of Blue” or the beautiful “One Song” have a form that you can recognize; the briefest of melodies that you can follow. But for the most part listening to Expedition is like immersing yourself into another dimensional experience. 

Zeitlin conjures a treasure trove of exotic sounds; sounds that elicit haunting Gregorian chant-like voices, alien harpsichords, robotic oscillations, tin-can vibraphones, space-born calliopes, Pan flutes, ogre-like bass lines, majestic pipe organs and muted plectral sounds. But as always, his starkly beautiful piano anchors the music to this world in a brilliantly humanistic way. Like two minds fused at the cerebral cortex, Marsh and Zeitlin seem to be able to intuit each other’s thoughts; Marsh gently prodding the pianist ever so slightly. The percussionist offering shimmering cymbals, softly brushed snares, roiling rolls and a general sense of rhythmic surety that propels this music.

The music at its very best evokes a sense of wonder and delight. It also has a spiritual side to it, especially when Zeitlin’s poignant piano comes into play, the sound of human spirit juxtaposed so touchingly against the mechanistic, electronic swirls that he creates around it. 

Click on the link below to hear one of the songs from the album titled “Geysers”

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Brian Charette's "Kurrent" : Futuristic Circuit Bent Organ Trio

Brian Charette's Kurrent

Having grown up in the golden era of the soulful, hard-bop jazz organ trio, I have particularly fond memories of hearing this style of music that was so prevelant in the sixties and early seventies, when almost every lounge on the east coast had a B3 on its stage. Jimmy Smith, Don Patterson, Charles Earland and Jack McDuff were but a few of the names that created some memorable sounds on their B3's with those rotating Leslie speakers. But the basic sound of the organ trio has barely changed since Larry Young started to move in a new more progressive Coltrane-inspired direction in the seventies, before his untimely dealth. Now along comes Brian Charette.

Keyboard artist Brain Charette originally hails from Meriden, CT, where he was influenced to play the piano at an early age by his mother, herself an excellent pianist. He studied music at the University of CT where he received his BA and toured Europe as a working musician. He was drawn to the culture and jazz scene in Prague and lived in the Czech Republic for a time. As early as age seventeen, Charrette was working with jazz legends like Houston Person and Lou Donaldson. He took up the organ more seriously in the 1990s when he was finding more work playing organ than playing piano. For the past several years he has made the East Village of New York City his home and he can be often seen in New York accompanying other artists whenever an organist is required.  His keyboard skills have been recognized and utilized by such top tier pop artist as Chaka Khan, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon.

On his latest self-released album Kǘrrent, Charette is joined by guitarist Ben Monder and drummer Jordan Young. Reportedly, the trio has been working on this original music for the last two years and it shows by the groups tight and intuitive interaction. Charette has labeled the group a “futuristic circuit bent organ trio,” with the intention of preserving the core tradition of the organ-guitar-drums jazz-trio format and extending it into modernity with the addition of electronics and by conceiving more contemporary compositions.

The group starts off with “Doll Fin,” a catchy rythmically driven song, with Charette providing a driving bass line,(presumably with his B3 foot pedals or on a loop), then inserting a mechanistic, almost robotic sounding ostinato keyboard line. You can almost imagine the cool efficiency of an assembly-line of robotic arms working in musical unison. Monder’s guitar lines enter and eventually morph into a ripping, more distorted solo as Young provides skillfully placed crashes and splashes. Charette returns with a more traditional sounding B3 solo before reprising his robotic synth work and Monder’s repeating guitar lines. The song ends in a flurry by Young as Charette and Monder play a unison, electronic drone that decays at the finale. Welcome to the future of organ trios.

Kurrent: Jordan Young, Ben Monder & Brian Charette
Other songs that employ a more traditional organ trio sound include the bouncy “Time Changes” and the memorable ballad “Honeymoon Phase,” although Charette manages to include a synthetic harpsichord and some spacey electronic accents at the end of “Time Changes.” 

Charette and company always keep the music moving and the keyboardist is quite adept at using his Hammond pull bars to create just the right sound. Monder shows a beautiful harmonic sense in his deft accompaniments and Young is equally atuned to the group effort.

“Mano Y Mano” features some vocoder tempered vocals and some raw guitar work by Monder. The otherwise atmospheric “Shooby’s Riff” contains a strange repeated, electronically altered vocal riff that is indecipherable to my ears and that breaks the mood and rhythm of the song. There is a sci-fi element to this one that conjures up images of space travelers encountering looped transmissions from alien life.

There are three, short “Intermezzos;” small musical vignettes that seem like free improvisations that use electronically altered, textural interplay between keyboard, guitar, voice and drums.

The synth and organ driven “Conquistador” is like a musical journey to places that seem at once familiar and at the same time strangely foreign. Juxtaposing sounds that combine the weird and fanciful with the exotic, Charette and company are able to transport you into a Lucas-like world reminiscent of the bizarre alien bar scene from the original Star Wars.  Back to the Future indeed.

The futuristically funky “5th Base” is a driving vamp that allows Monder to shred a little with a nasty, distorted sound that pierces through your flesh. Charette has obviously been influenced Larry Young’s forward thinking style, but he has also been influenced by some of the synth masters of years gone by, as I hear elements of Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman in his playing on this wild electronic jaunt.

There is a Minuet quality to the opening of “The Shape of Green,” Charette and Monder trading lines in a formal dance of notes behind the cadenced traps of Young. Eventually the song breaks into a repeating vamp, then opens up to a Monder guitar solo that pierces through clouds of electronic sounds that rainmaker Charette conjures up like a weather shaman.

The finale is a song titled “Catfish Sandwich,” and has a Monkish sounding line to it. This leads to an adrenaline driven electronic disco beat. Monder lets loose as Charette and Young provide the rhythmic drive. Charette changes over to the traditional B3 sound and the trio starts to percolate as he plays some of the most inspired straight organ soloing on the album. The intensity builds to a frenzy at the coda with Young providing a bombardment of traps, toms and cymbals to the end.

By mastering the myriad of possibilities that can be produced on a Hammond B3, incorporating synthesized and electronic effects tastefully and utilizing inventive arrangements, Charette, Monder and Young have managed to create a hybrid jazz-organ-trio sound that rockets into the future. Their music just might be the natural heir apparent to the progressive legacy of organist Larry Young. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

Pianist Kevin Bales 50th Birthday Bash: Bringing Out the Best in Atlanta's Jazz Community

Kevin Bales

What happens when one of the Southeast’s most sought-after jazz pianists- in  jazz parlance “one bad mf of a player”- wants to celebrate turning fifty and invites friends and fans to a birthday bash at a local jazz club/restaurant? You get a spectacular evening of song, camaraderie, and for the pianist, a humbling showering of respect and love that cannot be overstated. That is exactly what happened this past Friday evening at the Mason Tavern, on Clairmont Road in Decatur, when locally based pianist/educator Kevin Bales decided to celebrate his own personal milestone by sharing his music with family, friends, musical contemporaries and members of the Atlanta jazz community.

Tavern operator and jazz impresario Sam Yi-of Churchill Grounds fame- has been presenting jazz at the Tavern for the last five months and so it was no surprise when Bales asked Yi if the restaurant could accommodate his planned two-day birthday celebration.

Bales studied music at University of North Florida where he was mentored by legends saxophonist Bunky Green, bassist Ben Tucker and multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan.  Over the years, he has toured with Green, guitarist Nathen Page and vocalist Rene Marie. His brilliant sideman work can be heard on multiple recordings by Marie (one nominated for a Grammy); on Blue Note with trumpeter Marcus Printup; on records by Green, Sullivan and Page; as well as on recordings with local trumpeters Joe Gransden and Dr. Gordon Vernick. He has also recorded as a leader of his own piano trio and can be seen performing regularly around the Atlanta area. The energetic Bales also maintains a dedicated teaching practice at his studio in Tucker.

This past Friday night was truly special for Bales, he had hired a core rhythm section to play with him for the two nights of celebration; a joyful way to demonstrate and share his love of this music and the importance it has had on his life. The response from fellow musicians who wanted to play with him-celebrate his life of music- was so overwhelming that some who showed up never got a chance to play. No matter, the music was inspiring and the variety of talent was truly broad brushed.

Proprietor Sam Yi introduced the core band members, sometimes failing to find enough superlatives to describe their talents. The drummer Leon Anderson, Jr., now living in Tallahassee, Florida, was a special guest that Bales had summoned up for this gig. Bassist Billy Thorton, guitarist Trey Wright and saxophonist Sam Skelton rounded out the core group.

Sam Skelton
In talking to the pianist before the start of the set, Bales indicated that he had not prepared a set list of songs for the set, preferring to allow the spirit to move him in the right direction. It was a method that bubbled with entusiastic imagination.

They started off with the Victor Young classic “Stella by Starlight.”  Trey Wright, an accomplished guitarist and educator at Kennesaw Satet, took the first solo adding thoughtful, fluid lines to the melody as the rhythm section pushed the pace. The respected saxophonist Sam Skelton, who heads the jazz studies program at Kennesaw, took hold of the song and wrapped it around his fingers, twisting it taut, turning it to his whim before loosening it again, with a dazzling display of powerful virtuosity and control. Bassist Thorton probed the edges of the composition with rhythmic assurance. When Bales took his solo you could see the whirlwind developing. With a cascade of notes pouring out of his electric keyboard, Bales was often so driven to expression that he would elevate off his seat, creating his own tornado of sounds, you could hear the whoosh around him. He was clinging to his keyboard as if he might be spun off by the sheer centrifugal force of his playing. It was just a small glimpse of what was to come. Drummer Anderson seemed to be bidding his time, keeping the pace, but restraining himself at first; getting the lay of the terrain. His reticence was fortunately short-lived, as there were many times during the performance that his playing mesmerized the crowd with its sheer inventiveness.

Trey Wright and Kevin Bales
Bales took to the microphone to thank the full house of patrons for coming out to help him celebrate  this milestone. He acknowledged the presence of his family in the house; his son, daughter and future son-in law were happily all present, but what seemed to make him most nervous was the presence of his mother in the audience. Bales was especially moved by her attendance, intimating that she hadn’t seen him perform in several years. He dutifully dedicated the next song to her, the spiritual “Just A Closer Walk with Thee.”  The hymn, often played at New Orleans funeral services, is known for its gospel roots. It was beautifully rendered by pianist and his band, with drummer Anderson venturing into more creative grounds here.

Leon Anderson Jr.
With so many musicians in attendance, many anxiously waiting to perform in the pianist's honor, the guests started to make their way up to the stage. Two singers, Laura Coyle and Tom Dean, perfromed a few impromptu numbers. Duke Jordan’s "Jordu" was a sung as a duet that featured some deft scatting by both the lyrical Coyle and the raspy Dean, to the audience’s delight. Dean did his own interpretive, off-beat version of the Judy Garland classic “Over the Rainbow” and then the two returned to do a scat version of “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” Bales was at his most animated on this Edgar Sampson classic(made famous by Benny Goodman), tearing up the keyboard, bursts of creativity  pouring out of him like a gush of water from a bursting dam. The audience cheered in appreciation.
Tom Dean and Laura Coyle
After  a five-minute jazz-time break that was more like thirty, comedian Jerry Farber took to the microphone had the audience laughing, as he told one of his famous jokes before wishing Kevin a Happy Birthday. 

The second set started when Neal Starkey, a valued mentor that Bales acknowledged was crucial to his development when he first came to Atlanta, took the bass chair for a couple of songs, as tenor saxophonist Mike Walton, a regular member of the Joe Gransden Big Band,  did a stirring, Coltrane-inspired version of Wayne Shorter’s “Black Nile.”
Mike Walton and Neal Starkey

Vocal stylist Virginia Schenck, who has several recordings with Bales accompanying her on piano, did a theatrical version of  the classic “Nature Boy.”  

Pianist Kenny Banks Sr., one of several fellow pianists who showed up to honor Bales, settled into the keyboard, starting a house-stirring Blues, supported by Thorton on bass, and Anderson percolating on drums,  Banks Sr. knows his blues bringing a different level of funk and soul to the keyboard. The rhythm section got into his groove and then saxophonist John Sandfort sat in to give a soulful solo of his own invention.

Trumpeter Russell Gunn, one of Atlanta's premier musicians and a former member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, surprisingly popped in unannounced  for a cameo, after Sandfort’s solo. The fiercely powerful, take no prisoners Gunn, blasted this blues into the stratosphere with a brief but powerful solo that got right to the heart of the song's sentment and had the audience on its feet. The trombonist Saunder Sermens also joined in with a softer, more deliberately paced solo. 

Leon Anderson Jr., Russell Gunn and Billy Thorton
The evening continued with Kevin Smith taking over the bass chair as the Armenian cellist/vocalist, Arpenik Hakobyan sang a sensitive version of the classic “Autumn Leaves.” Pianist and Director of Jazz Studies at Emory University, Gary Motley took over the keyboard from Bales and joined by Anderson, Skelton and Smith did a rousing version of “Close Your Eyes.” The evening closed out, past the midnight witching hour, to the house singing Happy Birthday to Bales, led by his daughter, and with Motley and Bales dueling at the cramped electric keyboard to a roaring finale.
Billy Thorton and Kenny Banks Sr.

Due to time restraints, many musicians who came never had the opportunity to play. I saw Joe Gransden, E.J. Hughes, Nick Rosen, Tia Rix and others all in attendance and support. To say that it was a memorable evening would be an understatement, but clearly the event represented some of the best the Atlanta jazz community has to offer and is a testament to how much love and respect pianist Kevin Bales inspires. 

Kevin Smith, Gary Motley and Kevin Bales

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Vibrapohonist Steve Nelson's Homage to Mulgrew Miller: "Brothers Under the Sun"

The vibraphonist Steve Nelson is one of those musicians who has been discreetly plying his craft over the years, most frequently with groups led by the pianist Mulgrew Miller and the bassist Dave Holland. On his latest album Brothers Under the Sun, a title that makes reference to the friendship and astrological affinity Nelson had with the pianist Mulgrew Miller (they were both born under the sign of Leo), Nelson selects a repertoire of songs that are either composed by late pianist or are strongly associated with him. The result is a rewarding collection of music that honor Miller's legacy by perfroming these songs with a joyful reverance, consummate professionalism and an unerring sense of swing.

The rhythm section of Peter Washington and Lewis Nash assure a skilled continuity of spirit for this endeavor, as they, with Nelson played on several recordings with Mr. Miller. The wild card here is the pianist Danny Grissett- who has played previously with this group under the leadership of trumpeter Jeremy Pelt- who does an admirable job of injecting his own creativity into this homage, including his own composition dedicated to Mr. Miller, the closer “Melody for Mulgrew.”

The album leads off with a sauntering “The More I See You” which Nelson plays faithfully in deference to the melody, an approach favored by Mr. Miller when he would play ballads. Nelson’s tone has a warm resonance that comes from the measured and deliberate attack of his mallets. Grissett incorporates some of Miller’s bluesy/gospel feel, while still fluidly traversing across the keys in a modern approach. The group pulses along with Washington’s warm, throbbing bass lines leading the way. Nash, a master swinger, knows how to subtly prod the group, propulsing them forward with just the right mixture of press rolls and cymbal splashes.

The Afro-Latin beat of Miller’s vibrant “Eastern Joy Dance,” allows the group a more fluid platform on which to improvise. Nelson’s mallets glide over the bars in a glissando of notes. Grissett is more angular in his approach here, as Washington and Lewis create the rhythmic rumble.

“Grew’s Tune” is one of Mr. Miller’s most memorable compositions and these guys do it royally. The lock-step, unison playing of Grissett and Nelson is coolly intuitive. Grissett’s solo is a miniature of style, before Washington offers his own impressively effervescent solo.

“Soul-Leo,” -a reference to the astrological sign that binds Miller and Nelson together forever- has its own special swagger. Washington’s bass guiding the tune like a beacon in the night. Nelson and Grissett once again play deftly in unison; both offer invigorated solos as Nash pushes the song along effectively behind Grissett’s repeating left-hand phrases to the coda.

The Rogers and Hart standard “It Never Entered My Mind,” is introduced by Nelson with a gently resonating vibes solo, after which the group picks up at a languished pace. The album continues with the Brazilian influenced Miller composition “Samba D’ Blue,” the bright, uplifting Nelson title composition “Brothers Under the Sun,” and  another  two Miller compositions “For Those Who Do” and the angular, Monkish “New Wheels,” where the group is at its dynamic best. The set ends with pianist Grissett’s persuasive homage, the buoyant and deferential “Melody for Mulgrew.”

Here is a video of Nelson with Miller from 2011:

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Pete Malinverni Trio: "Heaven" The Spiritual Side of Jazz

I have had the pleasure of meeting pianist Pete Malinverni, and the fortune to have seen him perform his pianistic magic in some intimate and spiritual settings on several occasions. Malinverni is a thoughtful, serene man who brings a deep and abiding sense of reverence to his playing. He has been steeped in religious music for decades, with tenures as the musical director of the Devoe Street Baptist Church in Brooklyn, NY, the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY and the Pound Ridge Community Church in Pound Ridge, NY- where I went to several Sunday services just to see him play. He is also a eminent educator and currently is an assistant professor of jazz studies at SUNY Purchase. Pete was kind enough to entertain an interview for my blog back in 2013, which for those who are interested can be found here.

Make no mistake about it, Malinverni can swing, having played in trios with iconic drummer Mel Lewis and with Amhad Jamal drummer Vernel Fourier among others. His music has a naked honesty that sweeps you up in its sincerity and emotional content. 

On his latest release Heaven, Malinverni is joined by eclectic bassist Ben Allison and journeyman drummer Akira Tana.  Together these three make some beautiful and sensitive music. Not surprisingly, the album has a spiritual theme and explores two compositions from Duke Ellington, the title tune “Heaven” and “Come Sunday”; four traditional songs that have an enduring messages of hope and faith; two obscure gems a gorgeous arrangement of a song by Hannah Senesh titled “Eili, Eili” and an Ungar/ Mason composition “Ashokan Farewell;” the uplifting, gospel influenced Curtis Mayfield tune “People Get Ready” and one of Malinverni’s own “Psalm 23.”

“Heaven” is a swinging straight ahead rendering that features Malinverni’s fluid, sometimes Monkish, piano lines, Allison’s pulsing bass and Tana’s light comping. Allison and Tana each offer brief but potent solo work here, before the group returns to the melody line at the coda.

Malinverni’s “Psalm 23,” is based on the famous Biblical passage from David that starts with “The Lord is my Sheperd, I shall not want…” He uses a reverent musical treatment to portray a spiritual that acknowledges God’s grace and guidance given to his people even when they “….walk through the valley of darkness..” The pianist creates a delicate musical monologue that mimics the verse- each challenge met with faith in the higher being- and then he builds the musical tension to a tempest with a rumble created by the trio, until he resolves it to a peaceful conclusion at the coda.  

The bubbling “Down in the River to Pray” is given a buoyant 5/4 bounce with Allison’s pulsing bass line holding down the beat with Tana’s rim and cymbals, as Malinverni explores around the melody.

“Shenandoah” is given a sparse treatment, with vocalist Karrin Allyson lending her clear, light voice to Allison’s bass and Malinverni’s accompanying piano. Allison and Malinverni both take short probing solos before Allyson, whose vocal could bring a bit more emotional content to this song, returns to finish up this endearing American folk song.

“Eili, Eili” is a composition I ‘ve never heard before, apparently based on a poem written by a Hungarian woman, a Jew who fought the Nazi’s in WWII and died trying to save concentration camp prisoners. True to the feeling of the poem, Malinverni and Allison do a marvelous job of making this one of the most moving pieces on the album. The pianist is at his most emotive here and bassist Allison’s plump lines are in beautiful counterpoint to the piano and to Tana’s masterful brushwork.

The lyrics of Curtis Mayfield’s “People, Get Ready” have an uplifting message to an oppressed people and Malinverni deftly finds an elevating experience in this enduring melody, which he and bandmates play with great spirit and elation.

Ellington’s “Come Sunday” is a gorgeous composition that embodies the maestro’s sense of what is spiritual. Guest Jon Faddis’s longing trumpet solo is a case in point. There is a poignancy to his slurring, voice-like horn, a human cry that transcends formalized religious context and unifies us all no matter what our beliefs. The trio expertly backs Faddis exemplary playing of this gem and there is no way one can’t come away from this unmoved.

Another traditional song “A City Called Heaven” features a moving bass solo by Allison at the opening. The bassist has a tremendous feel for this music and it shows here. His tone is clear, his attack is clean and his ideas seem in line with the pianist’s own inclinations-warm, sensitive and uncluttered.

Alto saxophonist Steve Wilson is about as in demand as anyone on the scene today. On “Wade in the Water,” a song made popular by Ramsey Lewis, Malinverni plays a darting solo that floats above his rhythm sections steady pulse. Wilson’s angular alto brings some swinging bop to this one, and he and Malinverni play off each other effectively for a brief section before returning to the head.

The final song on the album is “Ashokan Farewell” a song made famous as the theme to documentary filmmaker Ken Burns “Civil War” series on PBS. The funny thing is despite its melancholy, old-worldish sound, it wasn’t written until 1982 and by a man from the Bronx. 

Notwithstanding the origins of this song- which is based on a Scottish lament- it has been heard by millions and construed to be a part of Americana folk music. Malinverni finds, as many of us do,that the song has a spiritual core to its tender, moving theme. He plays this as a sauntering slow waltz and it seems like the perfect tune to end this album of music on.