Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Bill Barr declares his permanent loyalty to Trump


Attorney General William Barr’s emotional dependence on Donald Trump is unmistakable, leading him to stake his reputation now and in the indictable future on No. 45. Wild horses 🐎 couldn’t drag him away.

Posted by Jay Harvey on Friday, July 31, 2020

Thursday, July 30, 2020

John Fedchock NY Sextet lays down good blend of solo and collective excellence

Desirable outcomes in studio recording sessions usually mean that the material is known well in advance to the parti
Trombonist-bandleader John Fedchock
John Fedchock leads a unified sextet
cipants and the bandleader structures it in such a way that solos, accompaniment, and ensemble passages seem soldered into place.

I like when, from moment to moment, everyone seems to be focused on presenting a musical object more than foregrounding "expression."  That's the impression I pick up from "Into the Shadows" (Summit Records), the latest recording by the John Fedchock NY Sextet.  And that doesn't have to mean the jazz that results seems cut-and-dried —  a simple triumph of planning.

Trombonist-bandleader Fedchock has created arrangements for himself and five colleagues that maintain pulse and momentum while giving us something as solid and functionally appropriate as a well-made chair.

To take from the album the clearest link to the tradition of great jazz sextets, "Alpha Dog" is an easily rocking update of the hard-bop tradition. It's deliberately abstract, I think, to avoid seeming less like an Art Blakey Jazz Messengers tribute.  Typically, concise solos run throughout the performance, covering everyone but the drummer, Eric Halvorson. The other players are Scott Wendholt, trumpet and flugelhorn; Walt Weiskopf, tenor saxophone; Allen Farnham, piano; and David Finck, bass.

The band presents an assertive profile in such a number, but it can also render a soft-focus sound that coheres, as in the flowing samba "Manaus."  That piece features one of several outstanding Wendholt solos. Others that caught my ear on repeated listening happen on the standards "I Should Care" and "Nature Boy."  The latter arrangement catches the mystery of the original song without having to slow down to a ballad pace; in fact, the phrases are punched up without presenting the song in gaudy new garb.

Also fetching was Fedchock's uptempo arrangement of "I Should Care," with Farnham introducing the tune in an engagingly cryptic fashion. Fedchock ends that piece with a coda, featuring the drummer. Halvorson also gets a fusillade of last words in "Star Eyes" against a five-chord riff in the piano. That tune had the Fedchock solo that struck me most favorably, as once again everyone has his say in a round-robin solo format. But there's no showboating here: It's an unspoken "Hey, everyone, we've got a good chair to make: every detail has to fit and display complementary workmanship."

The title tune, one of five Fedchock originals, is pretty much a trombone showcase, yet even with that emphasis, the arrangement is all about the the sextet. The ensemble stays close to the theme in its accompaniment, as if to underline the import of the trombone. Here is leadership of a kind we might wish for in other arenas: The  man in charge accepts responsibility, carries it off well, and allows those working with him due opportunity to shine. Fedchock ventures into the shadows, to be sure, but emerges from them shining.

[Photo by Enid Farber]

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Deeply rooted suburban fantasies maintain resonance

It's easy to get puzzled by the Trump-driven narrative shoring up his reelection prospects. As used as we think we are to the perspective that he has also imposed on the Republican Party, there are new swerves in his rhetorical aggressiveness. It's hard to keep up with them all.

A recent one was the inclusion of a prediction that Joe Biden, if elected, would destroy the suburbs. What was that all about, I wondered, until I saw Trump's tweeted warning to "suburban housewives of America."

"Housewives"! Were they twisting their hands nervously in immaculate aprons as they looked out the kitchen window at a perfect lawn and a white picket fence? It fell into place: the Trump slogan "Make America Great Again" focuses squarely on the dream of a pristine suburbia.

Suburban dreams in the makIng: Levittown under construction
And that means solidly white enclaves, the heritage of the Levittown developments that followed World War II, the metastasized suburbia enabled not only by the mass transit around a few metropolitan areas, but by the proliferating cross-town expressways that promised quick access to cities where white-collar work was concentrated and back again to a haven purposely designed to put people among their own kind.

Prejudice — the othering of minority groups — was built into the triumph of the American suburb. Today, the perceived disaster of a Biden victory is presumed to carry with it the completion of racial and ethnic integration. Typically Trump casts his mind into a way-back machine picturing a suburbia not anywhere as diverse as it has become. It's a world where it's OK to think of the women whose votes he is likely to lose in November as housewives.

In big cities, competing ethnic groups have learned to sort of get along over the past century or so. They have to mingle somewhat in the conduct of daily life. There have been dramatic flare-ups, of course, but these have also served as warnings to suburbanites. And urban strife, along with federally designed escape routes and legal exclusions, has been pictured as something the suburbs can avoid.

Big-city irony would shift to suburbs
But it's not easy: A party of black teenagers in a Dallas suburb leads to a police officer wrestling a bikini-clad girl to the ground. Scary, yes, but worlds away from the 1919 race riot in Chicago sparked by a black swimmer crossing into water considered exclusive to whites. That event is among the markers of the prejudice that warps the maturation of the hero of James T. Farrell's "Studs Lonigan." And the lines are fiercely maintained: Though Studs and his gang include, with some disparagement, a Jewish pal, the neighborhood slut draws the line at accommodating him in the bedroom. She has her standards.

In the large cities, the inevitable meltdown of ethnic purity creates dream worlds that Philip Roth, in the heavily ironic title of one of his best novels, called "American Pastoral." Trump's suburbia is still populated by the legacy of the American diaspora, and he suspects it's kind of a last stand. His housewives and their commuting husbands ("Honey, I'm home!") are the shepherdesses and swains updated from the classic pastoral.

Roth was writing about his hometown, Newark. In the nearby city of Paterson, Allen Ginsberg grew up. The Jewish middle class of which they were a part had a place in the big cities that their people  did not easily find in the suburbs. One of those north New Jersey towns was home to my paternal grandfather, who once told my mother that he would never sell his home to a Jew. When I told his sister, my great-aunt, that I was headed to Harvard to begin graduate school, she replied crisply: "I don't like Harvard — too many Hebrews."

It was a world of casual bias, radiating from the WASP establishment out through the Jewish populace and into black and brown communities. Towns that were wealthy enough to keep their independent character could morph into suburbs of the metropolis and remain white havens.

Ezra Pound nailed a prejudice he linked to the suburbs.
In a  1967 conversation with Ezra Pound in Venice, Ginsberg heard this confession from the older  poet, who had slid out of the charge of treason for incendiary World War II broadcasts into a mental hospital, which, unpleasant though it was, eventually yielded to an old age in calm Italian exile: "The worst mistake I made," Pound said, "was that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism."

Why "suburban"? Pound's  admission fingers the culture that sustained prejudice. If rural America was hostile to outsiders, it rarely had to be inconvenienced by them. And the big city allowed groups to self-segregate socially while keeping commerce uneasily, and unequally, integrated. Suburban anxiety was unique, built upon the fear of loss, hopefully a remote nightmare. To keep the fear at bay, the illusion of suburban purity, of households headed by June and Ward Cleaver, had to be maintained. The fiction is still powerful, Trump hopes. Suburbia is the fulcrum.

"The commuter towns and leafy developments circling Philadelphia and other U.S. cities — areas with increasing racial diversity and a growing number of college-educated voters — have been a clear source of trouble for the president and his party," says a July 25 Associated Press article, headlined "Trump plays on fears in campaigns for suburbs."

In his Paris Review interview, Pound told Donald Hall that tales of his post-frontier origin in Hailey, Idaho, could offer little explanation of his iconoclastic ways. "I grew up  near Philadelphia. The suburbs of Philadelphia." The adjective "suburban" was thus wisely chosen as an indicator of his notorious prejudice. Later in the interview, Pound said truly: "We suffer from the use of language to conceal thought and to withhold all vital and direct answers." That's one of many possible answers that could be put forward to explain the attractions of suburbanism.

And the suburban mindset might well be universal. In his expansive 1940 poem "New Year Letter," W.H. Auden describes humanity as "The children of a modest star, / Frail, backward, clinging to the granite / Skirts of a sensible old planet, / Our placid and suburban nurse."

The image is one that hints at desperation, an unavoidable dependence that we can't free ourselves from. Events may properly suggest that our earthly home is neither "sensible" nor "placid," but we are inclined to say well, let's go with that. Our suburban dreams demand it. That's what Trump and his supporters are counting on.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Eighth Blackbird takes flight with a linked program by three composers

Susannah Bielak's cover design hints at the gems within.
An adventurous new-music ensemble teases out the meaning of its name with "Singing in the Dead of Night" ( Cedille Records), a collection of music by three composers whose works under this title are linked to lyrics of the Beatles song "Blackbird."

Eighth Blackbird is named after a stanza in Wallace Stevens' poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," which runs like this: "I know noble accents / And lucid, inescapable rhythms; / But I know, too, / That the blackbird is involved / In what I know."

I can't guess why the "eighth blackbird" of Stevens' poem attracted the ensemble's attention as a best summation of its artistic mission.  But surely the compositions of David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe in "Singing in the Dead of Night" are loaded with noble accents and lucid, inescapable rhythms, though the latter in particular might well have escaped less expert musicians.

The three works are presented in the order Eighth Blackbird has settled upon in concert since 2008. The three movements of David Lang's "these broken wings" (no caps in any of the titles, the way Eighth Blackbird used to style its name) are in the first, third, and fifth position. The division makes sense both in complementing the Gordon and Wolfe pieces and in representing the unique blend of percussive sounds (including deliberately dropped items) and wind and string sonorities that Lang calls for.

Recorded last fall at the University of Chicago, a Midwestern "hot spot" for new music since the palmy days of Ralph Shapey, "Singing in the Dead of Night" is a worthy contribution to the celebration of Cedille Records' 30th anniversary this year.

Julia Wolfe's long piece, which lends its title to the recording, most deeply represents this Paul McCartney line in "Blackbird" — "into the light of the dark black night."  Its intensity and thick figuration seem  to struggle to evince light in the imagination's darkest night. The music is frankly irritating at times in order to plunge, with no textual underlining needed, into the mystery of that line and the obstacles to any flight out of darkness. It's a work that actually seems to want to be longer than it is (nearly 19 minutes); no easy escape is suggested. Ending with the cryptic rubbing of sandpaper, "singing in the dead of night" adds to my impression of the strong personality this composer shows in the compositions of hers known to me.

Michael Gordon's "the light of the dark" follows up on the rhythmic jumpiness of the opening track, the first movement of the Lang piece, after moaning cello glissandos set out troubling portents relieved by skittering violin, flute and clarinet skittering and steadying accordion chords. The relentless pulse of "the light of the dark" is subject to stunning pauses. A buoyant, rapid lyricism emerges from the clarinet. The passacaglia form organizes the bafflement inherent in the topic and the changing instrumentation.

The second movement of Lang's piece, alluded to above, evokes feelings of stasis associated with the subject of this program. And his finale, which concludes the CD, bears the apt title "learn to fly'; the style is a kind of rambunctious minimalism.  It seems to point the way to a resumption of vitality and the shedding of any dark black night's most troubling implications — especially in the current time of political and pandemic anxiety.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Fused names and simpatico artistry of French saxophonist and Italian pianist fuel Spirabassi

Giovanni MIrabassi (left) and Stephane Spira are a compatible duo.
"Improkofiev" is the major work on the new CD of that title representing a meeting of minds between Stephane Spira (whose website provides access to the release) and Giovanni Mirabassi.

The seasoned musicians, a soprano saxophonist and a pianist, respectively,  collaborate with seeming effortlessness in their punning salute to Sergei Prokofiev, specifically drawing upon the Russian composer's First Violin Concerto.

The three-movement suite references the concerto chiefly in its tunefulness and its hints of sentimentality, always a vein accessible to Prokofiev that he used to balance his nose-thumbing sauciness and modernist flair. The near-constant demands on the soloist are not replicated in the jazz suite. The signature spikiness and skill with disjunctive lines characteristic of Prokofiev make the suite's first movement the most satisfying as a tribute. So does the presence of an extra voice, the flugelhorn of Yoann Loustalot.

The remaining two movements of the suite proceed without Loustalot, which detracts from the suite's coherence. Why not keep the second horn player around through "New York Dream"and "No Strings Attached"?

The first four tracks have an individuality and pungency that the suite projects less consistently. The other classical tribute, a perky waltz version of Erik Satie's "Gymnopedie No. 1," is a charmer. The other borrowed piece, Carla Bley's "Lawns," sustains most successfully the Mirabassi-Spira partnership, which is unshakable, with complementary solos, and easily takes in a transition to a Steve Wood bass solo.

Donald Kontomanu's drums start off "After Rain," a piece whose title seems to apply well to the feeling of abandon and freedom that emergence from a drenching spell provides most of us with. It's a great exposition of the quartet's rapport, flowing ahead without looking back once.

The opening "Ocean Dance," which like "After Rain" is a Spira composition, never becomes oceanic in volume; this is not a forceful ensemble. But its variety of motion and glinting playfulness are aspects of the sea to which the clean lines and crystalline tone  of both players in the group's portmanteau name give body and invite the listener to jump in: the water's fine.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Australian pianist sets down a manifold expansion of solo jazz piano

Alister Spence has set down on two discs a different kind of solo improvisational maximum, worthy of comparing to, but not dependent on, such a milestone as the Keith Jarrett "Köln Concert."

Alister Spence in "Whirlpools" offers a wealth of puzzlement.
The veteran Australian pianist-composer has assembled 23 free improvisations, eccentric to most kinds of jazz pianism, where his roots are. Over the course of two brightly recorded discs, "Whirlpool" (Alister Spence Music) amounts to a highly charged example of what this essential instrument in just about all Western music can express on its own, with relatively few unconventional techniques now and then expanding the sonic palette.

Spence's keyboard lucubrations are not for everyone, it's safe to say. Like the music itself, the titles he's chosen vary from illuminating to baffling. They are all uncapitalized, starting with a parenthetical short word connected by implication with a longer word, which may or may not be read as standing by itself or essential to the full title.

The listener is charged with applying the title to what he hears or else concluding that the title's meaning must be private. In "(over)taken," for example, the track opening Disc 2, there are chase elements that are resolved along the way, with the pursuit eventually absorbed. I get the "overtaken" meaning, but "taken" alone seems murkier as a structure for which "over" is a kind of porch.

Inevitably, and putting the titles somewhat aside, connections to music the listener is familiar with will be made. Given Spence's apparent aesthetic freedom, the similarities may play no part in what the pianist is consciously attempting to do. There are repetitive structures that suggest minimalism, for example, except that harmonically the static tremolos that preoccupy both hands in "(under)standing" are more cluttered. That piece also raises another problem with the project: As I hear the tremolos fill the canvas less insistently, the shaking continues in the right hand, and some calming bass chords set up a single-line finish to the album's longest piece (8 minutes, 17 seconds). Is the coherence accidental or artistically driven?

So a couple of central questions emerge. They may have bothered Spence as well, but they certainly irritated me, stimulating my response (and not always favorably). The performer in free improvisation has to decide whether to reject elaboration or indulge it: When and how should he undertake shifts in texture, tempo, and mood?

And that raises a central question for the listener: Am I hearing musical statements that amount to more than a hill of magic beans? Or is the performer sifting through those hills of beans looking for something different and stimulating for himself? Sometimes a relaxed feeling strikes one as just what is needed, as when the mezzo-forte dissonance in a close-textured melodic line yields to a relaxed feeling in "(back)water." But in that case I was nagged by a sense that Spence was treading water waiting for a new inspiration. And how patient must I be with what could be mere
dithering? On the other hand, maybe cultivation of patience is essential to the point of "Whirlpool." Maybe I am mistaken to try wresting too much meaning from what Spence is up to. If he is occasionally at sea (even briefly, and some of the pieces are fragmentary), so be it.

Finally, just to offer some guideposts to adventure-seeking listeners, I heard aspects of Cecil Taylor's action-painting approach, without so much barbed dissonance, as well as hints of Bill Evans' gentler musings. There is clearly an attraction to pure rumination, but there is also a cryptic, allusive quality, with some of the wryness of Erik Satie. In a couple of pieces — "(well)spring" and "(sub)stance" — there seems to be the clear influence of Claude Debussy's preludes. The latter Spence piece in particular, with its sense of something magnificent and abandoned beneath the surface, brought a strong suggestion of "The Sunken Cathedral."

Like real whirlpools, these pieces under that title generate self-contained forces both dangerous and inviting. Spence is prepared to rest in being fascinated with what he knows and what he is given to explore. How much that focus sustains fascination for the listener is open to question.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

'Under My Thumb' sums up the current President's view of the USA

The President seems fond of using “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at his rallies. With those mass gatherings...

Posted by Jay Harvey on Sunday, July 19, 2020

Ricardo Grilli lends his guitar-centered inspirations to changes of time and place

A Brazilian-born guitarist living in New York, Ricardo Grilli has a creative fixation on dates and
Brazilian-American guitarist Ricardo Grilli has a lot on his mind.
settings for his musical practice and development. Without filling in all the evident blanks by which he substantiates this focus, it may suffice to indicate that "1962," his new CD's title, is the birth year of his mother.

The obvious generative force of such an association accounts for much of the music he has set down here with the assistance of tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Kevin Hays, bassist Joe Martin, and drummer Eric Harland (whose first name unfortunately appears as "Erick" on the album cover).

In "1962" (Tone Rogue Records), Grilli shows the penchant of jazz guitarists to use the instrument to connect with both the vernacular street and the lofty empyrean. An edge-to-edge vista of darkest interstellar space dominates the jacket's design. After some preliminary solo noodling ("1954-1962"), the listener is spirited off to "Mars" as the band jells around the first of the remaining nine originals.

The earthy side is nailed down in "Signs (Blues for Peter Bernstein)," a salute to a fellow guitarist well-established in the current jazz universe. There is a firmly rooted Hays solo to help define the unusual blues theme.

"Coyote" begins to exemplify a recurrent Grilli practice: guitar and saxophone in smooth unison on the theme. It amounts to a signature sound for this band. The flowing samba brings to the fore Turner as a soloist. His presence on the disc lends Olympian calm to the ensemble. Grilli may wish to allude compositionally to disturbing changes in contemporary life, but his muse avoids shocks. Turner is the ideal partner in the way he uses his instrument: Most tenor saxophonists pay energetic tribute to Dionysus; Turner's guiding spirit is Apollonian — a touch aloof, more concerned with bringing light than heat to the bandstand.

Grilli likewise doesn't play with a lot of flash. Outsize display is not his thing, and he doesn't push his instrument often beyond plain timbres. The complications are never about note-spinning, but when they are a factor, it's all for the sake of the ensemble.

Harland kicks "The Sea and the Night" into high gear, even as the mood remains reflective. The rhythmic intricacy has a dash of flamboyance, but it's a well-tended flame.

Another Latin-flavored tune, "Lunatico," named after a Brooklyn bar,  features a perky bass solo. Martin is otherwise in evidence mainly as a serviceable partner to his colleagues.

As the disc stretches toward the program's conclusion, I found the music well-thought-out but maybe too thoughtful. Grilli is a bandleader-composer quite sensitive to his forces, but, even as "Voyager" ends the disc with hints of exploration outside the norm, communication with mission control seems all too devoted.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

He's the Top, all right, but only in the topsy-turvy world he made

In the upside down world Trump has done so much to create, there can be little doubt: He’s the Top!

Posted by Jay Harvey on Thursday, July 16, 2020

Veteran drum maestro highlights trio dexterity in 'Catch Me If You Can'

Jeff Hamilton takes care of business.
With his Hoosier roots impeccable (born in Richmond) and his durability a source of justifiable pride, Jeff Hamilton has held a place on the A-list of drummers for several decades. His new trio recording, "Catch Me If You Can" (Capri) adds to the distinction.

This is not an artist focused on breaking new ground, however.
If personality and the skillful means to express it count for much, Jeff Hamilton is an understandable role model for how to put one's stamp on an ensemble while projecting individuality as well.

You will find his mainstream concept of (what is usually called) the jazz piano trio worthy of the conventions it adheres to and  refreshes throughout these ten tunes.

He chooses sidemen with an expert knack for amplifying his vision; the pianist, Tamir Hendelman, has been with him for more than 20 years. The new bassist, Jon Hamar, fits right in. And the style allows the range of nuance and technical aplomb in the leader's drumming to be essential to the picture without dominating it.

The firmness and transparency of the Jeff Hamilton Trio's presentation is immediately effective on the opening track, "Make Me Rainbows." The song has lots of space between its phrases, ideal for showing off Hamilton's inviting brushwork and the variety of tone he gets from his cymbals.

George Cables' "Helen's Song" is a shrewd followup, again marked by exquisite cymbals. Hendelman's left hand and Hamar's bass set a pattern from which the tune  effortlessly leaps up.

There are  three tunes explicitly repurposed from big-band settings: Thad Jones' "Big Dipper," Artie Shaw's "Moonray," and Woody Herman's "Bijou." On the Herman-associated Ralph Burns tune, Hamilton's tom-tom solo is pungent and concise. "Moonray" is quite trio-oriented, despite its big-band origins, showing that Hamilton is not wedded to explicit tributes to a genre in which he's done excellent work.

Hamar's original tune "The Barn," though written for this group, sounds like a big-band piece ready for some current big band to take up to repay the tribute. The bassist's virtuosity gets a fine showcase in his own "Bucket o' Fat," which has an attractive calypso or "islands" feel and includes an idiomatic brushes solo.

The disc's title tune, a challenging contribution by Hendelman to the trio's repertoire, shows off the group's unity with a stop-start line that puts every man on his mettle. For the listener, it's just exhilarating.  I suggest catching the Jeff Hamilton Trio if you can.

Friday, July 10, 2020

A "break beat play" helps Fonseca Theatre Company break back into Pandemic World

FTC's "Hype Man": Verb and Pinnacle lay it on the line with beat support from Peep One.
The cover of the trim program of Fonseca Theatre Company's return to live productions carries an intriguing graphic.

 The illustration gets at a main source of tension in the play, "Hype Man" by Idris Goodwin, with performances through July 26. A hand stretches toward us and toward a handheld microphone: Is the hand grasping or releasing? Is this a gesture reaching for relevance and amplification or is it a mic drop? Desperation or triumph?

The hip-hop culture of assembling sound material — stealing, tweaking or borrowing it, with creativity and personal testiimony the catalyst — necessarily prioritizes a reputation for authenticity.  But where does identity come into conflict with authenticity? How well can you "represent" if the goal of acquiring and holding onto public attention, expanding a coterie into a mass following, remains uppermost?

Pinnacle (Grant Byrne) is a white rapper with ingrained loyalty to the genre in which he's inevitably an outsider. He's the artistic soul of a group also including a proud, troubled African-American known as Verb, the play's title character (Aaron "Gritty" Grinter). A hype man projects and points up the main rap, exciting the audience, so the partnership is essential. Providing the out-front duo with equally essential rhythmic and melodic foundations is a producer known as Peep One (Paige Neely). A genius of "beats," technically astute and also a hip-hop devotee, she's conflicted by her mixed heritage and sensitive to the genre's marginalization of women.

The performances sizzle with a blend of bravado and anxiety at an energy level that rarely dips, and then only when it needs to. The sound design is especially vivid, and the rapid-fire dialogue is amazingly well-articulated and passionately delivered. An upside-down American flag, with Jasper Johns-style smudging, makes for an effective backdrop, signaling the nation's current distress.

At one point, there's a tight bit of satire directed at symphony orchestras. It reinforces the show's emphasis on the collaborative nature of the arts; otherwise I didn't quite catch its dramatic relevance. Spearheaded by Verb, the ensemble passage questions the high pay of classical musicians under contract who may contribute a couple of cymbal crashes at the end of the piece. I've heard this sort of thing before: Compensation per note for the "bang gang" seems absurdly high compared to, say, violin section players.

I must speak up for my community here: In symphonic music, the function of hype man is liberally passed around. Often it may fall to percussionists. I'll never forget an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra performance of George Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F. There's a climactic slow-down in the third movement, topped by a gong smash in splendid isolation. But this time, the extra player hired for the pops gig missed his cue. Conductor Erich Kunzel raised his arm, and...nothing. No hype man. It was as if the rapper had his enviable Gershwin ride, exquisitely detailed, with hood scoops and custom wheels, parked at the curb all ready to go — with its tires slashed.

There's history involved in every line of endeavor, and it never becomes irrelevant. Verb at one point lifts up the hype-man progenitor of Bobby Byrd, whose "Get on up!" kept introducing James Brown's lines "Stay on the scene like a sex machine." Verb's past troubles, from which he was released several times by Pinnacle, plus his sometimes needling curiosity about Peep One's background, all play a part in his anxiety. So history is inevitably pertinent, even in such a now-focused music as hip-hop. Is Pinnacle just an ambitious sort-of ally, or a bro all the way? That's the challenge posed by his reluctance to go political.

Pushed by a new police shooting to let his smoldering rage surface, Verb surges past the internal spats that keep roiling the collaborators — all of it under Daniel A. Martin's directorial control — to honor the latest victim publicly, imperiling Pinnacle's notion of what success in their field requires. This one is a storybook atrocity: A 17-year-old kid, speeding toward the hospital to visit his ailing grandmother, winds up pursued by a fleet of police cars, then shot 18 times. Kill and overkill, again.

This is the new Grimm's: the wolf waylaying Little Red Riding Hood, and wheedling from her how to find Granny, whom he intends to devour.  The wolf thus wants to control present and past. In the same way, oblivion is a requirement to maintain the dismissive predatory narrative that goes "Racism is dead." That's why the current protests thrust forward a hype-man call of "Say the name!" and the ongoing response elaborates upon "George Floyd!"  with a slew of other martyr names.

With swift finality, the actors move high and low around the stage, their gestures and spontaneous shouts shading over into break beats and rhymes. The basis for moving forward together becomes clear to three young people trying to blend skills and inspiration as the creative juices flow. There's a constant struggle to stay unified amid the temptations of splintering and looking for greener pastures,  resistance to rivals' piracy, and eventually breaking through instead of breaking up.

The dream is that ultimate mic drop, but by the end of the 75-minute conjuring of "Hype Man," the hand in the program brochure looks to be the claw of supremely focused effort, memorializing urban lives and events and taking momentary comfort in its ability to keep reaching.

[Photo: Ben Rose/The Identity Complex] 

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Prolix and prolific, pianist Eldar Djangirov continues to load his music with intensity and detail

Eldar Djangirov with the vehicle for his grand improvisatory fantasias.
Hailed as a jazz prodigy as soon as he resettled with his family in the United States shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, where he was born, Eldar Djangirov has released recordings in abundance.

All that I've heard speaks to his ample resources of technique and imagination.  And with "Rhapsodize" (Twelve Tone Resonance), his most recent release fronting a trio, there is further evidence of his creative amplitude, presented in 11 installments of mostly originals.  Raviv Markovitz, bass, and Jimmy MacBride, drums, are his game companions.

The first three cuts present too much of a muchness, for my taste: After an ebullient run through "A Night in Tunisia," the Dizzy Gillespie evergreen, the trio explores the sensory overload of today's airports (pre-pandemic, of course) in a piece called "Airport," with the piano sound extended and maximized technically. Then comes the heavy overlay of what I presume is the massive audience ruckus he means to evoke in "Anthemic."

Thus is "Rhapsodic" launched, and while only a tin-eared listener would dismiss the line-up as a thrice-told tale, it seems that better placement of the three tracks might have made for a more refreshing way into "Rhapsodize." It certainly comes as a relief (in Track 4) to bask in the plaintive introspection of "Willow, Weep for Me," the Ann Ronell classic beloved of jazz pianists ever since Art Tatum.

Then, just as we are ready to appreciate the individualism within the trio, the disc offers  that opportunity with "Burn," which Djangirov explicitly describes as a tribute to the hard-bop tradition. The driving unity of the piece at a comfortably fast tempo allows the listener to appreciate Macbride's deft support. "Burn" also features an excellent Markovitz solo.

"Black Hole Sun" gets the Djangirov treatment in a manner that helps uphold the "new standard" banner — indicating that recent rock hits (this from Soundgarden) can be successfully adapted for acoustic-trio purposes. Classical fans receptive to jazz treatments probably will take delight in the lickety-split excursion the trio takes through Bach's C-sharp major prelude from "The Well-Tempered Clavier."

Of the rest of the disc, the title piece displays the effervescence of which Djangirov and his colleagues are capable; the performance offers reassurance that this amazing pianist doesn't inevitably insist on overwhelming you — which he can do as well as anyone.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

'Racing a Butterfly': Anne Mette Iversen memorializes via small-group jazz an encounter while running

Bassist-composer Anne Mette Iversen
A major force in acoustic small-ensemble writing, Anne Mette Iversen has a visionary grasp of program music in jazz. The Danish bassist, a luminary in the Brooklyn jazz scene at the turn of the century,  is now based in Berlin.  This CD expands on the legacy of her founding connection with Brooklyn Jazz Underground and is released on its label, BJURecords.

In "Racing a Butterfly," Iversen and four other players have lots to do in projecting her visions onto a picturesque screen. The genesis is the sight and the feeling of visually tracking a butterfly during a run one morning in France. There was an interplay between runner and insect that seemed playful and intentional to Iversen, so she decided to translate the experience into music.

In the title tune, appropriately, the theme seems to have lots of air beneath its wings. Peter Dahlgren's trombone solo lifts the well-formed theme to a higher plane. Often, though Iversen's music doesn't spotlight extensive solos, her band members have defining solo turns that make the compositions memorable. John Ellis' tenor-sax solo in "Triangular Waves"  is an example, and Otis Brown III's super-animated drumming behind Danny Grissett's piano solo caps the distinctiveness of that track.

The leader's bass solo gives characteristic flair to "Parallel Flying," just before the horns enter with a wistful melody. Normally, nothing raucous ruffles the Iversenian landscape, yet there is a wealth of nuanced expression in the compositions and the way they are elaborated, with unfailing unity in the ensemble portions.

The closest to disturbance is "Cluster," whose character is established by an insistent chordal pattern in the piano, after which Ellis' saxophone darts and swoops over a restless theme. Dahlgren's bluesy trombone outing yields in due course to a variegated drum solo punctuated by piano chords, recalling the track's assertive opening.

To reconfirm the theme of the album and put a seal on the band's internal rapport, "Butterflies Too" closes out the set restfully all around, but not before everyone gets a fleet workout in "Reworking of a Butterfly."

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Covid-19: Will it miss you or kiss you?

COVID-19: Will it miss you? Putting the question to anti-maskers, social-distance scoffers.

Posted by Jay Harvey on Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Discenchanted Evening: Trump's collapsible rally in Tulsa remembered in song

Here’s my cut-rate Emile De Becque and flea-market Ezio Pinza, pressed into the service of memorializing the President’s Disenchanted Evening in Tulsa.

Posted by Jay Harvey on Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Monday, June 22, 2020

Omer Avital and Qantar bring Israeli sensibilities to the American street

Avital at work and play
From the opening track of "New York Paradox"(Zamzama Records) to the finale, bassist Omer Avital and Qantar look backward and from an oblique angle at some of the more vigorous jazz recorded circa 1960. My references are to "Shavazi," a kind of Israeli "Better Git It in Your Soul," and the determined if dour "Bushwick After Dark," which unfolds with the laid-back suavity of "Killer Joe."

Backward glances at the way jazz was recorded by Atlantic and Blue Note  (my song references are to Charles Mingus and the Farmer-Golson Jazztet) are to me not regrettable in 2020 if the personality behind the legacy-boosting is fresh. Talk about "advancing the music" should never obscure the value of decanting new wine into clean old bottles.

And so it seems to be the revived niche the 49-year-old Israeli-American bassist and his quintet called Qantar can idiomatically occupy. Based in Brooklyn, with a performance and recording outlet at Wilson Live in their neighborhood, Amital and his mates are a lesson in canny assimilation, projecting the richness of Israel's jazz orientation while reflecting the absorption of the American mainstream.

In addition to the assertive harmonic underpinning and deep flashes of brilliance from the leader's bass, Qantar is characterized by a two-saxophone front line: Asaf Yuria is heard on alto and tenor, while Alexander Levin is a tenor specialist.  The group is completed by pianist Eden Ladin and drummer Ofri Nehemya.

Amital wrote everything on "New York Paradox," from "Shabazi," the opening track that distantly evokes the Mingus hard-charger mentioned above, through the concluding piece, which is distinguished by a flamboyant yet elegant bass solo. Otherwise, the title track is as good a place as any to elucidate what Qantar is all about.

The paradox of New York City, which makes everything possible and many aspects of daily life next to impossible, is reflected in the way frequent trilling and a shuddering ensemble capture the metropolitan anxiety. There's a picturesqueness to the tunes that avoids the literal. So after you've noticed that the characteristic phrasing of "Just Like the River Flows" matches the words of the title, you're free to let your mind drift downstream along with the band.

I'm not sure of the reason for the French title of "C'est Clair," but it sounds as if, with lyrics, it could have been a Charles Aznavour ballad. And "Today's Blues" brings back the dueling-tenor format from days of hard-bop yore. To double down on the tune's assertiveness, Amital's bass line behind  Eden Ladin's piano solo is more than substantial, and a Nehemya drum solo leaves no doubt that yesterday's blues have infused Qantar's up-to-date version. When it comes to digging into musical roots, this band shows that transplanting what they come up with across a couple of big ponds works splendidly and can flourish.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Buddy movies in sound: Stryker eases into Mintzer arrangements with WDR Big Band

Dave Stryker and Bob Mintzer are seasoned bandstand colleagues.
Among the well-established indications that jazz has long been reliably exported and given a native hue of resolution abroad is the WDR Big Band.

WDR stands for "Westdeutsche Rundfunk" (West German Radio) and the last syllable of the full name suggests to Americans that such an ensemble can take care of business. ("Funk" is a highly charged word, as Beethoven fans know from the line "Freude, schöne Götterfunken" in the last movement of the Ninth Symphony. "Joy, spark of the gods," indeed!)

The band brings it off expertly in "Blue Soul" (Strikezone Records) which has its shared of funkiness as it showcases guitarist Dave Stryker, guesting with the band at the invitation of director and tenor saxophonist Bob Mintzer.  Mintzer's arrangements are skillfully negotiated, and the master of the revels picks up his horn now and then, too, while yielding most of the solo space to Stryker and, variously, to the band members.

True to Stryker's recent series of "Eight Track" releases spotlighting his distinctive interpretations of pop material, "Blue Soul" pays a lot of attention to others' hits (versions commonly known as "covers," a term that has little value in jazz, as much of what a jazzman plays covers songs introduced by, or most associated with, other musicians).

The set begins smartly with Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man," with Stryker's solo clearly profiled and the band's presence significant but never obtrusive. That's pretty much the procedure throughout the set. The WDR ensemble gets plenty to do, but the writing isn't showy or assertive. Mintzer knows he's writing for a band that can play anything and doesn't need to be ostentatious.

A treat for Indianapolis jazz fans is the inclusion of Billy Test on piano and organ, especially prominent on the latter instrument in "Trouble Man," "What's Going On," and Stryker's "Blues Strut." Test was a finalist in the 2018-19 American Pianists Association's competition, and made a strong impression, as he does here.

Stryker's tone normally has a matte finish, which lends a subtle color palette to Prince's "When Doves Cry."  He can bring a glow to it for expressive purposes, suiting the atmosphere of 'Wichita Lineman." That number also features one of the best solos by a WDR member, trombonist Andy Hunter, who glides among registers with surprisingly relaxed virtuosity. Flavorful solo turns by alto saxophonists Karolina Strassmayer and Johann Hörlen contribute much to "What's Going On" and "When Doves Cry," respectively.

Tempo choices always seem fitting, and the support from the drum chair by Hans Dekker makes such a clean-featured swinger as "Shadowboxing" especially exciting. His cagey fills between phrases evolve into a deft solo. "Stan's Shuffle," a closer that pairs Stryker and Mintzer in the spotlight, poises the saxophonist's lanky, virile style, slightly rough-edged, against the sparkling side of the guitarist's sound. The rapport is solid, and the bar-walking pace is just what's called for to round out an attractive release.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

On shouting for peace first: suggestions for a social-justice road map in King's 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail'

“No justice!” they shouted. “No peace!”

So ran a line in a Washington Post account of the protest demonstration in the nation’s capital at the beginning of the month. It was an odd recasting of the slogan that is usually printed as “No justice, no peace,” sometimes with one exclamation point at the end.

Mug shots of Dr. King from the jailing that led to his famous letter to white pastors.
The Post version may have inadvertently evoked the kind of stalemate that America’s stubborn racial struggles have reached. If you separate the phrases by more than a comma, as the Post did, you place them as neighboring pillars with no implied link between them.

Maybe that’s what we have now: no justice in one silo, no peace in the other. With next to none of either quality, and no interaction between them, we’re stuck.

Of course, the slogan “No justice, no peace” as normally chanted and felt implies causality: If the protests don’t establish justice, then there will be no peace. Consequence is necessarily implied, as in the legendary sign warning customers in Chinese laundries: “No ticket, no laundry.” A condition for getting a desired result is laid down; if the condition is not met, you go home without the shirts you had delivered to be cleaned and pressed.

I want to propose that America could do with a period of reversing the chant, like this: “No peace, no justice.” That’s because it may be necessary for some kind of authentic social peace to be in place before we even know collectively what justice might mean as a way out of our current dilemma.

Thus, any sign of peace in the struggle – as long as it is not the kind that solidifies an oppressive status quo – should be celebrated. Without acceptable peace conditions, the hard work of establishing justice is distorted and perhaps lost in the haze of conflict.  We now seem to be too distant from consensus on peace to negotiate steps toward realizing justice.  Thus, there’s a tangle of proposed fixes to policing that vary from structural reforms through prohibition of certain techniques (no-knock entry, choke holds, etc.) to “defund the police,” a phrase that has been relentlessly parsed since it entered common parlance just a few weeks ago. 

Where along this spectrum is justice? We can’t know. Nor can we know, in order to establish justice,  how much renaming of military bases and other institutions is necessary, how many statues supporting discarded values should be torn down, or how many black and brown faces need to appear in group portraits of boards of directors. And that’s because we are purporting to know, from a variety of perspectives, what justice is when we have no common basis for defining and enacting peace.

Some activists have used Martin Luther King Jr.’s  “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as a foundational text for the current slogan. I believe his remarkable essay better supports my revision of it.  Yet I readily acknowledge that he saw in April 1963 considerable overlap of the two concepts, and he privileged the inclusion of justice within a peaceful starting point that would allow movement away from the conservative talisman of “order” in the Jim Crow South.

In a long plea for the understanding and support of white pastors in Birmingham who had paid for the New York Times ad condemning civil-rights activities led by King in the Alabama city as “unwise and untimely,” the imprisoned activist sets the justification of the sustained protest in the broadest possible context, always with nonviolence and a search for common ground at its core.

For example, right after stating that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” which may seem to set down justice as a necessary condition for peace, King says: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” I submit that enunciating such a value is central to King’s ministry and his activism.  The common destiny provides the foundation for a peace achieved only with the acknowledgment of that mutuality. It is what he calls “a positive peace,” from which “the myth of time” is rejected. This striking phrase alludes to the Southern moderate’s insistence that justice can only emerge over time. As King pungently says, too often this means that the counsel of “Wait!” amounts to “Never!”

Through example as well as sustained tension, King lays out four basic steps in any nonviolent campaign: “1) Collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive. 2) Negotiation. 3) Self-purification and 4) Direct action.”

Three out of the four steps are manifestly peaceful. The fourth one, prepared for by adherence to the first three, can be seen as the most threatening to the power structure, but it at least makes the needs of justice explicit. Before direct action is undertaken, the vision has been honed, and the means to the desired end has been subjected to constant discipline. “Over the last few years,” King says in his peroration, “I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”

This clarion call for peace as a default position in the agitation for true equality is not as popular to quote today as “…freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” but the latter quotation doesn’t really depart from King’s full description and justification of the Birmingham campaign in his jail letter. The demand proceeds from the indelible notion of a positive peace, propounded through negotiation and steady communication of a positive message.

As a rallying cry, “No peace, no justice” is unlikely to galvanize well-meaning crowds in the streets.  But as a condition for the progress we so desperately need, “No peace, no justice” ought to be the thought that fortifies progressives against the extremes that promote rickety, ill-conceived, conflicted and sometimes dangerous notions of jerrybuilt justice. The edifice of true justice requires the scaffolding of peace.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Young Canadian composer Daniel Hersog shows individuality in big-band debut

Now in his mid-30s, Daniel Hersog seems to have drawn much from his education at Boston's New England Conservatory to take back to his hometown,Vancouver, B.C. Now the trumpeter-composer has built his first big-band CD, "Night Devoid of Stars" (Cellar Music), around the participation of two of the men he got to know there: tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger (classmate) and pianist Frank Carlberg (teacher). 

His imagination is highly charged enough not only to be worthy of his guests, but also to have inspired the 14 other participants in this set of seven tunes, all of them originals except for "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," the Otto Harbach-Jerome Kern evergreen from 1933.

On that tune, Carlberg particularly displays the wry sensibility he can bring to melody and harmony. The familiar tune is refracted from a bent perspective at first in a solo introduction, but it becomes clear from the way the ensemble is used after it enters that Carlberg is reconfirming the arranger's approach. The way the band is nestled in behind the piano shows a surprising maturity, as if Hersog has been writing this sort of thing for years..

Trumpet is his ax, but he lays it aside in "Night Devoid of Stars." 
Apt settings for soloists seem to be a mainstay of Hersog's originals as well. The picturesque "Cloud Break," which opens the CD, presents a well-lit ensemble to shed extra light upon trumpeter Brad Turner's soaring solo. Later when the clouds suggested by the title darken, the sound proves to be just what Preminger's tenor sax needs, its glowering features underlined by Carlberg's insistent work in the background.

Carlberg also sets the mood by channeling gospel piano style in "Motion," with the funky sound deftly brought back from the edge of  cliche by the pastel tints in Hersog's arrangement, with the band smoothly sustaining the low volume level in a way that evokes the bandleader's admiration for Gil Evans. A wide-ranging Preminger solo crowns the performance.

The tenorman's guest appearance seems especially appropriate  in "Makeshift Memorial," in which his wide-ranging improvised melodies always hang smoothly together.  Here and in "Night Devoid of Stars," Hersog gives space for his explicitly stated political worries, though he has the good sense to allow his musical notions to flesh themselves out in a manner that doesn't require a particular interpretation. The title tune opens with an air of mystery, and the way it moves toward a free-jazz episode sounds unforced and, from Carlberg, casts a firm view toward another side of his artistry— the full-canvas dissonant sonority of Cecil Taylor.
An indication that Hersog's music isn't dominated by dour thoughts comes in 'Indelible," where he provides a setting for clarinet soloist Chris Startup that indicates a puckish sense of humor from the one to the many and back again.

Throughout, the band is a nimble communicator of Hersog's diverse ideas, and, if not for some trumpet figures that sound rather hackneyed near the end of "Song for Henrique," a tribute to a Brazilian musician, the listener's impression that a fresh voice in big-band writing has introduced himself will be sustained.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Jory Vinikour's Couperin disc "L'Unique": Change and stability in landmark solo harpsichord music

Cedille Records has been vital in giving wider exposure to Chicago musicians, and the international stature of Jory Vinikour has been enhanced by his brief discography on the label. Modern harpsichord concertos were the focus in a crystalline presentation last year, and that succeeded an illuminating  account of J.S, Bach's violin-harpsichord sonatas two years ago with Rachel Barton Pine.
Harpsichordist Jory Vinikour (photo: Hermann Rosso)

With concentration on Francois Couperin on a new release, Vinikour gets to the heart of his substantial training in French clavecin music. He presents three of the books (ordres) by which the French baroque master cemented his reputation as both teacher and canonical exemplar of how the repertoire should be performed.

David Fuller concludes his Grove's Dictionary essay on Couperin "le Grand" with these words: "If elsewhere he may at times have matched the wit, the urbanity, the somber passion, the easy charm, the melancholy or the high spirits of his harpsichord music, in no other medium did he combine those qualities to so remarkable a degree."

The listener to "L'Unique," the title given to Vinikour's presentation of the sixth, seventh, and eighth books, will consistently note how vividly these qualities are brought forward.

The rhythmic acuity, with crisply turned ornaments being essential to the expression, is remarkable. The timing is varied to suit the expressive import of the varied phrases; the daunting thicket of notes on the page takes on a translucent clarity in Vinikour's interpretations.

The sound of the harpsichord (Tony Chinnery, 2012) is bright and flexible in tone color. The lower register occupies its share of the spectrum creditably, notably in the piece everyone knows best, "Les Baricades Mysterieuses," with its intriguing air of artfully blocked striving toward the treble. The miking seems close but never stifling in a recording made a year ago at the University of Chicago.

In the seventh book, a generalized group of character pieces titled "Les Petits Ages," a kind of harpsichord equivalent of Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man (though Couperin contents himself with four), displays insight into the composer's probing, sensitive wit. The innocence and wide-open appetite for experience of the newborn passes into the restlessness of early childhood. Sonorities appropriate to Couperin's rendering of those early stages of life give way to the bumptious glare of adolescence, brilliantly outlined in Vinikour's playing. "Les Petits Ages" is crowned by the mellowness of "Les Delices" (the delights).

Less abstract portraiture is also engaging: In the sixth book, "Les Bergeries" offers a glimpse of pastoral life decorated by twittering birds, and the two pieces  that conclude the set dip into the world of people and insects: "La Commere" clatters just enough to portray the lively tediousness of gossip, and "Le Moucheron" darts and dips, with trills buzzing, in deft imitation of the fly in its title.

The focus on dance forms in the eighth book, doggedly rooted in B minor, exemplifies the formal acumen also evident in Couperin's chamber music. The Passacaille that concludes the ordre, and brings this disc to a glorious conclusion, exemplifies Couperin's ability to put his signature on the technical and expressive resources of the harpsichord when the aim was to make a received form personal, just as his younger contemporary J.S. Bach did with such dance forms in his suites.

Along the way, as in the same book's "Sarabande: "L'Unique" that gives the disc its title, Couperin  creates an attractive structure that's like a palace with an integrated decor scheme that magnifies the whole. Vinikour is a docent of incomparable insight, commitment, and thorough preparation.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Summertime Blues, a 2020 version

Memorial Day weekend is the traditional start of summer, but oh! what mixed messages this year as the USA approaches a...

Posted by Jay Harvey on Monday, May 25, 2020

Saturday, May 16, 2020

'Blended Lineage': David Bixler's mixed results in suite on theme of tribes

Current political and social commentary tends to tsk-tsk at "tribalism," suggesting a regression from civilized norms.  Pushing back against such connotations, alto saxophonist David Bixler leads a five-man group he calls the Bixtet, supplemented by a string quartet, in a commissioned work on the theme of tribes.

"Blended Lineage" (Red Piano Records) is a 34-minute suite in which the composer's forces are well-
Composer-saxophonist David Bixler
distributed, but sometimes seem to be searching for musical substance. Bixler has said he deliberately accentuated the positive (to use Johnny Mercer's phrase) in writing the work. The ferocity and insularity of tribal identity clearly held little appeal to him.

Ensemble virtues fade a bit into the background in the finale,"My Soul Swoons Softly," a phrase borrowed somewhat disconcertingly from James Joyce's eulogistic short story "The Dead." Bixler makes this summing-up an alto-sax showcase. That cuts against the ensemble focus of the rest of "Blended Lineage," but it's meant to emphasize the personal import of the theme.

Even when the string quartet sits out, in "Motherland," the suite usually maintains a nifty balance of instruments. Thus, in "My Soul Swoons Softly," the way the strings seem to be coming in from a distance may well be an artistic decision rather than an engineering flaw. I guess it's designed to represent the soul's soft swooning, a risky area for music to settle into, but a plausible foray here.

Here's a contrast: In the suite's opening section, "Origins," the string quartet partners steadily with Jon Cowherd's piano after the deliberately careful jelling of the material. Bixler's tone is reflective, soft-edged, and verges on the lugubrious.

The positive message becomes more explicit in "Motherland," a tribute to Bixler's Wisconsin heritage. There's energy in the theme that the alto sax shares with trumpeter Mike Rodriguez. The open-road feeling evokes for me memories of motoring along the rolling farm country of the state with my wife and her mother (both native Badgers). The tune's ending kicks up agreeably.

My favorite track is "Trenches," where both the theme and its treatment are edgy. The trenches of the  title allude to the life of musicians, often struggling to maintain a foothold, especially since mid-March. I like the way the anxiety of that lifestyle is both tamed and projected through the music. The Rodriguez solo in particular displays the mood. The strings seem more than window dressing, and there's some fine interplay near the end in patterns placed on top of Fabio Rojas' drums.

Luke Sellick completes the Bixtet personnel on bass. The string quartet comprises Judith Ingolfsson, gold medalist in the 1998 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, violinist Heather Martin Bixler, violist Josh Kail, and cellist Rubin Kodheli.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Putting a long-form feeling into compact new works: Sebastien Ammann's 'Resilience'

Sebastien Ammann shows off his keyboard chops chiefly in the title tune of his new CD. But
it's his composer-bandleader acuity that moves his band, Color Wheel, into applying its own signature to "Resilience"  (Skirl Records) and making the band memorable.

Sebastien Ammann contemplates form and space.
The Swiss keyboardist wrote seven of the nine pieces on the recording. Each piece establishes itself; it sets down on a firm footing right away. No wonder he's attracted to the direct quirkiness of Carla Bley's "King Korn Revisited,"  the more notable of the two borrowings.

I found the pensive, diffuse work called "The Traveller" a bit inclined to woolgathering, but the personality behind it was clear. This band, often making a point of individualism, still seems well matched internally. Besides Ammann, they are Michael Attias, alto saxophone; Samuel Blaser, trombone; Noah Garabedian, bass, and Nathan Ellman-Bell drums.

Blaser has a liquescent tone and an immense reach of range and expression. His solo on "Untangled" is masterly, especially in the way it leads into the ensemble's re-entry. I like the way he seems to sum up everything about "The Traveller," too, giving coherence to the piece's peregrinations.

"Afterthought" allows lots of room for Attias' sometimes assertive, sometimes inquisitive alto sax, and Ammann's eccentric but generally apt accompaniment patterning comes off very well here.

"Pedestrian Space" is something we all need in these social-distancing times. The nervous energy of the percussion figures finds Attias and Blaser's adroitness giving an amusing urban profile to what comes close to barnyard noises we haven't heard since the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. This is whimsy taken to an offhand application of virtuosity. The whole CD manages to present an appealing blend of sophistication and naivete.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Bob Dylan said a mouthful in 'Subterraean Homesick Blues"; here's a mouthful of Covid-19 stuff: 'Subterranean Homeland Blues'

Surterranean Homeland Blues

Tony’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
Donald’s tweets won’t relent
Bragging about the government
Doctor in a white coat
License out, laid off
Said he’s got a bad cough
All his chips are played off

Look out for Covid
You gotta stay hid
No one knows when
You can come out again
Keep at least six feet away
Don’t look for a new friend
Reopen protester among armed men
Wants 11 explanations, you only got ten.

Pence comes blank-faced
Always close to Trump placed
Giving the boss praise
Presidential hopes raised
Trump says that many say
Must resume by end of May
Keep America great, hey!

But look out, kid
Don’t matter what you did
Try to blame the Fake News
Why lead? Just refuse
Can’t be a shipping clerk
Got duties?  Try to shirk
Stand still, don’t twerk
Stay aloof, that’ll work.
You don’t need the media
To know which way the wind blows.

Ah, get sick, get well
Little tracing, hard to tell
What policy will sell.
Lie hard, truth barred
Many ventilators fail
Governors turn pale
Time to bail, let ‘em wail
Look out for Covid, it wants to get rid
Of insiders, outsiders, health-care providers
Don’t worry ‘bout the gene pool
Many more folks to fool
Keep the same leaders
In virtual theaters.

Ah, get born, keep warm
Is that a fever or romance
Learn to dance, get fixed in politics
All the messages are mixed
Please Trump, please Pence, they’re adrift
Can’t heal, try to shift
Three years in the White House
Feeling slighted, he’s miffed
Look out till we’re rid of the evil Covid
Better jump down a manhole
Of isolation lighting candles
Chill in pajamas, wear old sandals
Can’t keep up with all the scandals
Public health don’t work
Cause the vandals took the handles

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Making a political point through abstract music: What to make of 'Hypocrisy Democracy'?

Dave Glasser's privileging of political unease, a feeling shared by many nowadays, struggles for musical expression in "Hypocrisy Democracy" (Here Tiz Music).

The alto saxophonist builds on the jingle-jangle of his unusual title to set down a critique of the system that both sustains and undermines us. It's not irrelevant that he's the son of Ira Glasser, former  executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. That connection also boosted his musical interests insofar as, through the jazz commentator and Bill of Rights defender Nat Hentoff,  he met and studied with the late Lee Konitz, a key figure in jazz alto sax independent of the pervasive Charlie Parker influence.

The music carries no text, so associations with the bandleader's political perspective must be gleaned from the composition titles, where those apply. When I hear "Justice," for example, I'm not sure how justice applies to the music. My main complaint on musical grounds is that many of the tracks seem evasive, despite the evident rapport of Glasser with pianist Andy Milne,  bassist Ben Allison and drummer Matt Wilson. I often get the feeling that there's a drive to resist whatever implications a given tune sets up.

This persists despite Glasser's declared interest in rooting his music in the jazz heritage. This is explicit in "Dilemonk," a slow bluesy piece including a definitive Allison solo. The Thelonious Monk misterioso vein is evoked, though I was puzzled by the news release description of the approach as "skulking."

Dave Glasser has an agenda.
Glasser's unforced lyricism and abstract inventiveness clearly draw upon the Konitz influence with his solo in "Coffee, Dogs, and Telelogs." There's a rare use of paraphrase ("Fascinating Rhythm") in, unfortunately, yet another example of a piece seemingly trying to escape itself. Another nod to tradition is "Revolver," whose form derives from the Great American Songbook and whose essence seems to be Rodgers and Hart's "Lover."

A pleasant surprise is the inclusion of the Disney favorite "It's a Small World," for which Glasser turns to flute. The interpretation is rooted in Glasser's memory of struggle to be musical as a little boy (the program note in this case is illuminating) and coming out on top. The performance is gratifyingly centered, and not just because it's based on a quite familiar tune. I also liked the direct tribute to his mentor, "Glee for Lee," harmonically untethered but not irresolute,  in the best Konitz tradition.

A prominent statement from Glasser on the jacket is worth an eye-roll: "My hope is this recording will stimulate thought and converse towards a more peaceful, sustainable existence." Make of that what you will, but Glasser's music, though conflicted, is not without charm, with a lot of credit going to his capable bandmates.

I was even delighted by Glasser's company name (Here Tiz), reminding me of a less complicated jazzman of long ago, Fats Waller. Introducing "Moppin' and Boppin'," the inimitable singer-pianist says: "Want some more of that mess? Well, here 'tis. Zutty [Singleton], take over. Pour it on!" That's the kind of spirit I think most fans want more of from jazz, and less musicianly ax-grinding.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Alto saxophonist Michael Thomas explores the 'Event Horizon'

An "event horizon" is the theoretical place beyond which matter in space vanishes into a black hole. It's a clever title for an expansive exercise in small-group acoustic jazz: Stay just this side of the devouring nothingness and you have exciting matter to deal with, intelligible but on the edge.

Musings on the edge: saxophonist Michael Thomas
In the case of Michael Thomas' "Event Horizon," that edge is the Jazz Gallery in New York City, where the two-disc set was recorded last August and produced by the bandleader and Jimmy Katz, the photographer and guiding light behind Giant Steps Arts.

Eight original compositions, three of them prefaced by solo-instrument introductions, make up the program. Thomas displays a light hand compositionally, putting just enough distinctiveness into the themes to allow improvisation to flow freely from there. He enjoys the services of Jason Palmer, a trumpeter who has just issued his own two-disc set on the label, to bolster the front line. Backing them up are the bassist Hans Glawischnig and the drummer Johnathan Blake. Blake's project for Giant Step Arts, titled "Trion," was my introduction to Katz's worthy venture last year.

Thomas' compositions are gentle hooks for extensive improvisations, principally from the bandleader and Palmer. Glawischnig provides a reliable harmonic foundation, animated by rhythmic verve; he duos fruitfully with the bandleader in "Drift," then takes a meditative solo that stays consistently within the pulse.

Especially vital is the remarkable percussion energy and wisdom of Blake. His partnership with Thomas in several places brings out the keenness of the saxophonist's imagination. Considered as a duo, they sometimes drive each other to swing like mad, starting with the program-opener, "Distance."

Of the entire program, I found only "Chant" somewhat tedious, though Thomas' nearly four-minute solo intro gave me fair warning. It struck me as very fluid practice material, glibly tossed off, and when "Chant" follows, the saxophonist maintains an etude-like focus. Despite the length that Thomas permits himself and Palmer, so that variety can emerge, this was the only track where I feared mere note-spinning was about to take over.

"Dr. Teeth," the closest the band gets to a down-home feeling, is a witty, oblique reference to the late Dr. John and the New Orleans "second-line" vibe. Everyone blazes away, yet the internal rapport of the group never falters. The Thomas-Palmer partnership is perhaps at its must lustrous here, but frankly there are very few lapses from the high level the band achieves throughout more than 90 minutes of music. There's a lot of poise to tingle the listener's nerves at this event horizon.