Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Gabe Terracciano brings subtle fire to the jazz violin in a small-group context

Essential as it is in classical music and invaluable in such other genres as bluegrass and gypsy, the violin has a
Gabe Terracciano, bandleader-composer
long, honorable history in jazz, with enough practitioners over the past century that it has accommodated a wide range of styles. There's the proto-crooning of Joe Venuti, the florid exuberance of Stephane Grappelli, the tart, funky humor of Ray Nance, and so on.

Gabe Terracciano was a violinist new to me when I received "In Flight" (Red Piano Records) in the mail. His compositions display a personality as individual as his violin-playing. Six pieces make up this disc, generally focused on a  pianoless quartet: besides Terracciano, guitarist Adam Rogers,bassis Matt Pavolka, and drummer Matt Ferber. To bookend the date (Jan. 30, 2018), there are two extra players for the title tune and the fetching "Alfie's Lullaby." They are Dave Pietro, alto sax, and Mike Rodriguez, trumpet.

A soft-spoken player, generally, Terracciano stresses his lack of bluster with his matte tone, largely free of vibrato.  That quality, combined with his feeling for space between phrases in the ballad "When I'm in Your Arms Once More," makes him seem a bit like a violin version of early (i.e., still playing standards) Miles Davis. 

Guitarist Adam Rogers displays a similar personality, in "Way Off" taking a cue from the bandleader's introspective manner to exhibit fleetness in shadow. It's also worth noting in this track that the violinist sometimes kicks up his heels, applies some vibrato and dares to be flashy. He does this in a way that avoids being flatly self-contradictory.

He's a witty composer, as "Pundit" makes clear. It's deliberately glib, as if inviting debate and questioning while being assertive. The saxophonist makes one of two non-sextet appearances in this piece, working in sync with Terracciano.  Rogers, sometimes  mysterious though simpatico in accompaniment, is allowed to flourish in his solo here, seeming to inspire a little extra oomph from the violinist. The two are also extroverted in tandem in "Case in Point."

Listeners are warned to  be patient as the opening track, "In Flight," takes its time about taking off.  A languid violin intro leads to some trumpet-violin dialogue before the the moody violin becomes  airborne. There's a crowded outchorus that turns out to lead to an effective violin-dominated coda. Nothing is forced to happen too fast in "In Flight." Make sure your seat backs are up, your tray tables in fixed position, and take it easy. It will be a good flight.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The voice of GPS: If only we could humanize it more (An Automotive/Theatrical Fantasy)

Adam Crowe and Lauren Briggeman
I don't know how many of you have had trouble with the GPS voice, but I have, and it's become a cryptic companion whose word is mum. I feel dependent on it when I'm going to a new place and need navigational help. If I'm traveling alone, it's an especially essential tool. But I have to hear it.

In my new car, I can only get it to work on the first step of the directions I've entered. Then it clams up, and I must steal glimpses  of the screen to see where I am.

Fortunately, we took Susan's car on a trip to Dallas to see our son Theodore about a month ago, in what now seems like another world. Her vehicle has a larger, mounted screen on the dash and presumably reliable voice support.

But in leaving the city from our hosts' home, we got turn-by-turn vocal directions that took us through urban-sprawl hell. We must have entered an instruction to avoid highways. We faced the prospect of driving a thousand miles back to Indianapolis on two-lane roads, with occasional four-lane relief.

Obviously, we had to override the original itinerary, and in the process we thoroughly confused GPS. Supposing we had now stipulated a speedier way home that would give us plenty of freeway time, we were corrected several times in a row by the GPS voice: "Proceed to the route."

You know the voice, perhaps: sturdy, self-possessed, emotionally neutral — a program designed to represent the objectivity of the ever-changing map on the screen. But after several times of being corrected, I was muttering: "I'm on the damn route!" And I was sure that the neutral tone of Ms. GPS had changed. On each repetition, there was something a little sharper about it, an unmistakable timbre of reproach, it seemed to me.

It's true, I still appreciate the voice's pronunciation of "route" to rhyme with "flute." My spoken language was shaped by formative years in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where "route" never rhymed with "out," as it does in the Midwest. In the pre-interstate era, the word was heard a lot from my driving parents, and always sounded like the start of "Root, root, root for the home team."  Besides, everyone knows the song "Route 66," written by a fellow Lancastrian, Bobby Troup. You don't get your kicks on ROUT 66, even in the Midwest.

But I digress. Shortly after returning home, my arts blog assigned me to cover "The Agitators"' at Phoenix Theatre and "The Cake" at Fonseca Theatre Company. The cast of both productions featured actors whose voices I've long admired. I don't like lists of favorites, but I will say that I've always relished the voices of Lauren Briggeman and Adam Crowe. Over the years in a number of roles, they are alike in my experience in displaying firm projection, good diction, and emotionally rich voices at the lower end of their gender ranges.

Neither early March production was the best I've ever seen these two actors in, but it didn't matter. The unwarranted "Proceed to the route" scolding still stung, so an idea jelled in my head. With the choice GPS offers of a male or female voice, why not have both? And why couldn't they be Crowe's or Briggeman's? They would be programmed of course to match what the GPS voice already gives me, like "In a quarter-mile, turn left at Lee Strasberg Parkway" (or whatever). But the added benefit would be an authoritative, low-register voice with a touch of human warmth, a gift for achieving instant rapport via the most straightforward, practical text — a rapport I already treasure in their onstage performances of more engaging words spoken in character.

Then, in addition to most of the time when my driving matches what GPS has
in mind for me, I would never hear "Proceed to the route" the same way again. It would be more supportive, dagnab it, without a hint of disdain. Or so I imagine it.

And if I deliberately chose to override it, in my mind's ear I could hear, right after I had ignored Lauren's or Adam's "Proceed to the route," something like "Oh, OK, I see what you're doing. That'll work. Safe travels!"

That's all I have to say on this odd subject in this difficult time of limited travel.

 Proceed to the route, everybody.

If the relaxation of COVID-19 guidelines gets real specific, freedom may promote love on the street where you live

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Dayna Stephens, a saxophonist with a personalized advance on mainstream

The Dayna Stephens Trio gives itself inviting room to live up to the title of its new CD. A cherished American word is summed up by that Lady in the Harbor. Her face and headgear are gently mocked in the cover art of "Liberty" (Contagious Music).

With astute colleagues Ben Street, bass, and Eric Harland, drums, the saxophonist ranges over a stimulating set of original compositions, each of them showing how expansive three musicians without the bedrock of a harmony instrument can be.

Dayna Stephens: Exploring wry eddies off the mainstream
The leader sometimes sounds like a man seeking direction but determined to find his own path. This is all to the good, because the quest turns out to be  well-founded. "Lost and Found" is a track that obviously sums up the journey, with the leader setting aside his usual tenor to take up the baritone.

Stephens' sure-footed phrasing, sometimes surprising in its odd balances, inevitably makes sense once the listener gets the feel of the contexts the trio is laying out. There are varied rhythmic patterns that manage to cohere in the cartoonishly titled "Kwooked Stweet," a contrafact on John Coltrane's "Straight Street."

With affectionate parody, in "Loosy Goosy" Stephens the composer sometimes toys with the 32-bar convention of American popular song. More common is for him to lead his trio in forms more personal and harder to pin down.

An example is "The Sound Goddess," which sounds like an essay masquerading as a narrative. Long saxophone phrases dominate the performance, yet Street and Harland always sound as if there's room for them in the foreground, too.

"Wil's Way" ends the infectious program (don't be spooked by the label name!) with a perky tribute to a friend of the bandleader. The account features a particularly witty Street solo, followed by fruitful exchanges between the ever-imaginative drummer and his bandmates.

The Dayna Stephens Trio indeed seems at liberty to do just about anything it wants, and bring it off. In this time of confinement, that's something to celebrate.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

"Two Cigarettes in the Dark" glows in the tenor partnership of Keith Oxman and Houston Person

A shrewd one-tenor, two-tenor dynamic gets handsome display in a new Keith Oxman CD featuring veteran Houston Person. And there's the added variety of two juicy guest appearances by vocalist Annette Murrell.
Annette Murrell sings two songs on Keith Oxman CD.

"Two Cigarettes in the Dark" (Capri Records Ltd.) starts off by showcasing the saxophone dialogue with the evergreen Frank Loesser song "I've Never Been in Love Before."  At 84 when this recording was made in late 2018, Person contributes the wisdom of the ages, balancing Oxman's buttersmooth phrasing with a more pungent sound.

The partnership always sounds natural: The tenormen share space compatibly, and the way Person sets the tone for Murrell's sojourn through "Everything Happens to Me" speaks to his fruitful experience over many years with singer Etta Jones. Murrell spreads her wings in "Crazy He Calls Me" as well.

Houston Person feeds wisdom of the ages into Oxman quartet's mastery.
When the hornmen work at length together, as in tenor giant Hank Mobley's "Bossa for Baby," there are no blips or jerks along the way. Oxman's nicely floating solo, reminiscent of Stan Getz's landmark bossa nova splash into pop stardom, yields to a Person showcase featuring a brief, rare quotation ("Sunny"). When the tune comes back, Person displays his adeptness with brief fills between the leader's phrases.

On this track, Jeff Jenkins' deft, fluttery piano solo complements his boss' approach. Oxman typically sounds relaxed, and even when he imparts some intensity to his solos, he keeps them on a low simmer that suits his style. He inevitably sounds comfortable throughout his instrument's compass. The producer left in an apt remark of Person's at the end: "Yeah, that's just raggedy enough to be good." Precisely!

Oxman's originals are bracing and have a little bit of that appealing raggedyness to them as well. "Murphy's Law Impacts L.E.A.P.," a title with no doubt an interesting story behind it, has a consistent, conventional focus with some interesting turns to it. Paul Romaine's drum solo, concentrating on toms and cymbals, invigorates the peroration.

Jenkins contributed a tune, "Wind Chill," with an unforced boogaloo vibe that's meat and drink not just to guest star Person, but also suits the whole group. The pianist seems to have fun tweaking his own melody. Person is also in his element in Johnny Griffin's "Sweet Sucker," in which bassist Ken Walker takes his only solo, a comfortably grooving excursion that sets up a series of tenor exchanges before Person and Oxman ride through the outchorus in smart style.

This is a release that shows the continuing strength of imaginative mainstream jazz, and rewards close listening.