Bryan Beller: Life Story

Time is the enemy. There are only so many hours in the day to listen to music and write about it. I have talked of my reviewing process in some of my other reviews. For those of you who are new, here is a quick recap. For historic recordings, most of my thoughts are already stored in my head. I almost don't have to listen to the music. But I do anyway because sometimes I hear things I never heard before. For new music, I spend 10 minutes trying to open the CD package with a steak knife. After applying yet another bandage, I scan a few seconds of each cut to determine the tunes most worthy of review. Once chosen, I listen to an entire piece to double check my intuition. I then listen to the song again as I write the actual review. I have found this method to be the most effective because it allows me to be honest in the moment while making the best use of my time.

Then along comes an album like bassist Bryan Beller's Thanks In Advance that throws a kink in my regimen. Every tune sounds unique and compelling. I can't listen to 30 seconds here and 30 seconds there. Instead I am glued to my office chair, headphones attached intravenously, as I listen to each and every possible second of the music.

Beller first came to some prominence playing in the band put together by Frank Zappa's sons Ahmet and Dweezil called Project Z. He has had a longtime musical relationship with guitarist Mike Keneally and has played with Steve Vai.

"Life Story" is the most subdued cut on the album. But it is also the most sublime. Beller plays all manner of overdubbed basses in varying styles. The engaging melody is made of compressed single notes and chords run through some effects. The actual bassline is a collection of slides, harmonics and rolls that give the piece a fragile stability. But Beller has total control over all elements. In less than two minutes, this captivating gem is over. It is hard to believe that such a short piece would require almost two hours of my time to write about. But when you get truly captured by music, time is not your friend.

November 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bryan Beller: Love Terror Adrenaline / Break Through

I would review every cut on Bryan Beller's Thanks In Advance if jazz.com's policy allowed me to do so. That is how much I like this album. Beller is joined by frequent collaborator guitarist Mike Keneally for the wonderfully titled "Love Terror Adrenaline / Break Through." Keneally and Beller, who is also a member of the Mike Keneally Band, have shared musical visions and adventures for quite a few years. A tightly frantic performance like this one bears that out. "Love Terror Adrenaline / Break Through" is as dramatic a progressive rock and fusion tune as you will likely hear these days. Maddening riffs and tense interludes dominate the frenetic song. Keneally sounds panicked. Beller seems full of anxiety too as he doubles up with Keneally on some vexing unison runs. The frenzy increases in tempo. Urgency is the master. The breakthrough comes as the piece evolves into an excited fusion anthem. Beller and Keneally finally slow things down with a tender bass and piano duet. It blows my mind that Keneally played both that blazing guitar and understated piano. I am making it official. It is going to take one hell of a CD to knock Thanks In Advance off the top of my personal playlist. Bryan Beller is both an accomplished bassist and an intriguing composer. You should pay close attention to him from now on.

November 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Alphonso Johnson: Flight to Hampstead Heath

Alphonso Johnson, best known at the time as Weather Report's bassist, takes a breather on "Flight to Hampstead Heath." The piece is one of the more satisfying on this album. It is an exploration. Slow meandering arpeggios begin the song. Soon the band is in a Frank Zappa jazz-rock groove. This was probably due in no small measure to the fact that synthesizer player Ian Underwood and percussionist Ruth Underwood, both ex-members of Zappa's bands, were along for the ride. The tune has a strong melody and is full of the fun-filled syncopation that the Underwoods brought to Zappa's music. Percussionist Sheila Escovedo was just a few short years away from becoming the famous Sheila E. Guitarist Lee Ritenour was only a few years away from becoming a Smooth Jazz player. (Cough. Cough. I must have a hairball.) But on this tune they help Johnson, who plays great bass, lay down an impressive fusion number.

Reviewer's Warning: Neither "Flight to Hampstead Heath" nor its companion "Balls to the Wall" is representative of this album. I hate the rest of the music. Johnson was attempting the crossover move. I hate the crossover gambit. If that stuff doesn't bother you, then by all means, don't listen to me. But you have been warned.

October 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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Alphonso Johnson: Balls to the Wall

In the course of putting together for jazz.com readers the most complete and detailed jazz-fusion track review archive available anywhere, I have the opportunity to revisit music I may have long forgotten, dismissed or simply missed the first time around. Sometimes my mind is changed by a new listen three decades removed from the times.

I was well aware of the outstanding bassist Alphonso Johnson from his stints with Weather Report and The One Truth Band. But for some reason I never sought out any of his solo material. Until several moments ago I had never heard 1976's Yesterday's Dreams. I must say that there is some God-awful music on this album. It really pains me to say that. To be fair my criticism is mostly based on the fact that Johnson was clearly trying to cross over into pop music terrain. The resulting vocals are cloying. This was sort of thing that eventually killed the fusion movement. I am still bitter about this, so my disgust should be seen in that light. What made these "sell-out" attempts all the more disappointing was that musicians such as Johnson could really play. In a strange way, some of these musicians would play it safe by including a few "good" fusion numbers on these crossover albums. This was bad judgment. The fusion fans couldn't sit through the obnoxious pop music, and the pop music fans couldn't take the fusion. It was a lose-lose proposition.

It is a good thing that jazz.com uniquely reviews individual cuts. This allows us to point out the great tunes so that you can still legally download an important cut and not waste your time and money on the dreck. Yesterday's Dreams, for example, has two stellar fusion numbers: "Balls to the Wall" is one, and "Flight to Hampstead Heath" is the other. The title "Balls to the Wall" pretty much says it all about this testosterone workout. (Though interestingly there are two women in the band.) The tune starts with the heavy riffing of distorted bass and guitar brought to you with pride by Johnson and Ray Gomez. This is overtaken by some spatial "space junk," as they used to say. Johnson runs his bass through some sort of effects processor. His solo confirms he was one of the best players of the genre. Drummer Chester Thompson propels the piece forward. Gomez, an underrated figure in jazz-rock's history, blazes away. The tune aims skyward. In some ways it is reminiscent of Billy Cobham's historic Spectrum. This material is full of "balls out" vitality. If only the rest of the album had been like this. Ugh.

October 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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Michael Bates: Great Exhibition

Within the span of a typical pop tune, Bates & Co. do more in this song than many jazz recordings triple the length. This is chiefly because lead roles are stacked on top of each other instead of played in sequence, and are fluidly switched around. The first 20 seconds ride randomly up and down a scale, with Bates's bass pulsating at a faster rate than Johnson's muted horn, and Nachoff in turn playing more rapidly than Bates. The drummer seems to be the only one ignoring time. This exercise is repeated after an interlude featuring unison stuttered thwacks by Bates and Davis. Eventually the scalar runs lose their regimen as Nachoff, Bates and Johnson spar with Davis. Bates manages to keep time through this with Johnson sometimes joining in, sometimes rejoining the battle. Within the realm of organized chaos, "Great Exhibition" is just that, an excellent demonstration of a difficult conception.

October 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ron Carter: Cubano Chant

This jazz standard from the Fifties gets the Ron Carter treatment, and it couldn't be in better hands. It's great to hear the bassist address the head, and the additional percussion of Steve Kroon does much to flesh out this arrangement, making the ensemble sound bigger than it is. Scott's solo stays in the Latin mode for the most part, while injecting plenty of swing and blues throughout. The rhythmic shift that precedes Mason's solo breaks things up nicely, paving the way for an understated yet authoritative showing from the drummer. It all wraps up with a short return to the intro melody, proving once again that less can be more.

October 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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Charles Mingus: So Long Eric

Listening to this performance reminds me of the weight of some of Mingus's compositions. Maybe it's because I've been listening to this piece for a long time, but it still blasts out of the speakers with the fury of Pamplona's running bulls. It starts so strong with the rhythm section really pushing Jordon's tenor solo, only to have the dynamics come down for Byard's lengthy section without any diminishment of energy. The leader solos next, with his usual dexterity and wit, followed by Dolphy's alto. The great reed-instrument eccentric unleashes a torrent of sound, including a humorous quote from Borodin that sustains the ensemble's fever pitch. Richmond's solo is dramatic, crisp and full of life, keeping pace with all the participants in this rollicking 23 minutes of great jazz. Sadly, two months later, after leaving the band to remain in Europe, Dolphy would pass on

October 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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Todd Sickafoose: Future Flora

People like to draw sharp lines between musical genres – pop, rock, jazz, classical, country, folk, world (whatever the heck that means). There can be music that crosses over, but most listeners seem confused by that kind of thing. Which is why I was so happy to stumble onto this Todd Sickafoose recording. See, my pop side (which honestly doesn't care if it gets mixed up with jazz) knew of him only as the bass player for Ani DiFranco. It turns out that Sickafoose has a whole other side, that of.....uhm...well, whatever this music is.

Some bass triplets introduce a few ringing guitar notes & scrapes before the entire group settles down into a nice, deep groove. That sense of forward motion is enhanced by the occasional break where the band drops away and those opening notes are revisited. As things proceed, instruments pop in and out to comment, including short trumpet/vibraphone unison lines, and some terrific electric guitar work. Very thought-provoking stuff from my new favorite pop/jazz/world/folk instrumental artist. Sort of.

October 13, 2008 · 0 comments

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Todd Coolman: Connotation

Now here's an interesting use of the Internet. Todd Coolman set up a web site so that unknown composers – perfect strangers – were able to submit their ideas for interpretation by his band. The results, judging by "Connotation," do not disappoint. The long series of shifting chords and accompanying angular melody that open the piece provide an irresistible harmonic bed for the solos to follow. As leader Coolman swings with abandon, pianist Jim McNeely blisters his way through several choruses. Clearly both saxophonist Alexander and trumpeter Lynch are inspired by this, as they just burn in their own spots. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that the composer in this case, Dana Malseptic, is only 17 years old. Wow! When I was 17, I was reading old copies of Rolling Stone 12 hours a day. Don't worry, my new composition will be coming out any day now. Right....

October 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ruslan Khain: Delay

Bassist/composer Ruslan Khain's "Delay" is a medium-up Jazz Messengers-type tune, reminiscent of Wayne Shorter's (or perhaps Bobby Watson's) writing for the Blakey band. The minor-key, stop-time head offers a pleasant slip of a melody, with a string of solos comprising the meat of the performance. Yoshi Okazaki is a skilled hard-bop trumpeter. He's not flashy but swings hard, has a pleasingly burnished tone, and plays nice ideas. Tenor saxophonist Chris Byars is a favorite of label head Luke Kaven, for good reason. An articulate, brainy player whose lovely tone is the aural equivalent of melted caramel, Byars is his typical excellent self. Pianist Richard Clements is a spirited player, if a bit unsure of himself at times. The leader turns in an agile—if murkily recorded—solo. In terms of the composition, Khain's second, contrasting melody leading out of the solos and back to the head is an effective touch.

The performance is fine, although there's a certain tightness to the overall feel. The solo section in particular seems overly scripted. Each player is given a scant 32 bars, which inhibits the performance. It seems as if they're being cut off just as they're getting warmed up. It would be nice if Khain had allotted at least twice that amount, allowing the improvisers to build momentum and express themselves more fully. Other than that, the music is solid, unpretentious and enjoyable.

October 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ruslan Khain: For Medicinal Purposes Only!

"For Medicinal Purposes Only!" is an up-tempo swinger—a thorny, cool jazz-ish melody played with hard-bop abandon by bassist Ruslan Khain and his able colleagues. Tenor saxophonist Chris Byars's and trumpeter Yoshi Okazaki's sinuous, fiery yet even-keeled solos stand out. Khain is a fine soloist as well, though he's ill served by the muddy recording of his instrument. He and drummer Phil Stewart form a good rhythm team, maintaining a swinging, smooth and assured tempo. As a composer, Khain's complex melodic line is worthy of Gerry Mulligan or Shorty Rogers. Byars and Okazaki play it down with admirable precision and fire. A good choice for the title track—this is arguably the cookin'-est thing on the album.

October 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Dave Holland: Rivers Run

This is the leader's tribute to his erstwhile colleague, the great progressive tenor and soprano sax player Sam Rivers. The opening minute is Holland alone with a bass solo characteristically full of melodic invention; he approaches his instrument with the mindset of a pianist. After the other two join in, Holland states a dark vamp over which DeJohnette shows increasing volatility until the band stops dead in its tracks to let him solo unaccompanied, this time preceding the second vamp, a 4-5-5 ostinato that quickly devolves into a double-timed free-for-all. Coleman refuses to blur his notes, making his nice quick scale runs cleanly. The frenzy ends with a return to the second vamp stated a couple more times and then out.

"Rivers Run," revisited 10 years later on Holland's sextet album Pass It On, shows many of Holland's qualities: economy, interplay, thoughtful musicianship and attention to melody even at the more "free" moments.

October 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bruno Råberg: Fora Do Retrato

Bruno Råberg is a Swedish bassist who studied with the great Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous and has performed with many great European and American jazz artists. He is currently living in Massachusetts and teaching at Berklee. His music is both highly textured and impressionistic. On "Fora Do Retrato," one his more subdued pieces on the album, he takes a gentle, wandering stroll through a gentle musical pasture. You can hear the brushstrokes on this aural canvas as Råberg creates his landscape. His basslines are firm and anchored, onto which Cheek playfully dances with his soprano explorations. Monder is at his best in this atmospheric setting, playing in a deceptively subdued but poignantly thoughtful way. Bruno's bass climbs a wall of anticipation and punctuates the breaks with purposeful accents, leading to a safe descent from the plateau he has cleverly built.

October 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Todd Coolman: Crescent City Ditty

Perfect Strangers was created under the mechanisms and auspices of ArtistShare, an online environment for artists from different locales and backgrounds to collaborate. In this case, accomplished bassist Todd Coolman gathered some of the top-notch working New York City musicians to pair up with composers who answered his "open call" for new tunes from the ArtistShare community. Coolman's quintet successfully meets the challenge of interpreting music they were seeing and hearing for the first time.

"Crescent City Ditty" has a catchy head. Coolman's thumping bass and John Riley's cymbal work carries this straight-ahead piece forward through the changes. Jim McNeely's fine keyboard work leads to a nice workout from trumpeter Brian Lynch. McNeely returns to swing it. Saxophonist Eric Alexander enters with a staccato blaze before he stretches things out. The grooving head arrangement returns to take the piece home. This is good music played with a flowing momentum and straight-ahead power. It is also proof positive that collaboration borne of the Internet can be a beautiful thing.

September 30, 2008 · 1 comment

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Leonardo E.M. Cioglia: Desfiladeiro de Nuvens

To the growing list of fine young bass players with creative and compelling offerings to their credit, add the name Leonardo E.M. Cioglia. Born in Brazil, and a Berklee graduate, Cioglia has attracted sidemen worthy of the most veteran players, forging an extremely satisfying piece of music. Mallet master Stefon Harris conjures aural alchemy within the confines of this floating Cioglia composition. Guitarist Mike Moreno's wonderful turn casts his own hypnotic spell on steel-string acoustic guitar. John Ellis's horn has a John Surman quality to it here, and Antonio Sanchez fills any empty spaces with just the right percussive accent. Harris is the star, with the anticipatory voicings of his solo marimba runs haunting in their prescience. Cioglia must be applauded for assembling just the right performers to make his music magical.

September 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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