Egberto Gismonti: Sertões Veredas

When jazz musicians compose orchestral works, so many things can go wrong. Often the artist's distinctive personality disappears in the translation into complex scores; or the influence of models from classical music overwhelms the jazz ingredients; or—perhaps the most common problem—the rhythmic vitality, so essential to jazz music, is missing in action, either because it never made its way into the notation or due to the inherent difficulty in getting symphonic players to assimilate a groove outside their previous experience. "Symphonic jazz" may not be a oxymoron, but its success stories are as rare as steak tartare.

But Egberto Gismonti's Sertões Veredas avoids the pitfalls, and emerges as a masterpiece of classical-jazz cross-fertilization. I'm not sure if this has any connection to Gismonti's subtitle—a "Tribute to Miscegenation"—but clearly the music itself has a lineage that spans several continents. This artist has shown his versatility in past outings, and I still can't decide whether I admire Gismonti more as a guitarist or as a pianist. With both instruments, he has developed an exciting, highly personal style—furthered by his exceptional skills as a composer. His talents are equally evident in this massive work, comprising seven movements and some seventy minutes of music. It is to Gismonti's credit that he has been able to translate so much of the creativity and visceral energy of his solo and combo jazz performances into this string orchestra work, where he sits on the sidelines, not even showing up as guest soloist or conductor. The mood shifts, the textures, the counterpoint . . . indeed, the sheer confidence and scope of this piece demand respect.

Even so, it will be hard for fans to "place" this work in the context of a career that is already so broad. I sometimes wonder why Gismonti's name doesn't show up more prominently in the various polls and nominee lists when awards are distributed. Certainly his versatility, which refuses to be pinned down to a single instrument or style, contributes to this sad state of affairs. Sertões Veredas will not make it any easier for those who need a pigeonhole in order to appreciate an artist. Yet for those who value music for its vitality and not its kowtowing to the accepted categories, the arrival of this recording is an event to celebrate.

October 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Chicago Jazz Philharmonic: One Thousand Questions: One Answer

There have been many attempts to merge jazz and classical music into a coherent symphonic whole, from Paul Whiteman onward to Gunther Schuller, Lalo Schifrin, Gil Evans, and others. One of the most recent and successful efforts comes from the 55+ piece Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, which is led by talented Chicago trumpeter Orbert Davis, its co-founder, composer-in-residence, arranger, conductor, and artistic director. The centerpiece of the CJP's new Collective Creativity debut CD is the nine-part "Collective Creativity Suite," an eclectic venture through the worlds of 20th century classical music, post bop/freejazz, and African and Caribbean rhythms, with four notable and enthusiastic AACM members along for the ride.

"One Thousand Questions, One Answer" is perhaps the most diverse and appealing piece in the Suite. The opening orchestral prelude is a heady combination of Stravinsky and free jazz influences, as well as suggesting an extravagant, scene-setting fanfare from an old Hollywood melodrama. The succeeding main theme comes as a total and delightful surprise, a perky and whimsical staccato creation. Ari Brown's probing tenor solo is supported by just piano, bass, and drums at first, until Nicole Mitchell's piccolo and Davis's piccolo trumpet engage him contrapuntally with thematic riffs and asides. Mitchell's assured, darting solo is similarly enhanced by Davis and Brown. Davis's inventive improvisation is played with great dexterity and passion, in turn spurred on by Mitchell and Brown. The three featured soloists then unite joyfully on the theme, before the orchestra builds gradually to full participation. This memorable track comes from one of the best CDs released so far in 2009.

July 24, 2009 · 0 comments


Enrico Pieranunzi: Scarlatti Sonata K377 and Improv

The idea of "jazzing up the classics" is an old one, dating back to the rag and stride pianists of the early 20th century. At one time there must have been quite a bit of shock value when a pianist played a hot version of Chopin or Tchaikovsky, but not any more. Today it comes across as just another gimmickand a tired one at that.

For that reason, you might be forgiven for dismissing pianist Enrico Pieranunzi's interpretations of Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) before even giving them a listen. But you would be making a mistake. Pieranunzi is not a gimmicky player, and his best work has a profound rightness about it, an uncontrived immersion into musical essences and an almost tactile yet elusive sensuality. He brings these qualities to bear on his reworkings of Scarlatti, which both respect the integrity of the original compositions while finding in them a platform for contemporary improvisation.

This is not an small feat. Pieranunzi works a subtle transformation, and if you are not listening carefully you will miss that many gradual shifts in texture and tone that shape his interpretations. An even series of on-the-beat left hand notes evolves into a walking bassline. Eighteenth century harmony is hammered into twentieth century harmony through a series of granular level adaptations. Syncopations emerge from the counterpoint. The end result is penetrating modern jazz, but Pieranunzi arrives there as slowly and patiently as a sunset working its effects over the horizon. Few CDs these days sound so untouched by the expected and conventionalthe wonder is that our pianist makes this happen with a composition that is 250 years old.

June 19, 2009 · 0 comments


Dave Brubeck Octet: Curtain Music (Closing Theme)

This signature theme from the Dave Brubeck Octeta short snippet from 1946predates the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool nonet by some two years. A few commentators have tried to portray Brubeck as a follower in the footsteps of Mr. Davis, but in truth the music of this ensemble resists pigeonholing of any sort. Even by Brubeck's eccentric standards, this group was an oddity. And if you push hard for a genealogy, you will end up finding more sources in classical music than in jazz. Brubeck discouraged my attempts to connect this music to Stravinsky's Octet from 1922. But he is not shy about making claims for this piece. "You'll have a hard time finding any other jazz piece in 6/4 from this period," he has remarked. My only gripe with this track (which is my same complaint about all of the Octet's work) is that there simply isn't more of it.

May 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Ferde Grof: Mississippi Suite

What Billy Strayhorn was to Duke Ellington, Ferde Grof (1892-1972) was to George Gershwin and Paul Whitemana brilliantly talented musical facilitator who contributed to the more famous achievements of others. Such careers are often accompanied by frustration, and one can get a bitter taste of that from a 1928 letter from Gershwin to ASCAP complaining that Grof had claimed composer credit for Rhapsody in Blue.

Yet the Whiteman connection is even more problematic. Whiteman? An unfortunate surname for this gentlemen, who even with a more nondescript patronymic would have served as a lightning rod for criticisms that white artists tried to usurp the fame and fortune that should have gone to the African-American pioneers of jazz. The thorny issue here is less Whiteman himself, who did a lot of good for the music and served as catalyst for many excellent works (even securing commissions for Duke Ellington and other black artists), but rather the attempts to label him "the King of Jazz," which created an invevitable backlash. The first major jazz critics treated him the way current arbiters of jazz opinions deal with Kenny G. Mr. White-man, please step to the back of the jazz bus.

In such instances, I prefer to check out the music. This isn't easy for fans to do these days, since no one has thought it worthwhile to put out a comprehensive box set of Whiteman's music. In jazz circles, Whiteman is someone you talk about, but don't actually listen to or study. Fortunately the Beau Hunks, a Dutch ensemble, have meticulously recreated Ferde Grof's concert jazz works written for Whiteman's band during the period from 1924 through 1931, and presented a complete version of Mississippi Suite (1925), which Whiteman himself never recorded in its entirety.

It is hard not to be charmed by this period work, which juxtaposes moments of gravitas with lighthearted syncopation. The melodic material may not rise to the level of Gershwin's works from this period, but it comes close. The missing element for me is simply the absence of jazz solos. If Grof had revised this work a few years later and recorded it with improvisations by Beiderbecke, Trumbauer and other jazz-oriented talents in the Whiteman band, Mississippi Suite would be an acknowledged classic. Instead, lacking these elements, it is jazz lightan especially polished example, to be sure, but a notch below the masterpieces of the era.

May 09, 2009 · 0 comments


Keith Jarrett: Bridge of Light for Viola & Orchestra

Keith Jarrett's work as an orchestral composer is documented in a series of releases, including In the Light (1973), Luminessence (1974), Arbour Zena (1975), and The Celestial Hawk (1980). And these exist alongside potent recordings of Jarrett performing Bach, Mozart, Harrison, Hovhaness and Shostakovich in an almost unprecedented move from jazz to classical music at mid-career. One can chart Jarrett's increasing comfort and skill in channeling his musical vision into written scores, and by the time we arrive at Bridge of Light (1990) we have a work that stands comparison with Jarrett's finest jazz music, and does not require his own presence on piano to achieve its sublime effects. The pastoral temperament that infuses much of his piano work rises to the fore here, but is transmuted in shimmering sound colors that sometimes take on an austere neo-medieval cast and elsewhere embrace a rhapsodic immediacy. With an artist so prolific as Jarrett, it is hard to make the claim that he hasn't given us enough music, but I would trade several dozen CDs from my collection for a few more orchestral works of this caliber.

April 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Henry Brant: Jazz Clarinet Concerto

Henry Brant (1913 - 2008) is one of the mavericks of American music. A Canadian by birth, he moved to the United States with his family in 1929. He had a highly successful career as a composer and orchestrator for radio, recording and motion pictures (he was Alex North's orchestrator for such scores as Cleopatra and Cheyenne Autumn). In the 1950's, he began composing spatial works exclusively, with various instrumental groups spread out all over the stage and even the seats of a performance space. His works include Orbits for 80 trombones, and Meteor Farm for orchestra, jazz band, two choruses, West African drum ensemble and chorus, South Indian soloists, gamelan ensemble, percussion orchestra and two sopranos. His Ice Field won the Pulitzer Prize. He was a member of the Academy of Arts & Letters and taught at Juilliard, Columbia University and Bennington College.

In 1946, Brant wrote Jazz Clarinet Concerto for Benny Goodman. He had previously arranged two Alec Templeton pieces for the Goodman band - "Bach Goes to Town" and "Mozart Matriculates." Goodman rejected the Concerto claiming it was too abstract. While it could be argued that he'd commissioned pieces from Bartok and Hindemith and both of those pieces could be considered abstract as well, Goodman didn't play those pieces once he's premiered them. Both Eddie Sauter and Mel Powell wrote the kind of virtuoso clarinet pieces he liked to play, and perhaps he expected the same thing from Brant. What Brant did write was a piece that sounded a lot like what Goodman was playing on the job in 1946, but goes its own way. It does not sound like a classical piece that swings, it sounds like three ambitious swing pieces which would have been fun to hear if Benny had given this work a chance. Above all, the work is a piece audiences would want to hear again. It approaches the jazz band on its own terms, and as a result, I believe it to be far more successful than Ebony Concerto and even "Prelude, Fugue and Riffs."

This performance was apparently recorded on a cassette tape machine, and is in mono. While the sound quality is adequate and the performance very good, at least the piece can be heard and perhaps adopted by a clarinetist looking for something a bit different but audience-friendly.

March 31, 2009 · 0 comments


Enrico Pieranunzi: K531 / Impro K531

Composers from the Baroque period have often inspired jazz musicians. Some have just used harmonic patterns from those works, others melodic themes, but all have recognized composers whose music swung before the term even existed. Bach has of course been the main provider of this Baroque material. Enrico Pieranunzi, besides being a renowned jazz pianist, has been a classical piano teacher for most of his life, yet was never keen on mixing genres. Here, for the first time in his career, he tackles some of the sonatas composed by Domenico Scarlatti, an Italian composer who lived at the same time as Bach but has seldom inspired jazz adaptations. (Searchers might be interested in a fragment of the K9 sonata played by Teddy Wilson in the studio during a pause on 01/21/42, which is the only previous occurrence I know of Scarlatti in jazz). Among Scarlatti's 500+ sonatas, Pieranunzi chose 14, and either just plays them according to the score or adds an improv on the written material.

"K531/Impro K531" is the only track in common with an earlier record by Vladimir Horowitz, who in the 1940s and '50s restored Scarlatti to fame after being mostly relegated to piano exercises. On this same K531 sonata, it's interesting to compare Pieranunzi's choices to those of a pianist who put his imprint on these works and who, though he was strictly a classical interpreter, was often spotted as a listener in jazz clubs, particularly when Art Tatum was performing. Horowitz's version is crystal clear, rather slow, and lets the two hands ride independently, making the piece's polyphonic construction obvious. He also uses lots of piano and forte nuances, with a feel for time that sounds a bit like slow swinging.

Pieranunzi is comparatively fast, emphasizing the contrast between treble and lows rather than between right and left hands. He also tends to play rubato, dragging this Baroque composition towards the spirit of the Romantic period. Of course, these are artistic choices and each can be respected as such. During his improv, Pieranunzi confirms his "romantic" options, displaying a beautiful piano touch and virtuoso streaks that make a frequent use of the pedal, among some more formal developments. While one cannot but be impressed, one may wonder why Scarlatti should have served as a pretext for something so far removed from his universe. Lovers of beautiful piano will be satisfied by this effort. Those who believe the ground between Baroque music and jazz hasn't yet been fully explored may be disappointed by an attempt that globally misses the point.

February 08, 2009 · 0 comments


Barney Kessel: Viva el Toro!

The late-'50s craze for jazz versions of Broadway and television shows scored hits (several fine Porgy and Bess albums; the jazz-paced Peter Gunn and Staccato private-eye TV series) and silly misses (Victory at Sea? The Sound of Music?). One odd release had no contemporaneous referent, but was great fun nonetheless: Bizet's beloved opera Carmen as jauntily reshaped by Barney Kessel, and played by the guitarist, Andre Previn and Shelly Manne (all popular Contemporary Records regulars) plus a smattering of saxes, brass, woodwinds and others.

The album's cartoon cover of a mean-looking yet comical bull (a parody, rose-in-his-teeth Ferdinand looming over Kessel's abandoned specs) warned of the album's good-humored intentions, as did the very first cut, "Swingin' the Toreador," with reeds and ready guitar atop Joe Mondragon's walking bass. But hipper and cooler (yes! the West Coast Fifties!) is the track "Viva el Toro!" merrily reworking Bizet's "March of the Toreadors." The ensemble steps out in a sprightly non-march, letting the lightly Latin beat remind us of the familiar tune, and then sideslips into a cowbell-driven Afro-Cuban montuno, accented by the counterpoint of Herb Geller's alto, Ray Linn's trumpet and Harry Betts's trombone the soloists bobbing and weaving in and out and over each other, Africa to Andalucia, Havana to Hollywood.

Latin Jass: in the parlance of those cheerier times, not profound maybe, but still a gas.

January 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Ramsey Lewis: Song of India

By the mid-'50s, Ahmad Jamal's open stylings had convinced Miles Davis that his keyboardist, Red Garland, should emulate Jamal some. Meanwhile, another pianist (like Jamal, based in Chicago) was listening to all of them, already persuaded of the efficacy in funky, percussive playing leaving lots of space. Before Ramsey Lewis's spacious, churchified threesome became one for the history books (pop-master Lewis actually revealing himself to be more limited than his breakaway cohorts Young-Holt Unlimited), his fledgling trio cut some fine post-bop piano albums full of expansive interplay la the later, much-vaunted Bill Evans/Scott La Faro/Paul Motian three. The best of these albums was An Hour with The Ramsey Lewis Trio (Argo LP 645), which truly was nearly an hour long and richer for it.

The available CD (reissuing a paltry part only) includes shorter, boppier tracks rather than the exotic ballads from that splendid 5-hour, single-takes session, during which Lewis struck lone notes and tremulous chords, Young essayed arco strings and gently arching solos, and Holt was all-over percussive, finger bells to cymbals to hand-drumming, for tunes as diverse as "Angel Eyes," a misterioso "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise" and "The Ruby and the Pearl." Fortunately, the brief "Song of India" did make the reissue cut, so listeners can get a taste of the trio's moody changes and beautiful exotica-funkand maybe lament the too-soon demise of some rich possibilities. All three musicians enjoyed later success, but they may have been at their jazzy best when together in 1959.

December 28, 2008 · 0 comments


Radio.String.Quartet.Vienna: A Remark You Made

I'm not sure why this string quartet is not better known. Certainly fans of the Kronos Quartet or Turtle Island String Quartet would find much to enjoy in the invigorating music of Radio.String.Quartet.Vienna. But no dice . . . you need to add this CD to the growing list of exceptional releases on the ACT label that deserve better distribution and greater visibility. A year ago this group put out a brilliant recording of John McLaughlin compositions arranged for string quartet. This was one of the finest jazz CDs of 2007, but I see that it is still almost impossible to find in the U.S. and only available on as a $35 import. Now they follow up with an equally memorable project with guest artist Klaus Paier on accordion and bandonen. Let's hope it finds a more receptive audience. This unusual combination of instrumental textures works well, with Paier giving some bite that counters the inherent fluidity of all string ensembles. Joe Zawinul's "A Remark You Made" is the perfect vehicle for this band. The musicians' shifts in dynamics, their free-flowing sense of time, and the arrangement by Paier all combine to create a touching tribute by a Viennese group to the most famous Viennese jazz artist.

December 08, 2008 · 0 comments


Raymond Fol: The Four Seasons (Spring: First Movement)

In the mid-'60s the fine French pianist and arranger Raymond Fol had the audacity to record a big band arrangement of Vivaldis bestselling set of concerti. And for that he chose Johnny Griffin as main soloist on most tracks, beginning with the universally famous initial one: Le Printemps, 1st Movement (Allegro).

Fol was a great admirer of Duke Ellington (who returned the favor by performing one of Fol's compositions with his own orchestra) and had a strong classical background. On the other hand, as a pianist he played with Sidney Bechet as well as with Dizzy Gillespie. For this session, he arranged every movement of the four Vivaldi concerti in a jazz style, each differing from one another. This loud Afro-Cuban opening must have been a shock to classical music buffs of the time, even though Fols writing is so intelligent that anyone with open ears should admit that he did a great job.

But another musician played a key role in the success of this recording: Johnny Griffin. He hadnt yet chosen to live in Europe for good, but was familiar with the French jazz scene. No wonder, then, that Fol used his fiery, powerful tenor sax to express the exuberance of spring. After all, wasnt the little giant born a Taurus, at the end of April, and wasnt he best adapted to bridge the gap between Vivaldis Venice, Fols Paris and his own Chicago, regardless of stylistic barriers?

July 29, 2008 · 1 comment


Paolo Fresu: Si Dolce il Tormento

The Monteverdi madrigal that Paolo Fresu tackles here was composed more than three centuries before any member of Fresu's Angel Quartet (plus 1 on this track) was born. This may lead the listener to meditate on the fact that Italian musicians definitely have their own treasure of melodies and have no problem dealing with it in whatever idiom. Indeed, when Monteverdi was alive none of the instruments played here existed in its actual form, except for the bass. Still, the vocal quality of Fresu's trumpet fits the melody so neatly that he hardly needs to improvise on it. L's guitar sound is obviously far from the baroque lute, but his playing is totally relevant to the emotional quality of the music. Behind them, the support that Di Castri and Gatto bring (the latter with subtle and highly melodic brushes) is just perfect, and Salis's accordion adds its voice in a most discreet manner. If this is the sweet (dolce) torment (tormento) that Monteverdi talked about in his title, let's pray that these "angels" may inflict it on us as long as possible. By all means!

July 23, 2008 · 0 comments


Ren Marie: Bolero / Suzanne

       surrender to the ancestors within while rhythms strain at the leash feral, domestic, hypnotic.
       i sing fractured, spent, pulsating. live.

This conclusion to Ren Marie's poem, enclosed in the packaging of her Live at Jazz Standard CD, comes close to describing the feeling you get while listening to her 10-minute tour de force combining Ravel's "Bolero" and Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne." What Marie may lack as a singer in terms of power and range, she more than makes up for in expressiveness, risk-taking and overall inventiveness. (For further proof of this, view Marie's recent controversial rendition of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" set to the melody of "The Star-Spangled Banner" prior to the State of the City address by the Mayor of Denver, Colorado, where she was mistakenly introduced as Ren Martin.)

Marie's wordless solo incantation of "Bolero" begins the piece, with beguiling embellishments achieved through subtle vocal slurs, slides, and ardent outcries. The drummer enters first with a march-like rhythm, followed shortly by ponderous walking bass, as Marie segues seamlessly to the lyrics of "Suzanne," sung with enormous grace, sensitivity and emotion. Marie builds the tension and dynamic level as she proceeds, the tempo accelerating gradually, until her reprise becomes an all-out ecstatic release. The audience erupts in exhilarated applause after this transfixing experience, as well it should.

July 08, 2008 · 0 comments


Anthony Davis: Wayang No. 5

The history of jazz piano and composition has always been maximalist, almost as a core principle. Jelly Roll Morton started borrowing and incorporating everything he could find into his music a hundred years ago, and the expansionary policy hasn't been renounced by any of his successors. Somehow Davis manages to stay true to this tradition, while using hypnotically repeated rhythms with a quasi-minimalist flavor as the foundation for this composition. But Davis also finds sustenance in many other places, from gamelan music to atonality. At times, it is hard to pin down this artist's true allegiances, and fans have been as likely to hear his work in an opera house or Broadway theater as in a jazz club or symphony hall. There are moments on Wayang No. 5 where he sounds like Philip Glass on acid. But then Davis will shift gears entirely, putting on a Cecil Taylor attitude or dipping into a Muhal Richard Abrams bag. But his music is entirely free from the conventional or trite, and his best work can be riveting.

June 22, 2008 · 0 comments


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