Enrico Rava: Lulù

At first glance, this summit of leading Italian and American jazz musicians might seem to present an incongruous combination. The world may be getting smaller in a virtual sense, but even today U.S. and European jazz bands usually embrace different conceptions of the beat, of melodic development, even contrasting approaches to pacing a solo. Yet the lineup here is quite an inspired combination. These are five world-class musicians who are also great listeners. From the opening whispers between Bollani and Motian until the final outside-the-chords wail by Rava over the rubato rhythm section, this music proceeds as a hypersensitive polyphonic dialogue, in which even the silences seem charged with significance. Despite the CD title New York Days, a European aesthetic is at work here; but Motian, Grenadier and Turner must have worn their Armani suits to this gig—certainly they sound perfectly at home, and thrive in the floating funhouse sprung from Rava's fervent imagination. All-star lineups of this sort usually last for one CD, then the artists move on to different projects; but I would be delighted to see this band reunited for another date. Maybe Milan and Manhattan are getting closer together.

January 31, 2009 · 0 comments

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Keith Jarrett: The Song is You

I wouldn't be surprised if this live recording is someday reissued with a name like The Great Concert of the Keith Jarrett Standards Trio or some other grandiose moniker. The stars were clearly aligned for Messrs. Jarrett, Peacock & DeJohnette at their July 1986 Munich performance, and almost every track is at a high level. But Jarrett's piano intro to "The Song is You"—one all-too-brief minute of ecstatic improvisation—makes it onto my short list of favorite moments. Here the pianist marries the finest aspects of his "Solo Concerts" with the canonical approach of the Standards Trio, and the results are brisk and compelling. My immediate reaction when the rest of the band enters is disappointment . . . I would like this solo section to continue for several more minutes. Yet Peacock and DeJohnette quickly show that they also can rewrite the old repertoire. I'm not sure whether the trio had originally planned to play this song for 17 minutes, but I can easily believe that they just went with the flow. And it is a rapturous flow that carries them along. There are many, many fine recordings that demonstrate what this ensemble is all about, but this is not a bad place to start if you want to take the measure of their mastery.

January 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Keith Jarrett: Strollin'

Here's an odd turn of events. Back in his youth, Keith Jarrett was a member of Jazz Messengers, and he completely deconstructed its repertoire on the one commercial recording he made with the band. Listen to Jarrett on "Secret Love" from 1965, and hear an iconoclastic pianist who reconfigures the music to suit his own dramatic vision of aural possibilities.

Now fast-forward 35 years and Keith Jarrett covers a composition by a charter member of the Jazz Messengers, Mr. Horace Silver. The young revolutionary has now become very respectful, and plays the song with deference to the composer's original vision. It's hard to complain when the band plays as felicitously as this trio. But I, for one, would like to see Jarrett & Co. rough up these songs a bit more. I can't help comparing this track with an earlier "Standards Trio" live recording from Munich in 1986, when the group did so much damage to "Autumn Leaves" that there wasn't a twig or branch left by the time they were finished. Here we are merely "Strollin'"—pleasantly enough, it's true—but I wonder what Jarrett would have done to these changes if Art Blakey had called this same tune on the bandstand at the Lighthouse back in '65.

January 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Keith Jarrett: Intro / Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

This Jerome Kern standard is probably more popular with the general public than with jazz musicians—in other words, you are more likely to hear it tinkling in the background at the cocktail lounge than at a Berklee jam session. Jarrett himself recorded it previously as part of a session, under Bob Moses's leadership, alongside the late, great tenor Jim Pepper. The pairing of Jarrett and Pepper seemed like a jazz dream date, but the music on that late-1960s date didn't tap into the full potential of the players involved. This version of Kern's warhorse, performed by Jarrett's "Standards Trio" at a concert in Tokyo, is more focused and coherent. The intro is a piece unto itself, a wistful minute-and-a-half meditation, all too brief but enough to demonstrate how deeply Mr. Jarrett immerses himself into the inner feeling-state of the music. When Peacock and DeJohnette enter, it is with gentle whispers and smoke floating past your eyes. Jarrett has achieved great things in his career, but one shouldn't minimize the importance of taking the old songs and making them fresh again. This may not be as dramatic as a piano concerto cadenza, but it's no less valuable as a lesson to the rest of us.

January 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jack DeJohnette: Bayou Fever

From the only studio recording by Jack DeJohnette's short-lived supergroup, "Bayou Fever" is essentially a formless atmospheric piece, bookended by a one-line melodic phrase played by unison trumpet and guitar. The middle 8 minutes are foreboding and dark, filled with interesting nuances, witty musical dialogue and impulsive subtleties. Though the men never reach a catharsis, their ominous ruminations remain faultlessly engaging. Abercrombie's playing is limited to textural ambience, and though his sounds are essential to the song's mysterious ambiguity, one might wish he were a touch more prominent. DeJohnette, as always, is consistently surprising and alert. The group's most arresting ingredient is the trumpeting of Lester Bowie. The late AACM founder's vocal-like quality is uniquely his own; his use of half-valves, smearing, mumbling low notes and howling high register gives his playing an incredibly wide range of emotion, further enhancing his innate blues and spiritual expressiveness. This track is a fine introduction to Bowie's one-of-a-kind trumpeting.

January 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Keith Jarrett: Starbright

Jarrett's "Starbright" is a consummate example of stride being used by a post-1950 modern jazz pianist while not sounding like a quotation, anachronism, or stunt.

"Starbright" is from the masterpiece solo recital Facing You. Right from the beginning, the spacious chords in the left hand imply something more like Earl Hines than anything else; although above, the pretty melody in sixths is quite dissonant and bitonal.

Jarrett takes half the performance to work up enough steam, but eventually lurches into a convincing left-hand "oompah" as his right hand delivers the iridescence suggested by the title. It's a major success, and one well worth considering for those looking to take stride into the 21st century.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Pat Metheny: Travels

Works is a compilation album featuring selected cuts from Pat Metheny's ECM catalog released from 1979 through 1983. "Travels" first appeared on the Travels LP released in 1983.

"Travels" was recorded live in concert. This lovely ballad is performed at a snail's pace. It is lush with the sounds of Metheny's gorgeous trademarked tone and slippery lines. Drummer Gottlieb spends most of his time on the brushes. Bassist Steve Rodby is asked to mimic Metheny on the melody from time to time while co-composer/keyboardist Lyle Mays adds tonal colors. My hunch is that this performance followed an up- tempo number and was designed to have a calming effect on the audience. There was one of those at every jazz concert I ever attended. I don't know about you, but when I hear a beautiful tune like this at a live show, I close my eyes and absorb it. I have always found that act a bit ironic. We go to a show to see the artists and then close our eyes while listening! But I guess we must subconsciously think that by shutting down one sense, we increase another. Ah, such is the power of great music.

January 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Pat Metheny: Sueño Con Mexico

Works is a compilation album featuring selected cuts from Pat Metheny's ECM catalog released from 1979 through 1983. "Sueño Con Mexico" first appeared on his album New Chautauqua.

Metheny has enjoyed a long and successful commercial jazz career. I seem to be in the minority among his fans. I like most of his stuff, but much prefer him in experimental or "outside-the-box" mode. For instance, his controversial 1994 album Zero Tolerance for Silence caused such a stir among his legions of fans that many thought he had gone off his rocker. Many music critics believed the same thing. How could a deeply sonorous guitar player such as Metheny produce an ugly record full of cacophonous electronics? Many people were offended. But I found it to be brave.

In a different way, I find his performance of "Sueño Con Mexico" to be brave as well. In form and substance it is the opposite of anything on Zero Tolerance. For starters it is Metheny on acoustic guitar. But the tune hangs there like an impressionistic painting. It is not full of the infectious propulsive hooks most Metheny aficionados love. It is a beautifully subtle and nuanced ballad painted with pastels. It was designed to give you a gentle introspective nudge, not knock you over with a blunt instrument.

I look for risk taking in music or any other art for that matter. It does not always have to be there. But it has to be there sometimes. Risk can come in different forms. A quiet musician may play loud. A loud musician may play quiet. Melody may be sacrificed for tension and vice versa. There are a million ways to take a chance. A musician must do so in order to fulfill his or her potential. I often wonder how artists who do not take chances live with themselves.

Pat Metheny is one of those rare jazz musicians who can play accessible commercial jazz music and not be considered to be selling out in some way. He has found a way to use his virtuosity to bridge that unseen gap between expectations and results. That in itself is a substantial achievement. But he can only do that because he occasionally plays music that some of his fans may not expect or even like. This proposition applies even to such a pleasing tune as "Sueño Con Mexico."

January 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Enrico Rava: Outsider

Although I can't read Enrico Rava's mind, "Outsider" could just as well refer to his late mentor Steve Lacy, who spent most of his career outside the normal conventions of jazz. Even as Manfred Eicher's lofty production and Rava's European mannerisms remove some of the edgy tone of Lacy's approach, the adventurous and searching spirit remains in full.

Bassist Larry Grenadier plays a crucial role by setting tempo and introducing the note-chasing theme, perhaps the only pre-composed part of the whole piece. In the middle, Rava and pianist Stefano Bollani engage in musical chatter, and right at the point where the chordal root breaks free, a single note from the trumpeter reins it back in. But it doesn't happen all at once. Players come in and out of the song, leaving behind snippets of free improv before fading away again. Grenadier signals a return to the rapid string of notes he stated at the beginning, only this time it's declared by Rava and Turner.

And somewhere from his special perch in jazz heaven, Steve Lacy looks down approvingly.

January 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Keith Jarrett: You Took Advantage of Me

This trio's reputation for delivering well-worn standards with the utmost reverence and professionalism is richly deserved. Sometimes they make some surprising, nifty little moves, such as the delightful ragtime rendering of "Honeysuckle Rose" from My Foolish Heart: Live At Montreux. Here Jarrett recalls another early jazz style, playing unaccompanied stride at the beginning and end of the tune. In between he reverts to his more modern, single-note manner. With Peacock's heavy encouragement, though, the tune swings, and swings hard. His big, bouncy basslines sync up with DeJohnette's hi-hat taps like a well-oiled rhythm machine. As performed here, "You Took Advantage of Me" epitomizes what is great about jazz, spanning eras and resurrecting the best parts from each.

January 05, 2009 · 0 comments

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Pat Metheny: April Joy

"April Joy" is notable for Mark Egan's lovely fretless bass work, which dominates the tune's opening strains. This melodious sound would become his trademark. I prefer the Pat Metheny Group's 1977-80 lineup to any subsequent units. This band with Egan, Lyle Mays and Danny Gottlieb achieved a sublime cohesion that few combos ever have. "April Joy" was another fantastic Metheny composition. Aptly titled, the gentleness of the introductory passage does indeed remind you of an April morning. The body of the song is meatier. Part of the secret of Metheny's guitar playing is that he is aggressive without sounding so. His tone and attack emphasize smooth transitions over abrupt changes. Even when there are abrupt changes, such as for the tranquil midsection of this song, they don't slap you in the face. It is all in the transition. Here, the spatial introspective middle section carries through to the end of the piece. To this day when I really want to hear some Metheny, I pull out this Pat Metheny Group CD. It still pleases three decades later, whether it is April or January.

January 05, 2009 · 0 comments

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Arild Andersen: Independency Part 3

The third section of a suite celebrating a century of the bassist's native Norway's independence from its union with Sweden, "Independency Part 3" probes extemporaneous performance against an atmospheric backwash. Andersen's use of digital string loops is subtle and unobtrusive but adds much sonic heft to the song. Vinaccia does no timekeeping, but his percussive accents give the performance an insistent quality. Smith's tenor sax employs a big, wide tone not far removed from Michael Brecker with lines inspired by Andersen's old boss Jan Garbarek. His phrases are completely unforced, often stating a short phrase and stating it again in longer form. Andersen's well-modulated solo sings in the upper register almost wistfully, and when rejoined by Smith, becomes a musical conversation of profundity and beauty. Like a painting created on the fly by an experienced artist, "Independency Part 3" captures the immediacy often missing from a mostly scripted piece.

December 27, 2008 · 0 comments

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Savina Yannatou: Sareri hovin mernem

Recordings of traditional folk material tend to evoke the past rather than intensify the present. In their attempts to resurrect and preserve the music of a bygone era, the performers risk becoming curators at some aural museum, where the smell of dust and mold lingers obtrusively in the air. Greek singer Savina Yannatou and her colleagues here are a different matter entirely. This music is so vividly present that no distance seems to separate us from the worldview of the songs. The lyrics here translate as: "A year has passed with no word of my beloved. The wind blows from the mountains. The rivers bring no news. Has your heart turned to ice." And I can't help being reminded of that venerable poem about the Western wind, from an anonymous source—probably some sailor or traveler—that comes across as ageless, without date of passport, concluding with the sentiments: "Christ, if my love were in my arms, and I in my bed again!" Yannatou has a delicate voice, yet with hidden reserves of strength, more psychological perhaps than a question of physical equipment. Her accompanists are very much in synch, and when they fall into a stately 12/8 rhythm behind her, it is almost as if a sad and stately procession has walked into the room.

December 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Pat Metheny: Lone Jack

It is 1982 or 1983. We've brought our cooler and blanket and spread ourselves across the grass of Hartford's Bushell Park for a free Pat Metheny Group concert! There are 30,000 of us. It was a bit warm as I remember. Mike Nock opened the show. I remember seeing some guys set up microphones on stands to record the concert. They were not with the band. Some cops came and made them take down the mikes. Hartford holds a special place in Metheny's heart, so he told the crowd he was going to play a long time. They played a bit too long, really. But I will always remember how that crowd reacted to familiar Metheny classics such as "Lone Jack." They were taken away as the sound wafted through the city.

"Lone Jack" appeared on the band's first album. It quickly became a big hit. The tune hits the ground running as Metheny wastes no time getting into the swing of things. The melody is beautifully simple. Metheny's playing can be described as skittering. Bassist Mark Egan and drummer Danny Gottlieb provide texture and pace while Lyle Mays adds some very effective keyboard work. There are enough jazz chops to keep this critic happy. There is nothing bad you can say about the piece. It just makes you feel good.

There was really something about those early Metheny compositions. Somehow he had found a way to incorporate engaging jazz-rock melodies with the high-volume electricity of the fusion genre without scaring all the girls away! Prior to Metheny's appearance on the scene most of us male fusion fans attended shows dateless. He made it safe for us to ask again.

December 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Abercrombie: Timeless

Guitarist John Abercrombie, keyboardist Jan Hammer and drummer Jack DeJohnette made for an extremely pleasing fusion trio. Outside a small cadre of true fans, however, Abercrombie's Timeless remains rather unknown. That is not to say it has been totally neglected. It was favorably reviewed at the time and today is listed by some knowing jazz-rock critics as a truly important fusion performance. Still, I would argue it has been relatively overlooked.

The title cut was the album's last song. The beginning of the tune sounds like a cross between Indian Classical music and the opening moments of "In a Silent Way" from Miles Davis's album of the same name. Jan Hammer displays his own Indian music influences by producing a low-end drone that serves as a bed for the song's introductory section. In some ways this introduction acts as an Indian Classical alap. An alap is a long introductory and usually slow passage in Northern Indian Classical music that prepares you for what is to follow. The musicians are empathetic to the nth degree. They respect space, time and mood. The Indian elements eventually fall to the wayside as a spatial vibe continues the allusion to "In a Silent Way." Abercrombie tosses in some blues licks for good measure. Hammer increases the tension slightly with a Moog exploration. But the vibe remains deep and calm. This is slow meditative fusion that reaches the mind's inner recesses. This tune was a good way to end an exciting album and would be a good way to end your frenetic day.

This trio would have made a fine touring band. Strangely Hammer and Abercrombie have never performed together live. I say "strangely" because the two were roommates in their early days in Boston.

December 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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