Adam Birnbaum: House Party Starting

In the liner notes, Adam Birnbaum calls this track a "tribute to the great unsung pianist/composers over the years who somehow missed the limelight." Birnbaum himself seems unlikely to join that group. Already the talented young pianist is on his way to being widely recognized, having won the 2004 American Jazz Piano Competition and performed with a plethora of top jazzers in the course of his burgeoning career.

Birnbaum's interpretation of Herbie Nichols's "House Party Starting" reveals a pianist with a sure touch, malleable phrasing, and an elaborate melodic conception. His notes are clearly struck and precisely enunciated, his improvisations devoid of clutter. Rhythmically, he's not inclined to stray too far, distinctly articulating the pulse even as he subtly manipulates it, moving ahead of and behind the beat in creative ways. Harmonically, Birnbaum is rather tied to the chords and their accompanying scales. He doesn't go "out," but builds moderately ingenious melodies staying mostly within the given framework. His bandmates serve him well, providing idiomatically correct accompaniment that perfectly mimics a mid-'50s bop rhythm section.

Based on this performance, one suspects that Birnbaum isn't the kind of pianist to labor in obscurity like Nichols (or Monk, before his success in middle age). Birnbaum is more in the mold of a Jacky Terrasson— a gifted technician and aesthetician who's synthesized his influences and contrived a fairly distinctive and definitely attractive middle-of-the-road acoustic jazz style.

October 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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The Herbie Nichols Project: Dr. Cyclops' Dream

If not for such musicians as Roswell Rudd, Misha Mengelberg, Buell Neidlinger, Geri Allen and Steve Lacy, Herbie Nichols's music might be just as obscure today as it was when he died in 1963. Regrettably, Nichols was able to record his compositions only in a trio format, never having the opportunity to orchestrate his intricate writing for a larger group as he so desired. The Herbie Nichols Project was formed in 1994 to both expose Nichols's music to a wider audience and to present it in original arrangements for an ensemble that included horns. In addition, on their three CDs (Love Is Proximity and Strange City are the others), they have unveiled not only previously unrecorded Nichols tunes, but have even developed newly discovered lead sheets that lacked Nichols's directions as to tempo or dynamics.

"Dr. Cyclops' Dream" began life as one of those lead sheets, and the group's co-founders, Ben Allison and Frank Kimbrough, inventively arranged it into a superlative work of art. Bass clarinet, bass, and then trumpet merge in the eerie extended opening interlude, where Nash and Allison sustain a vamp while Horton plays sparse legato variations of it. Horton finally resolves the built-up tension with a tone-rowed motif, before giving way to Blake's thoughtful tenor, as his lithe tone, appealing colorations, vocalized inflections and surprising note choices coalesce into an enthralling solo. Horton returns to play the ethereal melodic content from the opening section, and Blake repeats it in part before the trumpeter rejoins him for a dissonant, climactic held note.

Dr. Cyclops was a mediocre 1940 horror film about a mad scientist with failing vision who shrinks men to the size of mice. The Herbie Nichols Project, on the other hand, has the great insight to enlarge upon Nichols's artistry and bring it into full focus. That, no doubt, was Herbie Nichols's dream.

August 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Steve Lacy & Mal Waldron: House Party Starting

Compared to Herbie Nichols's evocative original version, this Lacy-Waldron rendition should be called "House Party Ending." The host is starting to think about how to get that wine stain out of the carpet, designated drivers are helping some of their friends to the door, the slickest dancer of the night has passed out under the coffee table, and while music is still playing, those partygoers remaining – now coming down from their respective highs – are at this early morning hour more entranced by melodies than by rhythms. Welcome to the self-contained world of Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron.

Lacy's and Waldron's long association includes an album each of compositions by Monk (1958's Reflections) and Ellington/Strayhorn (1985's Sempre Amore) before this more diverse program that included Nichols's "House Party Starting." Lacy essays the theme almost mournfully, sounding like a more polished Pee Wee Russell. Aided by Waldron's sparse but effective backing, Lacy's deliberate pace brings to the fore all the graceful, idiosyncratic beauty of Nichols's melodic line. Lacy's solo takes on more urgency, his tone becoming sharper, and his attack venturing into the upper register and including occasional overtones, in addition to bluesy inflections that warm the room. Waldron responds with a solo that features resonant left-hand figures contrasting with harmonically rich block chords from his right. Lacy ends the piece with another finely crafted delineation of the theme. Party over.

July 15, 2008 · 0 comments

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