Miguel Zenón & The Rhythm Collective Oye!!! Live in Puerto Rico (Miel)
By David R. Adler
For years alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón has made quartet albums with the brilliant pianist Luis Perdomo as a central focus. Zenón’s music, therefore, has always been thick with harmony. But intermittently for several years, Zenón has explored another sound with his Rhythm Collective, a piano-less quartet with electric bassist Aldemar Valentin, drummer Tony Escapa and percussionist Reynaldo De Jesús. Oye!!! captures them in their native Puerto Rico in 2011, at a now-defunct space called El Taller Cé.
There’s an intimate club vibe to the recording, with charged-up applause and band member introductions — in Spanish, over a fast groove — at the start and finish of the program. The disc preserves the acoustic imperfections of the site and still manages a high sound quality. Valentin’s bass sounds a tad far away, and yet he’s a monster on every track, playing liquid solo lines and highly inventive double-stop work, hugging every turn in the music. Escapa and De Jesús, too, are unstoppable. The subtle textural differences in their setups come across beautifully on disc.
Zenón has worked hard to bring jazz and Puerto Rican folkloric idioms into contact. The Rhythm Collective, which toured six African countries with help from the State Department in 2003, has a different but related take on global cross-pollination. “JOS Nigeria,” a Zenón original with a bouncy optimistic feel, has an explicitly African connection. Tito Puente’s classic “Oye Como Va” gets stretched and pulled apart, at one point inspiring Zenón to quote Wayne Shorter’s “Juju.” Silvio Rodriguez’s “El Necio” is more closely faithful, though it still sparks furious off-the-page improvisation.
The band plays with gut-level energy but nails every note, every displaced accent. In the precise staccato hits of “Hypnotized” (slower and partly rubato, inspired by Paul Motian), or the crisply articulated bass pattern of the fast burner “Double Edge,” Zenón advances his own adaptations of traditional rhythmic forms, again proving himself one of the most distinctive artists on the scene.
Bassist Eric Revis, with his immense tone and supple sense of swing, has helped define the sound of the Branford Marsalis Quartet for over 15 years. As a leader he’s taken an eclectic approach, starting from acoustic jazz but adding electric guitar, strings and other textures. In recent years he has embraced a freer concept, working with the likes of Peter Brötzmann, Avram Fefer and Michael Marcus. Parallax, with Ken Vandermark on tenor and clarinet, Jason Moran on piano and Nasheet Waits on drums, leans strongly in that direction as well. (It’s pertinent that Revis, Waits and Parallax co-producer Orrin Evans are the core of the free-leaning ensemble Tar Baby.)
Revis features himself on three solo bass tracks: the opening “Prelusion,” with frenetic bowing; “Percival,” a tight pizzicato miniature (the title is Cecil Taylor’s middle name); and “Parallax,” the finale, rich in somber overtones and washes of sound. But the main focus is the band, switching up from red-blooded ferocity (“Hyperthral,” Vandermark’s “Split”) to a subtler chamber-like aesthetic (“MXR,” “Celestial Hobo”).
As much as Parallax is “free,” it’s also strongly compositional: Revis’ “Edgar,” a nod to fellow bassist Edgar Meyer, stands out for its repeating double-stop arco pattern and contrapuntal piano-clarinet theme emerging from chaos. “Dark Net,” an ensemble theme of daunting complexity — and no solos at all — is by altoist and Clean Feed labelmate Michaël Attias (a fine move to highlight work by an underrated composer and peer).
Many don’t realize, but avant-garde jazz operates from a position of deepest respect for the tradition. For Revis, and certainly for Moran in his own work, the enthusiasm stretches back well before bebop. Their reading of Fats Waller’s “I’m Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” begins with the melody almost exactly as written, but against a backdrop of wild sonic abstraction. Jelly Roll Morton’s “Winin’ Boy Blues” acquires a slow, booming beat true to Morton’s own accurate description of the song: “Smutty.”
Antonio Sanchez New Life (CAM Jazz) By David R. Adler
Antonio Sanchez, Pat Metheny’s drummer of choice, is steadily building his presence as a leader, and up to now he’s made clear his taste for two-saxophone lineups with no chordal instrument. His 2007 debut Migration featured tenors Chris Potter and David Sanchez (with guests Metheny and Chick Corea); his two-disc follow-up Live In New York (2010) paired Sanchez with altoist Miguel Zenón. On New Life, the roster shifts to Donny McCaslin on tenor and David Binney on alto. All of the above are formidable leaders in their own right.
Part of what makes New Life new is the inclusion of a pianist, the budding master John Escreet, who plays on all eight tracks of an all-original program. The harmony flows and shifts and expands, whether it’s the pastoral waltz feel of “Nighttime Story” (with a deft McCaslin quote of “Blues on the Corner”), the churning 7/4 minor-modal flavor of the opening “Uprisings and Revolutions,” or the more elusive Rhodes sonority of “Minotauro” and “The Real McDaddy.” Singing melodies, big statements, deceptive endings, an urge toward more development and variation: this is Sanchez’s writing voice, buoyed in every way by his approach as a drummer, complex and yet flawlessly in-the-pocket.
“Medusa” and “Family Ties” stand out as widely contrasting and beautifully played. “Air,” a dark and mystical ballad with soprano sax (though no soprano credit appears on the sleeve), is one of Escreet’s key moments — not just his rubato introduction but his dramatic impact with the sparest and most ambiguous whole-note chords.
Sanchez is after something altogether different with the title track, “New Life,” a 14-minute opus with marked emphasis on the layered wordless vocals of Thana Alexa (Sanchez’s fiancée). Sanchez’s experience in the Pat Metheny Group, widely known for its wordless vocal textures and soaring sonic expanses, has to be relevant here, but Sanchez is fresh and not imitative in his approach. Even if the result has its indulgent side, it still showcases the band’s emotional power and unified purpose.
Twice Through the Wall, the second offering from altoist Curtis Macdonald, is an EP with a running time of just 20 minutes. Far from hurrying through it, Macdonald paces himself, devoting the first two minutes of the opening “Social Inheritance” to a drum solo intro from Adam Jackson. Ensemble-wise, the language picks up right where Community Immunity, the leader’s excellent 2011 debut, left off. Most of the same players are heard, although Jackson, taking the place of Greg Ritchie, is easily a standout on the opener and the two remaining pieces.
On the closing “Physical Memory” is it pianist David Virelles who provides a minute-long solo intro. Working with meditative and spiraling cross-rhythms, Virelles sets up a groove ever more fractured and tumultuous once Jackson and bassist Chris Tordini join in. There’s a gut-level energy, on this as well as “Social Inheritance,” that defines Macdonald’s rhythm section, Virelles very much included.
Macdonald and tenor saxophonist Jeremy Viner pair nicely throughout, getting their horns around intricate unison melodies and presenting widely contrasting solo voices. Macdonald tends to be lighter, more vulnerable, reaching high enough in the alto’s range to sound like a soprano on “Comic Fortress,” the middle selection. Viner is grittier, more immersed in the Coltrane/Liebman/Lovano side of things. His eruptive solo toward the end of “Physical Memory” is what brings the piece to peak intensity.
Jackson lends a strong Caribbean flavor to “Comic Fortress” with every subtle drum-head inflection and polyrhythmic aside, transforming a trio feature for Macdonald’s alto sax into a compelling full-band statement. With no chordal backing Macdonald is set free. But rather than stretching wildly, he focuses on the lyrical composition at hand and the astute trio conversation it prompts, right up to the hip ascending alto/bass figure that ends it.
Trios loom large in drummer Dave King’s career: consider two of his best-known musical endeavors, the Bad Plus and Happy Apple. The piano, too, is central to King’s identity as a player and composer, and it’s not just his hookup with the Bad Plus’s Ethan Iverson that bears this out. Indelicate (2010), King’s debut under his own name, revealed the drummer to be a pianist himself, and the resulting overdubbed piano-drum pieces were fresh and unexpected. King also played some piano on his 2011 quintet follow-up Good Old Light by the Dave King Trucking Company.
There’s one other obscure piano item in King’s oeuvre, a 2005 Fresh Sound trio date under pianist Bill Carrothers’ name called Shine Ball, with Gordon Johnson on bass. Wholly improvised, the session catches King and Carrothers in moments of volatility and moody reflection. On I’ve Been Ringing You, they reunite (with Billy Peterson on bass) to play repertoire of a very different kind, along the lines of “So In Love,” “If I Should Lose You,” “People Will Say We’re In Love” and “This Nearly Was Mine.” Carrothers makes the melodies sing out, pure and distinct, but somehow transforms each song into a ghostly unresolved riddle.
The opener is Gordon Jenkins’ “Goodbye,” a dark ballad, stretched by King’s trio into a slow and hazy rubato meditation. The transition to Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” is natural — open and spacious to start, more aggressive as it develops. “I’ve Been Ringing You,” the closing track, is an original trio improvisation marked by Carrothers’ steady block chords, King’s slow brush patterns, and Peterson’s perfectly timed ascending notes in response.
King’s subtle shifts of timbre and momentum are all the more engrossing for being so beautifully captured (the album was recorded at “a little church in Minnesota,” per the album credits). We can hear the leader shift in his seat, flick on his snares, swipe his hands or other objects across the skins and create worlds of intimate detail. The big piano sound brings every lingering nuance of Carrothers’ harmonies into striking relief.
From its eponymous Savoy debut in 2004 to its ECM breakthrough Sky & Country in 2009, the collaborative trio Fly has never lacked for spontaneity, compositional depth and fully rounded musicianship. But with Year of the Snake, the band’s sophomore outing for ECM, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard have risen to a new level. They bring abstraction and mystery but also mathematical precision to the date, and each composer has at least one “wow” moment — a creative leap that signifies not only a personal best, but also a gain for music in general.
The trio opens with Turner’s moody contrapuntal theme “The Western Lands I,” and this becomes the basis for collectively composed sketches interspersed throughout the program. The variations (II through V) range from unsettled and playful to meditative and chamber-like; the final one sounds something like a harbor at night, far-off and remote. Sonic experimentation and extended techniques are not Fly’s usual bag, but the approach works, balancing out the more rigorously planned material. The immaculate ECM sound does wonders for Ballard’s percussion especially.
More than ever, Fly succeeds in seeming huge and harmonically full — far more than expected from a trio without a chordal instrument. Turner’s ambitious entries are “Festival Tune” and “Year of the Snake,” both fast and elliptical, and “Brothersister,” a sparse waltz with startling metric crosscurrents in its opening and closing moments. Ballard’s “Diorite” and “Benj” are breakthrough achievements, with forbiddingly complex rhythmic passages that demand superb execution but also a sense of fluidity and breath. Grenadier brings in just one piece, “Kingston,” but it is the longest track and arguably the album’s top highlight. The explosive outro, with its fast and repeating double-stop figure for arco bass, is unlike anything on an acoustic jazz record in recent memory.
On Universal Mind, his fourth outing as a leader, pianist Luis Perdomo embraces a hard-swinging piano trio aesthetic, mixing it up with bassist Drew Gress and Jack DeJohnette. It’s a logical move: his 2006 disc Awareness was also steeped in trio modernism, even avant-gardism (with a double rhythm section on five of the tracks). His 2008 Criss Cross date Pathways, also with trio, combined originals with songbook standards and a Bud Powell classic. This time the opener is Joe Henderson’s “Tetragon,” an angular midtempo blues from 1968, just the thing to break the ice. (It so happens that DeJohnette played on Henderson’s Tetragon album, but not on the title track.)
There’s a polished virtuosity, a smoothness of execution, to be heard on Perdomo’s earlier efforts, particularly his work with bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Eric McPherson. The interplay on Universal Mind is lumpier, more off-centered, thanks largely to the rousing, relentless churn of DeJohnette’s drums. Keith Jarrett’s trio is a reference point, although it has worked for decades; the Universal Mind session, by contrast, was Perdomo and DeJohnette’s first-ever encounter.
The newness has musical benefits, of course. Two improvised piano-drum duets (“Unified Path” I & II) yield strong, semi-abstract results. “Tin Can Alley,” originally a vehicle for DeJohnette’s band Special Edition, harks back to the midtempo strut of “Tetragon” but with a more complex written theme. Perdomo’s originals range from the lyrical, harmonically spare “Langnau” and “Just Before,” to the waltz “Above the Storm,” to the polyrhythmic burners “Gene’s Crown” and “Doppio.” His “Rebellious Contemplation” seems to start in mid-thought with ferocious eight-bar trades, working up to a twisty and unexpected coda.
It takes high skill to spar with DeJohnette and not get overpowered or upstaged. Perdomo thrives under the pressure. Whether or not his relationship with DeJohnette takes further root, he’s advanced his art considerably with this fine release.
Guitarist Isaac Darche’s sophomore effort, the follow-up to his 2010 debut One More Shot, is a concise and compelling organ trio set with Sean Wayland on Hammond B-3 and Mark Ferber on drums. It’s steeped in modern harmony with an emphasis on original music — four pieces by Darche (pronounced “darsh”), three by Wayland. The relevant precedent here might be John Abercrombie’s work with Dan Wall and Adam Nussbaum, although the ballad reading of Rodgers & Hart’s “You Are Too Beautiful” recalls Wes Montgomery with Melvin Rhyne. Darche’s uptempo blues “Error and Trial” also brings the band’s fierce straightahead chops clearly into view. But even in these moments, the music is effortlessly forward-thinking, free of idiomatic clichés.
It’s no easy accomplishment in a field packed with guitarists, but Darche has found a unique sound and technical approach on the instrument. His tone is bright, his articulation blindingly fast and flawless, his rhythm consistently in the pocket but full of breath, never stiff. His lyrical ideas and tight rapport with Wayland are a pleasure from the first notes of “Beautiful,” the Wayland-penned opener. Other pieces, such as “East Gardens” and “Green Team,” have a similarly relaxed straight-eighth feel, while “Broke-Coke-Ho” and “The People Above Us” are waltz-based and “Mona Vale” is more metrically ambiguous.
Darche, also to his credit, is willing to sit back and let Wayland shine — indeed, the organist often solos first on these cuts. An Australian native with extraordinary skill on piano and other keyboards, Wayland deserves greater recognition for his fluid yet angular sensibility, and he’s very much an equal here (a co-producer of the album, in fact). It’ll be worth seeing how his partnership with Darche develops.
Pianist Orrin Evans is on a hot streak. For evidence look to his recent Posi-Tone releases Freedom, Faith In Action and Captain Black Big Band, not to mention his sideman turn with Ralph Bowen on Power Play or his work with the co-led group Tarbaby. On his new Flip the Script, the Philadelphian enlists bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Donald Edwards for a trio session of great depth and sustained focus. It’s a mostly original date, though “Question,” the bracingly free opening salvo, is by Tarbaby’s bassist Eric Revis.
While Flip the Script has its episodes of speed and ferocity, Evans and crew also do what the album title suggests by slowing way down. In the fragmented blues of “Big Small” and the meditative calm of the reharmonized “Someday My Prince Will Come” (the only standard), we hear control and invention at the most reined-in tempos — an essential element of jazz artistry. The ballad “When,” guided by Edwards on subtle mallets, also highlights the trio’s contemplative side. “TC’s Blues,” first recorded by Evans’ group Seed in 2000, is a rhythmic test of another sort, with pauses and cues that guide the band through a maze of slow-to-fast transitions. It’s a pivotal moment on the disc.
Along with the soaring waltzes “Clean House” and “The Answer” and the powerful title track — fine pieces of writing from Evans — we have two additional covers: “A Brand New Day,” Luther Vandross’ contribution to The Wiz soundtrack, and “The Sound of Philadelphia” (or “TSOP”) by Philly soul legends Gamble & Huff. The latter, a lively 1974 disco hit remade for sparse solo piano, is decidedly bittersweet. This was once the theme from Soul Train; it’s still played at the ballpark before the Phillies’ home games. Evans’ version is like a poignant sigh, a nod to Philly in all its musical diversity and dysfunction. As the finale of one of his finest efforts to date, it’s simply ingenious.
Matt Munisteri Still Runnin’ Round in the Wilderness: The Lost Music of Willard Robison, Volume One (Old Cow)
By David R. Adler
Willard Robison is best known in jazz circles as the composer of the widely played standard “Old Folks.” Otherwise, he is sadly forgotten, with a catalog of 78-rpm recordings that never made it to LP (much less CD). In the liner notes to this inspired set, guitarist/vocalist Matt Munisteri ponders Robison’s obscurity and touches on larger historical questions of art and commerce. The notes alone are a scholarly achievement, but it’s the music that makes the case for Robison’s genius.
Munisteri’s guitar language is razor-sharp and deliciously old-timey, and his drama-free vocal delivery — worlds away from the blues-soaked growl of a Doug Wamble, for instance — helps to draw out the wry storylines in Robison’s lyrics. Bassist Danton Boller and drummer Ben Perowsky supply expert rhythm while pianist Matt Ray gives the harmony a legato element, balancing the leader’s percussive guitar. The solos and textural flourishes of trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso are essential. Scott Robinson’s C melody sax on the ballad “Heard a Mockingbird Singing” is a thing of wonder.
Early jazz is Munisteri’s touchstone: “A June of Long Ago” features guest vocalist Rachelle Garniez sounding not unlike Adelaide Hall on Ellington’s “Creole Love Call” (while Robinson does his best Barney Bigard clarinet). Munisteri scales down to voice and guitar for the moving “Little High Chairman,” not long before the band erupts in a hot ’20s vein on the instrumental “Hurry Sundown.”
By contrast, the closing treatment of “A Cottage for Sale” would fit on a John Lennon solo record. “Moonlight Mississippi,” a straight jazz ballad in Rosemary Clooney’s hands, turns into a midtempo rocker worthy of Levon Helm. “’Taint So, Honey, ’Taint So,” an ancient vehicle for Bing Crosby with Paul Whiteman, is slowed way down and stretched out, with a magical piano solo over a stately vamp. Despite the numerous liberties taken, Munisteri preserves all the intended charm of numbers like “We’ll Have a New Home in the Morning” and “Truthful Parson Brown.” In a perfect world, those two songs alone would have established Robison as a national treasure.