Eric Harland, Voyager: Live By Night(Space Time/Sunnyside) Owen Howard, Drum Lore(BJU)
By David R. Adler
There’s no one way for a drummer-bandleader to approach a recording project, and these two highly dissimilar outings make it plain. Eric Harland, one of today’s most celebrated sidemen, debuts as a leader with Voyager: Live By Night, a furiously energetic concert document recorded in Paris over the course of four nights. Owen Howard, an underrated figure affiliated with the Brooklyn Jazz Underground, devotes his fifth album Drum Lore to his forebears, paying homage to the great drummer-composers of the past and present. While Howard’s is a finely crafted studio date with only one original piece, Voyager features Harland’s writing almost exclusively.
One can’t doubt the big heart and often jaw-dropping interplay of Harland’s quintet, and in particular the eloquent fire of Walter Smith III on tenor saxophone. Harland’s tunes have a visceral appeal, with anthemic melodies and charging, rhythmically off-center vamps that bassist Harish Raghavan locks down with impressive force. The set has a suite-like narrative shape, with seamless segues between a few tracks, as well as three “Intermezzos” — mainly drum solos — to serve as connective devices. Only “Cyclic Episode,” by Sam Rivers, seems not to fit the mold; a partial take, it fades out right after the tenor solo. (Smith’s ripping uptempo performance makes clear enough why it was included.)
Voyager does have its flaws. At 78 minutes it’s too long, and after a point, the huge crescendoing climaxes start to seem redundant and overly busy. The mix is also uneven: Taylor Eigsti’s piano is too far back, and Julian Lage’s guitar sound isn’t captured at its beautiful best. There’s a certain warts-and-all character to the product.
Howard’s more satisfying Drum Lore could be seen as a historical primer on the achievements of drummer-composers, from Chick Webb’s widely known feature “Stompin’ at the Savoy” to some fairly obscure modernist works: Jack DeJohnette’s “Zoot Suite,” Billy Hart’s “Duchess,” Al Foster’s “The Chief,” Ed Blackwell’s “Togo” and others. Howard’s arrangements bristle with creativity, the band swings and burns, and most important, none of this sounds like an assignment or a backward-looking tribute. It would be easy to mimic Tony Williams’ stop-time breaks on “Arboretum,” but Howard does no such thing. His vivid interaction with the soloists, and solid rapport with bassist Johannes Weidenmueller and pianist Frank Carlberg, would be a strong sell whatever the material.
Apart from trombonist Alan Ferber’s appearances on four tracks, Drum Lore is saxophone-centric, with altoist John O’Gallagher, tenor/soprano man Andy Middleton and multireedist Adam Kolker assuming varied roles. Smartly, Howard expands and contracts the ensemble throughout, giving Middleton a chance to shine in tenor trio mode on Denzil Best’s “45º Angle” (a gem from the repertoire of Herbie Nichols). “Flip,” a piece of classic ’50s cool by Shelly Manne, closes out the disc with bass clarinet, muted trombone and drums — an inspired departure from the original with Shorty Rogers and Jimmy Giuffre. Clearly Howard knows his stuff, but even better, he plays the hell out of it.
Aaron Goldberg and Guillermo Klein Bienestan (Sunnyside)
By David R. Adler
As pianists, Aaron Goldberg and Guillermo Klein couldn’t be less alike. Goldberg is a leading virtuoso soloist of our day. Klein’s chops are far more modest, and his main artistic canvas is his extraordinary little big band Los Guachos. On Bienestan, these Sunnyside labelmates generate sparks as co-leaders, offering the best of both worlds: Klein’s compositional and arranging smarts, Goldberg’s spellbinding execution. Klein plays Fender Rhodes while Goldberg sticks to piano (a textural combination heard previously on Klein’s 2010 release Domador de Huellas). Bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland provide inspired backup, while saxophonists Miguel Zenón and Chris Cheek beef up the ensemble on a number of tracks.
Rhythmic ingenuity is a big part of Klein’s aesthetic, and his arrangements of Charlie Parker’s “Moose the Mooche” and “Blues for Alice” on Bienestan are among the most staggering examples to date. Speeding up and slowing down according to some confounding logic, the beat undulates in perfectly natural sync thanks to the players’ sheer skill. It’s not merely bebop in an odd meter, but something far more intricate. The two Rhodes-piano duo pieces, “Implacable” and “Airport Fugue,” are tours de force of a more intimate type, with labyrinthine cross-rhythms that seem to filter Bach and Terry Riley through some alien computerized prism.
Bienestan also includes the frequently played standards “All the Things You Are” and “Manhã de Carnaval,” but as you can count on with Klein, something else is afoot. Both these tunes appear in two versions, with intriguing reharmonization and subtle contrasts in ensemble makeup. They’re as integral to the mood and design of the album as the Klein originals.
Tucked away amid these thematic elements are a number of compelling standalone originals by Klein. Harland seizes hold of “Human Feel” for a fine drum feature, while Cheek shines on soprano during “Yellow Roses” and Penman lays the melodic foundation for “Impresion de Bienestar.” As much as it revolves around its two principals, Bienestan is very much a full-band record.
If one sound in bassist Pedro Giraudo’s music stands out the most, it is that of Tony De Vivo’s cajón. Somehow this box percussion instrument cuts through the rambunctious reeds and brass of Giraudo’s 12-piece ensemble, rooting the music in South American soil but never weighing it down. All the while, Giraudo, a New Yorker since 1996, conjures rhythms and colors of intricate design, fronting a lineup that has remained remarkably steady over the years. His latest CD, Córdoba, is the best to date: eight compositions forming a symphony of sorts with four winds, two trumpets, two trombones and rhythm (including drummer Jeff Davis alongside De Vivo). The only lapse: horn soloists are clearly identified on Giraudo’s previous releases, but not here.
There’s a story underlying Córdoba, named for the city and province in Argentina where Giraudo was raised. Contrasting urban and rural moods, images of girls riding to school on horseback, the bitter taste of a local tea called mate (mah’-tay): such are Giraudo’s inspirations, stamped with nostalgia and evoked by means of indigenous rhythms such as the chacarera, zamba and baguala. There’s a pronounced folkloric quality and a reliance on clear-as-a-bell tonal harmony, anchored by Jess Jurkovic on piano. Yet the adventurism of New York jazz bursts through, not least in the spitfire improvisation of altoists Will Vinson and Todd Bashore, trumpeters Jonathan Powell and Tatum Greenblatt and trombonists Ryan Keberle and Mike Fahie, among others.
Giraudo is not a showy bassist, but he solos fluently on “Sol Naciente” and nails complex lines on electric bass — a sound new to this group — on “Duende del Mate,” doubling with Vinson’s soprano sax to startling effect. He brings a subtle Ellingtonian flair to the three-part “Pueblo,” adding in a marvelous chorale passage for flutes and bass clarinet. But apart from the finely wrought arrangements, it’s the tight and playfully lopsided rhythm — and the buzzing thud of that cajón — that gives Giraudo’s little big band its most sizable impact.
Ralph Alessi & This Against That Wiry Strong (Clean Feed)
By David R. Adler
There’s a good deal of continuity between Wiry Strong, the latest release from trumpeter Ralph Alessi’s This Against That, and previous efforts such as Look, a 2007 outing with the same personnel. A key difference, however: tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, a “special guest” on four tracks from Look, is now billed as a full-fledged quintet member. Between the two frontline horns, Andy Milne’s spacious piano and the rugged, textural rhythm of bassist Drew Gress and drummer Mark Ferber, Alessi gives himself an enticing range of options. He goes the route of tight orchestration, spiky melodies, darkly suggestive harmony and flowing improvised dialogue, hard-edged but not without a certain tenderness on numbers such as “Halves and Wholes” and “Mira.”
Of the 15 tracks, all are Alessi’s originals save for four collectively composed pieces: “Pudgy,” “Racy Banter,” “Celebrity Golf Classic” and the opening “Clown Painting.” Curiously, these brief abstract sketches, marked by odd timbres and repeating rhythmic patterns, are recorded a bit louder than the main body of the album, giving the disc a slightly uneven aural effect (perhaps the intention of co-producers Alessi and Tim Berne). Elsewhere, subtle overdubbed trumpet backgrounds on “Station Wagon Trip,” “Halves and Wholes” and the closing “Wiry Strong” enhance the chamber-jazz aspects of Alessi’s writing. The playing is sonorous and vibrant, although at 72 minutes the program drags in spots; it’s a hair too long.
Drummers are key to Alessi’s springy, funk-inflected rhythmic language, as Nasheet Waits proved on the trumpeter’s laser-focused 2010 quartet outing Cognitive Dissonance. On Wiry Strong it is Mark Ferber who lends momentum and wide-ranging percussive colors: martial snare patterns on “Bizarro-World Moment,” rolling toms on “20% of the 80%,” skittering motion on “A Dollar in Your Shoe,” rubato musings leading to a bright, surging tempo on “Medieval Genius.” But repeat listens drive home how every band member — not least of all Alessi with his soaring and allusive horn — brings this complex contrapuntal world into relief.
Billy Hart, Sixty-Eight (SteepleChase) Brian Landrus Quartet, Traverse (BlueLand) Mads Vinding Trio, Open Minds(Storyville)
By David R. Adler
At 70, Billy Hart is an icon of modern jazz drumming, and his work is far from done. Fueled by a restless creativity, he’s taken a new class of younger artists under his wing, working with them in varied settings as both a leader and sideman. With three new CDs we get a snapshot of his recent playing in sextet, quartet and trio formats. The recordings do him justice to varying degrees, but they all reveal a responsive and highly seasoned musicianship, a presence as energized as it is understated.
On Sixty-Eight we hear the drummer as leader: It is Hart’s 68th appearance on a SteepleChase record date, and also his age at the time of this session. The focus is progressive early ’60s repertory, and Hart’s frontline players, trumpeter Jason Palmer and altoist Logan Richardson, bring a razor’s-edge quality to the music. Unfortunately, pianist Dan Tepfer is swallowed up in the mix, and the blend of piano with Michael Pinto’s vibraphone muddies the harmonic landscape — even if Tepfer and Pinto both play superbly throughout. Chris Tordini’s bass ends up being one of the better-captured solo instruments.
If the production on Sixty-Eight is so-so, the music itself is strong. Hart brings an adventurous, firmly swinging drive to pieces by Eric Dolphy, Mal Waldron, Sam Rivers and Jaki Byard. He opens with Ornette Coleman’s ethereal “What Reason” and also gives a platform to Tepfer and Palmer as composers: the former with the 20-bar blues “Punctuations,” the latter with the ballad “That’s Just Lovely” (which it is).
Traverse, a quartet disc from baritone saxophonist/bass clarinetist Brian Landrus, finds Hart in a support role alongside pianist Michael Cain and bassist Lonnie Plaxico. There’s no sonic overcrowding here. The title track, co-composed by Landrus and Cain, is a flowing waltz that spotlights Hart’s distinctively subtle accents and cross-rhythms. Hart is also busily unpredictable on “Lydian 4,” Landrus’s most striking original, and “Gnosis,” another less notable Landrus/Cain creation in 12/8. As a horn stylist, Landrus is captivating, particularly unaccompanied on “Soul and Body” or in duo with Cain on “Lone” and “Soundwave.” But the offerings on Traverse feel thin compared to Landrus’s dynamic 2009 release Forward (also featuring Cain, as well as Jason Palmer).
Danish bassist Mads Vinding had the good taste to hire Hart for Open Minds, a trio date featuring pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, and here yet another side of Hart emerges. Whereas Sixty-Eight and Traverse find Hart pushing the soloists with assertive tom-tom fills and such, Open Minds is a forum for Hart the minimalist. The session is not without fire, but Hart often deploys brushes and stays out of the way while Pilc does his deconstructive best. The menu includes standards such as “Someday My Prince Will Come,” “My Funny Valentine” and “How Deep Is the Ocean,” and if anyone can renew these old workhorses, Pilc can. The pianist’s constant departures from familiar scripts make this a more rewarding date than True Story, Pilc’s 2010 trio session with Hart and bassist Boris Kozlov.
Along with Vinding’s intriguing title track and Pilc’s “Golden Key,” Hart’s lyrical “Irah” is a welcome addition to Open Minds — calmer and more straightforward than the version on Hart’s 1993 album Amethyst, closer to his rendition with Ethan Iverson and Mark Turner on 2006’s Quartet. In any case, it’s ample proof of Hart’s fine melodic instinct and well-rounded artistry.
It’s hard to avoid the word “authenticity” when describing the raw, bone-deep sense of swing that permeates Introducing Triveni, easily one of the top jazz recordings of 2010. Trumpeter Avishai Cohen, bassist Omer Avital and drummer Nasheet Waits lock it in from the first moments of “One Man’s Idea,” a brisk Cohen original, but they’re just as sturdy and impressive on slow-crawling tempos such as Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.” This is clearly a band effort, full of subtlety and keen interaction, even if Cohen’s main purpose seems to be playing the hell out of the horn.
The trumpet-bass-drums format is not terribly common, and yet it isn’t new to Cohen — he teamed with bassist John Sullivan and drummer Jeff Ballard for his 2003 debut The Trumpet Player (adding tenorist Joel Frahm on three tracks). For his 2008 release Flood, Cohen made music that was darker, more meditative and vamp-oriented, recruiting pianist Yonatan Avishai and percussionist Daniel Freedman, his colleagues from the eclectic band Third World Love. Though Avital is a Third World Love member as well, he and Cohen generate fireworks of another sort here. Their work on Introducing Triveni is solidly, unambiguously “in the tradition” and still every bit as inventive.
Simply put, this is a platform for Cohen the jazz virtuoso. His flair for modern trumpet language is impeccable on “Ferrara Napoly,” a dark and elaborate theme that morphs into a blues (complete with a surprise quote of “When I Fall In Love”). The wah-wah muting on “Mood Indigo” conjures Bubber Miley, arguably by way of Wynton Marsalis. Don Cherry’s “Art Deco,” in plain and accessible F major, sounds as close to a standard as Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” — both tunes get a similar midtempo treatment, with Waits showing fine taste and control on brushes. John Coltrane’s “Wise One” is full of open-ended rubato tumult, while Cohen’s “Amenu” and “October 25th” are orchestrated in a tight-but-loose way, highlighting the trio’s effortless rapport.
In frequent visits to Brazil since 2005, guitarist Anthony Wilson laid the groundwork and nourished the alliances that led to the marvelous Campo Belo, featuring André Mehmari on piano, Guto Wirtti on bass and Edu Ribeiro on drums. Hailing from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, these players are so talented it’s almost startling — bold and resonant in sound, adaptable to any mood or vernacular reference Wilson desires, able to swing mightily when called upon.
Wilson’s press material states that Campo Belo isn’t supposed to be a “Brazilian project,” and it makes sense: his Savivity (2005) and Jack of Hearts (2009) weren’t typical organ trio dates either. This is how the guitarist operates, striving to transcend idiom and forge a consistently original voice. His 10 pieces on Campo Belo are flowing, harmonically imaginative, stamped with his crisp and three-dimensional guitar tone, which leaps out elegantly in the mix. The orchestrations are uncluttered, and Wilson’s writing, intricate as it often is, never lacks a sense of clear melodic purpose.
Certainly the Brazilian influence rears its head, in the joyously spinning rhythm of “Valsacatu,” or in Ribeiro’s uncommon snare drum pattern at the start of the leadoff title track. The clarinet and accordion parts on “Flor de Sumaré,” courtesy of guests Joana Queiroz and Vitor Gonçalves respectively, add a subtly indigenous flavor, even as Wilson’s modernist harmony complicates the setting. Mehmari’s accordion on the bright and lyrical 7/8 piece “Edu” creates a similar folkloric effect.
“After the Flood,” meanwhile, is an unapologetic blast of jazz, swinging and metrically devious. The closing “Transitron” finds Wilson and Mehmari stretching out on unresolved chords, propelled by an erratic ostinato groove. In contrast, the gentle “Elyria” has country-music echoes — Ribeiro’s train-like snare couldn’t be more ideal. It’s the most vivid example of cultures intermingling to the point of seamlessness. And it’s hard to imagine anyone but Wilson and his mates dreaming it up in the first place.
The breadth and allure of Jane Ira Bloom’s music seems to grow with every release. Wingwalker, her latest, is a fine showcase of her soprano saxophone mastery but also her compositional and bandleading wiles. Part of the secret is her pianist, Dawn Clement, who makes her second recorded appearance with Bloom since 2008’s Mental Weather.
One recalls Bloom’s deep and longstanding bond with Fred Hersch, forged over many years, and Clement stands up well in light of that history. A Seattle native, she brings a tight but flexible swing to the date and functions like a small orchestra, reacting with highly attuned ears to the music of bassist Mark Helias and drummer Bobby Previte (both longtime Bloom allies).
And yet Bloom is front and center, with a warm and balanced tone and her usual electronic enhancements —harmonizers, echoes and so forth — lending yet more individuality to her sound. Her writing is fresh and involved: Even on pieces lasting just six minutes or less, such as “Life on Cloud 8” and “Freud’s Convertible,” she creates multipart structures involving stark rhythmic shifts, pushing her quartet to the fullest.
“Airspace” and “Frontiers in Science” feature beautifully executed unison playing, wide-open harmony and driving, deeply felt rhythm (swing and straight-eighth, respectively). “Ending Red Songs” and “Adjusting to Midnight,” both trio sketches without drums, share a dark and plaintive, Shorter-esque quality, while the title track, a rubato piece for quartet, brings to mind the ethereal yet unsettled world of Paul Motian.
As much as Bloom thrives in mellower, pastoral settings, Wingwalker has its gritty blues and even rock-like elements. The magnificent “Rooftops Speak Dreams” finds Previte digging into a simple beat as Clement splashes dense chords at endless contrasting angles. “Live Sports” is funky and hi-hat-driven, with a looped bass line and hiccupping figures built into the form. Previte’s cymbal work on the album is uncannily clear and pointed, and his layered percussion colors leave one wondering whether he multi-tracked some of his parts. His swing is unassailable on the medium-bright “Rookie,” which reminds us that for all the countless hues in Bloom’s tonal palette, we’re listening to a jazz artist, pure and simple.
Gerald Cleaver’s Uncle June Be It As I See It (Fresh Sound New Talent)
By David R. Adler
It’s scarcely an exaggeration to say that drummer Gerald Cleaver can play everything: from the down-the-middle postbop of Jeremy Pelt to the free-blowing fury of Charles Gayle, to the pellucid soundscapes of Miroslav Vitous and more. Cleaver is an artist belonging to no camp, and this explains much about the stunning individuality of Be It As I See It, his third Fresh Sound release.
“To Love,” with its pumping rock beat and anarchic tonal mishmash (Cleaver shouts the song title out loud at various points), sounds virtually nothing like the remainder of the album — quite a stark choice for an opener. Following this, “Charles Street Sunrise” is already a world away, with a dark, dissonant mood and slow-moving legato tones from Andrew Bishop’s flute and Drew Gress’s arco bass. Oddly, the piece slips into a clear tempo toward the end but then quickly fades out. Later in the program, “Charles Street Quotidian” picks up the thread, as the same motive from the fadeout blossoms into a full piece. The continuity is striking, and Cleaver strengthens this narrative aspect of the music with an extended suite called “Fence & Post,” which stretches to fill nearly half the album.
Craig Taborn’s brilliant acoustic piano flights (“Gremmy,” “22 Minutes”) and alien keyboard and organ murmurings (“The Lights,” “Statues / Umbra”) loom large. So do the individual solo voices and sectional counterpoint of Mat Maneri on viola, Tony Malaby on tenor and soprano and Andrew Bishop on multi-reeds. These are loyal allies of Cleaver’s: Taborn, Maneri and Bishop appeared on the drummer’s 2001 debut Adjust; Bishop returned for Gerald Cleaver’s Detroit in 2008; and Cleaver’s co-led trio projects with Lotte Anker (saxophone) and William Parker (bass) both feature Taborn in the piano chair.
Beyond this strongly unified core of a band, Cleaver tosses in wild-card elements like the noisy guitar of Ryan Macstaller, spicy banjo from Andy Taub (who engineered and mixed the album), and the left-field vocals of Jean Carla Rodea and John Cleaver (the leader’s father, also a drummer). The disparate streams feed into a surging river, a music full of nerve and murky beauty.