The clarinet looms large in Chris Speed’s work, though he spent the first two nights of his residency at the Stone solely on tenor saxophone. In the last of four trio sets with bassist Chris Tordini and drummer Dave King (Mar. 12), Speed focused mainly on music from his new Skirl release Really OK, sitting in a low chair with the bell of the horn far away from the mic. “It’s nice to play some swing music here at the Stone,” he said after a loping, slower-than-usual reading of John Coltrane’s “26-2” came to a close. “All of Me,” the similarly relaxed and swinging finale, was also something you wouldn’t expect under this downtown roof. But the opener, a brief and agitated take on Albert Ayler’s “Spirits,” fit like a glove. Regardless of source material, the trio brought to bear a unified aesthetic, rooted in Speed’s dark tenor sound and exploratory phrasing. There were two originals from the album played back to back: first the slowly churning 5/4 vehicle “Takedown” and then the brighter “Argento,” prefaced by King’s incendiary intro on drums. “Transporter,” set up by Tordini with resonant double-stops, harmonics and other textures, came from the book of a different project: Speed’s yeah NO, a quartet slated for the following night. Some six more lineups would play before Speed’s residency ran its course, so the Really OK trio seemed a fine way to limber up. Its loose and effortless interaction, broad dynamic contrasts and controlled wild streak played to Speed’s strengths and got at something vital about his artistry. (David R. Adler)
Relationships run deep in pianist Noah Baerman’s Jazz Samaritan Alliance, even if the sextet’s Jazz Gallery engagement (Mar. 13) was the first live gig of its existence. Celebrating the release of Ripples (Lemel), Baerman opened with the expansive “Motherless” — based on the spiritual “Motherless Child” — and called upon the prodigious talents of vibraphonist Chris Dingman, alto saxophonist Kris Allen, tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, bassist Henry Lugo and drummer Johnathan Blake. There were rubato passages, unaccompanied spots and tight restatements of the theme, animated by a strutting feel and horn harmonies that recalled classic Blue Note. Baerman’s “Peeling the Onion” was funkier, moderately paced, full of rhythmic intricacy and harmonic ambiguity. Guest flutist Erica von Kleist brought an emotional connection to the 3/4 ballad “The Healer,” forming a mini horn section with Allen and Escoffery and venturing her own solo just before Baerman’s. Two vignettes, “Ripple: Persistence” and “Ripple: Brotherhood,” featured modified lineups. The first was a boppish quartet feature for the virtuosic Allen while the second took an atmospheric turn, with Escoffery’s soprano sax guiding (and Allen sitting out). “Zaneta,” from Dingman’s album Waking Dreams, closed the first set in a decisively swinging mood, with Escoffery blowing fiercely once again. As intent as Baerman was on sharing the spotlight, he did plenty to light up the music with his lyricism, drive and confident touch at the keys.(DA)
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.
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.