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)
Having endured as a working band for nearly a decade and a half, The Bad Plus doesn’t lack for material. The first Sunday set at the Village Vanguard (Jan. 6) featured pieces from the trio’s latest Made Possible but also others stretching back to Give (2004) and Suspicious Activity? (2005). It’s a repertoire of great distinction, and all of it in this set was original, with each of the bandmates (pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, drummer Dave King) contributing tunes. No deconstructed rock-pop-disco-electronica covers for now — but note that originals have made up the bulk of the band’s work from the start. Iverson’s “Mint” led it off, stormy and rubato, pushing toward chaos and yet unmistakably precise. King’s “Wolf Out” followed with insistent polyrhythm and faster, higher precision — a strong example of the band’s willingness to foreground composition entirely, leaving improv temporarily to the side. Yet there were solos as well, and powerful ones: King’s commanding statements toward the end of Anderson’s “You Are” and Iverson’s “Reelect That” brought the energy in the house to a high. The playing was extraordinary, the musical language inimitable: melodically pure and pop-like, “swinging” in the broad sense, at times as dense and intricate as the most modern chamber group. Anderson took to the role of banterer between tunes, winding the audience up in deadpan fashion with tales of body sprays, science fair volcanoes and a tabla-playing E.T. (David R. Adler)
Pianist Gerald Clayton told his audience at Smalls (Jan. 9) that he had to “work up the courage” to call tenor saxophonist Mark Turner when putting together the band. It was Clayton’s first gig there in some time, and the quartet, with Turner, bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Obed Calvaire, offered something different from Clayton’s celebrated working trio. They started simply, with the midtempo Charlie Parker blues “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” serving as a launch pad into space. No matter how far they stretched, however, they swung, and Brewer maybe most of all: his solos held the room rapt with their rhythmic authority, lithe technique and pure soul, especially on “Under Mad Hatter Medicinal Group On,” Clayton’s homage to Billy Strayhorn’s “U.M.M.G.” Calvaire brought something indispensable to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma,” maintaining a tight, staccato triplet feel and using every percussive detail of the drum kit. With “Vibe Quota,” the set ended in a quieter way: first came the bass/tenor unison theme in a low register, then contemplative tenor and piano solos, then a brighter vamp with a smoking drum sendoff from Calvaire. Turner seemed the most cerebral and restrained of the group, but the fact that he projected plenty of sound, with no mic, in front of a rhythm section as driving as this was remarkable. His compositional voice was also in the mix: the second set opened with an intriguing, uncommonly slow interpretation of “Myron’s World.” (DA)
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.