It’s clear right away that pianist Fred Hersch’s “My Coma Dreams” is not a typical concert experience. Hersch premiered the “jazz theater” piece in New Jersey in 2011; the new production at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre (March 2) was altered but substantially similar. Narrator-vocalist Michael Winther portrayed both Hersch and his partner, Scott Morgan, describing the composer’s near-death experience from complications of AIDS. When he sang, Winther brought us inside the dream world that Hersch inhabited while unconscious for six weeks. Hersch played with a calm and luminous authority, fronting a midsized ensemble of reeds, brass, strings and rhythm conducted by Gregg Kallor (with standout solos from tenorist Adam Kolker, altoist Bruce Williamson and trumpeter Ralph Alessi). The music floated largely free of genre, although bassist John Hébert and drummer John Hollenbeck ensured that it swung when needed on episodes such as “Dream of Monk” and “Jazz Diner.” Winther was drowned out a couple of times by the band — something that didn’t happen at the premiere — but otherwise the sound was pristine. Hersch’s solitary piano on “The Boy” and Joyce Hammann’s viola feature on “Brussels” were simply stunning. In detailing a medical trauma, the show arrived at moving insights on life, love and the human condition. One haunting line in “The Knitters” took on multiple meanings as it was repeated: “We end as we begin.” (David R. Adler)
From the loopy, elliptical way that drummer Billy Hart addressed the second-set crowd at Dizzy’s (March 14), it was easy to see how at home he feels with the members of his working quartet — tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Ben Street. Continuing in the exploratory vein of All Our Reasons, the band’s extraordinary 2012 debut for ECM, Hart shifted his focus to new music — some of which could appear on a follow-up for ECM in the works. “Yard,” based on the Charlie Parker blues “Cheryl,” was wide open harmonically (after his venturesome turn, Iverson got off the bench and let Turner solo without chords). Hart’s “Amethyst,” radically reworked from its early ’90s origins, grew from slow atmospheric rubato to raging dissonance, at last falling into tempo for an elegant written theme and finish. “Motional,” another earlier Hart composition, took on an easygoing Caribbean lilt, while Iverson’s “Neon,” from the 2006 HighNote release Quartet, closed the set in a 12/8 feel full of urgency and tension. Turner and Iverson showed a fearsome rapport on the pianist’s “Big Trees,” trading full choruses on rhythm changes, mostly without bass. Turner’s contribution, the lyrical midtempo swinger “Sonnet for Stevie” — “dig that,” remarked Hart when he said the title — highlighted the leader’s ability to reorient the conversation with a perfectly placed accent, a drop in ride cymbal volume, just the right thing in the moment. The time ebbed and flowed but never wavered. (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)
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.