John O’Gallagher The Anton Webern Project (Whirlwind)
By David R. Adler
In tackling the music of Austrian serialist Anton Webern (1883-1945), alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher expands on a history of jazz-classical interchange that’s as old as jazz itself. Strong recent examples include Michael Bates’ Acrobat, devoted to Shostakovich; Samuel Blaser’s Consort In Motion and Mirror to Machaut, focused on Monteverdi and Machaut respectively; and The Bad Plus’ For All I Care with its acute renderings of Stravinsky, Ligeti, Babbitt and more.
On The Anton Webern Project, O’Gallagher approaches eight Webern compositions in a sextet format, with vocalist Margret Grebowicz joining on three tracks. Even if one knew nothing about the origin of the material, it would be a great listen: the band is immensely tight and texturally engrossing. Russ Lossing plays Rhodes and piano but spends much of his time on Hammond organ — a refreshing choice to interpret harmony this dark and dense. The instrument’s warmth and fullness cuts through and enhances every finely orchestrated passage with guitarist Pete McCann and vibraphonist Matt Moran.
Much of the musical language (and on the vocal cuts, German language) comes directly from Webern, though O’Gallagher added solo sections. Good thing: his alto work is superb, aided every step by the rhythmic alliance of bassist Johannes Weidenmuller and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. But the bass and drums share equal footing in the ensemble, bringing a loose, jazz-informed energy as they execute the most challenging and dissonant written counterpoint.
O’Gallagher’s complexity and drive can bring to mind alto contemporaries such as Steve Lehman, Greg Osby, Dave Binney and Tim Berne. There are hints of those aesthetic worlds in pieces such as “Schnell (after Op. 27),” “The Secret Code (after Op. 28)” and “Quartet (after Op. 22).” But O’Gallagher succeeds in shaping a distinctive band sound and orchestrational approach. His adaptations stand on their own, but they’re more eye-opening when played alongside Webern’s originals, with instrumentation ranging from solo piano to string quartet to orchestra to mixed chorus. Each is a world apart, yet O’Gallagher detects the common thread, captures the essence and enriches the music in the end.
When cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum and his sextet finished their first set at the Jazz Gallery (November 9th), someone from the venue reached up to put a delicate framed photograph on the wall. “Did we knock that down?” Bynum joked, but the thought was plausible: his band rose to room-shaking levels, particularly during the feral alto saxophone solos of Jim Hobbs. In some of the written passages, however, Hobbs brought a flute-like sensitivity, meshing with Bynum and tuba/bass trombonist Bill Lowe in moments full of warmth and subtle color. (The horn players all wore fedoras, which was part of the vibe.) The work, “Navigation (Possibility Abstract XVII),” lasted the full set and would change significantly in the next set (“Possibility Abstract XVIII,” Bynum explained). This is the method of Navigation (Firehouse 12), the sextet’s new release, which spans two CDs and two LPs yet includes just one piece, played four times. Each reading has common elements but a radically different outcome. A band needs a strong identity to pull this off, but with guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Tomas Fujiwara completing the lineup, strength was no issue. The Halvorson-Lowe pairing was rich — Bynum was smart to have them play unison lines, fresh and unexpected. Fujiwara balanced complete freedom with undulating groove and never overpowered the room. Filiano offered not just low-end foundation but a contrapuntal voice, introducing new sounds throughout the journey. (David R. Adler)
Since the inception of Brian Blade’s Fellowship Band, pianist and cofounder Jon Cowherd has forged a distinctive sound as one of its principal composers. With Mercy (ArtistShare), Cowherd’s debut as a leader, he gives that poignant, reflective sound an even fuller spotlight. More than ever, he also shows his range and hard-swinging fervor as a pianist, as was evident at Dizzy’s Club (November 11th), where he took the stage with guitarist Mike Moreno, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Rudy Royston. The quartet played with such fire and polish that one didn’t miss the bigger names on the album itself (Bill Frisell, John Patitucci, Brian Blade). The compositions were elaborate and beautifully conceived, beginning with the uptempo “The Columns” and moving right into the sweeping three-part “Mercy Suite.” The tension-filled “Newsong” began as a Royston feature but also gave Moreno and the leader room to stretch. Cowherd ended with a nod to his New Orleans past (he’s a Kentucky-born Loyola alum), offering the gospel-tinged “Poor Folks,” an Allen Toussaint number from 1971. This was the quartet at its rockingest — one riff sort of brought to mind Deep Purple. But just before that, “Surrender’s Song” highlighted Cowherd’s harmonic approach at its most moving and poetic. He and Moreno voiced the slow rubato theme in flowing unison, evoking a lonely mood that contrasted with the set’s more aggressive New York moments. Hopefully it’s all a sign of more Cowherd-led projects in years to come. (DA)
Cornet specialists aren’t in huge supply, but Kirk Knuffke stands out among this unique lot for his versatility and expressive depth. He’s explored Steve Lacy’s music with Ideal Bread and the Lennie Tristano legacy with Ted Brown. He’s offered a compelling take on the repertoire of Monk, Ellington and Mingus in duets with pianist Jesse Stacken. His sideman work with Matt Wilson, Jon Irabagon and others is vigorous and surefooted. Chorale, Knuffke’s fourth outing as a leader, finds him in a brilliant lineup with pianist Russ Lossing, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Billy Hart. It’s striking that the nine original pieces all have one-word titles save for the closing “Good Good,” which playfully shifts from uptempo to half-time swing.
Striving for a balance of the written and the freely improvised, Knuffke opens with the former, a plaintive rubato invention called “Wingy.” Hart’s drumming is identifiable within the first minute and its appeal only grows from there, giving more tempo-based pieces such as “Kettle,” “Standing” and “School” a sense of dynamic flux and timbral oddity.
“Madly” revives the hovering feel of the opener but in a much freer context; it’s the longest piece of the set, moving through passages of near silence and ending with Lossing’s fiery unaccompanied piano. The transition from there to “Match” is pretty magical: Lossing is out for the first two minutes while Formanek states a steady bass line and Hart plays hypnotic tom-toms, moving to more jazz-like sticks and cymbals the very moment the piano comes in.
The blend of cornet, bowed bass and piano on the title track does in fact suggest a chorale. This bit of lyrical and offbeat chamber-jazz, rather unlike the album’s other material, yields to free rubato interplay and yet somehow preserves the feeling and direction of the opening statement. It’s the strongest evidence of the band’s profound intuitive connection.
Guitarist Nate Radley doesn’t have the wide recognition of some of his six-string peers, though he’s one of the tastiest and most consistent players on the scene. He’s done enviable sideman work with Alan Ferber, Loren Stillman, Marc Mommaas, Andrew Rathbun and others. He debuted in 2012 with The Big Eyes (Fresh Sound New Talent), using a lineup of guitar, alto sax and (sometimes) Fender Rhodes with rhythm section. On the new Carillon he omits keyboard but keeps the guitar/reed front line, using tenor saxophonist Chris Cheek alongside Matt Clohesy on bass and Ted Poor on drums.
Radley isn’t after wild and extravagant soundscapes in the studio. He plays semi-hollowbody guitar, straightforwardly and beautifully, with a round but slightly steely tone and just a bit of reverb. He has a buoyant rhythmic feel, a cohesive hookup with Cheek and a fluid harmonic approach that lets him fill plenty of space when the horn lays out.
Radley’s writing has a lushness and intricacy, a way with pacing and contrast, from the bright feel and contrapuntal invention of the opening “Carillon” to the mellower glide of “Positive Train,” the finale. There’s something logical and satisfying in the transition from “Whiteout,” an evocative waltz for solo guitar, to “Fadeout,” with its slow rock feel and majestic minor-modal tonality.
These are eclectic players who are nonetheless rooted in jazz — something Radley stresses with his inclusion of Thelonious Monk’s “Hornin’ In,” Cole Porter’s “All Through the Night” and the Charlie Parker-associated ballad “Laura,” by David Raksin. (There were no standards on Radley’s debut.) In a word, the quartet can swing. Radley has a rich and well-developed take on Monk’s aesthetic. He reads the Porter tune in a staggered uptempo swing feel and cleverly opts to have Poor solo first. But the dark original ballad “Some More” works just as well as a jazz showcase. The ending, an E-flat minor chord held and elaborated for a quietly stunning 20 seconds, is probably the session’s single finest moment.
Recorded live at Cornelia Street Café in February 2013, Arc Trio finds veteran bassist Mario Pavone in turbulent waters with Craig Taborn on piano and Gerald Cleaver on drums. These aren’t some random sidemen: Taborn and Cleaver share a bond going back to the Detroit scene of the late ’80s. The freedom and focus they bring to these eight Pavone originals is often astounding.
As it happens, Arc Trio comes just five months after Taborn’s trio debut for ECM, Chants, also featuring Cleaver (with bassist Thomas Morgan). While Chants richly deserves the accolades it has received, Pavone’s outing is just as vital and shouldn’t slip past the radar. It’s fueled by a similar simpatico, though with a grittier aesthetic and compositional logic. Chants boasts that exalted, polished ECM sound; Arc Trio captures a night in a club with a piano that Taborn wouldn’t likely choose otherwise, but bends to his will nonetheless.
In his liner notes, Pavone gets specific about his obsessions and models: Paul Bley’s The Floater, Andrew Hill’s Smokestack, Steve Kuhn’s Three Waves and Keith Jarrett’s Life Between the Exit Signs, along with certain works by Dick Twardzik and Muhal Richard Abrams. One way or another, the rhythmic thrust and texture of all this music gets filtered into Arc Trio, beginning with the frenetic double-stop bass riff and dense piano theme of “Andrew” (first heard on the 2008 quintet release Ancestors, featuring Cleaver).
Pavone’s writing is often spare and concise, with tightly played heads but also room for open blowing over solid tempos. While there aren’t many prescribed chords, the pieces have distinct tonal personalities conjured by the brilliance of the players involved. “Eyto,” “Hotep” and the closing “Dialect” have a jumpy, unpredictable flow while “Poles” and “Alban Berg” usher in a slower swing vibe. Taborn is explosive and virtuosic on “Not Five Kimono” and “Box in Orange,” both also found on previous Pavone outings but given new life. Cleaver is dynamic and funky throughout, though sonically it is Pavone’s snappy bass that gets captured the best.
Celebrating the release of Ängsudden Song Cycle (482 Music) at Roulette (October 13), multi-reedist Mike McGinnis could barely be seen during the concert’s first half. He was up in the balcony playing “ÄngsuddenAbstracts” for solo soprano saxophone while dancer Davalois Fearon performed onstage below. In a way, McGinnis danced as well: the intense reverberant sound of his horn changed as he paced the floor, moving closer and farther, setting the scene for the octet showcase of the second half. The stage was strewn with dry leaves and branches — an autumnal flourish, perhaps a nod to the Swedish locale of Ängsudden, the subject of a series of paintings and poems by McGinnis’ collaborator MuKha. Her projections appeared onscreen above the band; her stark black-and-white tapestries hung down from balcony; her words were sung with warmth and precision by vocalist Kyoko Kitamura. There’s no shortage of “chamber jazz” today, but McGinnis brought forth an ensemble sound all his own, playing clarinet and bass clarinet and blending beautifully with Sarah Schoenbeck’s bassoon, the pinpoint vibraphone of drummer Harris Eisenstadt, the pliant viola of Jason Kao Hwang and the deep-toned bass of Dan Fabricatore. Sean Moran’s nylon-string guitar and Khabu Doug Young’s cavaquinho were paired brilliantly, not least on “You Are Morning,” a ray of Brazilian-tinged sunshine and pure melodic inspiration that ought to be remembered many years from now. (David R. Adler)
If one thing came across during tenor saxophonist Jason Rigby’s first set at Cornelia Street Café (October 5), it was experience. Pianist Russ Lossing, bassist Cameron Brown and drummer Tom Rainey, Rigby’s quartet mates, played with a lucidity that comes from years and years on the bandstand. Rigby, pushing 40, is a bit younger but just as seasoned and assured in his approach. “Noire,” the first piece, began with a lustrous and complex rubato melody and evolved over many minutes, returning to a cued unison figure to keep the exploration grounded. Without pause the band moved into Thelonious Monk’s “Bye-Ya,” embracing a more straightahead vibe with a round of burning solos and trading, still just as adventurous. “New Tune,” by drummer George Schuller, brought back a lyrical rubato feel and allowed for inspired duo exchanges — first between tenor and drums, then tenor and bass. Brown’s powerful solo courted silence and stillness, but Lossing’s entrance, informed by a deep and fluid swing even at a free tempo, sent the music spinning again. In a dreamy and abstract way, the pianist segued into his own “Brain Wave,” the finale, marked by a bass-driven vamp that propelled the tune straight through to Rainey’s climactic drum feature. At the music’s most intense peaks, Rigby maintained a velvety warmth and restraint. His is not a language of high-register wails; there’s a sense of calm within the storm, captured so well on his titles Translucent Space and The Sage, that makes his music unique and endlessly inviting. (DA)
When the collaborative quartet Ideal Bread played Ibeam (Aug. 12th) the clock was running on a Kickstarter appeal for Beating the Teens, the band’s third album devoted to the music of Steve Lacy. Beating the Teens is a twist on Scratching the Seventies (Saravah), the landmark Lacy collection, which Ideal Bread hopes to revisit and transform in its entirety. Baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton, the group’s appointed talker, introduced Kirk Knuffke on cornet, Adam Hopkins on bass (taking over for Reuben Radding) and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, all of whom made a strong case for the album in the works. They led off with the slow splintered theme of “The Wane” and followed it with “Scraps,” a brighter piece, all meticulous harmonized hits and odd drum patterns. “Dreams,” built around sensitive duet exchanges for cornet and drums, led right into “Cryptosphere,” an almost John Cagean affair: Sinton scraped at the floor with a kitchen utensil, Hopkins dropped a hardcover book several times, Fujiwara lifted up his floor tom and struck a cymbal with it — all while an Ideal Bread recording played in the background. As Sinton explained, Lacy dedicated these pieces to figures as diverse as Kid Ory and Frederic Rzewski, and the reference points all seemed to make sense. The first set closed with another medley: “Ladies,” which pitted an agitated rhythm section against the more relaxed legato horns; then into “Blinks,” with an all-out solo by Fujiwara, who put a New Orleans spin on Lacy’s ingenious quasi-Monkish line. (David R. Adler)
At first glance bassist Pedro Giraudo’s Expansions Big Band looked like a standard jazz lineup: five saxophones, four trombones, four trumpets and rhythm section with piano. But the first set at Birdland (Aug. 11th) quickly revealed the skills of Paulo Stagnaro on cajón and percussion, often obscured from view by Giraudo’s upright bass. Seated between drummer Franco Pinna and pianist Jess Jurkovic, Stagnaro brought the leader’s wide-ranging South American influences into vibrant relief, boosting the rhythmic dynamism and sonic power of the music. “Moñeca,” in driving 5/4, featured Giraudo on electric bass and trombonist Ryan Keberle and Pinna as soloists. Another electric bass vehicle, “Duende del Maté” from Giraudo’s 2011 release Córdoba (Zoho), beckoned with furious beats and handclaps, intricate section writing and solos by Miki Hirose on trumpet and Sam Sadigursky on tenor sax. Two pieces, “La Viudita” and “Desconsuelo,” dated back to 2005 but sounded fresh as larger scores (Expansions has two more trumpets and trombones than the Pedro Giraudo Jazz Orchestra). Alto saxophonist Will Vinson, a prominent voice throughout, soared on the main theme and ripped up the solo section of “La Ley Primera,” rooted in the zamba ballad form of Giraudo’s native Argentina. The most striking solo entrance came late in the set: trombonist Mike Fahie, on “Desconsuelo,” burned with confidence while staring ahead, a little stunned, as though looking right back at himself. (DA)