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)
When trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and pianist Angelica Sanchez played duo at Greenwich House Music School (April 6), there were zones of deep concentration and silence, but also an outburst or two from car horns on the small West Village street just outside. Smith’s horn, too, shattered the calm, but with high musical intent and creative control. Three of the six untitled improvisations began with Smith solo, commanding the room with triple-fortissimo shouts, relaxed and poetic legato lines, coarse multiphonic timbres, breath tones and fast blurry runs. Receiving all this inspiration from a few feet away, Sanchez showed a great virtuosic reach, favoring a dark language with 20th-century echoes. At one point she strove to drown out the car horns with a dissonant crescendo, but in quieter moments one could hear her voice, singing the notes and melodies as they emerged. Her sparse rubato passages and harp-like string strumming had a way of bringing out Smith’s lyricism and introspection. “More,” called out one listener after the fifth piece, but Smith grinned and turned the request around: “How much more?” Then began the stormy encore, with rumbling rhythms and patterns and a huge, long-decaying bass note from the piano as its final gesture. The rich harmonic bed of this collaboration sets it apart from Smith’s other recent duos with Louis Moholo-Moholo, Anthony Braxton, Adam Rudolph, Jack DeJohnette and others. There will in fact be more: Smith and Sanchez entered the studio the next day to record. (David R. Adler)
With the band name Voyager emblazoned on his bass drum head, drummer Eric Harland appeared at Jazz Standard (April 13) and played five powerful extended numbers straight through. In this second of three sets, the leader spoke only at the end to introduce his colleagues: tenorist Walter Smith III, guitarist Julian Lage, pianist Taylor Eigsti and bassist Harish Raghavan. Each of these mammoth musicians could have played a full solo set and left the crowd happy, but what they did was a sequence of unaccompanied virtuoso spots to introduce or transition the tunes — “Intermezzos,” as Harland termed them on his 2011 debut Voyager: Live By Night (Sunnyside). Following a bright and challenging opener with the provisional title “New Song,” Lage brought a ragged experimentalism and strategic effects-pedal tweaking to his intro on “Voyager.” Raghavan was nimble and deeply expressive as he segued into the lyrical waltz ballad “Trust the Light.” Eigsti destroyed at the piano but also brought a cool and glowing harmony to the band, taking the spotlight right before the irresistibly soulful “Eclipse.” Smith battled a little harder to be heard, but he shred the music to pieces consistently. Harland’s show-stopping solo before “Play With Me,” the catchy groove-based finale, might have topped the energy of all previous intermezzos combined. But Harland doesn’t seek to dominate: he picks players who can do what he does, transforming the moment in their own highly personal way. (DA)
As a student of Lennie Tristano and a noted colleague of Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, tenor saxophonist Ted Brown provides a living link to the Tristano school — an intriguing area in jazz history, somewhere in the interstices between bop and “cool.” Brown turned 85 the day before his gig at the Drawing Room (Dec. 2), so he arrived ready to celebrate in his calm and imperturbable way. His co-leader for the first set was Brad Linde, a young DC-based tenorist and Brown disciple, who played with distinction on Brown’s “Smog Eyes” and Tristano’s “317 East 32nd Street,” not to mention the standards “Broadway” and “My Melancholy Baby.” Pianist Michael Kanan, who runs the Drawing Room as a rehearsal space and concert venue, joined the band and juiced up the harmony, adding his own inventive spark. After a break, attention turned to Brown with cornetist Kirk Knuffke, bassist Chris Lightcap and drummer Matt Wilson. Harmony was king in this quartet, even with no piano: Knuffke and Brown snaked their way through the changes of “Featherbed” (based on “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To”) and applied the Tristano logic in minor keys (“Jazz of Two Cities”) and waltz time (“Dig-It”), all from their new SteepleChase disc Pound Cake. Knuffke had a way of dancing into his melodies, as if striving to embody each phrase physically. Brown played his trickiest heads without a flaw, and his solos, while not as agile as way back in the day, were stamped with pure individuality. (David R. Adler)
Though it entailed gathering musicians from various parts of the globe, Canadian clarinet master François Houle did the right thing by playing ShapeShifter Lab (Dec. 2) with the exact lineup from his brilliant Songlines release Genera. The frontline of Houle, trombonist Samuel Blaser and cornetist/flugelhornist Taylor Ho Bynum allowed for endless color mutations and finely rendered written parts. Benoît Delbecq kept a fairly low profile on piano and prepared piano, but he endowed the music with a wealth of harmonic and percussive twists. Bassist Michael Bates and drummer Harris Eisenstadt pointed the way from the airiest rubato abstraction to driving, meticulously placed rhythms. The set began slow, with the dark lyricism of “Le concombre de Chicoutimi,” but Houle was thinking in terms of a long medley: Bates soon segued to the uptempo line of “Essay No. 7,” then joined Eisenstadt for a bass/drums interlude that brought the band into the emphatic, slow-grooving “Guanara.” Houle was blowing two clarinets at once by the time the medley was finished. On the swing-based “Albatros” he played through half a clarinet, connecting his mouthpiece directly to the lower joint. That is the essence of Houle’s approach: wildly unstable, expressionistic elements vie with straightforward and undeniable virtuosity. The dueling plunger shouts of Bynum and Blaser on “Mu-Turn Revisited” offered another vivid example. (DA)
Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt’s quintet, arguably one of the strongest working bands in jazz, has held together long enough to record four albums: November, Men of Honor, The Talented Mr. Pelt and this year’s Soul. There were new faces onstage, however, when Pelt arrived for a special birthday engagement at Smoke (November 11). Pianist Danny Grissett and bassist Dwayne Burno remained in place, bringing characteristic depth and poise to Pelt’s original material. On tenor sax, in JD Allen’s stead, was the inspired Roxy Coss, whose slow-burning and methodical approach paired well with Pelt’s more incendiary solos. Jonathan Barber, occupying Gerald Cleaver’s spot on drums, swung without inhibition and did much to enhance the music’s wide dynamic range. Having begun the second set with the intricate “Dreamcatcher,” Pelt transitioned immediately to Myron Walden’s slow and dreamlike “Pulse,” which elicited bluesy, carefully placed phrases from the leader at maximum volume — as if he were shouting to the streets just outside. On “Second Love,” the most straightforwardly lyrical piece, Pelt was subdued yet just as pointedly expressive. He put Barber in the spotlight after a full rotation of solos on the animated “Milo Hayward,” and closed with “What’s Wrong Is Right,” a forceful midtempo blues with no chordal backing (Grissett soloed with only his right hand). The pacing of the set was superb — Pelt knew exactly what he wanted, and his band was right there to do it. (David R. Adler)
Dormant for years, the Jazz Composers Collective reunited for a festival at Jazz Standard and closed out the week with the remarkable Herbie Nichols Project (November 11). This sextet’s sole purpose is to showcase the lost music of pianist/composer Nichols, one of jazz’s unheralded geniuses. To that end, pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist Ben Allison and cohorts opened with “Wildflower,” encored with “Spinning Song” and got loose mid-set over the blazing tempo of “Crisp Day/Blue Chopsticks” — all from the band’s 1996 debut Love Is Proximity. Since then, however, there’s been a startling development: an old trunk containing manuscripts for over 160 Nichols compositions, long rumored lost in a flood, was recently located. The pieces range from the late ’50s to the early ’60s (Nichols died in 1963). “Tell the Birds I Said Hello,” the second tune of the set, was from this lost batch, and it found Michael Blake pondering a simple lyrical melody on soprano sax before yielding to solos from Kimbrough and trumpeter Ron Horton. “Games and Codes,” with Blake and Ted Nash on tenors, was a doleful ballad with laid-back swing passages and tight orchestration. “Blues No. 1” also featured dual tenors up front and a go-for-broke bass solo from Allison as the main focus. “Van Allen Belt,” a showstopper, inspired a fierce outpouring from Nash on alto. While Nichols’ tunes were nothing short of a revelation, the band’s interpretive prowess at every step was equally a thing of beauty. (DA)
An announcer at Town Hall (Oct. 12) erred when he introduced the night’s marquee act as the Pat Metheny Group. It was in fact the Pat Metheny Unity Band, with Chris Potter on reeds, Ben Williams on upright bass and Antonio Sanchez on drums. Winding down a worldwide tour, the band dug into material from its eponymous Nonesuch CD but also explored a range of the master guitarist’s older repertoire. Potter’s bass clarinet on the opening “Come and See” was right away a departure — a tone color not found in Metheny’s previous work. There were moments, such as the vivacious coda of “New Year,” the flowing rubato portions of “This Belongs To You,” or the slightly sour harmony of “Interval Waltz,” that pointed to subtle compositional triumphs. Crowd energy surged when Metheny detoured into “James,” an older concert staple, and “Two Folk Songs,” a rare gem from the 80/81 album with Potter in Michael Brecker’s unforgettable role, blowing brutally dissonant tenor sax lines over a simple strumming progression. “Signals,” which found the band creating in tandem with Metheny’s “orchestrion” — a jaw-dropping array of mechanized instruments — was climactic in its way. But the machines were put to even more inspired use in the early ’80s classic “Are You Going With Me,” the first of three encores. Airy textures and beats, meshing with Potter’s gorgeous alto flute (in place of Lyle Mays’ synths), brought the night to another level. (David R. Adler)
After a warm spell of several days, the temperature was dropping just outside Bar on Fifth, on the ground floor of the Setai Hotel (Oct. 6). Pianist Pete Malinverni captured the moment with Vernon Duke’s “Autumn in New York,” easing into a ballad feel with his partners for the night: tenor saxophonist Attilio Troiano, bassist Giuseppe Venezia and drummer Carmen Intorre. Part of the annual Italian Jazz Days series, the gig was Malinverni’s first encounter with these sidemen. The tunes they chose were common standards, sensible hotel bar fare, enlivened by a flexible and alert sense of swing. Malinverni and the rhythm section broke the ice as a trio, opening the first set with “There Will Never Be Another You.” Troiano came on board for “There Is No Greater Love” in a similar midtempo vein. The robust, vibrato-rich sound of his tenor hinted at a Coleman Hawkins influence; it became much clearer when the group offered “Body and Soul,” famously Hawkins’ signature number. Venezia soloed with tenacity throughout the evening, and Intorre’s trading choruses were tight and spirited, not least on an uptempo reading of Cole Porter’s “I Love You.” Malinverni brought a boppish vocabulary and a restrained old-school touch to the music, opting for a faster-than-usual tempo on “Like Someone In Love” but a very slow one on “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” His bandmates took these twists in stride and put forward a sound impeccably steeped in the tradition. (DA)
Sometimes I tell friends that a key benefit of living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is the ease of subway travel. A couple of blocks to the 1-2-3 train and I can zip down to the Village Vanguard or the Jazz Gallery, or perhaps further out to Brooklyn, or for that matter uptown to Harlem. But jazz is very much present on the UWS, and there are times when I need not go far at all.
Cleopatra’s Needle books music every night, including open mics and jam sessions. But far bigger names, and more consequential music, can be found about 10 blocks north at Smoke: look for visits from luminaries such as Frank Wess, George Coleman and Buster Williams, or more frequent appearances by respected vocalists Gregory Porter and Allan Harris. Smoke is also home to a coterie of young-ish expert hard-boppers including saxophonists Eric Alexander and John Farnsworth, pianist David Hazeltine and organist Mike LeDonne. I have fond memories of bracing performances at Smoke by David Berkman, Wayne Escoffery (with Joe Locke), Orrin Evans and others.
My next neighborhood stop, on April 21, will be at Symphony Space, for Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano. I’ve been devouring Sondheim for the last year and can’t wait to hear interpretations from a roster of artists including Derek Bermel, Ethan Iverson, Fred Hersch, Gabriel Kahane and others from various corners of the jazz and new music worlds. Symphony Space covers a lot of ground, from theater to film to music and more, but jazz has always been a major component. My last visit was on January 21 to hear Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. Tremendous night. They’re back in mid-May.
Jazz exists on the UWS in other ways. Strolling up Riverside Drive, just up from the Firefighters Memorial on 100th Street, I always take a moment to appreciate Duke Ellington Boulevard (106th). Billy Strayhorn lived in the area too (it’s richly detailed in David Hajdu’s Strayhorn biography Lush Life). So did George Gershwin. It’s also worth noting that Columbia University, dominating the landscape of Broadway above 110th Street, is home to the Center for Jazz Studies — a vital institution with strong leadership over the years from Robert O’Meally, George Lewis and our own JJA colleague John Szwed.
The Riverside Park Fund hosts outdoor jazz concerts in the warmer seasons. Right on the grass one very sunny July 4th, I stumbled on a strong quartet set by bassist Ron McClure with tenor saxophonist Jed Levy — a really nice surprise. I’ve also discovered that Jay Leonhart, John Pizzarelli and Uri Caine are among the top-tier jazz musicians who make their homes in this vicinity. If they’re like me, they’re not leaving anytime soon.
On Miles Okazaki’s first two recordings, Mirror (2005) and Generations (2009), the leader’s guitar wasn’t the main focus. Rather, it was part of a larger ensemble fabric woven by three saxophones, bass and drums, even vocals on the latter disc. Premiering a third volume of original music, “Figurations,” at the Jazz Gallery (June 4th), Okazaki went a different route, scaling back to a quartet with Miguel Zenón on alto, Thomas Morgan on bass and Dan Weiss on drums. Here the guitar was well out in front as a solo voice, and Okazaki’s tumbling, accelerating, pointedly unstable phrases seemed to connect with Weiss’s drumming on a molecular level (a function of their work together on Weiss’s Jhaptal Drumset Solo and other projects). Even at its most austere and highly technical, the music bore traces of blues, soul, funk and swing — “Dozens,” the finale, was based on “I Got Rhythm” changes. But Okazaki drew on more obscure systems of information as well. Included in the printed program were his original drawings, mysteriously representing five of the six featured compositions, “Mandala,” “Tesselation,” “Dozens,” “Hive Mind” and “Circulation.” Bold reds and blues in complex labyrinthine patterns, against a background of jet black: Okazaki’s visual aesthetic certainly opened the door to a music that could seem baffling and rhythmically overstuffed at points. Visit the “Theory” section of milesokazaki.com to see how deep his imagination goes. (David R. Adler)
There is something immediately gripping about the speed, grace and unerring touch of Warren Wolf at the vibraphone. Clearly this isn’t lost on Bobby Watson, Christian McBride, Jeremy Pelt, Willie Jones III and others who’ve hired the young Baltimore native and new Mack Avenue Records signee. That Wolf also plays piano and drums on a high level — as documented on his recent self-release Warren “Chano Pozo” Wolf — makes him an even more unusual find. Keeping strictly to vibes at Jazz Standard (June 9th), Wolf brought on board pianist Lawrence Fields, bassist Eric Wheeler (subbing for Kris Funn) and drummer John Lamkin for an inspired one-nighter. The second set commenced with the midtempo “Soul Sister,” gliding and funky in a ’70s McCoy Tyner vein. Wolf continued with “Para Mejor o Peor” (“for better or worse”), a fine jazz ballad that grew into more of a rock power ballad by the outro. “I Surrender Dear” started at a strutting trad-jazz pace, and after Wheeler’s three able choruses Wolf delivered the goods: a set of rousing stop-time breaks and a virtuoso cadenza, the set’s defining moment. Strayhorn and Ellington capped it off: “Lush Life,” initially a vibes/piano duo, led to a breakneck “Caravan,” powered by Lamkin’s galloping swing. The first-rate piano solo left one wondering when Fields will throw his hat in the ring as a leader. No grand revelations here, but solid music-making, deep in the tradition, from a highly promising group. (DA)
From the first seconds of their show at Issue Project Room (May 5th), Starlicker sent pounding asymmetric rhythms and deft unison passages flooding into the boomy loft-like space in Gowanus. The trio’s members — cornetist Rob Mazurek, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, drummer John Herndon (of Tortoise) — hail from the heart of Chicago’s vibrant underground scene. They seemed shell-shocked and in need of rest by the end of the first tune, “Double Demon,” the title track from their new Delmark recording. This was aggressive and unrelenting stuff, yet the expansive overtones of the vibes gave the music a softer quality, even when Adasiewicz beat on his instrument like an angry man. By the time they segued to the rubato opening of “Vodou Cinque,” Mazurek was working with a mute and suggesting a more contemplative feel. There was a distinctly lyrical component, and a precise, well-rehearsed handling of themes and transitions, underlying “Orange Blossom,” “Andromeda,” “Triple Hex” and “Skull Cave.” (The set was drawn entirely from the 38-minute Double Demon, with the tracks played in order.) Starlicker is essentially a pared-down version of the quintet from Mazurek’s 2009 disc Sound Is, which included two bassists. Here the trio has a more open sound field in which to work; the result is raw but still somehow complete. Live, Herndon was the main muscle, his beats combining Elvin Jones-like suppleness with sheer punk energy. (David R. Adler)
Seattle drummer Paul Kikuchi was among the artists featured by Steve Peters in a two-week curating stint at The Stone (May 6th). Fronting a new quartet, Kikuchi had trumpeter Nate Wooley, bassist Reuben Radding and bass clarinetist Jason Stein on hand for a fairly short set — three separate pieces, each roughly in the 12-minute range. The music was freely improvised, full of motion and dynamic flux, with attention paid to fine points of tone and timbre. Sound is very much Kikuchi’s arena, as is clear from his work with the experimental duo Open Graves (hear their latest, Flight Patterns, recorded in an empty water cistern with Stuart Dempster as guest). Drum heads struck with assorted objects, ethereal feedback from walkie-talkies, amplification on Wooley’s horn, at one point a clothespin on Radding’s bass strings: these elements made Kikuchi’s new quartet a thing of sonic intrigue, with a more thoroughly abstract sound than that of the Empty Cage Quartet (another of Kikuchi’s main projects). Standing in a quasi-circle, Wooley and Stein faced the other two as they wove an intimate yet tension-filled web. There were hoarse, passionate bass clarinet asides, broad-toned arco bass passages, plenty of unscripted duo breakaways and also leaps into guttural, unabashed free jazz with the entire band sounding off. Coaxing one processed note into the ether, Wooley slowly moved his trumpet upward until it was pointed straight at the ceiling — a gesture that seemed almost devotional. (DA)
Pianist Dan Tepfer has absorbed untold wisdom through his many duo engagements with alto great Lee Konitz, but at Cornelia Street Café (April 9th) it was time for the young Tepfer to face another giant, bassist Gary Peacock. (Konitz was on hand to hear it.) “I’ll Remember April” made for an exploratory warm-up, with a strong but loosely felt tempo and streams of harmonic depth and fullness, qualities that spilled into the original material that followed. Inspired by long conversations at Peacock’s rural home, Tepfer wrote several new pieces with titles drawn from the bassist’s actual words. “If You Fail” was a hovering waltz with dark melodies and free-form episodes, rich in dialogue. “He Just Takes the Sticks and Plays,” a reference to Paul Motian, had a saucy midtempo swing bounce, harking back to the interplay of the opening standard. “The Gratitude That I Can Still Play,” an oddly configured ballad, gave Peacock one of many opportunities to show that yes, he most certainly can; his commanding solo spots and pithy responses to Tepfer held the room in rapt silence. The duo also tackled two of Peacock’s compositions: “Moor,” recorded as far back as 1963 with Paul Bley, began with weighty solo bass and grew from spacious lyricism to some of the night’s freest, most unsettled playing. “Lullabye” was the high point, however: a slow-crawling web of arpeggios and unisons and orchestrated give-and-take, ominous yet somehow delicate, proof that this pairing can do magic. (David R. Adler)
Ascend to the bandstand with pianist Martial Solal, relentless as ever at 83, and you’re going to have a challenging time of it. But bassist François Moutin faced the unusually daunting task of playing duo with Solal for a week at the Village Vanguard. At the outset of their Thursday late set (April 14th), Moutin stayed out the way while Solal got into Rodgers & Hart’s “There’s a Small Hotel,” but their swinging chemistry ignited soon enough. For all of Solal’s lightning runs and flurries, he pinned his ideas to the main melody to a remarkable extent. At full steam, however, Solal will change keys at will in the middle of a section, or quote whimsically at length, then return to the tune he left behind and have it make sense. “All the Things You Are” and “Tea for Two” found themselves commingled. “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” somehow became “Stardust” and then ended, abruptly. Ditto “Caravan” and “Prelude to a Kiss.” Moutin’s reaction time through all this was swifter than anyone could rightly expect, and his solos were often as captivating as Solal’s. The two have a similar sort of wild proficiency, and the duo format gave them a unique space to roam — although Solal’s recent trio discs NY1 and Longitude show the focusing effect a drummer can have. Here tempos were taken up and cast aside, whether on ballads like “Lover Man” and “I Can’t Get Started” or romps like “I Got Rhythm” and the jubilant encore “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” (DA)