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One Look Back

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Every year seems to confront me with a few titles from the year just ended that I really wanted to write about but somehow never did. Sometimes, like this time, it's more than a few titles. I'm sure we'll discover some amazing music this coming year, but there's nothing wrong with just one quick look back before we go.

Johnny Blas
Indestructible Spirit
CuBop
2007

"This album differs in style, it has more of a funky jazz beat with a twist of Latin," suggests Johnny Blas. "Kind of a throwback to the '70s sound." Indestructible Spirit also represents rebirth for Latin percussionist Blas, who leads a brand new band and even performs on saxophone.

"Oaklands Mambo" opens the set up bright and tight, a nicely loping Latin instrumental groove with trombones and other horns blowing like a blast furnace while percussion drives the rhythm section in the engine room. "Puerto Rico Rico" downshifts the tempo of its Latin groove but maintains its velocity, with its cuatro (small ten-stringed guitar) solo snaking throughout like the song's nervous system. The dancing continues with "Boogaloo Blas," which is precisely that: A funky, head-bobbin' Latin boogaloo that moves in precise syncopation but under the canopy of a horn chart that seems to spread the warm and carefree sunshine of the Caribbean isles.

"Afro Rican" reaches further out: Blas opens with a percussion solo that resounds with crossing Puerto Rican and African rhythms, while the lead saxophone slices through the mix with a cutting sound that suggests Yusef Lateef's explorations of eastern instrumental music (and also quotes from 'Trane's version of "My Favorite Things" to fine effect). Blas' title track goes even further as it sets up a humming, beeping flow of synthesized vocals, keyboards and percussion, and then saxophone and trombone seem to rhythmically cut in against the flow, this set's most ambitious rhythm arrangement.

Closer to earth, "Barry Rogers" revisits the ballad that first appeared on Blas' live debut (A Night in LA, 1995), expanded to accommodate abundantly vibrant melodic and improvised playing from the horn and rhythm players; its lead saxophone intimates the melody of the dreamy classic "So Many Stars" and the soulful yet still jazz sound of Grover Washington, Jr. (especially Grover's Kudu and CTI recordings).

You can read in its notes how personal this recording became for him: "What you hear will be completely different than any of my other recordings. It is a representation of who I have become once again." If this is the sound of that, then Blas has become one seriously multifaceted and funky dude.

Club d'Elf
Perhapsody Live 10.12.06
Kufala
2007

A floating ensemble in every best sense of "floating," Club d'Elf is tethered to bassist Mike Rivard and the more or less house rhythm section from Rivard's extended residency at the Lizard Lounge, a progressive if not experimental music club in Boston. After releasing numerous live albums—the best laboratory for their mainly improvised, genre-munching music—they released their first studio album (Now I Understand) in late 2006. What did they do at their studio album release party? Why, perform and record it for another live album—Perhapsody, a double-CD set that overflows with jam.

Most tunes led by Tom Hall's tenor saxophone suggest jazz fusion hijacked into more adventurous (and sometimes dangerous) territory. Hall's sax shapes the structure and leads the instrumentation of "Life of the Mind," for example, even though the music those instruments are actually playing sounds more attuned to experimental hip-hop and funk. He later leads the almost jolly yet crumpled bop melody of Steve Bernstein's "Cave Man," kicked by Erik Kerr's whipcrack snare drum down the echoing corridor of Rivard's bass heartbeat, which shifts into a thick jungle vamp for a middle section that seems designed to let the music breathe, culminating in a Rivard / Kerr dialogue / diatribe that bombdrops atomic funk.

Like quicksilver, the rest of this moves even more all over the place than that. Several longer tunes (such as "Sin Gas" and the title track) explore collective electric rock-jazz improvisations. "Berber Song" may be based on a form of traditional Moroccan folk music but its frantic lead guitar, clattering backdrop and rhythmic churn exemplify the busy-ness of modern American life. Similarly, "Jar of Hair" rocks hard through music that doesn't even come close to rock 'n' roll, as Rivard's bass seems to play "Tag—you're it!" with Kerr's drum patterns under the cover of an electric guitar psychedelic freakout.

I've been listening to Perhapsody for several consecutive weeks and still haven't figured out how to explain or describe this music. Which is is probably the most honest and accurate Club d'Elf review of all.


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