Joel Harrison is a skilled guitarist and bandleader, but also an affecting singer and songwriter. His appearance at the 55 Bar yielded hard-nosed quintet improvisation but also “a troika of road songs,” beginning with Merle Haggard’s “White Line Fever” and continuing with two strong vocal originals, “Passing Train” and “Travel On.” Harrison has performed the Haggard tune and others like it with his Free Country group. But this outing with Christian Howes on violin, Adam Klipple on keyboards, Stephan Crump on double bass and Todd Isler on drums – brought groove, songcraft and blowing into a new and novel conversation. The set began with Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman,” taken at a faster clip than Cassandra Wilson’s version from Belly of the Sun. Harrison, who can be a tentative soloist, left ample space for Howes’ searing lines and Klipple’s bold harmonic escalations. The vaguely tango-ish “Café Lex,” marked by liquid textures and sound effects, was another highlight.
~ David Adler
Though the “super group” of reedman Michael Moore (alto sax, clarinet, bass clarinet), trumpeter Herb Robertson, pianist Fred Hersch, bassist Mark Helias, and drummer Gerry Hemingway was billed as a leaderless ensemble, in actuality it was a focused group guided by the compositions of Moore. During the ex-pat’s rare visit for a packed Monday night Tonic set (March 15th), Moore’s 16-year old Home Game (Ramboy) recording of his eleven originals was performed in its entirety. A highlight, “Redman’s” (a dedication to Dewey Redman), featured a reggae-like pulse by Hemingway, who hesitated behind the beat of the tune, exquisitely building tension between Moore’s alto and Robertson, whose trumpet is appropriately - especially here with the Ornette connection - reminiscent of Don Cherry. One of the better non New Orleans-style plunger players, a style to which most others inevitably resort, he flaunted his unique sound particularly on the encore (and only non-Home Game affiliated piece), “Manuel’s Party”. Accompanying the fivesome’s tendency to split up into various trios, from clarinet-bass-drums to alto-trumpet-drums and an occasional hornless sampling of piano trio, Hemingway frequently played brushes to avoid overplaying his colleagues. The tunes, based around simple themes and presented as very digestible 5-minute miniatures, revealed a succinct-ness with not a note wasted on drawn-out solos or extraneous dialogue.
Since the 11th anniversary of Dizzy Gillespie’s passing in January, former Diz pianist and musical director Mike Longo has been presenting jazz concerts every Tuesday at the newly christened John Birks Gillespie Auditorium at the Baha’i Center. Though still developing an audience - and reputation - the music has been without question first rate (as such was the case on March 23rd). Hal McKusick, one of jazz’ warhorse legends at near 80-years old, has been busy teaching in the far eastern stretches of Long Island but made the special trip to New York to perform, a first in over 20 years! His reed-heavy nonet incorporated a unique instrumentation of tenor (McKusick), two altos (Jerry Dodgion and Jay Brandford), baritone (Scott Robinson), trombone (Mark Patterson), trumpet (Vitoly Golovnev), and piano (Longo), bass (Martin Wind) and drums (Tim Horner).
From Longo’s arrangement of Horace Silver’s “Silver’s Serenade” to Neal Hefti’s “Why Not” (the latter a fine feature for dueling altos), McKusick’s small “big band” concept propelled an assured big band sound. “Round Midnight” showcased the leader’s cool warm tone amongst the predominant reeds, exquisitely arranged here and throughout by either Longo or Michael Abene (the originally scheduled pianist). Another Monk tune “Bye-Ya” featured a monstrous baritone solo by Robinson, who pushed the limits of his cumbersome horn as if it were a piccolo while maintaining a burly sense of tone and timely control. The Oliver Nelson-ish “Blues Shout” carried extensive solos by Longo and Golovnev, and Mal Waldron’s “Soul Eyes” at times revealed an interestingly butter-thick sounding trumpet-like tone of McKusick’s.
~ Laurence Donohue-Greene
When Peter Brötzmann’s Die Like a Dog group played at Tonic last year, the set ended with Brötzmann on tarogato, William Parker on sintir and Hamid Drake on frame drum. Last month’s performance (March 4th) at Tonic began that way instead, almost continuing a long-interrupted conversation. The meat of the show came after Brötzmann switched to alto for a few minutes of solo squawkery; after a chilling shriek, Drake and Parker dropped in on drum kit and bass respectively and contributed the most inventive moments of the 50-minute free improvisation. Brötzmann has made a name for himself as an unrelenting ferocious player but a kindler, gentler saxophonist is emerging, sprinkling long tone portions in between barrages. When he is himself, disgorging bleak wails, usually of the same intensity and phrase length, the trio relies heavily on the textural variety of Parker and Drake, honed from many encounters together. What makes them so valuable is neither is afraid to repeat ideas or to set up a discernable beat and Brötzmann’s attack benefits from the contrast. A shorter piece to finish the set lacked none of the force of the first but did miss some of the diversity, feeling at times tacked on. The opening exploration was more than sufficient to sate the hot crowd.
In the moments before George Garzone and The Fringe began their set at Cornelia Street Café on March 12th, there was an expectant hush. The room was filled with students – Garzone is a prominent music educator – and the evening had as much an air of a popular lecture as a Friday evening performance. A few weeks prior to the show, I had obtained copies of the group’s first two privately released LPs; 23 years later the group has lost none of its intensity but gained the subtlety that comes with maturity. The Fringe percolates, like a tightly covered boiling pot. The cooking parallel is an apt one: the music has moments of chopping, dicing, julienning, simmering, searing, each done in a very deliberate and necessary order. On the six tunes, Garzone’s incredible range of tone was on display: like fellow Italian Joe Lovano, he makes you very aware of the air blowing through his horn. After so many years together, the Fringe, with Bob Gulotti on drums and John Lockwood on bass, react with an organic empathy very rare in today’s era of supergroups. Some numbers were the traditional Fringe freakouts and others wove together more sinuous threads; Garzone quoted “There’ll Never Be Another You” to close one tune and breathed nonsensical spoken phrases through his horn to begin another. The most important lesson Garzone and company taught the assembled student body is to always have fun in your playing.
~ Andrey Henkin
Musicians, listeners and political activists packed Sweet Rhythm (March 10th) for a Benefit Concert for Peace organized by pianist/composer/vocalist Cynthia Hilts and headlined by master guitarist Jim Hall. The effort to raise money for United for Peace and Justice to promote awareness of the March 20, 2004 Worldwide Peace March featured a diversity of performers “reflecting the diversity of people who want peace,” as noted in Hilts’ introductory remarks. The music began with pianist Connie Crothers’ quartet featuring Dick Tabnik, Ratzo Harris and Roger Mancuso performing a piece called “Birds Words”. Guitarist King B and vocalist La Veda performing folkish tone poems followed them, as dancer Queen B interpreted the music.
Pianist Charles Eubanks’ trio with Ratzo Harris and Warren Benbow played a rousing version of Coltrane’s “Satellite” and David Lopato’s quartet with Ratzo Harris, Gene Jackson and Arun Luthra performed his “Suite 9/11”. Kali Z Fasteau presented her Eastern influenced blend of music in a duo with master drummer Warren Smith. Hilts’ nonet, Lyric Fury, played some exciting music, one calling for a “revolution celebration”. The pianist then played “In A Sentimental Mood” and a free improvisation with Jim Hall, who spoke eloquently and played a solo “All The Things You Are”. Gino Stinson sang sweetly as the evening faded peacefully.
Pianist James Williams began celebrating his 53rd birthday early on March 4th, at Le Jazz Au Bar, with a trio featuring bassist Ray Drummond and vibraphonist Stefon Harris, augmented by special guests, songstress Vanessa Rubin and saxophonist Jimmy Heath. The first evening of a four-night engagement, showcasing several visiting celebrants with the pianist, at the elegant new midtown jazz room, would prove to be a difficult one to surpass. Williams opened with the trio playing his original "Four Play", setting a hard swinging tone for the night. Next, the group played an inspired original arrangement of "Summertime" by Harris, followed by a straight ahead walking version of "Just In Time" and a gospel tinged rendition of Williams’ "The Reason Why We Sing".
Rubin came out fingers snapping with an up-tempo "The More I See You", before mellowing with a moving "Never Let Me Go" and a bluesy "Love Will Make You Change". Heath came on opening with his Sarah Vaughn dedication, "A Sassy Samba" and then "You’ve Changed", prefacing the ballad with a recitation of his own humorous lyric. A smoking free-for-all on "What Is This Thing Called Love" followed, before Rubin returned to stretch out on "I’ve Got The World On A String" and "Bye-Bye Blackbird". The two-hour set ended soulfully with "Bags Groove".
~ Russ Musto
Claudia Acuña - Luna (MAXJAZZ)
The Bad Plus - Give (Columbia)
Justin Mullens & The Delphian Jazz Orchestra (Fresh Sound-New Talent)
Dave Pietro - Embrace (A Records)
Voelker/Yennior/Perez/Punis - Gypsy Schaeffer (PeaceTime)
Miguel Zenon - Ceremonial (Marsalis Music)
~ David Adler
Andy Bey - American Song (Savoy Jazz)
Masada String Trio - 50th Birthday Celebration, Vol.1 (Tzadik)
Prime Numbers - Live at Jazz de Opus (Origin)
Enrico Rava - Easy Living (ECM)
Warren Smith - Racecards (Freedom Art)
Vanguard Jazz Orchestra - The Way: Music of Slide Hampton (Planet Arts)
~ Laurence Donohue-Greene
Ahmed Abdullah’s NAM - Song of Time (Clean Feed)
Fred Anderson/Hamid Drake - Back Together Again (Thrill Jockey)
Elton Dean - Sea of Infinity (Hux)
Paul Dunmall/Paul Rogers - Awareness Response (Emanem)
Milford Graves/John Zorn - 50th Birthday Celebration Vol. 2 (Tzadik)
Hans Koller - Kunstkopfindianer (MPS)
~ Bruce Gallanter (Proprietor, Downtown Music Gallery)