Although he was seen primarily in the jazz world and his Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians connection during his lifetime, Leroy Jenkins showed on his last few recordings an interest in composing for chamber ensembles. That work filled the first half of a memorial concert Feb. 9th at the Brooklyn Public Library, sponsored by the American Composer's Orchestra, The Brecht Forum's Neues Kabarett and Meet the Composer. A trio for voice, flute and viola and two pieces for string quartet (one adding a double bass to the Flux Quartet's lineup) nicely showed the aspect of Jenkins' work less likely to be remembered. The second half featured recitals by friends sharing the Chicago connection. Myra Melford (Jenkins' collaborator in the great trio Equal Interest) presented her composition "Spindrift for Leroy Jenkins," previously heard at the Vision Festival shortly after Jenkins' February 2007 death. Stripped down to a trio (with guitarist Brandon Ross and bassist Stomu Takeishi) for this performance, the piece (which incorporates themes and improvisational structures by Jenkins) was quiet and sublime. Where "Spindrift" was soft, Wadada Leo Smithwho played with Jenkins in the Creative Construction Company in the '70sand his quintet Seven pit slow, elegiac lines against quick rolls, creating, releasing and rebuilding tensions. "Whoever comes on the planet and makes a mark, whether it is in the sand or in the air," Smith said at the end, "it remains."
Thomas Chapin Memorial at Saint Peter's/Bowery Poetry Club
During his lifetime, saxophonist Thomas Chapin was regarded as a bridge between the uptown and downtown scenes, being a fixture in both Lionel Hampton's big band and the Knitting Factory's Houston Street stage. Ten years after his death, he was remembered at two concerts by many of the musicians with whom he worked. At Saint Peter's Church on Feb. 13th and at the Bowery Poetry Club on the 15th, Steve Dalachinsky, Paul Jeffrey, Mario Pavone, Michael Sarin and Walter Thompsonalong with WKCR DJ Charles Blass, Downtown Music Gallery proprietor Bruce Gallanter and Chapin's wife, Terri Castillo-Chapinplayed Chapin's music, read his poetry, showed films and told stories. Significantly, words from the stage were as much about world peace and ecological concerns as Chapin himself. At Bowery, Jeffrey and Thompson tag-team conducted the New Thomas Chapin Orchestra in arrangements of his compositions. But the happiest surprise of the night was hearing Sarin (who with Pavone made up Chapin's strongest band) play the tunes again; his tight syncopations and sharp snare snaps were a spur in the side of Pavone's quintet. The strongest set of the night was by Michael Musillami's trio, a delicate intermingling of strings by the guitarist and bassist Joe Fonda. Chapin's teacher James Spaulding drew vast lines between Martin Luther King, Barack Obama and Kahlil Gibran, suggesting the spirit which, at least for the assembled, Chapin represented.
Vanguard Jazz Orchestra at Village Vanguard
Forty-one years after their auspicious opening night at the Village Vanguard, the artists-formerly-known-as-the-Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band, now known simply as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, extended their regular Monday night gig into a week-long residency, culminating in a live recording. Tuesday Feb. 5th was dedicated to Mr. Jones, whose timeless compositions brought big band arrangements to new heights of complexity and innovation without sacrificing the backbone of swing. There was a sense of history in the air, in part because Hank Jones, Thad's brother and the original pianist for the band, came out to listen. Director/trombonist John Mosca, a veteran of the group for 30-some years, introduced the tunes, which ranged from early pieces such as "Easy Living" (labeled "#1" in the famous book) and "Little Pixie" (a rhythm-changes romp dating back to that very first gig) to classics like "Kids Are Pretty People," "The Waltz You Swang for Me" and "The Interloper," as well as denser, more ambitious charts such as "Say It Softly," written while Jones was living in Denmark. Bassist Dennis Irwin was absent due to ill health and several other chairs were subbed out, but the band never sounded better: punchy tutti sections laced with those 'illegal' Thad Jones voicings and long serpentine soli that unwound effortlessly, as if improvised, made for a satisfying mix of big band bravado and small group subtlety. Hank Jones must have liked it toohe stayed for both sets.
FLY at Jazz Gallery
With high-profile artists like Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau keeping them busy, A-team rhythm players Larry Grenadier (bass) and Jeff Ballard (drums) have little time to explore more intimate projects like Fly, their co-led trio with tenor/soprano saxophonist Mark Turner, a star in his own right. In preparation for their second album (after 2004's eponymous debut for the resuscitated Savoy Jazz), the group presented their newest material at the Jazz Gallery on Feb. 12th-13th. Wednesday's early set began with Ballard's "La Berla Morena," a pretty, terraced melody with delicate counterpoint between bass and tenor. Unfettered by chordal accompaniment, the soloists were free to micro-modulate amid tonalities, employing fine gradations of harmonic color. On his own composition, "Super Sister," Turner demonstrated impeccable control over the range of his instrument, generally favoring a cool, even tone, but occasionally unleashing bursts of ecstatic electricity, creating logic out of jagged blues phrases and sinking incongruously deeper onto his haunches as the notes arched skyward. Grenadier's "Transfigured" featured a plodding vamp line with Sephardic flavoring and a fine tenor solo that burned with the quiet fire of unforced emotion. "Sky and Country," another piece by Ballard, was earthy, moving quickly between moods and the closing theme, Turner's "Elena Berenjena" (aka "Helena's Eggplant"), floated lyrically over the drum's catchy boogaloo backbeat.
Joe McPhee/Michael Bisio at Downtown Music Gallery
Throughout its illustrious history, Downtown Music Gallery has presented some of the finest players in improvised music in some of their most intimate performances; almost too intimate depending on the size of the group and the crowd. The skinny space works best for duos, allowing musicians enough room to ply their wares without worrying about claustrophobia. One such duo graced the 'stage' Feb. 10th: saxophonist Joe McPhee and bassist Michael Bisio. Performing in this format since 1996, McPhee remarked this was an opportunity for the pair to relive their childhood; playful it was but certainly in no way immature. What was immediately evident was how completely McPhee and Bisio relished the equitable setting. Though one might imagine McPhee, both through instrument (solely tenor) and reputation (a compelling 40+ year career) would dominate, it was actually Bisio that determined the melodic flow of the 45-minute improvisation. His statements, whether plucked or bowed, were of equal fortitude to those of McPhee's and it was his solo segments that would subtly change the nature of the music. And rather than play to the room, filling it with a squall, McPhee and Bisio took charge of it, often playing at such low volume as to render one's neighbor's breathing a distraction. There were many natural ending points during the set but why stop when Bisio so masterfully changed textures and McPhee was right there with him, literally and figuratively.
Guus Janssen at Cornelia Street Cafe
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Via Cornelia Street Café apparently. This was the odd path taken by Dutch composer Guus Janssen last month, where he preceded the premiere of one of his works at the famed concert hall with a much more low-key appearance at the basement club (Feb. 4th). The booking was last minute and initially billed as a quartet with trumpeter Thomas Heberer, but turned out to be an improvised trio session with local rhythm sectioneers Reuben Radding and Harris Eisenstadt. As befits someone who makes his living writing music, even Janssen's improvisations had a compositional sweep to them, working with linear melodic development as opposed to the more usual peaks and valleys. His chord progressions were dramatic, recalling early Cecil Taylor, and his attack on the rickety piano showed the results of his solo work on harpsichord. Radding and Eisenstadt, occupying different neighborhoods in the larger improvisational city, had an early organic connection that was crucial to fill in Janssen's intervallic leaps. If there was a prevailing aesthetic, amazingly it was swing, albeit one best visualized as a man drowning in the ocean but occasionally bobbing up to the surface and then submerging once more. The three pieces were expansive and satisfying, even though the set was very short at just over 30 minutes; but when the final piece so effectively mixed the saccharin with the cerebral, best to quit while you're ahead.
Bloodcount at Joe's Pub
Concert performances by the saxophonist/composer Tim Berne in the New York area have been almost as rare here in recent years as home team football championships, so the appearance of Bloodcount at Joe's Pub (Feb. 3rd) attracted a full house despite its scheduling conflict with the Super Bowl. Berne began the show with a wry warning that "If anyone gives the score, I'm going to kill them" as if to remind the audience that he was making as big a sacrifice with his presence as they were with their own. Well known for his dry wit, he continued by introducing the first composition of the evening by noting that although most of his songs didn't have titles, that this one"Yes Almost Cause""unfortunately does". Berne's songs can be as cryptic as their titles (when he gives them), full of shifting rhythms, ably conveyed by Jim Black on drums and percussion over the steady pulse of Mike Formanek's big-toned bass, resulting in constant fluctuations in the perception of their engaging melodic movements. An early disciple of Julius Hemphill, Berne's music has its roots in the improvisational and compositional conventions of the AACM and BAG, with him and his frontline foil, tenor saxophonist Chris Speed, weaving intricate timbral threads around each other into tapestries of sound often redolent of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the World Saxophone Quartet, but never imitative of them. In a series of unnamed works the quartet forecast a still bright future for new jazz.
Roberta Gambarini at Blue Note
With her impeccable articulation and flawless sense of swing, it's hard to believe that Roberta Gambarini is not a native American jazz singer. In her debut as a leader at the Blue Note (Feb. 2nd), where she headlined the Italian Women In Jazz Festival, the Torino native gave truth to the ironic My Fair Lady declaration "Her English is too good, that clearly indicates that she is foreign." National origin aside, few singers make their way around the Great American Songbook with the taste, assurance and style that Ms. Gambarini displays in performance, which is why she has proven to be a favorite among some of the music's most celebrated masters, Benny Carter and Hank Jones among them. Accompanied by an outstanding rhythm section of pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Neil Swainson and drummer Willie Jones III, the marvelous vocalist recalled the glory days of jazz song as she sang the words of some of America's greatest songwriters with an aplomb that identified her as a worthy heir to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. During her 90-minute set, largely culled from her Grammy-nominated CD Easy To Love, the singer regularly began numbers with an a capella recitation of a seldom-sung verse before mining more meaning from the lyrics and then scatting with skillful abandon. Ada Rovatti added her robust tenor sound to several pieces, including the Dizzy tribute "On The Sunny Side Of The Street" and Johnny Griffin's bluesy closer, "The JAMF's Are Coming".
Recommended New Listening: