Steven Bernstein at Living Theatre
Standing before a specially assembled band for his July 10th show at The Living Theatre, Steven Bernstein spoke freely about his early days in New York. "When I first saw Lester, that was just my guy," he said. "I wanted to be just like him." The allegiance to the famed trumpeter Lester Bowie was a telling remark: Bernstein shares not just the instrument but also the showmanship. He likes to rouse a crowd. The group he pulled together bridged his Spanish Fly, Sex Mob and Millennial Territory bands: Jim Black (drums), Briggan Krauss (saxophones) and Marcus Rojas (tuba). And as with all those bands, the Millennial Mob played covers and mid-tempo tunes hard as nails. Bernstein introduced music by the rock band Cream, film score composer- Alfred Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann, the little-remembered trumpeter Emmett Berry (who played in Fletcher Henderson's seminal big band) and a piece he wrote for the Donald Byrd dance company, the latter one of the few concessions to quick, driving rhythms, with Black providing a strong push rarely heard in Bernstein's bands. Rojas steadily supplied walking lines and fell in with the breakdowns and Krauss matched the leader's attack in some simmering double horn solos. They played a solid, exciting set, but at the same time Bernstein, by virtue of his character, gave the audience permission to laugh. His groups are too good to call them "wedding bands," but at the same timeand not unlike Bowie's Brass FantasyBernstein brings the party.
Sarah Schoenbeck/Harris Eisenstadt at The Stone
The big bassoon has a strange, little voice. It doesn't get lost in the mix so much as manage, somehow, to remain in the back. It's an unusual instrument in jazz and new music traditionsKen McIntyre and Karen Borca come to mind, and recent West Coast transplant Sara Schoenbeck has been performing with Anthony Braxton's groups, among other projects. On July 11th she appeared at The Stone with drummer Harris Eisenstadt, playing a set of compositions by both members of the duo.
Schoenbeck is an impressive playerher attack and articulation, employing circular breathing and pushing into the upper register, were a pleasure to hear. Eisenstadt is a lyrical drummer, quick and precise, which made for a nice pairing. At times they were sprightly and metered, playing fast little jaunts that brought out the bassoon's voice. The strongest moments, however, came when Schoenbeck played slow, low figures as Eisenstadt made quick rounds with soft mallets. They also made use of some simple mutes tinfoil over the bassoon's mouth and fabric over the drumheadsbut they didn't quite put the horn in the forefront. The challenge of listening to the duoespecially given the room's acousticswas to give up the notion of the horn being the main instrument. Schoenbeck did get buried at times, but more to the point they stood the sax/drum duo on its head, putting the horn in the role of counterpoint and giving percussion the foreground.
John Handy at Jazz Standard
Bay Area alto saxophonist John Handy, a veteran of Charles Mingus' band, held a four-night residency at Jazz Standard last month, teaming up with Craig Handy (tenor, flute), Helen Sung (piano), Dwayne Burno (bass) and Victor Lewis (drums). On opening night, July 10th, Handy & Co. were already in fine form by the second set, kicking it off with a hairy-knuckled blues amply displaying the storytelling talents of each tenor. Commanding the entire range of his horn with confidence, the elder Handy developed small ideas into long sagas, building tension with false fingerings, trilled notes and expressive slides. The younger Handy (spiritual, not biological, kin) was equally fluent in bluesology, squeezing out sweet and sour notes over Avery Parrish's "After Hours" with solemn passion. Sung mixed traditional vocabulary with modernist accents and figurations; her solo over "I Will Leave You" was well constructed, intelligent and original. Underpinning all was the fine rhythm section; Burno, plucking with a thunderous middle finger, was granite solid, while Lewis was a study in contrasts, busy and bombastic when appropriate, then modestly understated when the mood shifted, never failing to keep the music moving forward. His solo over "Leave You" was especially effective, orchestrated across the kit with dynamic volume shifts. Keeping the mood light, John Handy closed the set by singing another blues and preached his final sermon in soaring alto-ese.
Charles Tolliver at Blue Note
Once an aspiring pharmacist at Howard University, trumpeter/conductor Charles Tolliver has evolved into a big band alchemist of the first order, as was evident at his recent run at Blue Note. On July 13th, the final set of the final night, Tolliver strolled on stage in a long black leather jacket and cajoled his posse into frenzied renditions of "On the Nile," "Emperor March" (named for penguin mating rituals), "I Want to Talk About You," "Right Now" and "With Love." The charts were all dense, simultaneously subtle and aggressive. Using an arsenal of bodily gestures more associated with boxers or karate instructors, Tolliver brought intense commitment to the proceedings. Consisting of four trumpets (adding Tolliver in a few spots), three trombones, a full sax section and three rhythm players, the band spanned genres and generations. The trumpets were particularly hard pressed as many of the charts had screaming high tuttis. The saxophones got a lion's share of the solos; Bill Saxton, Bruce Williams, Todd Bayshore, Marcus Strickland and Jason Marshall all took fine turns. Trombonist Jason Jackson was melodic and inventive over the opening 6/8 modal groove while fellow slideman Michael Dease was liquid quicksilver on "March." Pianist Anthony Wonsey found what he was looking for at the end of his solo on "Now," concluding with dramatic Basie-style riffs, while Reggie Workman (bass) and Gene Jackson (drums) kept the band's heart rate pumping.
Cecil Taylor/Tony Oxley at Village Vanguard
The winner of this year's Adventurous Booking Award goes to Village Vanguard for hosting a week's worth of piano-drum duets between Cecil Taylor and Tony Oxley, legends on their respective sides of the Atlantic. Some eight years after the pair played a trio of evenings at the now-defunct Tonic, 88+ tuned drums were once more on display for a refreshingly diverse crowd Jul. 15th. Both players are abstract melodicists and exceed the traditional roles of their instruments but in contrast to Taylor's physical style, Oxley was absolutely economical in his movements. Their collaboration began in the late '80s and it is worth noting that Taylor works much differently with Oxley than in other duets with drummers like Max Roach or Elvin Jones. And Oxley too adapts himself to Taylor's tempest in a way far removed from earlier work with Howard Riley or Paul Bley. The 50-minute set was a 'medley' of Taylor sketches, connected with only the briefest of pauses between them, less a suite than a symphonic work. And if Taylor established the varied feelshe is not all Sturm und Drang these daysOxley matched him expertly, particularly on dynamic shifts that had an appealing three- dimensional quality. It was the particularly British spaciousness that Oxley brought to the music that highlighted Taylor's more romantic, introspective style. Slightly premature applause caused the late-night set to be shorter than expected but a brief encore was an ideal nightcap.
Joseph Bowie/Adam Rudolph at The Stone
There was little in the way of post-Fourth of July fireworks at The Stone during the duet between percussionist Adam Rudolph and trombonist Joseph Bowie. Instead of a rolling boil, a steady simmer proved that improvisation isn't always about arrhythmic cacophony. Rudolph's experience as a conductor of large orchestras gives him an architect's view of music while Bowie, brother to the late and lamented trumpeter Lester as well as veteran of the Black Artists Group, learned much from the Midwest schools of avant-garde jazz. What seemed like an odd textural pairing was cut with segments where Bowie would double Rudolph's percussion or add impassioned vocalizing over top of it and a piece where Rudolph traded his congas for what appeared to be a variation of the sintir, or African lute. When on trombone, Bowie burbled far more than he blatted and made good use of vibrato, saving his energy for his chants, which approached some sort of proto-blues exhortations, to which he added shakes from what looked to be massive dried pea pods. Rudolph's embrace of steady rhythms kept the usual free jazz spikes to a minimum with Bowie choosing his spots carefully. If there wasn't much in the way of really solid convergence or linear development, the music had the certain appealing quality that one gets when standing on a subway platform, listening to the strains of two separate musicians at either end come together in the middle.
Joanne Brackeen at Jazz Standard
The ever-vibrant Joanne Brackeen marked her upcoming 70th birthday with a month-of-Mondays residency at Jazz Standard, during which she definitively demonstrated the sizable breadth of her substantial talents, employing a different group and repertoire each of the four evenings. On the July 14th engagement Ms. Brackeen reunited with her longtime colleague, special guest Eddie Gomez, in a program she called "Breath Of Brazil," after her popular 1991 CD on which the veteran bassist shines. Beginning with the bright Ivan Lins standard "Madelana" that opened the decade-and-a-half-old album, it was immediately apparent that this was to be a most happy reunion. Propelled by the percussion section of Adam Cruz on drums with the remarkable Z? Mauricio on an arsenal of shakers, bells, rattles, tambourines and hand drums that spilled off the stage and out into the room, Brackeen and Gomez exhibited amazing eclecticism and virtuosity in both their solos and accompaniment, giving the music a distinctly individual character. On the lyrically waltzing "The Face Of Love," the quartet was a model of intuitive interaction, displaying a similar simpatico on the cheerful classic "Cancao." Gomez' incomparable arco abilities took center stage on Brackeen's "Evening," while the pianist was spotlighted on a rollicking solo "Tico, Tico" before the quartet closed out with a lovely "Estaté" and a lively "Guessing Game," an original going back to Breath of Brazil.
Wycliffe Gordon at The Kitano
While much of New York was celebrating the Fourth of July with fireworks along the East River, a few blocks west, on Park Avenue, Wycliffe Gordon was f?ting this country's musical legacy with his own brand of pyrotechnics, fronting a sparkling quartet at The Kitano. Supported by the superb rhythm section of pianist Aaron Diehl, bassist Zaid Shukri and drummer Dion Parson, the remarkable former Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra trombonist demonstrated a wide ranging command of his instrument in a dazzlingly diverse display of moods and tones. The program was heavy on Ellington, including "Pie Eye's Blues," "Cottontail," "Just Squeeze Me (But Don't Tease Me)" and "C Jam Blues""You can't go wrong with Duke," the leader declaredplus a little Monk (Diehl proving to be the rare young pianist with an authoritative command of the prebop keyboard vocabulary on "Raise Four"). There were also a couple of standards including "I Got That Old Feeling" on which Gordon vocalized convincingly and one original, "Savannah," a moving excerpt from a suite by the trombonist that proved him to be a composer of noteworthy distinction. Throughout the evening the group's interpretations of the classic repertoire was so uncommonly devoid of clich? that each piece felt like it was being created anew. Gordon, in particular, improvised with uncanny originality, eliciting from his instrument a variety of personal sounds that belied its mechanical nature.
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