Frisell/Carter/Motian; Winter Jazzfest; Gato Barbieri/Poncho Sanchez; George Coleman; Monty Alexander; Lee Konitz
It's just over a year since these masters of minimalism were last in residence at The Blue Note. This return shows that they've further refined their rapport, which was already bordering on the telepathic. In this very particular combination, each member plays in ways which they usually don't when found elsewhere, although their signature motifs cannot escape, even if re-born in a new relationship. In this setting, Paul Motian is at his least abstract, physically ticking out a noticeable beat rather than implying linear progression by whatever he omits. Motian's often concentrating on the cymbals, such magisterial restraint being a joy to witness. When he does boom around the general skins, this sudden activity possesses a heightened authority. Bill Frisell is noticeably Frisellian, but his guitar style emerges from an amplifier that's almost in the 'off' position, faintly sketching glittery strands of melody. His careful use of electronics sounds like an astral beaming, emitted from under the covers, way after the midnight hour. It's Ron Carter who happens to be the assertive member, although this is speaking in relative terms, given the trio's innate sensitivity. His solos are not so much solos as a slightly raised voice in a gentle discussion. Sheer pleasure is derived from the visible enjoyment chewed over between this threesome, from the elaborate way that they assemble tunes out of a collective rumination. Never hurried, always calm, these three sustain a constant interest whilst improvising, making pristine rufflings in the club's near silence, in front of a stilled, spellbound audience.
2009 NYC Winter Jazzfest
January 10, 2009
Timed to coincide with the annual APAP (Association Of Performing Arts Presenters) event, the Winter Jazzfest is a multi-act bonanza that will satiate promoters and regular punters alike. Following the congestion at last year's Knitting Factory location (three-tiers/three stages/termite-line stairwells), this year's fest has re-located to a trio of Greenwich Village venues. This move was out of necessity, as the Knit closed the portals of its TriBeCa club on New Year's Eve, awaiting a March 2009 re-opening in Brooklyn's Williamsburg district. In most ways, (le) Poisson Rouge can be viewed as the inheritor of the Factory's musical ideals, presenting an exciting melange of rock, jazz, hip hop, electronica and moderne classical sounds. Essentially, the Poisson extends its reach even further than The Knit, though with less of the rock'n'roll. Over the street lies Kenny's Castaways, a joint with a deep punkoid history, where Patti Smith, The Ramones and the New York Dolls used to gig. Nowadays, it's part of the area's venue heritage-spread: haunts that had more significance in the past, now rarely enticing current scene-spotters. Even so, it's good to have an excuse to discover its characterful charms. Around the corner, Sullivan Hall is one of New York's best venues for funky groovin,' but this reviewer eventually fails to check out any of the performers on its schedule. There's too much of a kinetic rush at the other two locations...
Despite the increased space for this fifth edition of the fest, bodies remain rammed close, at least until 'round midnight. This makes it a wise notion to resist rushing between overlapping performances, maybe staying stationary to secure a vantage point. Otherwise, there'll be an eternal back-of-room existence, the curse of the craning neck. Beginning the long night at Kenny's, perched up in the rafters for a vulture's-eye- view, By Any Means are back together. This is an old-school free jazz combo featuring saxophonist Charles Gayle, bassist William Parker and drummer Rashied Ali. As so many bands are playing at Winterfest, most sets lie around the 45 minute mark, a factor which means that this trio are just beginning to become heated when it's close to finishing time. By Any Means generate a swirling energy-spiral that doesn't alter much throughout their set, initially lacking the mysterious force that's so necessary to its success. Following on, Sex Mob are frothing up in anticipation, loins girded to deliver their full load in condensed form, set to impress with their sharp slamming together of retro exotica and advanced squawking. Steve Bernstein's fivesome are masters of throwing avant concepts into a bubbling groove-pot, and even if he denies being the boss, the slide trumpeter is constantly upping the improvisatory tension by maniacally prompting his pawns, silencing, selecting, stereo-spreading or simply urging them to explode. Bernstein is an arch wit, so it's a shame that half of his quips are indistinct. Was he announcing to the assembled promoters that, hell, he'd even do kiddie shows, or was that peepshows? He's probably up for both. At least Bernstein's modally slippery horn-work is cutting through, as is the urgent escalation of altoman Briggan Krauss. Mention must also be made of the incredibly tight-sprung Kenny Wollesen on the skins'n'gongs.
The crowds are jammed in to (le) Poisson Rouge to see reedsman Don Byron's new Ivey-Divey Trio with pianist Jason Moran and drummer Eric Harland. They're making very quiet music, so concentration is frequently disrupted by a constant turning-over of the audience. This is Byron in his most traditional state, glorying in the nakedness of his flitting clarinet, and then powdering the room with his golden tenor billows. Harland is soon ousted in favour of Billy Hart, which makes for an engaging contrast. It's not clear how happy this makes Harland, as the younger sticksman never comes back, leaving Hart to complete the set. Remaining inside the Poisson, the evening's midnight special requires the purchase of a premium ticket. It's a pre-release unveiling of The Watts Project, an outfit (and album) that gives drummer Jeff 'Tain' Watts some time under the bandleader spotlight. This is a role that he's increasingly prioritising, after years of staggering sideman work. It's a supergroup of melded minds, a quartet who have had years of intertwined playing experience. Joining Watts are trumpeter Terence Blanchard, bassist Christian McBride and tenor saxophonist Prometheus Jenkins. The latter's somewhat ludicrous moniker should have alerted all that there's a pseudonym in the house, and here indeed is Branford Marsalis, who emphatically delineates the supergroup status. This is hopefully no detraction from Tain's composing abilities, but these four are so fused into each other's lifebloods that this after-hours meeting virtually takes on the feel of a jam session, albeit in a tightly stage-managed incarnation. As they each step forward, they're taking solos that are at the highest end of their capabilities. Technically dazzling, but also casually inspirational, seething with potency. The quartet feed ravenously off the communal joy, incrementally hiking up their power. Then, saxophonist Marcus Strickland steps up and the party vibe swoops to another level. Witness the return of jazz as dance music, as this long night rolls onward.
A double-header featuring two prime exponents of Latin Jazz is made all the more enticing by its setting at the Lehman Center in The Bronx. This is the borough where all the coolster salsa dudes gather, making for a very different vibrational proposition to that of a Manhattan appearance by these very artists. That said, the crowd still doesn't rise up from their seats for much dancing action. For most of the duration, this is music for internalised head gyrations. The Argentinian tenor man Gato Barbieri cuts a unique figure. His set is preceded by a very firm announcement threatening his immediate walk-off if anyone dares to ignite a camera flash. This is due to a medical condition. Barbieri has his signature hat and shades, and down below he's wearing loafers with red socks, topped by ballooning pantaloons that gather in to tightness at the ankles. It's certainly a distinctive look. From a distance, he doesn't look like a septuagenarian. Barbieri chews habitually between solos, and it's mostly solos that he delivers, his tone harsh and knotted, very close to a free jazz wail. This is held in a glove of jazz-funking smoothness by his band, building an unusual contrast between the two elements, from different stages of Barbieri's artistic evolution. Strong and distinctive though his sound is, it begins to make the tunes sound very similar as the lengthy set progresses. There's too little light and shade. The Poncho Sanchez combo is more conventional, teetering with equanimity between Cuban son, salsa stylings and Latin Jazz soloing. Conga-player Sanchez might look like a Cuban revolutionary, but he's from Mexican stock, moving from Texas to California whilst still a youth. Nevertheless, he sounds like a Havana denizen. Sanchez frequently allows his fellow band members to shine, almost to the point of needlessly cutting back on his own spotlight time. It's the final run of numbers where he stands up to sing that finally froth up the crowd, but this is down to a general climaxing of what turns out to be two substantial sets by a pair of divergently talented Latin greats.
The Coleman Family Legacy
January 20, 2009
Not Coleman Hawkins, not Ornette Coleman and not Steve Coleman. This is tenor man George Coleman and his Hammond organist wife Gloria, along with their son George Junior on the drums. The only non-family member onstage is guitarist Eric Johnson. Coleman is still best-known for his early-1960s stint with Miles Davis, whilst Gloria has opted for long years of recording inactivity, after she decided to prioritise her family's upbringing. From the opening rush of a rail-sparking "Take The 'A' Train," this foursome hardly pull back for any softness or balladry during the course of the next hour. Every solo comes swiftly and never sticks around, with all band members sensitively attuned to each other's contributions. Oh, if all family life could be this way! George Senior is smoothly forceful, dapper and light-footed, Gloria spills and scatters phrases whilst treading out a slinky bass line. She sings briefly, but most of the set is prime gospel-soul instrumental grooving, with every minute mattering. The only lack is that no-one talks to the audience much, until Gloria becomes more chatty towards the end. A few family anecdotes might have been amusing.
The Monty Alexander Trio
January 22, 2009
Later in his residency, Jamaican-American pianist Monty Alexander would be joined by an expanded Jazz & Roots ensemble, but the early part of the week offered a good opportunity to catch him in trio form, thereby concentrating on a jazzier aspect, with greater room for soloing. In the end, there are still an abundance of funk and reggae influences permeating his music, even in this stripped-down manifestation. Bassist Hassan Shakur and drummer Herlin Riley are masters of linear beats and tight vamps, tending to slide sideways from any jazz abstraction, locking into repeated figures. All three players are huddled closely together, listening to each other in an almost theatrical manner. They'll set up a closely nuzzled network of responsive moves, full of percussive raps and accents, whilst Alexander flows freely with his flamboyant but not over-frilled statements. There's a joyful expressiveness that can't be manufactured, and this late night set must surely have been one of the week's best.
The Lee Konitz Big Band
January 23, 2009
Alto saxophonist Lee Konitz remains a prolific performer, even now that he's nudged into his eighties. The man looks at least a decade younger than this, and hardly needs the stool that sits to the left of his big band ranks. Konitz has mostly been found in small group settings of late, but with this large-scale project he's returning to the format that was his earliest jazz love. The recent Portology album featured Portugal's Orquestra Jazz De Matosinhos, directed by Ohad Talmor, a French-born Brooklynite who's been arranging several Konitz projects over recent years. The leader is an almost constant focus, with this New York ensemble manifestation acting as a lush surround for his serpentine solos. The charts don't step far outside of the modern swing territory, but Talmor still makes a handful of staccato stormings, prompting some complex chops and curves from the horn ranks. The band's guitarist is their wild card, rearing up out of a conventional sonic palette with his slightly corroded edges, taking rare moments of attention away from the supple Konitz core.