10

Big Bands, Orchestras and Soft Machines

Chris M. Slawecki By

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Randy Brecker
Rocks
Piloo Records & Productions LLC
2019

The easiest answer isn't always the best answer, but sometimes it is. So it's both easy and proper to point out that trumpet and flugelhorn master, composer, and bandleader Randy Brecker was kind enough to simultaneously review his release with the NDR Bigband, the Hamburg Radio Jazz Orchestra, when he titled it Rocks.

Assembled for the recording studio after Brecker finished two acclaimed tours of Europe with the NDR Bigband, Rocks recapitulates tunes that Brecker has written through various different stages of his career with and without his late brother Michael; and also the three-horn frontline of the original Brecker Brothers Band, with David Sanborn returning on alto saxophone and Ada Rovatti (Randy's wife) picking up tenor and soprano sax for Michael, who passed in 2007.

"Rocks" featured Sanborn's alto on The Brecker Brothers' 1975 Arista debut, and this new version does too. Sanborn lights up first, starting riffs just behind the beat and then playing fast like he's catching up, building the feeling of racing as he's riffing, while Brecker's solo blows so many notes so hard and fast that they shred through their accompaniment. It seems unfathomable that Brecker can think of new notes, let alone play new notes, so damn fast. It's good to hear this one again!

"The Dipshit" goes back even further than the Brothers' recorded debut, to their days in the Horace Silver Quintet (as members of his 1973 touring quintet), and preaches the gospel of funk from its jazz pulpit. Drummer Wolfgang Haffner and the Bigband's pianist push and pull this sidewinding rhythm into a jumping R&B groove, where Sanborn jumps in like his alto's on fire and he's trying to blow it out.

"Threesome" (from Straphangin' [1980, Arista]) adds guitarist Bruno Müller as featured soloist to a gloriously unsteady blues wobble, with Brecker using his mute to making his trumpet howl and meow the blues, Sanborn crisply jumping into sharp, Junior Walker & the All Stars-style soul-jazz, and the NDR BigBand hammering it closed with a Kansas City blues riff that majestically brings Rocks all the way home.

Brecker also shares some honest commentary in his liner notes: "The situation of broadcasting in the USA is still frustrating: on the one hand, the smooth jazz radio and on the other hand, the puristic jazz radio. But between those two extremes there is nothing. If you don't cater to one or the other, then your music will not be played. I refuse to do that. I make my very own, eccentric music." Rocks is a perfect example of why Randy Brecker should keep on rocking.

Ivan Conti
Poison Fruit
Far Out Recordings
2019

If the music on his fourth solo album Poison Fruit is a true indicator, Ivan "Mamão" Conti hasn't lost his uncanny producer's ear or instrumentalist's touch for clubbers or dancers in Brazil. A legendary bandleader, percussion and drum player, and composer, Mamão sweetens Poison Fruit by letting it ripen in the hands of two younger, next generation translators / ambassadors: Mamão's son Thiago Maranhão, who oversaw this set's five bonus remixes; and keyboardist Daniel Maunick, son of Jean-Paul "Bluey" Maunick of Incognito (and a/k/a hip-hop impresario "Dokta Venom"), who co-produced the original tracks.

While there's a lot of complexity in this music, most tunes feature Mamão, a founding member of the "samba doido" ("crazy samba") space-age Brazilian jazz ensemble Azymuth, with only two or three musicians, mainly keyboardists Maunick and Fernando Moraes and/or full-time Azymuth bassist Alex Maheiros. The show-stopping "Bacurau," DIY electronic jungle music with percussion and electronic melodies that dig so deeply into the dance music of Brazil that they come out the other side into the dance music of Africa, features only Mamão and no one else at all. This groove flows strong and warm, not brittle and clattering like so much other electronic dance music, and makes me picture Conti quietly setting up all these different melody and rhythm machines and then allowing himself one small quiet smile as his music sort of rolls on its own. "Tempestades," Conti's other solo piece, features his masterful drumming.

The title track reflects and refracts 1970s American disco and subsequent Eurodisco music in sparkling detail. Bass drum thumps out its metronomic disco beat like a soft but insistent pulse, occasionally triggering a small waterfall of cascading notes, while Mamão pours out long, cool draughts of synthesizers and keyboards on top like a summer shandy. "Ecos Da Mata," which teams Mamão with Maunick, seems to capture the sound inside Sun Ra's mind as he crosses a Brazilian disco dancefloor—a different wrapper, a different flavor, but the same sweet candy.

In other slices of his Poison Fruit, such as "Jemburi" and "Encontro," Mamão extends the art of Brazilian jazz with electronics explored by George Duke and other early practitioners—very modern music in the way it uses digital technology, yet the purpose it serves remains soulful and real and genuine.

Mauricio de Souza's Bossa Brasil
Five Roads
Pitoca Music
2018

If your idea of a great drummer's album is an album full of sonic bombast, do not pick up Five Roads by drummer Mauricio de Souza and his ensemble Bossa Brasil. If you love showy drum fills, histrionic drum solos, or volume masquerading as intensity, you'll find none here. Instead, the drummer leads Bossa Brasil down these Five Roads from behind, strongly and surely, and thoughtfully too.

Born in Brasilia, the national capital located in the Federal District of Brazil, de Souza began studying drums at age eleven. As a high school junior, he spent his summer vacation studying with drummer Joe Morello, a legitimate legend from his pliant but sturdy work with Dave Brubeck, in New Jersey. He returned to the US after graduating high school to continue studying with Morello, and in 2004 settled in northern New Jersey to engage with the New York jazz club scene. Later that year, de Souza formed the Maurício de Souza Group to play straight-ahead jazz, and Bossa Brasil to focus on the different styles of music from his homeland.

(We should note that ANY artist who willingly leaves Brazil for New Jersey is truly devoted to their craft.)

Morello is an excellent example of de Souza's own style and sound in Bossa Brasil. He doesn't play to be noticed. He plays what the music needs, no more and no less, right when the music needs it. So when your ear is drawn toward soloists Andrew Beals (alto saxophone) and especially Bob Rodriguez (piano) in the bouncy "Bebeto," de Souza and bassist Gary Mazzaroppi keep the supporting rhythm in perfect flow. Same for the sly dance of "BB," where de Souza's brushes seem to caress instead of strike, gently pulling rhythms and notes out from, his instrument like it's a magician's hat.

The ensemble approaches "Bate Papo" with such skillful reverence that its gentle jazz seems almost religiously beautiful. de Souza's arrangement of Schubert's "Ave Maria" is truly religiously beautiful. Everything about this stellar arrangement, performance, and recording informs you that this beautiful piece was originally a hymn.

Pianist Rodriquez steps into beautiful Brazilian jazz solos in "Bate Papo" and "Folclórica." But as the leader and drummer, de Souza opens up the music for each member of his quartet (plus bassist Charlie Doughtery, who sits in for Mazzaroppi on a live version of "Valsinha Para Elvira") to find their own way along Five Roads.

Deep Energy Orchestra
Playing with Fire
7D Media
2018

Deep Energy Orchestra is unique in its musical repertoire, approach, and style, all of which burn light and heat into their first live recording Playing with Fire. DEO's lead voice comes equally from progressive guitar pot-stirrer and King Crimson mainstay Trey Gunn; Carnatic percussionist V. Selvaganish, a member of John McLaughlin's transcendent group Remember Shakti; electric violinist Radhika Iyer; and bassist Jason Everett, who wrote many of these tunes; plus a classical string ensemble.

Playing with Fire sort of hovers over and moves between two camps—progressive rock and progressive raga—of progressive jazz. Its gemstone is "Resolve/Improv/Caravan," a twenty-minute journey through outer and inner space that spans an encyclopedia of styles and sounds: Everett's bass stomps and glides behind the strings' snakecharming melody, then steps out front to continue oscillating between mellow and raging, and later recites a floating tone poem; Selvaganish at first plays but then breaks into vocalizing his tabla part; Gunn sears your ears with his closing solo; and all this comes together, drifts apart, and comes back together under the canopy of classical violin.

I'm not familiar with every stage of their fifty-year career but several floating moments on Playing with Fire sound and feel like King Crimson, such as the lead and ensemble strings worshipfully singing of "The Return"; and Gunn's buzzing guitar bending "Mysterious World" from Western to Eastern sound, strongly echoing Lark's Tongues in Aspic (1973, Island/Atlantic). In addition, Gunn beautifully weaves two acoustic guitar verses of "Amazing Grace" into the closing "Honor."

Composed by guitarist John McLaughlin for his reformative reunion Remember Shakti (1999, Verve/Polygram) "Lotus Feet" is another tight thematic fit, a contemplative meditation organically that grows like branches from a deeply rooted vine, with Iyer's lead violin sounding exceptionally beautiful, almost romantic, and definitely daring. Playing with Fire was made possible by the Jack Straw Cultural Center Artist Residency Award.

Frederico 7
Exótico Americano
Self-Produced
2019

It's hard to figure out Exótico Americano and its creator Frederico7. Frederico7 lived in Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina, and then settled down in "the live music capital of the world": Austin, Texas. His music bounces around the globe the same way: Exótico Americano features Caribbean reggae, Columbian cumbia, Brazilian backbeats, Latin rock, and country and western (often in the same tune), while Frederico7 barks and howls out lyrics in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.

(And why wouldn't you expect a little mystery from a performer named "Frederico7"? What happened, for example, to the other six?)

Whoever he is, he IS upfront about his music. "The inspiration is the American Continent and its people," he explains. "The revelation in the record is that we are ALL 'Exótico Americanos' regardless of race, national background, etc. I wrote the lyrics of the title track 'Exótico Americano' specifically to highlight that universality. It's important to honor the indigenous keepers of the land and paying respect to the suffering source of the blues music. Also understanding that the riches we now enjoy were built upon the backs of millions and understanding we all have more in common than not."

So it's not surprising that out of its many styles and influences, American soul breaks through Exótico Americano more than anything else. "La Mirada del Halcón," produced by Adrian Quesada (Brownout), floats like a dreamy 1960s love song; the lead vocal in Spanish lends mystery to its almost but not quite psychedelic air. Sung in English and written by Frederico7 for his wife, "Nature of Love" sounds like a simple, hypnotic Sade funk groove played at twice the speed, with drums and production straight from the dancefloor but with counterpointing horns painting broad and mellow jazz colors. From its electric blue guitars twinkling in the background, to its voluptuous rhythm guitar riffs, to its thick and lush production, "Azul Trancendental" grows like a quiet storm rising from the verdant fields of 1970s American soul.

The title track, a space-age electric blues sung in English and Spanish, manages to roll through urban funk, Latin rock, New Orleans groove, and country western, all wrapped like a web in shimmering electronic production.

"Every day I'm reminded that my story is really that of many," Frederico7 concludes. "In my heart, we are all Exotic Americans that bring unique flavors and journeys to this unique melting pot that is America, and that's what makes this continent great."

Soft Machine
Hidden Details
MoonJune Records
2018

Hidden Details celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of Soft Machine's 1968 eponymous debut, a seismic event in the British psychedelic, jazz, and rock music landscapes that still reverbates as the Canterbury scene/sound. This anniversary studio celebration also brought about Soft Machine's first tour of North America since 1974, with several 2018 shows featuring Gary Husband as guest performer on either drums or keyboards.

First assembled in 1966, Soft Machine has become a landmark British (if not global) progressive musical institution, and was among the first groups to explore the intersections of progressive jazz and progressive rock and there discover their unique style and sound. Even the name Soft Machine wonderfully describes the power of their exploratory vision and bluesy, warm familiarity of their sound sustained through various incarnations that included Elton Dean, Andy Summers (Jazz Police), Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen (Gong), Robert Wyatt and Allan Holdsworth.

Thanks to guitarist John Etheridge, the gnarled and moody "Broken Hill" suggests (but doesn't emulate) Led Zeppelin's funky blues crunch; but peel the jazz horns off the top of "One Glove" and the remaining guitar trio kicks out bluesy Led Zeppelin funk circa Houses of the Holy (1973, Atlantic) or Presence (1976, SwanSong).

Other tunes pull your ears most insistently into jazz. Even when Travis jumps into "One Glove," his blazing saxophone locks down tight yet plays loose with the band; with Marshall swinging more and more jazz into his rock beat, the collective sound moves like Eddie Harris grooving in a Traffic jam.

Travis drives deep into the Eastern edges of his saxophone lines in "Out Bloody Rageous, Part 1," introducing the sound of Yusef Lateef into their jazzy jamming. (Travis' pliant electronic keyboard grows small notes into a ripple into a cascading stream for his lovely, evocative "Out Bloody Intro.") Compressed into less than seven minutes, "Fourteen Hour Dream" plows and tends a broad field of progressive rock, with the bass harmonically groaning underneath Travis' trippy flute and the sparkle on Etheridge's guitar winking at David Gilmour's transcendent, electric Pink Floyd blues.

The spacious and twinkling "Breathe" closes Hidden Details with five minutes of contemplative innervision that steers the ethereal instrumental opening to the Floyd's Wish You Were Here (1975, Columbia) into the direction of Steve Hillage's ambient inner-/outer-space masterpiece Rainbow Dome Musick (1979, Virgin).

Tracks and Personnel:

Rocks

Tracks: First Tune of the Set (featuring Fiete Felsch & Vladyslav Sendecki); Adina (featuring Ada Rovatti, Wolfgang Haffner & Marcio Doctor); Squids (featuring Frank Delle); Pastoral (featuring Ada Rovatti, Edgar Herzog, Frank Delle, Björn Berger, and Christian Diener); The Dipshit (featuring David Sanborn); Above and Below (featuring Ada Rovatti & Wolfgang Haffner); Sozinho (featuring Vladyslav Sendecki); Rocks (featuring David Sanborn); Threesome (featuring David Sanborn & Bruno Müller).

Personnel: Randy Brecker: trumpet; David Sanborn: alto saxophone; Ada Rovatti: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; Wolfgang Haffner: drums; NDR Bigband -The Hamburg Radio Jazz Orchestra.

Poison Fruit

Tracks: Aroeira; Jemburi; Encontro; Bacurau; Ninho; Ilha Da Luz; O Ritual; Poison Fruit; Que Legal; Ecos Da Mata; Tempestades; Ilha Da Luz (aka "Mamão's Brake") Tenderlonious Remix; Encontro (aka "Azul") Glenn Astro Remix; Que Legal Reginald Omas Mamode IV Remix; Encontro (aka "Azul") Max Graef Remix; Poison Fruit (Dokta Venom's Digital Dub Mix).

Personnel: Mamão Ivan Conti: drums, vocals, percussion, synthesizers, keyboards; Alex Malheiros: bass, vocals; Fernando Moraes: Fender Rhodes, synthesizers, keyboards; Daniel Maunick: synthesizers, FX, keyboards, percussion; Thiago Martins: bass, vocals, guitar; Kiko Continentino: vocoder, synthesizers; Tenderlonious: remixer; Glen Astro: remixer; Reginald Omas Mamode IV: remixer; Max Graef: remixer; Dokta Venom: remixer.

Five Roads

Tracks: Estações; Bebeto; Folclórica; Bate Papo; BB; Paisagens; Ave Maria; O Barquinho; Valsinha Para Elvira (live).

Personnel: Mauricio de Souza: drums; Andrew Beals: alto sax; Bob Rodriguez: piano; Gary Mazzaroppi: bass; Charlie Dougherty: bass.

Playing with Fire

Tracks: The Return; Awakening; Mysterious World; The River; Lotus Feet; Resolve/Improv/Caravan; Honor/Amazing Grace.

Personnel: Jason "Mister E" Everett: seven-string electric fretless bass, six-string acoustic bass; Aleida Gehrels: viola; Trey Gunn: Warr Guitar; Phil Hirschi: cello; Radhika Iyer: seven-string electric violin; Rachel Nesvig: violin; Anil Prasad: tabla; V. Selvaganesh: drum set, kanjira.

Exótico Americano

Tracks: Exótico Americano; Pérola Negra; La Mirada del Halcón; Nature of Love; Vibran Los Ancestros; Samba Revelation; Azul Trancendental; Ciclo das Galáxias; Ela Ama; Run Free; Pérola Negra Remix.

Personnel: Adrián Quesada: guitar, bass, synthesizer; Alàn Uribe: bass, synthesizer; Brandàn Uribe: synthesizer; Beto Martinez: guitar; Bruno Vinezof: percussion, drums; Daniel Durham: bass; Greg Gonzales: bass; Jet Jaguar: bass; Joseph Woullard: flute; Joshua Thomson: saxophone; Michael Longoria: percussion; Pete Powers: drums; Sergio Yazbek: electric guitar; Sidão Santos: bass; Stewart Cochran: synthesizer programing; Zumbi Richards: trombone; Frederico7: vocals, rhythm guitars, synthesizer, bass, piano; Greg Jones: electric guitar, EFX, synthesizer.

Hidden Details

Tracks: Hidden Details; The Man Who Waved At Trains; Ground Lift; Heart Off Guard; Broken Hill; Flight Of The Jet; One Glove; Out Bloody Intro; Out Bloody Rageous, Part 1; Drifting White; Life On Bridges; Fourteen Hour Dream; Breathe; Night Sky (Bonus Track).

Personnel: John Etheridge: electric guitar, acoustic guitar; Theo Travis: saxophone, flute, Fender Rhodes piano; Roy Babbington: bass guitar; John Marshall: drums; Nick Utterirdge: wind chimes.
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