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December 2009

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Jesse Stacken and Kurt Knuffke

Cornelia Street Cafe

New York, NY November 8, 2009

When pianist Jesse Stacken and trumpeter Kirk Knuffke played Cornelia Street Café (Nov. 8th) to celebrate their SteepleChase duo release Mockingbird, they surveyed not only Monk and Ellington tunes—the album's focus—but also demanding works by Lennie Tristano and Charles Mingus. Their repartee was crisp and in the pocket and their choices seemed to emphasize the sheer expressive range of canonical jazz. Case in point: They opened with Monk's "Reflections," an opulent ballad highlighting Knuffke's warm legato tone, and closed with "Skippy," one of Monk's faster and trickier lines, played over Stacken's old-school stride piano rhythm. There were blues numbers, too, in minor- and major-key varieties: first, Ellington's "Such Sweet Thunder," with its emphatic, stomping bass line, and later Monk's "Misterioso," a slow study in wide ascending intervals. Knuffke opened the first Mingus piece, "Ecclusiastics," with playful rubato musings and Stacken introduced Mingus' lush ballad "Orange Was the Color..." in a similar fashion, returning subtly to the stride piano motif on both tunes. The Tristano items—"Two Not One" and "Lennie-Bird"—proved to be the virtuosic high points, conclusive tests of agility and duo cohesion that Stacken and Knuffke nailed to the wall. But knowing when to speak softly is just as crucial a skill and "Sunset and the Mockingbird," one of Ellington's most radiant melodies, provided just the occasion.



Mulgrew Miller

Dizzy's Club

New York City

November 11, 2009

The great pianist Mulgrew Miller, leading his sextet Wingspan at Dizzy's Club (Nov. 11th), showed a marked preference for lying in wait and then leaping. He opened in a bright swing vein with "Return Trip," letting vibraphonist Steve Nelson, altoist Antonio Hart and trumpeter Duane Eubanks all have their say before winding through the cascading changes himself, calmly at first, falling into progressively deeper sync with bassist Ivan Taylor and drummer Rodney Green. He spoke last again on the finale, Hank Mobley's brisk modified blues "The Breakthrough" and this time only to trade fours ferociously with Green in one of the set's creative climaxes. Miller's brilliance means you want to hear more of him and happily most of his recent discs are trio dates (two featuring Green on drums). That's not to deny Wingspan's many rewards. There's a rich, Oliver Nelson-like quality to Miller's orchestration, particularly on "The Sequel." Hart's solos were all-out burners; his flight on "You and the Night and the Music" was especially well-conceived and dramatic. Nelson's turn on "The Sequel" was a complex web of exploratory phrasing. Eubanks brought a lovely tone to his ballad feature, Horace Silver's "Peace," but Miller did more with the harmonic innards of the tune in a mere half-chorus. Yes, jazz is supposed to be loose, but several awkward transitions and late entrances, with horn players scrambling back to the mic, seemed to reveal an overall lack of engagement.

—David R. Adler

John Butcher

Issue Project Room

Brooklyn, NY

November 11, 2009

Over the last decade, John Butcher has become a clear and present master of solo extended technique. Not quite a minimalist (even if he has tendencies) and not exactly an electronicist (though electricity plays a discrete part), he is an explorer of the physical properties of the saxophone. His playing on Nov. 11th at Issue Project Room was ragged and metallic, repetitive and rhythmic. He started the set standing surprisingly close to the audience for a brashly articulated improvisation and then retreated to a microphone for a display of his most exciting and enigmatic recent work. Creating a channel between microphone and speaker, his instrument became a sound chamber, electricity replacing breath. He used the sax keys to shape the feedback waves, carefully massaging the sound, never letting the overtones become earsplitting wails. Instead, the sound is rather as if birds lived underwater. Most often, saxophones sound like their mouthpieces—reedy, wood plus wind. Butcher manages to place the sound lower, to make it not just the head but also the body of the instrument that resonates. He is the rare musician who is at his best on his own, but cellist Okkyung Lee brought out a different side of him in their duo set. Butcher seemed to stick closely to her lead, so when she worked the bow forcefully or bounced it lightly against the strings the improvisations went in the most interesting directions. They played hard and soft, with music, it seemed, residing in the middle.

Jemeel Moondoc

Nublu

New York City

November 5, 2009

Playing the first night of the first Nublu Jazz Festival (Nov. 5th), Jemeel Moondoc shared a bill with Charles Gayle, the Mandingo Ambassadors, mid-period Miles Davis videos and DJs spinning heavy jazz funk at the Avenue C late-night hang where, at least on this night, the audience hollers back when the solos hit hard. Nublu holds fast to an East Village that isn't there anymore and as longtime denizens, Moondoc and Gayle were apt choices to kick off the month-long festival. Moondoc opened his set blowing a boxy upbeat theme (triplet, up, triplet, down), leading his trio into a supertight groove. He squeezed the melody out of his alto with no small bit of force and bassist Hilliard Greene and drummer Chad Taylor both took strong, deliberate solos, adhering closely to the melody. But Moondoc especially was persistent, varying, building and spiraling but never straying far. The second piece opened with a drum solo, the theme played in melodic rhythm. With Taylor setting the pace, the throttle was opened further, giving more drive to the tight trio work. Greene's big bass sound was only partly attributable to the amplifier; he played with power and precision. Before their final piece, the leader announced "OK, we're gonna jazz it up now with a tune called 'In Walked Monk.'" Morphing into a more traditional sax trio underscored how cohesive yet how unusual Moondoc's tunes of fractured unison were. What they played wasn't complex but exhibited a vibrant togetherness.

—Kurt Gottschalk

Jim Hall

Birdland

New York, NY

November 10th, 2009

Arguably the first and foremost of modern jazz guitarists, Jim Hall, now in his late 70s, slightly stooped and using a cane, retains a youthful sense of adventure and humor. In residence at Birdland, backed by a first-rate combo—alto saxophonist Greg Osby, bassist Steve LaSpina and drummer Joey Baron—Hall was in fine form for opening night's (Nov. 10th) late set, cracking jokes and kicking off a chromatic blues displaying his signature style of carefully constructed motives and colorful clustered chords. Like a sculptor of sound, the guitarist's low-volume, pared-down style carves away excess airspace to reveal the essential idea. On "Don't Explain," his quiet, acoustic sound had the audience perking their ears, hanging on each well-chosen chord or harmonic chime. The more extroverted "My Funny Valentine," a samba toggling between the keys of A and C minor, featured fine solos from Osby, who, like Hall, constructs sturdy melodic edifices from short themes, and LaSpina, whose slides and glissandi agilely ornamented his soulful statements. "In a Sentimental Mood" began with Hall, alone and reflective, scrambling for a few notes but never losing his flow, casting a spell over the room, followed by a free piece, a modal exploration centered around E minor, each musician experimenting with extended techniques. "St. Thomas," the obligatory closer, featured a steel pan guitar patch, Osby's subtle humor and tight group interplay.

Buddy DeFranco}

Tribeca Performing Arts Center

New York City

November 12, 2009

A troubling sign of the times, Jack Kleinsinger's 37th annual Highlights in Jazz, the city's longest running jazz concert series, has been advertised as the "final" edition. Let's hope not. Diminished sponsorship due to a sagging economy didn't flag musical spirits on Thursday (Nov. 12th) when living legend clarinetist Buddy DeFranco hit the stage with a contingent of well-seasoned maestros: Derek Smith (piano), Jay Leonhart (bass), Ed Metz, Jr. (drums), Ron Odrich (clarinet) and Joe Cohn (guitar). DeFranco, feeling his oats, played in an intrepid, inspired style spanning swing and bebop. On Jerome Kern's "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" he exploited the horn's full range with fluid ornamentation; inspired by his disciple Odrich's dazzling feature number, the veteran responded with a lyrical flight over Dizzy Gillespie's "Groovin' High," concluding with a show-stopping clarinet duet. Smith garnered a warm round of applause for his feature "Out of This World." The second half featured the Pizzarelli Family (Bucky and John: guitars; Martin: bass), with Mickey Roker (drums). Bucky's tasteful melodies, often colored with falling trills and subtle bent notes contrasted with his son's hard-edged picking, but they blended like Basie brass on the chorded 'shout sections' that concluded many of the songs. DeFranco joined them for two final numbers, taking an adventurous, idea-stuffed solo over "Darn That Dream" and burning up "Cherokee."

—Tom Greenland

Arturo O'Farrill's Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra

Symphony Space

New York City

November 9, 2009

Since the formation of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra in 2002, the band, under the direction of pianist Arturo O'Farrill, has performed classic compositions from the Latin Jazz canon and presented newly commissioned works for the ensemble, preserving and extending the music's rich tradition. In its new home at Symphony Space, it has continued the important work it first began at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The Orchestra's concert (Nov. 9th) was exemplary of its mission, opening with Ray Santos' swinging Palladium-era mambo "Sunny Ray," following it with Bob Franceschini's ambitious Kenton-ian "Soul And Culture Suite" and ending the first part of the evening with two works from the O'Farrill family—"Oro, Incienso y Mirra" by the director's famous father Chico and "The Composing Process" from his trumpeter son Adam. The second half of the show was even more auspicious, starting things off with another Santos piece, the appropriately titled "Cooking." Guest Randy Weston then took the stage, performing his "African Village Bedford Stuyvesant" solo, prior to O'Farrill conducting the orchestra through Melba Liston's engaging diasporic arrangements on the NEA Jazz Master's memorable "African Sunrise Suite," making good use of the band's smooth saxophone section and fiery brass and percussion. The evening ended with the premiere of O'Farrill's anticipated "A Wise Latina," honoring recently appointed Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

David Schnitter

Smalls

New York City

November 8, 2009

Tenor man David Schnitter spent more time in the frontline of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers than any other musician in the group's illustrious history, but fell into relative obscurity during the "young lions" era that coincided with the end of his tenure. The saxophonist's recent regular appearances at Smalls have once again shined a spotlight on the veteran, revealing a mature player steeped in his horn's tradition. Opening his first set (Nov. 8th) with an up-tempo reading of the standard "My Shining Hour," Schnitter quickly displayed the sinuous sound flowing from the influence of Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt that has long made him a favorite of hardboppers, yet in his solo also revealed the addition of the harmonic language of Coltrane to his musical vocabulary, marking a new stage in his development. With Spike Wilner at the piano, Tal Ronen on bass and Clifford Barbaro behind the drum kit, the group swung through the chord changes in a classic style that they continued through their Latinish version of Horace Silver's "Barbara." For the second Silver piece of the set, "Peace," the band was joined by vocalist Marti Mabin, whose earthy resonant sound recalled the magic of Sarah Vaughan. On "Naima" she sang with an airy delicacy, then on Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge" burned with an intensity that matched the instrumentalists' incendiary playing. The quartet ended the set with an as-yet untitled Schnitter original that returned the leader to his bebop roots.

—Russ Musto

Recommended New Listening:

Circulasione Totale Orchestra—Bandwidth (Rune Grammofon)

Dave Douglas—A Single Sky (Green Leaf)

Mika Pohjola—Great Tunes By My Friends (Blue Music Group)

Manuel Valera—Currents (MAXJAZZ)

Nelson Veras—Solo Session Vol. 1 (BEE Jazz)

Myron Walden—Momentum (Demi Sound)

—David Adler [email protected] Columnist, AllAboutJazz.com



Bill Dixon—Tapestries for Small Orchestra (Firehouse 12)

Karin Krog & Friends—Joy (Sonet-Meantime)

The Nice Guy Trio—Here Comes The Nice Guy Trio (Porto Franco)

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