February 2009

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Jeff "Tain" Watts

Jeff "Tain" Watts

Winter Jazzfest

Le Poisson Rouge

New York City January 10, 2009

The big draw of Winter Jazzfest was drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts' midnight set at Le Poisson Rouge Jan. 10th in honor of Max Roach's birthday, with Terence Blanchard (trumpet), Branford Marsalis (tenor and soprano sax) and Christian McBride (bass)—the quartet heard on Watts' new release, simply titled Watts. Anticipation was high and the band knew it, so they flattened listeners against the wall with "Return of the Jitney Man". In this breakneck opener, the even faster "Dancin' 4 Chicken" and also the slower, fragmented blues choruses of "Brekky with Drekky" (a Michael Brecker homage), no one could ignore the electricity of Marsalis and Watts' interaction, honed over many years. There was, however, something of a creative gulley mid-set as the band seemed to succumb to allstar syndrome: more chops than musical interest. (Interestingly, bassist Eric Revis, Marsalis and Watts' longtime band mate, delivered a superior set across the street at Kenny's Castaways with the new group Tar Baby.) Blanchard played with depth and wit but seemed stuck for ideas in a couple of spots. When Lawrence Fields, a young pianist from St. Louis, came on board to reprise his album cameo on the soprano sax ballad "Owed...," the crowd energy dissipated further. But interest piqued again with the peculiar structure of "The Devil's Ring Tone," pushing Marsalis and Blanchard into a heady round of trading, and "Wry Köln," an older piece brimming with sonic surprise and AfroLatin influences.

By Any Means

By Any Means

Winter Jazzfest

Kenny's Castaways

New York City

January 10, 2009

As one of three venues hosting the epic Winter Jazzfest, Kenny's Castaways had its limitations—mainly a horrid piano barely fit for amateurs, let alone world-class jazzers. Some bands suffered for it, but thankfully, By Any Means, the trio of saxophonist Charles Gayle, bassist William Parker and drummer Rashied Ali, was not one of them. In fact, for all its frenetic, crosscutting interplay, the free jazz supergroup—ambassadors from New York's Vision Festival circle, in effect—wrung some of the cleanest sound of the night from the room. The set was split into two extended improvisations, but one could detect at least five different episodes folded within. Beginning in a fast, busy frame of mind, Parker skated gracefully across an implied tempo; Ali generated a less-is-more mass of sound he'd favor throughout and Gayle blew alto with great endurance and pronounced Ornette-ian turns of phrase. After 10 or so minutes the music grew sparser, with Parker's low, resonant tones coming into focus. Ali weighed in with a chatty solo, leading the band to reenter at an even faster tempo, with an explicit quarter-note pulse. Parker sawed manically with his bow, Ali jousted with Gayle in a round of trading and the first segment came to an abrupt but logical end. The second piece began slower, with a loopy swing feel highlighting Gayle at his bluesiest. Again the music grew more abstract, then accelerated, giving the entire set the contour of variations on a theme.

—David R. Adler

Don Cherry Tribute

Don Cherry Tribute

Symphony Space

New York City

January 16, 2009

The influential trumpeter was remembered in a concert with an octet led by Karl Berger, the pianist and vibraphonist most noted for founding the vital Creative Music Studio in 1972, the impact of which is still felt through the many musicians who worked there. The fact that there were no vibes on stage was unexpected, but the biggest surprise of all was how safely the music was approached. Cherry started his career in the groundbreaking Ornette Coleman Quartet and went on to incorporate non-Western traditions into his music, creating a multicultural aesthetic that not only influenced Afrocentrism in jazz but has been cited by dub, punk and rap artists. As they worked through seven of Cherry's compositions (and one by Berger that did show a hint of South African rhythm), they stripped the music down to not just mainstream jazz but a conservative repertory. Berger assembled a strong band, with Graham Haynes filling the trumpet role on cornet, saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum, guitarist Kenny Wessel, bassist Mark Helias, drummer Tani Tabbal and Bob Stewart on tuba, any one of whom would seem inclined to push the envelope. Berger's wife, the vocalist Ingrid Sertso—who like Berger and much of the band worked with Cherry during his life—offered invocation through lyrics she wrote to Cherry's music (some at his request), perhaps the most heartfelt element of the evening. It's a shame the current didn't run deeper.

Nicole Mitchell

Nicole Mitchell

The Stone

New York City

January 2-3, 2009

One of the brightest stars to rise from Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in years, Nicole Mitchell brought New Year wishes to New York over two nights at The Stone. Dubbing the effort "Sonic Projections," Mitchell composed separate sets of music for the occasion, played by fellow Chicagoan David Boykins on sax and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, with pianist Vijay Iyer on the first night and guitarist Mary Halvorson the second. In true Chicago form, it was horns (Boykins' saxophone and Mitchell's flute) out front most of the time. And in line with AACM tradition, the music worked with unabashedly beautiful, simple melodies and overt messages of hope and optimism, the composition "Affirmation" (the only piece repeated both nights) even incorporating wishes for the coming year written by audience members. At the same time, the music pushed harder than much of Mitchell's previous work, giving ample room for Boykins' gutsy tenor, especially in a prolonged and powerful duet with Fujiwara. Mitchell is extraordinarily inventive on her instrument, matching the power of the sax on the wee piccolo and singing through her flute with slurring pitches reminiscent of a vintage synthesizer. While the set with Iyer contained some wonderfully pointillistic moments, it was with Halvorson that Mitchell seemed to open the throttle with enticingly slippery, fragmented scores.

—Kurt Gottschalk

Mario Pavone

Mario Pavone


New York City

January 7, 2009

There are few musicians better-suited to be bandleaders than bassists. As sidemen, they are expected to keep things in order anyway, and the nature of their instrument precludes egotistical solo-driven composing. Mingus is the archetype but Mario Pavone has been steadily creating his own compelling body of work for decades. His latest project is named "Double Tenor Quintet," as in Tony Malaby and Jimmy Greene, longtime pianist Peter Madsen and drummer Gerald Cleaver filling out the group. For the CD release concert at Iridium, Pavone showed that the name is not just an honorific; the pieces from Ancestors (Playscape) are written specifically to highlight the many possibilities of a two-horn group: cutting contests, baton-relay themes and in-tandem stylistic and textural counterpoint. The tunes on the album are of reasonable length but were deliciously expanded in the live setting, their density making them seem even longer. The churning rhythms were a roiling backdrop for the unique approaches of Malaby and Greene, the legacy of Joe Henderson taken in two very different directions. Even when the two horns sat for the earlier piece "East Arc," Pavone's compositional ethic was clear: he wants his music to keep generating momentum as it plunges forward. This mission suits Malaby particularly well, giving him the opportunity to apply his specific brand of virtuosic belligerence to some especially meaningful statements.

Company of Heaven Jazzfest

Company of Heaven


Williamsburg, Brooklyn

January 12, 2009

Right in the middle of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) Conference, a new management agency, Company of Heaven, put on its inaugural festival for three days at three venues. The timing couldn't have been coincidental though any interested APAPers would need open minds and ears for the agency's eclectic artist roster. The final night of the festival (Jan. 12th) took place at the truly bizarre Monkeytown venue in Williamsburg and demonstrated the pool from which Company of Heaven draws its refreshment. The first set of the evening featured agency head Judith Insell on a brief, almost unrecognizable, deconstruction of John Coltrane's "India" for solo viola. For the second group, bassist Mark Helias' Open Loose with saxophonist Tony Malaby and drummer Tom Rainey, the oddity of the room became apparent. Bands play in the center with low-lying sofas on all four sides and a very high ceiling. As a result, Helias' braising funk was tempered a bit as the trio figured out the acoustical geometry, Malaby doing his best not to blow out the space. The feel was chamber-like and the audience seemed like well-stuffed nobles watching court musicians. Rainey stayed behind the kit for the last group of the first segment, guitarist Brad Shepik's trio with bassist Matt Penman. They played previews from a new album and some older material, Shepik's proto-swing guitar veering into fusion territory, bouncing around the room in every direction.

—Andrey Henkin

Dave Holland

Dave Holland Octet


New York City

January 7-12, 2009

The Dave Holland Octet, an authoritative assemblage that augmented the visionary bassist's long-standing quintet of saxophonist/flutist Antonio Hart, trombonist Robin Eubanks, vibesman Steve Nelson and drummer Nate Smith with horn players Alex Sipiagin, Chris Potter and Gary Smulyan drawn from his award-winning big band, held forth at Birdland for five nights of intensely idiosyncratic music. Combining the harmonic and dynamic power of the larger ensemble with the improvisational and rhythmic agility of the small group, the band's performances throughout the week gave a glimpse of jazz at its very best, full of intelligence and surprises. The second set, opening night (Jan. 7th), began with Holland's "Pathways," a melody built on Nelson's vaguely Eastern vibes wrapped around the composer's potent bass vamp. Solos by Sipiagin and Holland were buttressed by bottom-heavy horn harmonies out of which Smulyan's baritone emerged for a climactic statement. Potter's "Sea of Marmara" featured his soprano and the rhythm section, Smith's bass drum dancing contrapuntally with Holland's bass. The latter's "Happy Jamming" showcased the potent horn section on a joyous romp, with raucous riffing and backgrounds driving the soloists to dizzying heights. Kenny Wheeler's homage to Holland, "So-Fo-Da," spotlighted his lyricism in an Ellingtonian milieu, setting up the powerful big band-styled closer, "What Goes Around."

Steve Davis

Steve Davis


New York City

January 7, 2009

The spirit of the late great Jackie McLean loomed large over Smalls during the Steve Davis Quintet's set (Jan. 7th), which was being recorded live for the basement bastion of bebop's own record label. Davis, the last of the Jazz Messengers, cut his chops on trombone in McLean's sextet and, like his frontline partner alto saxophonist Mike DiRubbo, was one of McLean's prize students in the jazz program that now bears his name. Seated at the club's piano, at the helm of the same tight rhythm section—bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Willie Jones III—that once propelled the band of Roy Hargrove (who had recorded with McLean in the same group that included Davis) was the veteran Larry Willis. Willis first gained notoriety as both a pianist and composer with McLean's quintet over 40 years ago and Davis wisely called upon him to contribute his long proven skills as a writer to the band's book. His swinging arrangement of "Surrey With The Fringe On Top" made good use of the contrasting sonorities of Davis' smooth burnished sound and DiRubbo's tart biting tone that were also spotlighted on the two horn-two rhythm introduction to the leader's "Spirit Waltz" that followed. Willis' solo piano rendition of "Nature Boy" hushed the excited room that then exploded with approval as he segued into his classic "To Wisdom The Prize." Davis featured the pianist on a solo Ellington medley and then ended with the band blowing his "Insidious Behavior."

—Russ Musto

Recommended New Listening:

* Lotte Anker/Craig Taborn/Gerald Cleaver—Live at the Loft (ILK)

* Ravi Coltrane—Blending Times (Savoy Jazz)

* The Flatlands Collective—Maatjes (Clean Feed)

* Rudresh Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition— Apti (Innova)

* Jen Shyu—Jade Tongue (s/r)

* Tar Baby—Eponymous (Imani)

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

* Steve Adams Trio—Surface Tension (Clean Feed)

* Cory Combs & The Great Plains Ensemble—Fairfax in the Pacific (Evander Music)

* Garrison Fewell—Variable Density Sound Orchestra (Creative Nation Music)

* Jim Hall/Bill Frisell—Hemispheres (ArtistShare)

* Bill Henderson—Beautiful Memory (Live at the Vic) (Ahuh Prod.)

* Joshua Redman—Compasss (Nonesuch)

—Laurence Donohue-Greene Managing Editor, AllAboutJazz-New York

* Box—Studio 1 (Rune Grammofon)

* Braff Blaser Duo—YaY (Fresh Sound-New Talent)

* Robert Dick/Steve Baczkowski/Ravi Padmanabha—Doh Tala (Epoch Music)

* John Edwards—Volume (psi)

* Harry Miller's Isipingo—Full Steam Ahead (Reel Recordings)

* Aki Takase/Alexander von Schlippenbach—Iron Wedding—Piano Duets (Intakt)

—Andrey Henkin Editorial Director, AllAboutJazz-New York

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