10

India to Italy, Brazil to Slovenia–Where WON'T Jazz Go?

Chris M. Slawecki By

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Avataar
Petal
Self-Produced
2016

While growing up in the Northern Ontario mining town of Sunbury, he was known as "Sam." But in his early twenties, Sundar Viswanathan reconnected with his Indian name and heritage, and, through several conservatory courses spanning North Indian classical to Turkish maquam music, dove deeply into his Indian musical roots as a saxophonist and composer.

"I had to transcribe flute and sitar improvisations as part of class assignments. The vocabulary got into the language of my own writing," Viswanathan explains. His subsequent compositions have explored various intersections between Indian contemporary and classical, Western contemporary and classical, jazz, and electronic music; these explorations have led him to play alongside Wynton Marsalis, Joe Lovano, and Dave Holland, plus more cutting-edge instrumentalists such as Sun Ra, Vijay Iyer and Rez Abassi. Viswanathan was nominated for a 2010 Juno Award with the world music band Jaffa Road, and has since put together and led the ensemble Avataar—featuring vocalist Felicity WIlliams, tabla player Ravi Naimpally, guitarist Michael Occhipinti, bassist Justin Gray and drummer Giampaolo Scatozza —to flesh out the voice of his unique and global musical vision.

Its synthesis of Indian and jazz music makes Petal beat with a two-chambered heart. In "Agra," inspired by the construction of the Taj Mahal, Williams' voice doubles and harmonizes with Viswanathan's saxophone so their combined sound rises and glows like a musical sun. "Monsoon" begins as a drone, like storm clouds in the distance growing closer, until Viswanathan's saxophone splashes in like plump raindrops upon Naimpally's tabla. Contemplative yet restless, "The Long Dream" is based on a specific raga. "The ras, the flavor of the raga, is tranquility," Viswanathan explains. "It was written in some long meters, in ten. The whole piece is really a big drone. One open sound. It was about the tranquil quality, that emotional connection to peace."

At the same time, Petal illustrates Viswanathan's prowess as an incisive, inquisitive jazz saxophonist. His melodic approach to "Banda Aceh," which blossoms and grows like a small flower, sings with the sweet, smooth and soulful sound of Grover Washington Jr. "Infinite Open" drives harder, an angry electronic buzz on the edge of its tabla and electric guitar; the free dialogue between Viswanathan's saxophone and Williams' voice echoes earlier duets between percussionist Airto Moreira with vocalist Flora Purim, despite their different instruments, material, and contexts.

Closing with Petal (Ephemerata), a hymn to "a peace that passeth all understanding," Petal proves to be a spiritual as well as musical experience, where Indian and Western, traditional and jazz, electronic and acoustic music, and form and content, all submerge and then emerge as one. "I want my music to be otherworldly. My belief is that, if the music transcends, more people get it, even if they don't get it right away," Viswanathan suggests. "I hope that I can touch something as an artist that people who are not artists might not be able to touch easily."

Stefania Dipierro
Natural
Farout Recordings
2016

Based in their homeland of Italy, composer, multi-instrumentalist and producer Nicola Conte first worked with singer-songwriter Stefania Dipierro in Conte's 1990s collective called Fez. When Fez disbanded, Dipierro moved on to share her rich and succulent voice through a series of other collaborations, while Conte released a series of works in samba-influenced acid-jazz that was acclaimed throughout Europe, including his five-volume series Viagem, a look back at bossa and samba jazz lost in the past which inspired his music in the present.

Their first collaboration in fifteen years, Natural reunites Conte as guitarist, songwriter and producer, with Dipierro as songwriter and vocalist, for a program of originals, jazz classics, and bossa/samba classics in the company of some of Italy's finest jazz musicians, including and especially trumpeter Fabrizio Bosso and Gaetano Partipilo on alto sax and flute. It radiates the gloriously warm, glowing groove of Brazilian samba filtered through European jazz and hip-hop, while Dipierro's stylish voice pours into your ear like smooth, smoky whiskey perfectly shaken and served over the rocks of Conte's shimmering production.

Dipierro's voice also suggests several seminal points of reference. It gently echoes Astrud Gilberto's classic bossa nova throughout "Softly As in a Morning Sunrise" and Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Caminhos Cruzados," while "Ainda Mais Amor" suggests Bebel Gilberto (daughter of Joao Gilberto, not Astrud) working out a cool keyboard groove with Brazilian fusion pioneers Azymuth.

But the sadly beautiful, melancholic sound of Helen Folasade Adu (Sade) comes through strongest of all: In the way Dipierro caresses and reshapes the line "It's hard to be true, so please come open the door" in Betty Carter's "Open the Door"; the way she phrases and self-harmonizes in Conte's streamlined "I Feel the Sun On Me"; and especially the title track, which sounds built up from the rhythmic blueprint of Sade's "Keep Looking."

Bosso's trumpet sings prettily, nuanced and spirited, alongside Dipierro's doe-eyed vocal in Conte's loose arrangement of Steve Kuhn's "The Meaning of Love," and the peaceful, soft as a sunrise "Que Maravilha." The curtain finally comes down with "Joia," a crackling percussion/vocal duet from the Airto Moreira/Flora Purim Brazilian tradition.

But these descriptions and explanations don't really do justice to Conte's graceful, flowing musical poetry. Some music grabs and holds you more than other music. Natural simply will not let me go.

Groove Legacy
Groove Legacy
Self-Produced
2016

Built around the core of saxophonist Paulie Cerra, keyboardist Billy Steinway and bassist Travis Carlton (son of legendary guitarist Larry Carlton), Groove Legacy is just as much a sound and feel as it is this band and the title of their eponymous debut. Although they've collectively played with everyone from Al Green through Stevie Wonder to Carrie Underwood, this debut shares the trio's mutual passion for the sound of 1970s jazz-funk—Creed Taylor's seamless, sparkling productions for CTI Records, The Meters, Stuff, and especially The Crusaders.

"Ever since I had the pleasure of working with The Crusaders, I fell in love with the tenor and trombone melody blend," Steinway explains. "I can't think of a better group of musicians than Groove Legacy to recapture that sound—also putting a fresh spin on instrumental music." Highlighted by contributions from trombonists Andrew Lippman and Lee Thornberg, drummer Lemar Carter, plus several guitarists, Groove Legacy honors and consolidates this sound but keeps it moving forward, too.

"Odd Couple" is only one example of Groove Legacy's mastery of the classic Crusaders sound: Bright and sharp yet a little bit funky and round (and more than a little soulful around the edges), with the combined horns singing as a single voice; Ceara's tenor sounds as big as Texas and cuts as sharp as a cowboy's spurs while bassist Carlton and drummer Carter keep its rhythm rolling and tumbling.

Cerra and Travis Carlton co-wrote "Cornell" to feature Larry Carlton (Travis' dad) surfing on a tune assumedly written to honor legendary groove guitarist Cornell Dupree, who held down the guitar chair in Stuff. While the rhythm section gently lays down a Memphis groove, like the instrumental track behind a lost Al Green single, Papa Carlton's guitar dominates this piece with his twangy and tangy tone. Next comes "The Know It All," which featured guitarist Robben Ford slashes through in a more spindly and sharp, Albert King blues-rock style.

The sound of Memphis also comes through the rhythm, sound and feel of "Memphis 40 oz. Hang," a leisurely groove that sounds cut straight from a Stax Records session by Booker T. & the MGs with The Memphis Horns, and which pours nicely, with a sharp, robust body and creamy, foamy head.

Frank Malfitano's stylish liner notes describe Groove Legacy as, "It's the 'If Stuff and the Crusaders had a baby' band." There's no better way to say it.

Jan Kus
Faith
Self-Produced
2016

As a young Slovenian saxophone student, Jan Kus proved so promising that he earned a scholarship from the Slovenian Ministry of Culture to study at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, studies which included tours of Belgium, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Slovenia, Slovakia, and The Netherlands, with other young European jazz players. In 2012, Kus crossed the Atlantic to pursue his Masters, studying under saxophonist Antonio Hart at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, where he received the Jimmy Heath Award for promising wind players.

His first full-length release as a leader, Faith delivers an excellent lesson in the globally transcendent nature of modern jazz, produced by Kus and instructed by the Jan Kus Quartet: Kus on tenor and soprano saxophones, Sean Fitzpatrick on piano and Fender Rhodes, double bassist Dan Martinez and drummer Joel Mateo. Guest "instructors" include Antonio Hart, electric guitarist Rafal Sarnecki and vocalist Mélanie JB Charles.

Mentor Hart's pinpoint alto helps Kus's tenor fill up "Emptiness." The melody they jointly sing seems to rise from the song's rhythm as naturally as the morning sunrise; later, their simultaneous closing improvisations shoot off rockets and fireworks of jazz sound, sounding like two Wayne Shorters playing at the same time.

The Quartet changes to a bop quintet by teaming Alex Sipiagin's trumpet with Kus's tenor for a brilliantly detailed reimagining of one of Thelonious Monk's most famously spastic bop melodies, "Rhythm A Ning." Fitzpatrick's piano and Mateo's drums insistently tug Martinez's bass into their swirling Latin rhythm, while tenor and trumpet blow hard bop up top.

Charles' graceful voice floats languidly through two tunes. She wordlessly vocalizes with Kus's saxophone in "Strength," given notes but no words to sing; but she carefully studies every note and word in "I'm Just a Little Person," dreamy music matched with longing lyrics, while Kus's tenor breathily complements her singing. The leader swings fully into the instrumental break, playing Lester Young to Charles' Billie Holiday—pianist Fitzpatrick does a good job resurrecting the sound of Teddy Wilson, too. (Faith concludes by reprising this tune as a drum, bass, and saxophone trio.)

The leader's saxophone most brightly shines in "Neófito," joined once more by Sipiagin's trumpet, and the title track "Faith." Spirited from its start, "Neófito" suggests Herbie Hancock's V.S.O.P. band ripping through modern jazz with a Latin feel. Piano and tenor sax worriedly chew on the blues to step hesitatingly into "Faith" before it opens into more adventurous musical space.

Lyle Mays
The Ludwigsburg Concert
SWR/Jazz Haus
2015

Intentionally or not, keyboardist Lyle Mays seems to maintain a public profile that's lower than low. His most famous engagement is his tenure in a group named for someone else (Pat Metheny), and The Ludwigsburg Concert is only his sixth solo release since his eponymous solo debut for Warner Bros. Jazz in 1985, and his first since Solo: Improvisations for Extended Piano for Warner Bros. in 2000. (Mays does appear in the Metheny Group for The Way Up [2005, Nonesuch]) and concert DVD Imaginary Day Live [2008, Eagle Rock]).

The only recording of the Lyle Mays Quartet—with saxophonist Bob Sheppard, drummer Mark Walker, and bassist Marc Johnson, one of Mays' oldest and dearest friends, going back to college—The Ludwigsburg Concert is something of an event, and does not even slightly disappoint. "It was just at this time the music industry was changing. We had no money for a big road crew, trucks, synthesizer, technicians, and were happy just to have gigs at all," Mays recalls in the notes to this set. "For me, it was a challenge, because I wasn't used to playing only the piano."

Mays opens with an opus, the title track of his 1992 solo album Fictionary (Geffen Records). His introductory solo sounds comfortable and sturdy, inviting the listener to both relax and listen, and immediately illustrates why Mays and Metheny played together so excellently and for so long: They both play jazz with an easy, almost casual sound that welcomes, not challenges, the listener, rendering clear melodies in warm, full tones. Sheppard's sax leads the rhythm section in, then pushes the melody and harmonies further out, and eventually teams with Mays' piano to end this tune by blowing so hard that it scatters the music apart like autumn leaves swirling windblown from their tree. (It's worth noting that this 24-minute piece would comprise an entire album side in the days of vinyl.) "Either Ornette" conjures images of a small bop quartet discretely burning up the corner of a small club. Mays plays with bright notes that ring so clear, hanging heavy in the air or dissipating into the next note like mist, sounding much like vibes master Gary Burton—and then scatters a few dissonant Monk chords 'round the ending.

Disc two jumps off with the rollicking "Hard Eights," with Sheppard's saxophone bop abstractions bounding off of Walker's rocking drums like ricocheting bullets. It also features the contemplative "Au Lait," co-composed with Metheny for the guitarist's Offramp album (1981, ECM), and primarily a piano-saxophone duet with Mays sketching out wispy traces of Erik Satie.

"When I then heard the concert, I was almost shocked. How was it possible?" Mays remembers. "We seemed to have played flawlessly and full of energy! That was a magical night! At the end, we were really happy we'd played so well and it was recorded so excellently."

Danny Mixon
Pass It On
Self-Produced
2015

You'd think that a pianist who's solidly served as sideman for such pillars of the jazz community as Charles Mingus, Betty Carter, Kenny Dorham, Grant Green and others (including Afro-Cuban firebrands Pucho & His Latin Soul Brothers), would be at least somewhat famous. But since his first performances in the mid-1970s, pianist Danny Mixon has maintained such a low profile that he's still relatively unknown.

Mixon's first release since his self-produced Peace & Music (2008), Pass It On brings Mixon more into the public spotlight. Solidly footed in the jazz tradition, it explores famous and not-so-famous compositions by Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Wayne Shorter, and Freddie Hubbard, plus two Mixon originals with deep roots in the blues, played with a rotating gallery of six rhythm mates (three different drummers and bassists) plus saxophonist Fred Staton, blues-jazz vocalist Dakota Staton's brother.

It's pretty ballsy for one pianist to open his first recording in nearly a decade with a tune not just closely associated with but flat-out named for another pianist. But that's precisely what Mixon does with "Blue Monk," tap-dancing on its melody, rocking its chords, and soulfully rolling through elegant yet blues-based runs. His solo piano rendition of "Single Petal of a Rose," simple and unadorned, allows all the beauty of Duke Ellington's original melody to fully bloom.

Mixon so adeptly explores two Wayne Shorter tunes that you'd think they were composed for piano, seamlessly swapping improvisations in and out of the verses of "Yes or No" and blending jazz, blues and classical styles into "Infant Eyes," played as soft and gentle as baby's breath.

Pass It On programs Mixon's two originals back to back: As basic as its title, "My Blues" rolls as steadily and powerfully as the Mississippi River through its delta homeland—just a great old school piano blues played by a pianist who truly "tickles the ivories" in his swirling mid-song improvisation, and who's lived long enough to have genuinely experienced the blues. A tribute more in feeling and tone than style, "The Sample Way" honors The Crusaders' keyboardist Joe Sample with a truly sing-able melody that organically rises from solid yet shifting rhythmic footing.

In the center of Pass It On, "Memories of You," Hubbard's tune "Up Jumped Spring," and "The Very Thought of You," combine to survey jazz piano from Art Tatum to Thelonious Monk (especially Mixon's strongly rhythmic left hand) to Red Garland to McCoy Tyner—all in the space of about twelve minutes.

Tracks and Personnel:

Petal

Tracks: Agra; Banda Aceh; Monsoon; The Long Dream; Infinite Open; Raudra; Petal (The Space Between); Ishwar; Annapoorna; Petal (Ephemerata).

Personnel: Sundar Viswanathan: alto sax, soprano sax, bansuri, flute; Felicity Williams: vocals; Michael Occhipinti: electric and acoustic guitar; Justin Gray: electric bass, mandolin, taus; Ravi Naimpally: tabla, percussion; Giampaolo Scatozza: drums; Robi Botos: piano, Fender Rhodes; Samidha Joglekar: Hindustani vocals.

Natural

Tracks: Maracatu Atomico; Softly as in a Morning Sunrise; A Gira; Within You and I; Open the Door; Ainda Mais Amor; Caminhos Cruzados; The Meaning of Love; Natural; I Feel the Sun On Me; A Menina Dança; Vento Bravo; Que Maravilha; Joia.

Personnel: Stefania Dipierro: vocals; Fabrizio Bosso: trumpet; Gaetano Partipilo: alto sax, flute; Pietro Lussu: piano, Wurlitzer, electric piano, Fender Rhodes, Hammond C3; Mirko Signorile: piano, Fender Rhodes; Rory More: Hammond C3; Luca Alemanno: fender bass, double bass; Nicola Angelucci: drums; Marco Valeri: drums; Dario Congedo: drums; Fabio Accardi: drums; Pierpaolo Bisogno: congas, percussion; Liviana Ferri: percussion; Emanuele Ferrari: tambourine; Melanie Charles: backing vocals; Fabrizio Savino: guitars; Nicola Conte: guitars.

Groove Legacy

Tracks: Sweetness (for Walter Payton); Odd Couple; Cornell; The Know It All; Moneybags; Lolly's Dream; Memphis 40 oz. Hang; 47 Degree Angle; My Someday Girl; H-Town Hipster.

Personnel: Paul Cerra: tenor sax; Bill Steinway: Fender Rhodes; Travis Carlton: bass; Kirk Fletcher: lead guitar, rhythm guitar; Lemar Carter: drums; Sam Meek: rhythm guitar; Andrew Lippman: trombone; Robben Ford: guitar; Larry Carlton: guitar; Tim Curle: percussion; Chris Lovejoy: percussion; Ricky Peterson: Hammond B3; Lee Thornberg: trumpet, valve trombone.

Faith

Tracks: Disconnect; Emptiness; One for the Band; Aqui; One for the Band—Jan's Story; I'm Just a Little Person; One for the Band—Sean's Story; Rhythm A Ning; Strength; One for the Band—Dan's Story; Neófito; Faith; I'm Just a Little Person (trio version).

Personnel: Jan Kus: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; Sean Fitzpatrick: piano, Fender Rhodes; Dan Martinez: double bass; Joel Mateo: drums; Mélanie JB Charles: vocals; Antonio Hart: alto saxophone; Alex Sipiagin: trumpet; Carlos Maldonado: percussion; Rafal Sarnecki: electric gutar; Ziga Murko: electronics.

The Ludwigsburg Concert

Tracks: Disc One: Fictionary; Either Ornette; Chorinho; Lincoln Reviews His Notes; Disc Two: Hard Eights; Disbelief; Are We There Yet?; Au Lait; August.

Personnel: Lyle Mays: piano; Bob Sheppard: saxophone; Marc Johnson: bass; Mark Walker: drums.

Pass It On

Tracks: Blue Monk; Infant Eyes; On a Clear Day; Memories of You; Up Jumped Spring; The Very Thought of You; Yes or No; My Blues; The Sample Way; Single Petal of a Rose; That's All; Minton's.

Personnel: Danny Mixon: piano; Marcus McLaurine: bass; Rudy Lawless: drums; Damon Duewhite: drums; Ghanniyya Green: vocals; Bryce Sebastian: bass; Paul Ramsey: bass; McClenty Hunter: drums; Fred Staton: saxophone.

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