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Jazz Quanta May


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Oran Etkin
Gathering Light

Multi-reedist Oran Etkin gathers his scattered points of inspiration from the whole of the Eastern Hemisphere and a good bit of the Western one. Etkin's main horn is the bass clarinet...not completely unheard of, Eric Dolphy played a mean one, but one heard infrequently enough that it remains almost a novelty. Etkin opens Gathering Light with Ki Narto Saboo's "Gambang Suling," his bass clarinet reaching eastward toward the Indian Ocean and parts tropical. The original "Taxi Dance" pits Etkin's clarinet against Curtis Fowlkes' Teagarden-inspired trombone. If the Far East ever made it to New Orleans, this is what it sounded like. It is these types of multicultural parallels that best capture the spirit and sound of what Etkin is doing. And "dance" is both a theme and direction on this recording, emphasizing a terpsichorean muse permeating the recital. Etkin's reeds are woody with just enough humidity to take the edge off any harshness. They breathe Eastern European Klezmer. On "Gratitude" Etkin uses his bass instrument to approximate a didgeridoo, spinning a complex melodic line married to competing lines. Drummer Nasheet Waits meets the challenge of providing a broad palette of percussive rhythms that underlie Etkin's performance. Among this otherworldliness, Etkin closes things with the Louis Armstrong standard, "When it's Sleepytime Down South." He plays only with Ben Allison's bass and Waits' trap and brushes. It is somber and respectful, a fitting piece to bring it all back home.

Jessica Williams
With Love
Origin Records

Pianist Jessica Williams produces for the piano in With Love that Rebecca Parris and Beat Kaestli do in jazz vocals...a perfect jazz ballads recording. Williams does so in a solo piano setting not unlike what she has used in the past most recently on Song of the Earth (Origin Arts, 2012), Touch (Origin Arts, 2010) and The Art of the Piano (Origin Arts, 2009). This is a recording the eclipses the majority of what passes for "ambient" or "new age" piano music by light years. Williams' performance only has one comparison and that is to the brilliant post-modern rendering achieved by Martial Solal on Live at the Village Vanguard: I Can't Give You Anything But Love (Cam Jazz, 2009). Origin Records captures all of Williams' sumptuous playing on her personal piano. The effect is direct and penetrating, establishing a prime listening environment for these time honored ballads. A proper exercise would be comparing the performances of "My Foolish Heart" on this recording and those of Parris and Kaestli. What Williams brings out in an instrumental interpretation of these ballads is the mind's eye of the creative soul. While lyrics remain paramount, listening to Williams' gentle deconstructions reveals the bare essence of the music in such a way that a proper communion between lyrics and melody can be understood.

Elias Haslanger
Live at the Gallery
Cherrywood Records

Alto saxophone master Art Pepper always said, "Never begin a set with a ballad." He would have done well and finished by saying, "Play a mid-tempo blues." This is exactly what tenor saxophonist Elias Haslanger does on his recording, Live at the Gallery. First a live recording, as jazz should always be heard, and with an organ-guitar trio, where there is always the possibility that something greasy might slip out, polluting our otherwise too-perfect, spic-and-span listening palette. Good show. It becomes apparent this is exactly what will happen with the second selection, Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man." Wait! Haslanger does begin with Nate Adderley's mid-tempo blues, "One for Daddy-O," but Haslanger does not prove his mettle until Hancock's tune. And what he does is warm the seats like Ben Webster though Haslanger sounds closer to the marriage of Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins. "Goin' Down" is a gut-bucket blues, the kind to raise the drunk patrons from the dead to the near ecstasy of the newly converted. That is what the blues is supposed to do. One thing that sets Haslanger apart from other up-and-comers is inclusion of Wayne Shorter's "Adam's Apple." What we consider "standards" by definition must move forward and Haslanger's treatment in an organ format is given a funky treatment that easily dove-tails with Horace Silver's "Song for My Father" and Erroll Garner's "Misty." Haslanger opts for the funky side of everything and achieves his ends admirably.

Consortium Classicum
Johann Martin Friedrich Nisle: Octet—Septet—Quintet
cpo Records

Johnann Martin Friedrich Nisle (1780-1873) who? Nisle was a contemporary of Beethoven whose wind music easily can be heard derived from that of Mozart, Spohr and Reicha. He is the current affectation of clarinetist and leader of the Consortium Classicum, Dieter Klocker. Klocker's goal for the past thirty years has been to uncover every notable composer of the 18th-Clarinet music that exists, and, for the most part. He has been quite successful. Nisle may just be a blip on the classical music radar, but he remains an important one. With a marketplace overwhelmed with product from the frontline of Haydn, Mozart and the like, it has been a welcome event that lesser known composers make it to recordings. Klocker's scholarship, matched with his inquisitive nature, has given birth to dozens of recordings that often include the spurious or apocryphal, playing it all like high art. This Nisle collection certainly falls in this category. It is plainly in the classical tradition, where the Baroque gave way to a more open presentation, looking backward and forward at once. No Romanticism makes its weary way into this crystalline music, rather only the clarity and grace of a rarified period. Klocker does it again with grace and determination.

Jamie Saft, Steve Swallow and Bobby Previte
The New Standard
Rare Noise

This is not your parent's Jamie Saft. You know the one, like Tyrion Lannister marching to Winterfell in A Game of Thrones. Rare Noise Records breaks with its tradition of anarchy with a (mostly) well-behaved (well, at least initially), if a bit wandering, jazz recording, doubtlessly a result of the inclusion of bassist Steve Swallow. Pianist Jamie Saft (Slobber Pup, Plymouth, Metallic Taste of Blood) keeps things mostly between the ditches with some of his most melodic and lyrical piano playing on tapestries with frayed edges. Drummer Bobby Previte rounds out the traditional jazz piano trio, mostly following Swallow's lead except when Saft switches to organ and all bets are off. The first of the organ pieces, "Clearing" sports a simple bass-drum funeral-march support for Saft who modulates through Booker T. Jones before shaking the dust from Matthew Fisher. It is a throw-back to the simpler and more soulful '60s. The second organ piece, "Blue Shuffle." While Swallow was sleeping, Saft quickly got up to his own tricks, channeling Garth Hudson through Jon Lord on his lazy way to Armageddon. Of the piano tunes, "I See No Leader" sounds between "In Walked Bud" and "LA Woman." Saft is at his most lyrical on this medium tempo piece and is in overall great form for this relatively "straight" Rare Noise performance. Swallow for his part, holds down the corners of this project opting to solo less and direct the mood more. The New Standard is yet another feather in the cap of the label.

Jay Vonada
Organ Trio East—Chemistry
Self Produced

Trombonist Jay Vonada was spotted last leading his Organ Trio West on Groovin' It (Self Produced, 2013). Not allowing any dust to settle on him, Vonada heads eastward, taking up with his East Coast trio (organist Steve Adams and drummer Jim Shade) for a nine original composition stroll that both burns and sooths in equal measures. A trombone-led organ trio may seem a bit odd against the more traditional tenor saxophone or guitar centered trios but it works albeit with less grease than Jimmy Smith or Big Big John Patton cooked with. Of the nine pieces, five are by Vodana and the remaining four by Adams. Vonada's lengthy "Quietly" boasts a Latin beat by Shade and a throw-back '60s vibe from Adam's (think "Walk on By"). Adams' "Jaybird" extends this '60s vibe with an almost soundtrack-like ambiance, like that often achieved by saxophonist Oliver Nelson. Vonada's soloing on "Jaybird" is characterized by vision and clarity, a warm crystalline idea expressed in sound. Adam's "What the Frack" riffs on a Battlestar Gallacta obscenity, freewheeling through mainstream changes that allow for fertile solo space for both Vonada and Adams. Vonada is the master of many performance formats. His organ trio is one that is at once durable and travels light.

Lisa Hilton
Ruby Slippers Productions

Replacing her American Impressions (Ruby Slippers Productions, 2012) drummer Nasheet Waits with Marcus Gilmore, pianist/composer Lisa Hilton renders Kaleidoscope a like-minded collection of originals and standards that continue to celebrate Hilton's command of her instrument and material. Regarding the former, Hilton is one of the few pianists who can meld the simmering hard bop of Horace Silver with the aphoristic impressionism of Bill Evans. Or, bring the unbridled and earthy joy of Jellyroll Morton to intermingle with the suave sophistication of Alan Broadbent. That is a lot of musical acreage. Hilton covers this terrain beginning with blues smoked from the pipe of Lee Morgan's Cornbread (Blue Note, 1967). Hilton plays the part of Herbie Hancock while saxophonist J.D. Allen is Hank Mobley save for the fact that Allen is more Art Pepper on tenor than Mobley. The funky vibe established here is continued in the minor on Hilton's "Labryinth" which has the probing essence of Morgan's Search for a New Land (Blue Note, 1964). "When I Fall In Love" is taken as a solo at a chop-sticks pace intermingling with the loose filigree of Schubert crossed with Liszt. "Bach, Basie, Bird Boogie Blues Bop" is a brilliant mash-up of styles and genres via the Dave Frank school of pianism. Hilton further popularizes the music of Adele Atkins as jazz vehicles, something and some jazz has needed for some time... like Lisa Hilton.

Jeff Denson & Joshua White
I'll Fly Away

Bassist Jeff Denson's and pianist Joshua White's I'll Fly Away is way closer than kissing cousins with Charlie Haden's and Hank Jones' Steal Away (Verve, 1994) and Come Sunday (EmArcy, 2012). However, the loam of creativity Denson and White draw from, is more adventuresome and takes more risks than that employed by Haden/Jones. The collection contains three performances of Albert Brumley's title tune. "Version One" begins is a comic, prepared piano performances that the wheels quickly wobble off of into a semblance of Thelonious Monk trading eights with Bud Powell and Willie "The Lion" Smith. Denson is the straight man, giving a serious, on-the-beat solo on top of White's black-and-white cartoon soundtrack. "Version Two" is a drunken stride rendition, slowly paced to approximate a carefully crafted walk of inebriation. If "Version One" was the beginning of the night then "Version Two" is well into the bag. "Version Three" is the result of the inspired either catching their second wind or smoking a rock to counteract all of the drinking they did earlier and going overboard with that. That said, Denson captures the fun and humor inherent in all music, projecting it through the lens of the American Spiritual. What he accomplishes is an artistic transformation into experimental jazz that Ray Charles had effected with the same into soul music.

Jeff Denson & Claudio Puntin

In dramatic contrast to I'll Fly Away, Denson, this time in the duet company of multireedist Claudio Puntin, prepares a totally improvised recital of a dozen loosely-related pieces. Claudio Puntin makes an effort to extract every woody screech, throaty groan, and low-bottom note his clarinets could give up for a higher good. It is an odd and beautiful thing that completely unprepared, improvised music can coalesce like a flock of birds, flying disparate directions one second and in complete unison the next. "Variation on a Point of View" is a mantra with the bass as continuo and Puntin modulating with his bass clarinet. Puntin deftly incorporates the slapping of the keys into the rhythm and percussion of the piece. Then the two reverse things, Denson soloing over the clarinet's insistent notes. "Nobody Bothers Me Either" is an Eastern-tinged mescaline hangover where Puntin indeed summons all of the spirits from his horn, emulating, at once, strummed rubber bands and a radioactive didgeridoo. "A Sunday Afternoon and Still Surprising" is the most lyrical piece with both combatants joining in free-for-all musical camaraderie that comes off as casually as a ballad. It is here where this type of improvisation works best, producing both compelling and interesting music. Denson has quite the reach as evidenced by these two recordings.

The Bad Plus
The Rite of Spring

Piano reductions or transcriptions of orchestral works were once the bread and butter of pianist/composer Franz Liszt. He had an uncanny ability to distill to their essences the music of Beethoven, Schubert and Wagner...all played with just two hands and one keyboard. Several jazz acts, most notably that of Jacques Loussier have interpreted Baroque and Classical fare, but these treatments have been more improvisation that re-orchestration. Enter The Bad Plus who have prepared an exquisite performance of Igor Stravinski's Le Sacre du Printemps for the standard jazz piano trio. In doing so, the band has been enabled to plumb the depths of all music made since. When Stravinsky debuted his ballet in Paris, April 13, 2913, it sparked a riot in a standing-room-only Théâtre des Champs-Élysées resulting in the expulsion of forty of the rowdiest ballet-goers. Passionate, those Frenchmen. Nothing so controversial here, save for the well-crafted arrangement of the ballet for trio performance, incorporating shifting dynamics, time signatures and inner-composition sonics. The Rite of Spring may well be the finest jazz adaptation, arrangement and performance we are likely to hear this year.


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