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November 2003


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Gerald Wilson regaled Birdland audiences with long sets and plenty of loopy but warm-hearted patter between tunes.
Remember Shakti — Easily one of the most moving and memorable performances of the year. At the Town Hall, a rock-star reception greeted not only the great John McLaughlin, but also his fellow members of Remember Shakti — Zakir Hussain on tabla, U. Shrinivas on electric mandolin and V. Selvaganesh on kanjira (Indian tambourine), ghatam (clay pot) and mridangam (long two-sided drum). The lights dimmed as McLaughlin and his colleagues emerged, doffed their shoes and took their places on a low riser, arranging white sheets carefully on their laps. There was a ceremonial aspect to all this, but the musical interaction was quite informal and enormously fun to watch. Smiles were permanently affixed to every face, including quite a few in the adoring audience. For nearly two hours one sat in awe, listening to extraordinary flurries of notes from the two electric stringed instruments and a blitz of impossibly intricate percussion — including two lengthy, heartstopping solos by Selvaganesh and Hussain, in that order. Highlights included “Ma No Pa,” “Lotus Feet,” and even a loose adaptation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra classic “You Know, You Know.”

Gerald Wilson — He may be in his mid-80s, but Gerald Wilson works a bandstand with more enthusiasm than a lot of musicians half his age. Leading an orchestra that featured the likes of Renee Rosnes, Charles Fambrough, Lewis Nash, Anthony Wilson, Frank Wess, Jerry Dodgion, Jesse Davis, Benny Powell, Jimmy Owens and Jon Faddis, Wilson regaled Birdland audiences with long sets and plenty of loopy but warm-hearted patter between tunes. Most of the selections can be found on his Mosaic Pacific Jazz box set: “Milestones,” “Equinox” and “Perdido” were the covers; “Viva Tirado,” “Carlos, “Josefina” and “Romance” were among the originals. The veterans in the band were kept on their toes by a few fire-breathing newcomers, including trumpeter Sean Jones.

Avishai Cohen — Celebrating the release of Lyla and the launch of his new RazDaz Recordz label, the Israeli-born bassist/composer/songwriter packed Joe’s Pub on the first of October. He began with an impressive solo double-bass piece, then brought on drummer Marc Guiliana for an arco-funk interpretation of The Beatles’ “Come Together” (which appears on the record). The two additional members of Cohen’s new quartet — altoist Yosvany Terry and pianist/keyboardist Sam Barsheshet — took the stage, and the group played a couple of pulsing, well-conceived numbers, with Cohen remaining on upright bass. Finally, the International Vamp Band, with Terry on alto, Diego Urcola on trumpet, Yagil Baras on upright bass, Eric McPherson on drums, and the leader on piano, electric bass and voice, played material from Lyla, an ambitious but uneven piece of work that draws on electronica, virtuosic jazz and melodic songwriting. While Cohen is clearly emerging as an important figure in new-millennium jazz, here he tried to convey too much information in too little time. His occasional recourse to gimmickry (a flashy slap-bass solo, for instance) won easy applause but made his music seem perfunctory, which it isn’t.

Miroslav Vitous — Roughly three weeks later, there was an altogether different vibe at Joe’s Pub: an evening with a bassist who was playing trio with Chick Corea before Avishai Cohen walked the earth. Cohen had been garrulous and outwardly enthusiastic; the great Vitous said nothing to his engrossed audience beyond “thank you very much.” This made the evening’s format — solo bass — all the more forbidding, but Vitous seized the crowd’s attention with his expansive harmonies, his cavernous sound (liberally enhanced by reverb) and his extraordinary technique. He even slapped his instrument percussively, as Cohen so often does. Vitous split his set more or less evenly between standards and originals; the former included “Autumn Leaves,” “My Foolish Heart,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Stella by Starlight.” His originals were firmly in the ECM vein (check out his first outing for the label in over a decade, Universal Syncopations ). Now and again triggering samples with a Powerbook and small keyboard, Vitous conjured woodwind choir, vocal choir, organ and other sounds too mysterious to name. The timbre was a bit nasal at times, but hearing Vitous use these pads as springboards for improvisation proved fascinating.

Henry Threadgill — At Columbia University’s Miller Theater, Threadgill premiered a commissioned work called “Peroxide” and debuted a new ensemble, Aggregation Orb. The band sounded somewhat like an expanded version of Zooid, and in fact featured some of the same players: Jose D’Avila on tuba, Tarik Benbrahim on oud, Dana Leong on cello. The two featured soloists were vibraphonist Bryan Carrott (a member of Threadgill’s Make a Move group) and vocalist Raymond Frith (from the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble). Filling out the aggregation were JD Parran on clarinet, Vincent Chancey on French horn, Marvin Sewell on acoustic guitar, Elektra Kurtis on violin, Alan Grubner on viola, Yousif Sheronick on percussion and Reggie Nicholson on drums. In this year’s Miller Theater concert series, Threadgill finds himself in the company of Penderecki, Rorem, Birtwistle and Babbitt, among others; it’s excellent to see his music receive such highbrow recognition. While “Peroxide” proved to be quite brief (the concert lasted less than an hour), it gave listeners plenty to consider: scrapingly dissonant harmonies, unpredictable transitions and instrumental configurations, and plenty of Threadgill’s distinctive, extra-terrestrial groove. The second movement was especially enchanting, starting off with solo oud and slowly working in violin and slide guitar.

Prior to the concert, four panelists (John Szwed, George Lewis, Brent Edwards and Robert O’Meally) convened to discuss “Threadgill in Context.” Szwed described the Chicago milieu from which Threadgill emerged. Lewis elaborated on the same, but also spent time on Threadgill’s chromatic voicing system, which he described, in a nod to pop culture, as “The Matrix.” (Threadgill’s music, Lewis argued, invites one to “create the Matrix anew with each listening experience.”) Edwards had the most fun, zeroing in on the peculiar lexicon of Threadgill’s song titles (“Do the Needful,” “Paper Toilet,” “Try Some Ammonia”) and what they reveal about his artistry. O’Meally wrapped up by focusing on Threadgill’s approach to instrumentation and his specific contributions as a saxophonist.

Dave Douglas — The trumpeter/composer is always throwing curves, and his new project “Word” is perhaps the curviest yet. Featuring Myron Walden on alto sax and bass clarinet, Roswell Rudd on trombone, James Genus on bass, Clarence Penn on drums and Andy Bey on piano and vocals, this group takes its inspiration from poetry; Bey sings verses put to melodies. It’s the closest thing to a songwriting project that Douglas has done, although the music is thoroughly jazz-like in feel and complexity. The soloists and the ensemble colors were radiant at the Village Vanguard, where this new music enjoyed its premiere. Bey’s weighty baritone brought out the inherent music in Adrienne Rich’s “Final Notations,” Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Progress,” Basho’s “Village of No Bells,” and more.

Michael Hashim with Andy Bey — Bey in fact had to rush downtown to the Vanguard after this spirited tribute to Billy Strayhorn at the Thalia at Symphony Space, featuring saxophonist Michael Hashim, bassist Dennis Irwin and drummer Kenny Washington. Hashim — quite the colorful emcee in his green jacket, purple pants and fedora — played a hard-swinging alto and exhibited a Bechet-like bite on soprano. Bey drew ecstatic and well-deserved applause for his luscious vocal treatments of “Pretty Girl” (aka “The Star-Crossed Lovers”), “All Roads Lead Back to You” (aka “Lotus Blossom”), “Satin Doll” and “Just a-Settin’ and a-Rockin’.” When Bey hits his higher register and pushes upward in volume, he almost sounds like a soul singer; one may even hear faint traces of Stevie Wonder (as a baritone). The effect on an audience is electric. It was Bey’s unaccompanied rendition of “Lush Life” that left the deepest impression, however. Hats off, too, to Kenny Washington for his marvelously subtle mallet playing on “Absinthe” (aka “Lament for an Orchid”).

The Trumpet Shall Sound — This series, which paired Roy Hargrove with four lesser-known, highly promising trumpeters, provided some of last year’s top musical highlights. The Jazz Gallery wisely chose to repeat the series last month, with Keyon Harrold, Jonathan Finlayson, Sean Jones and Maurice Brown in the hot seat.

We were able to catch only Finlayson, of Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, who led a quintet with the fiery Jacques Schwarz-Bart on tenor, Vijay Iyer on piano, Reggie Washington on bass and Damion Reid on drums. Sporting an extraordinary (and I mean extraordinary) haircut, the trumpeter played one fiery original before bringing Hargrove up to join for a swinging piece called “Boston Trailer Park.” Hargrove then displayed a lovely singing voice on the plaintive ballad “Prisoner of Love" (shades of Billy Eckstine). But before Finlayson could call the next tune, Hargrove launched into “Rhythm-a-Ning.” Here’s where the leader issue got sticky. Finlayson appeared a bit miffed as the band reluctantly joined Hargrove on this unplanned detour through up-tempo rhythm changes. Things got back on track with a thorny, mid-tempo funk chart called “Reorientation Conversation” and a rubato epilogue which closed the set. A superb player, Finlayson is far more introverted than Hargrove. This pairing didn’t allow his talents to shine through as brightly as they might have.

Jonathan Kreisberg — The guitarist has a weekly Wednesday gig downstairs at La Lanterna , a small café/bar/restaurant in the West Village. We heard him there with bassist Gary Wang and drummer Mark Ferber, all playing with passion and abundant chops on tunes like “Just In Time,” “Nefertiti,” “Secret Love” and “How About You?” Kreisberg also sounded superb on ballads like “Moon River,” “Prelude to a Kiss” and “Blue In Green,” often smuggling in original conceptions in the form of vamps, unaccompanied interludes and other surprises. Although they weren’t regulars on the gig, Wang and Ferber got deep inside Kreisberg’s head and displayed a remarkably quick response time. Kreisberg had just come off a recording session with his breathtaking quintet, and in late October he joins the Criss Cross family via a trio date with Larry Grenadier and Bill Stewart — both of whom of course made up Metheny’s rhythm section for a time.

Liberty Ellman — The guitarist has a brand-new release on Pi called Tactiles, and he celebrated its release with a fiery gig at the Gallery. Eric Harland and Stephan Crump play drums and bass, respectively, on the record (along with Greg Osby on three tracks), but Ellman had a different and equally powerful live rhythm section in Brad Jones and Derrek Phillips. Mark Shim brought the session to a rolling boil with his throaty, high-velocity tenor. Ellman’s writing has never sounded better: witness the shimmering ballad harmonies of “Body Art,” the rapidly unfolding lines of “Ultraviolet,” the slow, suggestive dance of “Rare Birds,” and the convoluted grooves of “Grass Loops” (which didn’t make it onto the album). Guitar-wise, Ellman was lucid and energetic, spiking his raw single-note phrases with unpredictable changes in timbre. At times he sounds like a funky incarnation of Joe Morris.

Matana Roberts with Henry Grimes/Miya Masaoka — This lineup, scuttled on August 14 thanks to the blackout, was finally able to take place at the Jazz Gallery toward the end of October, and it lived up to its initial promise. In a format unusual for the Gallery, the evening began with an electro-acoustic improvisation by Miya Masaoka, o.blaat (aka Keiko Uenishi) and Pamela Z, followed by a Q&A with the audience. The event was held under the banner of the Creative Music Convergence (formerly Coalition). Salim Washington served as moderator.

We learned during the Q&A that Pamela Z, on voice and electronics, came on board at Masaoka’s request, just as Masaoka was heading out the door to the gig. The results were quite fresh, even a bit spooky at times. Uenishi’s cryptic, whispery voice samples meshed with Z’s sonorous vocal tones and Masaoka’s deliberate clicking, scraping and strumming on the koto. The volume was low, and the amount of space left between events was considerable. Close attention was required, and rewarded.

Alto saxophonist Matana Roberts led us back to more jazz-identified ground with her quintet, featuring Aaron Stewart on tenor sax, his Fieldwork colleague Vijay Iyer on piano, Henry Grimes on bass and Chad Taylor on drums. This time the Q&A preceded the set and in fact continued after the first tune, “Hannibal,” was through. Roberts proved an uncommonly eloquent speaker; her alto was warm yet jagged, richly expressive. Stewart displayed extraordinary technique and a thorough mastery of multiphonics. Grimes was of course another focal point, playing two unaccompanied solos during the course of the set and moving fluidly between arco and pizzicato modes. Compositionally, Roberts has found a compelling balance between structure and freedom. The final tune, however, was entirely free, yet it too contained a certain compositional logic.

Deidre Rodman — Another CD release at the Gallery, this time with a remarkable pianist/composer who has just given us Simple Stories, her second Sunnyside release. She and the band (trumpeter Russ Johnson, saxophonist Tony Malaby, bassist Bob Bowen, drummer Mark Ferber, guest vocalist Luciana Souza) had just come off a two-week tour of the Northwest, so their material came across as well-workshopped and expansive. Rodman is equally at home with charging, atonal swing, poetic rubato sketches and even rock-influenced ballads. She gives free reign to her imagination, and the results, more often than not, are extraordinary.

The Frank and Joe Show — A regular Sunday-night gig at Sweet Rhythm featuring Joe Ascione, the drummer/percussionist, and Frank Vignola, a guitarist’s guitarist if there ever was one. The affable partners are joined Ken Smith on rhythm guitar, Gary Mazzaroppi on bass, and Chuck Ferruggia and Rich Zukor on percussion, and they turn out a fine mix of jazz, acoustic funk and boogaloo-tinged Brazilian music. A typical set ranges from “Tico Tico” to Mozart’s Turkish Dance (from the 5th violin concerto, I believe), from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumblebee” to Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally),” the latter refashioned as a bossa nova ballad. Vignola’s acoustic archtop playing sets the virtuosic agenda, and airtight, multihued percussion textures egg him on. Check out thefrankandjoeshow.com.

Ty Cumbie — In a tiny but warm-sounding room at the back of the Underground Lounge, on West 107th and West End Avenue, guitarist Ty Cumbie assembled a group for repeat Wednesdays with Daniel Carter on tenor and alto saxophone, trumpet and flute, Kelly Pratt on trumpet, flugelhorn and pocket trumpet, Adam lane on bass and Mike Fortune on drums. While the vibe was decidedly free jazz, the repertoire included predetermined tunes, among them “Giggin’” and “Lonely Woman,” “Milestones,” and Keith Jarrett’s “Gypsy Moth.” Lane and Fortune provided a free-floating yet strong foundation; Carter changed instruments at will and probed the outer edges of each tempo; Pratt followed his whims everywhere, at one point using Fortune’s floor tom head as a mute. Through it all, Cumbie played provocative lines and chords, sending out focused ripples of sound with just his thumb and forefinger.

Recommended Discs:
  • Bruce Arnold, et al., Spooky Actions: Music of Webern (Muse-eek)
  • Andrew Hill, Passing Ships (Blue Note Connoisseur Series)
  • Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd, In What Language? (Pi)
  • Ralph Peterson, Tests of Time (Criss Cross)
  • Steve Swallow, Damaged in Transit (XtraWatt)
  • John Taylor, Insight (Sketch)

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