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September 2003

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The massive power failure that darkened cities from New York to Michigan on August 14 took a healthy chunk out of the month
Blackout! — The massive power failure that darkened cities from New York to Michigan on August 14 took a healthy chunk out of the month’s jazz calendar. As part of Tonic’s FONT series (Festival of New Trumpets, co-curated by Dave Douglass and Roy Campbell, Jr.), Bill Dixon was to have played a solo concert, marking his first New York appearance in 15 years. It didn’t happen. Shows by Joe McPhee and Ron Miles were also canceled. We’ll also have to wait for the rescheduling of a scuttled program at the Jazz Gallery involving the Creative Music Coalition, featuring altoist Matana Roberts and bassist Henry Grimes.

On the upside, I did have the rare pleasure of a visit from my AAJ colleague Phil DiPietro, who gobbled up as much live jazz as he could during his three nights in New York. Together we caught Tim Berne, Josh Redman, Rosenwinkel/Bernstein and Dave Ballou.

FONT Highlights:

John McNeil — It was a treat to hear this elusive trumpeter, a pillar of the New England Conservatory faculty, named by many young New York-based players as a major influence. McNeil’s quartet featured Andy Green on guitar, John Hebert on bass and Mark Ferber on drums. The first tune found Green playing shot-glass slide, harmonizing strangely with McNeil’s loping melody lines. Five more tunes unfolded without a break, ranging from modern, swinging lyricism to free blowing and even to warped country-rock. Green brought Goodrick-like notions to the bandstand, while Hebert and Ferber underscored McNeil’s assertive yet cerebral horn with their flexible rhythmic dance. McNeil’s droll sense of humor seemed of a piece with the music. When the last tune ended, he announced, “OK, that was our first tune....”

Dave Douglas/Roswell Rudd/Brad Jones/Barry Altschul — Every bit as great as you could possibly expect. It’d be hard to imagine a more spirited, swinging dual-horn attack than that of Douglas and Rudd, both of whom backed every note with a bravado that transfixed the overflow audience. Jones and Altschul were in no way relegated to mere support; both seized their share of showstopping moments. The prevailing themes were Herbie Nichols (“House Party Starting,” “Beyond Recall”) and Monk (“Ask Me Now,” “Humph”), but Rudd threw in his “‘A’ Train” variant “Eventuality” and insisted on “You Do Something to Me” as an impromptu encore. Douglas seemed hesitant about the tune at first (“it’s been a while,” he fretted), but went on to devour it nonetheless.

Natsuki Tamura — FONT was remarkable in that it opened Tonic’s doors to nominal “mainstreamers” like Jeremy Pelt, Ingrid Jensen and Brian Lynch. (Pelt was to follow Dixon on the 14th, and was therefore canceled.) Even on the same night one could hear avant-gardist Natsuki Tamura followed by Lynch, the post-bop firebrand. The music could use more broad-minded billings like these.

Tamura explored concepts from his new Libra release, Hada Hada. This was electronically textured free improv that fit right in at the house of Zorn. The remarkable Satoko Fujii, Tamura’s wife, played acoustic piano rather than synthesizer, while John Hollenbeck colored expansively on drums and percussion and Curtis Hasselbring threw his multi-faceted skronk guitar into the mix. The set consisted of one long movement, veering between eerie minimalism and grinding industrial funk, peppered with processed voices and samples.

Brian Lynch took the stage about an hour later, with a compact yet hard-hitting Latin jazz group called “Spheres of Influence” (after the title of the trumpeter’s 1997 outing on Sharp Nine). Lineups don’t get heavier than this: Miguel Zenon on alto, Luis Perdomo on piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass, Dafnis Prieto on bass and Richie Flores on percussion. Lynch led the band through a bristling, well-conceived set of modern Afro-Cuban hard bop, playing brilliantly and giving everyone else ample room to do the same. Brace yourself for Zenon’s four Thursdays in September at the Jazz Gallery — and for Perdomo’s forthcoming RKM release.

And Elsewhere:

Michael Blake — The saxophonist’s sprawling Eulipion Orchestra held sway at the third in a four-Monday residency at the Jazz Standard. Blake conducted this seldom-heard large ensemble in a loose, irreverent fashion and also played tenor and soprano saxophones; the tunes were long and exploratory, but built on the solidest melodic foundations. First came the jaunty 3/4 feel and fetching harmonies of “Burnout,” with flute/piccolo colors set against cutting rhythmic stabs from the trumpets (Russ Johnson, Dave Ballou, Ingrid Jensen). “Drift” followed, its slow funk groove set alight by altoist Briggan Krauss, whose multiphonic long-tone solo was nothing short of demonic. A haunting arrangement of Jim Pepper’s “Lakota Song,” with Peck Allmond on ney flute, highlighted a different, more reflective side of the band and its leader. Trombonist Curtis Hasselbring and baritone saxophonist Doug Wieselman brought out the bite in Ellington’s minor-blues classic “Koko”; Blake (on tenor) and drummer Ben Perowsky also had their say. Other standouts included Curtis Fowlkes on trombone, Matt Munisteri on guitar, Marcus Rojas on tuba, Frank Kimbrough on piano and Ben Allison on bass. The big band is clearly an important facet of Blake’s quirky, wholly unique jazz voice; let’s hope he’s showered with more opportunities to showcase it.

The last of Blake’s four Mondays featured a retooled Slow Poke, the saxophonist’s highly creative, lo-fi instrumental rock band. Slide guitar whiz David Tronzo was temporarily out of the picture, so Tony Scherr switched to guitar while Tim Luntzel took over on electric bass. (Kenny Wolleson remained on drums; Blake played tenor and soprano.) Scherr’s meat-grinder guitar sound was equal parts Tronzo and Ribot. The highlight of the set was a absolutely filthy version of “Rockin’ in Rhythm” — quite a radical contrast to “Koko,” the previous week’s Ellington cover. Blake, who might be a proud father by the time you read this, didn’t say much this time. While fronting Eulipion he was full of words, directed not only at the audience but also at the musicians. The big band was high-maintenance, while Slow Poke was entirely hands-off, or “effortless,” as Blake described it after the set. Here were two totally different approaches to music and performance, emanating from the same person.

Steve Lacy — At Iridium for a week, the soprano sax master assembled his working quintet for expansive readings of material from the new Beat Suite (Universal/Sunnyside). Bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel and drummer John Betsch provided a limber rhythmic foundation, allowing the rather unusual frontline to take flight for well over an hour. Unusual, I say, because Lacy and vocalist/wife Irene Aebi can produce some of the most delightfully weird sounds in jazz — he with his plain-spoken yet highly angular lines; she with her dramatic, almost campy voice (and urgent hand gestures), singing verse by Creely, Corso, and Spicer in a wobbly yet determined unison. George Lewis, one of the avant-garde’s truly great minds, played along in warped harmony and improvised with great expression and facility. This music can swing, it can tango, and it can go way, way outside.

Kurt Rosenwinkel/Peter Bernstein — Two guitarists, two completely dissimilar concepts. But they joined forces nonetheless to make highly compelling music at Fat Cat with Matt Penman on bass and Bill Stewart on drums. We walked in at the tail end of “Inner Urge” but managed to catch a complete take of “Sandu.” The second set included a brisk “Serenity,” a sparkling “Pannonica” (featuring an A-plus intro by Bernstein), and a blazing “Speak Low.” While the feel was strictly low-pressure and off-the-cuff, this gig made a profound point about jazz’s ability to support multiple interpretations, even simultaneously. Here was Rosenwinkel, drenched in delay, playing almost wildly, transcending the changes at every turn; and here was Bernstein, clean as a whistle, rounding out every pearly phrase with bluesy finesse and rhythmic clarity.

Kurt Rosenwinkel at Joe’s Pub — Here was a wholly different side of Rosenwinkel, and a wholly new band (Seamus Blake on tenor, Barney McAll on piano and keys, Matt Penman on bass, Jonathan Blake on electro-acoustic drums). The occasion was the release of Heartcore, the guitarist’s new Verve release, co-produced by Q-Tip, formerly of A Tribe Called Quest. Mr. Tip (aka Kamaal Fareed) was in attendance, as was Josh Redman and a boatload of jazz scribes and industry folks. The DownBeat “Hot Box” critics gave this record a lukewarm greeting at best, but it deserves far better — it’s the kind of stuff that can haunt your dreams. Live, the music came across beautifully. That must have been a challenge, given the highly produced sound of the album.

Joshua Redman — The weather did not cooperate at this outdoor gig, part of the city’s River to River Festival. But on a temporary stage nestled inside Battery Park’s Castle Clinton (an old fort built for the War of 1812), Redman plowed ahead anyway, playing music from Yaya3 and Elastic with Sam Yahel on organ and keyboards and Jeff Ballard filling in for Brian Blade on drums. Making copious use of octave effects and other processed sounds, Redman funked it up like a latter-day Eddie Harris. The material was uneven and the set bogged down at times in hollow, showboaty gestures. But the playing was fierce and highly musical more often than not. Even on a ho-hum tune like “The Birthday Song,” Redman delved deep inside the harmony and made it sparkle. Taking a break from the groove, the trio offered a sweet “Moonlight in Vermont,” giving Yahel a moment to display keen harmonic insights. Throughout the set, in fact, Yahel summoned one of the fattest Hammond B3 sounds in recent memory. His solo synth patches were nice, too.

George Schuller — The artists formerly known as “Chump Change” now go by the provisional “Chumps No More.” But drummer George Schuller and his quintet (trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, guitarist Pete McCann, vibraphonist Tom Beckham, bassist Dave Ambrosio) haven’t changed their rigorous, unpredictable approach to group improvisation. At the 55 Bar they played music by Schuller, Beckham, and even Keith Jarrett (“Survivor’s Suite,” part one; compare with Mike Fahn’s version on the recent Close Your Eyes and Listen ). What the band does especially well is pair off instruments, as on the bass/vibes duo that ends Beckham’s “In Flight” or the fluegelhorn/bass interlude that breaks up the open-swinging “Fact 19” (if I heard that title correctly). Everyone played beautifully, but a special nod goes to McCann, a sound sculptor and single-note poet of the first order.

Bruce Barth — With Ugonna Okegwo on bass and Montez Coleman on drums, pianist Bruce Barth wasted no time delving deep into swing at Sweet Rhythm. The first of four sets over two nights consisted of originals as well as an up-tempo, reharmonized “I’m Old Fashioned” and a loping take on Dave Stryker’s “Muddy Waters.” Fluid and harmonically inventive, Barth never stumbles, and neither does Okegwo. But with Coleman laying down his float-like-a-butterfly grooves while grinning from ear to ear, it would be hard to stumble indeed.

Jason Lindner — In a special appearance at the Jazz Gallery, pianist Jason Lindner teamed with one of his mentors, alto saxophonist Jimmy Vass, a little-known elder statesman out of Philly who teaches at the East Village’s University of the Streets. Joining the pair were two of the music’s best-known rhythm section players, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard. The music was laid-back, ragged around the edges, and heavily tilted toward the post-bop canon — with selections such as Rollins’s “Valse Hot,” Monk’s “Brilliant Corners,” Pettiford’s “Bohemia After Dark” and Dameron’s “Soultrane.” The first set of the two-night run began with an affecting Benny Carter tribute, “Only Trust Your Heart.” It was good to hear Lindner get his modernistic hands around this material. Good, too, to hear the obscure Vass, who speaks with a cutting, McLean-meets-Bartz accent.

Charlie Hunter — To christen the newly renovated Madison Square Park (once an eyesore but now the jewel of the Flatiron District), Blue Smoke/Jazz Standard and the Park Conservancy co-sponsored several (free) summer evenings of music. Steve Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra and Lizz Wright kicked off the series, and an enthusiastic, all-ages crowd turned out to hear Charlie Hunter’s trio with tenorist John Ellis and drummer Derrek Phillips. Hunter’s eight-string prowess never ceases to amaze — he’s simply one of the finest finger-style guitarists on the scene, although he’s seldom spoken of in that way. The material, mainly from Right Now Move (Ropeadope), was ultra-tight and, thanks to live engineer Pete Costello, ultra-crisp. Ellis took one solo turn on bass clarinet, Phillips contributed an engaging break as a human turntable, and Hunter set up one tune with a Joe Pass-ian unaccompanied solo.

Dave Ballou — At the 55 Bar with Mat Maneri on violin, John Hebert on bass, and Randy Peterson on drums, the trumpeter played a remarkable set of new music, most of it with only numbers as titles: “Number 5,” “Number 16,” “Number 19.” The tempos that Ballou counted off soon seemed a distant thought, as each tune morphed into its own free-improv universe. Hebert’s unaccompanied turns were invariably special, and that ultra-resonant low string of Maneri’s provided a good deal of sonic surprise. Ballou, a searching, versatile player with a growing and highly worthwhile catalog on SteepleChase, closed this particular set with an unorthodox reading of Monk’s “Tea for Two” variant, “Skippy.”

Tim Berne — Hats off to Sweet Rhythm for booking Tim Berne and Paraphrase (Drew Gress, bass; Tom Rainey, drums) for two consecutive Wednesdays. OK, so the public may have ignored it, in stark contrast to the overflow crowds at the Knit’s Old Office about a month back. But the club’s increasing broad-mindedness — signified by avant-greats Berne and Marc Helias as well as neo-trad guitarist Frank Vignola playing repeat engagements in the same month — is certainly refreshing. Anyhow, Paraphrase, like Big Satan, is a study in free-blowing trio interaction, with Berne hurtling precipitously between Braxtonian and Konitz-ian alto concepts. If one passage finds him nearly tearing out a lung, the next finds him tracing a tender yet highly unpredictable melodic flow. Gress and Rainey are right there with him. Check out the group’s two releases, Please Advise and Visitation Rites, on Berne’s own Screwgun label.

Josh Roseman — The trombonist rolled into the Jazz Gallery with quite a powerful lineup: Don Byron on clarinet, Graham Haynes on cornet, Peter Apfelbaum on piano and organ-bass, and Nate Smith on drums. Judging from the number of puzzled looks exchanged during the course of the set, the horn line could have used a rehearsal. No doubt, some of Roseman’s written passages would have singed one’s hair had they been executed more cleanly. But Byron’s infectious, furious solos made up for any overall tentativeness; Smith, too, did his part to nail every cue and transition. One apt moment found Haynes quoting “Lover Man,” modulation and all — an idea so bright it nearly sent Byron off his stool, laughing. The most incredible presence, however, was Apfelbaum, mainly a tenor saxophonist. I’d heard him play a short selection of Don Cherry’s music on piano at the 2002 Vision Festival. But this was proficiency of a different, more remarkable kind. His left-hand bass lines were relentless, fattening up the music with a dub-like, blown-speaker effect — almost what you’d hear coming from a jacked-up SUV. Not only that, he unflinchingly kept up the bass lines while he improvised on acoustic piano.

Alex Blake — He doesn’t appear often as a leader, making this vibrant trio set at Cornelia Street Café all the more noteworthy. To call Blake a bassist is somehow insufficient. He plays sitting down, for one thing, reaching effortlessly above his head to command the fingerboard. Joined by Ted Cruz on piano and the indefatigable Neil Clarke on percussion, Blake dominated the stage — sitting up front and center, as if to underscore his bold ideas about the bass as a solo and ensemble instrument. Starting out with a fast, Latin-tinged “Caravan,” Blake slapped and strummed and sang with the bass, riding it like a thoroughbred, bending it to his wildly uninhibited will. His time was impeccable, electrifying. A passing quote of Hendrix’s “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” seemed fitting, given Blake’s near-Hendrixian reinvention of his instrument. The problem with Blake’s concept is that every tune — even “Blue In Green” — winds up traveling to a similarly hyped-up place.

David Gilmore — It’s always a pleasure to hear Gilmore’s working group with George Colligan on keyboard, Brad Jones on bass, and Rodney Holmes on drums. The guitarist is still getting lots of mileage from the material on his debut disc, Ritualism (Kashka); on this post-blackout evening at the Jazz Gallery, he and the band burned on such intricate themes as “Paradigm Shift,” “Event Horizon,” the mellower “Kaizen,” and the brand-new, provisionally titled “Paris No. 1.”



Recommended Discs:
  • Terence Blanchard, Bounce (Blue Note)
  • François Carrier, All’ Alba (Justin Time)
  • Gil Evans/Steve Lacy, Paris Blues (Sunnyside/Owl)
  • Andy Milne’s Dapp Theory, Y’all Just Don’t Know (Concord)
  • Kurt Rosenwinkel, Heartcore (Verve)
  • Marcus Strickland, Brotherhood (Fresh Sound New Talent)

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