Aug 16, 2013

Revisiting, Finally, the Remarkable Work of Saxophonist Steve Lacy

Photo of Steve Lacy courtesy Wikimedia Commons
By Brian Morton

Steve Lacy sucked. Really. The man who apparently inspired John Coltrane to take up the soprano saxophone and who remained uxoriously loyal to the ‘straight horn’ throughout his own career, actually played notes on the in-breath. Anyone who has tried to do this in a more than incidental way will tell you – hell, I’ll tell you – how difficult it is. But Lacy had a rooted devotion to his instrument. When I spoke to him in 1987 he remembered that when he was setting out, the soprano was associated in most players’ minds with Sidney Bechet, and with Bechet follower Bob Wilber, and that was pretty much it. “You’d see an occasional one in pawnshops or thrift stores. That was it. No one was playing it. I found that kind of fascinating. And its voice, too. It’s like a singing voice, feminine but with a masculine quality. You get down the low end of a tenor saxophone and you don’t want to dwell there. It’s too . . . much. But with the soprano you can really explore that bottom register.” It’s easy to tell apart the critics who’ve really listened to Lacy and those who’ve just scanned his song titles by what they say about his sound. If you’re being told that he specialized in high-end squeaks, you’ve got the latter variety. Truth is, Lacy was a brilliant middle and lower register player. That was where he heard the music. He did frequently ‘go to the moon’, as he liked to put it, but admitted that it was hard and hurtful work. He experimented with hard and plastic reeds and metal mouthpieces but was more comfortable working with a soft reed. He once talked to me for an hour about where the reeds grew in this native France, always in the wild, never cultivated, not replaceable with bamboo. “There’s a spirit in the reed, which is maybe the spirit of the place where they grow, and you have to get that out.”

There are other misconceptions about Lacy. One is that he was – almost slavishly – a Thelonious Monk disciple. Lacy certainly devoted himself, at times almost exclusively, to Monk compositions. He might be credited to a large degree with creating our current understanding of Monk as a composer. But his first serious grounding in music was with another modern giant. The young Lacy had experimented with other reed instruments – it’s pleasing that his birth name Lackritz is German for liquorice and ‘liquorice stick’ is slang for the clarinet – and had dalliances with tenor and even baritone saxophone. But he couldn’t hear his music, and certainly not the dominant sound of bebop on those horns. The soprano seemed to him a natural voice and it was with Cecil Taylor rather than at the feet of Thelonious Monk that he began to evolve his personal language. Taylor’s importance in modern music is immense, but also somewhat occluded. An artist without an identifiable apostleship always runs the risk of seeming less monolithically important than an artist like, say, Coltrane, or Charlie Parker before him, who spawns copyists. There is a substantial literature on the nature of influence – or what Harold Bloom calls ‘the anxiety of influence’ – but Taylor stands somewhat apart from that process. He taught Lacy a great deal without imparting anything remotely doctrinaire. They’re heard together on Taylor’s astonishing 1956 album Jazz Advance, a rare example of a hyperbolic title that lives up to its own billing, on which Lacy, just a couple of years away from playing Dixieland, sounds astonishingly mature and Taylor himself takes Monk to the cleaners. In later years, Steve was somewhat reticent about the connection, which is perhaps a sure sign that it was what Bloom would call a ‘strong’ one.

Having quite literally sat at Monk’s feet – “I’d be there, almost under the piano, night after night, and sometimes he’d look down and say in this slightly tired voice ‘Oh, it’s you again, Steven’!” – Lacy set about creating a body of work that seemed to be trying to find a genuine point of contact between entirely free playing and strict melody, between the cadences of speech and those of music, between atonality (if such a thing really exists) and diatonic vernacular music, between the avant-garde and popular music, between old and new: the list goes on. His long engagement with Monk compositions really began in 1958, with the fine quartet LP Reflections, which also featured pianist Mal Waldron, a future duo partner. Waldron told me that Lacy would sing Monk tunes over and over to himself, even before playing them on the saxophone. “He’d change a note here or there, speed them up and slow them down, and he’d shake his head in wonder and laugh. I guess he was a little obsessed . . . but he was happy-obsessed!”

Now, nearly ten years after his death, Lacy has begun to attract similarly obsessive attention among creative players. Lacy compositions, which while he lived seemed to belong to the composer and to the composer only, have started to enter the modern repertory. Tunes like ‘Ducks’ and ‘The Wire’ (after which a celebrated contemporary music magazine took its name), ‘Lumps’ and ‘Wickets’ are turning up in the credits of recent jazz and improv recordings. Among the most sustained attempts to close with the Lacy is legacy is a two-CD set by The Whammies – they take their name from Steve’s tribute to Fats Navarro – called very simply Play The Music Of Steve Lacy: Volume 1 & 2 (Driff Records CD 1201/1202). It’s a great outfit, fronted by alto saxophonist Jorrit Dijkstra and pianist Pandelis Karayorgis, who between them run the label, and trombonist Jeb Bishop, whose presence recalls Lacy’s early work with Roswell Rudd. Completing the group are violinist/violist Mary Oliver, bassist Nate McBride and drummer Han Bennink. Much of the material has been taken direct from manuscript and has never been recorded in its original form. Inevitably, Thelonious Monk is also a presence, represented by a remarkable interpretation of ‘Shuffle Boil’ and the Lacy dedication ‘Hanky Panky’ on volume two, ‘Locomotive’ on the first disc. But the emphasis is squarely on Lacy as a composer and one whose imagination was never restricted to post-bop jazz. The music’s sources range as far afield as fine art (‘Pregnant Virgin’ is a dedication to Vincent Van Gogh, ‘Art’ to Kenneth Noland’, ‘Dutch Masters’ is based on a Larry Rivers canvas), film (Marilyn Monroe), poetry and fiction (Brion Gyson, Herman Melville, and St John of the Cross. I once asked Steve why poetry and painting mattered so much to him. ‘I suppose that’s what I aspire to in some way. You look at a painting and you take it in all in a great gulp. You might look at it for an hour, but it was in your consciousness in that very first instant. With poetry, there is both music and meaning. There’s a very direct, very fast, very specific communication which it’s much harder to pull off in music. I suppose it’s that. It’s the desire to do those two very different things in a song  . . .  Do I think of them as songs? Yes, even when there are no words being performed’ – and Lacy compositions often featured a vocal component for his wife Irène Aëbi – ‘there’s that desire to paint a picture, tell a story, make a meaning. I fall short, which is maybe why I keep on writing and playing!’

Even without the more obvious textural similarities with Lacy’s own groups, The Whammies give an authentic spin to the compositions and in the process serve as reminder of how close Lacy stayed to the ensemble ideals of classic jazz. Even if by his time Dixieland had become a revivalist music, or possibly even a survivalist music, its protean energies are always at work. For all the occasional dryness of his tone and bareness of his line, he was a ‘hot’ composer and player. Like a painting by Mondrian (the dedicatee of ‘As Usual’, one of the best tracks on volume one), the energy comes from the precise juxtaposition of melodic fragments, syncopations, slippages of metre and harmonic resolutions that are, strictly, ‘wrong’, but somehow inevitable.

One of the most interesting aspects of modern music, and a sign that we live in an Alexandrian culture which maintains at least the illusion that all of history, all of art is available to us simultaneously – is how assiduously major creative figures choose to align themselves with predecessors, influences and sources. Lacy’s fellow-saxophonist Anthony Braxton, who has been as promiscuous with the saxophone family as Lacy has been monogamous, once rather notoriously cited everyone from Charlie Parker to Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, from Paul Desmond to Sun Ra, ancient Egypt and modern Chicago, pop, classical, primitive folk and Noise among his musical enthusiasms, so Lacy left a kind of family-tree of admirations in his work-list. Apart from those already mentioned, the pieces here refer to Samuel Beckett, Lao Tzu, the great saxophonist Sigurd Rascher, Bobby Timmons, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Ivie Anderson, Lester Young, Spike Jones, Mal Waldron, Ben Webster and Albert Ayler. One might say that Lacy’s oeuvre is a lot like Nicolas Roeg’s movie Insignificance in which Marilyn and Einstein, Joe McCarthy and Joe Di Maggio not so improbably get together in a dream-like hotel. That’s very much the tone of these pieces, as realised by The Whammies. It’s a music of many rooms, some capacious, some tiny, some brightly lit, some murky and obscure with secrets. In fact, ‘insignificance’ is a very good term for this music: not because it is throwaway and without seriousness, but because it both proposes and denies meaning, a very Taoist position. Anything with Han Bennink at the helm, or in the engine room, is likely to be playful, but here the playfulness is in earnest, a vivid comedy of tones played out in a completely relativistic universe in which ‘modern’ and ‘classic’ don’t really compute as categories.

The pitching of these deceptively simple, actually rather difficult pieces is handled with great attention to detail. Even where there are sliding tones, as from the trombone and violin, the destination is always carefully mapped and exactly enunciated. I’ve rarely heard a modern jazz record – certainly not since some of Braxton’s earliest – which gave off a comparable impression of exactitude, even though its essential spirit is free and unfettered. We’ve given over a great deal of time and attention to the works of Thelonious Monk, and he is certainly one of the American masters, but it now seems time to let Monk take his place in the transhistorical, subversive canon he occupies alongside Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Ezra Pound, Norman Mailer, and concentrate a little on what Steve Lacy left behind. It’s no less remarkable a body of work and most of it is still terra incognita. Exciting.

Brian Morton is the co-author of the Penguin Guide to Jazz. His previous article for Jazz CD Reviews can be found here

Jun 11, 2013

Tonight on the Jazz Cafe - Guest host Emma Rogers

Guest host Emma Rogers sits in and plays some of the greats - Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Coleman Hawkins and more. Streaming online from 7-8 p.m. eastern time. 

May 11, 2013

Welcome Brian Morton

Brian Morton
Anyone who's spent any time at all reading about jazz will be familiar with the work of Brian Morton, co-author, with the late Richard Cook, of the Penguin Guide to Jazz, THE reference work on the music. Last year I profiled Brian and now I'm proud to announce that he'll periodically be writing for this site (his first piece is here.) Needless to say I'm thrilled and delighted to have him onboard. His wit, wisdom and encyclopedic knowledge of jazz is unsurpassed and, to state the obvious, he's also a damn fine writer. Welcome.

Apr 16, 2013

In the Digital Age, Missing the Pleasures of Jazz on Records and Even, Yes, Cassettes

By Brian Morton

Something interesting happened this week. A single mail delivery brought the usual bunch of CDs, but also a tiny packet containing a matchbox containing in turn a private download code, a handsome ten-LP box set and a flat plastic case that snapped open to reveal three cassettes.  None of the latter three had much, or anything, to do with jazz. One was cutting edge post-rock, post-jazz, post-most things, one was a set of rich Philadelphia soul remixes, and the last a compilation of rehearsal tapes and demos by a once-celebrated New York band. Small matter; it was still a faintly unsettling moment, like one of those steampunk novels where spacetroopers pile out of hissing locomotives carrying clockwork weaponry, or a retro-futuristic Doctor Who episode in which Elizabethan magicians are revealed to be time-travelling scientists. I almost ran after the postman to see if he’d overlooked any eight-track stereo or some 78s.

It was an oddly nostalgic moment because twenty years ago, the late Richard Cook and I were contemplating the preparation of a second edition of the Penguin Guide to Jazz, or to give it its full title The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, LP & Cassette. And in doing so, contemplating whether that cumbersomely inclusive label was still strictly necessary. I was then, as later, in favour of shortening it all to . . . Jazz on Record or . . . Recorded Jazz but was warned that for a substantial number of readers ‘record’ meant LP and that the compromise option had an awkward technical overtone that would put off others still. All the same, we were in 1993 fairly confident that CD had established empire over most of the known musical world. A boxed paragraph in our introduction to that second edition stated that ‘vinyl lives, but only just’, pointed to the mass extinction of the Muse and Xanadu catalogues (still the biggest net absence in modern jazz recording) and offered only a very tentative bulletin on the wavering vital signs of such competing carriers as Mini-Disc and Digital Compact Cassette. There were a few labels, Concord and Original Jazz Classics, who maintained a reasonable catalogue of jazz on cassette. There were even a handful of items at that time which were available cassette-only, and there was a small avant-garde market of cassette-based material, but apart from its use as in-car entertainment, nobody liked the cassette much. It had a nasty habit of spewing onto your floor like shiny ectoplasm. A friend crashed his week-old Ford when a Miles Davis cassette regurgitated and got tangled up in his pedals. He was a lousy driver, too.

In those days LP loyalism was the province of old men, Luddites and occasional rear-guardists, like the chap I knew at university who never failed to sport a ‘BACK TO MONO’ badge, a curiously heroic gesture of flat-earthism that nonetheless marked him down as hopelessly out of touch. He wouldn’t have seemed more outmoded in 1972 if he’d turned out wearing spats and twirling a cane.

My own first experiment with CD was actually a classical recording, a set of Messiaen piano pieces that I’d owned on vinyl for some years. I marvelled at the prolonged decays, at the lapidary clarity of the attacks, at the absence of all earthly noise and dirt; at all the things in short that mean so much less in jazz, where such precisions are by no means always looked for and often not welcomed. Jazz on CD seemed to me a little too clean-cut, too self-consciously presented, a little like the hardened criminal who turns up in court in a neat suit and with his hair combed. I realised that the roughness of vinyl sound was part of a very specific cultural experience, one which combined warmth with vulnerability. I still own records whose scars and cicatrisations memorialise precise moments in my life, as when I had to cuff Sam Gemmell for dropping the stylus on the opening of ‘Resolution’ on A Love Supreme, whose black-and-white cover was the carry-round prop for any deeply serious young man of my generation. The click Sam left is still there, as much part of the piece for me now as any of Elvin Jones’s scattered accents. I miss it when I listen to A Love Supreme on the super, de luxe, augmented CD edition.

Interestingly, and quite inconsistently on my part, that second edition of the Penguin Guide takes labels to task for not using the full capacity of CD to offer buyers additional material, or indeed second albums in twofer form. Both authors moved their feet considerably on this issue, arguing later that padding a brilliant 34-minute album up to 60 or 70, or in one recent case 80 minutes with spurious outtakes (which the artist and producer never wanted us to hear) or ‘bonus’ tracks, or live oddments, tended to blunt the original album rather than enhancing it. Now that huge amounts of modern, LP-era jazz is out of copyright, the market is stuffed to bursting with low-cost reissues of great records, packed in together like battery hens. It’s hard to complain about cheap; cheap is good, as the supermarkets know. It’s hard to complain about value for money, either; why does anyone complain about ‘buy one, get one free’, whether it’s salad leaves or jazz? The truth is that just as you’d only want to eat so much rocket and watercress in a week, so most of us don’t have the time, or perhaps the concentration for 80 minutes of music at a stretch. You don’t have to be old and prostatic to hanker after the days when an album ‘side’ – lovely concept: we always talked about having enough time to ‘play a side’ before going to the pub – occupied a perfect span of attention. Sometimes the experience was good enough to merit flipping over there and then, and still getting to the bar before it was rammed. But often it was just that.

There was an art to creating an LP, which was somewhat more than putting ten or eleven tracks end to end. I remember talking to the pop artist Lloyd Cole, who told me it had taken him a couple of weeks to make an album and then a couple of months to sort out the ideal running order. He had postcards with track titles in two rows on his study floor: side A and side B, constantly manipulated for maximum impact and punch. I don’t get much sense that anyone in the CD era goes to such lengths, and in some respects it would be futile if they did, for there is a natural ‘break’ in attention after 35 or 40 minutes. In my university teaching days, I learned quickly that 45 is the absolute maximum any group of students can take, however bright, unhungover or committed they are. Even if you’re as charismatic as George Steiner or Richard Feynman, for the final fifteen minutes they’ll only be watching your hands, not listening to your words.

I’m always immensely impressed by young artists who opt to put out a 45-minute CD, rather than stuffing it with so-so takes, an add-on standard and a protracted blues. Of course, the CD did make possible the presentation of large scale works entire. My old friend Gavin Bryars was one of the first to recognise that duration was also a structural and performative principle. His indeterminate work The Sinking of the Titanic changed when CD allowed a much longer representation of the score than the original Obscure recording did. I imagine that online allows performance of indeterminate length, the piece fading away slowly in cyberspace.

The Penguin Guide is in abeyance at the moment. Most readers will know that the ninth full edition was completed without Richard’s involvement, while he battled cancer, and that the ‘tenth’, a kind of complect of the whole project, was published after his untimely death. In the five years since, the CD market has exploded and while download hasn’t established much of a toehold in the jazz market (yet), it is among us and listeners will soon get to grips with the advantages of online buying. Who has a decent record shop nearby anyway? There are problems. Just as the market is dominated by reissues from which original artists receive not a penny, it’s clear that the online trade isn’t entirely fair to musicians either. A lot of due money has disappeared or been misdirected. ‘Twas ever thus, but what’s interesting is that, without pinning on ‘BACK TO VINYL’ badges, many of us have reawakened to the delights of the old-fashioned physical LP, that shiny disc that magically delivers sound, that calls for careful nurture, that comes in a package that is also beautiful and that demands only a reasonable tithe of one’s remaining hours. Various ideas are bandying around at the moment that will determine the future, nature and personnel of the Guide but what delights me most, after that intriguing batch of mail, is that we might be able to reinstate that on CD, LP and Cassette, which after all this time would be rather delightful.

Brian Morton is the co-author of the Penguin Guide to Jazz. This is his first article for Jazz CD Reviews.

Dec 5, 2012

What Dave Brubeck Means to Me

Dave Brubeck died today, on the eve of his 92nd birthday, and as someone who's spent a lifetime loving jazz in general and his work in particular all I can keep thinking is that the news just can't be true. He'd been around for so long and was such a vital force in the music it's just too much to take in.

Brubeck, along with Miles Davis and John Coltrane, is inextricably tied up with my idea of what jazz is and should be. He's as essential to the only true American art form as any of the greats, be it Armstrong or Ellington, Parker or Gillespie. Anyone who wants to argue that point with me had better come ready to fight. Brubeck brought jazz to a wider audience than probably any human who ever lived, he did things no one else had done with the music - then or now - and was one of the most elegant and lyrical musicians ever to sit at a keyboard. One of the greats? He defined the term.

My own history with Brubeck began in my early teens when, weary of 1970s classic rock I heard "Take Five" playing somewhere, maybe on the Ron Cuzner radio show in Milwaukee. Later I'd learn about Brubeck's classical influences and his use of unusual time signatures, how he "transcended standard conceptions of swing rhythm," as one critic put it. All I knew was, the moment I heard "Take Five" I was done with Led Zeppelin for good. I've listened to his music ever since, and just last year I reviewed one of his albums. My fondest Brubeck memory is from years ago, when my wife and I took our young son to see him play in Philadelphia. At the time he was well into his 80s. He played with the energy and enthusiasm of someone half his age.

Nowadays "Take Five" and other Brubeck signature tunes like "Blue Rondo a la Turk" have become so much a part of our culture that it's difficult to imagine how striking they were, how entirely new they sounded when they were released in 1959 on the album "Time Out," Brubeck's masterpiece.

Indeed, they were too new for some. Critics ripped Brubeck, charging that his music was effete, bombastic. And as a white musician in a predominantly African-American art form, he was attacked by those who sniped that he was getting recognition that was due black musicians. Of course, there wasn't much Brubeck could do about such attacks. All he could do was keep playing music. Which he did.

Then something interesting happened. As jazz critic Ira Gitler has noted, Miles Davis started covering Brubeck's songs (Davis always had a keen ear for a great tune, regardless of its provenance.) Once Brubeck had the stamp of approval from the coolest man in all of jazz, that was it. The critics cooled their jets, the carping about Brubeck's color faded away, and "Time Out" went one to become the first jazz instrumental album to sell a million copies. Even today, "Take Five" remains the biggest-selling instrumental jazz single in history.

But the attacks over race stung Brubeck more than anyone knew, because he, as it turned out, was an early and passionate advocate for civil rights. He led a mixed-race quartet in the 1950s and '60s that was often barred from playing venues in the Deep South, and during his career he wrote compositions inspired by both Louis Armstrong and Martin Luther King.

And when Brubeck appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1954, it wasn't just the critics who were upset: Brubeck despaired of the fact that he had received such an honor before his idol, Duke Ellington.

Years later, when he was interviewed for Ken Burns' PBS documentary "Jazz," Brubeck was asked about his first encounter with racism, when he was a boy growing up on a California ranch run by his father.

This is what he says:

"The first black man that I saw, my dad took me to see a friend of his and asked him to 'Open your shirt for Dave.' There was a brand on his chest. And my dad said, 'These things can't happen.'

"That's why I fought for what I fought for," he adds. And then, unable to hold back his emotions any longer, Dave Brubeck weeps.

-Tony Rogers

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Feb 3, 2012

After the Death of a Friend and Collaborator, 'Penguin Jazz Guide' Author Brian Morton Soldiers On

Brian Morton is the kind of polymath you don't often see anymore. A writer by trade and a Renaissance man in spirit, he's equally adept at analyzing British political culture in The Nation or writing about contemporary literature for the Times of London. He's also been a college professor, hosted a variety of radio shows for the BBC and, if that weren't enough, translated several books from the Norwegian.

But Morton, 57, is perhaps best known as the co-author of the "Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings," the book that, over two decades and 10 editions, has attempted to review every jazz recording available in the United States and Europe. That last part of the sentence bears repeating - "attempted to review every jazz recording available in the U.S.and Europe." To call the Penguin Guide encyclopedic is akin to calling Mount Everest tall. At some point, adjectives just aren't adequate.

For instance, my well-thumbed-through copy, the fifth edition, includes upwards of 10,000 entries, and runs to 1,618 pages, not including an index of several hundred more. It weighs, according to my bathroom scale, four-and-a half pounds. If jazz can be said to have a Bible (and a Talmud and a Koran all rolled into one) the Penguin Guide is it.

And it's not just the scope of the thing that's impressive. From the AALY Trio to Zubop, the book is authoritative yet accessible on not just the recordings but the musicians themselves and their place in what is the true American art form.

And therein lies a paradox, because Morton, oddly enough, doesn't hail from jazz's epicenter, New York, nor from its birthplace, New Orleans, nor any of the other American cities (Chicago, Kansas City, Philadelphia) most commonly thought of as breeding grounds for the music's foremost practitioners. No, Morton is Scottish, and while he has played a little saxophone in his time he lives not on 52nd Street but in a former monastery in the western wilds of his homeland.

Of course, assembling the Penguin Guide would be a gargantuan task for anyone, and for years Morton's co-author was British music writer and ex-record company exec Richard Cook. It was an intense collaboration, one that, not surprisingly, involved a fair share of bickering over musicians and genres. Still, "It was tremendous fun, and complaining about the workload was part of the fun," Morton recalled in an e-mail interview.

But how did the two accomplish such a task?

Morton admits that the first edition "was a slog, but as anyone who has done any long-distance running - and here was a first point of personal difference: I ran to keep sane, while Richard regarded violent exercise as undignified - will know that knowing what it feels like to run a marathon is part of the battle. After the first edition, and before we embarked on the second, we knew what we had to do, in terms of number of words per day, per week, per month. After the take-off point we were metaphorically checking our watches ever mile or so, dropping behind the pace, keeping up, risking burnout by pushing it too far."

As the book grew in popularity and one edition morphed into the next, "we rarely had time to read each other's work before the proofing stage, which always sparked semi-serious squabbles - 'You gave that rubbish four stars?!' - and sometimes required tweaking of the rather arbitrary ratings we gave to individual records. That, of course, was never an exact science or level playing field, in the sense that a three-star Louis Armstrong record is not considered to be of the same value as a three-star Ingrid Jensen record, and shouldn't be... If Richard disliked an artist and I professed an admiration, then I logically covered that entry. Sometimes simple availability of records meant that one of us wrote part of an entry, though we quickly gave up the early practice of 'I'll do the early Miles, Brian, and you cover the rotten electric stuff,' 'Thanks, man'."

Morton notes that "one fascinating aspect of the collaboration is that no one ever reliably identified who wrote what, despite confident assertion from friends and colleagues that it was 'obvious' I had done Basie or Richard had done Chet Baker."

Sadly, Cook died of liver cancer in 2007, at age 50. Morton, who has written movingly of Cook's death, was faced with the loss of his collaborator and friend. As he put it: "The worst single thing about his passing was hearing new records slap onto the mat and know that he would never hear them."

Recalling Cook now, Morton says that "everyone who met Richard even through the pages of the book or a magazine knew that his opinions were sharp, pithy, and always located in a deep knowledge of the music. I sometimes found him unduly categorical, and sometimes unwilling to consider other contexts for the music - cultural, political, whatever - but that discussion was part of an important dynamic. We complemented one another. I infuriated him with some of my enthusiasms. Some of his baffled me. But he also responded with generosity, with absolutely no eye for the merely fashionable and without prejudice."

Morton was left to soldier on and complete the Penguin Guide's ninth edition. More recently, the book has evolved into "The Penguin Jazz Guide: The History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums," in which Morton, as the title implies, selects the most worthy jazz recordings and shows how they convey the history of the music. The encyclopedic scope of the project is gone, for now. But Morton is adamant that "it was, is and remains a collaboration."

Will the Penguin Guide continue? "It may need at this stage to involve another writer, which I regard with some relief, some regret and a little understandable anxiety," Morton said.

In years past, he adds, "when each edition was finished, we shared a bottle of malt, sometimes in person, sometimes on the end of a phone line. Moods ranged from end-of-war fatigue to euphoria to the slightly gloomy but also the cheering thought that we'd be doing it all over again in two years . . ."

These days, Morton does some farming on his patch of Scottish soil, where he lives with his wife and children. He writes, of course, but mostly about books, science and religion. "Don't play much saxophone any more," he told me. "Cut down trees and dig out stumps instead. Watch the plants grow, or die. Walk miles and miles. Listen to whatever comes through the door."

-Tony Rogers

Morton's first column for Jazz CD Reviews can be found here.

Photo of Brian Morton courtesy Sarah MacDonald

Dec 30, 2011

English Guitarist Lee Jones Brings a Composer's Flair to "Songs From the 13th Hour"

Lee Jones is a young English guitarist who made waves in his homeland a few years ago with "Swish," his debut as a leader. With the release of his sophomore effort, "Songs From the 13th Hour," he's looking to make his mark in this country. On the strength of this album, I predict he will.

Jones is an examplar of so-called Nu Jazz, which emerged in the 1990s as a funkier, more accessible cousin to the post-bop stuff most of us jazz critics write about. I should say up front that Nu isn't my favorite vein of the music. While it bears little resemblance to the smooth swill churned out by the likes of the talented but tragically misguided Kenny G, as a genre it's still a little too polished for my tastes.

Having said that, Jones made me a believer with this album, and that's due to his mastery of the instrument and his flair for composition (all but one of the songs are originals.) Take the titletrack, a medium-tempo number that features veteran tenor saxman Jean Toussaint. Jones holds his own as he trades solos with the more experienced Toussaint, but more to the point the tune itself is a real gem, featuring a pensive, repeating riff that creates an undercurrent of tension throughout.

What's slightly odd about this album is the way it veers from tightly produced, commercial-sounding tracks to ones that are rich with quirkiness and lyricism. Take "In Another Time," in which Jones teams up with Fairport Convention violonist Ric Sanders on what amounts to a folksy ballad of sorts. The tone here is melancholic and muted, and Jones' fretwork is tastefully restrained rather than show-stopping. But the combined effect is intriguingly original. Jones has the composer/arranger's gift for seeing the big picture, musically; he looks beyond his own playing and marshals his musicians to create a sustained mood and ambience, one that lingers long after the tune has ended. Jones is also, it seems to me, a very visual composer, and if he ever gives up jazz I think he could forge a career writing soundtracks. One way or another, he's a talent worth watching.

 -Tony Rogers

Nov 23, 2011

Pioneering Drummer Paul Motian Dead at Age 80

Paul Motian died on Tuesday. Motian was perhaps the most important drummer in contemporary jazz because, as I wrote several years ago in a review of his album "Holiday for Strings:"
Motian has helped he helped liberate percussionists from their role as simple timekeepers by employing a style and phrasing that used tempo as a starting point, not an end in itself. In the process he produced an invigorating body of work that veered from post-bop clichés and instead evoked the subtleties of mood, atmosphere and texture.
Motian also made a point of working with young musicians, including pianist Anat Fort, who was stunned by the news of Motian's death. "My personal connection with him and his music and what he has done for me are something that will never be repeated. I am truly sad today," she said via e-mail.

German bassist Peter Schwebs, whose terrific CD "Stories from Sugar Hill" I reviewed here recently, had this to say about Motian:

"I first got to know about Paul Motian when I started checking out bassist Scott LaFaro and the famous recordings of the Bill Evans Trio. This was about 12 years ago. At that time I was finishing high school in a small town outside of Hanover, Germany, and I just started playing the double bass. I checked out the sales corner in a small record store every other day to find all the “must have” legendary jazz albums. The Bill Evans Trio albums really blew my mind, and I always had the CDs or copies on Mini Disc with me.

New Jazz Conceptions (Riverside, 1957)
Portrait in Jazz (Riverside, 1959)
Explorations (Riverside, 1961)
Sunday at the Village Vanguard (Riverside, 1961)
Waltz for Debby (Riverside, 1961)

Since my high school years up until last year, I was fortunate to see Paul Motian playing live several times. Especially since I moved to New York in 2006.

In fall 2010, when I saw Paul Motian last time at the Village Vanguard with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, it was one of these rare concerts where everything was just perfect: The communication between the musicians, the interplay, the mastery of the instruments, the freedom in the music, and the live sound and atmosphere at the Village Vanguard. There is no recording device that could possibly capture all this, and it reminded me why it is so important to listen to this music played live. Fifty years after the Bill Evans Trio sessions at the Vanguard, Paul Motian’s playing sounded as up-to-date and fresh as back in the day. He was truly a master musician who always played in the moment and brought innovative and surprising ideas to all kind of different musical situations.

Not just for drummers, but for all musicians and music lovers who are interested in improvised music, Paul Motian’s approach to music and to playing the drums will remain a major influence and live on as an important part in the jazz tradition."

-Tony Rogers

Pictured: Motian on drums, Joe Lovano on sax and Bill Frisell on guitar. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Nov 18, 2011

Nat Janoff, a Guitarist Who Deserves Wider Recognition - and a Major Label

Listening to guitarist Nat Janoff 's latest album reminded me of what makes the indie jazz scene alternately exhilarating and depressing. The exhilaration comes in discovering absolutely wonderful music that few people have heard. The depression comes from the realization that true talent, at least in this genre, too often languishes in obscurity.

Janoff has a half-dozen albums to his name. His latest, "Come Together Move Apart," is a strong effort in every respect. Janoff is a technically agile yet sensitive musician whose playing shows shades of John McLaughlin and Wes Montgomery. He's also a gifted composer whose tunes are innovative in the best sense of the word, meaning they carry the stamp of something new yet remain accessible. And he's backed by a band that gives as good as it gets (John Escreet on piano, Francois Moutin on bass and Chris Carroll on drums).

Two tracks on the CD illustrate Janoff's multi-layered prowess. "Shorter Times" opens with a bouncy drum solo by Carroll that segues into a nice bit of speedy post-bop jazz. Janoff plays the head, an elliptical piece that at a slower tempo would sound West-Coast cool, then gets out of the way as Escreet launches into a dizzying bit of solo work that does Art Tatum proud. But then it's the leader's turn, and Janoff, who as a young turk worshipped at the altar of Eddie Van Halen, shreds his way through a fleet-fingered solo that quite simply blazes. Fast doesn't begin to describe it. The next track is the polar opposite: "For Now" is quieter, muted even, and though it's at a slower tempo Janoff still infuses his solo with fretwork that is technically impressive yet appropriate to the tune's more restrained mood.

Both tunes are of a piece with the excellent work on the rest of "Come Together Move Apart," which is as fine an example of contemporary jazz guitar as I've heard. Yet as good as it is, the CD is not on a label like Blue Note or Concord but a self-recorded effort. That's not to diminish the work in any way; the sound is crystal clear and the cover art quite appealing. It's just that, if anyone is deserving of major label support, it's the likes of Janoff. Here's hoping this latest work brings him the acclaim he deserves.

-Tony Rogers

Nov 11, 2011

Mort Weiss Bops With the Best of Them on Latest CD

Mort Weiss has been around. Born in 1935, he picked up the clarinet early and in high school developed a love for jazz. As a teen he stood outside clubs listening to the likes of Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon and Stan Getz before being drafted and ending up in the Army band. After the service he toured for awhile with R&B and rock groups, playing tenor sax. But he got tired of the road and eventually started his own music store.

Then, about a decade ago, Weiss returned to playing, and to the clarinet. He met the terrific guitarist Ron Eschete and the two have recorded several albums together, including one with Joey DeFrancesco on the Hammond B3 organ. His latest release, "Mort Weiss Meets Bill Cunliffe," pairs him with the pianist and a talented band on a set of jazz chestnuts.

The vibe is mostly one of a loose jam session; on Luiz Bonfa's "The Gentle Rain" the pace is sedate, with the rhythm section (Chris Conner on bass, Roy McCurdy drums) leaving Weiss and the other players plenty of space in which to chart some limpid, unhurried solo work. Things pick up on Charlie Parker's "Dewey Square;" here, the band tightens up and Weiss gets to show off his fleet-fingered skills as a bebopper. And on Gershwin's "Who Cares" the septuagenerian fires off a blazing solo that shows he's still got his chops.

The album has a few oddities. There's a track of spoken-word Kerouac, and another featuring Weiss' grandsons playing a sugary pop song. It's a sweet gesture, but sounds jarring in the middle of an album of otherwise well-executed and very swinging tunes.

-Tony Rogers

Nov 4, 2011

The Melancholy Brilliance of John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman's 'Lush Life'

by Tony Rogers

Driving home on a brisk fall evening, the car slipping into the russet hues of the setting sun, I'm listening to Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" as recorded by Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane, a small masterpiece that begins with an arpeggio, stated matter-of-factly, by McCoy Tyner. Then comes Hartman's bass, velvety with a hint of gravel at the bottom, caressing Strayhorn's lyrics:

I used to visit all the very gay places
Those come-what-may places
Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life
To get the feel of life from jazz and cocktails...

Strayhorn, Duke Ellington's longtime musical collaborator, was gay, though of course the word here had a different meaning when he wrote it. The lyric perfectly evokes the 1960s cigarettes-and-cocktails world of John Cheever and "Mad Men," which is why it's surprising to learn that Strayhorn composed the song in the 1930s when he was just 16 (ah, genius). A few more bars of just Hartman and Tyner, and those gorgeous lyrics:

I thought for awhile that your poignant smile
Was tinged with the sadness of a great love for me
Ah yes, I was wrong
Again, I was wrong   

Then, a pause, and Elvin Jones enters ever so quietly on the brushes, paired with Jimmy Garrison on bass, both men keeping plenty of space between the notes, and suddenly we understand that the song up to this point has been merely a prelude, and that its melancholy core really begins here. This is where we first hear Coltrane, just wisps of his sax in the background, supporting Hartman as he sings words that evoke a place and a moment at once urbane and down-at-the-heels:

Life is lonely again and only last year
Everything seemed so sure
Now life is awful again
A trough full of hearts could only be a bore

A week in Paris could ease the bite of it
All I care is to smile in spite of it 

I'll forget you, I will while yet you are still
Burning inside my brain romance is mush
Stifling those who strive

So I'll live a lush life in some small dive
And there I'll be
While I rot with the rest of those
Whose lives are lonely too

Then comes Coltrane's solo, and a nice piece of work it is: The man who could almost literally blow other musicians off the stage with his horn here is measured and even gentle. He states the melody and circles it a bit but keeps things simple, knowing that sheets of sound would be, in this case, too much. Tyner, Jones and Garrison sense the uptick in energy, and hearing them work things out behind Trane is one of the great pleasures of a song that offers many.

And then the finish: Trane and company recede and Hartman comes to the fore to reprise the final stanza, this time with an odd high note on the final "too" that sounds ever-so-slightly off-key; the band is silent, and there's real tension as Hartman holds the note a moment longer. Then Jones re-enters on the cymbal, the band re-emerges, and the note is resolved. The tension gone, the last few bars wash over us as Trane plays a beautiful little filigree of notes that trail off into the end.

There's an impulse to link the song's sad brilliance to the fate of the principal musicians themselves: Coltrane and Strayhorn would both die young just a few years later. Hartman lived on but never enjoyed the success many felt he deserved, a victim, perhaps, of the racism of his time.

But on a late winter's day in March 1963, in Rudy Van Gelder's legendary New Jersey studio, Coltrane and Hartman recorded, in a single take, a tune that is not just an ode to lost love, but something much more: A vision of an elegant, romantic sensibility and what was in many ways a gentler world, one that has all but vanished.

Jun 19, 2011

Clarence Clemons may be gone, but in jazz there are plenty of great sax players waiting to be heard

John Coltrane
Clarence Clemons may very well have been the greatest rock saxophonist who ever lived. Anyone who's ever hummed along to "Jungleland" or "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out" is familiar with his soaring, exuberant solos, and in that sense the big man was not only an enormously talented and charismatic musician but also an ambassador for the instrument itself.

But while the sound of the sax has been fading from rock and pop in recent years, in jazz it is and always has been an elemental part of the music. And why not? Depending on who's behind the reed, the saxophone can be many things. Charlie Parker's alto was a precision instrument of stunning virtuosity, played with a speed and skill that, even decades later, through the haze of scratchy, primitive recordings, is still astonishing to behold. Listening to Parker's solo on "Koko,"  where he's joined by trumpet player and fellow bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie, it's impossible to convey his masterful blend of technique and musicality without the word "genius" coming to mind.

John Coltrane, on tenor (and sometimes soprano) sax, played not just with speed - what one critic called "sheets of sound" - but with an immediacy and power that evoked deeper, spiritual dimensions to the music. Trane, especially in the late stages of his career, composed pieces imbued with this spirituality (his masterpiece "A Love Supreme" is probably the best example), but he accomplished his depth of purpose no matter the source material. Just listen to how he transforms Richard Rodgers' bright and somewhat schmaltzy "My Favorite Things" into a darkly nuanced exploration of the very soul of the music. Kenny G it's not.

Fast forward to the present, and there are plenty of established players and young turks making great music on the sax, from Branford Marsalis reworking Trane's "A Love Supreme" to Joe Lovano's sensitive ballad work to Tineke Postma, a young woman straight outta Amsterdam, playing with lyricism and restraint on original compositions that are just gorgeous. Clarence Clemons may be gone, but for saxophone lovers willing to explore the beauty and complexity of jazz, treasures abound.

-Tony Rogers

Feb 2, 2011

Saxophonist Ben Schachter Pursues his Musical Vision

He’s wowed critics and clubgoers, won fellowships and magazine polls. He’s recorded two CDs as a leader and has two more on the way.

But like so many jazz musicians before him, Philly-area tenor saxophonist and composer Ben Schachter has yet to land a contract with a major record label.
It hasn’t stopped him.

Told he should move to New York to break into jazz’s big leagues, Schachter, a Philadelphia native, stayed put. No bites from the major labels? Schachter formed his own label, Ben-Jam Records, and recorded two memorable albums, Fractals and Trio of Many, also the name of his band.

For Schachter, 39, the artistic struggle comes with the territory, geographic or otherwise.

"It’s harder to be based in any city other than New York if you want to have an international career,” Schachter says. “The consensus worldwide is if your return address isn’t New York, then you’re not in the big leagues, so to speak. 

“To a certain extent I can understand why,” he adds. “Traditionally New York has been the center of jazz activity. But my family is from Philly, and I love living here. The quality of life is as important to one’s music-making as anything else. You have to be happy with your life in order to be creating.”

And create he has. Schachter’s first disc, a sextet session called Fractals, was described as “both experimental and accessible” by one critic. Trio of Many, Schachter’s next recording, was, an Inquirer critic wrote, “full of Monkish moments and sly asides. Schachter writes peppery tunes that meander and tap-dance on the subconscious before his searing saxophone takes over to blow down the house.” Schachter was also voted “Best Jazz Artist” and “Hottest Sax” in various Philadelphia CityPaper polls.

Not content to bask in critical raves, Schachter has just put the finishing touches on two new releases that should hit the stores in late summer. Inside Looking Out is the second disc by his Trio of Many, which also includes bassist Micah Jones and drummer Erik Johnson. And The Missing Beloved is a sextet recording that adds saxophonist Gary Bartz, guitarist Jef Lee Johnson and trumpeter Tim Hagans to the mix.

“This wasn’t supposed to be two albums,” Schachter says. “But we recorded so much music over a two-day period, and I liked most of it. Since one day was with the sextet and the other day was with the trio, it seemed logical to release them separately.”

Schachter describes Inside Looking Out as the most relaxed recording yet by his trio, which has played together for about four years. (The band has a standing gig at St. Jack’s on Chestnut Street in Philly on the first and third Mondays of each month.

“We’ve become very intimate with each other, and that’s important for any kind of musical evolution to occur,” he says. “The record is a document of where we’ve arrived after four years of playing together.

“I like to think this album is better and stronger in terms of what I write and want to say,” he adds. “The band has grown together. We definitely have accomplished a lot in the last few years and I think it’s obvious when you hear the new recording.” The sextet album, on the other hand, is more structured, Schachter says.

“When you go into the studio you only have a certain amount of time to work, so you have to go in with an agenda,” he says. “I went into that with charts and arrangements, so the pieces are arranged much more thoroughly. It’s definitely a different sound from the trio record.”

Both discs are comprised mostly of Schachter’s own tunes. Listening to his incendiary, muscular sax—Coltrane is an acknowledged influence—it’s easy to forget that he’s also a formidable writer who several years ago scored a $50,000 Pew Charitable Trusts composition grant.

When he’s not composing or playing, Schachter is busy teaching students at Temple University’s Boyer College of Music to do the same. And—oh yeah—running his record label.
“Starting my own label was simply a matter of necessity,” Schachter says. “I don’t have a lot of business aptitude, but it’s necessary to document your music, and the only way you do that is by releasing recordings.

“If your music is of the sort that’s not easily classifiable, it’s not easy to get an established label interested, because of the financial risk. So I just formed a label, learning as I went” —about everything from CD bar codes and licensing fees to album graphics, he says.

Schachter grew up in South Jersey, the son of jazz-loving parents who frequently took him to concerts in Philly. He took up the clarinet in grade school, then switched to sax as a teen before heading to the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory.

After college he returned home to Philly where he played the odd gig and worked, for a time, in his father’s insurance business. But Schachter knew music was his calling. “Most musicians are oddballs in that sense—I knew by age 14 I wanted to be playing music my whole life.”

However, Schachter wasn’t content just to play his horn. He knew he wanted to compose and to lead his own group—an ambitious plan for a young musician with few contacts and no record deal.

“I have great respect for the kind of artistry that it takes to be a sideman,” Schachter says. “But it’s very different to lead your own group. There’s a certain amount of stubbornness that leads to this decision. You want to do things your way. When we look at the musicians who have inspired us so much, it’s been those who have persevered in trying to communicate their own musical vision.

“I feel as if I have that vision,” he adds. “So I might as well do whatever it takes—viable or not— to try to communicate that.”

As for being snapped up by the likes of Blue Note or Verve, Schachter says he wouldn’t mind—running his own label isn’t easy.

“But I’m not whining,” he says. “I made the choice to do this. I just want my own niche and the freedom to continue doing what I do.” 

-Tony Rogers

Note: This article originally appeared on the website All About Jazz

Paul Motian: Holiday for Strings

"With a new lineup of musicians working under the banner of Motian’s Electric Bebop Band, he has produced a moody, melancholy album that nonetheless offers rich rewards for the patient listener."

Label: Winter & Winter
Personnel:  Steve Cardenas, guitar/Ben Monder, guitar/Paul Motian, drums/Pietro Tonolo, tenor and soprano saxes/Chris Cheek, tenor sax/Andy Christensen, electric bass 
Genre: Quirky modern jazz
Recommended for: everyone 

Since his halcyon days as drummer for the legendary Bill Evans trio, Paul Motian  has consistently pushed the boundaries of jazz. Working mostly in small groups with the likes of Keith Jarrett, Joe Lovano , Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden, Motian has helped liberate percussionists from their role as simple timekeepers by employing a style and phrasing that uses tempo as a starting point, not an end in itself. In the process he’s produced an invigorating body of work (more than a dozen albums as a leader) that steers clear of post-bop clichés and instead evokes the subtleties of mood, atmosphere and texture.

His latest release, the ironically titled Holiday for Strings (Winter & Winter), is no exception. With a new lineup of musicians working under the banner of Motian’s Electric Bebop Band (Andres Christensen on electric bass; Chris Cheek and Pietro Tonolo on tenor and soprano sax; and Ben Monder  and Steve Cardenas on guitar), he has produced a moody, melancholy album that nonetheless offers rich rewards for the patient listener. Motian has said in interviews that he wants to avoid “pushy” solos and instead have musicians on the same instrument play together. That approach is apparent on the opening number, “Arabesque,” a Motian composition in which Cheek and Tonolo engage in a kind of sonic dance; one leads with a dominant theme, the other follows and shadows his counterpart. The result is a darkly beautiful kind of symbiosis. As always, Motian floats around the melody, using brushes and cymbals to embellish on the themes established by the horns.

Two more Motian compositions - “5 Miles to Wrentham” and “Morpion” – seamlessly follow, both literally and figuratively, the dreamy, rainy-Sunday-afternoon tone set by “Arabesque.” Indeed, at least in the first part of the album, Motian seems intent on creating a suite of pieces, a thematic whole greater than the sum of its parts. Even “Luteous,” a Monder composition, echoes this mood. It’s not until the up-tempo “Look to the Black Wall” (a Motian number faintly reminiscent of “Giant Steps”) that the band gets any kind of boppish groove going; here, Cheek and Tonolo let loose in a good old-fashioned sax duel. The guitarists follow in turn.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the group is at its most conventional when covering two Richard Rogers standards, “It Never Entered My Mind” and “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” But if these covers aren’t particularly innovative, they’re certainly pretty; the saxophones play with a restrained elegance on the former, with the guitars weaving an intricate yet graceful tapestry around them. “Morning” is a fitting coda to the album; it’s a mere wisp of a number, a simple statement of the melody and little more. Yet, in its understated way, it manages to capture the poignant spirit that informs the rest of Holiday for Strings.

-Tony Rogers

Note: This review originally appeared on the website All About Jazz

Peter Paulson Quintet: Three Stranded Cord

"It’s not only a pleasure but a vindication to find a recording by yet another stellar local talent, bassist Peter Paulsen."

Label: R & L
Personnel: Peter Paulsen, bass/Tom Lawton, piano/Joe Mullen, drums/Bob Meashey, trumpet & flugelhorn/Chris Farr, saxophones
Genre: Cerebral modern jazz
Recommended for: everyone

It’s all very well to speak in abstractions about the state of the local jazz scene, but the proof, as they say, is in the playing. With talents like Ben Schachter , Tom Lawton  and Bootsie Barnes keeping plenty busy in area clubs and recording studios, it’s clear that Philly and its extended environs have one of the most vibrant scenes around.

So it’s not only a pleasure but a vindication to find a recording by yet another stellar local talent, bassist Peter Paulsen. The Westchester University music professor heads up a quintet on his debut CD as a leader, Three-Stranded Cord. He’s joined by Lawton on piano, Joe Mullen on drums, Bob Meashey on trumpet and flugelhorn and Chris Farr  on sax. The disc, produced by Harrisburg-based R&L Records ( includes four Paulsen originals and two standards.

“Forza Blu,” a 6/4 blues inspired by Prokofiev (Paulsen is also an accomplished classical musician, and classical influences permeate the album) opens with a repeating theme that’s propelled by the more-than-able rhythm section. Meashey then cuts loose with an expertly crafted solo that’s followed by a slightly more relaxed improvisation from Farr. But it’s Lawton who shines here; after backing the horns, he takes flight in an extended solo of his own that allows him to demonstrate some real pyrotechnics on the keyboard.

The title track is an appropriately elegiac 29-bar waltz composed in memory of a friend of Paulsen’s who has died. Early in the track Paulsen takes his first solo, a restrained but heartfelt passage that evokes the sadness of his loss. Lawton picks up from there and executes a solo that’s technically pristine but also entirely organic in the way it hews to the heart of the melody.

Paulsen’s penchant for a melancholy take on things is also evident in a fascinating rendition of Bill Evans’ “Turn Out the Stars.” Paulsen leads into the piece unaccompanied, with a moody solo that harkens as much to the abstractions of modernist classical composers as to anything jazz has produced. Eventually he’s joined by his bandmates, but here again, the emphasis is on creating a mood; Mullen keeps the rhythmic pulse to a minimum, and the other players basically maintain a subtle support of Paulsen’s theme. Finally, the mood lightens as the horns (Farr is on soprano sax here) engage in some almost playful call-and-response dialog.

“Endless Mountains” is meant to evoke the Poconos and the music scene there, while “Reddish Blues,” a tribute to bassist Red Mitchell , conjures a New Orleans funeral march. This deceptively simple track begins with a muted Mullens drum solo. Meashey and the rhythm section follow with a somber reading of the dirge-like theme. But once again, Farr’s soprano sax brightens the proceedings with a lilting, lyrical solo that flits and floats over the bottom. Mullens’ restrained, atmospheric use of the cymbals is a real highlight here.

Paulsen’s classical training is evident in his tightly constructed compositions. And the compositions, in turn, are a real showcase for this band’s formidable technical prowess. But as anyone who’s heard Jacques Loussier’s attempts to mix baroque and bop knows, classical training can be a double-edged sword in jazz. Prodigious technical ability on an instrument is no substitute for soul. And if “Three-Stranded Cord” has a flaw, it’s that the tunes can sound a tad too neat at times.

But that’s a minor quibble on an otherwise fine album. And on Sam Jones’ “Bittersweet,” the album’s final cut, the band does get to let its hair down. With Paulsen’s bass and Lawton’s left-hand piano work driving the tempo, the soloists have a solid foundation on which to build some inspired, swinging solos. It’s a fitting tribute capped by Paulsen’s liner notes, in which he calls Jones “one of the swingingest bassists in jazz history.” 

-Tony Rogers

Note: This review originally appeared on the website All About Jazz

Feb 1, 2011

Peter Schwebs: Stories From Sugar Hill

"Judging by his debut album, Schwebs is not only an able musician but a gifted composer as well."

Label: Laika Records
Personnel: Peter Schwebs, bass/George Garzone and Ben Kraef, tenor sax/Douglas Bradford, guitar/Julian Pollack, piano/Ari Hoenig and Nick Anderson, drums
Genre: Modern jazz with a European influence
Recommended for: everyone

Peter Schwebs is a young German bassist who's already played with the likes of Dave Liebman and Chris Potter, and judging by "Stories From Sugar Hill," his debut album as a bandleader, he's not only an able musician but a gifted composer as well. Having lived for three years in Sugar Hill - "way up in Harlem," as Billy Strayhorn wrote -  Schwebs penned the tunes as an affectionate and compelling tribute to the neighborhood. 

Schwebs has assembled a talented cast of bandmates, highlighted by veteran saxman George Garzone and drummer and sometime bandleader Ari Hoenig. The opening track, "On Sugar Hill," an uptempo piece driven along by Hoenig and Schwebs, evokes the frenetic pace and controlled chaos of the city in much the same way Dave Brubeck's "Tokyo Traffic" did back in the day. More subdued is "Swedish Friend"; Hoenig and Schwebs still push an ever-quickening beat, but guitarist Douglas Bradford's restrained playing gives the tune a slightly melancholy feel.

That moodiness continues on "Autumn-ish NY," which begins with Julian Pollack's piano, Ben Kraef's sax and Bradford's guitar in a slow, almost dirge-like counterpoint. As the momentum builds it's Pollack who shines as he roams the keyboard, working out the tune's meaning with equal measures of power and nuance. 

Given Schwebs' heritage it's perhaps no surprise that the overall vibe here is of a piece with the kind of contemplative European jazz often associated with the ECM label. But there are exceptions; "Cat Bites Dog" opens with with a little playful experimentation between the two sax players. But then the tune roars to life and Schwebs and company show they can swing like nobody's business. That's the sound of the Sugar Hill I know.

-Tony Rogers

Jan 29, 2011

Jay T. Vonada Quartet: Jammin'

"What's compelling here is the easygoing groove and relaxed interplay between the musicians."
Label: Self-Produced
Personnel: Jay T. Vonada, trombone/Adam Kurland, keyboards/Jacob Hibel, bass/John Sullivan, drums
Genre: Straught-ahead jazz
Recommended for: everyone

From seemingly out of nowhere comes trombonist Jay Vonada, a native of the central Pennsylvania town of Aaronsburg. He won a scholarship to study at the Berklee College of Music and has played with such jazz luminaries as saxman Bob Mintzer and vocalist Catherine Dupuis.  But his debut  CD, "Jammin," is a homegrown, self-produced affair, and it's a winner.
"Jammin'" is comprised of eight tunes composed by Vonada, a J.J. Johnson-influenced player who clearly favors a straight-ahead style with tinges of Latin and a little funk. Things get started with the simply titled "A Blues," which features a nicely swinging solo by Vonada accompanied by bandmates Adam Kurland on keyboards, Jacob Hibel on bass and John Sullivan on drums. What's compelling here is the easygoing groove and relaxed interplay between the musicians. A real highlight is Kurland's  playing on what sounds like a Fender Rhodes electric piano, giving the whole affair a bit of a '70s, Vince Guaraldi-esque feel.

Next up is "Three Tons," a slightly more uptempo number that again leads off with a nimble solo by Vonada, followed by a subtle but compelling turn by Kurland, this time on  acoustic piano.  Quicker still is the next track, "Anthracite," in which Hibel and Sullivan get to strut their stuff as a more-than able rhythm section driving the beat behind Vonada and Kurland. 

Perhaps the best track is "Mina," which features Kurland on a Hammond B3 organ. The upbeat melody, like all of Vonada's tunes, is deceptively simple, but somehow, in combining the B3 and Vonada's trombone, the group finds a sound that is fresh and uniquely its own.

The tracks here are short; most clock in at around four minutes. But that's all the time Vonada and his bandmates need to get their message across: They may be from the hinterlands of Pennsylvania, but these guys know how to play.

-Tony Rogers

John Brown Quintet: Terms of Art

"Brown, clearly a hard-bopper at heart, pays tribute to Blakey – and by extension, hard-bop in general – with a CD of standards that represents the genre at its finest."
Label: John V. Brown
Personnel: John Brown, bass/Ray Codrington, trumpet/Brian Miller, sax/Gabe Evans, piano/Adonis Rose, drums
Genre: hard-bop
Recommended for: everyone, but especially fans of Art Blakey and hard-bop.

Bassist John Brown, a North Carolina native who directs the jazz program at Duke University, has played with everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Elvin Jones and Cedar Walton.  So expectations were high for his quintet’s debut CD, “Terms of Art: A Tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.”

Those expectations are not only met, they’re exceeded.

Brown, clearly a hard-bopper at heart, pays tribute to Blakey – and by extension, hard-bop in general – with a CD of standards that represents the genre at its finest. Things get started with a blistering rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” highlighted by drummer Adonis Rose’s nimble stickwork and saxophonist Brian Miller’s rapid-fire soloing.

Things get even better with “Moaning,” a composition that practically defines hard-bop. Here, pianist Gabe Evans leads things off with his own swinging take on the Bobby Timmons classic, followed by trumpeter Ray Codrington’s relaxed yet intense solo work.

But the band also knows how to take things slow. On the Ray Brown number “Buhaina, Buhaina,” Evans again comes to the fore with a wonderfully restrained, even leisurely solo.  And lest we forget the leader, Brown follows Evans here with a soulful but not showy bit of playing.

Indeed, while Brown’s skill is evident, he never steals the focus from his very able bandmates. Like any good bandleader, he’s most content to let the music – and his fellow musicians – speak for themselves.  
-Tony Rogers

Useful Music: Jeff Baumeister Quartet

"Baumeister has a somewhat moody, introspective sound that harkens to ECM artists like Keith Jarrett."

Label: Wahbo Records
Personnel: Jeff Baumeister, piano/Dan Capecchi, drums/Greg Riley, saxophones/Peter Paulsen, bass
Genre: free/avant garde jazz
Recommended for: Serious jazz listeners with the patience for complex music

Pianist Jeff Baumeister's debut CD is an example of the terrific music coming out of the Philadelphia area's thriving jazz scene. Baumeister, who's based in nearby Bucks County, has a somewhat moody, introspective sound that harkens to ECM artists like Keith Jarrett.

But Baumeister is also completely original, with a fresh take on free/avant garde jazz that is challenging yet eminently listenable.

"Quiet and Restful but Moving" is the name of one of the CD's six tracks, and it's also an apt description for the music here. Baumeister and his bandmates - Greg Riley on sax, Dan Capecchi on drums and Peter Paulsen on bass - engage in plenty of brainy improvisation and interplay as they weave a tapestry of sound on each of the CD's six tracks.

Baumeister brings a heady mix of subtlety and power to his playing, while Capecchi makes extensive use of the cymbals in a way that's reminiscent of Paul Motian. Riley is an able multi-reedist here, playing both soprano and alto saxes, and Paulsen is a muted yet anchoring presence on bass.

Make no mistake - this isn't background music or easy listening for jazz novices. But the tracks, all composed by Baumeister, are intricate, complex compositions that yield plenty of rewards for the patient listener. And it's not all laid-back, either. On "Wahbo," Baumeister and his bandmates prove they can jam with the best of them. 

-Tony Rogers

Jeff Hackworth: How Little We Know

"Hackworth knows how to caress a melody and let a great song speak for itself."

Label: Big Bridge Music
Personnel: Jeff Hackworth, tenor sax/Norman Simmons, piano/Peter Washington, bass/Chip White, drums/Peter Hand, guitar
Genre: straight-ahead jazz
Recommended for: jazz fans and non-jazz fans alike
Tenor sax player Jeff Hackworth honed his craft playing clubs in his native Buffalo and on the road with such bandleaders as Matt “Guitar” Murphy. He’s previously recorded an organ trio album but it’s clear his latest release, “How Little We Know,” is meant to be his break-out effort.

Produced by tenorman Houston Person and engineered by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder, “How Little We Know” is a collection of such chestnuts as “I’m Just A Lucky So and So” and “All or Nothing At All.”

Hackworth has a big, warm sound that’s been compared to Gene Ammons and Stanley Turrentine, and while there’s little in the way of explosive soloing here, Hackworth knows how to caress a melody and let a great song speak for itself. He’s also an unselfish player who’s content to leave plenty of solo space for his able bandmates – pianist Norman Simmons, bassist Peter Washington, drummer Chip White and the aptly-named guitarist Peter Hand.

The result is a thoroughly enjoyable straight-ahead album that, even in its black-and-white cover photography is reminiscent of jazz around, say, 1958. But who cares? All I can tell you is, “How Little We Know” has been on my CD player a lot more lately than some of the hipper releases that have come through the transom.    

-Tony Rogers