Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Get to Know: Hailey Niswanger

"I was excited to see that Hailey Niswanger had a second release "The Keeper" (Calmit Productions 2012) hitting the street this past month, it being her second recording afer the excellent "Confeddie" (Self-Produced 2009) introduced her to the world. I wasn't blogging when "Confeddie" hit the streets, but I was reading and buying in my usual madcap manner and did pick that first disc up from CDBaby when it came out, and it was well worth the money. So picking up this second disc was a no-brainer. I hope that after reading this report or others, you too will give both discs a spin.

A really quick background on this amazing talent. Born February 12, 1990 in Houston, Hailey Niswanger completed her studies at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, where she studied jazz performance.  Shockingly, that first disc "Confeddie" was produced while still at Berklee in 2009 at the age of 19!  Nat Hentoff in the Wall Street Journal has provided a really terrific introduction and background on her, found at:

so I will leave it to him to give you more.

"Confeddie" features Michael Palma on piano, Greg Chaplin on bass, and Mark Whitfield Jr. on drums along with Niswanger, and includes seven covers and one original, "Confeddie." Highlights for me include energetic versions of "Four in One" by Monk, "Stablemates" by Benny Golson, and "Oliloqui Valley" by Herbie Hancock, although it is all good.  Although Niswanger also plays soprano sax, clarinet and flute, she showcased only her alto sax skills on the CD.  An authoritative straight-ahead recording, "Confeddie" is a striking debut for a 19 year old, with an instrumental confidence and arrangements of these modern jazz classics that were handled in a fresh and lively manner by the group. Her own title track, an excellent effort that blended in with the classics, was named for both “confetti”, to convey a festive feeling,  and the first name of legendary saxophonist Eddie Harris, in whose style she wrote it. Some quotes from the jazz community will tell you more than I can:
  • Dr. Billy Taylor -- "I was very impressed by the way she played and handled herself, especially as a leader.  Her group was very good -- very tight – and they got a standing ovation. I especially liked Hailey’s playing…she makes the saxophone do what it’s supposed to do. Hailey's trying to say something personal and that’s what jazz is about.  What she's saying is “here's the music of some jazz masters and I want to join them and spread the joy of this music and keep it alive for future generations.” 
  • John Clayton -- "Hailey Niswanger’s debut CD is mind blowing on several levels.  Her advanced, lyrical and interesting solo lines are mature beyond imagination.  She naturally flows through her extended vocabulary of historical saxophone combined with newer, fresher ideas.  But I am primarily swept away by the joy she emanates as her soul pours from the bell of her horn."  
  • Terri Lyne Carrington -- "Hailey Niswanger has all the important characteristics of true jazz musicianship. Her consummate debut "Confeddie," illustrates her bright and rising voice in the sound of jazz today, etched in a deep-rooted sense of tradition and legacy. What makes Hailey so special is her sound and phrasing (beyond her years), as well as her attention to melody and song - not just notes and scales".
Hailey Niswanger"The Keeper" reverses the content of her two playlists, with eight self-penned songs and three covers -- "Milestones" by Miles, "Played Twice" by Monk, and "Night and Day" by Cole Porter. The group has changed as well, with a new pianist, Takeshi Ohbayashi, bassist, Max Moran, and a trumpet, Darren Barrett, on three tracks. Mark Whitfield Jr. stays on on drums. Niswanger has kept her traditionalist approach basically the same even as she composed the majority of the tunes. As a result, she delivers a solid set of straight-ahead jazz that recognizes the past while exploring the present day ethos in the jazz community. Pianist Ohbayashi, another Berklee graduate (2011) and someone new to me worth watching for, is terrific, and really shines on "Night and Day" with his intimate duet with Niswanger.  Niswanger brings out her soprano sax on this disc for the first time, and lets us all hear her sweet, well-rounded tone on “Played Twice.” “Milestones” is highlighted by the trumpet playing of Darren Barrett, who also plays on the up-tempo “Tale of Dale,” which opens with he an Niswanger playing with and around each other and setting the stage for an intricate tune. Watch too for some lovely soloinig by bassist Max Moran on several tracks, including the lovely song "Norman", and enjoy the ballad play of  “Balance,”  another showcase for Niswanger’s soprano.

Start following Hailey Niswanger now, and someday you can say you were there at the beginning.

Two Piano Trios Tackle Italian Film Music

Two piano trios, two Italian film composers, and two beautiful discs from CamJazz. That is the message for today.

Product DetailsJohn Taylor, the verteran British pianist with a long and distinguished discography, has released " "Giulia's Thursdays" (CamJazz 2012), a jazz tribute to the music of Carlo Rustichelli which is as elegant agraceful as any of his previous piano trios, particulalry those with Palle Danielsson on bass, and Martin France on drums, who round out the trio on this CD. Recorded in 2006 but held until now, this is beautifully melodic and inspired music from a composer who is very little known outside Europe, unlike Nino Rota, for example, who has had two tribute discs released of his music this year by Mark Soskin and Richard Galliano. Rustichelli's two selections from his most famous score "Divorce Italian Style" are both lilting melodies, but then so are most of the pieces which have a refined and somewhat subdued sensibility, which in turn brings out those moments which rise above mezzo-forte or which romp at speeds beyuond the mostly mid-tempo themes that dominate. This is another beautiful disc in the vein of much of Taylor's previous works and recommended.

Product DetailsEdward Simon, is a 42 year old Venezuelan pianist and recent (2010) recipient of a Guggenhiem Fellowship, and has a long list of recognized recordings, including two -- Edward Simon (Kokopelli Records 1995) and Simplicitas (CamJazz 2005) -- which were on many top ten lists for those years -- and his recent recordings as a member of the SFJazz Collective. His piano trios combine straight ahead jazz with the rhythms and feel of his South America roots, and a personal reflections for Simon of is heritage and jazz education. On this newest  release, also held since recorded in 2006, "A Master's Diary" (CamJazz 2006), he and his trio with Scott Colley bass and Clarence Penn on drums tackle the musical scores of Fiorenzo Carpi, who wrote for Italian theatre, and television. The trio, joined on the opening number by the muted trumpet of Diego Urcola, have taken the lyrical melodies and added their own touch based on the heritage of Simon and the jazz sensibilities of the trio. the music is light and elegant, with long passages of wonderfully solid trio play that, according to the liner notes, rewrite and elevate the music to new heights.

Two refined and elegant tributes for piano trio lovers.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Qiuet Piano Times: David Berkman and Larry Goldings

In My Room\

Two very similar CDs in concept and sound, Larry Golding's "In My Room" (BFM Jazz 2011) and David Berkman's more recent "Self-Portrait" (RPR (Red Piano Records) 2012)Self-Portrait provide an intimate look at two pianists alone with their piano and their thoughts. Both feel as if the pianist was sitting at home at his piano, late at night, wineglass on the piano top, and randomly playing some favorites or simply playing interesting morsels of creative improvisations. They are relaxed, low-keyed songs, charming in their extreme simplicity and in many cases enduring melodies. Berkman plays a lovely "Sweet and Low", "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes", and "Just in Time" among his 13 chestnuts, interspersed with four improvised sketches; Goldings plays four improvised interludes among his 18 pieces, with the other 14 given over to some standards, some more recent songs, and a few surpirses. Highlights on the Goldings' CD are Joni Mitchell's " All I Want", "Everything Happens to Me" and the Beatles "Here There and Everywhere"; surprises are "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and "Beautiful Dreamer."

These are quiet discs for quiet listening but are not just background music either. Each artist knows how to embellish a tune, and how to create charming imrovisations around it as well. Goldings' music is perhaps a bit richer in tone with more fully formed chords; Berkman is more sparse with his notes but no less lovely to sit back and listen to. There are no wow pieces or moments for these artists; they are simply setting a simple and beautiful mood for the listener. So sit back, relax with your own glass of wine, and enjoy the intimacy with them.

Ed Thigpen's "The Element of Swing": Find It!

Cover (The Element of Swing:Ed Thigpen)

Ed Thigpen Rhythm Features
The Element of Swing
Stunt Records 2002

Find this disc, put it on, and listen to a simply great session among the three trio members -- Thigpen on drums, Jesper Bodilsen on bass, and Carsten Dahl on piano -- and the featured guest, Joe Lovano, on tenor sax, and once on bass clarinet. This is a great live session, recorded beautifully at the Copenhagen Jazz house in 2001.

I am not so sure everyone remembers who Ed Thigpen was (he passed away at age 79 in 2010), as he lived in Copenhagen since 1972 and mostly toured and taught in Europe, and recorded only a few times on some smaller or foreign  labels like Stunt or Japan's Pony Canyon. In his heyday,  Ed Thigpen was most famous for his longtime work in the Oscar Peterson Trio, but he got his start earlier playing with Cootie Williams from 1951-1952, Dinah Washington (1954), Lennie Tristano, Johnny Hodges, Bud Powell, and Billy Taylor's Trio (1956-1959).  He was known for his quiet yet swinging style and brushwork, and was a perfect team member with Peterson and bassist Ray Brown for 10 years. After leaving Peterson, Thigpen worked with Ella Fitzgerald during 1966-1972, and finally settled in Copenhagen in 1972.  In Europe, he continued playing with the who's who of jazz, and then the group Rhythm Features in 1998.

The two Danes in the trio, Carsten Dahl and Jesper Bodilsen, are also not well known here in the U.S. but are major players on the European scene. Dahl actually began his career as a drummer, studying with Thigpen, but quikly changed to piano and has led countless trios on the Stunt and Storyville labels. I would recommend a listen of his 2011 recording on Storyville "Effata." in particular. Bodilsen has been mostly a support player, but his support has been for many of the top names in jazz piano like Kasper Villaume, Stephano Bollani, and George Colligan.

For the band's second recording, tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano joins, and the live concert is nothing short of spectacular. While Lovano is out front on many of the songs, there is ample oportunity for each of the others to demonstratae thier abilities and proclivities to swing. The works were written by band members along with a pair of great songs, "Lonnie's Lament" by John Coltrane and Billy Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge," the latter played so gorgeously it can make you cry.   The group struts its stuff on the toe-tapping opener "Sweet Mama", plays a great bop song with solos by Dahl and Lovano on "Hello Joe" demonstrates a great feel for the blues on "Like Blues", and burn it out on ETP.

Simply put, this is great stuff by great players and should be high up on anyone's list of purchases. Great melodies are played mostly inside for the traditionalists, but there is so much great improvisation that it will please those who want the music to burn a bit. Lovano's tenor is controlled, round, and warm throughout, even when he burns, and Dahl's mastery of the keyboards will surprise those who have never heard him

Put this on your must list.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The "Art Trip" (Woodville Records 2012)

Born in England in 1959, Alan Barnes attended the Leeds College of Music, graduating in 1980 after studies on the saxophone, woodwinds, and in arranging.  After playing with a number of orchestras, he recorded his first CD as co-leader with Tommy Whittle in 1985, "Straight Eight" and first as leader  in 1987, "Affiliation."  In 1988 Barnes joined the Humphrey Lyttelton band (through 1992), and during the same period he led the Pizza Express Modern Jazz Sextet (through 1997) with Gerald Presencer and Dave O’Higgins. He has since recorded many times with a wide range of players, such as Warren Vache, Ken Peplowski, David Newton, Harry Allen, Tony Coe, Scott Hamilton, and Greg Abate. With a band with Don Weller,  he recorded a live album "Cannonball", which was awarded album of the year in the 2001 British Jazz Awards. In the same year he received the BBC Jazz Instrumentalist of the Year award, which he won again in 2006.

Alan Barnes Press Photo 1In 2003, Barnes founded the Woodville Records label, on which this latest CD, "The Art Trip" (Woodville 2012)appears. The disc honors the career, writing and recordings of altoist Art Pepper, and Barnes plays exclusively on that saxophone, along with Craig Milverton on piano, Al Swainger on bass, and Nick Millward on drums. Barnes out front of this rhytmn section is the focus of this recording, and he lives up to his honoree's memory on thirteen terrific melodies. However, Al Swainger on bass has some particularly audacious solos, as heard for example on "Straight Life" and "Las Curevas de Mario", and sets a great underpinning for the music along with the swinging Millward on drums. As befits Pepper, Barnes has taken songs from Pepper's early and late periods, emphasizing the upbeat and free play of his early triumphs along with the more moody, expressive play of his later years after his long years of drug and alcohol addiction. As Barnes says in his notes: "Art's compositions should be part of any jazz study syllabus. The up-tempo numbers are very witty, articulate and hip, often based on the chord sequences of standards. His ballads arae always beautiful vehicles for expression while his laating and groove tunes are timeless..." 

Alan Barnes has created a great set of songs that stand out as wonderful examples of Pepper's writing and playing style without being slavish to the sound. Barnes uses a nice, full and round tone throughout, while his bandmates find plenty of space to provide their own solos.

Birds Of A FeatherBarnes is a terrific listen. Once you get to know him, you can try some other fine CDs -- "Hi-Ya"(Woodville 2010), with Scott Hamilton on tenor is a tribute to the music of Johnny Hodges; and "Birds of a Feather" (Woodville 2007) with Greg Abate are two in my collection that I enjoy regularly.

  • Thursday, May 17, 2012

    Back in Time with Steve Kuhn: "Remembering Tomorrow" (ECM 1995)

    Remembering TomorrowWith the recent release of "Wisteria" by Steve Kuhn, with Joey Baron on drums and Steve Swallow on bass, Kuhn received some of the most outstanding reviews of his long and distinguished career. In listening to this recording, and agreeing with the reviewers, it reminded me to go back in time to another trio recording by Kuhn on ECM that I enjoy listening to, "Remembering Tomorrow" (ECM 1995), also with Joey Baron but with David Finck on bass. This recording came out in 1995 and in many respects follows a more traditional ECM model for a piano trio than "Wisteria" -- more somber, lots of space in each song, moderate tempos, and a generally subdued but lush atmosphere throughout.

    I happen to find the disc to be a wonderfully calming, pastoral listen, and do not agree with those who have characterized it as sleepy, boring, or monotonous. While it is mainly a set of ballads and tone poems, there are some more upbeat songs that capture a swing tempo. "Oceans in the Sky" for one has a lilting melody, a soft swinging rhythm and features a true collaboration of the three partners. Baron provides a great range of colors with his use of the cymbals, brushes, and subtle drumming, backed by a number of lovely arco bass passages sprinkled throughout. Some of the songs require patience as they build from slow and gentle to a more pressing tempo, but the range of tempos and volume is there creating variety and interest.

    While the playing emphasizes sound paintings and textures, each song is a jewel of simplicity that extracts from simple melodies and spare arrangements creative interplay and subtly beautiful and distinctive creations. This is an intrspective disc full of romance and mystery, more laid back than "Wisteria", but no less wonderful to listen to and savor. 

    Let's Not Forget: Ernie Henry

    Product DetailsI first discovered the name Ernie Henry when reading "Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of An American Original" (Robin Kelley, Free Press 2009). Ernie Henry (1926-1957) lived a short life, ended tragically by poor health and his drug addictions, but his alto sax was a significant voice in the mid-1950s, first as a sidman with some outstanding bands, and later as leader on three outstanding records on Riverside (re-released by OJC since). 

    Ernie Henry was born and raised in Brooklyn, and was one of a group of remarkable youngsters who grew up together in the same neighborhood and became accomplished jazz artists -- friends like Cecil Payne, Max Roach and Randy Weston. He started out learning the violin, but changed to the saxophone by the time he turned eight, and his prodigious talent was clear from the start. Critics have said that if Henry had lived past 31, he would have at least equaled the achievements of his friends. His formative years came during the bebop era and he was discovered by Tadd Dameron, who hired him for his band in 1947. After that group broke up, he got to play in the bands of Fats Navarro, Charlie Ventura, Georgie Auld, Kenny Dorham, Max Roach, and Dizzy Gillespie. He toured with Illinois Jacquet during 1950-1952 and then was out of music for a few years while he battled his health and drug  issues. His return in 1956 led to two years of incredible activity before his drug habit caught up with him once more.

    In 1956-57, he played on Thelonious Monk’s "Brilliant Corners" album, worked with Charles Mingus, and produced three discs as a leader (one was released after his death in 1957) as well as an outstanding disc co-led with Kenny Dorham. The scenes of his life in that time period, as described in the Kelley biography of Monk are particularly poignant and saddening, but also speak to the respect for his playing among his peers on the New York scene. I strongly recommend reading the book, not just for this relationship, but for all of the relationships that are described in the book, all of the musicians who crossed paths with Monk, and for the story of Monk's life itself. The book is also a trove of information on some of the finest recordings of the era, and some of the well-known and not so well-remembered players like Henry, Joe Gordon, Elmo Hope, and Richard Twardzik.
    As noted, during his final 16 months, Ernie Henry led three albums for Riverside. 

    Product Details"Presenting Ernie Henry" (Riverside 1956) was the first of his albums as leader, recorded in August 1956.  By the time of this record, it was clear that he had developed a distinctive alto saxophone voice as a player who had absorbed Charlie Parker's lessons without becoming a Parker clone. Teamed with trumpeter Kenny Dorham, Henry justified Thelonious Monk's simple declaration, "He can play." This is a quintet date with  Dorham, pianist Kenny Drew, Wilbur Ware on bass, and Art Taylor on drums. Henry wrote five of the songs, and the other two were covers of  “Gone with the Wind” and “I Should Care.” This is outstanding  music played by five virtuosos.
    Product Details"Seven Standards and a Blues" (Riverside, 1957) -- Recorded just three months before his unexpected death in September 1957, this set is his best showcase since he is the only horn player, backed by a rhythm section of  pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Wilbur Ware, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. The disc contains some great standards -- "Like Someone in Love", "I Get a Kick Out of You," and  "I've Got the World on a String" are my particular favorites -- along with one song by Henry, a great blues called "Specific Gravity." The playing is superb, with Henry shining and demonstrating his range, burnished tone, and clever improvisations with his strong supporting cast.

    Product Details"Last Chorus" (Riverside 1957) was the last of Henry's leader dates to be released, but actually contains some songs recorded at the same time as "Seven Standards and a Blues." The brilliant promise of Henry, which was just blossoming, was dramatically exhibited on this collection of songs. Part of the recording is from an unfinished album featuring Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. One song, "Like Someone in Love", is an alternate take from the "Seven Standards and a Blues" set, and there are other alternates from two other projects.  Trombonist Melba Liston is featured on "Melba's Tune."  Even pieced together as it is from differnet sessions, the recording holds together fine and provides a number of highlights throughout.  

    Product Details"2 Horns/2 Rhythms" (Riverside, 1957) was trumpeter Kenny Dorham's record, but Ernie Henry had a feature role and was listed as co-leader on the cover. This is Henry's final recording session, on a creative and appealing record. The pianoless quartet also featured Wilbur Ware or Eddie Mathias on bass and G. T. Hogan on drums.  Dorham and  Henry play three of the trumpeter's originals including  a lovely "Lotus Blossom" and four standards highlighted by an exquisite and poignant, given the circumstances to come,  "I'll Be Seeing You."

    Any of the four discs are worth having for those who love the jazz of the 50s and these great players. While I have each of the three Ernie Henry discs on OJC recordings, a compliation of the three is available on Fresh Sound New Talent.

    Get to Know: Aaron Diehl

    Product DetailsAaron Diehl is a young pianist with a bright future, as evidenced on his most recent trio CD, "Live at the Players" (Aaron Diehl 2012), as well as a previous solo album recorded "Live at Caramoor" (CDBaby 2009). (There is one other early recording, called "Mozart Jazz" that I have not heard, which was recorded for the Japanese label Pony Canyon). Diehl has a classic approach to his music, hewing toward the tradition developed and passed on from Ahmad Jamal, Wynton Kelly, Eric Reed, Kenny Barron and others of that ilk; rather than exploring the outer edges of the tradition like fellow young pianists Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran, or Craig Taborn, to name just three who are coming out of a different tradition. This does not suggest a lack of imagination or excitment in Diehl's music; quite the contrary, he demonstrates clearly how the tradition can be expanded and improvised upon today.

    Some background on Diehl. A native of Columbus, Ohio,  as a junior in high school, he was named Outstanding Soloist in Jazz at Lincoln Center's Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition. As a rrsult of this competition and others, he caught the attention of Wynton Marsalis, and immediately following Diehl's graduation from high school, Marsalis welcomed him on tour with the Wynton Marsalis Septet.  He then came to New York and attended Julliard, where he was taught by Eric Reed, Kenny Barron, and Oxana Yablonskaya, and from where he graduated in 2007.  He has been recognized by the New York Times as a “revelation,” and the Chicago Tribune as “The most promising discovery that [Wynton] Marsalis has made since Eric Reed,” His work pays homage to the traditions laid down by such greats as Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, and other masters but with his own distinctive interpretations and original voicings.

    Aaron DiehlDiehl most recently was named the 2011 Cole Porter Fellow by the American Pianists Association, a major jazz competition. The jury members included pianists Geri Allen, John Taylor and Danilo Pérez, New York Times music critic Nate Chinen, and Al Pryor, an executive of Mack Avenue Records who will produce his forthcoming recording later this year, entitled "The Bespoke Man’s Narrative." 

    Mr. Diehl has performed with the Wynton Marsalis Septet, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Benny Golson, Hank Jones, Wycliffe Gordon, Victor Goines, Wessell Anderson, Loren Schoenberg, and has been featured on Marian McPartland’s NPR radio show Piano Jazz.
    "Live at The Players" Product Details"Live at the Players" is a wonderful album, which pays homage to the great tradition of jazz piano but updates it with changes in voicings, interesting interpretations, and some outstanding improvisations and soloing by each member of the trio.  David Wong, my "Ace on Bass" from previous entries to this blog  and Quicy Davis on drums, play on all but two tracks. Paul Sikivie is on bass and Lawrence Leathers on drums for tracks 1 and 6. 

    But the rapport with Wong and  Davis is really most notable, and really drive the music on brightly played cuts like “Pick Yourself Up” and “Green Chimneys”, the latter very comparable to the Kenny Barron trio version on the album of the same name. The trio has a very distictive, modern feel for  the music, and bring a great deal of poise and bravado to it.  Everyone contribures throughout the CD, and at times Diehl  is very effective in changing the feeling by dropping his sound down to allow his bandmates to carry the melodies. His restraint on slower songs lends an elegance to the proceedings, and  his fills are perfect on  the ballads as he restrains himself and never overpowers the others, playing instead as a trio of equals. The variety shown between the ballads and the upbeat songs make this a virtuoso showpiece for Diehl and a terrific listen for all of us.

    Monday, May 14, 2012

    Delving into the Unusual: Some Interesting Music

    Product DetailsHad a bad week last week with my computer -- crashed a couple of times and locked in some drafts I was working on. So without further ado.....

    As I listened to the new Portico Quartet CD, which is called "Portico Quartet" (Real World 2011), and enjoy it, I realize that there are a number of groups like this that attract me which are very far from the traditional jazz trail. Today I am featureing three: Portico Quartet, Nik Bartsch's Ronin, and the Necks.

    I am not sure there is a term that covers these groups exactly, but in listening I think of the term ambient jazz, music which to me is all about the creation of interesting sound, atmospheric effects, and group dynamics, e.g. are interested in the ambience, the setting, the mood.  Not so much in the dynamics, the melodies, the harmonies. Each group does provide a gently moving melody line here and there, and they come and go seemingly at a whim,  but everything is backed with a great deal of interesting colorings created from percussion, from winds, and from some other more exotic instruments. But to say the melody comes first would be far from the truth -- the group sound -- the ambience --  is the most important element.

    All three groups are pretty mellow, heavily oriented to acoustic sounds with some minimal electronics or electrification, finding their grooves in the exchange of lead instruments and coloration from all of the players. The moods are fairly consistent and stay within a limited dynamic range, with no sudden jarring passages of noise, loudness, etc. At times, the music may be too limited in dynamics or melodic interest, and passages can become overly long and based upon the repetition of short passages with only modest changes, but there are changes occurring that you sometimes only realize after an extended period.

    This is most definitely not music for everyone, but I find a lot of what I hear interesting, soothing, and fascinating to listen to. Some I find more interesting than others, as you will see.

    Product DetailsProduct DetailsThe Necks --  The Necks are a cult band out of Australia with a long list of over a dozen CDs behind them. Most of the music is based upon one hour length compositions, which are almost wholly improvised among the three members of the band, Chris Abrahams on piano, Tony Buck on drums, and Lloyd Swanton on bass. It is the chemistry among the three that creates the sound, which is hard to decribe in standard terms of composition, melody, harmony, etc.  Featuring lengthy pieces of an hour or more, the music slowly unravels, so slowly that at times frankly one will tune out sections only to find that they have very gradually metamorphisized into something entirely different without one conciously hearing it happen. Very subtle changes will occur underneath the repeating drones, or other insistent grooves. Those in love with The Necks will tell you that each listen uncovers great details within the simplicity of the sound, and that each listen will reveal new layers. Those less enthused will tell you the songs are long, at times tedious, and too repetitious to enjoy frequently enougth to find those changes. I fall in the middle -- at times I find the long passages and subtlety exactly what I want to create an atmosphere with which to chill out.  This is a post-jazz, post rock, almost post everything sonic experience and when they began over a decade ago it was surely new and experimental. The Guardian offers high praise for their work: "They may teach us to listen in a new way, but they communicate a fierce energy and warmth at the same time. Their music is a thrilling, emotional journey into the unknown. Like seeing a world in a grain of sand, The Necks permit us to hear a whole new world of music in a sliver of sound." This is acoustic mimimalism that can capture you and create a very mellow, inviting experience. The Necks have a unique, unmistakable language.

    I have three Necks CDs from the middle of their career to date. I know they are more acoustic than some of the later CDs, and that is more my taste, and I think an easier way to get into the band if you wnat to sample them.

    Aecther (RER 2003) may be their closest disc to what others call New Age music.It starts more slowly than other Necks recordings -- a chord, 21 seconds of silence, a chord, and the same silence, etc. for a few cycles. Then a cymbal wash, some bass, and some piano playing delicately enter the mix. The music is serence, calm, and peaceful, with changes so subtle they can easily be missed. There is some electronic work at play at times, but mostly as organ or electric piano colorings. Finally, after 50 minutes or so, the music picks up with a droning sound underpinned by gradual changes, washes of sound, changes in drumming or chords, cymbals building, and a gradual increase in volume leading to the ending. The drone almost goes too long to be listenable, but then the ending is upon us.

    Overall, when I hear this music I think of the tunnel at the Detroit Airport connecting terminals -- the subtly changing colors are like the changes to the music. Nothing happens? Or everything Happens? Boring after a while? Fascinating for its subttle changes? That is up to the listenter to decide. 

    Hanging Gardens (RER 2002), the Necks' seventh album, is a lot more energy-driven. It too is comprised of a single hour-long piece performed nonstop. Drummer Tony Buck immediately lays down a fast-paced  groove backed by Lloyd Swanton's insistent acoustic bassline. Still, like with all Necks' CDs, nothing really changes over the course of 60 minutes. Chris Abrahams comes in with a 16-bar piano motif, simple and augmented by stabs of electric piano and occasional organ Each element is put into place quickly, unlike Aether  and the music boils from about 7 minutes in until less than 5 minutes are left, at which point instruments drop out until just the Fender Rhodes is left. The music is hypnotic as usual, and there is more happening than in Aether,  and it may make a better introduction to the band.

    The Necks are definitely unusual and not for everyone's taste. And even among their 15 CDs there are great variations, from the acoustic settings desribed herein to some CDs with a more heavy orientation to electronica, especially in later discs. The band definitely creates fascinating sonic landscapes.

    nb-ronin_walk2010_100dpi.jpgI personally find a lot more to like with Nik Bartsch' Ronin, whose music goes back about a decade, with the last three CDs produced on ECM. The music is called Zen-funk by Bartsch, who is the composer and pianist for the group. The other members since moving to ECM are Sha on bass and contrabass clarinet, Kaspar on drums, Bjorn Meyer on bass, and Andi Pupato on percussion. Ritual Groove Music, a single aesthetic vision that attempts to get maximum effect by minium needs -- another definition of what the band is about, pulling influences from funk, classical music, eastern ritual music, et al. The music consists of very few phrases and motifs, which are continually combined and layered in new ways. there is unity in all of the compositions, in the way the instruments are attacked, the phrasing, and the integration of the sounds. This is another sonic challenge for the listener who is looking for interesting experiences.

    I find a lot more interest in the sounds of Ronin than the Necks, possibly because each modul, as each tune is called, is shorter and has a more distinct start, middle and finish, even if they are not as clear as with standard composition.

    Product DetailsLlyria (ECM 2010) is the third and most recent ECM album for the group – representing, according to Bärtsch, a relaxation of the ritualistic, pattern-bound structures with which he is associated.  The music still features the overlaying of sounds to create a trancelike effect, with underlying shifts provided by the support instruments.  The minimalism of the earlier works is stretched with a more robust approach, which features more of the melodic instruments of Sha on alto sax and bass clarinet. He warms the sound of the band, and increases the use of more harmonic patterns and stronger underlying grooves -- listen to Moduls 48 and 52 versus the tone poems featured in many of the other tracks. This is a very aesthetically pleasing album for me to listen to with its wash of sounds, relaxed pulse, and overall  zen-atmosphere.
    Product DetailsStoa (ECM 2006) is the first ECM Ronin CD, with the same fresh sound and zen funk attitude, and a ground breaking disc of significance for the label. With the exception of the Fender Rhodes, Ronin is an all-acoustic, ensemble playing minimalist music. Repetition is common but not acheived through looping the music. The repetitive nature of Bartsch's grooves are hypnotic but underpinned by a lot of interactive play among the team.  "Zen-Funk," and "Ritual Groove,"  are vivid labels for the five moduls herein, all of which are written and partially improvised, and clearly done to create an organically evolving and propulsive rhythm that keeps the music from becoming dull and overly hypnotic. The five moduls are blended as one and develop a continuous experience, even as they remain clearly individualistic. While repetition and gradual evolution are fundamental to the sound, so too is an attention to melody that makes them more than mere experiments. I was immediately drawn into the world of Nik Bartsch upon hearing this for the first time. It was so different but so relaxing to listen to, truly washing over me and captivating me.

    Portico Quartet has an interesting back story as a busking band around London that found its audience, reached  the 2008 Mercury prize shortlist through the unique sound they invented as buskers and put into their first CD Knee Deep in the North Sea (Real World 2007), and emerged in 2009 with a disc, Isla (Real World 2009), that demonstrated a maturing sound and great potential and was universally reviewed favorably.

    Portico' busking sound was based on danceable hooks, and musical color and interest provided by the melodic chime of the tuned hang drum and jazzy textures furnished by a double-bass and a sax. With Isla, the group added synthesised strings and electronics and the sound morphed into a deeper setting, and with 2011's eponymous CD the band has pushed further ahead onto a new path.

    IslaIsla (Real World 2009) sees the band expanding their sound. The percussive Hang Drum  is still very much in the front, but the music is more intricate, with deeper melodies, more drive, and many more moods,  The music is deeper and highly impressionistic, the sax sound more moody and sinuous, and songs like "The Visitor" shine with the propulsive use of the bass.  Songs like "Dawn Patrol" feel akin to the music of ECM recordings, while "The Clipper" packs a lot of sounds into one of the CDs most dynamic songs.  With Isla, the band's interest in minimalism has now grown to bring in a lot more textures, more dynamics, and deeper grooves that bring this music to life for the listener. Some of the change, the new depth of the music, is easily attributable to saxophonist Jack Wyllie, who has added subtle electronic effects to the colorings,  and drummer Duncan Bellamy, who reaches out to the marimba and even piano. Nick Mulvey is the group’s hang specialist and the subtle but powerful double bass of Milo Fitzpatrick rounds out the group. Portico has now created complex, interlocking rhythms which recall the music of modernists Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and has moved away from the lightness of thier first recording. This is deeply layered music which is far more complex and subtle. 

    Portico ( Real World 2011), the new eponymous CD, begins with music reminiscient of The Necks, with "Window Seat" gradually coming into focus after a long set of bass and electronic strings set a trance-like feeling for the opener. In the following song, the sax wails almost like a stringed instrument, with a free jazz motif over a steady beat. Gradually a snappy groove is set underneath to push the tune along to its end. "Rubidium" begins as a slow meditation with a pastoral feel, but gradually changes into a thrashing drum and brass conclusion. This CD continues the new direction that the band is following,  away from its busking roots, away from strong jazz grooves, into the world enhabited by The Necks and Ronin, a contemporary and bewitching sound.  Everything still sounds familiar only freshened, more forward-thinking and a little bit tougher. It seems to be a bold statement --“this is what we are now”-- and while it may not represent a denial of the band’s past it certainly seems to be a new direction into the future. “Portico Quartet” dives deeper into the shaping and treatment of sound, not unlike The Necks and Ronin, but with a different set of instruments shaping its direction. “Portico Quartet” is a sonic adventure that blends melody, colour, nuance and texture into a readily accessible and fascinating CD.
    Image of Portico Quartet

    Friday, May 4, 2012

    Very Interesting Thoughts From LondonJazz Re On-Line Music

    The other day I wrote a short piece in which I noted that I buy all my music, and do not download it from the internet unless it is something out-of-print and not available. Today, there is a very very interesting post and reply tothat post on the LondonJazz website that I think everyone interested in this topic should read and think about:


    Clearly I am with the original author, Jack Davies, on this. I think the response is off-base and naive. I do not think people will pay for what they can get for free if that is their mindset, I don't think giving away music is a good marketing move to increase one's "tribe" and customers at a show, and I believe that taking music for free is  analogous to walking off from a brick and mortar Barnes and Noble with a book. Why is it okay to get music for free over the internet but not books? No one seems to suggest that as an option to buying a book. Finally, as more and more people buy music on the internet, and now get free downloads, we will see the demise of music stores and the comunity they create.

    Please read the column for yourself, and let others know about it as well -- it is both well-written and well thought out (as is the response), but also a very important topic of great concern for the music industry in general and jazz music in particular.

    Thank you

    Wednesday, May 2, 2012

    Responses to E-Mails

    In response to a couple of queries:

    I do not receive any CDs from publishers or artists. I am buying every one of the CDs I have and discuss, so I am completely independent of any of those influences.

    Second, I do not use Spotify or otherwise download music from free sources. As you should know by now if you have been reading this blog, I am a firm believer in patronizing local stores when possible. I rarely if ever download from ITunes -- I only do so if something is out of print and too expensive to buy from a secondary seller.  I comb stores with used CDs for the hard-to-get, out-of-print stuff when possible.

    Finally, I actually have had very little feedback so far regarding the blog posts and would really appreciate some as a means of determining what is interesting and what is not, what I should do more of, etc. For example, I wrote about British Jazz and asked if anyone had any other artists of note to share; to date I have no responses.

    Thanks for listening. More posts to come, but let me leave you with one new CD that blows me away, and that is "Wisteria" by Steve Kuhn, Steve Swallow, and Joey Barron. (ECM 2012) . I am sure those who read blogs and the like have seen other rave reviews already, but I just have to add my two cents that this is a brilliant trio disc. It has a lot more bounce than a typical ECM piano trio recording, it features artists that are truly listening to each other, and artists who can either color a song, push a beat, or play a remarkable solo. I fear it will get overlooked by those who avoid the "ECM sound" and it shouldn't. This is a trio recording for the ages.