Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Get to Know: Shai Maestro

Shai Maestro TrioShai Maestro is likely a new name to most of you who are reading this, although he has supported some fine CDs in the past few years on piano and other keyboards. I first became aware of his playing on such discs as "Song Without Words" by Yuval Cohen, "Opus One' by Shauli Einav, "Carving " by Amos Hoffman (I am a sucker for the Oud), and three by Avashai Cohen (bass) -- "Carving", "Seven Seas", and "Aurora". If you have any of these in your collection, and all are very nice albums, then go back and listen closely to the pianist, who demonstrated on each an unerring ear for comping as well as a great touch and expressiveness on his solos.

Seven SeasBy the way, you might notice the pattern here, that each of the discs is led by a prominent Israeli leader, and in fact Maestro is another in that long line of recent stars on that scene and already a well-known name in his native country.

CarvingSo I was certainly ready for his first outing as a leader, and it has come with the recent release of the eponymously titled trio recording "Shai Maestro, Ziv Ravitz, and Jorge Roeder" (Laborie Records 2012). Ravitz on drums and Roeder on bass are long time trio mates of Maestro, and their sympatico is evident on what to my ears is an outstanding display of expressive and dynamic play. Maestro wrote all but one song here, that exception being a traditional song "Kalimankou Denkou." From the outset one is in the hands of a trio that is lyrical, that flys high when the mood calls for it, and possesses equal parts of dynamism and restraint on the various songs. Maestro writes lovely and lyrical melodies which are interwoven together by the shifting between the three players.

The CD starts out brilliantly with an impassioned "Confession" an opening that resounds with Maestro's dynamic play,  followed by a lovely and delicate centerpiece played by all three members. From that start to the end, the listener is brought into many more such songs of grace and balance;  I was particularly taken by the lyrical "Angelo" midway through the CD but all the pieces are of wonderous appeal and classical beauty. This is one heck of a start as a leader that nobody should miss.

Song Without WordsOpus One

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Gone Fishing!

Not really, but will be out on the road until next week. In the interim, here are a couple of things I picked up since yesterday that I listened to and would recommend to anyone:

  • Orbiting. Aruan Ortiz Quartet featuring David Gilmore, Eric McPherson and Rashaan CarterAruan Ortiz Quartet "Orbiting" (Fresh Sound New Talent 2012): Trio plus guitar on 8 Ortiz originals. Some great Latin tinged jazz from the mainstream.

  • Manuel Valera "New Cuban Express" (Mavo Records 2012): Great sextet. Valera on keyboards is great, Yosvany Terry rips it up on saxes, and the rest provide the rhythm and soul to the beat. More Latin tinged jazz from the mainstream.New Cuban Express
  • Noguchi SessionsArturo O'Farrill "The Noguchi Sessions" (Zoho 2012); Aha you say, he is in a latin rut.....WRONG! This is one outstanding, creative, expressive, solo piano outing that shows O'Farrill in an incredible new light. This is the cream of today's crop, not that the others are bad, only that this is exceptional.

The L.A. Sessions

  • Accidental Tourists, "The L.A. Sessions"  (Challenge 2012): The Accidental Tourists  are Markus Burger on piano. Joe LaBarbera on drums, and Bob Magnusson on bass. This is pretty standard trio work but very nice to listen to. Eight by Burger who shines here, and four standards make up the set. Recommended for those who like stright trio work in a laid back style.
Lots more recent stuff I picked up -- try Stacey Kent and Claire Martin's latest if you like jazz singers with style and class, and like everyone else I cannot say enough about the new Bill Evans from the Top of the Gate.

I will be working out of L.A. for two days and then in Ann Arbor, so I hope to hit the usual haunts -- Amoeba in L.A. and the four stores in Ann Arbor -- to see what I can add to the collection.

See you next week.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Let's Not Forget: Joe Albany

Portrait of an Artist
Who is Joe Albany and why has he been forgotten?  Joe Albany was born in 1924 and after a stint as a child on the accordion, he switched to piano,  just in time to come of age as one of the early bebop pianists. Unfortunately, Albany had serious drug and alcohol problems, and a very unsettled domestic life which included the suicide of his second wife and a third wife who almost died of a drug overdose. Despite these hurdles he was a significant pianist in the late 40s and played with stars such as Benny Carter, George Auld, Boyd Raeburn, and Charlie Parker. He can be heard on select Parker and Lester Young sides from that period, but after 1947 was not recorded again until 1971 as he struggled with his demons. A story of his life and struggles eveidently was part of a 1980 documentary. He played a bit with Mingus in the 60s, but it was only in the 1970s that he steadily recorded as a leader, first in Europe and finally back in the U.S. for his final few years.

Product DetailsI have several recordings by Albany, and when he is on he can play a terrific piano, as demonstrated on his later CDs on Steeplechase, as well as on a late release of some of his playing with Warne Marsh in 1957 on Riverside.  I have three of his CDs.

"Two's Company" (Steeplechase 1990) is a recording from a 1974 duo session with Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen in Copenhagen, and features the two stretching out on seven songs, one by Albany, "Birdtown Birds", and the rest by an assorted group of composers. Albany's play is lively and clearly in the bop framework, and tunes like "Star Eyes", "Lover Man", and Lullaby in Rhythm" are outstanding. NHOP is in great form and takes a number of notable solos in addition to offering some sympathetic comping behind Albany.

"Birdtown Birds" features Albany in a trio with Hugo Rasmussen on bass and Hans Nymand on drums, and was also recorded at the Montmartre in Copenhagen. This time the music is spread over 11 songs, from Albany's own title song to standards like "Steeplechase", Night and Day", " All the Things You Are", and "Yardbird Suite." Once again Albany displays a fine touch, and feel for the melodies and improvisations.

Product DetailsThe last CD I have is "Portrait of An Artist" (Wounded Bird Records 1982 and 2008), a quartet recorded in the U.S. with George Duvivier on bass, Charlie Persip on drums, and Al Gafa on guitar. This was Albany's last recording and is mostly ballads, featuring some nice performances of  such tunes as "Autumn In New York," "They Say It's Wonderful" and "Confirmation." 

Players of Albany's caliber get overlooked or overshadowed for a variety of reasons;  in Albany's case it was drugs, alcohol and an extended period overseas. But given Albany's initial impact upon bop piano in the 40s, and his fine play on these sides and otehrs recorded from 1957 and again in the 70s and 80s, he deserves recognition and a good listen, especially by those who love the classic bop period musicians.  

Three New Piano Based CDs

I have recently picked up a flock of new music, but then again I seem to always be picking up a flock of new music. I have one piano/bass duo and two new piano trios  for today's entry, all of which are excellent and worth hearing.

Product Details
Avishai Cohen, the bass player, has recorded the duo session with Nitai Hershkovits, called "Duende" (EMI/Blue Note 2012). I hae been disappointed with Cohen's most recent ventures, where he has expanded his groups to incorporate a host of other instruments as well as vocals; I much prefer his simpler works, and this duo clearly is that in terms of instrumentation but not in terms of its music. Incredibly lyrical, in many places, the pair are clearly intuitively in tune with each other's play. "Signature" is a Cohen original that immediately sets the stage with a romantic piano part and great bass support; it is one of Cohen's five originals that demonstrate his lyrical writing and ear for harmonies. Cohen also surprises with a solo paino effort on the last track "Ballad for an Unborn." Another wonderful surprise is his arrangement of "Criss Cross", the Monk composition, with his arco bass and then counterpoint to a nicely rounded piano with just enough Monk edges.

Flip The ScriptA lot of reviews are already in for Orrin Evans "Flip the Script" (Posi-Tone 2012) so I just want to add my two cents that this is a piano trio bursting with energy even when playing with elegance at a slower pace. It includes six Evans originals and his arrangements of a couple of soul classics, "A Brand New Day" from Luther Vandross and "The Sound of Philadelphia" by Gamble and Huff, the latter a low key solo. The standard "Someday My Prince Will Come", played extremely slowly and gracefully, confirms that Evans can play as pretty a ballad as any of his contemporaries as well. Ben Wolfe on bass and Donald Edwards on drums provide ample support throughout.

Product DetailsProbably the most intriguing and least well-known of the three leaders in this post is British composer and pianist Alex Hutton, who leads his Alex Hutton Trio on "Legentis" (F-IRE CD 2011). This is Hutton's third album, following "Cross That Bridge" (33 Jazz  2006) and "Songs From The Seven Hills" (33 Jazz 2008), also trio recordings.

Alex Hutton is known for his cinematic approach to song and joy in improvisation. His trio of bassist Yuri Goloubev and drummer Asaf Sirkis, who usually partner with pianist John Law, are up to the challenge and together the three create some elegant compositions.  There is some similarity to the work of Avishai Cohen in the drama, warmth and integration of the piano and bass lines. The music starts out in a fast charge with "JJ", with a driving drum line, furiously played piano, and the added wordless vocals of Heidi Vogel. The arco basslines that close the song demonstrate another facet of the composer -- his romantic lyricism that shines even during the most fevered sections.  "The Legentis Script", up next, includes french horn and flute parts, wordless vocals by Vogel, and an appealing grace in its simple piano melody lines. "Clouds" lowers the heat with a straight trio recording of breath-taking beauty and lyricism; this same feeling abounds in "Hymn II (We The People)", "Farewell 296", and the closing piano solo "A Norsk Tale." The English Horn part in "Hymn II" adds a particularly beautiful feeling to the overall CD. The interplay of the dramatic, energy fueled pieces and the quiet lyricism of the slower pieces increase the dramatic element and power  of the recording.

Very cinematic in scope, Hutton cites Elmer Bernstein and John Williams among his inspirations for his works. This emotionally charged music captures the spirit of the cinema, albeit without the need of a full orchestra to do so, a wonderous accomplishment.


Friday, June 15, 2012

Get to Know: Erena Terakubo

Just heard an amazing disc from a new young alto sax player, Erena Terakubo, age 20! The disc is "Erena Terakubo with Legends: New York Attitude (4Q Records, under license from King Records of Japan,  2011). According to the little I found on her, she is a native of Japan who began jazz at an early age, did master classes with visiting jazz players at home, attended a Berklee summer program, and then in 2009 started at Berklee as a full time jazz student.

She sounds great, has a nice lively tone and seemingly plays effortlessly, and on top of that wrote two of the 10 songs on this disc. Most importantly perhaps is the veterans who have chosen to play with her, an indication of what they think of this young talent. there is Kenny Barron on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Lee Pearson on drums, anyone's idea of a top notch piano trio. In addition, on three of the songs they are joined by another young and upcoming star, Dominick Farinacci, on trumpet, whose mellow burnished sound (and his looks) have drawn comparisons to Chet Baker.

Together this is a really outstanding combo, and from the first song, Barron's New York Attitude, the music is upbeat, in the pocket, and great to listen to. Star Eyes is taken at a pretty quick tempo and Terakubo shines both at the head and during her improvisations. Barron as always is smooth and creative.

I think anyone looking for one of the next great players should try this one out. If you like stright ahead jazz played with verve, this is your ticket.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Get to Know: Luis Perdomo

Luis Perdomo is a personal favorite of mine, and his two new discs "Universal Mind" (RKM Music 2012)and "The 'Infancia' Project" (Criss Cross) 2012) just further establish him as a pianist, band leader, and composer to be reckoned with. These two discs build upon his outings as a leader, found on "Pathways" (Criss Cross 2008), "Awareness" (RKM Music 2006) and "Focus Point" (RKM Music 2005). His long list of outings as a sideman includes work with Ravi Coltrane, Miguel Zenon, Steve Turre, Ben Wolfe, Dafnis Prieto, Yosvany Terry, Brian Lynch, and Diego Urcola, among many others. I list these because in each case I have on or more of those outings as well as all of Perdomo's, and in all cases his expressive piano work, his touch and his feel for the music stands out.

The Infancia Project
"The 'Infancia' Project" (Criss Cross 2012)

Though Perdomo is from Venezuela his jazz is by no means limited in scope to the genre "latin jazz." In fact, he makes that clear in his liner notes to "The 'Infancia' Project" as follows : [This] is a CD that I had avoided to record for the last 22 years...I always avoided producer' ideas that will end up categorizing me in a certain particular genre, which shall remain unnamed, but based on my background you can figure it out." It is only now after having established himself in the jazz world that he has returned to this music, which brings to the CD the "sounds that I heard as a child growing up in Caracas." Now that he has established his confidence in his playing and his position in the jazz community, it was time to stop denying himself the pleasure of these songs, and to stop denying us of them as well, for the "Infancia Project" is a great CD. 

Perdomo has a terrific cast supporting him, Mark Shim on tenor sax, Andy Gonzalez on bass, Ignacio Berroa on drums, and Mauricio Herrara on percussion. The songs are the songs of his youth and of his father's record collection, coupled with four original compositions. Based on the song selection, his father had quite a collection of recordings, as the music features songs by Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Bud Powell, and Jack DeJohnette, with only "Comedia" by J.A. Espino being a truly "latin" composition.

Perdomo strikes gold from his own opener, "The Other Left", right through to Jack DeJohnette's "Major General." From the opening piano chords and melody, followed by the entry of the percussion, one immediately knows this will be a lively ride. Shim's tenor excels on the opening piece, and drive underneath between Gonzales, Berroa, and Herrera light a fire under his and Perdomo's lively melodies and improvisations. The group settles in on "Berimvela", another Perdomo piece, with a lovely and lilting mid-tempo melody. The piece opens with the soft round tomes of Shim's sax, backed by some lovely percussive beats. Perdomo plays next on the Fender Rhodes, adding bell like tones to those of Herrera's. What follows next is a highlight performance of Mile's "Solar" started by the synchronized play of the piano and sax, underneath which is a lively percussion section and eventually a standout bass solo with some piano comping and color from the drums. Shim plays an outstanding tenor in the center of the piece. This is a lively latin take on a classic song and a real tour de force for Perdomo's creative arranging.  "Happy House" by Ornette Coleman follows and takes the band to the edge, and then Bud Powell's "Un Poco Loco" is introduced by a strong bass solo by Gonzalez. Perdomo's arrangement then brings in some driving percussion bars, followed by the piano and tenor in unison. "Meggido Girl" is a beautiful ballad piece introduced with some incredibly passionate, legato piano play, backed by only some brushes and light taps of the cymbals. Perdomo has written something timeless in this ballad. The closing tune by DeJohnette sums it all up well -- lively latin beat, some nice tenor work, but nost of all some outstanding, expressive piano play by Perdomo.

Criss Cross puts out some great music regularly, and this is a great addition to their label. Perdomo has written some great tunes and arranaged some others, and gives a great deal of latitude to his band and particularly Mark Shim, who stands out on many of the pieces.

"Universal Mind" (RKM Records 2012)
Universal Mind

Universal Mind is Perdomo's  fourth release as a leader, in a trio with bassist Drew Gress and drummer LAck DeJohnette, who is having a marvelous 70th birthday year, as exhibited on this and several other 2012 reeleases. Perdomo has a bond with Gress established playing with Ravi Coltrane, and with DeJohnette the two really push this disc to great heights of powerful and beautiful improvisations. Peredomo wrote 8 of the 11 songs, DeJohnette shines with the up-tempo "Rebellious Contemplation," but is also at home with the more open imrovisations of "Unified Path I" and "Unified Path II".  Perdomo is clearly the leader at all times with his melodic sensibiloities, touch, and creativity, with an especially beautiful outing on "Dance of the Elephants." Perdomo is a wonderful improvisor who represents the most creative edge of mainstream jazz. Of the album, Perdomo says “There were no rehearsals. When we got to the studio, we basically started rolling. From the beginning there was a hook-up. It might have been from all the years I’ve been listening to Jack.” No overdubs, no rehearsals, just great music. “The way that you hear it on the record is the way that it was recorded,” says Perdomo. “There are no overdubs; there are no fixings of anything. Everything is just as is."

Perfect. Get it. Listen. Enjoy.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Mr. Rogers Is Hip! Yes, That Mr. Rogers.

The playlist on John Ellis's new disc "It's You I Like" (Criss Cross 2012) is very unusual, combining six Fred Rodgers songs with three Elliot Smith songs -- the upbeat Mr. Rodgers with the depressed, addicted, and sadly short-lived Smith who died at age 34 under mysterious circumstances. It makes for a bit of an unusual listen as well, as the back and forth of the two songwriters' tunes creates a bit of cognitive dissonance at times, but overall this is a very pleasurable CD. And low and behold, Ellis has done something many might have thought was close to the impossible -- he has made the music of Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood sound positively hip. Along with his bandmates Mike Moreno on guitar, Aaron Goldberg on piano, Matt Penman on bass, and Rodney Green on drums, Ellis has taken the six songs written by Fred Rogers, including of course his theme song "Won't You Be My Neighbor" which he plays a capella to close the disc, and with great imagination has turned each into a small tour de force of modern creative, but very mainstrem, jazz.

For those who do not know John Ellis, a little background. His bio says he was born in rural North Carolina and "grew up with a love of baseball, dewberry cobbler, and turkey and stuffing." He fell into music through "singing hymns in his father’s church, fooling around with Scott Joplin Rags on the piano, and marching in the high school band," and pretty soon was hooked on music as a career. He studied four years at the North Carolina School of the Arts, and then moved to New Orleans to begin his jazz studies, starting at the University of New Orleans, where he stayed one year, under the direction of legendary jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis, before hitting the road first with Mr. Marsalis’s band, and then with others. He traveled as a cultural ambassador to South Africa, Namibia, Swaziland, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Madagascar, and Kenya with guitarist Todd Duke as part of the Jazz Ambasadors program sponsored by the Kennedy Center and USIA. Once back in New Orleans, he released his debut record, “Language of Love” in 1996. After being a semi-finalist that year in the Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition,  he moved to New York to continue his education at the New School jazz program, studying with George Garzone, Reggie Workman, and Joe Chambers among many others.

Upon graduation he returned to New Orleans  to teach sax at Loyola University for a year, and rejoined the jazz scene there. From there back to New York/Brooklyn again and more playing and traveling and exploration of all sides of jazz, from his roots in the folk music of the south to New Orleans jazz and soul music among other musical genres. Ellis has worked widely and with artists from many branches of music including among others Norah Jones, Mos Def, Kurt Elling, Nic Payton, Aaron Goldberg, Gregoire Maret, Jason Marsalis, Charlie Hunter, and Alan Ferber. He also reentered the Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition in 2002, where this time he finished in second place.
In 2008 he made his big breakthrough album with his group Double-Wide, "Dance Like There's No Tomorrow" (Hyena Records 2008) which demonstrates his wonderful sax playing as well as his creative wit and humor in the service of some very deep-rooted traditional jazz. I have to admit, I was very late to the party on this disc, despite having read loads of good reviews at the time -- I just was not sure I was ready for a quartet that included Ellis on tenor and soprano sax and bass clarinet, Gary Versace on organ and accordion, Jason Marsalis on drums, but in particular (and no offense to the player) Matt Perrine on SOUSAPHONE. Not since Ray Draper led a session with Coltrane do I remember paying so much attention to the tuba/sousaphone as a jazz instrument with promise (excepting original ragtime/New Orelans jazz), but here Perrine demonstrates great flexibility in what he does with it. Meanwhile, I was also concerned to see titles like "Trash Bash", "Three-legged Tango in Jackson Square", "Tattooed Teen Waltzes With Grandma", or "Zydeco Clowns on the Lam." But once you put this CD on, you will immediately see that everything makes perfect sense, including the sousaphone, which acts sometimes like a bass and carries the meter, and other times like trombone with strong melody lines or harmonies with the sax and organ; and also brings in that old New Orleans tradition that Ellis was trained with. And the song titles may be tongue in cheek, but the songs themselves are a combination of soul jazz, New Orleans jazz, tango, zydeco, and just good old straght-ahead jazz. The mood ranges from some lovely ballads like "Tattooed Teen Waltzes with Grandma" and "Prom Song", to the tango of "Three-Legged Tango in Jackson Square" and zydeco "Zydeco Clowns on the Lam." to the straight ahead upeat fun of "All Up in the Aisles." Ellis and crew will have you dancing in the aisles (or living room) and smiling throughout this clever, creative and highly listenable disc.

Now Ellis is back with the songs of Fred Rogers and Elliot Smith with another CD that has an interesting range of moods, from the jaunty Rogers' tunes to the melancholy moods of Smith's songs.  The liner notes refer to this as a "yin-yang program." which catches the overall mood. Ellis states he was looking to do something with both composer's music, and feels this program balances their contributions and allows him to create jazz from some non-traditional souces. He was not a Mr. Rogers devotee growing up, but in his music discovered a songwriter that he felt came right out of the American jazz tradition, with strong melodies and hooks, some quirkiness, and a feeling for being honest and straght-forward with the audience. In Smith, he sought to bring the haunting beauty and emotion to his play, using the "melodies and classical harmony in a jazz setting." Balancing these songs, along with one by Frederick Hollander for a Doctor Seuss movie, was a challenge, and for the most part Ellis succeeds, although as I said with some getting used to the significant contrasts between adjacent songs on the recording.

A tour through the CD. It begins with a jaunty, bouyant tenor sax right up front for Rogers' "What Do You Do", a brief bass interlude, and some more tenor play before going into the improvised section, and what is immediately evident is how strong Rogers' melodies were. The improvisations play nicely with the same upbeat sensibilities, with Goldberg's piano a highlight. Throughout the piece the strong drumming underscores the toe-tapping nature of the song.

The first changeover to a Smith tune,  Memory Lane", was jarring to me, and I was also disappointed by the thin sound, to my ear, of the opening tenor sax. This was the only piece that I was not a big fan of, although it was certainly expressive of the pain that Smith put into his songs, particularly the plaintive notes of Moreno's guitar.

Back up again with the upbeat toe-tapper "It's You I Like," with the strong mellow tenor tone returning and a lightening fast Goldberg solo displaying his sensitive touch on the keys. Then back to Smith's "Everything Means Nothing to Me" -- contrast those titles! -- which has a melancholy melody that is almost atonal at times. But this was a far better rendering of Smith's music to me -- a rounder tenor tone in a lower register, a mournful guitar solo, and a lot of echo play between the instruments providing an otherworldly feel. The guitar and piano together was particularly haunting near the conclusion of the song. With "Let's Think of Something To Do" Ellis takes down the tempo of a Rodgers' song and makes it a very mellow ballad, with some nice colorings provided by Green on the drums. The Hollander piece  "Because We're Kids" next is similarly low keyed in tempo, and features Penman on bass playing the lead, followed by a low key Moreno, and at the very end a tinkling of the high register piano keys reminiscent of a musicbox. All this makes for a lovely little fantasy piece.

After three low key songs, Ellis goes uptempo again with "You Are Special" (needless to say by Rogers), and then follows with Waltz #1 by Smith, which features the woody low tones of the bass clarinet. This is a very nicely played and rather pretty if somewhat mournful piece. The New Orelans beat of "It's Such a Good Feeling" rouses the spirits as a closer for the quintet, which leaves one last song, the classic tune "Won't You Be My Neighbor", in this case a solo tour-de-force by Ellis, who improvises and bends the melody in some very clever and delightful ways.

Criss Cross always does a nice job with its CDs and this one is no different -- a great set of players led by a strong soloist in Ellis, and some worthy tunes. Despite my reservation about the juxtaposition of Rogers and Smith, I think this is a good listen for anyone who appreciates straight ahead modern jazz. And as I think of it, it also might be a great way to introduce young kids to the merits of jazz in a very easy and accessible way -- who better than Fred Rodgers to do so?

 John Ellis

Monday, June 4, 2012

Get to Know: The Thaw

The Thaw is a British trio, with Johnny Tomlinson on piano, Kristoffer Wright on drums, and Paul Baxter on double bass. As with many piano trios today, this is a democracy, with terrific interplay among the players, and a keen sense of how to support each other with color, counter melodies, and improvisation. Wright is a great colorist at times, and at other drives the band hard with some propulsive playing from his kit. Tomlinson on piano has the burden of carrying the melodies, and does so with long and lyrical melody lines, short stacato bursts, rapidly played improvisations, and a full range of dynamics. Baxter from the bass chair wrote all of the pieces on their latest recording, and demonstrates his abilities both in setting the tempos as well as in his melodic interludes, both plucked and bowed.

CD: ThawCD: EvolutionTheir second album is "Eyes Shut Tight" (self produced by 2011). It follows up on their first, “Evolution” (Hungry Bear Records 2010), of which I have only heard snatches but seems from those small pieces to be something to listen to in greater depth, and I am in the process of ordering it from   

Baxter writes with a strong rhythmic sensibility, and the band draws comparisons to other European trios like E.S.T, Phronesis, and the Neil Cowley  Trio. The Thaw's range of play is expansive, with bowed bass passages and pizzicato passages, and a great deal of textural changes from legato to staccato, pianissimo to forte, etc. which maintain great interest in their work from song to song. And don't miss the hiden track following "Hymn" featuring a bowed melody by Baxter and some supporting violins that stands up well as a classical piece of music. 

The give and take of the three instruments and their varied attack create a very energetic and pleasing listen. The opening song  "Mr. C " starts with some heavily played chords and a strong attack by all three players before it moves into some nicely played melodic piano sections; it is a song that immediately tells you that this is a band that is full of rapid changes, and a capacity to surprise. Insistent rhythms and a pulse from the drums and bass, and urgent chordal configurations, always seem push the music along on this opener. Towards the end, as the piano comes down quietly, the bass picks up the melody and carries the piece to a lovely conclusion.

The bass playing throughout is wonderful; listen to the opening of “Forethought” as it sets a quiet and emotional mood that is then picked up by the others on this quieter, more emotive song.  There are many great interactions between the instruments that demonstrate how well they listen to each other and react to the tempos and moods being set.  “A Touch Of The Charlies” is a ballad that opens with Baxter and his large, woody bass tone in concert with the colorings of a quiet piano and drum set. “Exit Train” is an upbeat groove tune with a propulsive beat set at the outset by the left hand of the pianist and the drummer, before the grooving melody comes into play. the beat then slows into a second section of great interest and dynamic and melody changes, which gradually picks up in intensity before ending abruptly with some laughter in the background. "Afterthought" is next, and is a nice piece of quiet but intense trio play with a lilting melody on piano supported by the others, and then "Hymn", with a switch midway for Tomlinson onto the organ, and the hidden piece end the disc in a stately manner.

"Eyes Tight Shut" is a wonderful CD which should please those who appreciate the style of play of the groups noted above. There is a great deal of impressionistic play, rapid changes in tempo, and drama inherent in the music, coupled with some lovely lyrical piano and bass play that create some beautiful passages. This is not your down the middle piano trio, but it also is not too far out either, and thus it is never hard to listen to.  Baxter writes some nice songs and has a great harmonic sensibility, and his trio plays with verve and passion. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Jazz is Everywhere: Get to Know Amina Figarova

Jazz is a Black American original genre and a piece of this country's history that has brought joy to everyone, black or white or hispanic or asian, etc. Whether we call it Jazz or call it Black American Music (BAM), it roots are certainly to be found in the black population of New Orleans, in slave songs and the blues, in gospel music and chants, and in music taken from old African traditions. Once it caught on, it spread like wildfire, up to Kansas City and Chicago, and eventually across all of the United States. It became the music of our nation, and of our people, both black and white.

Today jazz is everywhere, after being exported to Europe by expatriates like Dexter Gordon and Duke Jordan or by visiting players like Chet Baker or Dizzy Gillespie, and eventually exported across the globe. Today jazz is heard everywhere, and the influences on jazz come from everywhere, bringing in the traditions of countries and peoples across the globe, be they the sounds from Indian music incorporated by Vijay Iyer and others; the joyous dances of Latin America that influenced Dizzy Gillespie early on and today play a major role in so much of what we hear from players like Luis Perdomo, Miguel Zenon, Antonio Sanchez and on and on; the middle eastern sounds of the Oud as played by Rahib Abou-Khalil and others; and so on. Clearly one could go on forever, talking about the characteristic sounds of the Scandanavian jazz played by Jan Gabarek or Tomas Stanko or Bobo Stenson; Israeli jazz played by the Cohen family and so many others, often located now in Brooklyn; or the beautiful melodic tones of Italians like Enrico Rava, Enrico Pierannunzi, and Gianni Basso. It is still Black American Music in its roots, but it is now everyone's across the globe to play, stretch, and enjoy.

locator map of AzerbaijanWhat brings this to mind today is the new CD, "Twelve" by Amina Figarova (In and Out Records 2012), who comes from Azerbaijan, not exactly a hotbed for jazz nor a country in the mainstream of what might be considered the jazz world. But when one hears Figarova play, it is clear that she began at an early age, and that jazz truly is found everywhere. (I might add that someday I have to write a post about the wonderful jazz I found last summer in Iceland, but that is for another day.)

Figarova was born in 1966 in  Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan on the Russian side of the Iron Curtain. Her parents encouraged her at the age of two years old to pursue playing the piano, and like many others she began as a classically trained musician.  But her mother and father loved jazz, and she was fortunate to be able to hear albums by some of the greats -- Armstrong, Ellington, Peterson, and Ella -- music that was at the time hard to get living behind the Iron Curtain in Azerbaijan. She attended the Baku Conservatory, but he big switch came when she left Azerbaijan and moved to the Netherlands to study jazz at the Rotterdam Conservatory. Eventually, she made one more move, to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. Her strong academic background was temendous training for her skills not only as a pianist, but as an outstanding leader , composer, and arranger of her music. Her elegant and original modern jazz Hancock, Tyner, Jarett, Corean and others in her compositions.

She began her recording career on a Dutch label in 1994 with  "Attraction" (Media Music Records 2004) featuring all original compositions. After a few more early CDs, she expanded her vocabulary, first by attending the Thelonious Monk Jazz Colony summer camp in 1998, and then by forming her ensemble in 1999. From her home in Rotterdam, where she lived throughout the first decade of the 2000s she produced a number of lovely recordings, most in a sextet setting. I first heard her 2004 disc "Come Escape with Me" (Munich Records 2004). Between that disc, her seventh, and "Twelve" are four others, one of which, "September Suite" (Munich Records 2004), was recorded at the same time as "Come Escape with Me" but is a far more haunting and somber -- but lovely -- suite dedicated to the memory of 9/11.
In Brooklyn, staying in the apartment of friends while sleeping on September 11, 2001,  she was there to witness the crumbling World Trade Center towers, and wrote the poignant "September Suite" in tribute to the people who were killed.

Product DetailsAll of the CDs are done by a sextet, which includes in all cases her husband Bart Platteau on flute, Chris Strik on drums, and JeroenVierdag on bass. The other two postions -- saxophone and trumpet -- have been filled by a number of players. Without reviewing each of the four discs from "Come Escape with Me" in 2004 to "Sketches" in 2010, some of the characteristics of Figarova's compositions, arrangements, and sextets are easy to discern. The music is flowing and elegant, with the flute embuing much of the work with a greater delicacy than would be found with a more standard, classic Blue Note quintet. The songs have long, flowing melody lines that are beautiful and very impressionistic, backed underneath by a strong and propulsive rhythm from the bass and drums. Every so often these lovely tone poems will be interrupted by some wonderful diversions, like the bluesy "Buckshot Blues" or the bubbling "Sailing Through Icy Waters" with guest sax player Tineke Potema, a great leader in her own right on a number of Challenge Records. Beebop makes an appearance with a lively playing of "Unacceptable", and swing and latin jazz are represented as well.

One of the four recordings stands out from the others and is worth a bit more discussion. Figarova's expressive compositions are demonstrated most poignently on "September Suite" , which is very different in tone but not necessarily in its melodic richness. In keeping with its memorial theme for 9/11, the music is brooding and somber. Titles like "Numb", "Rage", "Denial", and "Emptyness" certainly cover the emotions of the day, week, months, and eventually years for all of us (I myself was on a train bound for Manhattan and a 10AM meeting downtown within a few blocks of the site when the planes hit. I got off the train uptown at 125th Street and looking south was overcome with emotion to see the completely blackened sky south of me over the skyline.). Figarova's piano on "Numb" is evocative of the emotions that we felt at the moment the sky blackened and the buildings fell. "Emptyness" is a mournful cry, highlighted by the interplay of flute and trumpet. "Photo Album" opens with the solo piano, and gradually each of the instruments come in, representing in their way the invididual sadness of each survivor and family member, and the many posts all around the city that we all saw for so long. This is an emotional CD for sure, but not one to be overlooked. Its melodies are beautiful and haunting, the play subdued but beautiful. This is the work of a very skilled composer and arranger.

Product DetailsNow Figarova shows her full hand and exquisite writing and expression with her latest, "Twelve" (In and Out Records 2012) . It is her 12th album, and it is a quite wonderful addition to her discography. Figarova and husband Platteau moved to Forest Hills, Queens NY in 2010, and the pictures on the cover show Figarova with the harbor, Brooklyn, and downtown Manhattan in the background. The sextet for this CD is the same as on her eleventh CD, "Sketches": Figarova on piano, Platteau on flute, tenor/soprano saxophonist Marc Mommaas, trumpeter Ernie Hammes, bassist Jeroen Vierdag and drummer Chris "Buckshot" Strik.

I don't usually see the connection between song titles and the music, but in this case the impressions are so perfect, the music so expressive in tone and dynamics, that one cannot miss seeing what Figarova saw as they wre written. NYCST opens the recording with a tone poem about the subways at night, calling it a "subway tango," and making wonderfuol use of her husband's great flute playing. "Sneaky Seagulls" are a staple of the NY shoreline, swooping in and out for crusts of bread and such, and the song has the same sounds of long melodic flights coupled with short bursts of energy. "New Birth" is particularly wonderful, an up-tempo flowing melody which I take to be in tune with starting a new adventure living in the US. The piano and sax solos in it are particularly lovely; this was my highlight for the disc. "Morning Pace" is a luxurious, slowly paced melody that had me fooled at first -- I thought no one moves that slowly in New York -- until I read that it was specifically about Sundays, which makes total sense -- sleep in, read the Times, have coffee, wander, and enjoy life.

This is a great album of outstanding songs, beautiful solos from each player, and wonderful impressions of Figarova's feelings about life. Her writing and sense of sound are exquisite, and all 12 songs are appealling . The flute in particular creates a wonderful texture, both as a soloist as well as a colorist. Figarova herself is a great pianist with a great touch. Once you hear this, you'll likely want to go back and experience more of the music of this Azerbaijani.  

Friday, June 1, 2012

Another One Bites the Dust: Cutler's Closing Shop After 64 Years

This one is really personal. In the past I have written about other closings in places I visit, but this one is in my hometown and was the place where it all began for me. I cannot believe Cutler's won't be there the next time I am in New Haven. But then again, my father ran the York Square Theatre next door to Cutlers until it was closed in the early 2000's, and the Yankee Doodle was gone before that, and so on and so on. Frankly I go back far enough to remember the Rexall Drug Store at the corner of Elm and York Streets. Thank God in other parts of town that Sally's, Pepe's, Louis Lunch and a few other iconic places will still be around next time I come up.

I grew up in New Haven in the sixties, and despite living in other places during and after college, maintained my connection to New Haven and to Cutler's throughout. After all, my father ran the York Square Cinemas next door and lived in Woodbridge until his passing, and I came back to New Haven and worked there from 1981-84, and again from 1998-2007. And Cutler's was always there.

Cutler's was there 64 years, or since 1948, coincidently about the time my father and mother moved to New Haven and opened the Lincoln Theater. I remember going to Cutler's very early on, probably around 1963 or so, and consistently thereafter. In those days I didn't drive yet, but I could hitch a ride from where I lived to the end of the bus line, and could go downtown from there. Cutler's had its iconic sign outfront, and wonderful people and a world of music inside. I remember Phil and Jay Cutler very well, and dad and son really made your visit a personal experience, even for a teenager wandering the aisles. And I remember the two listening booths that you could use to hear things before you bought them. Most of all I remember the music.

By 1967 I could drive downtown, so I visited even more. I remember the day I saw "Surrealistic Pillow" in the window. I'm not sure I knew much about Jefferson Airplane at that point, but Jay let me listen in one of the booths, and that was all it took. Later I recall hearing a song on my car radio as I approached downtown, "Marakesh Express", and immediately driving to Cutler's to find out about Crosby, Stills and Nash. Record after record from those halcyon days were purchased there, and are still in my collection, along with some Fillmore and Avalon Ballroom posters I got there, and which are framed and displayed in my office and in my daughter's apartment. Some great ones -- Led Zepplin, It's a Beautiful Day, all of the Beatles albums, CSNY, The Four Tops and so on -- and some questionable ones -- Sopwith Camel, Iron Butterfly, Herman's Hermits anyone? Some 60s classics you never hear now -- The Association, Chad and Jeremy, the Left Banke, Procol Harum -- but can make you smile and remember.

It was only later when I returned to New Haven that the jazz bug had hit me, and Cutler's was an excellent place to buld upon my collection, particularly with used CDs to fill in my new collection. When I worked in New Haven, I was there often at lunch time cruising the bins for new used CDs added since my last visit.

I have to say Cutler's didn't feel the same, it had moved and was smaller, but then what does feel the same after 30 years? But it still felt good -- lots of good music, posters, and paraphernalia, and great people working there who obviously cared about the music.

And now it will be gone, and once again the block will have changed, and not for the better. Out with the old and in with the new. It's the way of the world today, but boy it hurts. With Cutler's gone, another little piece of my childhood is gone too, living on only in my fond memories. Thanks Jay, thanks Phil for the wonderful times and the great music. I will miss you.

David Sampson