Sunday, September 30, 2012

Review: Today is Tomorrow – Dayna Stephens

Stephens starts off his recording with a nice, upper mid-tempo interpretation of “Skylark,” including some pleasing alternative chord changes.  Stephens has a traditional, big, slightly breathy sound that has a velvety quality to it.  To my ear, he sounds a lot like Stan Getz here, and, though his phrasing differs from Getz, he has a similar approach of spinning out one clean, thoughtful line after another.  Pianist Aaron Parks has a similar approach in his solo, favoring smart, single-note lines over chords; his playing strikes me as similar to Brad Mehldau’s, though maybe not as complex.  Starting out with a mid-tempo standard is a bit of an unusual choice to open a recording, but it is a nice invitation to the proceedings.  Stephens’s “Kwooked Stweet” is a good post-bop tune, which has Stephens and trumpeter Michael Rodriguez in unison on the melody.  On this more up-tempo tune, Stephens’s velvety tone leans a bit toward Gary Thomas’s sound, though his phrasing is less dissonant than Thomas’s.  Rodriguez also has a style similar to Stephens’s, and he gets off a good solo, albeit too brief.  The recording at this point sounds like something solidly in the classic Blue Note tradition.  Drummer Donald Edwards finishes the soloing with a churning but controlled performance over an ostinato by Parks and bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa.
“Earworm,” another Stephens composition, features a slow, stately melody, almost a march.  Parks steps out first with an elegant and precise solo.  Then there is some duet improvising between Stephens and guest tenor saxophonist Raffi Garabedian.  Unfortunately, not much happens in their interaction.  The next cut is “De Pois Do Amor, O Vazio” (by R.C. Thomas), and guitarist Julian Lage joins the group, playing with a very Django Reinhardt-type sound.   The melody of this mid-tempo tune is lackluster, but Lage and Stephens both play good solos, Stephens’s full and velvety sound particularly on display. 
Stephens’s “Loosy Goosy” is a neat little bop tune (maybe having the chord changes of Charlie Parker’s “Moose the Mooch”), with a light-hearted melody.  Parks plays some intelligent, casually off-center lines in his solo.  Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus” features the largest configuration of the recording, including both Lage and Rodriguez.  Rodriguez starts things off, playing the tune’s haunting melody with a gorgeous sound, like he’s singing through the horn (maybe he’s on flugelhorn?).  He sounds here like Freddie Hubbard.  In the midst of the tune, one wishes the whole recording had this group, they play so well together.  Lage’s solo is logical and well-developed; his background playing is excellent, too.  The group plays an ostinato while Edwards plays a good solo, before the tune comes to a close.  Even in the context of an overall excellent recording, this performance is a gift.
Stephens’s “Haden’s Largo” is a ballad that begins with some gentle free-form playing from Lage by himself.  Parks’s composition “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” is a straight-ahead, upper mid-tempo, post-bop tune, with just the recording’s basic quartet.  This is classic saxophone-led jazz quartet playing, and Stephens really gets down to business in his solo, stretching out, confidently striding through chorus after chorus, and employing more altissimo than usual.  Parks plays his solo with his typical smart, single-note lines.  “The Elite” is a slow, low-key march, with Edwards employing steady snare drum rolls, and featuring good solos from Parks and Kitagawa--very controlled. 
The recording ends on a more modernistic note with Parks’s “Cartoon Element,” having a Dave Holland-ish melody (a bit like Holland’s “Conference of the Birds”).  Parks’s solo is trippier and employs more chords than usual, and the rhythm section just floats around.  The rhythm is out of time as well for the first part of Stephens’s solo, but then the walking bass and drums kick back in, and Parks lays out for the rest of Stephens’s solo.  Kitagawa then plays a strumming, out-of-time solo (he plays in this spacy mode surprisingly well) before he moves back into his walking style. 
Today is Tomorrow is a really fine recording.  As noted above, Stephens’s playing style strikes me as Getz-ian; there is very little flash, but lots of pure musicality, and Stephens sounds absolutely at ease with his musical identity.  The compatibility of the musicians’ styles is also remarkable.  The playing of Stephens, Parks, Kitagawa, and Edwards is distinctive in its control, elegance, and musicality, and Lage and Rodriguez display similar qualities.  The only elements that don’t fit in perfectly are the unusual choices for opening and closing tunes; “Skylark” is nice, but the recording should have begun with something more up-tempo and assertive, and “Cartoon Element,” the most atypical performance of the recording, would have fit in better somewhere before the end.  Also, Garabedian is the only “guest” who doesn’t offer much to the recording, though that may only be because he doesn’t really have an opportunity to shine.  But these are minor issues.  Today is Tomorrow is a great example of how young musicians can take simple, traditional materials and make something extraordinarily fine and contemporary out of them. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Review: Winter Fruits – Loren Stillman

The recording starts out with “Muted Dreams,” a slow, pretty tune. Stillman has a sweet, dry-as-paper, understated tone on alto sax (his only instrument on this recording). He improvises with fast, slippery, ear-catching lines. This fine first cut ends with some good interplay between the musicians, including Gary Versace on organ, Nate Radley on guitar, and Ted Poor on drums. On “Skin,” Versace plays an interesting but tentative solo; Stillman’s solo is more assertive. Then Radley comes in; he plays with a strong sound, improvising with clear, lyrical, single-note lines, sounding surprisingly traditional. Poor shows off some nice cymbal work while Stillman and Radley play in unison. Stillman finishes the tune with somewhat more free-wheeling improvising. 
“Men of Mystery” is a slow, abstract tune, starting with Radley and Versace in unison.  Stillman then comes in with some appropriately abstract improvising, showing his command of the entire horn.  The tune goes through some transitions, like a mini-suite, and then ends quietly.  “With You” has a subtle melody, and Versace plays an understated and somewhat disorderly solo.  Radley is a bit stronger in his brief solo, as is Stillman.  Poor maintains a light touch throughout, and the whole cut seems to lack cohesion.  On “Like a Magic Kiss,” Stillman and Radley are in unison again.  Radley has another strong, linear solo with some speedy lines, which lights some fire in Poor’s playing.  Stillman also plays a good solo, again freely ranging all over the alto.  Though the halting melody of the tune isn’t very effective, the soloing here is some of the best on the recording.
“A Song to Be Played” starts with Versace musing at the organ, and then Stillman and Radley enter in unison on a slow and gentle melody.  Their playing is an intro to Poor taking the spotlight, where he also sounds like he’s musing at his drum set.  There are no other solos on this cut.  The tune “Winter Fruits,” which I expected to be a melancholy meditation, turns out to have a percussive melody, and Poor plays with more drive than usual.  Stillman plays a disjointed, Steve Coleman-ish solo, adding some wild runs and altissimo screaming.  This good performance is too brief, though.  The recording ends with “Puffy,” a pretty tune with Radley and Stillman again in unison on the melody.  Stillman’s playing comes off as a little precious here, and the tune comes to a quiet close. 
Winter Fruits is a nice recording, but overall it doesn’t seem to be entirely successful.  The tunes are ok, the musicians are clearly strong players, and the soloing is generally good (particularly from Stillman and Radley), but, oddly, the whole seems less than the sum of its parts.  The performances overall lack drive and cohesion, and even though there’s a lot of variety within the tunes (like changes in tempo and texture), it doesn’t seem to add up to much.  This is partly the result of Poor’s light touch on drums, which probably was intentional but leaves the recording a bit lethargic.  Also, though Stillman has variety within his tunes, the recording would have benefitted from more variety in the tunes themselves, like a couple that were more up-tempo and energetic (like “Winter Fruits”).  In any case, though this recording doesn’t strike me as a complete success, Stillman’s playing is interesting and high-level, and I’m sure I’ll give him another listen before long. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Coltrane on Alto

I came upon this video on the Saxophonists group on Facebook.  (Unfortunately, I can't remember who originally posted it to give him credit.)  This is just too good not to post here.  I had never heard Coltrane on alto before.  Needless to say, he sounds great.  If you haven't signed on to the Saxophonists group on Facebook, you should do so; there's a wealth of good information and other stuff on there for sax heads.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Parker poster

I just love retro handbills and advertisements.  Here's a nice one, courtesy of Grant Koeller on the "Saxophonists" Facebook group.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Review: Before the Rain – Noah Preminger

The recording starts out with “Where or when,” an old and pretty tune by Rodgers and Hart.  The tune starts out as a slow duet between Preminger and pianist Frank Kimbrough, with bassist John Hebert and drummer Matt Wilson delicately joining in.  This is just a brief tune, and Preminger improvises with a breathy, dry, world-weary tone.   (The music at this point reminds me of Chico Freeman’s 1979 album, Spirit Sensitive.)  The recording picks up some steam with “Quickening,” a tune by Kimbrough with a Monk-like melody.  Preminger’s style has a light, ghostly quality, like he’s looking at you from around a corner.  Kimbrough carries the tune on with a good solo, very Keith Jarrett-ish.  (I was expecting to hear some of Jarrett’s trademark moans at some point.)  Wilson and Hebert are very active behind Kimbrough, almost like all three are co-soloing.  Hebert then plays an excellent solo, virtuosic and full of musical interest, with Wilson accompanying him.
“Before the Rain” is a slow, contemplative tune, almost like a tone poem.  Its quiet, melancholy quality makes it feel more like “during the rain.”  (This music would be perfect to listen to looking out a window during a gentle autumn rainfall.)  Preminger uses his horn here like a paintbrush, mixing in occasional altissimo notes and swirling, John Klemmer-ish runs.  Kimbrough then plays a subtle, barely-there solo, with excellent accompaniment from Hebert and Wilson.  “Abreaction” has a slow, tentative melody contrasting with kinetic drumming from Wilson.  Preminger’s solo is more linear than usual, with good lines over the range of the horn against bass and drums.  Kimbrough plays an imposing, chord-laden solo against more strong work from Hebert and Wilson.  With Hebert on arco bass, Wilson plays a solo against a steady melody from bass, sax, and piano.  The music here, as on much of the recording, has a precise, understated feel of a recital hall performance.
“Until the Real Thing Comes Along” is a straightforward, old fashioned ballad.  Preminger plays a sneaky, subtle solo here, with skillful swoops into the altissimo register.  His tentative sound and note-bending recalls Coltrane’s ballad playing.  His idiosyncratic solo style contrasts well with the old-fashioned melody, and I wish he had played longer here.  “K” has Wilson playing a fast tempo while the rest of the group plays a slow, dirge-like melody.  It’s an interesting effect but doesn’t do much for me.  There’s no improvising in this little interlude.  Ornette Coleman’s “Toy Dance” is a snatch of a quick melody, which leads right into Preminger’s solo.  Preminger mixes in spurts of melody here and there with nice, longer lines, including some sharp forays into the altissimo register.  Kimbrough plays a disjointed, loose solo, with more amazing background from Wilson and Hebert. 
“November” slows things down to mid-tempo with another melancholy, rainy-day melody.  Preminger plays phrases like he’s casually flinging paint on a canvas.  Kimbrough plays an elegant solo.  The recording ends with “Jamie,” a slow ballad, with Preminger playing softly, and the musicians’ gentle playing sounding like they’re ready to call it quits after a long, successful night on the bandstand.
Before the Rain is a fine recording, with Preminger and Kimbrough being the primary soloists.  Preminger has a very subtle style.  Though he sounds like he can do pretty much whatever he wants on the saxophone, his sound is tentative and thoughtful, almost shy (unlike most tenor players), like the notes are reluctant to leave the instrument.  Kimbrough is also very subtle on this recording, maybe too much so.  Hebert and Wilson play wonderfully in their roles as accompanists, though I wish they had more solo time.  Preminger may choose to play in a more driving style at other times, but this mostly slow, melancholy recording suits his style very well and makes me want to hear more of his playing in the future.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Review: Ethos – Logan Richardson

On the cut, “Himorme,” on Walter Smith III’s recording, III (previously reviewed here), alto saxophonist Logan Richardson makes a strong guest appearance.  I’d never heard a full-length recording of Richardson’s before, so I decided that his 2009 recording, Ethos, would be our next one to review.

Ethos starts out with “Soundtrack.”  Immediately apparent on this tune, besides its prettiness, is Richardson’s unusual choice of instrumentation, which includes vibes, cello, guitar, and a vocalist who adds tones without lyrics.  Richardson’s solos over a background laid down by those players.  Richardson’s sound here is more assertive than it is in his performance on III.  His sound is basically softly rounded but he has a nice edge to it (more so than, say, Jaleel Shaw), and his phrasing is very thoughtful but still soulful; you get the sense that he’s constantly thinking while playing, developing and changing up his lines.  The tune changes direction after the alto solo, and vibist Mike Pinto plays a good solo with enthusiastic support from drummer Tommy Crane.
“Dissolving Resolution of Childhood” is a gentle tune that Richardson plays in unison with vocalist Colin Killalea, though he breaks off to improvise against the repeated melody.  Guitarist Gregg Ruggiero adds his own thoughtful, careful lines in a solo that fits the tune perfectly.  “In Searching” has Richardson showing his more aggressive and wild side, playing some harsh and fast lines in a trio with Crane and bassist Chris Tordini.  “Plugged In” has alto, voice, and vibes together playing a repetitive melody line, basically an ostinato.  Richardson solos against this, as does Ruggiero, though very briefly. 
“Faith” slows things down, with Richardson playing a slow melody and with Patrick Petty’s cello and Tordini’s melodic bass both playing prominent roles.  Richardson displays more emotion than usual on this solo.  “Vaal” is an ethereal duet between vibist Pinto and Richardson, with Pinto moving into a repetitive figure behind Richardson’s slippery improvised lines.  After Richardson quietly ends his solo, Pinto improvises by himself, but only briefly before Richardson comes back to close with the melody.  “Thin Line” has a slight Spanish tint, which the rhythm section holds while Ruggiero plays a much-too-brief solo, before Richardson again takes the spotlight.  Pinto then solos, also too briefly.  The tune changes up a bit with a guitar and bass ostinato while drummer Crane plays a solid but brief (are we seeing a pattern here?) solo.
“Prelude to Wanting” is a solemn, brief melody focusing on alto, cello, voice, and guitar, with no improvising.  “Wanting” has a stately theme, repeated by voice and guitar as a background to Richardson’s swirling lines (including some crisp activity from Crane on drums).  “Tricky” has Richardson again showing off what he can do on a speedy tune with accompaniment of just bass and drums.  “Chance” is another placid duet between Richardson and Pinto.  “Open Doors” is a more straight-ahead tune (after a free-form intro), with first Pinto and then Ruggiero playing solid solos.  Then Richardson contributes an aggressive, gritty solo. 
“Philanthropic Landscapes” begins like a chamber piece, with vibes, cello, and wordless vocals, to which Richardson adds his improvising.  Richardson’s alto comes off as emotional, soaring, and a little bluesy, a nice contrast to the gentle, drum-less background--maybe his strongest playing on the recording.  “Isometric” is a third duet between Richardson and Pinto; they make a good team, with Richardson taking full advantage of Pinto’s sensitive backup.  The recording closes with the quiet, mid-tempo “Pathos,” on which the entire group contributes.  Richardson plays another aggressive, free-ranging solo against the gentle background cushion of voice, vibes, and guitar, with the proceedings ending quickly and without fanfare.
Ethos is an excellent recording, coming off a bit like the previously reviewed Barefooted Town, by David Binney.  Like Binney’s recording, Ethos has strong compositions (all by Richardson except for Pinto’s “Vaal”) and an unusual choice of instrumentation.  The vibes, cello, guitar, and wordless vocals give a very light feeling to the music, which also must be due to Tordini’s and Crane’s light rhythmic touch.  Richardson’s aggressive, gritty, and slightly astringent playing contrasts well with this backdrop, though because of the basic lightness of the alto sax, it is never overbearing.  Richardson is an excellent alto player, whose playing is always thoughtful and interesting.  The title of his previous recording, Cerebral Flow, describes his playing accurately, as well as the general character of the music on Ethos.  The only complaints I have are related: some of the cuts are too brief and underdeveloped, and Richardson is a bit of a solo hog; the solos of his more-than-competent comrades are frustratingly brief and too infrequent.  Having said that, it’s hard to complain about Richardson hogging the spotlight when his playing is so good.  But this recording would have been even better with fewer tunes and longer and more solos from the supporting cast.