Sunday, October 28, 2012

Review: Foxy - Jon Irabagon

Jon Irabagon is the winner of the 2008 Thelonious Monk International Jazz competition, so I’ve been interested in hearing him play for a while.  “Foxy” is my first exposure to his work. 

This recording is really something else.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite like it.  It is 78 minutes of Irabagon playing unrelenting, high intensity tenor saxophone with backing from his trio mates, Barry Altschul on drums and Peter Brendler on bass.  The recording appears to be made up of 12 cuts, but it is really an uninterrupted 78 minutes of playing by the trio.  How one “cut” is distinguished from the next is not entirely clear.  It could be argued that there are subtle shifts in theme in Irabagon’s relentless playing that distinguish one cut from the next, but if so, these are hard to identify.  For the most part, there is a lot of sameness throughout the entire recording, Altschul paying intensely with a lot of splashy cymbals, Brendler keeping a steady bass pulse, and Irabagon playing fast and furious phrases over the background rhythm.  Having said this, I’ll still try to say a bit about each cut.
The recording begins with “Foxy,” and the music actually fades in, so the recording begins after the trio had already been playing for a while.  The tune is upper mid-tempo, with Altschul banging away pretty hard at the drums and Irabagon matching him with hard and fast phrases on the tenor.  Though this is the beginning of the recording, it sounds like we’re catching the trio at the climactic point of the last chorus of a long tenor sax solo.  Irabagon has a strong, fluid, clear-as-a-bell sound throughout the entire range of the horn.  This recording clearly refers to the trio work of Sonny Rollins, with a CD cover that’s a play on the cover of Rollins’s “Way Out West,” and the title of each cut apparently a play on Rollins’s “Doxy.”  Irabagon seems to have an endless arsenal of ideas, some really great, some just ok, but they just keep coming.  Irabagon also slips in some references to the jazz lexicon, though there are some references I couldn’t quite place and others I probably missed entirely.
“Proxy” begins with Irabagon playing a brief phrase full of false fingering and trilling, which he then plays repeatedly.  After a couple of minutes of this, he goes back into more conventional jazz phrasing (including a reference to “I Got Rhythm”), though at a slightly slower tempo than “Foxy,” and occasionally he brings back the original false-fingering phrase.  “Chicken Poxy” has another reference to “I Got Rhythm,” and Irabagon’s phrasing here is a bit choppier than it has been.  This tune is also a bit slower and more bluesy than what we’ve heard so far.  “Boxy” is even more bluesy, and Altschul turns down the volume a bit on his usual forceful playing.  Irabagon spends a lot of time working with an ascending phrase, though he modifies it somewhat.  On “Hydroxy,” Irabagon starts with some wide interval leaps, from low to high, and the trio goes into a section that has the character of a brisk, bop-type tune.  “Biloxi” starts with another false-fingered phrase that Irabagon works on for a good long time and eventually carries into the horn’s upper register. 
“Tsetse” begins with a cascading descending phrase from Irabagon that he uses as a recurring motif.  On this cut, there is more give and take between the saxophonist and the rhythm players, and this more reflective approach is a nice change of pace.  “Unorthodoxy” actually starts out like a more conventional tune, with Altschul again turning his volume down.  Irabagon has some of his most interesting playing here.  On “Epoxy,” Irabagon works with an ascending phrase that abruptly drops to a note in the low register.  He continues his fine playing here, crooning on his horn for a while before returning to his high energy riffs, even throwing in a reference to “Let It Snow.”  This is a long cut, but one of the better ones, with Irabagon in a good groove throughout. 
Then comes the unfortunate “Roxy.”  This cut begins with Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time,” and Irabagon grabs a three-note phrase from this tune and repeats it, without any real variation, for over six minutes!  This just doesn’t work for me.  A few minutes into this cut and you’re beginning to think of it less as music and more as conceptual art.  “Foxy (radio cut)” goes back to Irabagon’s more conventional playing, beginning with a nice relaxed groove and moving into an up-tempo romp.  This cut moves right into the last one, “Moxie,” and Irabagon’s playing here is especially virtuosic, gruff and swinging.  Then the cut, and the recording, abruptly end, as though someone just cut the power off. 
The unconventional nature of this recording invites some speculation about what Irabagon was trying to accomplish.  To my mind, considering the performance’s consistency of intensity, tempo, and particular harmonic structure, and the cut titles that are a play on “Doxy,” this entire recording is a 78-minute improvisation based on Sonny Rollins’s “Doxy”; if you focus, it’s always there in the background.  Irabagon’s playing around with the beginning and end of the recording, from the beginning fade-in to the abrupt close, also invites speculation.  Is he slyly suggesting that a good jazz player could take a workhorse tune like “Doxy” and play on it endlessly, this particular performance just a slice of one that is in fact endless?  I wish the recording had faded out the way it faded in, giving the sense of a musical Mobius strip, finite but with no beginning and no end, particularly since the approach on the last cut is so similar to that of the first.  In any case, I hope Irabagon intended with Foxy to spark this kind of musing.  At the very least, Foxy is a remarkable performance, showcasing Irabagon’s considerable creativity, imagination, and virtuosity, though, due to its relentless intensity and lack of variety, it isn’t an “easy” listening experience (and it is marred by the intolerably repetitious “Roxy”).  I look forward to hearing Irabagon employ his tremendous musical talents in more orthodox contexts. 

On Edit: If you want to get some idea of Jon Irabagon's playing, here's a video clip of him playing Wayne Shorter's "Yes or No" (a great tune).  Take a couple of minutes of Irabagon's more intense playing here, imagine it stretched out over 78 minutes, and you get a fair idea of what Foxy is about.


Monday, October 22, 2012

Tivon Pennicott clip

Just based on this clip of Tivon Pennicott, I'd say he's a player to keep an eye on.  Though it's just a brief clip, I like his approach. 

Apparently, he's working on his first album, according to the little interview here, with Mike Battaglia on piano, Kenneth Salters on drums, and Spencer Murphy on bass.  I'll be watching out for it.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Review: Today’s Opinion – Yosvany Terry

The first cut on the recording, “Summer Relief,” starts off with some guy talking/chanting/singing in a language I don’t recognize (an African language, I think), joined briefly by a male chorus of singers.  Then the horns (Yosvany Terry on alto and Michael Rodgriquez on trumpet) come in and play a hip, sophisticated upper mid-tempo melody, something Woody Shaw might have written.  Yosvany starts off the solos (I call him by his first name to distinguish him from his bassist brother, Yunior), his alto sound solid and clear (though a bit “smallish”) throughout the range of the horn.  His phrasing is pretty much in the post-bop tradition, but his fertile imagination prevents him from falling into cliché.  He’s followed by Rodriguez, who plays a musical solo that’s all over the full range of the trumpet.  It’s great to hear him again after his excellent but too-brief appearance on the Dayna Stepens’s Today is Tomorrow (previously reviewed here).  Drummer Obed Calvaire has a good solo over an ostinato by pianist Osmany Paredes.  Then Yosvany and Rodriguez trade fours for a while, pushing each other to hotter and hotter places.  Then they cool things down, the voices briefly return in the background, and the tune fades out. 
Paredes introduces “Contrapuntistico” with some slow, lyrical playing by himself.  Then the alto and trumpet come in on a pretty, upper mid-tempo melody in unison, with Calvaire propelling things along.  Yosvany starts out with a good solo, with straightforward lines that regularly break out into flurries of notes.  Then Paredes plays a very Chick Corea-ish solo.  The tune has a false ending, the group then moving into a more free-form section over an ostinato from Paredes, with ferocious drumming from Calvaire.  Yosvany and Rodriguez again trade fours for a bit and then repeat the closing theme a few times to close out the cut.  “Inner Speech” has a clever, mid-tempo melody, sounding like something Chick Corea might have written in his “Inner Space” days (coincidence?).  The rhythm section lays down a nice groove for Yosvany, and he takes advantage of it by playing a laid back, thoughtful solo with quite a bit of space between phrases, possessing a nice vocal quality.  Rodriguez follows with a thoughtful solo of his own but with a bit more fire, his swaggering phrases occasionally swooping into the high register.  From beginning to end, this tune is just straightforward jazz, beautifully executed.
“Returning Home” slows things down a bit to a loose mid-tempo, Yunior insistently repeating a single note, Calvaire quietly intense in the background.  Yosvany plays soprano sax here (the only time on the recording), and Rodriguez lays out.  Paredes plays a fine solo.  Yosvany then solos, basically transferring his alto playing style to the soprano, though he uses a more prominent vibrato on the higher-pitched instrument.  “Harlem Matinee” is another upper mid-tempo tune, with an imaginative melody that has a sophisticated, urban feel .  Yosvany and Rodriquez play the melody in unison, Calvaire quietly simmering behind them.  Rodriguez, Yosvany, and Paredes all play strong solos, and the tune fades out on Paredes’s playing.
“Suzanne” is the only tune on the recording not penned by Yosvany, having been composed by Yunior.  The melody is broken into two parts, an aggressive, jangly opening section that gives way to a smooth groove.  Yosvany plays a good solo, though he doesn’t sound as comfortable as he usually does, and he’s followed by some musical improvising by Yunior on bass.  To my ear, this tune is not as interesting as Yosvany’s tunes, and the performance overall is comparatively pedestrian.  “Another Version of Oji” starts with some free form, out of tempo playing from Yosvany and Rodriguez, and then moves into a slow, snaking melody.  Rodriquez plays a probing solo against minimalist backing from the rhythm section.  Yosvany takes over with a probing solo of his own that shows a lot of variety; he doesn’t stay in one train of thought for very long. 
“Son Contemporaneo” starts with a dramatic repeated line from Paredes, which then moves into a lightning-quick line played by Yosvany and Rodriguez in unison.  (This reminds me of Chick Corea, too.)  The tune then goes into a slower section, and Yosvany digs into a long solo.  During Yosvany’s playing, a keyboardist plays some spacy background stuff--Gonzalo Rubalcaba, I think (as implied by the Criss Cross notes), which doesn’t really add anything.  Rodriguez and Paredes then improvise together, to good effect.  Yosvany and Rodriguez then play the fast melody again to the end.
“Today’s Opinion” is, to my ear, a mixed success.  Yosvany Terry proves himself to be a top-notch alto saxophone player.  He has a terrific command of the horn, bottom to top, with a good sound, and he uses these tools to express his seemingly endless musical imagination, though his phrasing style remains firmly rooted in the post-bop tradition.  His composing is also uniformly excellent, producing ear-catching melodies and a variety of backgrounds and textures within tunes; the weakest moments on the recording come on “Suzanne,” the only tune Yosvany didn’t write.  The tune selection is a bit odd though, since most of the tunes are pretty traditional post-bop, but the last tune, “Son Contemporaneo,” sounds more modernistic and somewhat out of place; the recording would have made more musical sense to end with a more typical Yosvany tune.  Also, the chanting/singing and bubbling percussion of “Summer Relief” contrasts so well with the tune’s straight-ahead jazz melody, I wish the recording had more of the African/Cuban influence evident on this tune.  But “Today’s Opinion” provides a host of musical pleasures, and it suggests that Yosvany Terry is in the top echelon of jazz alto saxophonists playing today. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Cool old album cover

Saw this old album cover posted on Kevin Sun's blog ("A Horizontal Search") and liked it so much that I thought I'd reproduce it here.

Kevin also provides a couple of his transcriptions of solos from the same (Miles Davis) recording, one by Charlie Parker (on tenor!) followed by one by Sonny Rollins.  He includes a YouTube link to the recording.  A nice Friday treat for us sax heads.  Check it out.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Review: Good and Bad Memories and Elite State of Mind - Stacy Dillard

The plan was simple: review Stacy Dillard’s recording Good and Bad Memories.  But things got complicated.  It occurred to me to review Dillard on All Jazz Sax because I had listened to some snippets of a 2006 recording of Dillard’s, titled Elite State of Mind.  I liked what I heard from those snippets so much that I downloaded Dillard’s most recent work, Good and Bad Memories, on Criss Cross.  So I put on my reviewer’s ears for Good and Bad Memories and, to be honest, I didn’t like what I had heard too much.  The music overall was of a high quality, but Dillard’s playing, despite possessing a great tone, struck me as haphazard and unfocused.  OK, so I did my usual review of this recording, thinking Dillard wasn’t as good as I thought he was based on the Amazon snippets of an earlier recording; Good and Bad Memories was a good recording, but Dillard’s playing was one of its weakest aspects. 
Then I wondered about Dillard’s playing on the earlier recording, Elite State of Mind, so I downloaded that, too.  Well, I could tell it was the same sax player, but Dillard’s improvising on Elite was so much stronger than it was on Good and Bad Memories that I didn’t think I should do a straight-up review of Good and Bad without discussing Elite, too; otherwise, some folks might get the wrong idea about Dillard’s abilities.  My comments on Elite State of Mind are going to be a bit sketchy, since I only had time to listen to it once, but I didn’t want to delay posting on AJS any longer.  And I’ll give a truncated version of my review of Good and Bad Memories so the post doesn’t go on forever.          
Good and Bad Memories starts off with a tune by drummer Jeremy Clemons; “Pleasant” is a no-nonsense, pretty, post-bop tune, with Dillard (on tenor sax) playing the melody in unison with guitarist Craig Magnano.  Pianist Orrin Evans solos first with a solid, straightforward effort.  Then Magnano solos, employing a tone and style similar to George Benson’s; he constructs his solo mainly out of clean, single-note runs.  When Dillard takes over, one is immediately struck by his sound, which is more muscular and dense than the tenor players previously reviewed here, such as J.D. Allen, Noah Preminger, and Dayna Stephens.  Dillard’s style also comes off as less “cerebral” than those players; he seems to play more from the gut and the heart than the head.
The next four tunes are Dillard’s.  On “Can’t Shake It,” Dillard has his only outing on soprano sax, and his sound on this horn is much like that of his tenor, strong and dense.  (For what it’s worth, Dillard uses Lebayle metal mouthpieces on both soprano and tenor, according to his website.)   This is an engaging, mid-tempo, minor-key tune.  Magnano in his solo employs a metallic and distorted sound, similar to Pat Metheny’s guitar-synthesizer, and his phrasing is edgier as well.  He does a good job gradually building up the excitement in his solo, with enthusiastic support from Clemons.  Dillard’s solo is lyrical and emotionally direct.  “Over and Over” is an upper mid-tempo tune, and bassist Ryan Berg plays a brief, flowing solo.  Magnano lays out for this tune, giving the group a lighter, sharper feel.  “There’s No Need” is a slower, reflective song with a loose time that eventually acquires a waltz-like feel.  Evans plays an introspective, chord-laden solo, which develops into a series of fast, Chick Corea-ish runs.  Dillard plays a solid, laid-back solo.  “Stizzozo” is uptempo and sounds a bit like a pop tune.  Dillard’s solo is good, but he occasionally seems to lose control over his phrases, like he’s not entirely sure where they’re going. 
Berg’s “PCH” is a pretty song that sounds somewhat like an uptempo version of Coltrane’s “Naima.”  Berg begins the solos, his playing lyrical and ear-catching.  Magnano then solos, again playing in his George Benson mode.  The cut ends well with some clever pauses inserted into the melody.  “West Lexington” is another tune by Clemons.  It sounds like a song from an old detective movie set in a big city, with a dreamy, urban feel.  Evans takes over with a solo that fits perfectly the reflective, melancholy mood of the tune.  The recording ends with J.D, Allen’s “Mean Bean,” an up-tempo, bop-type tune that has a “Salt Peanuts” feel to it, with Dillard and Magnano in unison on the melody.  Dillard plays one of his better solos here, just letting loose with a series of solid phrases over the fast-moving changes
Based on Good and Bad Memories, Dillard clearly puts a premium on the emotional and lyrical qualities of his music, and his tunes and fellow musicians support these qualities.  But on this recording his playing sometimes strikes me as a bit careless and lacking in sophistication and precise technique, as great as his sound is.  OK, then I listened to Dillard’s Elite State of Mind, and I got a very different impression of his playing. 
On Elite State of Mind, Dillard still has his powerhouse tone, but his improvising is much more focused and relaxed.  The recording starts out with “Saturdays,” a Woody Shaw-ish Coltrane-ish type tune, and Dillard plays a solo that is stronger than any of his solos on Good and Bad Memories.  His improvising here is more relaxed and soulful, involving long, confident lines.  A second sax player solos after Dillard, and though his sound isn’t as strong as Dillard’s, his improvising is smart and engaging.  (I’m not sure, but I think it’s J.D. Allen.)  Good solos by pianist Ryan Weaver and bassist Ryan Berg follow.  The tune “Elite State of Mind” also has a touch of Naima.  (I assume Dillard wrote most of the tunes, though I’m not sure; it was hard to find info on this recording.)  Weaver plays a solo very much in the mode of McCoy Tyner.  On “Jonesville,” Craig Magnano plays a funky and fast solo.  “Beans and Cornbread” has a slightly Middle Eastern tinge to its melody.  The first sax soloist is not Dillard (Allen, again?), but the solo is very good. 
“The Rise and Set” has a long Dillard solo, but it builds so well and is so engaging that it seems brief.  Weaver gets off a relaxed and clever solo.  Next up is J.D. Allen’s “Mean Bean,” which is also on Good and Bad Memories.  Here it’s just a blowing tune, and, with Weaver laying out, Dillard gets off a fast, furious, and clever solo over bass and drums.  The 2nd sax player--again, I assume it’s Allen--plays a solo that is very similar to Dillard’s (!), more aggressive and in-your-face than Allen’s playing usually is.  Weaver plays an excellent, flashy solo; he sounds here like Helen Sung (briefly noted in our earlier review of Tineke Postma).  The last tune, “We Need Love,” is something of a loose jam session, starting out with some free-form playing from bass and drums, and then what sounds like two wood flutes join in.  Dillard’s solos in extreme Coltrane mode here (it almost seems like he switched mouthpieces to get a more Coltrane-esque sound).  The playing here is a bit chaotic, though in a good way, and it’s over before you know it.
Dillard seems to have an affinity for jazz of the 60’s and 70’s, along the lines of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Woody Shaw’s music, Horace Silver’s music, etc.  His playing is more emotional and aggressive than the other tenor players we’ve reviewed here (like J.D. Allen, Noah Preminger, and Dayna Stephens).  The music on Elite State of Mind is delightful; in the world of the more intellectual and controlled playing of saxophonists like Allen, Preminger, Binney, Stephens, etc., Dillard’s approach is a breath of fresh air.  For some wonderful, quasi-retro jazz, with terrific improvising from Dillard, check out Elite State of Mind.  Good & Bad Memories is a solid, and more polished, recording than Elite State of Mind, but Dillard’s playing is just not up to the level it is on Elite.  (Was he nervous that it’s his first Criss Cross recording?  Uncomfortable with the format?)  I hope Dillard puts out more recordings along the lines of Elite State of Mind; I’d wait in line for those. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Review: Stockholm Syndrome - Will Vinson

Stockholm Syndrome begins with “Squeeze,” a classic-sounding post-bop tune written by Vinson.  Though the alto sax is Vinson’s stronger instrument (to my ear), he chooses to begin his recording with the soprano.  The tune is very good, pretty and mid-tempo, with Vinson in unison with guitarist Lage Lund.  After a statement of the melody, pianist Aaron Parks begins the improvising with a tasteful, thoughtful solo, continuing in the Brad Mehldau/Keith Jarrett vein he displayed on the previously-reviewed Today is Tomorrow (by Dayna Stephens).  Then, after a brief Vinson/Lund improvised duet, Vinson takes the spotlight, making a strong statement with clean, fast lines adding up to an elegant solo.
The recording continues with another good Vinson tune, “Dear Old Stockholm Syndrome.”  Vinson is on alto here; he has a clean sound and plays adroit lines with a light touch, gliding from the bottom of the horn to the altissimo.  To my ear, he has a fairly traditional approach, like Jim Snidero’s, but with a bit more assertiveness and technical proficiency.  Then Parks comes in and plays a well-controlled, slightly funky solo.  Next is “Late Lament,” a pretty ballad by Paul Desmond.  Lund starts off the soloing with some classic-sounding jazz guitar ballad playing Desmond probably would have approved of.  Vinson then plays a logical but pretty solo on alto.  He displays a lot of imagination in his playing, but also a lot of self-control, never letting his imagination and formidable technique get out of hand.  Desmond would have probably approved of Vinson’s gentle closing cadenza as well.
“Dean Street Rundown” is an upper mid-tempo tune by Vinson.  Parks solos against some excellent, lively background provided by drummer Kendrick Scott.  Lund is very good in the background, too, his lush guitar almost sounding like a synthesizer.  Parks plays a good solo, but he keeps the intensity level too static.  (Unfortunately, I find this to be true of a number of Parks’s solos here.)  Vinson has a good workout on alto, with mainly bass and drums for accompaniment, again sounding like Jim Snidero on steroids.  Vinson’s upper mid-tempo “Icronic” has him again on soprano sax, playing a hard-swinging solo.  Lund then takes over, with the rhythm section swinging hard behind him.  Scott then plays a nice, light-hearted solo, and Vinson and Lund then play the melody in unison to the end.  Lund starts out the ballad “You Wouldn’t Forget Me” (by Fritz Spielman, from the 1953 movie “The Torch Song”) with some unaccompanied acoustic guitar strumming.  Vinson joins him, and it stays just the two of them to slowly play through the pretty melody.
Next up is Cole Porter’s “Everything I Love.”  After Vinson briskly reads through the melody, Parks and bassist Orlando Le Fleming trade a few choruses, with Scott showing off some impressive drumming.  Then Vinson gives a lesson in how to swing on a standard on the alto sax.  The cut finishes with Scott and Lund trading fours.  Lund’s attractive composition, “Party of One,” is a change of pace.  It begins with Vinson and the guitarist in unison, and then Vinson solos with barely-there accompaniment from the rhythm players.  The dreamy playing here seems more appropriate for an ECM recording, and, after an understated solo by Le Fleming, Lund carries on this dreamy quality in his solo. 
The recording finishes with Bill Evans’s “Show Type Tune” (which reminds me a bit of the standard “It Could Happen to You”).  Le Fleming and Lund both lay out here, which gives the group a lighter feel, though Parks and Scott still produce a solid, mid-tempo groove.  After strong solos from Vinson and Parks, the players trade fours, with Scott showing off some precise brush work.  The tune ends with a lovely little closing phrase from Parks.
Though the players are young, brimming with ability, and full of fresh ideas, Stockholm Syndrome comes across mainly as traditional post-bop jazz.  Vinson is an exceptional saxophonist; his phrasing exhibits outstanding imagination and technique.  His writing is very strong as well, almost as good as his playing.  But I look forward to hearing Vinson play in a less traditional context; as good as Stockholm Syndrome is, its tradition-bound setting seems to constrain Vinson’s talents.