Monday, February 25, 2013

Review: The Sage - Jason Rigby

Personnel: Jason Rigby: tenor and soprano saxophone, flute; Russ Johnson: trumpet; Mike Holober: Fender Rhodes electric piano; Cameron Brown: bass; Gerald Cleaver: drums.

This recording came out a few years ago (2009), but occasionally I see Rigby’s name mentioned in the New York Times, and I’m unfamiliar with his work, so this review falls in the “catching up” category. 

“Magenta” starts with a meter-less duet between Rigby (on tenor sax) and Johnson on a slow theme, with sparse accompaniment from the rhythm players.  Then Johnson solos, alternating between punchy and swooping phrases (a nice mix of traditional and edgy) with a strong sound containing a little buzz.  Rigby comes in near the end of Johnson’s solo, and the tempo picks up.  Rigby plays aggressive, adroit phrases all over the horn with a muscular, clean tone.  His approach is a bit like Billy Harper’s, but more earthy.  Holober then plays a solo of loosely-connected but still cohesive phrases, Cleaver accompanying with a controlled high intensity.  Rigby and Johnson then play the fragmented theme loosely and casually but still like it’s familiar as an old friend.

“Crux” is up-tempo and has a fast, hard boppish theme played by Johnson and Rigby, with the rhythm section quietly churning away.  Rigby on tenor plays melodic, logical, technically impressive phrases in his solo.  Holober plays a brief solo with dense, attention-grabbing phrases.  Then Johnson comes in and plays a solo where he shows off his impressive technique.  Then tenor sax and trumpet improvise together; it’s like Rigby can’t stay out of the music for too long, he’s so full of ideas.

“Shift of Color” has flute and muted trumpet in unison on a slow, romantic theme.  (Rigby has a full, pretty tone on flute with a hint of breathiness.)  Holober plays an echo-y, wandering solo on the Fender Rhodes.  After Holober’s solo, the flute and trumpet repeat the theme, ending the tune without any other solos.

Cleaver begins “The Sage” by himself, then Johnson joins him with some jaunty and bluesy phrases, adding some New Orleans feeling to the cut.  Johnson, with Holober joining in, then plays a series of ascending phrases that trail off into the stratosphere.  Rigby then comes in to join Johnson in unison on an insistent theme.  Holober then plays a funky, distorted solo with stellar support from Cleaver.  Rigby then plays a solo laced with funky and bluesy phrases, sounding a bit like Donny McCaslin, but less showy and more substantial.  The tune ends with Rigby and Johnson in unison again.

“Tone Poem” has a slow theme played by Rigby on tenor sax.  Things speed up with Rigby improvising some darting phrases with sprinting accompaniment from the rhythm section.  Rigby develops some longer phrases and abruptly halts the cut with a repeated high note.

“Slip” starts with a fleet-fingered solo from Brown.  Holober and Cleaver join in, Cleaver playing with subtlety all over the drum set.  Brown and Holober then start an ostinato, and Johnson and Rigby (on soprano sax) play a slow theme in unison.  The beat then becomes somewhat funky and swinging.  Johnson solos briefly with a series of jabbing phrases, then Rigby takes over briefly, then Johnson comes back to join him.  Holober joins the trumpet and sax and the playing becomes pretty collective.  Johnson and Rigby return to the theme in unison to close the cut.

“The Archer” has an angular, mid-tempo rhythmic background against which Johnson and Rigby play a floating melody.  Johnson then plays a growling, harsh solo while the rhythm section is anchor solid.  Rigby’s solo on tenor sax is more straightforward but just as engaging.  The cut then moves into a double-time section, with Rigby and Johnson playing a line in unison.  Holober then plays an excellent, Chick Corea-ish solo.  The bass and drums take over for a while and the floating theme returns, nicely contrasting with the racing rhythmic background.  Brown improvises briefly, with Cleaver accompanying him, to close out the tune.

“Jealous Moon” has a slow, meter-less start, then Brown starts a funky bass line.  Rigby and Johnson then play a slow, discreet melody in unison.  Rigby plays a solo on soprano sax chock full of musical ideas.  Holober then plays a thoughtful solo with equally thoughtful support from Brown and Cleaver.

The Sage is a recording of interesting, fresh, serious jazz.  The tunes are not typical themes with a matching rhythm and harmony but more like tone poems each with a loosely connected, often contrasting, rhythmic background and an elusive harmonic structure.  Somehow Rigby and his team take these loose materials and create something very cohesive and surprisingly accessible.  The rhythm players couldn’t be better for this music: Holober is a fine soloist, and his adherence to the electric piano gives the recording a slightly retro, 70’s feel; Brown is rock solid, and Cleaver is consistently excellent, laying down rhythms that should clash with the melodies but somehow still work.  Rigby is an inspiring saxophonist, possessing an apparently endless supply of musical ideas, communicating them with impressive but never showy technique and a strong, attractive tone.  If you want a recording that’s more edgy than typical theme-solos-theme jazz but is still accessible and easy on the ears, you shouldn’t miss this recording.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Review: Swim - Joel Miller

Personnel: Joel Miller: tenor sax; Geoff Keezer: piano; Fraser Holllins: bass; Greg Ritchie: drums

On his jazz blog on the Ottawa Citizen website, Peter Hum judged Joel Miller’s Swim to be one of the top jazz recordings of 2012.  Swim is also in the running for a Juno award (Canada’s Grammy awards counterpart) for best contemporary jazz album of 2012.  I was grateful to Hum for bringing to my attention Ben Wendel’s Frame, one of my favorite recordings of 2012, so I thought I should give Swim a listen.

Swim begins strong with “Teeter Totter,” with a mid-tempo, gentle, swirling melody.  Miller has a warm, capacious sound on tenor (reminiscent of Geoff Vidal’s sound), which he uses to play aggressively lyrical, somewhat impressionistic phrases.  Keezer contributes a solo with lots of elegant, precise lines, almost classical-sounding.  Miller closes the cut with some more improvisation.  This is appealing, light-on-its-feet jazz with an urban feel.

“Honeycomb” is a straightforward, upper mid-tempo tune.  Miller plays a strong, swaggering solo, and Keezer’s solo is confident and in-your-face.  The two of them then play an intricate, lengthy line in unison.  Ritchie plays a drum solo intercut with phrases from the piano and saxophone, then Miller reads the melody to close the cut.

“Afternoon Off” has a relaxed, mid-tempo melody.  Miller shows off his command of the saxophone from the bottom to the top in a laid-back, lyrical solo.  Keezer plays a beautifully-controlled, Chick Corea-ish solo with some impressive technical flourishes; he just eats up the pleasant changes and relaxed tempo.

“Time of the Baracudas” is a pretty tune in a brisk 6/4 time.  Hollins plays a skillful, melodic bass solo, after which Miller and Keezer play another lengthy, intricate line in unison, which sounds like a transcribed improvised solo (but they forego any actual improvisation).  Then Ritchie plays a crisp solo interspersed with phrases from the ensemble.

“Drop Off” has a folk-ish melody that could have been written by Pat Metheny.  Miller shows a good command of the altissimo register in his skillful solo, which is probably prettier than what Michael Brecker or Chris Potter would have played, though perhaps not as virtuosic or ambitious.  Keezer plays fleet lines in his solo, which catches the spirit of the tune beautifully.  Miller and Keezer trade fours a few times to close out the tune.

“MarkAdamDrum” has a clever, disjointed melody.  Miller plays a slightly funky solo in a Bob Mintzer style.  Keezer’s solo is bouncy and bluesy and too brief.  Ritchie displays some nice drum work in between ensemble passages.

“Step into My Office” is like an up-tempo version of Charlie Parker’s “My Little Suede Shoes,” having a quicksilver melody line with sax and piano in unison.  Unfortunately, the brief sax and pianos solos don’t accomplish very much.  Ritchie gets in a nice little drum solo.

“This and That” is a mid-tempo, bluesy swinger with a strong melody and a Monk-ish bridge.  Miller and Keezer play solid solos, which have a chance to breathe compared to those of the previous tune.    

“Nos Etoiles (Intro)” has a pretty, folk-ish melody, which, in “Nos Etoiles,” is taken at a slightly higher tempo and given an almost rock beat, making it sound like a pop tune, but a good pop tune.  Keezer goes into a sparkly solo with McCoy Tyner-esque lines, and Miller spins out one pretty line after another.  Keezer and Miller then play another fast line in unison.  This tune feels very natural to the group.  (For some reason, I want to say this tune sounds “Canadian,” but I’m not sure why.  It does bear some resemblance to some Canadian folk/pop music I’ve heard before.)

The recording ends with “Jobim,” a brief cut with an out-of-tempo minor key melody with ascending and descending triplet figures, which gives the recording a quiet send-off.

Swim is a recording of very ear-pleasing post-bop jazz played by more-than-competent musicians, but it also has an air of playing it safe and by-the-numbers.  I wish there were more tunes like “Nos Etoiles,” on which the group seems to have a stronger identity than on the rest of the recording.  Miller has plenty of technical ability on the saxophone, a good sound, and is virtually a machine for producing pretty improvised phrases, but a lot of the music here just never takes flight.  I look forward to Miller’s next recording, though, with the hope that he might add some spice to his highly-accomplished, charming music and more clearly mark it with its own identity.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Review: Without a Net - Wayne Shorter Quartet

Personnel: Wayne Shorter: soprano and tenor saxophones, whistling; Danilo Perez: piano; John Patitucci: bass; Brian Blade: drums; the Imani Winds (flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn, bassoon)

Shorter begins Without a Net (his first recording in around 8 years) with “Orbits.”  The beginning of the cut starts with an ominous, low-register, four-note piano pattern, and Shorter freely improvises over it on soprano sax.  Then the group develops a groove, still centered on the original four-note pattern, Perez providing most of the glue, Shorter improvising at will over the rest of the group.  This cut never gets too far off the ground, but it still works pretty well.

Starry Night” starts with some out-of-tempo playing from the rhythm players, with the focus on Perez.  Shorter enters the proceedings on tenor, eventually playing soft, ephemeral phrases behind Perez’s soloing, his tone as dry as paper.  Shorter eventually becomes more assertive, and he and Perez improvise in tandem.  After a brief piano interlude, Shorter switches over to soprano sax, and Blade gets wilder and Perez more percussive as the piece reaches its climax.  The intensity abruptly falls off, and Perez and Shorter play a brief closing.

“Golden Mean” begins with a brisk chord figure from Perez and with Shorter on soprano, quoting a line from “Manteca.”  Shorter gets in some excellent soprano sax playing here over the sharp, upper mid-tempo groove.  Perez, Shorter, and Patitucci then spend some quality time improvising together.  Then Perez takes the spotlight with Shorter playing along with him.  The playing quiets down briefly and the piece comes to an end.

“Playa Real” has a bit more cohesion as a regular tune, a pretty one at that, with nice underpinning from Perez and a solid, mid-tempo groove.  Perez plays a repeated figure while Shorter wails away on soprano sax.  After some straightforward figures from Perez with Shorter taking a break, he comes back in for some more spirited improvising before the piece comes to a close.

“Myrrh” begins with some slow, tentative playing by the quartet.  The tempo remains slow, but it becomes heavier and more intense, Shorter playing some strong phrases on soprano.  This is a pretty short cut, at around 3:00, and it never really goes anywhere; it’s the recording’s weakest cut.

The recording takes a significant turn with “Pegasus,” a 23-minute piece that features the playing of the Imani Winds, a woodwind quintet.  The cut begins with a brief intro on piano, and then the winds basically take over with some slow, modernistic, dense orchestration.  Part of the piece is an orchestration of the opening of Shorter’s “Witch Hunt,” a nice line that works well in this context.  The music at this point sounds like modern dance or ballet music.  Then the jazz players make a splashy entrance.  At about 6 minutes in, Shorter starts improvising on soprano sax, accompanied by spurts of percussive phrases from the winds.  Perez takes the spotlight for a while as the winds lay out.  Shorter comes in again, beginning his improvising by quoting “Straight, No Chaser,” the winds again providing a disjointed background.  Then the winds lay out and the rhythm players take center stage for a while.  Shorter returns and begins a long and aggressive solo over repeated, heavy chords from Perez.  The final section of the piece starts with a marching fanfare with all the players, then things begin to quiet down to a clean end. 

“Flying Down to Rio” begins with a strolling chordal passage from Perez, with Shorter adding a little whistling.  Perez’s pattern sounds vaguely oriental, and a bit like the piano background in Billy Joel’s “Zanzibar,” while Shorter plays a slow, gentle melody on soprano.  Eventually Perez plays a heavy, slow chord pattern over which Shorter passionately solos.  Then Perez solos in an out-of-tempo section, with splashy accompaniment from Blade.  Shorter returns with more aggressive improvising, and the cut just seems to run out of steam.  The more conventional melody of this cut gives the group a nice anchor to work around, but it gets a bit aimless at the end and probably goes on too long.

“Zero Gravity” begins with a bit of Shorter’s whistling, with Patitucci providing a dancing line on bass for background.  Perez comes in with a vaguely Indian sounding background.  Patitucci sounds particularly good here.  Shorter adds some loose and intermittent but lyrical improvising on tenor sax, the rhythm players keeping things at a low simmer.  Then Perez gets into a long, Chick Corea-ish piano solo; this is some of his best playing on the recording.  Shorter returns briefly to make a strong melodic statement.  Blade then solos briefly over a repeated figure from Perez, then the cut trails off on Perez’s playing. 

Perez is the focus of “UFO,” playing a series of continuous, flowing lines and arpeggios.  The rest of the quartet provides disjointed, out-of-tempo accompaniment, Shorter adding some aggressive lines on tenor.  The up-in-the-air quality of this piece gives an appropriately unsettled ending to the recording.

The general approach on Without a Net is fairly unstructured, let’s-see-what-happens group interaction, which is somewhat hit-or-miss, though mainly successful, and it hangs together as much as it does because of the virtuosity, integrity, and experience of the players, especially Perez.  Personally, I find this intensely interactive music less cohesive and satisfying than that of, for example, Keith Jarrett’s European quartet, but some might prefer the exhilaration of experiencing great musicians working with very little structure.  The exception to the generally loose approach here is the highly composed “Pegasus,” which is excellent on its own but kind of sticks out like a sore thumb in the context of the rest of the recording.  For his part, Shorter, at nearly 80, is still playing extremely well, producing pure, almost classical-sounding tones on his saxophones and kinetic, generous improvisiations.  Overall, Without a Net is thoughtful and serious improvisation-based music, and it is important as a chronicle of the recent activity of one of the most imposing, and still vital, figures in the world of jazz. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

Performance Note: James Carter Organ Trio

I caught a performance of the James Carter Organ Trio last night in Baton Rouge, LA.  Holy cow.  This was basically a concert of soul/gospel/rhythm & blues music played by three top-flight jazz musicians.  I felt a bit like I was transported to a heavenly, jazz-infused Apollo Theater.  The music was the essence of soulful, with Carter just wailing away on tenor, soprano, and alto saxophones, Gerard Gibbs providing a musical cushion on the organ, and drummer Leonard King, Jr., producing sophisticated, driving, danceable, swinging rhythms. 

Carter’s level of virtuosity is so high that the saxophone has become more of a sound machine in his hands than a woodwind instrument.  He pushes the saxophone to its limits and then some, all without electronic enhancements, still retaining the instrument’s inherent vocal and emotional qualities, mixing in plenty of seductive whispering along with his wailing, and hitting everything in between.  At one point, when he was playing the soprano sax, I thought that this is how Grover Washington, Jr., would have played if he practiced more.  (And I really like Grover Washington, Jr.) 

There is a recent recording of the James Carter Organ Trio, “At the Crossroads,” which I haven’t heard, so I don’t know how this type of music transfers to a recorded format.  But if you have an opportunity to see this group live, if you have any affinity for rhythm & blues or stellar jazz saxophone playing, you’d be making a big mistake to miss them.  (The group’s schedule is posted here.  A special “heads-up” to folks in Syracuse, Roanoke, and St. Louis, though any AJS readers in Tokyo, Perth, and Jakarta are given a call-to-attention as well.)

Monday, February 4, 2013

Review: The Sirens - Chris Potter

Chris Potter: Tenor and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet; Craig Taborn: piano; David Virelles: prepared piano, celeste, harmonium; Larry Grenadier: double bass; Eric Harland: drums

Potter’s thematic recording based on Homer’s Odyssey (and also his ECM debut as a leader) begins with “Wine Dark Sea,” on which he (on tenor) and his group start with a strong introductory statement, like we’re already in medias res.  Then comes a solo bass figure, piano and drums join in, and then Potter and Taborn play the tune’s gorgeous theme in unison.  This tune is a like a slightly faster version of “Maiden Voyage” (appropriate for a recording based on the Odyssey), with a similar-feeling chord structure.  (The winding melody also reminds me a bit of Keith Jarrett’s “Spiral Dance,” from Belonging, another ECM recording.)  Potter then plays a powerful tenor solo, gliding throughout the range of the saxophone, exemplifying the phrase “effortless mastery.”  Taborn then plays an aggressive and melodic solo, sounding like a slightly more percussive Chick Corea.  The group re-states the melody, slows down, and ends on a falling tenor line—a cliff-hanger—prompting the listener to ask, “What’s next?”

“Wayfinder” has a slightly faster tempo than “Wine Dark Sea” and begins with some loose playing from the group, including Virelles on prepared piano, after which Potter states the theme on tenor.  Taborn and Virelles then engage in come intense improvisation in tandem with drum accompaniment.  Then Taborn and Potter play a fast, thorny theme.  Potter is hyper-alert in his solo, playing each phrase off the previous one.  After a re-statement of the theme, the cut has another abrupt, teasing ending.

“Dawn (with Her Rosy Fingers)” begins with a slow melody played by Potter on tenor with meterless, impressionistic accompaniment from the rhythm players, which is followed by a wispy, barely-there solo from Taborn.  Then Grenadier contributes a coy, unfussy bass solo.  Potter plays a graceful, dancing solo and re-states the theme to end the cut.

“The Sirens” has a slow, hazy, opening with just a hint of drums, Potter on bass clarinet playing a melody similar to a melancholy Irish folk tune.  Grenadier then plays a probing arco bass solo with Taborn providing accompaniment.  This vaporous music could be the background for a ballet or modern dance.  Potter returns, this time on tenor, and he plays a passionate, beseeching solo, his tenor sound cutting like a searchlight through the fog.  At the end of the solo, and the cut, he draws out a note for a long time that hangs like an unanswered question.

“Penelope” is a bluesy, lower mid-tempo tune with an elusive meter.  Potter, on soprano sax, displays his virtuosity in his solo while remaining musical and tasteful.  Taborn plays a limber, laid-back solo, and the cut closes with another teasing ending.

Things lighten up with “Kalypso,” which does sound vaguely like a calypso, though ECM-style, with a disjointed melody and somewhat loose rhythmic accompaniment.  This is the most “straightforward” jazz of the recording, the tune basically a reworking of “I Got Rhythm.”  Potter, on tenor, starts out his solo sounding like a bit like Sonny Rollins on “St. Thomas,” and he is able to stretch out and display his virtuosity at length.  Taborn sounds very Keith Jarrett-ish in his solo.  The cut ends with an ostinato like the one from the standard, “Star Eyes,” with Harland improvising some controlled fireworks on drums.

“Nausikaa” has Potter playing the pretty theme on soprano with out-of-tempo accompaniment.  The remainder of the cut is a showcase for an improvised duet between Taborn on piano and Virelles on celeste.  This duet works well, the celeste providing a magical frame around the piano phrases, the keyboardists receiving sensitive accompaniment from bass and drums.  Except for a bit of noodling at the end, Potter refrains from soloing.

“Stranger at the Gate” is a lower mid-tempo tune with a brawny theme stated by Potter on tenor.  Potter plays a logical, elegant solo, the rest of the group providing stellar support, especially Taborn.  Then Taborn plays a fine solo that starts out loose and floating and evolves into a series of powerful runs.

The recording ends quietly with “The Shades,” a brief (two-minute), delicate duet between Taborn and Virelles (on prepared piano).   This last cut could be the background music for a suspenseful scene in a French film.

“The Sirens” is an excellent recording.  The music generally has the seriousness and “gravity” that is characteristic of ECM recordings, but it is not ponderous and it’s always engaging.  Theme-based recordings are risky, flirting with pretentiousness, but everything on this recording works: compositions, pacing, improvisation, and accompaniment.  I would have liked the spotlight to have shined on Grenadier and Harland a bit more.  But this is really Potter’s show, and he delivers the goods.  It’s hard to imagine the saxophone being played better, on all counts—sound, technique, musicality.  From beginning to end, Potter’s meditation on the quintessential journey story gives his listeners a beautiful ride.

Addendum:  Our friends at NPR have provided a 73-minute performance of (mainly) The Sirens music by Chris Potter and his quartet at the Village Vanguard.  This kind of service by NPR is awesome.   

Sunday, February 3, 2013

NY Times Wayne Shorter Article

Interesting article on Wayne Shorter in today's (2/3/13) New York Times on the imminent (this Tuesday) release of his recording, "Without a Net."  Shorter, even at nearly 80, is still experimenting with the music, resisting the temptation to lean on things he's done in the past.  He seems like a somewhat cryptic guy, but I especially liked the quotation from him at the close of the article:

"To me there's no such thing as beginning or end," Mr. Shorter said.  "I always say don't discard the past completely because you have to bring with you the most valuable elements of experience, to be sort of like a flashlight.  A flashlight into the unknown."

Addendum: Looks like our friends at NPR have made the complete "Without a Net" available for a listen.  Check it out.