Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Review: Eye of the Beholder - Tim Warfield

Personnel: Tim Warfield: tenor and soprano saxophones; Nicholas Payton: trumpet; Cyrus Chestnut: piano; Rodney Whitaker: bass; Clarence Penn: drums.
I’m unfamiliar with Tim Warfield’s work, but I caught him performing a smoking hot solo on a YouTube clip, and I thought I should check out his recent recording, Eye of the Beholder.
“Blues for Mr. Bill” starts straightforwardly enough, with a walking, mid-tempo, blues bass line, which is eventually joined by Warfield playing a simple blues theme on tenor.  But then Warfield and Payton start playing some off-center lines, and the cut veers away from a regular blues.  Warfield then plays a gruff, slightly outside solo with a solid, no-nonsense tone.  (He displays some wit in his solo, playing a warped quotation from “Look Away, Dixieland.”)  Payton’s solo isn’t as gruff, but he also refuses to stay on a straight blues path.  Chestnut stays in octaves for a good part of his solo, after which there is a return to the innocent, walking bass line.  At the end of the cut, after Warfield repeats the tune’s theme, the iconic end of Miles Davis’s “The Theme” is played, but the last note is left off, a reminder of the slightly sinister previous activities.
On Marlon Jordan’s compelling blowing vehicle, “The Undaunted” (which has a harmonic structure similar to the Coltrane tribute on Chick Corea’s Three Quartets), Warfield gets in a fine angular solo, combining elements of Joe Henderson and Coltrane, including some growling lines and upper register screaming.  Payton plays an accomplished solo in a Freddie Hubbard style, and Chestnut plays an engaging, McCoy Tyner-esque solo.  Penn gets in a good drum solo that is both fiery and controlled.  All the soloists on this cut really establish their credentials as top-notch players.
The project come off the rails a bit with “Tide a Dish I,” a free-for-all of unfocused, meterless improvising that briefly falls into a slow groove, with occasional whoops of “Tide a Dish!”  Lasting almost three minutes.  It’s hard to see the point of doing this kind of thing.
Things get back on track with a standard done in a non-standard meter, a relaxed, swinging version of “I Remember You” in 5/4 time, including a pretty introductory line.  Warfield plays a fleet tenor solo, but one that doesn’t develop much.  Payton plays an elegant, gliding solo so mellow that his trumpet sounds like a flugelhorn, and Chestnut’s solo sparkles.  After Warfield restates the theme, the cut ends with a repeat of the pretty introductory line, with Penn soloing in the background.
Payton’s “The Backwards Step” starts with some free-form playing by trumpet and soprano sax, with some loose, meterless accompaniment from the rhythm section.  The cut develops into a lower mid-tempo tune with a restrained, delicate theme played by the horns in unison and in harmony.  Payton starts his solo in this tempo, and with a beautiful phase that spirals into the stratosphere, the tempo goes double time.  His solo remains interesting and virtuosic throughout.  Staying in double-time, Warfield plays a well-constructed, highly controlled solo on soprano.  Chestnut then plays a persistently swinging solo, first in the double-time section, and then slowing things down, which brings in the horns again on the theme.
“Tide a Dish II” has some dark, minor-key, free-form playing from the quintet, the horns bleating and then screaming in the upper register.  After that, Whitaker plays a repeated bass phrase and then a walking bass line over which the horns skip around and loosely improvise.  This is about as successful as “Tide a Dish I.”
Warfield’s “Ramona’s Heart” is a pleasant ballad, on which Warfield affects a breathier, woodier tone on tenor sax.  He employs a lot of space in his meditative, almost tentative, solo.  Chestnut plays an understated, last-call-at-the-jazz-club solo, and Whitaker has a lyrical bass interlude.  (Payton lays out on this one.)
“Second Thoughts” is a good, straight-ahead jazz tune by Mulgrew Miller, taken at mid-tempo.  Warfield plays a solid, straightforward solo, sounding like a combination of Coltrane and Hank Mobley.  Payton plays a relaxed solo, just strolling through the changes.  Chestnut plays an intensely swinging, glittering solo, with fast runs and a lot of rhythmic variety.  Whitaker adds a fleet-fingered, melodic  solo.  This cut is a real gem.
The recording ends with Warfield’s “Forever, One Day at a Time,” a quiet, mid-tempo tune.  Warfield plays an inquisitive, patient solo.  Payton, using a mute, also plays a low-key solo, but he adds some heat and drama near the end.  Chestnut plays a brief solo, but his accompaniment is noteworthy throughout the cut, decorating the background with bright arpeggios and glissandi. 
Eye of the Beholder is a solid jazz recording, reminding me of the early recordings of Wynton and Branford Marsalis.  Warfield is a very capable sax player, generally utilizing a combination of Coltrane’s and Hank Mobley’s styles, and he couldn’t ask for a better partner than Payton.  Cuts 2, 4, 5 and 8 are extremely good.  The two “Tide a Dish” cuts were bad ideas, in my view, and without them the recording would have been stronger.  Unfortunately, the Warfield-composed cuts are the weakest on the recording, though they are ok (except for the misbegotten Tide-a-Dishes, of course, which really aren’t compositions, anyway).  These musicians seem to up their game depending on the material they play, and when they’re engaged by their material, it’s about as good as jazz gets. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Review: Small Constructions – Dan Tepfer & Ben Wendel

Personnel: Ben Wendel: melodica, bassoon, saxophones; Dan Tepfer: piano, Fender Rhodes piano

I really enjoyed Ben Wendel’s recording, Frame, so I couldn’t resist checking out his new duet recording, Small Constructions, with keyboardist Dan Tepfer.

“Still Play” has electric piano, piano, and soprano sax on an upper mid-tempo, abstract theme.  Then bassoon comes in on a repeated background phrase.  Tepfer plays a nice, Chick Corea-ish solo on piano, followed by a thoughtful, interesting soprano sax solo from Wendel.  The soprano sax and piano then play in unison and then have some dual improvisation with bassoon as background, on which the cut fades out.

The theme of Monk’s “Pannonica” gets a fairly Baroque interpretation from Tepfer on piano and Wendel on tenor sax.  Wendel’s tone sounds here like Stan Getz’s, maybe even a bit fuller, and his improvised phrases sound Getz-ish, too.  Tepfer and Wendel trade eights.  This is some elegant and serious but playful music.  The cut has a lovely, gentle close. 

Wendel’s composition “Jean and Renata” has a lower mid-tempo, elusive, abstract theme, somewhat reminiscent of Chick Corea’s Children’s Songs.  Wendel (on  tenor) and Tepfer (on piano) improvise a bit but don’t really generate any heat.

Lennie Tristano’s “Line Up” starts with an electric piano ostinato, then piano and tenor sax in unison on an intricate, swinging line.  Tepfer then plays the theme by himself on what sounds like a clavinet, and then tenor and piano are in unison again.  Wendel constructs a slick soprano sax solo mostly out of continuous eighth notes, mirroring the tune’s intricate theme.  After a quick sax/piano re-reading of the theme, the clavinet and soprano trade fours, with electric piano still in the background, preceding a clever ending to the cut composed of multiple ascending lines.

Wendel’s “Line” is a two-minute interlude, really just a pause in the more substantial proceedings, which starts with a single, lower register phrase that meanders over the piano.  Wendel then joins in on melodica with a contrasting phrase.

Tepfer’s “Nines” has piano and tenor sax in unison on a brisk, upper mid-tempo, Phillip Glass-type line, which moves into a more conventional melody, like an espionage movie theme.  Then with a constant eighth-note theme in the background, Wendel and Tepfer trade improvised sections, Wendel displaying some remarkable control over the altissimo register and Tepfer again sounding Chick Corea-ish.   

Tepfer’s “Gratitude” has a romantic beginning with Tepfer on piano.  Then piano and tenor sax join in unison on a slow, out-of-tempo, elegiac theme.  Wendel plays a deeply melodic solo, like he is composing on the horn.  With tenor and bassoon in the background, Tepfer plays a similarly melodic solo.  Tenor sax and piano repeat the theme to close the cut.

Tepfer and Wendel provide a light-hearted, relaxed reading of Monk’s “Ask Me Now,” reminding us how good a tune this is.  Tepfer then plays a pretty, swinging solo with a touch of Brad Mehldau, Wendel providing some light tenor accompaniment in the shadows.  Wendel also provides a pretty, swinging solo. 

Tepfer’s “Rygabag” is a bluesy, mid-tempo, 3/4 time tune with piano and tenor sax in unison.  Wendel plays a passionate, probing improvisation, again making delicate use of the altissimo, after which the tune falls away.

Tepfer (on piano) and Wendel (on tenor sax) do a melancholy, slightly twisted interpretation of “Darn That Dream,” though they play the bridge pretty straight.  It’s a lovely reading of the tune, but they leave off any improvisation.

“Variation in D Minor” has Tepfer meditatively improvising over a background of woodwinds performing Handel’s piece.  The contrast between the jazz improvisation and the classical piece is an interesting effect, but to my mind it doesn’t quite work.

The recording closes with “Oblique Strategy.”  This cut is just some meterless, wandering improvising by Wendel on alto sax over slow piano chords.  Unfortunately, this is probably the weakest cut on the recording.

Overall, Small Constructions is a fine, fresh contribution to the saxophone/piano duo corpus, something like what you would have gotten if Stan Getz did a duet album with Chick Corea just after they had graduated from a master’s program in jazz performance.  This is highly accomplished, engaging music, though the improvisations (as good as they are) are a bit too brief to make a significant statement, and the music may be a little too abstract and academic for some.  On the other hand, there remains something earthy and “old school” about Wendel’s playing, which adds to its appeal.  His fine sound on the tenor and soprano saxophones is more evident here than on the more musician-heavy recording, Frame.  For those who enjoyed Frame, Small Constructions is not a disappointment, though it feels a couple of tapas shy of a full meal. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Review: New Life - Antonio Sanchez

Personnel: Antonio Sanchez: drums, vocals, additional keyboards; Dave Binney: alto saxophone; Donny McCaslin: tenor saxophone; John Escreet: piano, Fender Rhodes; Matt Brewer: acoustic and electric bass; Thana Alexa: voice.

Sanchez played impressively on Pat Metheny’s Unit Band recording, and he has two stellar saxophonists on his new recording, New Life, altoist Dave Binney and tenorist Donny McCaslin, so giving New Life a listen seemed like a good idea.

The recording starts with “Uprisings and Revolutions,” which begins with the saxophonists playing an earthy, melancholy theme slowly without meter.  The beginning reminds me of some of McCoy Tyner’s music, with John Escreet sounding a lot like Tyner, playing dramatic tremolos.  Then the pulse picks up and a mid-tempo, 7/4 meter kicks in, with the saxophonists playing the theme again, in unison and in harmony, against a heavy modal background.  McCaslin starts the solos, playing his usual gliding, virtuosic lines over the heavy chords, including some emotional swoops into the altissimo.  Binney slides into the picture as McCaslin finishes his solo, and he includes a lot of superfast lines and altissimo screaming, but keeps his solo consistently musical and engaging.  Then Sanchez solos against a bass and piano ostinato, displaying great variety and subtlety in his playing, nicely balancing cymbals and drums.  A very strong start to the recording. 

“Minotauro” begins with a single note repeated on the bass, then some chords on the electric piano, then a fast, exploratory line played by the two saxophones in unison in an up-tempo 6/4.  Escreet then plays a beautifully controlled electric piano solo.  Sanchez plays amazing accompaniment behind Escreet; he almost steals the pianist’s thunder.  Sanchez then solos over the repeated bass note and Escreet’s occasional chords, eventually working up to a double-time section.  The saxes come in to play the theme again, but this cut was the Sanchez and Escreet Show.

“New Life” is something of a mini-suite, with a few different sections.  It starts with a repeated phrase from Escreet, who is joined by Brewer playing a simple figure on bass, and then it moves into a simple, folk-ish melody played by Escreet on piano.  The trio is then joined by Thana Alexa, singing without words.  At this point, the cut sounds very much like the Pat Metheny recordings that feature wordless vocals.  The rhythm section then starts a rock-ish groove, and the saxes enter playing a harmonized line.  McCaslin plays a funky solo over the rock-ish groove.  The music then moves into a section with heavily overdubbed vocals, sounding somewhat like a rock opera.  (This section is a bit over-the-top.)  The wall of sound falls away and Escreet plays a simple theme by himself, then the bass and drums join him and he plays a relaxed, lyrical solo with, again, outstanding accompaniment from Sanchez.  Then the music returns to the wordless vocal theme, this time in unison with Binney’s alto sax.  A synthesizer joins in and ratchets up the Metheny factor.  Then Binney and Alexa improvise together and the cut fades out.  But this is a fake ending, and the cut starts again with some slow piano chords and some light drumming, along with some spacy synthesizer, probably played by Sanchez.  (This little coda doesn’t seem to add anything, especially after 13 full minutes of music; the cut would have done just fine ending with the fade-out on Binney and Alexa.)

“Nighttime Story” has a soulful, blues-tinged theme played slowly by alto sax with understated accompaniment from the rhythm players.  The tune develops a gospel-ish feel, in a slow 6/8.  Binney, Escreet, and McCaslin all play heartfelt solos.  Binney and McCaslin then play the theme in harmony to the end.

“Medusa” starts with brief dual improvisation from the saxophonists and moves into a fast, syncopated line played by the saxes in harmony, the music again sounding very McCoy Tyner-ish.  After a bit more dual improvisation from the saxophonists and a repeat of the theme, Binney and McCaslin both play well-developed, logical solos.  The music closes out on a brief repeat of the theme and then a Brewer bass line. 

“The Real McDaddy” starts with a playful McCaslin and Binney improvised duet, featuring a series of short, sharply-tongued notes.  The saxophonists then trade phrases of a funky melody, then the entire group gets into a mid-tempo groove on a Brecker Brothers-type arrangement.  Escreet plays a long, quietly wild electric piano solo during which Sanchez plays some sneaky, clever accompaniment.  Then Sanchez takes the spotlight for a while with some well-placed “interruptions” from Escreet and Brewer.  Binney and McCaslin return to play the theme, then the tune goes into slower, more swinging groove, and Binney and McCaslin improvise together and play a fragment of the theme to close the cut.    

“Air” has a pretty, slow piano intro from Escreet and then a slow theme played on soprano sax.  It’s not noted who’s playing the soprano in the personnel notes; I think it’s Binney, but that’s just a guess.  Brewer plays a lyrical, melancholy bass solo, and then whoever is on the soprano sax plays a gem of a solo.

On “Family Ties,” Excreet plays a slow piano intro.  The tune breaks into an upper mid-tempo groove, and the saxes play a pretty, anthem-like theme in unison.  Escreet then plays a lovely solo with authority, showing off some impressive technical flourishes near the end.  The tempo then slows down for a more relaxed, soulful feel, and McCaslin and Binney each has a brief but impressive solo turn before they trade fours.  At over eight and a half minutes, this cut seems too brief and is a very impressive way to close the recording.

New Life is a really fine recording.  The music here is filled with intelligence, emotion, and superb technique, and it contains a lot of variety, from McCoy Tyner-ish modal tunes, to funky and quasi-rock grooves, to ballads.  Throughout, the music is marked by professionalism, experience, and acute attention to detail.  New Life demonstrates that Sanchez is virtually on a par with Metheny as a musician, composer, and leader of other musicians, and that’s some pretty good company to be in.  (I also think New Life rivals the Pat Metheny Unity Band recording, which was widely considered to be one of the best of 2012.)

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Review: Hagar's Song - Charles Lloyd and Jason Moran

Personnel: Charles Lloyd: tenor and alto saxophones, bass and alto flutes; Jason Moran; piano, tambourine

Hagar’s Song starts out with Billy Strayhorn’s “Pretty Girl,” whose theme Lloyd plays slowly on tenor with a gentle, lightweight tone free of vibrato, Moran accompanying with arpeggios.  Lloyd then briefly solos, employing a skittering improvisational style, running scales and playing flurries of notes over the horn.  After this loose improvisation by Lloyd, Moran plays a lovely, gospel-tinged solo section.  Lloyd returns to play the theme again to close the cut. 

“Mood Indigo” has Lloyd on tenor again, playing the theme at a swinging mid-tempo, after a Moran intro that feels transported from the 1940s.  Then Lloyd plays a vaguely Coltrane-esque solo, though his phrases seem somewhat haphazard.  Moran then plays a fun, Ellingtonian interlude, bordering on a stride style.  Lloyd returns to play the theme and some casual improvisation.

“Bess, You Is My Woman Now” starts with Lloyd playing the theme on tenor at a slow tempo and features Moran playing a dramatic, nearly classical-sounding improvisation.  Lloyd states the pretty theme of Joe Greene’s “All About Ronnie” slowly on tenor, after which Moran has a low-key interlude.  (I hesitate to call some of the sections Moran plays here “solos,” since they are deliberate and understated to the point of sounding pre-written.)  “Pictogram” features some free-form, enlivened improvising from Lloyd on alto sax.  Moran accompanies Lloyd with a walking bass line on piano after which lets loose a bit with an imaginative, angular solo.  Lloyd returns to tenor for the pretty ballad, “You’ve Changed.”  He and Moran change things up nicely at the end of the cut, with Lloyd playing the first half of the theme and Moran playing the second half of the theme by himself.

“Hagar’s Suite” begins with “Journey Up the River,” with Lloyd playing a vaguely Native American theme on bass flute, Moran eventually adding a bluesy accompaniment.  Moran takes over for a while with an insistent, soulful interlude, then Lloyd plays a higher-pitched theme, with Moran on tambourine.  The interplay between Lloyd and Moran here is meditative, but doesn’t contain much in the way of improvisational interest.  The cut has a pretty, shimmering close.

“Dreams of White Bluff” has Lloyd back on tenor, and, at this point, I was struck by how similar his tone on tenor is to his bass flute tone on “Journey,” showing just how soft his sound is on the saxophone.  This tune is melancholy and has a similar feel to the previous “Journey,” though a bit more like a spiritual.  Moran accompanies Lloyd with a series of gentle tremolos, and there is a fair amount of wandering, free-form improvisation before the tune ends meditatively.

“Alone” has Lloyd on alto flute accompanied by tambourine and single, repeated notes on the piano.  There is some urgency and drama in the duo’s playing before it moves seamlessly into “Bolivar’s Blues.”  Lloyd switches to alto sax for some slow improvisation, Moran then urging the saxophonist to pick up the pace with his insistent accompaniment, Lloyd’s playing then becoming more bluesy and ranging higher on the horn, probably his most interesting improvising on the recording. 

The last piece in “Hagar Suite’s,” “Hagar’s Lullaby,” has Lloyd playing a gentle, lyrical theme on alto sax followed by some slow improvisation that stays close to the theme, Moran playing drawn-out chords in the background. 

On Earl Hines’s “Rosetta,” after a spirited intro from Moran, Lloyd’s lines on tenor feel jubilantly unshackled after the close quarters of “Hagar’s Suite.”  Lloyd’s improvisation rambles over the tune and then it closes a bit wildly.  Moran then has some fun with the tune, twisting its traditional contours.  This cut is one of the more successful ones on the recording.

Lloyd does a touching reading of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” on tenor, with sensitive, exquisite backing from Moran.  (I’d like to hear Moran play this song by himself sometime.)  The recording closes with a pretty straight reading by the duo of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.”

Hagar’s Song is somewhat like a mirror image of Wayne Shorter’s Without a Net.  Whereas Shorter’s recording has a long, highly composed piece in the middle, flanked by the group’s more typical loosely structured pieces, Lloyd’s recording has a free form, loosely structured suite in its center, which is flanked by more traditional, composed pieces and more structured improvisations.  But in my view, Without a Net is a much stronger collection of music than Hagar’s Song.  Lloyd’s improvisations on this recording strike me as generally aimless and one-dimensional.  In this setting, even Moran seems encumbered; his playing doesn’t have nearly the ingenuity and focus it evinces on other recordings (such as the Walter Smith’s III and Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Apex, both reviewed here on AJS).  The playing overall, though gentle and pleasant, is listless.  In my view, sad to say, Hagar’s Song just doesn’t have much to offer to lovers of jazz saxophone or lovers of jazz in general.