Sunday, May 26, 2013

Review: The Shift - John Serry

Personnel: John Serry: piano; David O'Higgins: tenor and soprano saxophones; Mark Mondesir: drums; Sam Burgess: acoustic bass (tracks 2, 3, 7, 8); Mike Mondesir: electric bass (tracks 1, 4, 5, 6).
I have a particular motivation for reviewing John Serry’s new recording, The Shift.  When I was an undergraduate studying philosophy and English literature at the University of Rochester’s River Campus, I took some music lessons at the Eastman School of Music (including an improvisation class from the excellent saxophonist Paul McGinley), and I attended a lot of jazz performances there.  That experience led me to keep a close and fond eye on Eastman jazz grads, including folks like Bob Sheppard, Steve Kujala, Allen Vizzutti, and Walt Weiskopf, and, of more recent vintage, Ben Wendel, Ike Sturm, Ted Poor, and Maria Schneider.  John Serry is an Eastman grad who was finishing his degree at Eastman when I was at the River Campus and whom I’ve kept an eye out for since then, though his recorded output has been sparse (to put it mildly).  So I was excited to see a new Serry recording, particularly since it featured David O’Higgins, a saxophonist I’d heard of but whose playing I hadn’t yet heard.
The Shift starts out with “Pockets,” a lower mid-tempo, straightforward jazz tune with O’Higgins (on soprano) and Serry in unison on the pretty theme.  O’Higgins displays a lot of variety in his solo, changing up fast lines with slower, more thoughtful phrases; his approach and tone remind me of Nick Brignola’s soprano sax playing.  Serry’s expansive solo is fairly Chick Corea-ish, with a nice mix of chords and fast single lines.  This is strong opener for the recording.
“Bills” is a mid-tempo tune with a melody so agreeable that it could have been the theme to a 60’s TV show.  (Hey, there were some good ones.)   O’Higgins develops his soprano sax solo nicely, starting out relaxed and eventually turning up the heat; he occasionally makes a nod to Joe Farrell’s style in his playing.  Serry toys around with some tension in the phrases in his solo, showing absolute comfort with his composition’s changes.  Burgess shows off some impressive technique in his melodic bass solo.  O’Higgins and Serry trade fours with drummer Mondesir before ending the cut.
“The Influence” starts with Serry by himself, very much in Chick Corea mode.  O’Higgins then moves right into his improvisation on tenor sax, displaying a warm, pleasing tone (along the lines of Hank Mobley) with good control of his judiciously-used altissimo.  His phrasing on tenor evinces a Michael Brecker influence.  Serry plays a strongly-swinging solo, gently propelled by Mondesir and Burgess, then O’Higgins and Serry play the theme in unison, and Serry closes out the cut unaccompanied.
The title tune starts out with O’Higgins (on tenor) and Serry in unison on a repetitive, disjointed melody in a funky, brisk 9/4.  O’Higgins is in full Brecker mode in a very good but too-brief solo.  Serry gets into a good groove in his solo, weaving in spiraling, quicksilver phrases, also ending too quickly.  Serry and bassist Mondesir lock into a repeated phrase while drummer Mondesir contributes some tasty soloing.
O’Higgins’s warm sound on tenor is especially evident on “Off the Cuff,” a mid-tempo jazz waltz with a catchy, bittersweet melody.  O’Higgins’s solo is lyrical and also includes a few Brecker-isms.  Serry composes a new piece in his relaxed and intensely swinging solo.  Bassist Mondesir plays a brief electric bass solo, mainly hovering in the instrument’s upper register. 
“Down Down Down” is a driving, mid-tempo cut that starts with an improvised intro from Serry.  O’Higgins is back on soprano sax to play the dramatic theme, and he gets off a solo that is dynamic and emotional yet always well-controlled.  Serry’s solo mixes contemplation with some serious swing.  Serry and bassist Mondesir repeat a phrase while drummer Mondesir has a field day all over his drum set. 
“Holiday” begins with an elegant, unaccompanied piano introduction, which moves into a lower mid-tempo groove with the rest of the group joining in; one could imagine a couple dancing an elegant fox trot to this one.  O’Higgins starts right out with a soulful improvisation on tenor, after which Serry and Burgess play relaxed, solid solos.    
The recording ends with “The One,” with a laid-back, mid-tempo theme played by O’Higgins and Serry in unison.  O’Higgins again plays a warm-toned solo with slippery, Brecker-ish phrasing.  Serry plays a long, thoughtful solo, then Burgess contributes a bass solo that is logical and full-toned, a bit reminiscent of Ron Carter. 
The Shift affirms that Serry is an excellent composer and performer of straight-ahead, substantial jazz.  His tunes are so lyrical that they’re close to sounding like Broadway show tunes.  The performances from all the musicians involved are uniformly excellent.  About the only criticism that comes to mind is that there is a bit too much uniformity in the recording, with almost every tune being mid-tempo and starting out with a saxophone solo followed by a piano solo.  But these are very minor issues.  It’s an indication of the quality of The Shift that it puts me in mind of Chick Corea’s Friends and Three Quartets recordings, in both cases the exceptional pianist and composer teamed up with great rhythm players and a great saxophonist (Joe Farrell in the former case and Michael Brecker in the latter).  And I’m glad to have been introduced to O’Higgins’s playing; he was a great choice for Serry’s project, coming off as a softer-, warmer-toned aficionado of Michael Brecker (though certainly not a clone).  I’ll be checking out his recordings from here on.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Review: Clockhead Goes to Camp - Daniel Bennett Group

Personnel: Daniel Bennett: alto saxophone, flute and clarinet; Mark Cocheo: guitar; Peter Brendler: bass; Tyson Stubelek: drums.

Clockhead Goes to Camp begins with “The Old Muskrat,” a sweet, cheerful tune with an African feel (aided by handclaps) taken at a strolling mid-tempo, alto sax playing in unison with guitar.  After the theme, Bennett plays a simple, bluesy solo, and Bennett and Cocheo improvise together to close out the cut.

“An Elephant Hugs a New Car” is another mid-tempo tune with an African feel that again features handclaps (or claves?).  Mid-way through the cut, it breaks out into something of a party, with Bennett playing a repeated phrase on alto sax against a background of shouts, a penny-whistle, tom toms, and a tambourine.

“Nine Piglets” has Bennett on flute, playing a pleasant, mid-tempo melody with a strong, water-clear tone.  The tune has a slight Spanish tinge, which is carried on in Cocheo’s pretty solo.  The cut ends on a repeated phrase played by flute and guitar.

“Mr. Duck’s Beautiful New Kitchen” has Bennett on alto again but in ¾ time.  In his solo, his tone is somewhat like Paul Desmond’s, except that he occasionally employs a very un-Desmond-like growl.  Cocheo adds a skillful, lyrical guitar solo.     

“Clockhead Goes to Camp” starts with an unaccompanied Bennett alto solo, his sweet, liquid tone standing out.  The tune itself is strongly syncopated and has a tricky meter.  Cocheo contributes a solid guitar solo.

“Whatever It Might Be” has Bennett on flute again, playing the tune’s theme in a brisk 5/4.  Bennett plays another solid solo, as does Cocheo, and then the cut has a partly distorted, singing/talking interlude.  The cut ends with Bennett improvising on flute. 

“Last Summer at Camp Creepy” has another tricky meter and Bennett improvising on alto sax with some jarring, against-the-grain lines.  Cocheo’s solo is more respectful of the chord changes and, again, intensely lyrical.  Brendler then plays a soulful bass solo that makes good use of dynamics.

“Paint the Fence” is a lovely, bittersweet melody, another flute feature, again in a tricky meter, with gentle acoustic and electric guitar strumming in the background.  Bennett lets loose with a somewhat wild solo, setting a mood rather than making a logical statement. 

“Sandpaper is Necessary” is an unaccompanied alto sax feature, on which Bennett uses his warm, liquid tone to good effect, creating his narrative by playing a phrase, resting a beat or two, and then playing exploratory variations on it, increasing the intensity as the performance unfolds.

“John Lizard & Mr. Pug” has Bennett on clarinet, displaying a thick, fluid tone on a 3/8 piece that sounds almost like a polka waltz, lasting just over a couple of minutes.

“Cabin 12 Escapes into the Night” is a foray into the avant-garde, made up of snippets of spoken phrases (from two sources), loose alto sax musings, tambourine, and guitar strumming.  Bennett gets into some altissimo screaming before the cut closes with Cocheo picking a repeated phrase.

“Patience” is a fast, 5/4 piece with Bennett on flute.  Bennett gets off a slick, bluesy flute solo, and then Brendler adds a funky, folksy bass solo.  Cocheo then plays a distorted, bluesy solo, displaying a few more tricks he has up his sleeve.

The recording ends with “Ten Piglets,” a feature for Cocheo’s unaccompanied, reverb-y electric guitar, a pretty, spacy piece appropriate for an alternative folk/rock group.

Most of “Clockhead Goes to Camp” is a jazzy take on the kind of earthy African pop music you might hear on Putumayo recordings, and it strikes me as a refreshing and innovative approach.  Bennett employs tricky meters to keep listeners on their toes, and the musicians keep their improvisations concise; the average cut is under four minutes.  Bennett and Cocheo are first-rate musicians and improvisers; Bennett takes the lead, but Cocheo provides stellar contributions to the project with vital background support and intelligent, ear-catching guitar improvisations.  This is not straight-ahead jazz that invites deep analysis, but it is attractive, rhythmically affecting music enlivened by terse jazz improvisations, and it is a sheer pleasure to listen to. 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Review: That Nepenthetic Place - Dayna Stephens

Personnel: Dayna Stephens: tenor saxophone; Taylor Eigsti: piano; Joe Sanders: bass; Justin Brown: drums; Ambrose Akinmusire: trumpet; Jaleel Shaw: alto saxophone; Gretchen Parlato: voice.

“Dah-Dot Da” begins with a strident, mid-tempo, post-bop theme with trumpet, tenor, and alto in harmony.  The theme eventually mellows out and leads into Stephens’s solo, which he carefully develops with his warm, liquid tone.  Shaw’s alto solo starts out with tentative phrases but evolves into a series of longer, faster lines.  Akinmusire employs his bright, commanding sound to play a solo that combines power and emotion, the rhythm section digging in behind him.  The cut closes on Eigsti’s improvised musings.

“Full Circle” is a quieter tune taken at a strolling mid-tempo, with the three horns in unison on the pretty theme.  Eigsti starts things off with a solo with shimmering, flowing lines.  Stephens’s tone in his solo sounds a lot like Joe Henderson, powerful and gentle at the same time.  Akinmusire is more thoughtful and meditative in his solo here, though he sprinkles in some fiery phrases as well.

“Nepenthetic” has a quiet, out-of-tempo start, with Stephens playing some breathy, gentle phrases.  Then the trumpet enters and tenor and trumpet briefly play in unison.  Then Sanders plays an arco bass line in unison with piano and the horns join in with a slow-moving theme.  Stephens then breaks out with an emotional, melancholy solo against a lower tempo background.  Then the horns form a background and Stephens joins them to close out the piece.

On “Common Occurrences” it’s just tenor and rhythm section, and Stephens and Eigsti play an intricate line in unison with an up-tempo background.  Stephens plays a straight-ahead, driving solo.  Eigsti starts his solo tentatively, but it soon kicks into a strong groove, and he fires off one fast, elegant phrase after another.  Stephens and Eigsti repeat the theme, and Brown solos briefly before the cut closes. 

“A Walk in the Parc” starts with pretty chords somewhat like a Steely Dan tune, and then Stephens plays a light, pretty theme.  Eigsti solos on piano with subtle electric piano chords in the background.  Stephens plays a thoughtful solo and even distorts his sound for a while.  Brown solos again against bass and electric piano.  Stephens restates the theme to close the piece.  This cut is a surprising and nice change of the recording’s pace thus far.

Parlato adds a new color to the recording with van Heusen’s “But Beautiful,” singing the pretty lyrics in a breathy, conversational, and seductive style.  Stephens then plays a brief, breathy solo against an atmospheric background, then Eigsti takes the spotlight with a delicate solo.  Parlato sings again and Stephens briefly improvises to close the tune.  The feeling of this cut is more of a piano and vocals performance with some tenor sax added in; Stephens plays more of a supporting role.

“Wink Wink” starts out with Stephens playing long notes in unison with Parlato (singing wordlessly), while Akinmusire and Shaw play a complex theme in unison over the tenor and voice.  Stephens then plays a graceful solo against a dense background of piano, electric piano, bass, and drums.  Parlato then adds some wordless, vocal impovisation, the background sounding a bit like Chick Corea backing Flora Purim on Light as a Feather.  Stephens returns, playing some acrobatic runs, then the other group members join in to play the theme to close out the cut. 

“American Typhoon” starts with a slow, loose intro from the rhythm section, with Eigsti mainly setting the tone.  Stephens and Akinmusire (on muted trumpet) then play a slow tone poem in unison, with Brown adding colorful flourishes instead of a pulse, Eigsti providing lush chords and arpeggios.  Stephens creates his own tone poem with his solo, against loose accompaniment from the rhythm players.  Eigsti then takes center stage, playing a chord-heavy, dramatic acoustic piano solo.  Stephens and Akinmusire replay the theme, there’s a bit more loose improvising from Stephens and the rhythm section, and the cut ends with some piano playing (I think) that sounds like hammered dulcimer, with hints of the theme from Coltrane’s “Impressions,” setting us up for the next cut.  

Stephens’s version of “Impressions” begins with the hammered dulcimer sound again providing a pulse, sounding a bit like a mid-tempo old Scottish march, with Stephens playing the theme at double-time, one drum beat per bar.  Akinmusire begins his solo low key but he picks up the pace a bit when Sanders starts a traditional bass walk and Brown kicks in a traditional (but light) beat.  Eigsti then plays a fairly straightforward, Chick Corea-ish solo.  Stephens starts slowly in his solo, then picks up the speed and intensity of his phrases and closes with some dramatic quavers.  Then Shaw begins his solo with probing phrases, the rhythm section slowing down its accompaniment, then he moves into overdrive with the rhythm section joining in, almost matching the drama of Stephens’s solo.  The close of the cut is pretty wild, having a carnival feeling--an improvised free-for-all for all the players, the hammered dulcimer sound returning.  This is a fine take on the Coltrane standard, with all hands performing well.

The recording closes with “Dr. Wong’s Bird Song,” which has Stephens and Eigsti playing a simple, repeated phrase in counterpoint to a different repeated phrase played by Akinmusire and Shaw, kind of a blues a la Phillip Glass.  Akinmusire solos first, toying with some repetitive phrases in his solo, catching the spirit of the tune.  Stephens plays a nimble, brief solo.  Sanders adds a low key solo before the cut closes with a repeat of the contrapuntal theme.  This is an interesting, low-key performance but something of an anti-climax after “Impressions”—almost like an encore.

Stephens provides a lot of variety with That Nepenthetic Place, with some straight-ahead cuts, some off-center cuts, a pop-ish vocal showcase, and a fresh take on “Impressions.”  The original compositions (including everything except “But Beautiful” and “Impressions”) are all well-conceived and interesting, and everyone plays well, especially Stephens, who is a consummate improviser.  With That Nepenthetic Place, as with the previously reviewed Today is Tomorrow, Stephens again fires on all cylinders.