Monday, June 24, 2013

Review: Grace - JD Allen

Personnel: JD Allen: tenor saxophone; Eldar Djangirov, piano; Dezron Douglas: bass; Jonathan Barber: drums

The recording begins with “Mass” (5:14) with an abstract, floating theme played at upper mid-tempo, having a vague waltz feel.  Eldar solos first, playing disjointed phrases in octaves and imaginatively toying with the tune’s theme.  Allen in his solo displays a rich, compressed tone and elegant vibrato, also toying with the theme, interspersing it with quicksilver phrases.

“Lode Star” (5:03) is another mid-tempo piece, though it has Barber energetically bubbling in the background.  Allen improvises in a loose fashion, drawing out long lines, occasionally recalling the theme.  Eldar’s solo is more driving this time, focusing on winding, Keith Jarrett-ish lines.  Douglas adds a brief snatch of melody to close the cut.

“Chagall” (5:49) starts with a series of chords from Eldar, then bass and drums join in.  Barber again plays energetically behind Eldar’s static chords and the slow theme.  Allen plays another vague theme and then a cerebral solo constructed of fast lines.  Then Eldar takes over, constructing a mini-composition of alternating fast and slow phrases and chord passages.  Eldar’s playing has a pinch of a gothic, Old World feel, as though he were performing in a dusty tea room in Prague or Romania.  Barber takes the spotlight briefly before the cut is over.

“Luke Sky Walker” (5:40) has a loose beginning, with all the players seeming to be warming up.  Then the rhythm players appear to be starting a swinging groove, but Allen resists this, leaving the impression that the group isn’t entirely sure in which direction it wants to go.  Allen’s solo doesn’t seem to quite come together.  Eldar’s improvising is more focused and in sync with the bass and drums, including some elegant chord passages. 

“Grace” (5:07) starts with an extended, meterless solo excursion by Eldar with loose accompaniment from bass and drums.  Then Allen comes in improvising, the accompaniment from his bandmates remaining loose, and the cut closes without any clear theme being stated.

“Detroit” (3:06) has a sad, slow, bluesy theme, which Allen plays with soul and emotion.  Barber again percolates against a repeated drone from bass and drums.  (The pianist lays out on this one.)  The cut fades out on Allen’s melancholy improvising and is too brief; I wish they had developed it more fully.

“Cross Damon” (6:11) has a slow, out-of-time intro, with Douglas playing arco bass.  The cut then goes into a slow, pretty theme.  The groove becomes upper mid-tempo, and Allen plays a cool, smart solo.  Then Eldar solos, sounding Keith Jarrett-ish again, and Barber closes out the cut.

“Pole Star” (3:36) is another tentative-sounding piece, apparently not sure whether it wants to be double time, swing, or mid-tempo.  There’s some nice interplay between Douglas and Allen (Eldar lays out for this part).  Then Eldar comes in improvising, again playing phrases in octaves and clusters of chords, with Barber very active behind him.  The cut eventually seems simply to run out of steam for a close.

“Papillon 1973” (5:23) has another indistinct theme, but it quickly moves into impressive, enchanting improvising from Allen, again with just bass and drums for accompaniment.  Eldar then re-enters for his improvisation, which is mainly linear this time, working hand-in-glove with the bass and drums. 

“Selah (My Refuge)” (5:59) is a change of pace, with a slow, delicate intro from Eldar and then Allen playing the earthy, melancholy theme.  Allen’s solo is too brief, played over the simple harmony spelled out by Douglas’s bass line.  Eldar contributes a fine, thorny solo, and Allen repeats the theme to close the cut.

Grace closes with “The Little Dipper” (5:03), with a slow, elusive theme in ¾ time.  Allen’s improvisation floats around Douglas’s insistent bass notes and Barber’s light drumming.  Eldar’s improvisation contains complex opposing lines, one hand seeming to converse with the other. 

Grace has an overall loose, languid feel with nebulous tunes, the group apparently wanting to rely primarily on interplay and serendipity.  Whatever success the recording has in this approach--and it has quite a bit—is mainly due to the sensitivity of the rhythm players and the Herculean improvising abilities of Allen and Djangirov, who are both typically captivating and never less than interesting.  I would have preferred a bit more structure in the cuts, with stronger tunes and more rehearsed collaboration.  By contrast, Allen’s recording Victory seemed to have more distinct tunes and a clearer overall concept.  At the very least, though, Grace is well worth listening to for anyone interested in hearing top-flight players interact with a minimum of structure (reminiscent of Wayne Shorter’s Without a Net) and especially for Allen’s and Djangirov’s complex, smart, engaging improvisations.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Happy Anniversary

Just a little note of self-congratulation: One year ago today, All Jazz Sax got its first post.  (Woo hoo.)  So much good music, so many good sax players...

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Review: 4003 - Jonas Holgersson

Personnel: Jonas Holgersson: drums; Gerard Presencer: trumpet; Hans Ulrik: tenor saxophone; Mathias Landaeus: piano; Johnny Åman: bass.

Be forewarned: this is a long one. 

I read a review of Swedish drummer Jonas Holgersson’s recording 4003 by Chris Mosey in All About Jazz that piqued my interest.  Mosey seemed almost personally offended by Holgersson’s approach in 4003 to some classic jazz performances, playing not just the same melodies and chords as the originals but the same arrangements as well.  Jazz listeners certainly understand jazz musicians adhering to the melody and harmonic structure of previously-performed tunes—that’s why they’re called “standards.”  So why should someone have a problem with performers adhering closely to a previously-performed arrangement?  Mosey claimed in his review of 4003 that “something—a great deal actually, is always missing,” that “the gap between their enthusiastic efforts and the real thing is enormous.”  As with all things in jazz, the proof is in the listening, so I resolved to check this for myself.  (Also, I was curious about saxophonist Hans Ulrik, who I hadn’t heard before.)  I decided that for each of 4003’s cuts I would listen to the original performance first and then to Holgersson’s version to see if the musicians failed to produce “the real thing.”     

“Deciphering the Message” is originally on Art Blakey’s Live at the Café Bohemia, Vol. 1.  Composed by Hank Mobley, it has a rousing hard bop theme taken at an upper mid-tempo, and it features fine, lengthy solos by Mobley and Kenny Dorham.  Holgersson’s version (4:01) is very similar to Blakey’s.  The soloists, though, do their own thing.  Ulrik has a laid-back style, with a straightforward approach to phrasing, somewhat similar to Mobley’s.  Landaeus’s piano solo sparkles but is too brief.  Presencer’s solo is very melodic and skillful, and he employs here a sound and approach to phrasing similar to Dizzy Gillespie’s.  Holgersson adds a brief but tasteful solo.  Even juxtaposed with the original, this version struck me as being very good; more succinct and focused than Blakey’s version, with solid improvisations.

The original of “The Thing to Do,” a Jimmy Heath composition, is on Blue Mitchell’s recording of the same name.  This one sounds like a classic Horace Silver type tune, a mildly funky, mid-tempo swinger.  Mitchell plays a relaxed, textbook jazz solo; aspiring jazz trumpeters would do well to transcribe this one.  Junior Cook adds his own excellent solo.  On Holgersson’s similar version (6:23), Presencer mixes in some high note stabs and against-the-grain phrasing in his solo, quite different from Mitchell.  Ulrik’s solo is mellow and solid, in which he prefers quick bursts of melody rather than long, drawn-out lines.  Landaeus’s solo is very tasteful and swinging, reminding me of Wynton Kelly’s playing.  Aman briefly takes the spotlight for a nice solo. 

Grant Green’s version of “Idle Moments” (on his album of the same name) is taken at a remarkably slow tempo, the epitome of dreamy, sensuous jazz.  It almost seems too slow, though I’m sure Green got just the effect he wanted.  It’s very long, too, at almost 15 minutes, though Green, Duke Pearson, Joe Henderson, and Bobby Hutcherson fill up the time with superb improvisation.  (Joe Henderson’s tenor solo is so languorous and played at such a low volume that it almost seems tongue-in-cheek.)  Holgersson’s version (5:35) is taken at a slightly faster tempo; Green’s version is around quarter note = 55, while Holgersson’s is around 80.  It’s also much shorter: 5 ½ minutes to Green’s 15.  Holgersson’s version is still cool and sensuous, but it may take brevity too far (which I think is a recurring problem on 4003); Ulrik only gets one chorus for his solo, though he uses it well, and Landaeus doesn’t even get a full chorus.  Presencer at least gets two choruses for his solo, which is very good and includes some imaginative, lithe phrasing and showy high-note blowing.

The next three cuts are departures from 4003’s classic tenor/trumpet re-visitations and have original arrangements (by Torbjorn Gulz).  The first of these, “Prism,” was originally from Keith Jarrett’s recording Changes, with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, and it is a fine jazz trio performance of a typically imaginative and lyrical Jarrett composition.  Holgersson’s version (7:18) is a re-working, with a wholly original intro, a faster tempo, and a more pronounced melody line, stated by the trumpet and tenor in harmony.  Aman starts things off with a graceful bass solo, Presencer contributes a fine flugelhorn solo, and Landaeus plays a strong, angular, Jarrett-ish solo.  (Ulrik refrains from soloing on this one.)

“Isotope” is, of course, Joe Henderson’s jaunty blues from his Inner Urge recording.  Holgersson’s version (6:24) has a fairly long, original intro, with Ulrik and Presencer in unison, and a slightly altered melody.  Ulrik plays an interesting, lively solo with a lot of variety.  Landaeus is more relaxed and straightforward, and Presencer plays a well-developed solo.

“Sonnet for Caesar,” from Duke Ellington’s recording Such Sweet Thunder, is a stately, melancholy piece played on clarinet (by Jimmy Hamilton, I think), without any improvisation.  In Holgersson’s version (5:41), his snare beat almost turns the piece into a slow march.  Ulrik and Presencer take turns playing the theme until the end of the piece when they play in unison, and the rhythm players vary their backdrop throughout.  This cut is something of an odd departure for the album, considering its origin as a big band piece with no improvising.  Perhaps Holgersson was enchanted by the melody and thought it would be a good change of pace at this point in the recording.

Getting us back into classic tenor/trumpet mode, “Infra-Rae” is a slick, upper mid-tempo Hank Mobley composition, coming from the Art Blakey recording The Jazz Messengers, and it features fine solos from Mobley and Donald Byrd and a great one from Blakey.  Holgersson’s version (4:44) is lighter than Blakey’s.  Ulrik digs in on this tune for a driving solo.  Presencer on flugelhorn plays in duet with Holgerson for a chorus, then the bass joins in on the next chorus, and finally the piano, Presencer acquitting himself well throughout.  Holgersson plays an intelligent, controlled solo.

“Extempore” is a composition by Clifford Jordan from his recording Mosaic, a relaxed, mid-tempo blues.  Holgersson’s version (5:12) basically repeats Jordan’s arrangement, including his tempo.  Presencer employs his trademark gliding lines in his solo, but he mixes in some more soulful phrases as well.  Both Ulrik and Landaeus add some against-the-grain phrases to spice up their solos.

“Una Mas” is, of course, the classic, Latin-tinged piece from Kenny Dorham.  His trumpet solo is pretty funky; he doesn’t just play polite, clean lines.  Joe Henderson’s tenor solo has some great twists and turns.  Holgerson’s version (5:09) is not as vigorous, but it’s still very good.  Ulrik’s solo is both searching and attractive.  Presencer employs more of his Dizzy-like upper-register shouts.  Landaeus’s solo is graceful and low key and too brief. 

“My Groove, Your Move,” by Hank Mobley, is a mid-tempo, smooth, Horace Silver-ish piece, originally on Mobley’s recording Roll Call.  Holgersson’s version (6:43) is lighter (Art Blakey is Mobley’s drummer) and a bit slower than Mobley’s.  Landaeus employs an elegant style in his solo like Mobley’s pianist, Wynton Kelly.  Ulrik plays one of his best solos of the recording, funkier than Mobley’s, who seems to favor a more linear approach.  Presencer plays a nice duet with Aman for a couple of choruses before he turns up the heat with the whole rhythm section.  Aman finishes the solos with a swinging contribution.

“Roll Call,” also by Mobley, and the title cut of the aforementioned recording, starts with a strong Blakey intro, leading to what is like a bop anthem.  (It’s an excellent opener for Mobley’s recording.)  Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet solo is scorching.  (I hear a lot of Randy Brecker in this solo, though, of course, the influence is the other way.)  Blakey’s solo is, once again, great.  Holgersson’s version (4:37) starts right in on the theme and is less aggressive than Mobley’s though taken at the same tempo.  Presencer plays a smart, lyrical solo, Landaeus’s is short and sweet, and Ulrik trades fours with Holgersson for a couple of choruses.

The recording ends with “Driftin’,” a cool, lower mid-tempo Herbie Hancock composition from his recording Takin’ Off.  This tune has a down-home, “good night and happy trails” feeling, so it’s a good closer for Holgersson’s recording.  On Hancock’s version, Dexter Gordon plays one of his swaggering, perfectly-constructed solos, and Freddie Hubbard’s solo is laid back and mellow.  In Holgersson’s version (6:46), Ulrik is looser and less driving than Gordon.  Landaeus solos with clean, precise lines, though he finishes with some funky chord flourishes.  Presencer’s solo is a series of fast, pretty lines.  Hancock’s version just fades out on him repeating a phrase; Holgersson’s has some group improvisation and a clean finish by the group.

At the end of the day, I don’t understand why Mosey is so down on 4003.  Holgersson’s arrangements of some of the classic compositions he plays are very similar to the originals, but my reaction to hearing them is akin to my reaction to hearing the originals: what great tunes and arrangements!  Furthermore, it’s not like Holgersson tried to match the originals perfectly; his arrangements generally have a lighter feel and he sometimes takes liberties with tempos and other details (not to mention that he has three entirely new arrangements).  Perhaps Mosey interpreted Holgersson’s lighter approach as lacking the passion for the material displayed in the originals, but the players on 4003 seem plenty engaged to me. 

Finally, when it comes to improvisations, Holgersson and his teammates are their own individuals, playing with their own styles, and, in my view, they are very good.  Maybe they’re not in the same category as Mobley, Gordon, Dorham, or Hubbard, but who is?  Speaking specifically about the saxophone player, Ulrik is a skillful saxophonist with a pleasant, contemplative, interesting style.  He avoids the altissimo range, and his tone strikes me as being more diffuse than I would prefer—sometimes his ideas don’t get distinctly articulated—but that might even be a problem with how he was recorded.  The other primary soloists, Presencer and Landaeus, are consistently excellent.  If Mosey listened to this recording and felt “a great deal” is “missing” and he was referring to the improvising, then I just don’t agree, except that in many cases the solos should have gone on longer. 

I do wish 4003 had some liner notes to explain Holgersson’s concept for this recording.  (Once again, I bought the CD expecting to get some liner notes and got stiffed; shades of Keith Jarrett’s Sleeper CD.)  Did he consider changing the arrangements and then decide against it?  Did he mean this as a “tribute” recording which led him to refrain from alterations?  (This recording could easily have been cast as a tribute to Art Blakey and/or Hank Mobley.) 

In any case, I’m glad to have read Mosey’s review of 4003 and to have been led to Holgersson’s recording, which I think is very good.  I’m also glad to have been led by 4003 to revisit some classic jazz performances and to check out some I’d never heard before.    

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Video: "Kyrie" by Ike Sturm

A new recording review is in the works, to be posted in a day or two.  In the meantime, I happened across this video, a performance in Oslo, Norway, of “Kyrie,” a pretty piece from Ike Sturm’s Jazz Mass.  Sturm is the composer of the piece and the bassist in the performance, his wife Misty Ann Sturm is the lead singer, and Loren Stillman contributes a fine, spicy-toned alto sax solo. (Of course, there had to be sax content.)  Ike Sturm is another Eastman School of Music grad, and I’ve previously confessed to having a soft spot for such individuals.  But this is a lovely piece of music, at least if don’t mind mixing your jazz with a choir and strings.  

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Review: Marius Neset - Golden Xplosion

Personnel: Marius Neset: soprano and tenor saxophones, piano (10); Django Bates: piano, keyboards, Eb horn; Jasper Hoiby: double-bass; Anton Eger: drums.

Neset’s most recent recordings feature a large-ish ensemble (Birds) and a collaboration with a tuba player (Neck of the Woods); since I prefer a more conventional setting for my first exposure to a jazz artist’s work, I chose to review Golden Xplosion, an earlier (2011) release.

Golden Xplosion starts with “Introducing: Golden Xplosion” (2:00), which has Neset on unaccompanied tenor sax repeating a disjointed, interval-jumping line, employing a pure, big tone.  As the line evolves, he is eventually joined by jabs of overdubbed harmonized saxophones.  “Golden Xplosion” (5:26) has a little bit of everything, starting with the rest of the group backing Neset with a rock-ish beat as he plays the disjointed line of the introduction at about double the speed, then Eger in the spotlight on drums with bass and keyboards playing a repeated phrase behind him, Bates playing a sinuous synthesizer solo (tuned like an organ), a repeated eighth-note line (including tenor) backing a bit of soprano sax improvising, and then things slowing down with Neset quietly improvising on tenor in tandem with Bates on Eb horn.

“City on Fire” (7:42) starts with a fast, intricate line with Neset (on tenor) in unison with synthesizer and drums, sounding like something from Chick Corea’s Elektric Band.  The band then goes into a funk/rock groove, and Neset plays a rollicking, dazzling tenor solo in a Michael Brecker/Bill Evans style against a kinetic backdrop from the rest of the group.  The band quiets down a bit as Bates plays a fluid synthesizer solo, and then Neset returns for more improvising, sounding more bluesy this time.  The cut finishes with a fast line played in unison by Neset and Bates and then a repeat of the theme.  As funky and rock-oriented as this cut is, it is very complex and tightly choreographed. 

“Sane” (3:47) features Neset on tenor playing a slow, romantic melody with lush accompaniment from Bates on acoustic piano and some spacy synthesizer sprinkled in.  Neset forgoes improvisation on this cut but shows off his fine tone and his clean, precise control of the altissimo register.

“Old Poison (XL)” (2:18) is a brief interlude for a cappella tenor saxophone that starts with a slow interval jumping phrase that evolves into a faster, more complex phrase (requiring some impressive technique) and comes back down again, with a few multiphonics thrown in for good measure.

“Shame Us” (6:31) starts with Neset engaged in some improvised interplay with bass and drums, Eger providing a bouncy, New Orleans-style rhythm, and then it moves into a Dave Holland-esque theme with an elusive meter.  Neset shows off his prodigious technique, hyperactive melodic imagination, and ability to swing in his relaxed solo.  Hoiby takes the spotlight briefly, and the cut ends with a repeat of the theme.

“Saxophone Intermezzo” (2:57) has Neset playing a slow melody on tenor sax against overdubbed harmonized saxophone notes, exploring numerous tonal capabilities of the instrument.  This cut leads into “The Real Ysj” (2:42), a fun piece that starts with overdubbed saxes slap-tonguing and repeating a funky, mid-tempo line over which Neset improvises in a showy Michael Brecker/Bill Evans style, similar to “City on Fire.”  The rhythm section lays out for the entire cut. “Saxophone Intermezzo II” (2:22) is a trio (I think) of overdubbed, harmonized saxes accompanying the lead tenor sax playing a solemn, hymn-like melody. 

“Angel of the North” (8:20) has an upper mid-tempo, luminous, anthem-like theme, played by Neset on tenor in unison with Bates on piano.  Neset switches over to soprano for a pretty, second theme, after which Hoiby plays a solid, melodic bass solo.  The second theme returns and then Neset plays a brief but intense soprano sax solo against a dense background, and then he has a frantic, free-wheeling outing on tenor.  The main theme returns and the cut climaxes in thrilling fashion, with a crescendo to a high, pure saxophone note held for a few beats.  This is a gorgeous piece of music, with a perfect balance of complex composition and improvisation—the high point of the recording.    

The recording ends with “Epilogue” (3:20), with Neset on soprano sax playing a folk-ish theme against a floating background of overdubbed saxophones and synthesizer.

Golden Xplosion establishes that Neset is a formidable saxophonist, with a big, warm sound, an unerring sense of melody, and a facility and bravura style along the lines of Donny McCaslin and Chris Potter.  He is also—perhaps even more so--a formidable composer and band leader, with an approach to melody and arranging that is ambitious, full of pleasant surprises, and ranges over a wide variety of styles.  That Neset can have such prodigious ability on the saxophone is a wonder; that he can combine that with a matching ability as a composer and arranger is simply mind-boggling.  It must be added that the success of this project is due in large measure to the flawless work of Neset’s band mates.  In sum, Golden Xplosion is a rich, serious, and fulfilling work in the jazz idiom and the product of an artist with remarkable abilities and astounding potential.