Saturday, November 2, 2013

Review: Urban Theme Park - Julian Siegel


Personnel: Personnel: Julian Siegel: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet; Liam Noble: piano, keyboards; Oli Hayhurst: double-bass; Gene Calderazzo: drums.

“Six-Four” begins with a slick bass and piano ostinato and crisp drumming at a middle tempo.  Siegel begins improvising effectively against this background on tenor sax.  He then repeats a morsel of a theme in harmony with himself overdubbed and punctuated by bouts of his fluid and energetic improvising.  Siegel plays with an open, burly sound with a touch of woodiness (a bit reminiscent of Eli Degibri’s sound), and his phrasing is sharp, logical, and technically impressive.  After about four minutes of the spotlight being on Siegel, Noble plays a solo of straightforward but interesting phrases, building in intensity to clusters of chords.  After a return to the piano and bass ostinato, Siegel and Noble play a repeated line in unison, and the cut comes to a succinct close.

“One for J.T.” has a gliding, intricate theme, played in unison by tenor and piano, that starts with a harmonic structure similar to “Giant Steps” and then moves into a harmonically simpler section that includes some impressive altissimo playing from Siegel (including reliably popping a double-high E-flat).  After playing the theme a few times, Siegel plays a solo that manages to sound lyrical and effortless despite the tricky changes.  After his solo, Siegel repeats the theme, but a new section, with a bass and piano ostinato, starts up.  Siegel improvises again over this ostinato, then the piece takes a few different directions before Noble engages in some brisk a cappella improvising that leads back to the original intricate theme, on which the group joins in and closes the cut.

“Heart Song” starts off with Siegel on clarinet engaging in a quasi-classical, semi-improvised duet with Noble on piano.  A couple of minutes in, piano and bass play a repeated line and a light mid-tempo groove starts up.  Siegel then plays a thoughtful, elegant clarinet solo with a light touch.  Then Noble on piano plays an earthier and more straightforward solo, with bass and drums responding to his increasing intensity.  Clarinet and piano briefly return to a bit of the original theme to close the cut.

“Keys to the City” starts with insistent piano chords at a mid-tempo, and then Siegel adds a quiet, simple theme on tenor.  The cut becomes more energetic, and Siegel plays a straightforward and driving but well-controlled solo (somewhat Coltrane-ish) that ranges all over the horn.  Noble then plays a piano solo with a lot of variety and in good rapport with Calderazzo.  Hayhurst then contributes a lyrical bass solo.  The group then returns to the original theme.  This piece has a nice narrative structure with a hip, urban texture.

On “Game of Cards,” after a brief introductory section, Siegel, on soprano this time, plays a disjointed, mid-tempo theme backed by an insistent bass line (which Noble also plays on piano), which ends with a flurry of notes from soprano and piano in unison.  Siegel then plays a soprano solo of controlled fury, a bit wilder than his tenor playing, in the mode of Dave Liebman.  The original theme is repeated, then the opening introductory phrase is repeated, as a transition to the second section of the cut.  A second, march-like theme is played at a slower mid tempo.  Hayhurst then solos with light, sensitive accompaniment, sounding reminiscent of Eddie Gomez’s muscular approach.  Then the intensity picks up and Siegel briefly solos, as does Calderazzo, interspersed with interruptions from the ensemble.  The third section of the piece has a harder, almost rock, beat, and Siegel and Noble play the quicksilver theme in unison.  Then Noble plays a fast, Chick Corea-ish solo that ends with some funky chords.  The third theme is played again to cleanly close out the piece.

“Lifeline” starts with gentle, slow electric piano chords.  Then Siegel enters on bass clarinet, playing a slow, repetitious theme, with arco bass in the background.  Then some synthesizer and miscellaneous electronic effects join in, along with some light drum and cymbal rolls, with Siegel repeating the theme the whole time.  Not much else happens on this cut.  (I admire the spirit of trying something different, but this one is relatively uninteresting.)

“Interlude” begins with some a cappella bass clarinet, which Siegel handles comfortably and skillfully.  The cut moves into a bouncy, cheerful groove with an African tinge, and Siegel’s a cappella musings turn into a rollicking solo.  A theme is then played with the African feel but a more swinging bridge. Then a simple line is repeated by the players with Calderazzo adding the spice, and the piece comes to a quiet close.  This is a more successful change of pace than “Lifeline.”

“Fantasy in D” starts out with a peppy drum solo and develops into an up tempo, old-school swinger.  Siegel then shows off his chops with a burning tenor solo, which he keeps interesting via his idiosyncratic phrasing.  (For my money, this is Siegel’s best solo on the recording.)  Noble’s solo is more straight-ahead, but still engaging.  Siegel then trades fours with Calderazzo, and the cut comes to a tidy close.  Siegel has a lot variety on this recording and apparently doesn’t like to repeat himself, but I could have done with a couple of more cuts like this one.

“Drone Job” indeed starts with an arco bass drone, along with some meterless patterns by tenor sax, first alone and then in unison with electronic keyboard.  Then the tenor and keyboard engage in some mildly dissonant improvising.  An insistent mid-tempo groove develops over which Siegel and Noble improvise; they work well with each other.  The tenor and keyboard improvising becomes fairly aggressive, and then Siegel and Noble play the original pattern against a more forceful background this time, and the cut comes to an unassuming close. 

Urban Theme Park is a collection of sophisticated, thoughtful, multi-hued, and expertly executed music that merits serious listening.  It shows Siegel to be a top-flight improviser on all of his instruments, particularly on tenor and soprano saxophones.  He has a strong, distinctive tone on both saxophones, and his playing is firmly based in the jazz tradition but is still left of center in its own subtle way.  The compositions on the recording are similarly traditional and accessible yet carry their own identity and indicate an exploratory musical imagination.  Based on the quality of Urban Theme Park, Siegel should be watched closely for future projects.   


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