Thursday, September 18, 2014

Stefano Bollani, Joy in Spite of Everything

If you get the right musicians together with a leader who has a good idea where he wants to go and a set of compositions that helps bring that direction to bear, and if conditions are ripe for it, you have something very worthwhile. That is the case with Italian pianist Stefano Bollani, his music, and his choice of companions in the recent Joy in Spite of Everything (ECM B0021437-02).

This is music that has a post-Jarrettian flavor to it. Yet it maintains an independent stance. Stefano chose wisely with a line-up consisting of Mark Turner on tenor, Bill Frisell on electric guitar, Jesper Bodilsen, double-bass, and Morten Lund, drums. The rhythm team may be less well-known than the front line but all play very well and sound as if they belong together. And they do.

Stefano Bollani bears close listening. He will surprise you with a phrase that catches you unawares, a run that sounds just right, a creative and technical prowess that puts him at the top of the ECM-style pianists out there today. Both Mark Turner and Bill Frisell sound as good as ever, turning in solos that bring on their own individuality and originality yet swing and poeticize in ways that keep pushing the music forward.

The tunes are very good ones, both of their time and looking forward, embodying jazz tradition yet doing something with that to make it different. They are rather excellent.

Bollani is a joy to hear, a player who is at a peak, certainly, on this album. Everybody else gets right in with it. This is a beauty!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Fred Hersch Trio, Floating

In spite of serious illness coming in the way of his music Fred Hersch prevails and thrives in his new trio set, Floating (Palmetto 2171). He, bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson romp through standards and originals with true artistry.

What's so remarkable about Fred is that he can give us his own vision of the contemporary jazz piano trio (thanks also in no small part to his very game associates) that has roots in the mainstream yet ventures adventurously into inventive zones that do not hearken back as much as look forward. The Latinesque treatment of the opening tune "You & the Night & the Music" is a perfect example. Fred Latinizes the song in his very own way, generating excitement and charging the whole song with kinetic rhythmic energy. The title cut "Floating" follows, a beautiful ballad original that resists the almost inevitable backward look to Evans and others that most pianists in this zone would fall into. Yet Fred keeps it where HE wants it, plays himself.

The CD goes on from there and we get a full impression of the Fred Hersch Trio today. Not predictable, not content with status quo, yet very much within the flow of the great piano trios of the past. To do that and yet not sound derivative is no mean feat. Yet Fred and company do it and do it to a "t".

I recommend you hear this one. And hear it again. This is stunning music. Fred Hersch is a force today. The trio is, too.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Rallidae, Paper Birds

Not everything I hear gives me a clear, immediate reaction. The trio Rallidae and their EP Paper Birds (self-released) made me pause. What is it? What is my reaction? I was not sure at first. It's a trio of Angela Morris on tenor sax and vocals. These are her compositions. Alex Samaras vocalizes. Scott Colberg plays the contrabass and joins in on vocals at certain points.

This is open, free jazz oriented music, yet arranged in such a way that there are song elements as well, sometimes at the forefront. Angela plays tenor creatively and can be listened to with profit for what she alone is doing. Scott plays some quite appropriate bass. Alex sometimes scats and other times gets into the song-composed elements. The others contribute vocal harmonies or densities. Sometimes Angela takes the lead vocal and sounds fine.

That's the basic overview. But then what you get is so...peculiar in a creative way that it took me a while to absorb what is going on.

And then it came together for me, though it still is off-kilter enough to make me scratch my head now and again.

There is humor, poeticism, and the vocals have a slightly lounge-lizard meets modern-compositional-progressive feel to them. And after a while you get with that, appreciate the freedom inherent, dig into the compositions more fully.

And you are left with a feeling that this is NEW. So ultimately I came down on the side of, "yeah, alright"! If you are like me you may take a few listens to get there. Angela Morris has a concept, for sure. Let's see where she goes with it. In the meantime, this one has a provocative and fresh quality. Listen and hear for yourself.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Mark Turner Quartet, Lathe of Heaven

There was a time several decades ago when tenor player Mark Turner seemed poised for a major career as a jazz leader. What happened? Nothing, really. I mean nothing that had to do directly with Mark Tuner as an artist. It turned out that various factors in the economy and the difficulties faced by the music industry translated into the partial eclipse of the jazz world as a star-making apparatus. It wasn't that Mark's music wasn't up to snuff, it was a matter of the launch into super-stardom. Very few if any serious players have dominated in this way in the recent past.

I am not here to lament that, nor am I here to approve of it. It simply is a factor of the present-day. But here we have a new Mark Turner album on ECM, the Mark Turner Quartet coming forth with Lathe of Heaven (ECM 2357). It is a deceptively subtle outing, filled with mid-tempo music that is not exactly laid back, but musically concentric in a way that sometimes reminds of parts of Miles' Filles de Kilimanjaro in its attention to the chamber sophistication of the writing and the two-horn interplay.

The band is a good one, with Mark of course on tenor, Avishai Cohen on trumpet, Joe Martin on double bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums. All contribute to the whole as a group, and the compositions set the mood, which is more introspective than perhaps one might expect from Turner. Yet that quality is accentuated by the tenor-trumpet interplay and the significant soloing of Mark especially. There is a melodic immediacy in his playing which was always there but seems further developed in its fluidity more now than ever. Avishai Cohen also has some beautiful solo moments here.

It is an album that has its way and creates real beauty, yet may take a few listens to really appreciate. Chamber jazz of a high level is the order of the day, and all excel under Turner's sure leadership. This may be the most exemplary instance of Mark making a impactful musical statement as a leader. Not that anything was lacking before, just that Mark Turner has come closer to realizing an original group sound. The ECM ethos is all over this music, true, but it is completely personalized to express what Mark Turner has become so completely. Himself.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Jon Di Fiore, Yellow Petals

When it comes to piano trio jazz, it is unusual to find the drummer in the leadership position. I can think of a few instances but it is nonetheless infrequent. If the drummer writes the music and has a very musical touch then it makes sense. That is what we get on John Di Fiore's album Yellow Petals (Third Freedom Music 1003).

The album contains nine Di Fiore compositions of interest, played well by the trio of Di Fiore, Adrian Moring on acoustic bass and Billy Test on piano. This is music that has some debt to the classic Evans and Bley trios (and then some of the early Tyner outfits too) in the subtle finesse, harmonic richness and/or contemporary melodic-brittle qualities. The band can swing like mad and of course can settle into a dreamily sophisticated reverie. Or they can straddle in the territory that combines both. They do that sometimes.

Each player makes an excellent contribution. Jon's drumming bears close attention. Billy Test channels in his own way the sensitive pianism of the tradition. Adrian Moring has the beyond-walking presence we would expect.

But the compositions stand out, too. "Demise" is an excellent reworking of a Chopin Prelude. Other pieces have various dedications, to family and loved ones but also to the music of North Africa, Spain, minimalism, Guillermo Klein.

It is music in the grand tradition of the modern piano trio, and a very good addition to it at that. Listen and dig into it. It wears well.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Girma Yifrashewa, Love & Peace

We go through life and every so often we are surprised, pleasantly so, to experience something we didn't expect. That's the case for me with Ethiopian pianist-composer Girma Yifrashewa and his album Love & Peace (Unseen Worlds 13). This is an album of compositions for solo piano, played by the composer.

What's striking for starters is how Yifrashewa uses Ethiopian minor and pentatonic modes in the service of a hauntingly atmospheric, at times almost Satie-esque introspection. Then there are more rollicking numbers, too. But all reflects a classical poise and the vibrant Ethiopian sense of tonal form, something which if we had a time machine we would see goes back many centuries, I suspect.

You might say that Girma Yifrashewa does for Ethiopian music what Abdullah Ibrahim did for the music of South Africa. That is, he puts the essence of his home music into a very pianistic set of expressions. Only perhaps here the music is less obviously jazz-influenced, more classically oriented. But only in degree. One can certainly imagine jazz musicians doing versions of this music with authentic success. But that's for another time, perhaps.

For now we have this very attractive set of piano pieces that rings out true and clear! I love it. You may too.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Ravi Shankar, A Night at St. John the Divine, 1976, Nine Decades Vol. IV

East Meets West Music's ongoing project of digitizing and making available some of Pandit Ravi Shankar's recorded performances is surely a noble one. The fruits of this endeavor can be readily enjoyed in the latest release, A Night At St. John the Divine, Nine Decades Vol. IV (East Meets West 1013), a recording made at New York City's imposing cathedral on August 6, 1976, an all-night concert celebrating the then 20th anniversary of his first US concert.

It must have been some night, with a full troupe of Indian classical masters each giving a recital segment, climaxing with Ravi Shankar appearing with Alla Rakha for a performance of two ragas that coincided with the summer dawn.

It is of course Ravi at the peak of his powers in many ways and the performance lives up to how masterful and brilliant an artist he had become. Pandit Shankar's affiliation with tabla master Ustad Alla Rakha was his most famous, at least here in the West, and for good reason. The recording of Raga Vachaspati that concludes the recital tells you why--especially in the magical concluding movement where a rhythmic figure of four-fours plus "one-half and one half" holds sway. The pattern is brilliantly worked around by Shankar and Rakha with the exceptional creativity and rapport that they had developed working together for so long.

The performance of Multani has a long and moving alap and beyond. It is one of those magical performances that Ravi could give us, akin to his recording of Raga Bhimpalasi from the famous Monterey performance some years before. His exploration of the lower register of the sitar with shruti bends and finesse has something extra-worldly about it, but then of course he goes on from there with customary brilliance.

In short this is prime Ravi Shankar, essential though as yet unknown until now for all those who had the misfortune of missing the performance. I believe I was working the midnight shift that night in New Jersey. For myself and the rest of us who couldn't be there this is a revelation; for those who were it will be a moving reminder, an excellently recorded commemoration and celebration.

Rather essential.