Fred Hersch Trio – Live at the Village Vanguard

Fred Hersch Trio.
Photo: John Rogers.

Fred Hersch Trio

Village Vanguard

January 5, 2019

Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – Beginning the new year with a six-night long residency at the Village Vanguard, pianist Fred Hersch had a lot to celebrate. His current trio, in which he is joined by bassist John Hebert and drummer Kevin McPherson, has been together for a decade. They have received a Grammy nomination for their 2018 Palmetto Records CD Live in Europe. In December, Palmetto released another recording of Hersch in a trio setting, this one from 1997 with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tom Rainey. 97 @ The Village Vanguard is the only live recording of this acclaimed ensemble. The CD also documents Hersch’s debut as a leader at the Village Vanguard.

 

Many celebrations include guests and Hersch’s residency was no exception. For the last three nights of shows, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, a Grammy nominee himself and a Guggenheim Fellow and MacArthur Award winner to boot, joined the trio. It proved to be a felicitous pairing. After the trio opened the set with Hersch’s meditative “Plainsong,” Zenón joined them on the pianist’s salsa original “Havana,” sending its sinuous melody soaring and building an exquisitely paced solo. Hebert and McPherson created a fulsome groove. McPherson’s ability to move from the pianissimo textural playing of “Plainsong” to the driving polyrhythms of “Havana” demonstrated versatility that turns on a dime. Hebert keenly targeted his playing too, moving between registers, engaging in melodic colloquy with Hersch, supporting the changes, and acting in concert with McPherson. All of this is even more noteworthy when one considers his uncanny ability to know exactly when and where to provide Hersch’s playing registral space.

 

Hersch’s music is often rhythmically intricate. In addition to the facility of the rhythm section, Zenón proved his mettle in the abstract phrasing and polyrhythmic environments of Hersch tunes “Snape Maltings” and “Skipping.” The latter tune elicited a verve-filled solo from Hersch. The pianist and saxophonist also made great foils for each other, one developing melodic breadcrumbs that the other had strewn in a previous solo. Zenón’s playing had a bite in the post-bop material, but was smooth and suave in the Lerner and Loewe’s “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Zenón’s composition “Temes” was an engaging part of the set, and it was fascinating to hear Hersch go to town on material new to him, displaying  a vivid imagination.

Hersch frequently writes compositions in homage to other jazz artists. “Lee’s Dream” is a contrafact tune, using the changes of Nacio Herb Brown’s “You Stepped Out of a Dream” with a new melody. It is dedicated to Lee Konitz. “Monk’s Dream” is dedicated to Thelonious Monk. During his set at the Vanguard, Hersch had Monk in mind. The closer was a one-two punch of the pianist’s harmonically inventive version of “Round Midnight,” followed by the group playing a rousing rendition of “Let’s Cool One.” Obliged by applause to share an encore, Hersch chose Billy Joel’s “And So it Goes,” starting in eloquent simplicity and then transforming the tune with intriguing modulations into a Chopin-esque reverie. The sold-out crowd seemed delighted to share in the celebrations.

 

Tangents – New Bodies (CD Review)

Tangents - New Bodies - cover scan

Tangents
New Bodies
Temporary Residence Ltd.

Australian instrumental quintet Tangents return with their fourth album via Temporary Residence. It is their finest work in some time, with an even broader palette of materials and stylistic reference points that are adroitly incorporated. The combination of cello, especially favoring pizzicato, and synth melodies remains, but along for the ride are prepared piano sounds, angular bass interjections, and skittering beats. Electric guitar textures and and undulating patterning are propelled by muscular acoustic drums.

Indebted to post-rock, jazz, alt-electronica, and a dose of contemporary classical sounds, it transcends these various categorizations and their carbon dating to create music that is entirely fresh and of the moment. Recommended.

Kit Downes – Obsidian (CD Review)

Kit Downes - Obsidian

Obsidian
Kit Downes, organ and composer; Tom Challenger, tenor saxophone
ECM Records

Prior to this recording, Kit Downes was primarily known as a pianist in jazz settings, notably leading his own trio and quintet. Obsidian is his debut CD as a leader for ECM Records; he previously appeared on the label as part of the Time is a Blind Guide release in 2015. However, Downes has a substantial background as an organist as well. The program on this recording consists primarily of his own works for organ, but there is also a noteworthy folk arrangement and engaging duet with tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger.

The organs employed on Obsidian are all in England, two in Suffolk at the Snape Church of John the Baptist and Bromeswell St Edmund Church, and Union Chapel Church in Islington, London. Instruments from different eras and in very different spaces, they inspire Downes to explore a host of imaginative timbres and approaches. Over an undulating ostinato, skittering solo passages impart a buoyant character to the album opener “Kings.” An evocative arrangement of the folk song “Black is the Colour” pits piccolo piping against ancient sounding harmonies in the flutes and bagpipe-flavored mixtures. “Rings of Saturn” is perhaps the most unorthodox of Downes’s pieces, filled with altissimo sustained notes and rife with airblown glissandos, an effect that is not found in conventional organ repertoire. The piece is well-titled, as it has an otherworldly ambience. Pitch bends populate “The Bone Gambler” as well, while vibrato and frolicsome filigrees animate “Flying Foxes.” “Seeing Things” is a joyous effusion of burbling arpeggios and the more usual fingered glissandos, demonstrating an almost bebop sensibility. Suitably titled, on “The Last Leviathan” Downes brings to bear considerable sonic power – with hints of whale song in some of the textures – and fluent musical grandeur.

Although some of the release seems inimitable, closely linked to Downes’s improvisatory and textural explorations, other pieces cry out for transcription; one could see other organists giving them a wider currency. “Modern Gods” is an exercise in modally tinged dissonant counterpoint, while “Ruth’s Song for the Sea” and the folk-inflected “The Gift” possess the stately quality of preludes.

The duet with Challenger is a tour de force, in which each adroitly anticipates and responds to the other’s gestures and even notes, as the fantastic simultaneities that occur at structural points in the piece attest. Once again, there is a supple jazz influence at work. While Downes provides room for Challenger’s solos, he also challenges him with formidable passages of his own. Obsidian contains much textural subtlety and fleet-footed music, but it is also gratifying to hear Downes and Challenger celebrating the power of their respective instruments. Heartily recommended.

Thomas Strønen’s Time is a Blind Guide – Lucus (CD Review)

Thomas Strønen – Time is a Blind Guide

Lucus

ECM Records 2576

 

Ayumi Tanaka, piano; Håkon Aase: violin; Lucy Railton, violoncello; Ole Morten Vågan, double bass; Thomas Strønen: drums, percussion

 

Composer/percussionist Thomas Strønen’s Time is a Blind Guide has shifted membership since its debut recording. Distilled to a quintet line-up on Lucus, its latest outing for the ECM label, it retains a cohesive way of interacting that highlights a fluent interplay of textures. The Mediterranean-inflected album opener “La Bella,” the sole composition on which Strønen shares credit with Aase and Vågan, is a case in point. Fills from Strønen’s kit activate repeated notes in the strings and piano in a subtle build that gradually includes ever widening whorls of melodic snippets.

 

Often Strønen wisely deploys the quintet as an interlocking set of two trios – string trio and jazz piano trio. This is done quite effectively on “Wednesday;” the jazz side of the ensemble plays in a smoky swinging groove while Aase and Railton perform a gentle rainstorm of pizzicatos. Vågan is an interloper, moving from walking lines to sultry arco playing. On the title track, also undergirded by a propulsive string ostinato, Tanaka supplies limpid impressionist cascades. The strings build up successive layers, creating countermelodies that arc around the piano and accentuate the undergirding material of the rhythm section. The double trio idea also prevails in the standout composition “Truth Grows Gradually,” in which the players revel in a complex yet catchy groove.

 

Elsewhere, the ensemble activities vary. On “Baka,” the percussionist crosses over into the world of orchestral instruments, bringing out regular bass drum punctuations. “Friday” juxtaposes pizzicato solos with high string harmonics in a polyrhythmic duet enlivened by its textural contrasts. After an extended double bass introduction, “Tension” presents folk-tinged violin melodies and attenuated post-bop piano lines against a variety of jazz kit punctuations by Strønen. Gradually, Tanaka fills out the texture with rapid fire repeated notes against an expansive collection of string glissandos and harmonic minor pirouettes. The Eastern-tinged “Release” leads with a sweeping piano melody that alternates with oscillating strings and thrumming low register pedals. Oddly enough, “Release” is placed earlier on the disc than “Tension,” which would seem to be a corresponding antecedent. That said, the sequencing of these compositions flows organically with ample variety along the way. Whether performing again as a larger group or in the quintet that appears on Lucus, one hopes that Time is a Blind Guide are just getting started.  

 

-Christian Carey

Bill Frisell/Thomas Morgan at Jazz Standard

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan - Claire Stefani
Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan, Winter Jazz Fest 2016. Photo: Claire Stefani

 

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan

The Jazz Standard

December 10, 2017

Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

NEW YORK – Like the dearly departed duo of Jim Hall and Charlie Haden, guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan make a sound much greater than the sum of their parts. This is not an issue of amplitude – their set on Sunday December tenth at the Jazz Standard was perfectly scaled for this intimate space. However, in terms of richness of rapport, musical detail, and imaginative improvisation, they can stand toe-to-toe with many larger groups. In part, they seem like a bigger ensemble because of the sheer number of notes per bar that their interplay encompasses and the quick shifts that occur between registers on their respective instruments.

 

There is another touching and musically fulfilling aspect to the pairing. While Frisell is the “veteran,” chronologically speaking, Morgan needn’t and doesn’t adopt a subordinate role: their interplay is on an equal footing. Frisell and Morgan began with “Days of Wine and Roses,” a venerable pop song turned jazz staple by pianist Bill Evans and memorably interpreted by guitarists such as Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass. Here, there was no feeling out process; it was an interweaving dialogue from the get-go. Frisell and Morgan seldom look at one another; such is their sense of each other’s unfolding strategy that they seldom need to do so. They seamlessly “duck” above and below each other, covering several octaves in their musical repartee.

Small Town (ECM, 2017).

Some of the set took tunes from Small Town (ECM, 2017), Frisell/Morgan’s live recording of a March 2016 stint at the Village Vanguard. A standout that appears on the CD is the fetching ballad by Morgan, “Pearl,” a tune with a turn around that contains just a whiff of “My Only Love” and is adorned with chromatic changes. Frisell supplied an original of his own, “Strange Meeting,” originally recorded back in 1984 on the guitarist’s ECM album The Rambler.  While Morgan generally takes a polyphonic and harmonic approach to bass playing, here he imitated the pulsations found on the original recording (courtesy of Jerome Harris and Paul Motian), his instrument thrumming with intensity.

 

Both Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso” and “Subconcious Lee” by Lee Konitz gave the two opportunities to switch gears to demonstrate facility in the bebop idiom. Later, the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower” presented another avenue of inquiry long in Frisell’s kitbag: the refraction of Americana and folk music through a jazz lense.

 

In a year fraught with violence and strife, it seemed especially appropriate for the set proper to end with Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now is Love,” a tender, but not overly sentimental, take on yet another iconic pop song turned standard. Warmly received, the duo returned for an encore from the Bond song catalog, John Barry’s “You Only Live Twice.” You can hear another Bond film theme by Barry on Small Town: “Goldfinger.”

 

Worthy of mention is the hospitable atmosphere at Jazz Standard. Their “quiet policy” makes it most conducive to listening, and the audience on Sunday readily complied, seeming earnestly engaged throughout. The servers are attentive, but they observe the quiet policy too. In addition, the Standard supplies customers with the best food to be had in a New York jazz establishment. Planning to see Billy Hart in February!

 

Set list

Days of Wine and Roses (Henry Mancini)

Misterioso (Thelonious Monk)

Pearl (Thomas Morgan)

Strange Meeting (Bill Frisell)

Subconscious Lee – (Lee Konitz)

Wildwood Flower (folk / Carter Family)

What the World Needs Now (Burt Bacharach)

encore: You Only Live Twice (John Barry)

Upcoming concerts by Frisell/Morgan

February 15 Mill Valley CA

(Sweetwater Music Hall)

February 17 Eugene OR

(The Shedd)

February 18 Portland, OR

(Revolution Hall, Portland Jazz Festival)

February 19th Seattle, WA

(Jazz Alley)

Ella Fitzgerald: “Someone to Watch Over Me” (Video)

Ella with LSO

Sorry to have missed posting about it yesterday – Happy Thelonious Monk Centennial!

In my opinion there should have been parades!

 

This year we celebrate the centenary of another member of jazz royalty, the incomparable vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. On September 29th, Verve released a CD of the singer in fine voice, accompanied by newly orchestrated arrangements performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. I am not often a fan of posthumous mashups, but this project is a beautiful tribute to an extraordinary artist.

 

Two New Feature Articles

Two articles I wrote over the summer are finally out.

New York Polyphony article in EMA

My interview with New York Polyphony has been published in the latest issue of Early Music America. 

Beyond the Stage Carnegie Hall Cover

An article on mentorship in music, which includes interviews with Fred Hersch, his student James Shipp, and James’s student Ian Burroughs, has been published in Carnegie Hall’s 125th Anniversary Magazine, Beyond the Stage (read here).