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Tag: Alex Norris trumpet

A Vivid, Richly Textured New Middle Eastern Jazz Album From Todd Marcus

Along with Amir ElSaffar and Ibrahim Maalouf, Todd Marcus is one of this era’s great paradigm-shifters blending jazz with traditional Middle Eastern sounds. Like ElSaffar, Marcus came to his Middle Eastern roots from the jazz side; he’s also one of very few bass clarinetists to lead a large ensemble. He debuted his latest recorded suite, In the Valley, to a packed house at Smalls in late 2017 and recorded it on his latest album, The Hive, about a year and a half later. Like so many other great records originally slated for a 2020 release, it’s just out now but hasn’t hit the web yet. If luscious low-register textures and edgy chromatics are your thing, you can catch Marcus back at Smalls again, leading a quartet on August 11 with sets at 7:30 and 9 PM. Cover is $25 cash at the door.

In general, the album is a portrait of Cairo and its relentless energy. Pianist Xavier Davis provides an icy, spacious solo intro to the first number, Horus. On one hand, the interweave of the horns – Alex Norris on trumpet, Alan Ferber on trombone, Greg Tardy on tenor sax and Brent Birckhead on flute and alto sax – brings what could have been a classic Mohammed Abdel Wahab arrangement for strings into the here and now. Bassist Jeff Reed and drummer Eric Kennedy slink and then kick up a storm behind the bandleader’s mentholated articulacy, then a punchy Norris solo. The band take it out with a series of allusively levantine conversations. This city is a pretty wild place.

Staggered but regal counterpoint, stately brass flourishes, and a restless, Mingus-esque urban bustle alternates with moments of calm throughout the album’s title track. Ferber chooses his spots as the rhythm section picks up more weight; Kirk negotiates the passing tones, matched masterfully by Tardy as he reaches for the sky.

Cairo Street Ride is a salute to city cab drivers’ agility behind the wheel, the brass drolly revving toward redline before giving way to precisely orchestrated exchanges, a portrait of controlled chaos. Reed racewalks precisely over an increasingly latin-tinged backdrop: control cedes to chaos and then back as the vehicle weaves from lane to lane.

Final Days descends in a flash from a bright intro to a somber, wintry reflection on farewells to people and places, anchored by Davis’ steely sway. A dirge punctuated by portentous, unresolved rises drops even further to a wistful, spare Marcus solo that becomes an angst-filled, restrained salute.

The final number is In the Valley, a Valley of Kings tableau with a Gil Evans sweep and majesty, from murky lows all the way up to the top of the pyramids, a majestic march loosening with a reflective swing. Tardy’s tantalizingly modal solo over increasing turbulence is one of the album’s high points. Davis glides with a quiet triumph to an expertly articulated, labyrinthine coda from the full ensemble. Marcus’ albums typically end up on this blog’s best-albums-of-the-year list and this one also earns that distinction.

An Upbeat New Album and a Loisaida Release Show by the Spanish Harlem Orchestra

One auspicious development here in New York is that we are seeing several groups whose performances were banned during the 2020-21 lockdown beginning to reemerge. Before March of 2020, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra were leaders in keeping the flame of oldschool salsa dura alive, while adding their own brassy spin on a sound that in many ways defined this city for so long. Even better, they have a brand new album, Imágenes Latinas – streaming at Spotify – and a record release show this May 20 at 7:30 PM at Drom. Adv tix are $30, which is five bucks less, in a more salsa-centric space, than their previous release show at the old Jazz Standard several blocks to the north.

All the singers – Marco Bermudez, Carlos Cascante and Jeremy Bosch – kick in right off the bat on the first number, Llego La Hispanica,,over the blaze of trumpeters Maneco Ruiz and Alex Norris, and trombonists Doug Beavers and Juan Gabriel Lakunza. Mitch Frohman’s baritone sax smokes in the background, bolstered by bassist Jerry Madera as bandleader Oscar Hernandez’s piano tumbles elegantly. The percussionists – timbalero Luisito Quintero, conguero George Delgado and bongo player Jorge Gonzalez – are slinky and pretty chill on this one, but they will all cut loose later on.

The album’s title track, a shout-out to immigrant determination, gets a deliciously spare, noir-tinged intro before the brass blasts in. Bosch contributes the cheery, undulating Vestido de Flores. After that, their catchy take of De Mi Para Ti makes a good segue, echoing Manny Oquendo and Conjunto Libre, a persistent influence throughout the record.

Romance Divino, a Hernandez original, has a more pop-oriented 80s salsa romantica vibe but with a classic-style arrangement. A steady, salsafied take of the bolero Como Te Amo makes another good segue, with a tastily shifting brass chart.

Frohman opens Hernández’s Mambo 2021 with a blithe flute solo, then switches back to baritone and completely flips the script, followed eventually by a tantalizingly brief timbale solo from Quintero. Sentimiento y Son has a rustic bomba rhythm but also the sophistication of the group’s home turf.

Likewise, Cuando La Hispanica Toca is an update on a smoky, vintage Machito cha-cha sound. The group slow down a little for the plush, balmy but moodily modal clave ballad Mi Amor Sincero and stay on that tip to close the album with La Musica Latina. We took this group for granted for so long: good to have them back.

A Lyrical, Eclectic, Politically-Inspired Album From Gregory Tardy

Although saxophonist Gregory Tardy‘s latest album If Time Could Stand Still – streaming at Bandcamp – was recorded well in advance of the lockdown, it’s pretty dark in places. Tardy was clearly fed up with the political situation in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election, and that resounds intensely in the record’s more acerbic moments. This is a refreshingly purposeful recording, Tardy relying on several shadowy modes beyond his usual purist blues and gospel influences.

The album’s first track, A Great Cloud of Witnesses opens with drummer Willie Jones III looping a solo Burundian folk riff that could just as easily pass for qawwali, echoed in pianist Keith Brown’s uneasy modalities as bassist Alex Claffy maintains a gently springing groove, the bandleader choosing his spots overhead.

Brown’s darkly ambered incisions are a boxer’s fist in a velvet glove, veering in and out of the blues in Absolute Truth as Tardy harmonizes with trumpeter Alex Norris and then circles skyward over a floating swing. The song title reflects Tardy’s amusement with the concept that there is no absolute truth, which itself is an absolute.

Brown’s phantasmagorical, Monkish curlicues and Tardy’s precise, moody modal lines drive the cynicism and anger of Blind Guides, a broodingly shuffling post 2016 election reflection. The group slow things down considerably for a relaxed, fondly glimmering take of Everything Happens to Me and follow that with the aptly titled I Swing Because I’m Happy, loosely based on the spiritual His Eye is on the Sparrow: Brown’s insistent, gleaming chordal attack is a highlight.

The title track begins as a warmly contented sax/piano duet before Brown shifts it into more warily pensive territory. Norris busts through the clouds over a subtly circling triplet groove in The Message in the Miracle, Brown’s triumphant chords peaking out midway through. They close, aptly, with the catchy, cheery, riff-driven It Is Finished.

The South Florida Jazz Orchestra Smolder and Blaze Through Latin-Tinged Rick Margitza Tunes

Several years back, bassist Chuck Bergeron and his South Florida Jazz Orchestra put out an absolutely incendiary album featuring a six-trumpet frontline. Their latest release, Cheap Thrills – streaming at Spotify – is more subtle, joining forces with Paris-based saxophonist Rick Margitza for a diverse and cleverly orchestrated album of his compositions. There are plenty of thrills here, but the title is sarcastic: this is sophisticated fun. Margitza likes latin rhythms, which the group excel at, so the material here is a particularly good fit.

They open with the title track, a clustering clave tune that hits an uneasy chromatic drive, then the orchestra back away for spare guitar and piano solos from John Hart and Martin Bejerano, respectively. Margitza follows with uneasy modal sax over Bejerano’s spare incisions. From there they dip to a more suspenseful pulse and some neat polyrhythmic development

The opening coyness of The Place to Be is a red herring, as this jaunty little stroll gets more complex with lustrous reeds and horns. It’s a study in how radically different moods, from blithe to noir, can be created from exactly the same materials. Brace Yourself, an ebullient cha-cha, also has a funny intro, Hart and Margitza parsing its vampy changes up to where the brass takes it deeper toward salsa and then a series of amusing false endings.

Widow’s Walk – like many of these tracks, a new arrangement of an older small-group number – follows a brooding tangent from a pensive six-note piano figure up to a brass-fueled blaze, a gently wan Margitza solo over a bossa-tinged groove, a moody Chris Jentsch-ish guitar solo and a coda that seems completely out of place for a lament. Obviously, there could be more to this story: otherwise, it could be a Frank Foster tune from the 50s.

Gritty low brass gives a clenched-teeth intensity to 45 Pound Hound, then the group swing it with a jubilant Brian Lynch trumpet solo, Margitza taking it further into the blues before the full orchestra build slowly toward a fiery conclusion. It’s the most enigmatic, most subtly powerful number here.

Premonition is one of those one-take wonders that left the band and its leader pretty breathless when they realized they’d nailed its puffing, distantly ominous syncopation: bass and low brass figure heavily, Margitza’s solo guiding the band into cheerier terrain. Walls, originally a genially shuffling small-group number, gets fleshed out with flourishes from brass, piano and a scrambling Bejerano solo. It’s the album’s most trad composition.

The group bring back the clave in Sometimes I Have Rhythm,with its tongue-in-cheek references to a famous tune and an unexpectedly chill, soulful Greg Gisbert trumpet solo. Margitza’s swirls lead the group up to a jovial peak: once again, they show off the song’s salsa roots at the end. The lone cover here is a plush, increasingly slinky latinized and sometimes completely unrecognizable take of Embraceable You.

Interesting charts and strong performances from a group that also includes reedmen Gary Keller, Gary Lindsay, Ed Calle, Jason Kush, David Leon, Phil Doyle and Mike Brignola; trumpeters John Daversa, Jason Carder, Alex Norris, Pete Francis, Augie Haas, Jesus Mato and Jared Hal; trombonists Dante Luciani, John Kricker, Andrew Peal, Derek Pyle, Haden Mapel and Major Bailey; percussionist Xavier Desandre Navarre and drummer John Yarling.

A Lively, Richly Arranged New Big Band Album and a Smalls Show from Emilio Solla

Pianist Emilio Solla writes colorful, rhythmic, ambitiously orchestrated music that could be called latin jazz, but it’s a lot more eclectic and global in scope than your basic salsa vamp with long horn solos. Like his music, Solla is well-traveled: born in Argentina and now in New York for the past decade after a long stopover in Spain. His new album Second Half with his brilliant nine-piece ensemble La Inestable de Brooklyn – streaming at Spotify– draws equally on Piazzolla-inspired nuevo tango, Brazilian, Spanish Caribbean and American jazz sounds. Solla and his mighty group have a show this Sunday, May 7 at 4:30 PM at Smalls; cover is $20, and you get a drink with that.

The band comprises some of the more adventurous jazz players in New York: Tim Armacost on saxophones and alto flute; John Ellis on tenor sax, flute and bass clarinet; Alex Norris on trumpet, Ryan Keberle on trombone; Meg Okura on violin; Victor Prieto on accordion; Jorge Roeder on bass and Eric Doob on drums. Much as the title of the opening track, Llegará, Llegará, Llegará, implies that there’s something just around the corner, it’s a nonstop series of bright, incisive, alternating voices over a galloping, samba-tinged groove, a real roller-coaster ride, as lush as it is protean.It’s especially interesting to hear Solla’s original here, compared to the blistering cover by bagpiper Cristina Pato, which is practically punk rock by comparison.

The second track, Chakafrik has a brass-fueled Afro-Cuban flavor subtly spiced with accordion and violin and more of those intricately intertwining, polyrhythmic exchanges of riffs from throughout the group. The Piazzolla-inspired Para La Paz brings the volume and tempo down somewhat, but not the energy, lit up by warmly lyrical solos from tenor sax and trumpet up to a big, lush crescendo.

The first part of Solla’s epic Suite Piazzollana (his Spanish group Afines did the second) takes a bouncy folk theme in all sorts of directions: how do you say dixieland in Spanish? Tierra del sur? From there, Solla builds a long, exploratory piano solo, then the band take a judicious, rather tender interlude, Norris’ resonant trumpet paired against Okura’s uneasy staccato violin. The long build out from there makes the group sound twice as large as it is, with their constant exchanges of riffage.

Esencia sets bright, hefty newschool big band textures over an altered clave beat, Solla’s rather droll, vamping second solo kicking off a big, rapidfire, bustling coda. American Patrol is a jovial blend of Mexican folk and New Orleans swing – when the quote from the cartoon comes in, it’s impossible not to laugh. Raro, a bustling, cinematically swinging number, edges toward the noir, with more tasty trumpet-violin jousting and a very clever switch from dancing, staccato brass to brooding nuevo tango orchestration. The last track is Rhythm Changed, another very clever arrangement, with its understated polyrhythms and uneasy harmonies from throughout the band circulating through a pretty standard midtempo swing tune. Throughout the album, the performance is tight and driving but also comfortable: this crew obviously has a good time playing this material, and it’s contagious. Not what you might expect from a group who call themselves “The Brooklyn Unstable.”

Todd Marcus Brings His Mighty, Majestic Middle Eastern Jazz to Brooklyn

Todd Marcus is not only one of the great individualists in jazz, he’s also a great composer. His axe is the bass clarinet, which he’s worked hard to elevate from mere anchor of the low reeds to a lead instrument, something that requires some pretty heavy lifting. If you have to hang a title on his new album Blues for Tahrir, you could call it big band jazz, which with a powerhouse nine-man cast of characters it assuredly is. But it transcends genre: it’s Middle Eastern, and it’s cinematic, and it has a mighty angst-fueled majesty that under ideal circumstances also ought to reach the rock audience that gravitates toward artsy bands like Radiohead or Pink Floyd. There’ve been some amazing big band jazz albums issued in the past few years, but none as good as this since Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society released their withering anti-gentrification broadside Brooklyn Babylon in 2012. As happened with that album, time may judge Blues for Tahrir to be a classic.

It’s a complex, bittersweet response to the hope and also the disappointments in the wake of the Arab Spring. The band comprises Greg Tardy on tenor sax, Brent Birckhead on alto sax and flute, Russell Kirk on alto sax, Alex Norris on trumpet, Alan Ferber on trombone, Xavier Davis on piano, Jeff Reed on bass, Eric Kennedy on drums, Jon Seligman on percussion and Irene Jalenti on vocals.

Taking its title from Tahrir Square – ground zero for the freedom fighters of the 2011 revolution in Cairo – the album opens with Many Moons, stately horn harmonies joining in an enigmatic march before Marcus introduces the lively, dancing central theme. Brightly assertive voices shift shape throughout the orchestra, setting the stage for the bandleader to pensively weave up to an uneasily sailing crescendo, Davis leading the band into a clearing and a triumphantly cinematic coda.

Adhan, the opening segment of the four-part Blues for Tahrir Suite, foreshadows the revolution with both angst and determination, variations on a fervent muezzin’s call to prayer, a lively and purposeful alto sax interlude at the center. Reflections, a new arrangement of Blues for Tahrir, from Marcus’ previous album, Inheritance, follows a judicious pulse that alternates between optimism and dread, Marcus’s solo channeling the former. Tears on the Square vividly mirrors the horror and loss of the government’s deadly assaults on the revolutionaries there, stark solo bass introducing a funereal theme pairing bass clarinet and wordless vocals with a wounded, distant outrage from the full orchestra. The suite winds up with the bustling, noir-tinged Protest, leaving no doubt that the struggle is far from over.

Wahsouli – Arabic for “my arrival” – mingles a gripping, sternly majestic theme within an intricately orchestrated swing groove and clever tempo shifts, Tardy bobbing and weaving overhead. Bousa – meaning “a kiss” – draws on the emotionally charged balladry of legendary Egyptian crooner Abdel Halim Hafez, a slinky, suspensefully dynamic anthem with subtle Latin tinges. The album’s two selections not written by Marcus are Gary Young’s Alien, a moodily enveloping but kinetic and soul-infused platform for Jalenti’s brooding alto vocals, and a darkly resonant, driving take of Summertime. This album will give you chills. And you can see Marcus and ensemble play it live at Shapeshifter Lab on May 18 with sets at 8:15 and 9:30 PM.

Miguel Zenon Explores Multimedia Jazz and Nuyorican Identity on His Majestically Insightful New Big Band Album

It’s never safe to nominate anybody as being the very best on a given instrument – unless maybe it’s something obscure like the contrabass clarinet. As long as Kenny Garrett’s around, it’s especially unsafe to put an alto saxophonist at the front of that pack. But it is probably safe to say that no other alto player has been on as much of a creative roll as Miguel Zenon has been lately. His sound, and his songs, can be knotty and cerebral one minute, plaintive and disarmingly direct or irresistibly jaunty the next. His latest album, Identities Are Changeable (streaming at Spotify), explores the complexities of Nuyorican heritage with characteristic thoughtfulness and verve. He and his longtime quartet – pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole – have a rare Bronx show coming up on March 20 at 7:30 PM at the Hostos Center Theater, 450 Grand Concourse, 2/4/5 to Grand Concourse/149th St. Tix are very reasonable, $15/$7.50 stud/srs.

It’ll be especially interesting to see how Zenon handles the music from the new album onstage, not only because it’s a big band album but that it’s a mix of jazz and spoken word. The ensemble opens with De Donde Vienes (i.e. “where you from?”), which sets a pastiche of Zenon’s friends and family explaining their sometimes tangled roots over a lively, circularly vamping backdrop. The title track begins the same way, a discussion of cultural identity and assimilation set to a more skeletal vamp, which then builds to a bright, trumpet-fueled largescale arrangement. Zenon finally makes his entrance on a dancing yet pensive note, aptly depicting the New York/Puerto Rico dichotomy that sometimes pulls at Nuyoricans. Perdomo follows with one of his signature glistening interweaves before the brass brings back a tense balminess, a storm moving in on Spanish Harlem.

My Home, another big band number moves from shifting sheets of horns into a moody, syncopated clave lit up by more carefree Zenon phrasing behind the snippets of conversation and finally a majestic, darkly pulsing coda. Same Fight, an elegantly but intensely circling big band waltz offers some fascinating insights on commalitities between Nuyoricans and American blacks: “If I didn’t speak Spanish, people would assume I was African-American,” one commentator relates. A somewhat more sternly rhythmic variation, First Language, follows, with some deliciously interwoven brass and Tim Albright’s thoughtfully crescendoing trombone solo

Second Generation Lullaby bookends a starkly dancing bass solo with a more lavishly scored, warmly enveloping variation on the initial waltz theme. The most salsafied track is Through Culture and Tradition, mixing up high-voltage bomba and plena rhythms and riffage into a large ensemble chart that’s just as epically sweeping as it is hard-hitting. Zenon closes with a relatively brief outro that brings the album full circle. What might be coolest about the entire project is that all the talking isn’t intrusive and actually offers a very enlightening look at how cultures in New York both blend and stay proudly true to their origins. It’s a sweet album from Miel Music (sorry, couldn’t resist).