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A Provocatively Philosophical, Deeply Articulate New Album From Alexa Tarantino

Alexa Tarantino’s new album Firefly – streaming at Bandcamp – could be interpreted as a protest jazz record. It came together during the lockdown, and the tech oligarchs’ relentless quest to destroy the arts and reduce all surviving humanity to cogs in a soulless machine has without a doubt impacted much of the material on it.

But it’s more of a philosophical than political statement, and ultimately an optimistic one. In her liner notes, Tarantino provides context to the album’s central suite, A Moment in Time: “It’s a raw and personal snapshot of a day in a creative’s life, and the responsibilities that come with this lifestyle which, to most of society, appears ethereal, idyllic, novel, and curious. Today’s fast-paced world of technology and instant gratification has centered the human priority on money, material items, flashy success, and social media following. Essentially, it’s ‘How can I get, produce, or be the next best thing, right now?’ While we’ve seen how this has skyrocketed us forward in the realms of technology and science, it has undoubtedly impacted human thought, attention, and connection, forever.”

Tarantino obviously has her eye on the sinister implications. It begins with Daybreak, a moody latin soul groove anchored by drummer Rudy Royston’s spare, loose-limbed boom and bassist Boris Kozlov’s lithe pulse, pianist Art Hirahara and vibraphonist Behn Gillece providing a spare gleam behind Tarantino’s airy, wary alto sax. Essentially, it’s the cradle of the day’s artistic inspiration.

Tarantino switches to alto flute for Surge Fughetta, a warmly baroque-tinged miniature by Kozlov. She goes back to sax and chooses her spots to soar and spiral in Surge Capacity, a bustling, anthemic, purist minor-key romp that explores the magic moment when creative inspiration strikes, with briskly prowling solos by Hirahara and Royston. Then she picks up the alto flute again for Le Donna Nel Giardino, a balmy, verdantly swaying portrait of a playful female garden spirit, Hirahara’s sparse, allusive lines offering subtle contrast to the calm cheer overhead.

Next is Rootless Ruthlessness, a gritty, tightly clustering picture of inner turmoil, self-doubt and self-sabotage, and the struggle for an artist to get their inner critic to shut up. Hirahara switches to Rhodes as Royston charges onward, the bandleader leading a morose, tormented descent where everything falls apart before pulling it back to a triumphant drive out.

She takes a break from the suite with an unhurried, expansive take of Wayne Shorter’s Lady Day, Kozlov bowing a soulful solo to echo Tarantino’s expressiveness. The suite returns as she switches to soprano for Violet Sky, a seaside sunset bossa groove with some very cleverly orchestrated echoes between Hirahara’s Rhodes and Gillece’s vibes, Royston adding the occasional wry flicker or turnaround.

The finale, The Firefly Code challenges us to find our souls amidst this awful mess, basically. Tarantino articulates her thought: “Our individual lights perhaps are not shining as bright as they were a year ago. But the bottom line is that we shine brighter together than we do apart. We, especially artists and creatives, are resilient. My hope is that after a time of ‘darkness,’ we as a society will re-emerge brighter than ever – with a renewed appreciation for the little things – an extended embrace with someone we love, the sound of the birds chirping while sipping our morning latte, or the way that staring at a painting, listening to a composition, or reading a poem makes us pause, think, and feel…in a way that no amount of Instagram likes or followers ever could.”

She opens it on alto flute, the band shifting from a brooding, allusively Ellingtonian sway to more of a bounce as she picks up steam and spins around, matched by Gillece’s pirouetting solo. Royston’s emphatic drum break signals a very unsettled return: the choice is up to us, Tarantino seems to say.

There’s more: the suite doesn’t begin until five tracks in. To kick off the album, we get Spider’s Dance, a low-key, catchy Hirahara tune meant to illustrate an arachnid mating ritual: in this particular universe, these creatures are more romantic than sinister.

Tarantino’s alto flute wafts purposefully but enigmatically in Mindful Moments, a clave tune by by Gillece where Royston has all kinds of subtle fun with on his rims and toms.

Move of the Spirit, an acerbically upbeat Royston swing anthem has a deviously amusing Tarantino quote and rippling solos from Gillece and Hirahara. A second Shorter number, Iris is a long platform for a thoughtfully constructed alto sax solo. This is one of the best and most important jazz albums of the year.

Shelter in Place with Some Smartly Assembled, Tuneful Jazz Camaraderie

Beginning in the late 90s, Posi-Tone Records honcho Marc Free picked an unlikely moment to launc a jazz record label, started with the core of the Smalls scene and branched out to the point where he not only found success, but also got a handle on who works best with who else. So lately he’s been assembling specific groups for specific records. The most appropriate one for this particular moment in American history is Idle Hands’ lively, relentlessly catchy debut – and probably only album – Solid Moments, streaming at the Posi-Tone site. For all out-of-work musicians, this one’s for you!

Vibraphone Behn Gillece contributes the opening track, Barreling Through, a gorgeously bittersweet, shuffling late 50s-style rain-on-the-store-windows tableau. Tenor saxophonist Sam Dillon and guitarist Will Bernard pierce the mist; pianist Art Hirahara, bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Donald Edwards nimbly negotiate the droplets.

Bernard’s first track here, the clave-jazz tune Silver Bullet, is a showcase for Dillon’s nebulous, uneasy intensity. Kozlov’s Over the Fence has a characteristically Russian, sly bluesiness. Edwards may not be known as a composer, but that perception should change after people hear the briskly swinging Snow Child, with unsettled chromatics from Gillece and tightly conspiratorial chugging from Hirahara and Bernard.

Hirahara’s matter-of-factly crescendoing Event Horizon begins as an easygoing, vampy late 70s style groove and continues until Dillon’s flurries push it into darker territory. Gillece’s second number, Maxwell Street has a stern, blues-infused undercurrent driven by spiky work from Bernard and Hirahara, seemingly a shout-out to the legendary Chicago busker scene that lasted into the 60s.

The first of only two covers here, Stevie Wonder’s You And I translates decently to a samba. Bernard’s second tune, The Move has a briskly catchy tiptoe swing and lots of cool offbeat riffs from Hirahara and Edwards, plus similarly spiraling solos from guitar and vibes. Ashes, by Kozlov is the album’s most gorgeous track, Hirahara kicking it off with an angst-fueled, glittering solo, the rest of the band joining in a hazy, slinky, moody intensity.

Edwards’ second number, Dock’s House shifts between swaying funk and steady swing: it’s intriguingly bizarre that way. Dillon’s lone composition here is Motion, a pensive jazz waltz with a wry Coltrane paraphrase. They close the album with a lickety-split take of Freddie Hubbard’s Theme For Kareem, which beats Grover Washington Jr.’s Dr. J in the NBA hall-of-famer game of horse. Grab someone energetic you love and snuggle up with this album.

New Faces Bring Their Cutting-Edge Postbop Party to the Jazz Standard

Every so often a record label puts together a house band that actually works. Willie Dixon, Otis Spann and Fred Below made Chess what they were in the 50s – and got virtually nothing for it Twenty years later, Fania threw all their solo acts together into one mighty, sprawling salsa orchestra. These days, there’s the Mack Avenue Super Band, and most recently, Posi-Tone Records’ New Faces, a serendipitously edgy lineup of rising star New York jazz talent. Tenor saxophonist Roxy Coss just released The Future Is Female, a brooding broadside that might be the best jazz album of 2018. Vinnie Sperrazza, who could be the best New York jazz drummer not named Rudy Royston, holds fort behind the kit in tandem with ubiquitous bassist Peter Brendler. The reliably ambitious Behn Gillece plays vibraphone, joined by Theo Hill on piano and Josh Lawrence on trumpet. They’re playing the album release show for their aptly titled debut, Straight Forward – streaming at Posi-Tone – at the Jazz Standard this July 25, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $25.

Wtth two exceptions, the compositions are all by members of the Posi-Tone family. The group open with Jon Davis’ bitingly swinging Happy Juice, setting the stage with only slightly restrained jubilance amid harmonic dualities between vibes and piano and also the horns. Lots of contrast between upbeat solos and a darker undercurrent.

Gillece contributes three tunes. The first, Down the Pike is truth in advertising, a briskly shuffling motorway theme lit up by sparkling vibes and piano, judicious sax and trumpet spirals. Vortex has a lustre that rises from the writer’s subdued, lingering intro with hints of Brazil, both Coss and Gillece maintaining an enigmatic edge throughout expansive solos. The last number, Follow Suit is a platform for scurrying soloing in turn over Sperrazza’s counterintuitive charge.

Lawrence is represented by two numbers. He infuses the briskly pulsing Hush Puppy with volleys and glissandos, playing with a mute, echoed by the rest of the band. Frederico, a coyly shadowy cha-cha, is the album’s funnest track: the relaxed/uptight tension between Gillece and Hill is a hoot.

Brian Charette’s West Village is a comfortable, tourist-free stroll – a wish song, maybe? – with wistful muted work from Lawrence and nimble pointillisms from Gillece. With Lawrence in cozily jubilant mode, I’m OK, by Art Hirahara has the feel of a late Louis Armstrong number. Preachin’, by Jared Gold – who like Charette has really developed a brand-new vernacular for the organ – has a laid-back gospel-inspired swing. It’s the big hum-along here.

No matter how many distractions the soloists provide in a rather cinematic take of Herbie Hancock’s King Cobra, Hill’s piano is relentless. And Edwing’s Delilah Was a Libra offers a vampy platform for solos as well. If you missed the days when jazz was urban America’s default party music – and most of us did – this is for you.

Vibraphonist Behn Gillece Brings Catchy, Straight-Up Swing to Smalls

Vibraphonist Behn Gillece has been a fixture on the New York jazz scene for the past decade, notably in his project with one of this era’s great tenor sax player/composers, Ken Fowser. Gillece also has a cooker of a new album, Walk Of Fire due out mid-month from Posi-Tone Records and a show coming up on August 5 at 10:30 PM at his Manhattan home base, Smalls. Cover is the usual $20.

This is the most straight-ahead, unselfconsciously infectious stuff that the prolific, often ambitiously eclectic Gillece has come up with since his days with Fowser. The title track, a terse, brisk swing shuffle, opens the album. Listen closely to pianist Adam Birnbaum’s judicious, rhythmic chord clusters and you may get the impression that the song was originally written for Rhodes. Or maybe that’s just what vibraphonists come up with. Trombonist Michael Dease contributes a leapfrogging solo, and then the high-powered frontline – also comprising trumpeter Bruce Harris and tenor player Walt Weiskopf – are out.

Fantasia Brasileira, true to its title, is an easygoing bossa that Dease takes to New Orleans before Gillece ripples gracefully through the horn section’s big raindrop splashes.. Moodily resonant horns rise over bassist Clovis Nicolas and drummer Jason Tiemann’s blithe, latin-tinged, fingersnapping stroll in Bag’s Mood, Harris taking a low-key turn in the spotlight before the bandleader raises the ante.

Likewise, Dauntless Journey follows a balmy, allusively chromatic tangent out of Gillece’s resonant intro, maintained by Weiskopf, with brief elevation from Dease before the vibraphone subtly alters the groove. Battering Ram gives Weiskopf a launching pad for Weiskopf’s Coltrane-channeling, Dease’s contrasting gruffness and Birnbaum’s precise, rippling attack over quick, punchy, syncopation,

Gillece and Birnbaum blend subtly intertwining lines and then shift into separate lanes in the moody Reflective Current, a quartet number. Something New follows a similarly pensive, waltzing tempo: the point where the vamping grey-sky horns drop out completely makes a tasty jolt to the ears.  Specter, a catchy, vamping clave number, features Gillece’s most expansive but purposeful solo in this set and a welcome, tantalizingly brief confrontation between vibes and piano.

Break Tune has a subtle juxtaposition of steady, emphatic swing and allusive melody, echoed by Weiskopf before Gillece goes vamping and Harris spirals triumphantly. Artful metric shifts and Gillece’s rippling staccato raise the vamps of the concluding tune, Celestial Tidings above the level of generic. Marc Free’s production is characteristically crisp: the lows on System Two’s concert grand piano cut through as much as every flick of the cymbals.

Another Tasty, Catchy, Swinging Vibraphone Album from Behn Gillece

Continuing yesterday’s theme about top-drawer jazz artists playing some unlikely spaces here in town, today’s is vibraphonist Behn Gillece, who’s doing a live rehearsal of sorts, leading a quartet at the Fat Cat on Jan 2 at 9 PM. You can be there to witness it for the three bucks that it takes to get into the pool hall – if you don’t mind the random polyrhythms of sticks hitting balls and some other background noise, you’d be surprised how many quality acts pass through here when they’re not headlining a place like Smalls, which is Gillece’s regular spot when he’s in town.

His 2010 Little Echo album with frequent collaborator Ken Fowser on tenor sax is one of the most tuneful, enjoyable postbop releases of recent years. Gillece’s previous album Mindset was considerably more ambitious, and on the knotty side; his latest one, Dare to Be – streaming at Posi-Tone Records – is a welcome return to form.

The album’s opening track, Camera Eyes begins as a sparkly ballad, shades of early 70s Milt Jackson until the rhythm section – Ugonna Okegwo on bass and Jason Tiemann on drums – kicks in and then they’re off on a brightly shuffling, distantly Brazilian-tinged tangent. Gilllece’s shimmering lines cascade over a similarly brisk shuffle groove in From Your Perspective, Bruce Harris’ trumpet taking a more spacious approach.

Tiemann’s snowstorm cymbals push the 6/8 ballad Amethyst along, gently, Radley channeling some deep blues, Gillece just as judicious and purposeful. The group picks up the pace but keeps the singalong quality going with the lickety-split swing of Signals, Radley and Gillece adding percolating solos: the subtle variations Gillece makes to the head are especially tasty. His intricate intro to Drought’s End hardly gives away how straight-ahead and understatedly triumphant Harris’ trumpet and Radley’s guitar will be as it hits a peak.

The first of the two covers here. Bobby Hutcherson’s Same Shame is done as a crescendoing, enigmatically scrambling quasi-bossa, echoed in the goodnaturedly pulsing, tropical grooves of Gillece’s. Live It. The album’s anthemic title track grooves along on a brisk clave beat: it’s the closest thing to the lush life glimmer of Little Echo here.

The last of Gillece’s originals, Trapezoid is a rapidfire shuffle: Tiemann’s counterintuitively accented drive underneath the bandleader’s precise ripples and Radley’s steady chords is as fun as it is subtle. The album winds up with a gently resonant take of Johnny Mandel’s ballad A Time For Love, looking back to both the Milt Jackson and Buddy Montgomery versions. Fans of engaging, ringing, tuneful music in general, as well as the jazz vibraphone pantheon spanning from those guys, to Hutcherson, to Gary Burton have a lot to enjoy here. If Gillece wasn’t already on this map, this has put him there to stay.