New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: ben kono

The Ghost Train Orchestra Steam Back to Upbeat, Playful Terrain

Back in January, this blog asserted that “It’s impossible to think of a better way to start the year than watching Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra slink and swing their way through the darkly surreal album release show for their new one, Book of Rhapsodies Vol. 2 at Jazz at Lincoln Center.” The album is actually far more lighthearted and frequently cartoonish, with ambitious charts that strongly evoke 50s lounge jazz oddball innovator Juan Garcia Esquivel. Once again, the ensemble have created a setlist of strangely compelling obscurities from the 30s and 40s.

In an era when nobody buys albums anymore, the Ghost Train Orchestra have sold an amazing number of them, topping the jazz charts as a hot 20s revival act. Yet for the last five years or so, frontman/trumpeter Carpenter has been revisiting his noir roots from back in the 90s, with lavishly rewarding results. This release – streaming at Bandcamp – is characteristically cinematic, but seldom very dark. It opens with cartoon music maven Raymond Scott’s Confusion Among a Fleet of Taxi Cabs. a romp with horn and siren effects that comes together with a jubilantly brassy, New Orleans-tinged pulse, bringing to mind the Microscopic Septet at their most boisterous.

Likewise, Mazz Swift’s violin and Dennis Lichtman’s clarinet spiral and burst over the scampering pulse of bassist Michael Bates and drummer Rob Garcia in Hal Herzon’s Hare and Hounds – meanwhile, some goof in the band is boinging away on a jawharp. Reginald Forsythe’s Deep Forest, which Carpenter wryly introduces as “A hymn to darkness, part one,” is closer to Esquivel taking a stab at covering Black and Tan Fantasy, guitarist Avi Bortnick adding spikily ominous contrast beneath the band’s ragtimey stroll.

The strutting miniature Pedigree on a Pomander Walk, the second Herzon tune, is just plain silly. Carpenter’s tongue-in-cheek muted lines mingle with Ben Kono’s tenor sax and the rest of the horns in Alec Wilder’s Walking Home in Spring, Ron Caswell’s tuba bubbling underneath. The latin-tinged Deserted Ballroom, a final Herzon number, has a balmy bounce over a creepy chromatic vamp, a choir of voices supplying campy vocalese over lush strings and a Chicago blues solo from Bortnick. A neat trick ending takes it into far darker, Beninghove’s Hangmen-ish territory.

The disquiet is more distant but ever-present in A Little Girl Grows Up, a Wilder tune, despite the childlike vocals and coyly buoyant, dixieland-flavored horns. The band make Esquivellian Romany swing out of Chopin with Fantasy Impromptu: Swift’s classical cadenza toward the end is devilishly fun. They follow that with another Wilder number, Kindergarten Flower Pageant, which would be tongue-in-cheek fun save for that annoying kiddie chorus. Sometimes children really should be seen and not heard.

A playful minor-key cha-cha, Lament for Congo – another Forsythe tune – has bristling guitar, lush strings, faux-shamanic drums, Tarzan vocals and a lively dixieland interlude. The strings in Wilder’s The House Detective Registers look back to Django Reinhardt as much as the winds take the music back a decade further. The final tune, by Forsythe, is Garden of Weed, which doesn’t seem to be about what you probably think it is. It’s a somber, early Ellingtonian-flavored ragtime stroll, Garcia’s hardware enhancing the primitive, lo-fi ambience, up to a livelier exchange of voices.

Perennially Vital, Poignant, Epic Grandeur From the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble

In the history of jazz, is there a greater drummer/composer than John Hollenbeck?

Paul Motian wrote some great songs. And so has Tain Watts. Beyond that, it’s a short list. This past evening at the Poisson Rouge Hollenbeck and his long-running Large Ensemble validated his place on it with a lush, constantly shifting, uneasily enveloping set to celebrate the release of their latest album All Can Work.

As with the album, the centerpiece of the show was the title track, a dedication to his longtime collaborator, the late great Laurie Frink. Hollenbeck interpolated both brief, pithy phrases inspired by Frink’s trumpet etudes as well as excerpts from her similarly terse emails. Like Mozart but with infinitely more interesting rhythms, those phrases percolated and changed shape among subsets of the sixteen-piece ensemble as singer Theo Bleckmann’s voice loomed and eventually soared. “I will miss you all, and the music,” was the final mantra. The trumpet section, including but not limited to Tony Kadleck and Matt Holman, put their precision in the spotlight. This was a song, and a show about tunesmithing and narratives rather than displays of sizzling chops.

They’d opened with Elf, which takes its title and thematic grist from the Strayhorn piece that Ellington eventually appropriated for Isfahan. As the group’s tectonic sheets slowly built a lavish mosaic, alto saxophonist Anna Webber rose methodically to broodingly modal, Middle Eastern-tinged intensity while Hollenbeck did a somewhat more vigorous take on the kind of pointillism he likes to explore in the Claudia Quintet.

The night’s most lavishly shapeshifting number was Hollenbeck’s muscular arrangement of Kenny Wheeler’s Heyoke: among its several solos, a bittersweet couple of turns from tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and some deliciously deadpan piano voicings from vibraphonist Patricia Brennan stood out the most brightly. From Trees, inspired by a Mondrian triptych, rose out of a swirl of disembodied voices to emphatic variations on a series of rather stark riffs, down to a twisted, low-register corkscrew facsimile of boogie-woogie from pianist Matt Mitchell: it was the most unexpectedly stunning solo of the night.

Long Swing Dream, the one song to date that Hollenbeck has found in a dream, had a similar minmalism alternating between individual voices, Bleckmann providing an amusing bit of narration by reading Cary Grant commentary about LSD (Long Swing Dream, get it?). The final observation, “You can’t judge the day until the night,” became simply “You can’t judge,” which drew plenty of chuckles. Hollenbeck copped to never having tried the stuff – hey, there’s still time. You can’t judge the perception from the doors.

The final tune was Hollenbeck’s tongue-in-cheek, impressively swinging new arrangement of Kraftwerk’s motorik instrumental The Model. Again, Bleckmann got to entertain the crowd, this time simply by striking a pose or five as the group channeled a more subtle take on what German live techno crew the Jazzrausch Bigband might have done with it. Hollenbeck’s next gig is with the Claudia Quintet on March 24 at 8 PM at the Miller Theatre; tix as affordable as $20 are still available.

Twistedly Hilarious Big Band Fun with Ed Palermo’s Reinventions of Psychedelic Rock Classics

If you had the chops to rearrange the Move’s Open Up Said the World at the Door as blustery, quasi big band jazz, would you? Ed Palermo did. That he would know the song at all is impressive. It’s not even the best track on the legendary British band’s worst album. But it’s a twistedly delicious treat, part boogie blues and part Stravinsky. What does the Ed Palermo Big Band’s version sound like?

Bob Quaranta plays a very subtly altered version of Jeff Lynne’s introductory piano hook and then the band makes a scampering, brassy swing shuffle out of it, trumpeter Ronnie Buttacavoli true to the spirit of Lynne’s unhinged road-to-nowhere guitar solo on the original. It perfectly capsulizes the appeal of Palermo’s latest album, a 21 (twenty-one) track monstrosity titled The Great Un-American Songbook Volumes 1 & 2 – streaming at Cuneiform Records – which does pretty much the same thing with a bunch of reinvented 60s and 70s psychedelic and art-rock songs, most of them on the obscure side. The band are airing them out this May 8 at 8:30 PM at Iridium; cover is $25, which is cheap for this midtown tourist trap.

The Beatles are represented by five tracks. The best and funniest is Eleanor Rigby, which quotes back and forth from a famous and very aptly chosen classical piece. Heavy low brass beefs up Good Morning, while Katie Jacoby’s vioiln adds biting blues rusticity to an otherwise droll, Esquivel-esque chart for a diptych of Don’t Bother Me and I Wanna Be Your Man, with detours into Miles Davis and then a big roadhouse-blues break. And extra brass and reeds add a Penny Lane brightness to the album’s benedictory concluding cut, Goodnight, which has an ending way too hilarious to give away.

The rest of the songs are much lesser-known but just about as amusing. Obviously, it helps if you know the source material. The lone Stones cut here is We Love You, redone to the point of unrecognizability as a mighty, red-neon Vegas noir theme, with a sly dig at Nicky Hopkins and a LMAO Beatles quote. Speaking of Hopkins, the intro to the almost fourteen-minute take of Edward, the Mad Shirt Grinder – a Quicksilver Messenger Service epic – will leave you in stitches.

Most of the songs segue into each other. Jacoby’s plaintive lines take centerstage again in Jeff Beck’s Definitely Maybe, leading up to a more ebulliently sailing clarinet solo and then back, in the process finding the song’s moody inner soul. Another Beck number, Diamond Dust benefits from the 15-piece band’s balmiest chart here and a starlit Quaranta piano solo.

King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two is the album’s second-most epic track, with a stark yet symphonic sweep that’s arguably better than the original, punctuated by a moody Bill Straub tenor sax solo over  Bruce McDaniel’s clustering guitar. Palermo and crew also improve on another King Crimson tune, 21st Century Schizoid Man, transforming sludgy mathrock into jaunty swing, lit up by a long Clifford Lyons alto sax solo and Paul Adamy’s pirouetting bass.

Send Your Son to Die, by Jethro Tull predecessors Blodwyn Pig, evokes Tower of Power at their heftiest. Likewise, Tull’s Beggar’s Farm gets redone as a latin number and a vehicle for a long flute solo. Ted Kooshian’s tiptoeing baroque organ adds an element of cynical fun to America, by Keith Emerson’s original band the Nice – although the quote from that dorky 90s band at the end should have been left on the cutting room floor. There’s also an Emerson, Lake and Palmer number here, Bitches Crystal, muting that band’s bombast in favor of swing and an unexpected slink punctuated by a Barbara Cifelli baritone sax solo.

That Palermo would cover Procol Harum’s toweringly elegaic Wreck of the Hesperus rather than, say, Whiter Shade of Pale, speaks to the depth and counterintuitivity of this album: the song itself hews very close to the original. Similarly but on a completely different tip, Fire, the novelty hit by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, is funniest for its over-the-top vocals

The lone current-day (sort of) band included here is Radiohead. Palermo’s take of The Tourist takes the song back in time thirty years, productionwise and transforms it into a lush haunter, fortuitously without mimicking Thom Yorke’s whine.

There are also a couple of duds here. Cream’s As You Said comes across as Spyro Gyra on steroids, and the short version of Traffic’s The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys sounds like a Bleecker Street cover band that wandered into Winter Jazzfest. Still, for a grand total of 21 tracks, the band’s batting average is more than 900. A characteristically robust, joyously entertaining accomplishment for the group, which also includes trombonists Matt Ingman, Michael Boschen and Charley Gordon, trumpeter John Bailey, sax players Phil Chester and Ben Kono,

Epic Grandeur and Cool Subtleties with the Christopher Zuar Orchestra at Symphony Space

If there’s a future for big band jazz, it’s in good hands with Christopher Zuar. Him, and Ben Kono, the ubiquitous multi-reedman who seems to be front and center at pretty much every good big band performance in this city these days, including plenty of lyrical work on alto sax and oboe at the Christopher Zuar Orchestra’s ecstatic, dynamic show Thursday night at Symphony Space..The nineteen-piece ensemble, including the composer out front on the podium, comprised members of the various Mingus repertory bands, the Maria Schneider Orchestra and the Alan Ferber Nonet. Notwithstanding this group’s camaraderie, never mind a program packed with strong tunesmithing and all sorts of ideas worth stealing, Zuar has staked a claim in an ever-shrinking field dominated by a few iconic composers and Jazz Hall of Fame personalities: Ron Carter, David Murray and Roy Hargrove, for instance. Suffice it to say that at the end of the day, filthy lucre is not the name of the game: you have to do this out of pure passion. This group had plenty of that, as does Zuar’s debut album, Musings, this blog’s choice as best jazz debut of 2016.

The concert gave an impressively full house a chance to revel in the nuance as well as the big hooks that Zuar has made his stock in trade. To see that the night’s best number was not a richly conversational new arrangement of Egberto Gismonti’s rippling, tropical epic 7 Aneis, or the plaintive ballad Lonely Road, but Zuar’s newest number of the night, portends well for his career. He introduced that diptych, Native Tongue, as his way of writing his way out of a musical existential crisis in the wake of the album’s release earlier this spring. The composition turned out to be a dynamically crescendoing anthem matching brooding Bach, bright Brazil, an enigmatic second part fueled by Mike Holober’s incisive piano paired with Mark Ferber’s terse drumming, a moodily expressive Charles Pillow clarinet solo that finally soared skyward, and an almost defiantly fiery, brass-fueled coda

Otherwise, despite the grandeur and majesty of the rest of the program, it was the subtle moments that resonated the most. The subtle handoffs between voices to complete a phrase, and the sarcastic trick ending that Zuar spun inside out at the end of the opening number, Remembrance, were among the most memorable. But so was the sheerly cantabile, singalong balance between brass and winds in Of Certain Uncertainty, which matched  the actual vocalese, sung with relish by Aubrey Johnson. She’s a major addition to this band. Jo Lawry does a fine job on the album, but Johnson brought a touch of sass and brass, found the inner blue-eyed soul ballad at the center of Vulnerable States and brought out every ounce of it. She may be best known for her bell-like clarity, but this show reminded how much else she has up her sleeve.

Guitarist Pete McCann got a chance to chew the scenery with a completely over-the-top metal solo midway through Ha! Joke’s on You – centered around a “uh-oh, here comes trouble” funk riff – winding it up with a just plain hilarious, furtive glissando at the end that had both the band and audience in stitches.

The second set was a bit shorter but every bit as eclectic, including a spiraling, achingly lyrical soprano sax solo from Jason Rigby on the blustery So Close, So Far Away, along with the wryly humorous Chaconne – with elements of both Bach and Led Zep – and the aptly titled Anthem. In sum, a lush and incisive performance by a crew that also included Dave Pietro on alto sax, Carl Maraghi on baritone sax; Tony Kadleck, Jay Owens, Dave Smith and Matt Holman on trumpets; Matt McDonald, Mark Patterson and Alan Ferber on trombones; another ubiquitously welcome presence, Jennifer Wharton on bass trombone; and Aidan O’Donnell on bass. If everybody here can find time in their schedules, it would be rewarding to see this band get a traditional Monday night residency somewhere. Jazz Gallery, are you interested?

A Mighty, Majestic Big Band Debut from Christopher Zuar

Let’s say you want to start your career with a real bang. You don’t just want to slip in via the back door – you want to smash a grand slam on the first pitch you see in the majors. That’s pretty much what Christopher Zuar did with his debut recording, Musings, which hasn’t hit Spotify yet although there are a few tracks up at Sunnyside Records’ page. With the aid of producer Mike Holober, the young-ish (20s) composer assembled a titanic nineteen-piece crew of some of this era’s most distinguished names in big band jazz to play his lavish, lyrical charts. The result is the year’s best jazz debut – nothing else comes close. They’re playing Symphony Space on Dec 15 at 7:30 PM; cover is $22. If large ensemble jazz is your thing, you’d be crazy to miss this.

Zuar comes out of the Jim McNeely school of lush jazz orchestration, and there are echoes of the serpentine sweep of Maria Schneider as well here. But ultimately, this a toweringly individualistic statement. For all the epic gramdeur, there’s purpose, and drive, and eclectic influences as diverse as latin, Brazilian and baroque music.The opening track, Remembrance, springboards off a very simple octave riff and builds tension around a root note, in a Marc Ribot vein. At the center is a long, expressively nuanced Dave Pietro alto sax solo.

Frank Carlberg’s austere piano opens the steady, Bach-inspired Chaconne with a sly allusion to an infamous Led Zep riff, drummer Mark Ferber’s misterioso brushwork and bassist John Hebert’s minimalistic punches grounding the bright, brassy swells overhead as Zuar works another famous tune into the equation. Disquieting echo phrases mingle and flutter as Vulnerable States opens, Jo Lawry’s crystalline vocalese sailing over an uneasy, latin-tinged bustle: Zuar employs that superb voice as impactfully as Asuka Kakitani did with Sara Serpa on her similar blockbuster of a debut a couple of years ago.

Ha! (The Joke’s On You) – a shout-out to Zuar’s bubbe – references the baroque with its call-and-response along with a fiery, horn-driven vaudevillian funk surrealism driven by Pete McCann’s frenetically crescendoing wah guitar. Artfully fragmented voices intersperse, converge and then join forces as the ballad So Close Yet So Far Away coalesces, tenor player Jason Rigby’s turn from wistful to gritty triumph taking centerstage, down to a long, suspenseful outro

Anthem has chattering Brazilian tinges, a dancing bass solo and a big vocal hook from Lawry,. Lonely Road, a reflection on the systematic destruction of Zuar’s beloved West Village in the ongoing blitzkrieg of gentrification, is a gem of a miniature rich with elegaic counterpoint: it quietly screams out for the composer to make a big wrecking ball out of it like the other numbers here.

The album winds up with its lone cover, a lithely bittersweet take of Egberto Gismonti’s 7 Anéis,  a striking, nebulously furtive interlude punctuated by swirly soprano sax at its center. This album is genuinely spectacular effort that also comprises the inspired, energetic work of woodwind players Ben Kono, Lucas Pino and Brian Landrus, trumpeters Tony Kadleck, Jon Owens, Mat Jodrell and Matt Holman, trombonists Tim Albright, Matt McDonald, Alan Ferber and Max Seigel. You’ll see this as this blog’s pick for best jazz debut of 2016 when the full list is published at NPR next week.

A Relatively Rare Appearance by the Darkly Exhilarating Scott Reeves Jazz Orchestra

Big band jazz composers may be the most pure artists in all of music. These people do what they do strictly out of love. When you’re done paying the band – if in fact there IS anything to pay the band  with- there is absolutely no money in writing original big band jazz. Even the universally respected Maria Schneider survives on Chamber Music America grants. So it would be a little misleading to say that the last time this blog caught a show by the Scott Reeves Jazz Orchestra, it was in late summer 2014 at a now-defunct Park Slope coffee emporium/wifi hotspot. The mighty ensemble might have played a couple of gigs since then. But what a fantastic show this one turned out to be! Considering how much of an individualist the bandleader is – his axe is the alto flugelhorn, sort of a higher-pitched valve trombone – it was no surprise to hear how distinctive his music for large ensemble is, a stormy, brassy blend of old and new, with a nod to the great Miles Davis/Gil Evans records of the late 50s and early 60s. He’s pulling the group together for a 4:30 PM gig on July 10 at Smalls; cover is $20 and includes a drink.

That Brooklyn show – at the old Tea Lounge, which for quite awhile was booked by a similarly estimable big band composer, JC Sanford – opened with deliciously bustling noir 50s crime jazz riffage and quickly hit a latin-infused swing fueled by an indomitable baritone sax solo, the brass punching in like a heavyweight with his nemesis on the ropes. A steady, apprehensively fiery trumpet solo handed off to sparsely dancing bass and eerily modal piano until the band rose again. It was like being at a Gil Evans show half a century ago, albeit surrounded by North Slope kids absorbed in their laptops and tablets.

Reeves kept the latin flavor going through the vampy second number, a brassy blaze finally interrupted by a wryly garrulous bari sax break, the composer taking a judiciously enigmatic, uneasily bubbling solo as the rhythm section crashed and burned. Catchy call-and-response between high reeds and brass dominated the trickily syncopated number after that, lit up by a tantalizingly moody alto sax solo.

A brooding midtempo clave number was next, Reeves soloing resolutely and steadily as the rest of the brass shivered, up to a neat if similarly uneasy round-robin brass chart, The band sank their collective teeth into a blustery early space-age Ellingtonian shuffle after that, And the trumpet solo on the eerily triplet-infused number that followed, wow. If memory serves right, the band also made their way through an Ellington tune late in the set (when you’re multitasking and letting your recorder do the heavy lifting, details like this grow exponentially elusive over time).

Oh yeah – one more thing – Reeves loves false endings as much as he loves noir latin grooves. There’s nothing more fun than getting the crowd to believe that every single one of the eighteen or so people onstage is finished, when in fact they’re not. At this late date, it’s impossible to remember who was in the band – Sanford might have been on trombone, maybe Ben Kono – a fortuitously ubiquitous presence in big band circles in this city these days – on alto sax, possibly Carl Maraghi on bari sax and Nadje Noordhuis on trumpet, among the group assembled back behind the couches along the space’s northern wall. What’s coolest about the Smalls gig is that whoever’s on piano gets to play the house upright rather than the electric piano the band was forced to make do with in Park Slope.

The Erica Seguine/Shannon Baker Jazz Orchestra Bring Their Epic Sweep and Irrepressible Fun Uptown

The most intriguing big band concert of this new year isn’t happening at the Vanguard, or Birdland, or the Jazz Standard or even Brooklyn’s home to exciting new large ensembles, Shapeshifter Lab in Gowanus. It’s happening January 27 starting at 6 PM when the Erica Seguine/Shannon Baker Jazz Orchestra play two sets uptown at Shrine. There’s no cover, and it’s happy hour. What more could a jazz fan possibly want, cheap drinks and some of the most individualistic, colorful charts you could hear in 2016?

On one hand, it’s a miracle that the big band jazz demimonde still exists. It’s hardly a moneymaking venture for artists (although venues love it since it draws a crowd). Yet composers persist in keeping the genre alive. Mot big bands play either standards, or the repertoire of a single composer (the Mingus Orchestra and related bands, for example), or their bandleader. The Erica Seguine/Shannon Baker Jazz Orchestra divide their time between the work of their two distinctive composers. It would be overly reductionistic to say that Seguine defines herself with cleverness and eclecticism and Baker with singleminded intensity, but those qualities assert themselves throughout each composer’s work.

Seguine, who conducts the ensemble, distinguishes herself with her vivid, cinematic narratives, counterintuitive Gil Evans-like color contrasts….and her sense of humor. It’s hard to think of another composer whose work can take such amusing twists and turns as as hers does. She also likes to incorporate other genres, from spaghetti western to Romany jazz and carnivalesque themes, into her music. And she likes to swing, hard. Saxophonist Shannon Baker’s compositions tend to be more specifically focused and defined by tectonically shifting sheets, atmospheric cresecendos and long panoramic stretches that provide a launching pad for the band’s individual voices. Yet there’s crossover between the two: they’ve been a good influence on each other.

The orchestra’s music page features audio and video from both. Seguine’s pieces begin with a coyly erudite tango-jazz arrangement of a Bach Adagio which develops into a shapeshifting, multi-segmented epic with plenty of room for solos throughout its kaleidoscopic sweep, Steve Kortyka’s thoughtful and playful tenor sax solo at the center. A segment from her Phases of Water suite builds around a suspenseful pulse straight out of Holst’s The Planets,with eerie chromatics channeled via an agitated trombone solo, mighty swells juxtaposed within its spacious charts, and balletesque hints of Tschaikovsky.

Baker is first represented by The New Day Bends Light, a suspenseful tableau where a choir of voices comes in wordlessly toward the end, then Sonia Szajnberg takes the mic. “We shall not succumb to the shadows” is her mantra. Ed Wood Goes to the Beach takes one of Baker’s signature moody, spacious expanses and fills it up with blazing electric guitar over a careening surf beat. That’s just for starters.

Their most recent show at Shrine was this past September, an exuberant and tight performance from the massive eighteen piece group which included two familiar standouts from the New York big band jazz scene, alto saxophonist Ben Kono and trombonist Scott Reeves (also leader of his own distinctive big band). Considering how tightly the orchestra was packed into the lowlit back room, it was hard to tell who else, other than Baker, was playing. In practically two hours onstage, they aired out a lot of new material, the most stunningly serpentine number being a phantasmagorical suite of sorts by Seguine that warped in and out of a furtive Balkan-tinged theme. If a trip uptown on the 2 or 3 express to 135th seems daunting, the group will be the centerpiece of a massive big band triplebill at Shapeshifter Lab on March 8 at 7:30 PM for $15.