New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: Charles Pillow

Revisiting One of the Funnest Albums Released by a Big Band in Recent Years

One of the funniest, most individualistically lavish albums ever to be featured on this page is Josh Green & the Cyborg Orchestra’s Telepathy & Bop, streaming at Spotify. The album cover image says a lot: a cartoon cyclops bounding down the subway stairs at 14th St. and 6th Ave., just as the doors on the L train are closing.

Just to be clear, this isn’t electronic music. Green’s compositions are totally organic, wildly picturesque and often irresistibly cartoonish. Brian Carpenter‘s many surreal rediscoveries from the 1930s and 1940s are a good point of comparison; Juan Esquivel’s most adventurous largescale works also come to mind. Green is a brilliant musical surrealist: all options seem to be on the table as these unpredictable and counterintuitive sonic narratives unfold.

The seventeen-piece group open the Basquiat-inspired first track, Boy & Dog in a Jonnypump with a big, brassy splash and then a wry, staggered cha-cha; Green very subtly builds tiptoeing but pillowy suspense, up to a long, gritty, Balkan-tinged Sungwon Kim guitar solo. Accordionist Nathan Koci takes over as everybody but the rhythm section drops out, then Green brings back the string section – that’s the PUBLIQuartet with violinists Curtis Stewart and Jannina Norpoth, violist Nick Revel and Amanda Gookin bolstered by violist Nathan Schram and cellist Clarice Jenson. As the orchestra punch in and out, Kim goes shredding again. By ten minutes in, Todd Groves has wrapped up his cheery flute solo and the strings do A Day in the Life. They would really love to turn you on.

Green conjures a busy tv studio setting, individual voices bustling and skulking down the hallway in The Lauer Faceplant, based on a real-life head-on collision with a tv personality who was enjoying his fifteen minutes at the time. A gruff sax solo (that’s either Groves or Charles Pillow) leads to the moment of impact, which leaves the orchestra reeling, echo phrases bounding back and forth. A balletesque flute theme gives way to trombonist Chris Misch-Bloxdorf’s return to tongue-in-cheek gruffness. Are we having fun yet?

The album’s title track is a triptych. The first part is a mashup of a woozily sirening cartoon tableau, Georgyi Ligeti somberness and a sideshow shooting gallery of individual voices, dat wabbit thumbing his nose at Elmer Fudd. Green brings back an expansion of an earlier Indian-flavored sax riff for the acidically resonant, fleetingly brief part two. The group tiptoe and pounce up to caffeinated clarinet and sax solos, the latter a duet with drummer Josh Bailey and a reprise of an earlier theme that’s too good to give away. Telepathic? Maybe. Bop? No question.

The gorgeously epic centerpiece here is La Victoire, inspired by Magritte’s famous cloud floating through a disembodied door. A wistful accordion theme quickly sinks in lush, nocturnal ambience, a jaunty sax solo leading the group upward as Michael Verselli’s piano adds incisive gleam amid the warmly inviting wash of sound. A dip to folksy contentment with the accordion quickly grows more luminous, sax leading the vividly triumphant upward drive: it’s Maria Schneider-worthy music.

Verselli introduces the distantly haunting, Ligeti-esque Nebula with a similarly glistening, eerily modal solo, drifting into deep-space minimalism and then icy contrasts. With individual voices shifting through a Darcy James Argue-esque staccato theme, the humor in Reverie Engine: The Ambiguous Rhumba is more distant, at least until a ridiculous synth solo. The album’s closing cut, Soir Bleu – A Rag of Sorts draws on a surreal Edward Hopper image of a clown in a Parisian cafe. After a flicker of Django Reinhardt, the group work a pulse and a theme that grow more carnivalesque, Koci’s ambiguous solo enhancing the unease. With the strings edging into the macabre and Verselli’s noir cabaret solo, it’s by far the album’s darkest number. Nobody in this band is ever going to forget playing on this record: the rest of a very inspired cast includes clarinetist Jay Hassler, trumpeter John Lake and bassist Brian Courage.

So where the hell was this blog the night the band played the album release show at National Sawdust in the spring of 2017? At Barbes – big surprise, considering the New York music scene that year. Rest assured, there will be a music scene in this city again…and let’s hope Green has another album ready to go by then. How long it takes this city to be open to that eventuality is really up to us.

Epic, Stormy Grandeur From Mike Holober and the Gotham Jazz Orchestra

Pianist Mike Holober has been busy as an arranger lately – his charts for the NDR Bigband are out-of-the-box exquisite – but has made a welcome return to his role as leader of the Gotham Jazz Orchestra. Their epic new double album Hiding Out – streaming at Spotify – is the Grand Canyon Suite of jazz. Its initial inspirations are the grandeur of the American West, and a long-abused tributary that flows into Manhattan Harbor. Its boundless energy and intensity are pure New York. If you need music that makes your pulse race, this is your fix.

Built around a suspenseful “over here!” riff, the practically fourteen-minute opening diptych, Jumble, takes on a catchy, cantering maracatu pulse, with gusts from around the orchestra bursting in and out of the sonic picture: if Carl Nielsen had been a jazz guy, he might have sounded like this. Holober’s low-key Rhodes solo offers barely a hint of how far alto saxophonist Jon Gordon’s crescendo is going to go; likewise, guitarist Jesse Lewis’ waves upward into the combustible stratosphere.

Most of the rest of the album is two suites. Flow, a Hudson River epic, begins with lushly acidic, shifting tectonic sheets over a suspenseful tiptoe beat: the effect when the low brass and bass enter is nothing short of magnificent but just as ominous (look what the industrial revolution did to New York waterways). A subtle shift to a quasi-samba groove with towering horns recedes for a poignant Jason Rigby tenor solo against Holober’s glittering piano, part Messiaen, part Fats Waller in calm mode. Somberly blustery variations on a minor blues bassline anchor devious horn exchanges: is that competing ferries honking at each other?

That’s just the first part! This monstrosity tops the forty minute mark. Part two, Opalescence is slightly less expansive (eleven-minute), darker and more resonantly concise variation on the opening theme – Chuck Owen’s similarly titanic River Runs suite comes to mind. Marvin Stamm’s trumpet weaves slowly in and out, Holober slowly developing an achingly lyrical interlude. This may be a lazy river sometimes, but it’s deep. The concluding chapter, Harlem is introduced via a brooding interlude featuring piano and flute, seemingly a shout-out to the Lenapes who tended this land before the murderous Europeans arrived. Billy Drewes’ carefree solo alto sax kicks off Holober’s hard-swinging salute to New York’s original incubator for jazz, Scott Wendholdt’s trumpet flurrying away as the music shifts toward a more 21st century milieu and an ineluctable return to the turbulence of the river itself. The band take a jubilant dixieland-flavored romp out,

The title suite – a Wyoming big-sky tableau – opens with austere woodwinds, building to a enigmatically charged atmosphere that grows more broodingly Darcy James Argue-tinged as the cleverly implied melody of the second movement, Compelled, looms into focus. Holober works the low/high and jaunty/sinister contrasts for all they’re worth, Steve Cardenas’ guitar leaping through the raindrops. John Hebert’s spring-loaded bass pulse mingled within the bandleader’s fanged neoromantic solo.

A pair of miniatures – a bright, enveloping interlude and a moody piano theme – lead into the symphonic conclusion, It Was Just the Wind. Holober picks up the pace with a syncopated, somewhat icy solo intro, then the orchestra rise to a qawwali-ish triplet groove with lush horn exchanges, a leaping Gordon alto solo and a more enigmatic one from tenor saxophonist Adam Kolker against sparely wary piano and guitar. Although Holober eventually interpolates a warmly pastoral theme amid the swells and slashes, whatever was out there was closer to Blair Witch territory than the Lone Ranger out on the range.

The ensemble wind up the album with an expansively orchestrated take of Jobim’s Carminhos Cruzados, a wide palette built around Stamm’s tenderly resonant phrasing and pinwheeling clarity. There hasn’t been such an electrifying big band record released in many months, an early contender for best jazz album of the year from an inspired cast that also includes Dave Pietro, Ben Kono and Charles Pillow on reeds; Steve Kenyon and Carl Maraghi on baritone sax and bass clarinet; Tony Kadleck, Liesl Whitaker and James de LaGarza on trumpets; Tim Albright, Mark Patterson, Alan Ferber, Bruce Eidem and Pete McGuinness on trombones; Nathan Durham on bass trombone; Jay Azzolina on guitar; Mark Ferber and Jared Schonig sharing the drum chair and Rogerio Boccato on percussion.

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra Bring Their Epic, Ominously Cinematic Soundscapes to the Jazz Standard

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra’s debut album The Painted Lady Suite – streaming at Sunnyside Records – doesn’t concern a medieval femme fatale. The central seven-part suite portays the epic, over-the-North-Pole migration of painted lady butterflies from Mexico to North Africa. Even by the standards of Bernard Herrmann, whose work this album strongly resembles, its mammoth sweep and dark majesty is unrivalled in recent years. The band are bringing it to life with a two-night stand this July 17 and 18 at the Jazz Standard, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $30.

Along with his singer sister Carolyn, the trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist bandleader is the rare child of musical talent (dad is bassist Jay Leonhart) who’s also produced noteworthy material. Beyond the jazz idiom, the vastness of the music echoes an army of influences as diverse as Pink Floyd, Brad Fiedel’s film scores, Steve Reich and Antibalas (some of whose members play on this album).

The big title suite begins lush and lustrous in the Mexican desert, tectonic sheets of brass alternating with a hefty Afrobeat groove anchored by the low reeds, punctuated by Donny McCaslin’s slashingly modal phrasing. From there the swarm moves north over El Paso in a wave of symphonic Morricone southwestern gothic, Nick Movshon’s shamanistic drums and Nels Cline’s menacing psychedelic guitar interspersed amid the big swells.

North Dakota big sky country is the next destination, Sam Sadigursky’s alto sax fluttering uneasily over ambient, ambered brass ambience in a brooding, Roger Waters-esque soundscape. A couple of ferocious “let’s go!” phrases from the whole orchestra signal a move further north to the wilds of Saskatchewan: Philip Glass as played by the Alan Parsons Project, maybe.

As the migration passes through the chill air high above the Arctic Circle, Movshon’s tersely dancing, staccato bass punctuates serene orchestration, then the circling bass melody shifts to the high reeds, Erik Friedlander’s cello and Pauline Kim’s viola peering through the ether.

The suite concludes with nocturnal and then daytime Saharan skyscapes. With its ominous, repetitive siren motives and the bandleader’s echoey, allusively Middle Eastern muted trumpet, the first is awash in dread and mystery. The second builds from a cheerily strutting Afrobeat tune to a blazingly brassy, triumphantly pulsing coda – but the conclusion is too apt to give away.

There are three more tracks on the album. In the Kingdom of M.Q. features dancing, loopy phrases and a little dissociative swirl beneath a bubbly McCaslin solo. The sardonically titled Music Your Grandparents Would Like has a slow, steady sway, tense close harmonies,a crime jazz interlude and a bizarrely skronky Cline guitar solo. The final cut is The Girl From Udaipur, its enveloping wave motion punctuated by allusions to bhangra.

The orchestra lineup is just as epic as the music. The rest of the trumpet section includes Dave Guy, Taylor Haskins, Andy Bush, Carter Yasutake and Andy Gathercole. Ray Mason and Mark Patterson play trombones, with John Altieri on tuba. Matt Bauder, Ian Hendrickson-Smith, Aaron Heick and Cochemea Gastelum round out the sax section, with Charles Pillow on bass clarinet and alto flute. Sara Schoenbeck plays bassoon; Mauro Durante plays violin; Erik Friedlander plays cello. A revolving drum chair also features Homer Steinweiss and Daniel Freedman. In addition to the bandleader, Joe Martin also plays bass, with Mauro Refosco and Leon Michels on percussion.

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?

The Alan Ferber Nonet Bring Their Dynamic, Intense Large Ensemble Sound to the Flatiron District

Considering how time-consuming it is just to keep a big band together and playing, it’s amazing how the likes of Arturo O’Farrill and Maria Schneider manage to do that and keep coming up with fresh and interesting material for their large ensembles, year after year. Count trombonist/composer Alan Ferber among that dedicated elite. His latest album, Roots & Transitions is a suite for an only slightly smaller ensemble, his long-running Nonet with trumpeters Scott Wendholt and Shane Endsley, alto saxophonist Jon Gordon, tenor saxophonist John Ellis, bass clarinetist Charles Pillow, guitarist Nate Radley, pianist Bryn Roberts, bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Mark Ferber. The album hasn’t hit the web yet, but there are a trio of tracks up at Sunnyside Records’ site. The band also have a weekend stand coming up this Friday and Saturday night, May 13 and 14 at the Jazz Gallery, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $22.

The composer bases the suite on a series of variations on a cleverly rhythmic cell-like theme. Ferber’s music tends toward the lustrous and enveloping, and this is no exception. It’s no surprise that his charts give the material might and majesty that seems like it’s being played by a considerably larger group. Ferber’s moody solo trombone opens the first track, Quiet Confidence, a slowly swaying ballad that Roberts’ methodical, slowly spiraling solo takes into brighter territory over a cymbal-fueled scan of the perimeter, setting up the bandleader to take it up on an ebullient upward climb before bringing it full circle. The low, lustrous shifting low brass sheets of the miniature Hourglass segue into the misterioso trombone/guitar intro of Clocks, an alterered fanfare over a tense pulse building to a powerfully dark modal crescendo, Gordon’s nimbly bluesy phrasing throwing some light into the shadows, which Radley then shreds and scatters. It’s the most noirish piece here.

Wayfarer is an amiably buoyant tune, part retro, part Jim McNeely newschool swing with a judiciously low-key Ellis solo at the center. That tricky three-on-four feel really makes itself present throughout Flow, reflecting the tuneful, nonchalant drive of the suite’s opening cut, the bandleader’s imposing trombone contrasting with Radley’s blithe upward flights. And then its Morricone-esque ending brings back the shadowy intensity.

Perspective offers a warmly melodic take on lustrous teens pastoral jazz, a simple, gently modal piano riff underpinning its amiably rustic, syncopated stroll, Ellis adding his usual melodicism when his turn comes up. Echo Calling brings back the distant ominous feel: listen closely and you’ll discover a disquiting fugue underneath. The album winds up with the chatteringly cheerful barnburner Cycles and its gritty, pinpoint-precise staccato phrasing. Much as it’s got one of Ferber’s usual imaginative charts and plenty of high-voltage playing from everybody, it seems tacked on as as way to close this otherwise often gorgeously uneasy collection on an upbeat note. Maybe when the Ferber box set comes out sometime around 2030 (by then, box sets will probably be all vinyl, or who knows, organic vinyl), he can use it as an opening cut.