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Tag: Donald Edwards drums

Yet Another Dynamic, Funky, Multistylistic Album From Protean Guitarist Will Bernard

Will Bernard is the rare musician who can write about what he does with as much articulacy as he plays. Now, that could be taken two ways, but Bernard is a guitar polymath who seems to have just as much fun in the worlds of straight-ahead jazz, Booker T style soul grooves, psychedelia, and slinky, funky organ lounge sounds. His latest album Ancient Grains – streaming at Posi-Tone Records – pushes the envelope as far as that last category is concerned. It was tempting just to plagiarize his descriptions of the tracks, but that would be cheating. This album is a party in a box. Here we go!

Bernard calls the opening number, Dry Land Tourist, a cruising song. That’s an interesting way to look at it. Unless you listen closely from the beginning, it’s hard to find the beat – although drummer Donald Edwards’ rhythm is rock-steady, it’s almost like everything is on the “one.” Bernard and organist Sam Yahel play sparely and incisively: this is dance music.

Bernard is very good with titles. To what extent does the album’s title track reflect the nutritional value of heirloom grains like, say, tef or hominy? It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this tightly swinging quasi-shuffle is soul food, although bacon and home fries come to mind more than yemesir wat. But maybe that’s just a cultural association, considering that this style that originated in the south and midwest.

The trio play Five Finger Discount – a triumphantly percolating salute to the joy of thievery – with a shuffling 5/4 beat. Then they hit a lithe, brisk pulse in Pleasure Seekers, a California Highway 1 tableau. The George Benson that Bernard alludes to here is the young, hungry, edgy version; Edwards mists up the car windows with his solo.

With the fond, gospel-tinged, panoramic ballad Stone Valley, Bernard sends a shout-out to his dad, who built the family home in what was then very rural California. The guitarist calls Trilobite a ” mood piece for a rainy carnival day.” which nails the contrast between the jaunty Brazilian beat and the moody, resonant changes.

The lone cover here is a Monk tune, Boo Boo’s Birthday, Bernard giving the melody line some extra bite, Yahel having fun shifting the rhythm over Edwards’ practically defiant forward drive. Likewise, there’s a hard swing to Mazurka Tree, distantly inspired by Chopin, whose Slavic dances Bernard would play on piano in his younger days.

Edwards gets to volley and chew the scenery in Temescal, a lickety-split salute to Bernard’s old Bay Area stomping ground. Ironically for a party album, the most gripping track is the gorgeously drifting Right As Rain, awash in cumulo-nimbus organ and Bernard’s spare, sitar-like slide guitar. The group close the record with Wake Up Call. “This song doesn’t sound difficult but it requires a certain alertness to play it,” Bernard confides. Actually…yeah, the syncopation in this part-boogaloo, part brooding reggae-inflected tune is tricky, but the trio keep the slinky groove rolling close to the ground.

A Historic, Ferocious Return to the East Village by the Mingus Big Band

Last night a fired-up, sold-out standing-room-only crowd at Drom got to witness the Mingus Big Band’s historic return to the neighborhood where Sue Mingus first pulled together some of the greatest musicians in jazz to play her iconic husband’s repertoire. Almost thirty years down the road, the current version of  the world’s most formidable large jazz ensemble brought out every moment of irony, bliss, revolutionary politics cynical humor and frequent venom in a stampeding set of some of bassist Charles Mingus’ best-loved tunes.

This was the Mingus Big Band’s first performance since March of 2020, and they were obviously amped to be able to play for an audience at long last. They’ve traded the now-shuttered Jazz Standard for Drom, which has even better sound, similarly good food and a much more romantic ambience. But this show wasn’t about romance, it was about adrenaline.

Tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery advised the crowd that they were watching some of the world’s greatest musicians, but he modestly didn’t count himself among them. He let his horn tell that story, pulling an elegy for a long-gone jazzman out of thin air, first with pensive, bluesy phrases that grew more mournful and then tormented, with a series of cruelly ratcheting, downward cascades. Then the band launched into a dynamically rich, stormy take of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, Mingus’ requiem for Lester Young.

Throughout the night, solos bristled with displays of extended technique. Just as Escoffery had done, baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian blended keening, shivery harmonics and duotones into her own opening solo, equal parts smoke and fire. Bass trombonist Earl McIntyre – who played with Mingus himself – went for cartoon humor but also spectacular range in his own closing solo.

Pianist David Kikoski’s sudden, deft shift from genial bluesiness to phantasmagoria in a tantalizing solo during the opening number, Gunslinging Birds, speaks to the depth of the group’s immersion in this material. Likewise, drummer Donald Edwards’ hypnotically turbulent solo lured Mingus’ irony-drenched Charlie Parker homage into wee-hours Alphabet City shadows.

Bassist Boris Kozlov and trombonist Conrad Herwig brought pure moody noir to a slinky, shapeshifting cha-cha take of Invisible Lady, a far more obscure number, springboarding off an arrangement by Jack Walrath. Solo-centric as this band always are, the hectic urban bustle and contrasting moments of nocturnal lustre were just as magnetic to witness.

Since reopening, Drom has not only become home to some of the creme de la creme of the Jazz Standard crowd, but also to refugees from the now-shuttered Jazz at Lincoln Center. The next concert in the comfortable, basement-level venue’s ongoing summer jazz festival is tomorrow night. July 31 at 8 PM with 90s acid jazz pioneers Groove Collective; cover is $20.

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.

Revisiting Some Classics by Mingus and His Many Advocates

Trombonist Ku’Umba Frank Lacy is a mainstay of the New York jazz scene, with a list of recording and touring credits a mile long as a both a bandleader and sideman. His Live at Smalls album, a red-hot straight-up postbop sextet date at the well-loved West Village basement spot, got a big thumbs-up here in 2014. And as big band fans know, Lacy is also an excellent singer with a distinctively gritty, dynamic low register. New Yorkers have at least three chances to catch him over the next week or so. He’s leading his own group on Dec 5 at 10:30 PM at Smalls, their usual haunt; cover is $20. In addition, he’ll be with the Mingus Big Band at the weekly Monday night Mingus ensembles’ residency at the Jazz Standard on Nov 27 and Dec 4, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $25

Lacy’s latest album with the Mingus Big Band, Mingus Sings – streaming at Spotify – is his star turn in the studio with the group. Although Charles Mingus’ music pretty much speaks for itself, he was an underrated wordsmith, and there are four tracks here representing his poetic side, along with others by Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, and a rarity  by his widow and longtime champion Sue Mingus.

Interestingly, Lacy doesn’t play on this record, although the band otherwise is as much of an allstar outfit as it always its, comprising trumpeters Alex Norris, Jack Walrath and the late Lew Soloff; trombonists Coleman Hughes, Conrad Herwig and Earl McIntyre; saxophonists Craig Handy, Wayne Escoffery, Alex Foster, Ronnie Cuber, Abraham Burton and Brandon Wright; bassists Boris Kozlov and Mike Richmond; pianists David Kikoski and Helen Sung, and drummer Donald Edwards.

The material spans the iconic composer’s career, from bustling swing to haunting third-stream epics. Lacy narrates Langston Hughes’ poetic commentary over slowly swaying lustre and then fingerpopping swing in Consider Me, a pensive Stormy Monday-inspired first-person commentary on black empowerment. Clearly, not much has changed in sixty years.

Dizzy Profile, part elegant waltz, part brisk swing, is a mighty, knowing reminder of how much controversy the pioneers of hard bop faced; again, somewhat ironically, it’s Coleman Hughes who gets to take a sagacious trombone solo instead of Lacy.

Weird Nightmare, as you would expect, is one of the real standouts on the album: Lacy holds back to let Mingus’ angst and longing really resonate while the band builds an eerily surreal backdrop. Portrait comes across as quite a contrast between the lyrics and the regal, almost somber quality of the music, animated by solos from Walrath and Handy. Another stunner, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat – with the first of the Joni Mitchell lyrics – is awash in grim, close harmonies, introduced by a gently plaintive Kikoski piano solo, Handy contributing a pensive, achingly angst-fueled alto solo.

Sweet Sucker Dance – from Mingus and Mitchell’s 1979 collaboration – has an infinitely more purist, epic sweep compared to the original and really does justice to Mitchell’s bittersweet, detailed character study. Likewise, Lacy digs in and wraps his tongue around Invisible Lady’s torrents of Elvis Costello noir iconography over murderous, tense  harmonies and nonstop, shadowy urban bustle: it’s the rare resurrection of a classic where the new lyrical dimension isn’t hopelessly ponderous.

Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love, which Mingus did write all by himself, is surprisingly restrained here: Cuber blows some purist blues spirals and Lacy saves his biggest melismatic moment for this one. Contrastingly, Dry Cleaner From Des Moines has a jaunty rumble to match Mitchell’s surreal beatnik narrative.

Noonlight – the one real obscurity here, posthumously discovered along with the scores for Mingus’ magnum opus, Epitaph – gets its lyrics and title from Sue Mingus. It turns out to be a saturnine-tinged but catchy and ultimately cheery ballad, shifting matter-ofl-factly between meters.

Mitchell’s lowdown vernacular and imperturbable narrative fit seamlessly with Chair in the Sky, with its sly bluesiness and unstoppable upward trajectory  – and Lacy has a ball matching its unhinged exuberance. Eclipse, the final number with Mingus’ words and music, is typically symphonic, a study in contrasts, slinky latin ballad morphing into towering anthem, Foster’s flute nailing both when the time comes. The final track is the second-line strut Jelly Roll, with a Costello lyric to match. It’s a good bet that most Mingus diehards already have this album, or at least have it playlisted somewhere; if not, hell, why not now?