New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: jazz

Fearless Singer Reinvents Jazz Luminary’s Compositions in the Here and Now

Allegra Levy’s lyrics have a somewhat cynical, noir-ish take on the world – right up my alley,” says trumpeter John McNeil. That’s an understatement. The New York singer and jazz songwriter is a McNeil protegee, and has most recently written lyrics to a bunch of his compositions dating from the early 80s into the zeros. Then she had the chutzpah to release them as a new album, Lose My Number, with an otherwise all-female band, streaming at Soundcloud.

The intrigue with Levy is that she’s always been a bit of a cipher, someone with a fondness for working allusion and understatement to her advantage. Not nearly so much here. Suddenly Andante Cantabile Levy is, well, the name on the album cover, fearless yet often more misty.

“Another night that I could have been somebody’s someone…fickle fortune would finally be mine,” she intones just short of breathlessly in the album’s opening number, Samba de Beah. But, “Now misfortune is aways by my side.” There’s a gorgeously scrambling Carmen Staaf piano solo over a similarly dramatic backdrop from bassist Carmen Rothwell and drummer Colleen Clark.

Livin Small turns into an understatedly corrosive reflection on settling for less than we deserve in gentrification-era New York, a determined clave tune with an incisive solo that Staaf refuses to let go of as Rothwell dances over steady washes of cymbals. Remember, New York had a housing crisis long before the lockdown.

The third track, Tiffany is the key to the album. McNeil came up with the song after a gig, walking past Tiffany’s to the train, frustrated that he couldn’t afford the kind of bling he wanted for his fiancee. In this pulsing, rippling nocturne, Levy captures the quiet triumph of walking down Fifh Avenue in the wee hours and realizing that the two didn’t need bling because they had each other.

The composer trades irresisibly amusing, terse phrases with the bandleader in Strictly Ballroom, reinvented as matter-of-fact, metoo-era swing. The even harder-swinging C.J. has irresistible, LOL drum breaks and obvious political subtext. The question is which real-life figure Levy is referring to:

And you’re thinking that you could be what we need
The savior, incomprehensible
And you don’t realize that we look at you
And see zero more than hero

“And in an ocean of despair, a rising tide will leave you stranded,” Levy warns in her interpretation of Dover Beach, although she doesn’t rule out the possibility of a lifeguard. Clark’s cymbal work, always a treat through the album, really makes a mark here. The cynicism hits redline in the oldtimey Ukulele Tune, Staaf’s judicious Rhodes voicings matched by Levy’s muted strumming and venomous lyrics

Opening with a wryly lyrical McNeil solo, the version of Zephyr here is a spare, gorgeously autumnal reflection, The Peacocks minus the birds, Rothwell adding balletesque grace. The band close with the title track, a redemptively scurrying, increasingly hilarious swing tune reflecting Levy and McNeil’s mutual inability to suffer fools gladly. He obviously fanned a fire under her that had been smoldering for a long time. Stealth contender for best vocal jazz album of 2020. Looks like the polls – the jazz kind as well as the political kind – are going to be a tough call this year.

Intriguingly Original Chinese and American Jazz and Funk Grooves From Song Dynasty

One of the most individualistic albums to come over the transom here in recent months is Song Dynasty’s debut album Searching, streaming at Spotify. The Dallas band (not to be confused with the similarly named Chinese group) play jazz and jazz-adjacent sounds with Chinese lyrics, both covers and originals. The bandname is a pun: the Song Dynasty in China lasted from approximately 960 to 1279 AD. During this period, China was one of the world’s great powers, a leader in scientific innovation. Thanks to invention of gunpowder, the Chinese navy ruled the waves off the coast of Asia for centuries. 

You might not expect such a searing guitar solo as Ben Holt plays in the band’s otherwise understatedly slinky lounge-funk cover of the Chinese pop hit, Fa Su Ha (Under the Blossom Tree), but that’s the band’s strong suit. Their music is very unpredictable. Frontwoman Li Liu sings expressively, airy and misty at the same time in this case. She has a very expressive and dynamic delivery that transcends the limitations of language: you don’t have to speak Chinese to get a good sense of what she’s putting across.

The first Liu original here, Tango Cha has more of a bite, both vocally and musically, Dan Porter’s glittering piano edging toward latin noir over the low-key pulse of bassist Corentin le Hir and drummer Hiroki Kitazawa; Holt and saxophonist Jeff Chang add chill solos.

Liu sings the album’s disquietingly modal title ballad in both English and Chinese; Porter’s spare chords and precise ripples enhance the theme of struggling to find inner calm. Liu adds original lyrics to a bustling samba reinvention of Herlin Riley’s Shake Off the Dust, then remakes the standard I Remember You as a cool, briskly tiptoeing swing tune with her own lyrics as well.

Liu and Holt revert to low-key, twinkling Hollywood Hills funk in Flying, with Porter on Rhodes, trumpeter Kevin Swaim and trombonist Kenny Davis adding bright harmonies. The group open Heart in Sorrow, a setting of a text by Chinese poet Li Qing Zhao, as wide-angle chords by Holt and Porter gently edge into a moody jazz waltz.

Liu brings both her sultriest and most insistent vocals to Ai Ta (Love Him) as the band return to slinky funk, with a sly dubwise bass solo by guest Mike Luzecky and some welcome grit from  Holt. They close with the album’s most trad and chipper tune, Summer Ride, nicking the chords from Charlie Parker’s Confirmation. This is a vocalist and backing band – there’s not a lot of interplay here. But the ideas and the creativity make you want to hear more.

A Triumphant Protest Jazz Suite Celebrates a Landmark Arkansas Victory on the Long Road Toward Equality

Pianist Christopher Parker and singer Kelley Hurt initially conceived of their epic No Tears Suite  – streaming at Bandcamp – to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Little Rock Nine’s landmark victory over racism in public education. Taking their title from Melba Pattillo Beals’ memoir of the standoff, Warriors Don’t Cry, it blends spoken word, darkly lyrical jazz, some fascinating and troubling history, and a lavish Rufus Reid orchestral score.

The album comprises both the original septet arrangement, followed by a live large-ensemble version of the suite featuring the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. The initial overture begins with a series of wavelike variations, trumpeter Marc Franklin’s ambered lines over Parker’s ripples and foreshadowing: Wadada Leo Smith’s large-ensemble themes on the Ten Freedom Summers album are an obvious point of comparison.

Hurt enters over Parker’s darkly glittering phrases as the rhythm picks up, offering some historical background: the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the infamous deployment of the National Guard by racist Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, and President Eisenhower’s final decision to provide a US Army escort so the students could finally start high school, almost a month late.

Parker opens To Be a Kid solo, rather somberly. As a jazz waltz develops, the music grows more carefree, with rather wistful horns over bassist Bill Huntington and drummer Brian Blade’s light-fingered groove, Franklin joined by Bobby LaVell on tenor sax and Chad Fowler on alto. The stark, rustic gospel quotes at the end leave no doubt that trouble is looming,

The band build slow, somber, rubato atmosphere as Roll Call gets underway, Hurt providing biographical background on each of the Little Rock Nine along with some of those who fought alongside them. The struggles these kids faced getting into the school were far from over: most of them soon moved away after Little Rock Central High closed down the following school year.

Don’t Cry (Warrior’s Song) blends a stern, Mingus-influenced swing with allusively gospel-inflected insistence and a regal, hard-hitting Parker solo, Hurt’s expressive mezzo-soprano resolute and understated. 

The September, 1957 crisis is over in two minutes of frantic bustle: Parker and Hurt can’t wait to Jubilate, reprising the waltz theme with gruffly joyous tenor sax, circling trumpet, bitingly modal piano and a summery, vampy, latin-tinged conclusion.

The orchestral version of the suite –  also available with the DVD and cd as a a digital-only component – is as titanic as you could hope for, yet remarkably subtle. Often it seems to be more of a piano concerto where the orchestra are engaged in frequent and unusually interesting ways. Some solos get switched out for dynamically shifting, artfully textured strings and brass. Delicious details abound: menacing bowed basses in the overture; Fowler jumping out of his shoes in To Be a Kid; LaVell closely shadowing Hurt’s narration in Roll Call. And Hurt goes off script for one of the suite’s most telling moments: “Bodies can be buried, but not the past,” she advises.

This album has special resonance this year as public education in many parts of the country continues to melt down. On one hand, tens of millions of students are celebrating. More often than not, compulsory education in this country was a waiting room for the prison-industrial complex, plagued by violence, sadistic regimentation and a curriculum built around conformist propaganda.

On the other, what’s going to happen to the motivated minority of students whose interest in learning hasn’t been crushed by the system? And where are those who inspired them going to teach? Even in the worst public schools, there were always a handful of heroes whose classrooms were an oasis of inspiration, a refuge from the battle raging outside. Anybody who thinks that American kids are going to put in ten hours of screen time, five days a week to watch some robot teach the test is living in an alternate universe.

Thulani Davis’ New Poetry Collection Chronicles Twenty Years of Transcendence, Resistance and Concerts

Thulani Davis‘ writing has always had a very close connection to music, from her jazz poetry and operas to her nonfiction work. Her latest poetry collection, Nothing But the Music, 1974-1992 is subtitled “Documentaries from nightclubs, dance halls & a tailor’s shop in Dakar.” From a music writer’s perspective, she is an inspiration, her concise, crystalline, indelible imagery capturing the febrile energy of the 1970s loft jazz scene, the punk movement in the 80s…or just chilling with friends and blasting records. And she never fails to put the music in historical context. She’s a tireless and transportative guide: if you weren’t there, she makes you wish you were. It hardly comes as a surprise that much of this material has been performed in concert over the years, by the author and others as well. As she takes care to mention in a breathless account of watching Cecil Taylor and his quartet at the Five Spot in 1975:

this is not about romance
this is the real stuff

Even better, Davis lists showdates and personnel. One can only hope, for example, that somebody in the crowd – or the band – had the presence of mind to record the two sets that the hall of fame AACM lineup of Roscoe Mitchell, Julius Hemphill, Phillip Wilson, Joseph Bowie, Richard Muhal Abrams, Leroy Jenkins and George Lewis played at Studio Rivbea on February 8, 1976.

Davis’ portrait of a busker outside the Village Vanguard in 1975 is viscerally spine-tingling. Her account of a night in a Washington, DC club a year later may be fervent and ecstatic, but in the context of enormous historical baggage. In a portrait of a David Murray quintet gig in that same city, the way she brings back the motif of how “the truth came down twice” is too masterful, and too spot-on, to spoil: it will leave you green with writer’s envy.

These poems aren’t limited to first-class concert reportage in politically informed free verse. In jaunty period vernacular, Davis imagines Chicago’s Mecca Flats apartment complex in 1907, sixty years before it was razed, where a catchy piano riff wafting from an open window testified to its fertile role in black culture. She connects the dots between Mingus and Henry Threadgill with an erudite bass player’s skill. She tickles you with her observation about the Bad Brains’ attempts at roots reggae. And she reminds that two decades before the Lower East Side’s 1990s days as a rock mecca, there was a jazz joint there called Brownies.

And the book’s subtext, considering this year’s assaults on our civil rights, screams bloody murder. “I wish you all the live music you can get your hands on,” Davis encourages at the end of her acknowledgments. What she only alludes to is that throughout history, relationships and revolutions alike have been cemented around a beat and a catchy tune. That’s why Andrew Cuomo and the rest of the lockdowners are so terrified by the prospect of crowds of people packing stadiums and clubs: because music is empowering. And the lockdown is all about disempowerment. You can’t surveil someone who’s screaming into a friend’s ear over the band. But you can if they’re miles apart, chatting on Facebook while they watch the livestream.

Jazz on an Autumn Day

This has been a year of heroes and zeros like no other. One of the more recent heroes is Jimmy Katz of Giant Step Arts, who has stepped in to program a world-class series of weekend afternoon outdoor jazz concerts in Central Park at a time when musicians have arguably become more imperiled than at any other point in world history. Of the many nonprofits advocating for jazz artists, Katz’s is one of the most ambitious. Before the lockdown, he was booking a series of concerts at the Jazz Gallery, recording them for release on album and also on video, putting his own talent behind the lens to good use. Sunday afternoon’s performance on the southern end of the Central Park mall by vibraphonist Joel Ross and his quartet wasn’t like a hot Saturday night at Smalls or the Vanguard, but that didn’t seem to be the point anyway. Instead, a small, transient but generally very attentive crowd of maybe fifty people, at the most, scattered around the statue towering over the band, were treated to a thoughtful, very purposeful and occasionally outright haunting show.

Until we get Smalls and the Vanguard back again, in the short run this seems to be the future of live music in New York: communities coming together to support each other. Lately the park has become a pretty much daylong jazz festival, buskers everywhere, and several of them threw some of their own hard-earned cash into tenor saxophonist Sergio Tabanico’s open case as they passed by. A toddler sprinted up to the group in a joyous attempt to become their dancer, and the band loved it. His muzzled mom snatched him away: the child was distraught.

With mist from Tabanico’s sax and glimmer from Ross’ vibes, pedal down all the way, the group launched into the show with a wary take of what sounded like John Coltrane’s Birmingham. Drummer Craig Weinrib methodically worked his way up to the loose-limbed swing that would propel most of the set: like his bandmates, he was pacing himself. Tabanico set the stage for the rest of his afternoon, building slowly to a coda of insistent bursts and occasional shrieks against the beat.

Bassist Rashaan Carter maintained a more undulating, bubbling approach throughout the set, airing out his extended technique with harmonics in a couple of low-key solos. The bandleader was as terse as always, whether driving through steady but increasingly intense volleys of eighth notes, or providing spacious, judiciously ringing ambience behind the rest of the group.

One of the high points of Ross’ afternoon was an absolutely gorgeous, creepily tritone-infused solo to open the broodingly modal but increasingly funky third number. Another was the rivetingly allusive solo he took during an otherwise upbeat, bluesy swing tune toward the end. The group hinted they’d go further in a latin direction with a catchy, vamping minor-key number punctuated by another emphatically rhythmic Tabanico solo, but ended up holding back.

A return to pensive minor-key balladry – more Trane, maybe? – gave Ross a springboard for a stiletto-precise solo where he completely took the pedal off: it was almost as if he was playing a steel pan. Ross’ next scheduled gig is this Oct 9 at 4 PM with the Jazz Gallery Allstars at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

This particular Central Park series continues on Sept 26 at around 1:30 PM with drummer Nasheet Waits and saxophonist Mark Turner, plus Carter on bass again. It’s possible the players may not be at this exact location – on this particular afternoon, there was every possible kind of sonic competition further north, so sometimes you have to move around the park a little. The mall extends from the skating rink to the north, past the Naumburg Bandshell to about five blocks further south. The closest entrance is probably at 72nd St. and Central Park West.

Lavish, Imaginatively Arranged, Individualistic Ballads From Le Mirifique Orchestra

Le Mirifique Orchestra play lush, vast, majestically arranged ballads from the worlds of jazz standards, classic chanson and pop music. The arrangements on their new album Oh! My Love – streaming at Bandcamp – draw on classical styles from the baroque to the 21st century, emphasis on the modern. It’s an absolutely unique, imaginative sound, with jazz solos, classical lustre and catchy, relatively short songs. The group like playful instrumental intros, and have six strong singers taking turns out front.

The orchestra open the record with calmly spacious minimalism and then make their way into the first song, Skylark, sung with soaring, vintage soul-infused hopefulness by Agathe Peyrat. With orchestration that spans the sonic spectrum, from Thomas Saulet’s flute and Nicolas Fargeix’s clarinet down to Jérémie Dufort’s tuba, the song sets the stage for the rest of the record.

Co-leader Alban Darche’s judicious sax flurries over Alexis Thérain’s bittersweet guitar chords introduce Don’t Explain, then back away for Alice Lewis’ similarly pensive vocals. The swirl of the reeds against the resonance of trumpeter Rodolph Puechbroussous and horn players Pierre-Yves Le Masne and Emmanuel Bénèche maintain an uneasy dichotomy over drummer Meivelyan Jacquot’s muted sway.

Chloé Cailleton moves to the mic for the wistful You Can Never Hold Back Spring, the orchestra shifting between terse lustre and bubbling optimism. After a coyly shapeshifting intro, crooner Loïs Le Van takes over the lead on Parce que je t’aime, the ensemble moving from a subtle fugue to bright pageantry and back.

After a suspensefully flurrying guitar-and-drums interlude, the strings of Le Quatuor Psophos add lushness to the moody, often rather troubled instrumental Answer Me. Darche opens Je crois entendre with a balmy solo, then Philippe Katerine offers a gentle vocal over a contrastingly brooding, tense backdrop.

The string quartet return for My Love, foreshadowing the album’s title track with disquieting close harmonies and dynamic shifts. Cailleton takes over vocals again in a hazily brassy take of I’ll Be Seeing You, the high reeds rising to a balletesque peak.

Lewis goes back to the mic with a moody understatement for the haunting Celian’s Complaint, guest trumpeter Geoffroy Tamisier winding it up with a desolate solo: it’s the high point of the album. The similarly somber, mysterious narrative Et pour autant qu’il m’en souvienne makes a good segue, Le Van’s sober spoken word set to spare, possibly improvised verses before the angst-fueled chorus kicks in. Thomas de Pourquery sings the title cut to close the album on a pensively pillowy note.

JD Allen Puts Out His Most Intense, Powerful Album in Close to a Decade

JD Allen is this century’s most powerful, relevant tenor saxophonist. He probably has a more intuitive understanding of both chromatics and the blues than any composer alive. His technique is scary, and unsurpassed when he feels like pulling out all the stops, something he always does when playing his own material. His latest album Toys/Die Dreaming is streaming at youtube. How ironic that he would win a poll for “rising star composer” when his star rose a long time ago, and never went down, even before his landmark I Am I Am album in 2008. It’s time we put this guy in the hall of fame alongside Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins, and Pharaoh Sanders.

Recorded in a marathon one-day session in Queens this past January, this is an expansive and often searing recording with Allen’s current trio, which these days includes bassist Ian Kenselaar and drummer Nic Cacioppo. Until recently, Allen was best known for crystallizing a sharply purposeful style he called “jukebox jazz,” three-minute songs loaded with one slashing hook after another. His last three albums have been more expansive: this one blends the concise, relentless intensity of records like Victory with his more recent, longscale adventures. What’s consistent is is the almost absurdly hummable, singable quality of his tunes.

The trio open with the standard You’re My Thrill, the rhythm section doing a solid impression of a flamenco band with their flurrying beats as Allen’s darkly bracing phrases shift through emphatic, intense riffage, that signature rugged, gritty tone never wavering. Kenselaar has obviously taken a cue from his predecessor in the Allen trio, Gregg August, his solos leaping between slinky melody and stirring chords.

Allen’s first original is The G Thing, a dark, bluesy minor-key song without words, with a tentative swing where August and Allen’s original drummer, Rudy Royston, would have thrashed the shit out of this. Allen’s lusciously Lynchian smokiness right before the end perfectly capsulizes his appeal over the years.

Die Dreaming comes across as a Moisturizer song with tenor sax in place of Paula Henderson’s baritone, along with savagely erudite register shifts and the Arabic modes that  have become Allen’s signature trope when he wants to make a point. You want catchy? Purposeful? A bassist who’ll dig in for a chord if it’s needed?

Red Label, which the rhythm section brought with them after recording it with trombonist Peter Lin, gets elevated above (or maybe those of us on the low end should say below) generic slinky stripper territory into starkly smoky blues. Kenselaar and Allen team up in the F clef before the bandleader expands into what becomes more expansively lurid territory.

Toys, another original, is a classic Allen study in irony: predictably lyrical, bluesy sax, spare who knows what cutting loose from the rhythm. I Should Care, a familiar ballad from other projects, gets stripped to the bone, a stark portrait of white-knuckle, chilling angst. The three close the album with Allen’s blues-infused Elegua (The Trickster), Cacioppo shifting nimbly from a Royston Rumble to suspenseful swing behind Allen’s dark, increasingly sardonic runs, channeling a Yoruba god who won’t sit still. It’s a deliciously haphazard frontrunner for best jazz album of 2020, something Allen has definitely gotten used to over the years.

A Volcanic Harlem Jam Rescued From the Archives

Considering what happened to live music in this city this year, it’s heartbreaking to think back on the free improvisation scene here in 1999. CB’s Gallery was still open. So was Tonic, along with a Harlem loft space called the Hint House, where the quartet TEST joined with trumpeter Roy Campbell for a pyrotechnic jam on April 16 of that year. The Hint House is long gone – as seemingly every music venue in town may also be at this point – but the band had the good sense to record the show that night. And in keeping with the vast deluge of rare archival material being released this year, this uninterrupted, roughly 47-minute improvisation is streaming at Bandcamp.

The energy is through the roof, rising and falling, with individual horn solos drawing the rest of the lineup back in. Much of the time the rhythm section keeps a rapidfire swing going, more or less, in a Sam Rivers vein; other times the drums drop out for more spare, looming bass, even while the horns keep the cauldron blazing.

Campbell generously shares the spotlight with Daniel Carter on alto and tenor sax, trumpet and flute, Sabir Mateen on those same reeds and also clarinet, Matthew Heyner on bass and Tom Bruno on drums. A fanfare quickly coalesces – Bruno’s thump signals the rest of the horns to chill while Campbell plays a wildfire, trilling, thrilling solo. “God!” exclaims an audience member (or bandmate).

The rhythm section takes a momentary lull but in a flash they’re back out of it. It seems Carter takes the next solo as the bass bubbles upward and the drums cluster, then Campbell squalls and shrieks his way in and the crazed triangulation begins again. Is that Mateen taking that valve-torturing, squealing break?

Subtle shadowing, counterrythms and as much calm as could possibly exist under the circumstances follow in turn, well past the halfway mark. The murk clears a bit for resonance and lyricism, particularly from Carter and Campbell: Heyner’s spaciousness and use of spare chords make a good foil to Bruno’s smackdown riffs. There’s a sudden fade downward to haze and wisps instigated by the bass, Bruno deciding to get the show back on the road while the reeds play baroque-tinged spirals. The chugging, rumbling inferno that follows is the high point of the set: obviously, none of this was planned.

Edgy, Slinky, Lusciously Allusive Middle Eastern Jazz From Enrique Haneine

Drummer Enrique Haneine writes an ambitious, individualistic and often very captivating blend of succinct riffage, Middle Eastern-inspired themes and grooves. The lineup on his album Unlayered – streaming at Bandcamp – reflects that individualism, a three-horn frontline over a steady, bouncing rhythm section, facilitating lushnesss but more often than not a series of cleverly interpolated individual voices. Which means there’s a lot to sink your ears into here. The obvious comparison is the (otherwise pretty incomparable) Brooklyn chordless trio Ensemble Fanaa. If you love jazz and Middle Eastern music, this will push all your buttons.

The hypnotic opening track, Behind the Missing Whisper has a tasty, mysterious slink and artful, conspiratorially triangulated harmonies between Catherine Sikora’s tenor sax, Thomas Heberer’s trumpet and Christof Knoche’s bass clarinet over the undulating pulse from Haneine and bassist Jay Anderson.

The band put on the Ritz with a vampy mashup of Steve Coleman, salsa jazz and circular indie classical in the album’s second number, Luculent Jiggle (these titles seem generated by Google Translate in 404 mode), with trumpet, sax, bass clarinet and bass alluding to the Middle East in turn, but never quite going there.

A staggered, suspiciously deadpan quasi-funk drive propels Thriving Ring, Sikora taking an allusively chromatic solo. Queen of the Underground makes a good segue, a circling, bouncy, syncopated groove and an enigmatic trumpet loop underscoring brooding sax and bass clarinet solos, down to a steadily strolling bass interlude

Dance of Endless Encounter is a pulsing, Egyptian-tinged number with a lusciously modal sax solo, more straightforward trumpet and a priceless moment where the bass clarinet…well…disappears, because the rest of the band decide to jump back in! Likewise, Seldom Disguise has a subtly crescendoing, serpentine groove, building to a biting, rather cynical three-way conversation between the horns

The Sweetest Finding is built around enigmatic variarions on a sober but emphatic chromatic theme, with a droll, completely deadpan bustle and triumphant chaos. Likewise, the deadpan humor in Illustrious Bickering: some people want to bring this optimistically Middle Eastern-spiced theme to its logical conclusion, but there are diversions, a sax battle with the rhythm section and an irresistibly cartoonish coda: an Israeli wall parable, maybe?

The band revert to staggered, staccato synopcation in Oust No More, a vehicle for fiery extended-technique solos for the horns. There are hints of qawwali in the subtle but direct exchanges of voices in What of What We Are: Heberer finally goes for the grit that’s been waiting to bust loose here. The slow Ellingtonian lustre of Once, Knoche’s Lebanese blues at the center, comes as a shock until you realize the band have been building up to this understatedly gorgeous payoff all along. A stealth contender for best jazz album of 2020

Colorful, Entertaining Reinventions of Famous Classical Themes From the Mike Fahie Jazz Orchestra

The Mike Fahie Jazz Orchestra‘s new album Urban(e) – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most genuinely orchestral jazz records ever made. On one level, it’s all about imaginative, outside-the-box arranging and playing. On another, it’s part of a long tradition of musicians appropriating tunes from every style imaginable: Bach writing variations on country dances; southern preachers making hymns out of old blues songs; the Electric Light Orchestra making surf rock out of a Grieg piano concerto. Here, Fahie takes a bunch of mostly-famous classical themes to places most people would never dare. It’s closer to ELO than, say, the NY Philharmonic.

Is this hubristic? Sure. Fahie addresses that issue in the album’s liner notes, assuring listeners he’s tried to be true to the intrinsic mood of each particular piece. The group’s reinvention of the third movement from Bartok’s String Quartet No. 1 – from when the composer was still more or less a Late Romantic – is a trip. Guitarist Jeff Miles gets to have fun with a few savage flares before Fahie makes chugging art-punk out of it, trombonist Daniel Linden’s blitheness offering no hint of how much further out the group are going to from there, through Vegas noir, a deliciously sinister Brad Mason trumpet solo, and more. It’s fun beyond belief.

To open the record, the group tackle Chopin’s iconic C minor prelude, beginning with a somber, massed lustre, bassist Pedro Giraudo and pianist Randy Ingram offering the first hints of revelry, Miles adding a word of caution. From there Fahie expands the harmonies many times over and the group make a latin-tinged romp out of it.

Tenor saxophonist Chet Doxas steps into the aria role in an easygoing remake of a piece from Puccini’s opera. There’s plenty of tasty suspense as Fahie’s epic suite of themes from Stravinsky’s Firebird coalesces from lush swells and glittery piano, through more carefree terrain, to a pensive yet technically daunting duet between the bandleader’s euphonium and Jennifer Wharton’s tuba.

Hearing Fahie play the opening riff from Debussy’s La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin on trombone is a revelation: that’s Pictures at an Exhibition! So much for musical appropriation, right? The rest of Fahie’s punchy, lustrous arrangement comes across as vintage, orchestral Moody Blues with brass instead of mellotron.

Fahie turns the second movement from Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony into a jaunty Swan Lake set piece, with a wistful solo from alto sax player Aaron Irwin and a more sobering one from trombonist Nick Grinder.

The group close the record with a lavish, nocturnal take of a brooding section of Bach’s Cantata, BWV 21. The theme is basically “troubles, troubles, troubles” – from Fahie’s clear-eyed opening solo, the counterpoint grows more envelopingly somber, up to some neat rhythmic inventions and a return back. This inspired cast also includes saxophonists Anton Denner, Quinsin Nachoff and Carl Maraghi; trumpeters Brian Pareschi, David Smith and Sam Hoyt; tombonist Matthew McDonald and drummer Jeff Davis.