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A Breathtaking, Epic Debut Album From the Fabia Mantwill Orchestra

There hasn’t been a debut big band jazz album on as ambitious a level as the Fabia Mantwill Orchestra’s initial release, Em.Perience (streaming at Spotify) in a long time. Maybe since Asuka Kakitani’s similarly symphonic first record. The vast scope of the saxophonist/singer/bandleader’s ideas, her lush East African-inspired melodicism and outside-the-box arrangements will sweep you off your feet. To compare a lot of this to Darcy James Argue and Maria Schneider would not be overhype. Albums like this are what people who run music blogs live for. Mantwill has an exceptional ear for textures and a penchant for unusual pairings of instruments, and alludes to an amazingly eclectic range of influences without aping any of them.

The first sparkling riffs over the lush string section on the first song, a lavish arrangement of Becca Stevens’ Ophelia, are from Milena Hoge’s harp. After the second chorus, a spiky Portuguese guitar takes over. Stormy low brass kicks in beneath muted trumpet and orchestral percussion, foreshadowing the moment when the wounded warrior gazes into the ocean, sees the suicide girl’s ghost and decides life is worth living after all. It’s part Moody Blues, part Gil Evans, part Nico’s Chelsea Girl with a singer who hits all the notes. What a way to open the record.

The rest of it is almost all Mantwill compositions, the first titled Pjujeck. Trombonist Nils Landgren kicks it off, hard, answered tersely by guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, the strings ushering in the most vastly expansive, exuberant dance theme you will hear this year. The two soloists engage in a funky upward drive, Landgren’s jaunty New Orleans-isms eventually giving way to Rosenwinkel’s surreal, 180-degree detour into deep-space ambience, which Mantwill ties up in a neat package at the end.

She sings in Swahili in Sasa Ndio Sasa (Here and Now), inspired by her travels in East Africa. A suspenseful, droning bass intro bows out for a bouncily hypnotic, circling rondo featuring the “Tanzanian Kids Choir.” As symphonic African music, it brings to mind Toumani Diabate’s work with the London Symphony Orchestra, although Mantwill’s composition is somewhat more intricate, from Maria Reich’s warily kinetic viola solo, to Rosenwinkel’s EWI-like envelope-pedal solo, to the jubilantly cantering coda.

Erwachen (German for “Awakening”) is a lavish, balmy Isle of Skye seascape, Mantwill’s sax looking back to a famous 70s ballad: it’s the album’s most straightforwardly beautiful interlude. Marcio Doctor’s shamanic percussion and vibraphone fuel the dynamically expansive Serengeti-scape Kumbukumbu, flugelhornist Konstantin Döben adding a resonant but enigmatic solo before the group shift toward a string-infused pulse that brings to mind McCoy Tyner’s Fly With the Wind.

The lively African-flavored rhythms and riffs continue in Triology. The addition of steel pan in contrast to Daniel Buch’s chuffing baritone sax is an especially clever touch, as is the bari/bass/drums breakdown in the middle, Morphine on whippits.

Tilmann Dehnhard’s alto flute sprouts, afloat in what’s left of the snows in Melodie de la Riviere. a French Riviera early spring tableau. Yet even here, there’s a circling, mutedly leaping African rhythm, Hoge introducing baroque austerity in her solo harp interlude, Döben’s steady, calm flugelhorn following to signal a determined, verdant crescendo. They tiptoe their way out.

The album’s final number is Festival at High Noon, by Megan Ndale, which may have been inspired by a music festival in Nepal but sounds more distinctly Tanzanian or Kenyan…and then Balkan. Violist Reich reaches to the bottom of her register and then swoops skyward, bristling with reverb; tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel memorably follows that same pattern. This is the top contender for best jazz debut of 2021 so far.

A Vibrant, Evocative, Summery Album From the Dennis Kwok Jazz Orchestra

The Dennis Kwok Jazz Orchestra’s album Windward Bound – streaming at Bandcamp – opens with a mist of wave splashes and sounds of shorebirds. But those aren’t samples. That’s the band conjuring up remarkable facsimiles of both. It’s a characteristically playful touch for multi-reeedman Kwok’s six-part suite, inspired by sailing on Lake Ontario and the lore of the sea.

The opening theme, The Calling begins as a calm, baroque-influenced prelude for winds, the rest of the nineteeen-piece ensemble sweeping up and in with hints of a sea chantey. It has the same lush, bucolic familiarity as Maria Schneider‘s lake-themed compositions.

Pianist Augustine Yates’ expectant pedalpoint anchors Kwok’s balmy alto sax intro, singer Caity Gyorgy adding lustrous vocalese as Ready, Aye, Ready gets underway. Bassist Jonathan Wielebnowski and drummer Jacob Wutzke drive the orchestra to a triumphant series of peaks, then shift from a funky sway to suspense as the piece ebbs and rises again. There’s a moment where guitarist Aidan Funston takes over the pedalpoint that could be Darcy James Argue in  a foreboding moment…except that this album is generally upbeat and optimistic.

A Flat Boat Is a Fast Boat has driving latin flair, horns bursting above a rapid swing that threatens to get frantic, then the saxes – who include Naomi McCarroll-Butler, Sophia Smith, Brenden Varty, Kyle Tarder-Stoll and Jonathan Lau – battle it out with the brass. The fluttery false ending before Funston’s spiky solo is a cool touch.

The album’s big improvisational epic is The Tempest, beginning with stark low-register foreshadowing from the piano, followed by a series of skeletal accents throughout the ensemble as the bass growls in the distance. Slowly they rise out of muted skronk to an increasingly nebulous but agitated swirl as flute and trombones soar and resonate. The storm recedes quickly with a few fitful flourishes.

The fifth number, Elegy is where the whole group really coalesce with a shadowy power, in variations on a broodingly rising modal piano riff. Kwok’s misty, melancholy lines pack a quiet punch when the music recedes. The lakeside imagery as the upward drive returns is characteristically evocative.

Kwok brings the suite full circle with the final number, Red, Right, Returning, building on the original high-seas theme with carefree sax and a soulful muted trumpet solo. The rest of this inspired crew include trumpeters Megan Jutting, Matt Smith, Paul Callander, Marie Goudy and trombonists Nick Marshall, Andrew Gormley, Charlotte Mcafee-Brunner and Inayat Kassam.

So where the hell was this blog when this album hit the web in 2017? Focusing on the New York live music scene. Concerts: remember those? It won’t be long before we’re all going out again just like we used to. This summer, everybody’s going to bust loose. Lockdowners, you’re surrounded, time to raise the white flag or else.

The Data Lords Are No Match For the Rest of Us in Maria Schneider’s Visionary Magnum Opus

Imagine what Hitler could have done if Facebook and Instagram had existed in 1938. There wouldn’t have been a single Jew or Romany person left alive in Europe. Or any musicians, artists, writers, or member of the intelligentsia.

All genuine art is transgressive. And fascists don’t like people who disobey.

There are a lot of little Hitlers working for the Trace and Track Corps right now who are datamining Facebook, Instagram, and every other digital platform including private phones.

You do the math.

So it’s kind of a miracle that Maria Schneider has been able to release her new album Data Lords in the year of the lockdown. In a career where she’s been widely acknowledged as the foremost jazz composer since the 1990s, this is a magnum opus, her bravest and most musically ambitious release yet. And it ends optimistically. As Schneider sees it, the people – and the animals, and the lakes and the trees – are going to win this war.

It’s a double album, the first titled The Digital World, the second Our Natural World. Schneider grew up in Minnesota, an outdoorsy kid whose love and advocacy for nature remains a persistent theme throughout her work. That resonates more strongly than ever on the second disc.

The first is protest music on the highest level of artistic expression, with Shostakovian irony and defiant Mingus humor. Improvisation seems to play an even greater role than ever in Schneider’s work here, and her brilliant ensemble attack it with reckless abandon and attention to the most minute details. It would take a book to dissect each of these pieces.

The opening number is A World Lost. Reduced to lowest terms, it’s basically a one-chord jam. From Frank Kimbrough’s elegaic, modally circling piano and Jay Anderson’s somber bowed bass, drummer Johnathan Blake adds mutedly shamanistic color. The orchestra develops a chromatic menace anchored by the low reeds, Rich Perry’s hopeful, defiant tenor sax pulsing through what could be groupthink. Anderson signals a rise to a fullscale conflagration; Perry’s tumble out of the sky, shadowed by guitarist Ben Monder’s atmospheric lines, is one of the most stunning moments on the album. Is this a portrait of the innate feebleness of the data lords, whose machines have not liberated but disempowered them? Or is this the failure of the world to realize the sinister implications of digital media?

The sarcasm in Don’t Be Evil – you know, the Google motto – is savage to the extreme. The quirky intro hints that these dorks couldn’t hurt a fly – but wait! A folksy caricature grows more macabre, with stabbing horns and a spastic, tormented guitar solo as a marching lockstep develops. Trombonist Ryan Keberle plays momentary voice of reason, Kimbrough the gleefully evil architect of an empire of spies with his phantasmagorical ripples. This might be the best song Schneider ever wrote.

Although CQ CQ Is There Anybody There predates the lockdown, it could be a portrait of what Del Bigtree calls the “illuminati of clowns” behind it. This one’s particularly creepy. There’s a persistent rubato feel to a large proportion of this disc, and this song is a prime example, from acidically swooping atmospherics and a descent into the murk with guitar lurking just overhead. Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin provides ebullient contrast over the growl as Blake builds wave motion, then trumpeter Greg Gisbert and his pedal become a one-man cheer section for impending doom as the orchestra fall in and out of sync, until his shriek signals complete control. Those masks will never come off again.

Scott Robinson channels a vast range of emotions on baritone sax, from burbling contentedness to valve-ripping extended technique throughout Sputnik. Kimbrough introduces it somberly, then it becomes a contented deep-space theme. The way Schneider weaves the initial disquiet back in is nothing short of brilliant; the group bring it full circle. A 5G parable, maybe?

The album’s title track and centerpiece has a cold vindictiveness, from the glitchy electronic sarcasm of the intro, through an anxious flutter of individual voices as Blake circles his kit. Trumpeter Mike Rodriguez chooses his spots over a grim vamp, offers a guarded optimism but finally grows frantic. Could alto saxophonist Dave Pietro’s menacing chromatics and wobbly microtones over Kimbrough’s tinkle be a cartoonish take on a Bill Gates type?  When everything completely and abruptly falls apart, leaving only glitches behind, Schneider leaves no doubt that the data lords are doomed – and as the rest of the record attests, there are better things ahead.

Our Natural World begins with Sanzenin, a steady, calmly pulsing anthem which could be a largescale Claudia Quintet piece with Gary Versace’s terse accordion at the center. Steve Wilson’s coy blippy soprano sax is joined by warmly rippling piano, followed by whimsical conversation between accordion and sax in the carefree Stone Song, a rubato samba with lots of quick staccato bursts from everybody

Kimbrough’s glistening, incisive chords introduce Look Up, trombonist Marshall Gilkes echoing that bright lyricism throughout several solos. Gospel allusions from the piano filter through the orchestra’s lustre: Schneider’s signature colors shine especially in the inventive harmonies between low and high brass. There’s a jaunty son jarocho bounce as it moves along, Versace’s accordion coming to the forefront once more.

Braided Together, the album’s shortest number, is a lustrously triumphant, anthemically pulsing pastoral jazz vehicle for fondly soaring alto from Pietro. Bluebird, the most epic track here, is a throwback to Schneider’s Concert in the Garden days, with Gil Evans sweep and expanse, a muscular rhythmic drive, Kimbrough fueling the upward climb. The rhythm section channel the Meters behind Wilson’s jubilant, blues-tinged alto sax; Versace leaps and spins like a seal in the water. The orchestra reach a blazing peak and then shuffle down to a fadeout

The Sun Waited For Me makes a benedictory coda, glistening highs mingling with burnished lows. Eventually, a soulful, increasingly funky ballad emerges,  McCaslin’s tenor ratcheting up the energy. A career highlight from a group that also includes trumpeters Tony Kadleck and Nadje Nordhuis, trombonist Keith O’Quinn, and George Flynn on the bass trombone.

As you would expect, the web abounds with live performances from Schneider’s rich catalog; at present, this is not one of them. Schneider has had a long-running beef with youtube, and considering what’s happened this year, who can blame her. This is a treasure worth waiting for when it comes out on vinyl. 

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 Transcendent Big Band Jazz Twinbill with the Awakening Orchestra and Fabian Almazan’s Rhizome

Composer/conductor Kyle Saulnier’s mighty twenty-piece Awakening Orchestra played one of the year’s best concerts last month at Shapeshifter Lab in Gowanus, on a fantastic doublebill with pianist Fabian Almazan‘s chamber jazz group, Rhizome. Saulnier’s most obvious comparison is Darcy James Argue, considering how fearlessly relevant and politically inspired the two composers’ recent work has been. Maria Schneider is another, in terms of epic sweep and textural lustre.

Pablo Masis introduced one of Saulnier’s favorite recent tropes, a long, searching trumpet solo to open the evening’s first song, an imaginative reinvention of the Low cult favorite, Murderer, sung over balmy high reed swirls and cloudbanks of brass by Julie Hardy and Seth Fruiterman. As would be the case throughout the performance, James Shipp’s lingering vibraphone provided unsettling, twinkling contrast, in the same vein as the Claudia Quintet, while trumpeter Seneca Black prowled the perimeter with a similar judicious unease, up to a simmering coda.

Jesse Lewis’ The Robert Frost Experiment gave alro saxophonist Vito Chiavuzzo a glistening backdrop for wistful pastoralisms, drummer Jared Schonig pushing toward a steady heroic theme, guitarist Michael McAllister adding enigmatic textures. Empty Promises, the second movement of Saulnier’s This Is Not the Answer suite from the band’s 2014 album, moved deftly from lushly nocturnal ambience to a steadier disquiet, echoing Bernard Herrmann with its subtly shifting rhythms, trumpet/high reeds dichotomies and a vivid wee-hours street scene of sorts from Chiavuzzo, rising to an angst-fueled peak.

As dynamic as the early part of the set was, the high point was Saulnier’s new election year suite, a work in progress. He explained that he’d originally envisioned the project as pretty grim, but that it had become much more complicated than that (Bernie Sanders had not yet conceded on Bastille Day, the date of this show). The first of these numbers, Free Labor, Free Land, Free Men draws on the original slogan of the Republican Party. Trombonist Willem De Koch supplied the wary, circumspect introduction, the orchestra reaching toward a vast, brooding panorama, Schonig finally kicking in and then turning it over to Shipp’s opaque atmospherics and then unexpectedly anthemic, psychedelic lines. De Koch’s wounded foghorn resonance took centerstage as early promise gave way to sheer dejection, chaos and then blaring, stentorian sarcasm. Let’s not forget that the Republicans began life as abolitionists. The second part, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité began with Aaron Kotler’s lyrical, neoromantically optimistic piano, RJ Avallone’s trumpet leading a bustling, swinging drive upward, Samuel Ryder’s bluesy tenor sax spiraling into a brief, harrowing conclusion.

Saulnier emphasized that he wanted to wind up the show on a positive note, and then led the group through a plush take of Hi-Lili, a summery chamber-pop reworking of an early 50s hit, Fruiterman on vocals. Altogether, a provocative and powerful performance by the group, which also featured saxophonists Andrew Gould, Andrew Gutauskas and Carl Maraghi; trumpeter Daniel Urness; trombonists Michael Boscarino, Matthew Musselman and Joe Barati, and bassist Nick Dunston. They return to Shapeshifter Lab to continue the suite this coming November 11 at 7:30 PM.

Almazan followed with a simlarly luminous, dynamic, more briskly paced set equally informed by neoromanticism and cutting-edge large ensemble jazz. The pianist fired off long, sinuous cascades, his balletesque leaps and bounds anchored on the low end by bassist Linda Oh, who really got a workout as the show went on. Guitarist Camila Meza added alternately misty and crystalline vocalese as well as decisive, emphatic chordal swells over the shifting sheets and tricky rhythmic pulse of a string quartet, fueled by the drums’ exuberant bluster. An anthemic, cinematic sweep gave way to brief, lively Afro-Cuban romps, a marionettish string interlude or two, allusions to Shostakovian horror and latin noir balladry. Following the Awakening Orchestra and managing not to be anticlimactic was quite the challenge, but Almazan and his crew delivered. He’s currently on West Coast tour; his next gig in that part of the world is on August 12 with support from the Aruan Ortiz Trio at the SF Jazz Center, 201 Franklin St. in San Francisco. $15 tix are available.

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 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.

JD Allen Releases a Characteristically Majestic, Intense New Album Uptown at Minton’s

Having followed JD Allen‘s career over the years, it’s validating to see how much recognition the tersely stormy tenor saxophonist/composer has received lately. On the other hand, where the hell was the jazz media ten years ago? At that point, he had already concretized his signature style of “jukebox jazz” – concise, machete-sharp statements that for all their brevity packed a wallop as mighty as any other composer these days can deliver in any other style of music. What Darcy James Argue or Maria Schneider can say with eighteen musicians, JD Allen can say with three. He’s in the midst of a weekend stand at Minton’s for the release of his latest album, Graffiti, with his long-running trio, Gregg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums. It’s a group that like the Brubeck Quartet, or Coltrane’s early 60s bands, may someday be considered iconic. Sets tonight are at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; your best and most economical bet is the $25 bar seats, since the sound travels well in the club’s historic space.

The new album both continues and refines the vision Allen began with on I AM I AM, the slashing 2006 variations-on-a-theme, a device he’s worked with each of his successive trio albums. You could call them jazz sonatas, spiced with ominous modalities, majestically savage, wickedly cutting minor-key riffage and key input from the rhythm section. One reason why Allen’s trio is so strong is that they’ve been together so long, a rarity in jazz these days. The other is that Allen’s compositions put the bass and drums as front and center as his magisterial, hard-hitting sax. While he’s capable of blustery volleys of hardbop, he rarely does that, eschewing gratuitous displays of fearsome technique for judiciously placed melody and embellishments, and both August and Royston maintain that dynamic. The former is as likely to add color and cumulo-nimbus ambience with his bow, while the latter – arguably this era’s most mutably colorful jazz drummer – gets to cut loose, completely off his leash, with explosive results.

At the closing night of this year’s Winter Jazzfest, Allen and his trio justified a headline status of sorts with a riveting hourlong midnight set at Subculture. Across town at the Minetta Lane Theatre, Rudresh Mahanthappa had just delivered a spine-tingling set of meticulously reinvented, Indian-tinged Charlie Parker themes, a spectacular display of wind-tunnel control, subtle dynamic shifts and commandingly turbocharged power. But Allen was the highlight of the evening and the festival. Much as the group kept a laser focus on the compositions, each number – drawing on a mix of material from the I AM I AM, Shine! and Grace albums – got an expansive yet purposeful workout, like a hitter methodically adjusting to a series of completely different pitchers and then hitting the ball out of the park. Royston volleyed and pummeled and shuffled, August supplied stygian gravitas, negotiating the pitchblende terrain with the night vision of a panther, Allen stunning the crowd with both purpose and technique, and a long series of duotone hooks to open the set. After an uneasy charge through a series of overcast, sometimes somber themes, Allen completely flipped the script with a couple of standards, as if to say, you think you knew me? But it was the originals that everybody in the room had come out for, and it wasn’t long before the band went back to them, shadowboxing with the weight of history and a relentless drive to bring some victory to the task.

The Maria Schneider Orchestra Bring a Luminous, Relevant New Album to a Stand at Birdland

To pigeonhole the Maria Schneider Orchestra‘s latest magnum opus, The Thompson Fields. as pastoral jazz downplays its genuinely extraordinary beauty and epic sweep. But a musicologist would probably consider how much the vast expanses of the Minnesota prairie where Schneider grew up have influenced her writing. To call Schneider this era’s paradigmatic big band jazz composer would also be just part of a larger picture: among this era’s composers in any style of music, only Kayhan Kalhor and Darcy James Argue reach such ambitious and transcendent peaks. She’s bringing her Orchestra to a stand at Birdland this week, June 2 through 6 with sets at 8:30 and 11 PM.

As is her custom, Schneider’s compositions go far, far beyond mere vehicles for extended solos, although the solos here are exquisite and serve as the high points they ought to be. Scott Robinson’s alto clarinet dipping between heartfelt lows and airily triumphant swells on the opening number, a newly reorchestrated take of the early-morning nocturne Walking by Flashlight – from Schneider’s previous album Winter Morning Walks – sets the stage.

That number is the shortest one here: the rest of the album builds an expansive, dynamically rich Midwestern panorama. All of Schneider’s familiar tropes are in top form: her use of every inch of the sonic spectrum in the spirit of her mentor Gil Evans; endless twists and turns that give way to long, lushly enveloping, slow upward climbs; and her signature, translucent, neoromantically-influenced tunesmithing. Marshall Gilkes’ looming trombone and Greg Gisbert’s achingly vivid flugelhorn illuminate The Monarch and the Milkweed, a pensively summery meditation on the beauty of symmetry and nature. Robinson’s baritone and Donny McCaslin’s tenor sax take to the sky in Arbiters of Evolution, a labyrinthine, pulsing, slowly unwinding portrait of birds in flight (perhaps for their lives – as in much of Schneider’s work, there’s a wary environmentalist point of view in full effect here).

Frank Kimbrough’s piano and Lage Lund’s guitar carry the title track from its gentle, plainspoken intro through an unexpectedly icy interlude to gracefully dancing motives over lush waves of brass. The most pastoral of all the cuts here is Home, graced by Rich Perry’s calm, warmly meditatitve tenor sax. Then the orchestra picks up with a literally breathtaking pulse, inducing g-forces as Nimbus reaches its stormy heights, Steve Wilson’s alto sax swirling as the cinematics unfold. As a portrait of awe-inspiring Midwestern storm power, it’s pretty much unrivalled.

Gary Versace’s plaintive accordion takes centerstage amidst a rich, ominously brooding brass chart in the intense, elegaic A Potter’s Song, dedicated to the late, great trumpeter and longtime Schneider associate Laurie Frink. The album winds up on a joyously Brazilian-flavored note with Lembranca, inspired by a pivotal moment in Schneider’s life, spellbound by a carnival drum orchestra, Ryan Keberle’s trombone and Jay Anderson’s bass adding color and bouncy energy.

The album, a crowdfunded endeavor comprising newly commissioned works, comes in a gorgeously illustrated full-color digipak with extensive and articulate liner notes from the composer. Like a couple other pantheonic artists, Richard Thompson and Olivier Messiaen, Schneider is also a birder, and her commentary on current environmental crises affecting the avian world and her beloved prairie home turf are spot-on. Where does this fall in the Schneider catalog? It’s hard to say: there’s the ambition and scope of, say, Concert in the Garden, but also the saturnine majesty of Winter Morning Walks. It’s a new direction for her, no surprise considering how often she’s reinvented herself. And while it doesn’t seem to be up at the usual spots, i.e. Spotify and such, you can get completely lost in the radio feature at Schneider’s webpage. It’s the best possible advertising this album, and her work as a whole, could possibly have.

Maria Schneider’s Lush, Atmospheric Winter Morning Walks: Beauty Triumphs Over Horror

If there’s one thing that defines Maria Schneider‘s work, it’s color. So why would this era’s most dynamic composer in any style of music want to make a monochromatic album? Maybe because it was a challenge. Although Schneider’s big band jazz can be lush and enveloping to the nth degree, writing for string orchestra as she does here gives her a chance to build lingering long-tone themes that would be less suited to the reeds and brass of her jazz orchestra. Both suites on her most recent, death-obsessed album Winter Morning Walks are sung by Dawn Upshaw, an apt choice of vocalist considering that she’s as at home in both the avant garde and in jazz – notably in her collaborations with Wynton Marsalis – as she is in the classical world.

The first suite is orchestrations of poems by Ted Kooser, which debuted on NPR and document his predawn strolls while battling through chemotherapy (which he happily survived). The second is Schneider’s orchestral scores of text by iconic Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. The music of both is remarkably cohesive, and pretty much through-composed in keeping with the uneven meters of the poems: there’s very little repetition here. Upshaw is backed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra on the first and on the second by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra along with core members of the Maria Schneider Orchestra: pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist Jay Anderson and multi-reedman Scott Robinson on alto and bass clarinet.

Music inspired by impending doom has seldom been more gorgeous. An aptly drifting tone poem opens the initial suite, Upshaw’s clipped vocals growing more agitated against scurrying strings which then drive the music to a lull. Kimbrough’s steady, minimalist piano pairs with Robinson’s optimistic clarinet, then Upshaw delivers a mantra of sorts over a theme that grows uneasy despite the lushness underneath. A tender piano/strings interlude illustrates the point where Kooser’s wife joins him on one of his excursions. A calmly pulsing after-the-storm tableau gets followed by the menacing miniature Our Finch Feeder, with echoes of circus rock and noir cabaret, then a hopeful, crescendoing interlude. Nebulous, balmy orchestration gives way to a big bravura vocal crescendo on the final segment.

The de Andrade suite is more in the vein of Schneider’s extraordinarily vivid large ensemble jazz. The opening prologue sounds like an Ernesto Lecuona piece with lusher strings and English vocals – it gets creepier as it trails out. The Dead in Frock Coats, a plaintive, cello-fueled waltz in disguise, comes next, followed by the minimalist lullaby Souvenir of the Ancient World. The best song on the album, the absolutely chilling, majestically menacing Don’t Kill Yourself, blends hints of Arabic music with vintage Gil Evans Out of the Cool noir (which makes sense since Schneider was Evans’ greatest protegee). The album ends with an ominously throbbing vamp concealed in a cloud of strings. This is an album best enjoyed on your phone or your pod or your earphones – it’s best heard up close where Schneider’s intricacies can draw you into a reverie and then jar you out of it when least expected.

Now where else can you hear this album? Not at Spotify, or Instantencore (the classical counterpart to Bandcamp). Not at Schneider’s Youtube channel. However, Schneider streams much of her catalog at her site: you can get absolutely lost in the amazing stuff that’s up there.