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Winter Jazzfest, New York, January 11, 2019: Tantalizing, Changing Modes

For this blog, night one of this weekend’s Winter Jazzfest marathon, as it’s now called, began with Big Heart Machine at the Sheen Center. Multi-reedman Brian Krock’s careening big band reflected the zeitgeist in more and more large ensembles these days – Burnt Sugar’s unhinged if loosely tethered performance at Lincoln Center Thursday night was much the same. Miho Hazama’s conduction in front of this group followed in what has become a hallowed tradition pioneered by the late Butch Morris, directing dynamic shifts and subgroups and possibly conversations, especially when she sensed that somebody in the band had latched onto something worth savoring.

In the first half hour or so of the band’s set, those included long, sideswiping spots from trombone, trumpet and Olli Hirvonen’s fearlessly noisy guitar. Vibraphonist Yuhan Su launched many pivotal moments with characteristic vigor and grace. Otherwise, methodically blustery upward swells contrasted with tightly circular motives that would have been as much at home in indie classical music, if not for the relentless groove. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for the whole set.

Winter Jazzfest is a spinoff of the annual booking agents’ convention, from which they have parted for the most part (there was a mini-marathon with a bunch of big names for the talent buyers last weekend). Crowds on the central Bleecker Street strip last night seemed smaller than in years past, although that might been a function of all the stoner fratboy faux-jazz being exiled to the outskirts of Chinatown, and the craziest improvisers being pushed to the edge of SoHo. And a lot of people come out for that crazy improvisational stuff. It also seems that a lot of fratboys get their parents to buy them weekend passes (cost – over a hundred bucks now) for the fusion fodder.

At Zinc Bar a little further west, it was a treat to see trumpeter Ingrid Jensen playing at an early hour, in front of a quintet including the similarly luminous, glisteningly focused Carmen Staaf on piano. It was the best pairing of the night. Jensen has rightfully earned a reputation as a pyrotechnic player, but her own material is more lowlit, resonant and often haunting, with profound roots in the blues. Her technique is daunting to the point that the question arose as to whether, at one point, she was playing with a mute or with a pedal (the club was crowded – it was hard to see the stage). No matter: her precision is unsurpassed. As was her poignancy in a circling and then enveloping duet with Staaf, and a blissful, allusively Middle Eastern modal piece, as well as a final salute with what sounded like a Wadada Leo Smith deep-blues coda.

At the Poisson Rouge, pianist Shai Maestro teamed up for a similarly rapturous, chromatically edgy set with his trio, bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Ofri Nehemya. Maestro represents the best of the current vanguard of Israeli pianists, with as much of a gift for melodic richness as Middle Eastern intensity. It’s rare to see a piano-led trio where the rhythm section, per se, are so integral to the music. Barely a half hour earlier, Jensen’s guitarist had launched into a subtly slashing, feathery passage of tremolo-picking while the trumpeter went into vintage Herbie Hancock-ish blues. Roeder did much the same with his fleet volleys of chords, way up the scale, while Maestro built levantine majesty with his cascades. Yet there was no way the two acts possibly could have heard each other do that…unless maybe they share a rehearsal space.

With Rachmaninovian plaintiveness, Wynton Kelly wee-hours bluesiness and finally some enigmatically enveloping, hypnotic, reflective pools of sound common to other pianists who have recorded for ECM (Maestro’s debut album as a leader is on that label), the trio held the crowd rapt. And all that, despite all sorts of nagging sonic issues with the stage monitors. It’s not often at the Poisson Rouge that you can hear a pin drop.

Back at the Sheen Center, a tantalizing half hour or so of Mary Halvorson and her quintet reprising her brilliantly sardonic Code Girl album validated any critics’ poll that might want to put her on a pedestal. What a treat it was to watch her shift through one wintry, windswept series of wide-angle chords after another. Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill served as the light in the window, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara each kicking in a series of waves, singer Amirtha Kidambi channeling sarcasm and wounded righteousness along with some unexpectedly simmering scatting.

A couple of doors down at the currently reopened Subculture, pianist Aaron Parks packed the house with his Little Big quartet, featuring Greg Tuohey on guitar, Jesse Murphy on bass and Tommy Crane on drums. Hearing Tuohey bend the wammy bar on his Strat for a lurid, Lynchian tremolo effect on the night’s third number made sense, considering the darkly cinematic tangent Parks had been taking. The first half of the set was a mashup of peak-era 70s Pink Floyd, late 60s Santana and P-Funk that grew more devious and metrically challenging as the night wore on. A slow, distantly ominous, methodically swaying border-rock theme – Lee Hazlewood via the Raybeats, maybe? – was a highlight. From there they edged toward Santana as Weather Report might have covered him, complete with all sorts of wry Bernie Worrell-ish synth textures.

And that’s where the night ended, as far as this blog is concerned. The lure of Miles Okazaki’s solo guitar reinventions of Thelonious Monk, or psychedelic Cameroonian guitarist Blick Bassy’s reinventions of Skip James were no match for the prospect of a couple of leisurely drinks and some natural tetracycline to knock out the nasty bug that almost derailed this report. More after tonight’s big blowout – if you’re going, see you at six on the LES at that hastily thrown up new “luxury” hotel at 215 Chrystie for clarinetist Evan Christopher’s hot 20s jazz quartet.

Mighty, Ambitious Large Ensemble Fun with Big Heart Machine at the Jazz Gallery

Considering the economic and logistical challenges of staging an album release show for new big band jazz, that Big Heart Machine were actually able to pull one together at all is reason for optimism. That they were able to sell out two sets last Thursday night at the Jazz Gallery is even more auspicious in light of the fact that what was once the civilized world’s default party music is now serious sitdown concert repertoire. We have Ellington to thank for that.

Ellington would have called this the first of the two types of music he was able to identify. The second set was everything a concert should be. On the album, Darcy James Argue’s production is tight as a drum; live, the orchestra threw caution to the wind with a careening intensity. Sure, there were some sonic issues, but so what. This is why we love jazz.

You don’t expect a guy who grew up meticulously copying metal guitar solos to be playing a flute – unless he’s Ian Anderson, maybe. Bandleader/composer Brian Krock does not stand on one leg while he plays, nor does he ask you to let him bring you songs from the wood. Instead, he joined the uneasy lustre of the opening of the group’s uninterrupted fifty-minute suite, Tamalpais, which rose far beyond the elegant sheen of the album version.

The one person in the house who seemed to be having more fun than anyone else was conductor Miho Hazama. Like Krock, her own work is vast and picturesque, so it was no surprise to watch her dancing while directing the ensemble. During that introductory Butch Morris-like massed group crescendo and the others that followed, she sat and waited for the orchestra to get it out of their system before returning to the score.

Krock told the crowd that he’d taken its inspiration from a hiking trip around the Bay Area. But what a trip that must have been, akin to that Dawn Oberg song about literally running across the corpse of a suicide in Golden Gate Park. Those big swells reached an angst hardly alluded to on the album. Likewise, tenor saxophonist Kevin Sun ran with an allusively troubled chromatic melody for all it was worth, echoed later in a momentary, bittersweet, after-the-rain crescendo by pianist Arcoiris Sandoval and trumpeter Kenny Warren. And guitarist Olli Hirvonen, who took centerstage throughout the show – and not necessarily volumewise – built dense dry-ice tableaux when he wasn’t anchoring one of the night’s most gorgeously poignant, circular interludes with big, booming, Porcupine Tree-like chords.

The group hit a couple of mighty high points late in the suite, trumpeter John Carlson’s muted steeliness eventually giving way to a steady, circling, elegaic theme that seemed to draw on the morose conclusion to Argue’s Brooklyn Babylon as much as, say, Ligeti.

They encored with the album’s opening number, Don’t Analyze, where Sandoval switched to synth and played what has to be the most unselfconsciously buffoonish solo on any jazz stage in town this year. She didn’t blink, either, using a lo-fi imitation of the fast-click attack you can grind out of a B3 organ if you monkey with it enough. Somewhere Bernie Worrell was grinning. The song’s gusts took on cumulo-nimbus extremes; as Hirvonen did throughout the set, he worked his pedals for keyboard and bass effects – and was a choir stashed away in the pedal too? Krock’s flitting, cold ending, which on album comes across as hard to fathom, was puckishly triumphant here.

Watch this space for Big Heart Machine’s next show. And Argue has a night coming up on Aug 29 at the Jazz Standard with his Secret Society. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30; cover is steep, $30, but they’re worth it.

Miho Hazama Reinvents Thelonious Monk

More about that Big Heart Machine show tonight, Aug 16 at the Jazz Gallery: Miho Hazama is conducting. Of all the major big band jazz artists right now who would be right for the job, Hazama is at the top of the list for this gig (along with Darcy James Argue, who produced the cinematic group’s killer debut album). Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30; cover is cheap by this venue’s standards at $15.

While Hazama’s own music is lush, wildly inventive and among the most exciting large ensemble work being written these days, she’s also in demand as an arranger and conductor. One prime example is The Monk: Live at Bimhuis, her forthcoming live album with the Metropole Orkest Big Band due to be streaming at Sunnyside Records this month. It’s a great opportunity to hear Hazama doing somebody else’s material, having what was obviously a great time in the process.

This is as close to a period piece as you’ll ever hear from her. She clearly gets the quirkiness, creepiness and also the deep blues in Monk’s music, right from the droll, pulsing opening of Thelonious, which seems to offer a nod to the similarly clever Monk interpretations of the Microscopic Septet. The group swing it with a brassy drive,Hans Vrooman getting the impossible task of playing the Monk role, and true to form he keeps things simple and proper. Trumpeter Rik Moi, tenor saxophonist Sjoerd Dijkhuizen and clarinetist Leo Janssen supply purposefully bluesy solos as the orchestra digs in and swings up to a jaunty dixieland crescendo.

Hazama’s charts here are often based on solo Monk piano recordings. Her take on Ruby My Dear begins with lingering, ambered Ellingtonian lustre, Moi contributing terse spirals as the rhythm section kicks in. Hazama’s deft, momentary exchanges of voicings throughout the ensemble are tantalizingly tasty, as is the return back to spare, sober glimmer.

Hazama’s most iconoclastic reinvention here bookends an otherwise gorgeous Friday the 13th with a cha-cha that borders on cartoonish  – not that Monk was necessarily opposed to that. Marc Scholten bubbles and leaps on clarinet, up to a nifty, suspenseful interlude centered around circling riffs by Vroomans and guitarist Peter Teihuis. Moi adds a bittersweet flugelhorn solo over a steady pulsing backdrop

The orchestra have a ball with Hazama’s Jersey noir allusions and contrasting swing blaze in Hackensack. Scholten and Teihuis go spinning through the blues, backed by big swells, brass glissandos and then a wry round robin of dixieland.

Round Midnight opens with a raptly muted moroseness, Moi’s flugelhorn carrying that legendary, brooding bolero riff over Vroomans’ judicious backing. Hazama’s cuisinart chart gives just about everybody a flickering moment in the spotlight as the voices shift like holiday lights about to go haywire.

With Hazama’s latin-inspired polyrhythms, taut close harmonies and blazing intensity, Epistrophy is the album’s big showstopper. Trombonist Louk Boudenstejn takes the long way around the launching pad, while Janssen is more low key, up to a triumphant coda. The night’s final number is a subtle, muted take of Crepuscule With Nellie, both Vroomans and the rest of the group matching Hazama’s terseness and clever polyrhythms.

It’s a triumph for the ensemble, which also includes Paul van der Feen and Max Boeree on saxes and clarinet, Ray Bruinsma, Nico Schepers and Martijn de Laat on trumpets, Jan Oosting, Jan Bastiani and Martin van den Berg on trombones, Aram Kershbergen on bass and Marcel Serierse on drums.

Lush, Lavishly Ambitious Big Band Jazz With Miho Hazama & M-Unit at Lincoln Center

Pianist/organist/conductor Miho Hazama writes big, blustery, fearlessly energetic big band jazz themes. Her music is cosmopolitan in every sense of the word: sophisticated, individualistic and innovative. There’s no one in the world who sounds like her. She loves dynamics – despite the heft of her compositions, half the time only half of her band, or even smaller subsets of the group, are playing. She loves bright, catchy hooks, and her material is obviously a ton of fun to play: a good percentage of New York’s top big band jazz talent comprise her epic large ensemble M-Unit. They have a gig at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Jan 25, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is pricy, $30, but this group is worth it. It’s good to see such an interesting band getting a chance to play to a more or less captive audience.

It was a lot of fun to catch the group playing one of the series of midday shows at another midtown spot, at St. Peter’s Church on the east side, back in August. Coventional wisdom is that musicians don’t really wake up til the sun goes down, but the group was a the top of their game despite the relatively early hour. Their first number, Mr. O opened with momentary pageantry from the strings, then quickly gave way to a clustering piano theme beefed up by the ensemble, then down to a bustling, bouncing alto sax solo over the rhythm section. Hazama’s chart gave the group a chance to have fun throwing big, bright splashes of color against the sonic canvas, piano adding a solo that rose to breathless, towering heights. A yakuza gangster undercurrent added devious suspense.

They followed with an enigmatic piano theme over a syncopated clave beat, vibraphone carrying the melody over a lustrous backdrop with hints of both Russian Romanticism and cheery 70s Philly soul, hitting another suspensefully rippling piano-and-rhythm-section interlude before the piece rose again. Like her colleagues Darcy James Argue and John Hollenbeck, Hazama loves unorthox pairings of instruments: this one featured bass clarinet in tandem with violin.

The string quartet opened the number after that, then backed as a moody flugelhorn solo quickly turned into a clever Rodgers and Hart quote. As the strings rose toward the end, a sense of melancholy and longing developed, increasing as the music dipped to the strings and piano. That’s typical of how counterintitively Hazama works.

Maybe predictably, Hazama’s earliest composition on the bill followed the set’s most trad, swinging trajectory. The most ambitious was the title track to her lavishly brilliant 2012 debut album Journey to Journey, anchored by a tensely circling piano riff while individual voices shifted in innumerable directions, an uneasily dancing alto sax solo in the center of it all. The group dipped to a charming, balletesque exchange of pizzicato strings, then rose to a vintage 70s soul riff and an explosive outro.

There was plenty of other material on the program, but that’s where the recorder ran out of juice. And it was hard to hear the band intros to keep track of who was playing what in the boomy church basement space. That won’t be a problem in the plush sonics at Lincoln Center.

A Brilliant Valentine’s Afternoon Big Band Show in Gowanus With Miho Hazama’s Darkly Amusing, Cutting-Edge Epics

What’s the likelihood that five of the world’s most happening composers in big band and chamber jazz would be Japanese-American women from New York? And what’s the chance that they would all converge for an afternoon in the middle of Gowanus, Brooklyn? Believe it, it’s happening on February 14 at 4 PM when the 17-piece Sakura Jazz Orchestra plays material by Miho Hazama, Asuka Kakitani, Migiwa Miyajima, Meg Okura, and Noriko Ueda at Shapeshifter Lab. Cover is $15, and there are other more expensive options with perks for those with the means of supporting the artists on a patronage level. A night out on Valentine’s Day may be a no-fly zone for both those of us with sweethearts and those without, but this show’s early start time enables you to get home in time for snuggling…or to get away from the weirdos.

Edgy violinist Okura, leader of the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble, is the senior member of the composer contingent. Bassist Ueda has lately split her time between playing big band gigs and leading her own purposeful, tuneful trio, while pianist Miyajima focuses more specifically on big, powerful, enveloping compositions. While it might seem farfetched to imagine an album any more lustrous or rhythmically shapeshifting than Kakitani’s magnificent 2012 debut album Bloom with her Big Band, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that about Hazama’s debut from the same year, Journey to Journey, streaming at Spotify and recorded with her 13-piece ensemble M-Unit.

It’s a landmark of largescale composition, one of the most counterintuitively and imaginatively arranged releases of this decade. It’s as ambitious a debut big band jazz album as anyone’s ever recorded. It instantly put Hazama on the map alongside Maria Schneider, Darcy James Argue and Erica Seguine. Hazama’s erudition across many, many idioms is astonishing even in this era when you can youtube pretty much anything. And she can be hilarious, often with a sarcastic or occasionally cruel streak.

Hazama is a wild storyteller, and in those epic narratives she does pretty much everything you can do with, or would want from a large jazz ensemble. Instruments are paired and arranged unexpectedly, and hardly anything ever repeats. Drama and surprise are where you least expect them. Hazama engages a string quartet for melody and color as much as she employs the brass and reeds. She loves textures, particularly strange and unnerving ones, fueling the impression that she has even more of a dark side than she lets on. And the musicians, a cast of allstar and rising star talent, have a ball with this music.

The opening cut, Mr. O portrays a garrulous amusement park owner, with all kinds of droll conversation between various band members, and sections, plus plenty of neat echo phrases, chattering between voices and a bit of unexpectedly woozy surrealism. Tokyo Confidencial shifts from bustling, airconditioned clave to hints of a classic by the Doors, diverges toward reggae and eventually emerges as a rather beautiful neoromantically-tinged anthem. Blue Forest beefs up genially bluesy Nat King Cole phrasing with ambitoiusly expansive Gil Evans colors.

The title track never settles in groovewise even while it shifts in many directions, as Kakutani likes to do. Droll solo spots contrast with underlying, toweringly cinematic unease; there’s a charmingly coy, marionettish exchange, hints of Afro-Cuban melody and a very intense, agitated coda, the kind that you seldom hear in jazz. Paparazzi, which is just as sweeping and even funnier, opens hilariously as it mimics the “this won’t play” sound from a computer. Furtive stalkers too easily pleased do not get off well on this track, at all, and Hazama is very specific and articulate about thas. Hazama returns to fullscale angst bordering on horror with Believing in Myself, which should come with a question mark, a harrowing chamber-jazz number with a relentless ache and inner turmoil, her own Monk-tinged piano rippling moodily through it up the least expected cartoonish interlude ever written. Does she go as far over the top with you think she might? If you haven’t heard it, no spoilers.

She follows the simply titled Ballad – a fragmentary tone poem of sorts – with What Will You See, which mingles allusions to funk and Jim McNeely newschool swing with devious permutations on a chattering horn theme. That and the easygoing final cut, Hidamari are the closest things to the kind of large-ensemble stuff you typically hear at the Vanguard or Jazz at Lincoln Center, but even here, Hazama can’t resist pulling away from contentment as her divergent voicings take centerstage when she winds it up.

By contrast, the album’s followup, last year’s Time River – which doesn’t seem to be anywhere on the web, at least in English – seems like a grab bag, if a grab bag from a really good party. It seems aimed at a more trad jazz audience, the arrangements are simpler and there’s an interlude which what sound like set pieces from films – good ones, admittedly. And there are still plenty of the kind of delicious moments that pepper Hazama’s work. Muted Brazilian-flavored drums add unexpected color to the rather trad postbop of The Urban Legend. The tremolo effect on James Shipp’s vibraphone and a gritty soul detective theme give Cityscape as vast a panorama as the title calls for. Hazama employs Gil Golstein’s accordion for a lengthy, harmonically edgy excursion to rival Astor Piazzolla at his most avant garde in the tango-inspired Under the Same Moon, while the ensemble gallops over an altered qawwali beat with all kinds of playful handoffs up to a tricky false ending and explosive coda on Dizzy Dizzy Wildflower.

After the surrealistically warping, oscillating string piece Alternate Universe, Was That Real? Hazama’s furtive piano introduces her chamber-jazz Fugue – an early composition n that already showcases her irrepressible wit as well as her penchant for stormy intensity. The epic title track is the only one that really reaches for the debut album’s titanic majesty, building out of an uneasily circling, Philip Glass-tinged riff, through brashly charging swing passages to the unease that Hazama so often confronts, ending unresolved after a frantically sailing peak. After that, making swing out of an 80s goth-pop hit by A Perfect Circle seems an afterthought, tacked on to end the album on an upbeat note. It’ll be interesting to see how much of this demanding but richly rewarding material the orchestra can handle on the 14th.