New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: piano jazz

Lennie Tristano Rarities For Adventurous Listeners

Volumes have been written about pianist Lennie Tristano’s singular impact on jazz, whether his imaginative use of early stereo and studio technology, or his bristling, disquieting harmonic sensibility. Any time someone announces that they’ve unearthed new, previously unheard material by a jazz icon, there’s reason to be skeptical: that material may have never seen the light of day for a good reason. But the Tristano archival collection, the Duo Sessions – dating from the 1970s and streaming at Spotify – has plenty of fascinating moments and historical value.

For example, this is the only known recording of Tristano playing as part of a piano duo, in this case jousting with another formidable improviser, the late Connie Crothers. Their two-part Concerto begins with thumping waves between the two, reaches a momentary plaintive phrase and then follows a twisted boogie-woogie march. Lingering quasi-whole tone scales flicker off into the abyss, Crothers having fun with lively embellishments, playing off Tristano’s lefthand rumble. They reprise the march just as steadily but with more of a jagged, insistent attack that coalesces to a triumphant anthem of sorts before disintegrating for good in the second part.

The album opens with half a dozen much more traditional duets between Tristano and tenor saxophonist Lenny Popkin, sax typically casual and matter-of-factly out front. Tristano comps stabbingly behind the his bandmate’s jaunty phrasing in Out of a Dream, a jarring contrast, but maybe that was the pianist’s point here – and maybe why Popkin drops out all of a sudden. He gets on the page quickly in their pensive second number, simply titled Ballad, Tristano’s uneasy close harmonies even more insistent (and back in the mix), rising to his signature blend of lyricism and fanged unresolve.

The two hit a steady, optimistic swing shuffle in Chez Lennie, Tristano sticking with a more restrained stride and continue in the same vein with the miniature Inflight, while Ensemble swings just as hard but much more adventurously. If you want to hear Tristano put his signature spin on the blues, check out their final number, Melancholy Stomp.

There are also eight tracks worth of Tristano with a longtime Crothers associate, drummer Roger Mancuso. When the piano finally joins in the swing shuffle Palo Alto Street, it’s vastly more spare yet regally Ellingtonian at the end. Tristano’s persistent, volleying attack is in top shape in the two’s second number, and later on in My Baby. Other than in the gritty, cascading Minor Pennies, the rest of the recordings don’t really engage either musician’s strengths, such as they are.

The recording quality is all over the place. Endings get cut off, and it would be nice to be able to hear more Tristano in the sax duets. Sometimes that’s the price of history.

Darkly Glistening, Blissfully Tuneful Improvisation From Pianist Cat Toren’s Human Kind

Pianist Cat Toren’s new album Scintillating Beauty – streaming at Bandcamp – references a Martin Luther King quote about what the world would be like if we were able to conquer racism and achieve true equality. But the title is just as apt a description of the music. Toren has always been one of the most reliably melodic improvisers in the New York creative music scene, and her group Human Kind achieve a similarly high standard of tunefulness here. Jazz these days seldom sounds so effortlessly symphonic.

The epic opening cut is Radiance in Veils, sax player Xavier del Castillo introducing a balmy, Indian-tinged nocturnal theme immediately echoed by oudist Yoshie Fruchter, bassist Jake Leckie and drummer Matt Honor as Toren glistens and ripples spaciously in the upper registers behind them. The bandleader glides into Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics and then pounces hard as the bass and drums develop an elegant syncopation, del Castillo and Fruchter weaving a similar gravitas. Shuddering sax and torrential piano fuel a couple of big crescendos, Toren and Leckie team up for a tersely dancing passage and Fruchter pulls uneasily away from a broodingly emphatic center. The great Lebanese-born pianist Tarek Yamani comes to mind.

The lush, rapturous Middle Eastern ambience continues in Garment of Destiny, from the flourishes of Toren’s solo intro, through Fruchter’s hypnotic oud solo over reflecting-pool piano chords. Del Castillo adds nocturnal ambience and then agitation matching the murk rising behind him.

Ignus Fatuus is a moody midtempo swing number, Toren doing a more allusively chromatic take on Errol Garner, del Castillo taking his most jaggedly intense, spine-tingling solo here. Toren switches to funeral-parlor organ to open the closing diptych, Rising Phoenix, Fruchter leading the band into a reflective calm spiced with Toren’s many bells and rattles. Her switch to the piano signals an increasingly bustling return from dreamland, del Castillo a confidently bluesy light in the darkness. The second part has a bittersweet, rather stern soul-infused sway, Honor and the rest of the band finally seizing the chance to cut loose. In Toren’s view, we all make it to the mountaintop. This is one of the best and most memorable jazz albums of the year.

Phantasmagoria and Playful Jousting on Sylvie Courvoisier’s Latest Trio Album

Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier’s music can be dark and pensive, but a puckish sense of humor often pops up unexpectedly. Free Hoops, her latest album with one of the few consistent, long-running trios in jazz, featuring Drew Gress on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums, is one of her most menacing yet also one of her funniest albums. Streaming at Bandcamp, it’s one of the high points in what’s been a long, ceaselessly creative run for her since the zeros. For jazz fans who might miss Kris Davis’ work from when she was exclusively a pianist, Courvoisier is a bracing breath of fresh air.

Marionettish, low-register scrambles alternate with saturnine, latin-inflected chords and playful, flitting exchanges throughout the album’s title track, Wollesen getting to wryly circle the perimeter. Similarly phantasmagorical, circling riffage kicks off the second number, Lulu Dance, Wollesen again volleying colorfully around the kit as Courvoisier runs the riff against Gress’ muted rhythm, up to another coy game of tag from the three musicians and then back.

Just Twisted is exactly that: crepuscular glimmers, a bit of a grim boogie, cold low accents, slashes and rattles from the whole ensemble. The three coalesce flickeringly into Requiem Pour Un Songe. imagine Bill Mays playing a vampy David Lynch set piece by Angelo Badalamenti, with a dancing bass solo followed by a slightly crazed piano break in the middle.

Courvoisier’s eerie, glittering phrases follow Gress’ clave in As We Are, before the rhythm comes apart and elbows start flying. Then in Birdies of Paradise, the bass, atmospheric cymbals and Wollesen’s tongue-in-cheek avian flickers follow Courvoisier’s poltergeist neoromantic flourishes. Finally, six songs into the record, Gress hits a tritone or two.

The insistent intro to Galore is the album’s most overtly macabre interlude, then the trio hit a slow, stark, funky, swing: this Frankenstein walks on tiptoe. Bits of Lynchian stripper swing and icy Messiaenic climbs mingle in Nicotine Sarcoline, Wollesen luring Courvoisier to a vengeful crescendo. They close the record with Highway 1, rising out of an ominously rumbling, shivering nightscape to a grimly minimalist, ghostly analogue of a Rachmaninoff prelude and then back, sinister waves gently eroding the coastline. A strong contender for best jazz album of 2020.

Darkly Focused, Kinetic Themes and Improvisations From Pianist Mara Rosenbloom

Pianist Mara Rosenbloom picked the most politically-charged possible title for her new album: Respiration. From George Floyd to the average corporate employee struggling for oxygen through his or her muzzle, that’s the one thing – other than basic human rights – that the world didn’t get enough of in 2020. To be clear, Rosenbloom made this record with her trio, bassist Sean Conly and drummer Chad Taylor, just prior to the lockdown. She got her start as an elegantly tuneful composer and bandleader, has very eclectic credits as a sidewoman and has drifted further into the more adventurous reaches of pure improvisation in the last couple of years.

The album – streaming at Bandcamp – doesn’t have the raw, feral intensity of what’s been her career-defining release so far, 2016’s Prairie Burn. It’s more somber and concise than viscerally crushing, if just as tuneful – as you would expect, with an intro based on a theme by the iconic Amina Claudine Myers. That turns out to be a loopy little latin-tinged thing with subtle accents from the bass.

Things pick up quickly from there with The Choo, which is just plain gorgeous. Rosenbloom’s warmly insistent, gospel-tinged lefthand anchors an increasingly anthemic soul song without words set to a muted shuffle beat, which she takes it down to a long, spare, summery, mostly solo outro.

The group improvise a lingering yet rhythmic transition aptly titled Daydream into a duskily otherworldly, rubato take of Caravan mashed up with Connie’s Groove, a similarly enigmatic, dancing Connie Crothers homage.

She keeps the uneasy modaliaties going in Uncertain Bird, veering in and out of purist, darkly ambered blues as the rhythm section kick things around, down to a tantalizingly fleeting, ghostly interlude and then back as an altered waltz. In The Ballad for Carolyn Trousers (Carol in Trousers), Rosenbloom skirts a famous Chopin theme and makes it vastly more lighthearted, once again blending in the blues over an allusive 3/4 groove.

Conly breaks out his bow and Taylor tumbles mutedly while the bandleader builds haunting, spacious minor-key lustre in their take of the spiritual Have Mercy Upon Us: her relentless, minimalist mantra of an outro is arguably the high point of the album.

She returns to the album’s opening circularity in Ramblin’ on Her Mind, inspired by the Lightnin’ Hopkins version of the blues standard. To close the record, Rosenbloom draws the band back into Caravan as a saturnine march out. You are going to see this on a lot of best-of-2020 pages this year.

Pianist Dan Costa Immortalizes a Beautiful Moment From a Better Time

Think of how many musicians were out on the road, trying to earn a living, at the time the lockdowners were trying to seize control of the world under the pretext of a health emergency. The economic damage, not only to those players, but to the venues where they were performing and the people who worked there, is immeasurable – and it’s only getting worse. Brazilian jazz pianist Dan Costa was lucky – his US tour ended just before the lockdown. Serendipitously, he had the presence of mind to record the final concert, on February 29 at Kuumbwa Jazz in Santa Cruz, California. Since then, he’s released it as an album, Live in California, streaming at Spotify.

This gorgeously melodic, meticulously focused set includes a mix of originals and popular Braziian material. Costa plays solo, opening with his lithely energetic, lyrical composition Baião, his understatedly insistent lefthand anchoring a glittering neoromantic tune that strongly brings to mind Egberto Gismonti.

With his second number, simply titled Maracatu, Costa builds Debussy-esque, pentatonic lustre and pointillistic shimmer over a similarly low-key take on that iconic Brazilian rhythm. He approaches that famous and vastly overplayed Jobim hit with a blend of puckish wit and unexpected gravitas. Then he goes back to originals with the more expansively gleaming Sete Enredos, rising to a chiliing, chromatic peak, coloring the ominous resonance with icy upper-register riffs before returning to a pulsing forward drive. It’s the high point of the show.

Aria turns out to be a bounding, High Romantic jazz waltz lit up by Costa’s expansive righthand chords and cascades. Likewise, he adds a cosmopolitan shimmer to the bounce of Roberto Menescal’s O Barquinho.

Tempos Sentidos is another showcase for Costa’s purposeful, economical approach: steady pedalpoint, thoughtfully chosen, emphatic choral work, no wasted notes. He closes the show with a low-key, impressionistic take of Ivan Lins’ Love Dance. How ironic that something so completely unplanned would turn out to be a lock for one of the best jazz albums of 2020.

Two Masters of Menacing Piano Jazz at the Peak of Their Powers

What could be more appropriate for Halloween month then a piano duo album by two masters of phantasmagoria? Ran Blake, the iconic noir pianist, may be the drawing card, but Frank Carlberg is no slouch when it comes to disquieting tonalities. Carlberg grew up in Finland captivated by his local amusement park; meeting Blake at New England Conservatory later on springboarded a long association fueled by a fondness for the darkly carnivalesque.  Not everything on the duo’s new album Gray Moon – streaming at Bandcamp – is creepy, but most of it is. Much of the time, it’s impossible to tell who’s in which channel. If you’re making Halloween playlists this month, there’s a goldmine of elegantly inspired, lurid material here.

Like the opening number, Vradiazi, which is more or less steady and strolling, Carlberg opening it very simply and matter-of-factly, Blake bringing in dry ice and menacing, Messiaen-ic chromatics. Likewise, the two take an otherwise blithe Carlberg stroll, Bebopper, and add gremlins peeking from just about every corner.

The rest of the record is a mix of reinvented standards, familiar Blake favorites and lesser-known originals. Stars glisten cold and remorseless over low lefthand murk throughout El Cant Dells Ocells. With their tightly shifting rhythm and icepick jabs, the two pianists make a real ghost train out of Take the A Train. Then they bring a sudden yet seemingly inevitable terror to Pinky, an otherwise wistful ballad that descends just as ineluctably into the abyss.

They follow the deliciously twisted ragtime of Blake’s Dr. Mabuse with a raptly spare, desolate take of Round Midnight that would make Monk proud. For all its steady, Satie-esque variations, Gunther’s Magic Row – a twelve-tone reference to the two’s old NEC pal Gunther Schiller, probably – seems mostly improvised.

Stratusphunk, which Blake has played for years, becomes a Monkish swing tune here. The bell-like four-handed insistence of Wish I Could Talk to You Baby seems to indicate that Baby can’t be talked to where she is now. Vanguard, another tune Blake has had a long assocation with, gets an angst-fueled, relentlessly unresolved attack from Carlberg. He goes completely in the opposite direction a little later with No More.

The two slash and stab their way into the sagacious soul of Memphis and then do the same on their way out. Marionettes strut and poke each other vigorously in this particularly uneasy Tea For Two. The final Blake favorite, The Short Life of Barbara Monk is more of a tragic mini-documentary than ever before and one of the most vividly conversational interludes here. The album concludes, sixteen tracks in, with Mood Indigo, sparse and saturnine. Blake and Carlberg each have a ton of good records to their credit, but this is one of the best of both catalogs. It could be the best jazz album of 2020, right up there with John Ellis’ The Ice Siren.

An Embarrassment of Riches from Kenny Barron on Record and at the Vanguard This Month

Tis the season when venues show their true colors – or try to, anyway. There’s the Lower East Side shed that’s fallen on hard times and has been booked by that odious corporate empire for the past year, trying to relive some former glories with an overpriced residency by a legendary, noisy 90s band. Then there’s that West Village flagship of a global chain of jazz joints, who’ve brought in the trumpeter king of elevator jazz. There are going to even more Jersey license plates than usual this month in the vicinity of West Third Street.

On a more optimistic note, the Village Vanguard has booked timelessly mighty piano sage Kenny Barron for a long stand beginning this Dec 17, where he’s playing at 8:30 and around 11 through the 22nd with a quintet featuring the perennially adrenalizing Johnathan Blake on drums. Then Barron’s going to strip it down to a trio with bassist Buster Wiliams and drummer Tain Watts for the rest of the dates, which run through the 29th.

Barron’s latest record is The Art of the Piano Duo (streaming at Spotify), a lavish archival triple live album recorded with the late, greatly missed Mulgrew Miller on three dates spread over about a ten-year span. This isn’t piano four hands: it’s two of the great purists of the past several decades, locked in on separate pianos that often sound like one. Trying to figure out who’s who can be next to impossible until you determine who’s in which channel (it differs from record to record). In deference to his fleet-fingered friend, Barron’s legendary lefthand usually seems a little lighter than usual. Eventually, Miller’s fondness for gospel reveals itself, along with Barron’s occasional detour toward tropical sounds: in general, he’s the more adventurous one here. The first album dates from 2005, in Marciac, France; the second and third are Swiss shows, from Zurich on May 12, 2001 and Geneva just over a decade later, respectively.

The material is pretty much all midtempo ballads, plus an unexpectedly careening Yardbird Suite and a triumphantly saloonish Blue Monk. The first side opens with Stars Fell on Alabama, where the two pianists’ phrasing is sometimes so swingingly synced that it’s surreal; other times, there’s a little shadowing going on, the echo creating a quasi Fender Rhodes effect. Throughout their collaboration, the two trade expansive solos, each comping chords and/or walking the bass for the other as the tradition calls for it. Nobody’s in a hurry: they can stick with a tune for fifteen minutes or more. This isn’t a record for people with short attention spans.

Each artist also contributes solo pieces. Miller’s take of I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good, from the Zurich date, turns out to be a stately ballad with a little playful leapfrogging. Barron’s solo version of Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most, from the Geneva set, contrasts saturnine, vampy lustre with jaunty ornamentation: it’s anything but sad. Likewise, his Song for Abdullah- a Abdullah Ibrahim shout-out – balances a precise, scampering approach with steady gravitas. The two close the final disc with a colorfully clustering version of Joy Spring, aptly capsulzing how everybody seemed to be feeling on that May night early in a decade that’s about to close. And none too soon: looks like we’ll have an impeachment to celebrate as the Twenties come roaring in.

High Voltage Latin Jazz with Dayramir Gonzalez & Cuba enTRANCe at Lincoln Center

It would probably be overhype to call pianist Dayramir Gonzalez the missing link between Eddie Palmieri and McCoy Tyner. But at his thundering, intense show last week Lincoln Center, Gonzalez and his booming ensemble Cuba enTRANCe strongly brought to mind both of those two icons. With a crushing lefthand attack, stampeding the entire length of the keys, Gonzalez’s intensity never relented. Nobody knows better than he does that the piano is a percussion instrument.

If that wasn’t enough, Gonzalez made sure he had plenty more torrential beats on hand, with both drums and congas in the band: each player got plenty of time in the spotlight and used it explosively. Contrastingly, Gonzalez’s bassist – playing a five-string model with an extra B on the low end – held the center, tersely and calmly, with his judicious, resonant slides and the occasional chord to drive a big crash home.

The quartet opened with a shapeshifting, majestic jazz waltz, introducing the calm/frenetic bass/piano dynamic that would last the duration of the night. The second number, Moving Foward, was a bristling, modally-charged epic, the thunder punctuated by Gonzalez’s glistening cascades and a couple of more moody, suspenseful interludes where the rhythm dropped back.

He explained that as a kid, he’d followed his mom’s advice that “Una sonrisa abre puertas,” building on that idea with Smiling, a more pointillistic, leaping number. He brought it down afterward with a solo ballad from his debut album, Grand Concourse, which was party salsa jazz and part late Beatles. The rest of the set was just as dynamic: loopy, catchy riffage over polyrhythms; more glistening, darkly vamping tableaux that were part salsa and part Chopin; sad boleroish balladry and pouncing, carnaval-esque party themes. Gonzalez spoke eloquently to the similarities between the refugee crisis in Europe and the one further south on this continent; he even sang a little. The crowd clapped along, hitting a salsa groove without any prompting. Right now, Gonzalez seems to be better known in Europe than he is here, and that’s a crime. His next gig is on Dec 4 at 8 PM at Vibrato Grill Jazz, 2930 N Beverly Glen Cir in Los Angeles; cover is $30.

The series of free concerts at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues tonight, Dec 2, with an earlier, 7 PM show featuring Strings & Skins, who combine Colombian and Haitian dance grooves. There are also many other performances in the neighborhood until 9; if you can handle the cold, follow the sound.

Trying to Keep Up With Pianist Satoko Fujii’s Grey-Sky Majesty

What’s more amazing about Satoko Fujii‘s over eighty albums as a bandleader – that virtually all of them are worth owning? Or that she reached that epic number in about twenty years? It’s hard to imagine another artist building such a vast and consistently excellent, often transcendent body of work over that  timeline.

The pianist has always been ahead of her time, touring relentlessly, releasing an average of four records a year (a dozen in 2018, to celebrate her sixtieth birthday). She’s got a three-day series of New York shows coming up next month with her husband Natsuki Tamura, the world’s number one samurai extended-technique trumpeter. On Dec 13 at 8:30 PM at the Stone at the New School the two will be remixed live by a frequent collaborator, Ikue Mori; cover is $20. The-following night, Dec 14 at the same time Fujii and Tamura are at I-Beam for five bucks less. Then on the 15th at 8 they’re at 244’s Black Box Theatre, 244 West 54th St., 10th Flo, time TBA.

Fujii is neither a particularly dark nor political person – although her music is often brooding and troubled, she’s actually very funny. Ironically, her most harrowing album to date is one she conducted rather than played on, the Fukushima Suite, with her improvisational Orchestra New York. That reflection on the terror in the wake of the March 11, 2011 nuclear meltdowns earned the designation of #1 album of the year here in 2017. Considering her prolific output, it’s hard to pick a single record to get stoked for her Manhattan and Brooklyn shows, although one recent release, this past summer’s Confluence, a live-in-the-studio duo set with drummer Ramon Lopez, is especially good and arguably her most minimalist so far. It hasn’t made its way to the usual online spots yet.

The album’s first track, Asatsuyu has a close resemblance to the Twin Peaks title theme…only more interesting and unpredictable. Lopez uses his brushes to ice the background as Fujii builds variations on a simple, forlorn theme, up to a majestic, latin-tinged crescendo and gracefully down again.

Fujii goes under the piano lid, way down in the lows, as album’s most epic number, Road Salt gets underway. From there the two rise from a muted majesty to a steady series of catchy, loopy, emphatic phrases, a cautiously boomy drum solo and a hammering coda that reminds of the Police’s Synchronicity (speaking of synchronicity, just wait til you see what’s on this page in about 48 hours!).

Run! Is a fun, picturesque, scampering interlude, followed by Winter Sky, a surrealistically crescendoing tableau, Fujii both under the hood and on the keys as Lopez evokes hailstones and banks of snowclouds. Three Days Later, the album’s most gorgeous track, is an understatedly moody, spacious neoromantic theme, Lopez’s rumbles shadowing Fujii’s somber chords.

Fujii pairs a coy cathedral chime-like theme and then an unexpectedly austere, wintry melody with Lopez’s syncopation in Tick Down. The two cautiously lowlight the lingering atmospherics of Quiet Shadow and close out the album with the austere stillness of the title track. Although it’s probably safe to say that Fujii had a lot of these ideas in her head or a sketchbook by the time she recorded the album, most of this music was most likely made up on the spot.

A Dynamic, Intimate Live Album and a Birdland Gig From Jazz Piano and Vocal Siren Champian Fulton

At this point in jazz history,  Champian Fulton is the best piano-playing singer and the best pianist who happens to be a singer. With her blend of precision and flair on the keys and her nuanced approach to the mic, she’s been unstoppable lately. Her career validates the old proverb that you get good at what you do: somehow, in between gigs, she manages to find the time to make albums. And she likes to flip the script: she’s done everything from reinventing Dinah Washington – a major influence – to a devious all-instrumental piano trio record, and now her latest release, Dream a Little, an intimate but often fiery live set with saxophonist Cory Weeds. The new record, a mix of standards, a couple of rarities and an original is streaming at Bandcamp. Fulton’s next New York gig is a two-night stand at Birdland on Oct 30-31, with sets at 7 and 10 PM; you can get in for $20.

Weeds opens the first track, Dream a Little Dream, with a balmy solo before Fulton’s piano brings in some James P. Johnson gravitas, a contrast that lingers through an unexpectedly restrained, even suspenseful take of a song that Mama Cass Elliott made epic drama out of.

Weeds does the flying – gently – in Fly Me to the Moon, the two folllowing the same dynamic, both Fulton’s piano and voice infused with calm take-charge attitude. Strap on that seat belt, buster!

By contrast, Lullaby For Art  is a starkly pulsing, latin-tinged instrumental theme with bitingly bluesy solos from both musicians. Fulton’s clenched-teeth intensity before the third verse is one of the album’s most stunning moments.

The duo’s take of Darn That Dream has a wistful, expansive solo first verse from Fulton, Weeds fluttering among the clouds, a dynamic they mirror with a steady, subtly stride-influenced version of Pennies From Heaven. Then they pick up the pace with Once I Had a Secret Love, Weeds’ precise chromatic volleys setting the tone.

Fulton’s slowly swaying interpretation of I Thought About You leaves no doubt that it’s about being haunted by a memory. As he does throughout the record, Weeds plays tersely, developing melodic themes rather than blowing endless, too-cool-for-school practice patterns like too many other reed players do.

The two make low-key, striding swing out of Tangerine: Fulton likes to use her low lefthand a lot, and that device works particularly well here, grounding Weeds’ cheery lines. I’d Give a Dollar For a Dime – Joe Williams’ 1930 shout-out to what seemed already had become jukebox nostalgia – dips and weaves with a dreamy charm. They close the record with a coy jump blues take based on Eddie Lockjaw Davis’ version of Save Your Love For Me

While this is first and foremost a collection of bittersweet love ballads, it’s also uproariously funny when least expected: Fulton has a subtle and often sly sense of humor, particularly on the keys. As if we need yet more proof that more artists should be making live records, this is it.