New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: vibraphone jazz

The Berlin Mallet Group Ring In a Unique, Imaginative, Colorful Debut Album

One of the most imaginative and unique albums to reach the front page here in recent months is the Berlin Mallet Group‘s debut album Sogni D’oro, streaming at Spotify. It rings, and pings, and whirs, and whooshes and bubbles in ways few other groups ever have, no surprise considering the instrumentation. Bandleaders David Friedman and Taiko Saito play vibraphone and marimba, respectively, along with Julius Heise and Hauke Renken, who alternate between those two instruments, and Raphael Meinhart, who sticks with the marimba here. The world is full of percussion ensembles and vibraphone jazz groups, but this crew sound like no other band in the world, part precise orchestra, part outside-the-box jazz ensemble. This is very lively, colorful music.

The opening number, Friedman’s Penta e Uno, is a mini-suite full of playful twists and turns, from a rapturous, minimalist ballad, to tantalizingly brief, bouncy swing and bossa themes and fleeting moments of Lynchian suspense. What’s most fascinating about it is the group’s meticulously orchestral intertwine. There’s a thicket of tremolo and ripples, but also a steady bassline, and circling low midrange.

The second number, by Saito, is Komodo No Kodomo, a vampy, distantly Asian, cleverly polyrhythmic web anchoring a series of terse vibraphone solos that finally mingle down into hypnotic rivulets. The group reinvent Kenny Wheeler’s Sea Lady as an epic bell choir: Saito’s evocative arrangement gets the group bowing oceanic ambience, right down to coy shorebirds and waves leisurely washing onshore. From there they take turns drifting and ringing out a summery tropical tableau.

Carousel, another Friedman tune, shifts from warmly hypnotic to emphatically assertive, with both motorik and west African balafon flavors and catchy solos from the vibes. The group dedicate this album to the late composer and percussionist Rupert Stamm and follow with two of his compositions. Friedman’s spare phrases resonate broodingly over suspenseful marimbas as Xylon 1 gets underway, the group maintaining a tight but mysterious pulse as a more tropical rhythm picks up. Xylon 4 is the album’s most anthemic track, with some breathtaking interplay in the highs as it peaks out.

Friedman’s title track shifts between summery atmosphere, a puffing pulse and a casual, shuffling bounce, with lushly expanding textures as it goes on. Scharfenberg, a fond ballad by Heise, concludes the album, the ensemble’s keening, pinging layers rising to a cheery series of waves that underscore the song’s sly resemblance to an old Elvis hit.

A Rippling Jazz Rarity From Chris Dingman

Chris Dingman gets a lot of work, some of it in places where jazz vibraphonists aren’t usually found. If you listen to New York public radio, you may have heard several of his themes on WNYC. His latest album, Embrace – streaming at his music page – is a rarity in the jazz world: a vibraphone trio record. It has the catchiness of his radio work; the lingering lushness of Milt Jackson also comes to mind. Here Dingman’s joined by Linda May Han Oh on bass and Tim Keiper on drums. One of the album’s coolest touches is how Dingman’s right and left hand are panned in the stereo mix; it often seems like there’s a second set of vibes here.

He opens the album’s starry opening track, Inner Child with a lullaby theme, the rhythm shifting between waltz time and a more straightforward, syncopated pulse. Baby steps from the bass introduce a vamping, soul-tinged tune which finally gains critical mass with a big tumble from the vibes.

Dingman works a similarly rippling vamp up to a catchy, anthemic chorus in Find a Way: see, they got there pretty quick! The lithe bass/drums interlude is something you might expect from a vibraphonist; the stairstepping waves afterward, maybe not. He shifts to a gentle, resonantly summery, West African-tinged 6/8 sway with Ali, set to a mutedly circling groove.

Dingman builds The Opening-Mudita around a series of insistentlly hypnotic echo phrases, then expands them. Oh’s catchy, dancing bass riff is a stepping-off point for more of the same in Goddess, building a gentle rainstorm in the second half. Forgive/Embrace opens on a similarly lush note, then grows more kinetic as Dingman advances into and then backs away from a series of circular phrases.

A carefree pop anthem provides a lilting foundation for Hijinks and Wizardry. The steady processional, Steps on the Path is just as catchy if more sober. Dingman closes the album with Folly of Progress, a funky study in loopy phrasing. If twinkling, glimmering, trance-inducing music is your thing, you can get lost in this.

An Enigmatically Dancing Album and a Chelsea Show by Individualistic Vibraphonist Yuhan Su

Vibraphonist Yuhan Su plays with a terse, riff-driven sensibility, a persistent restlessness and a frequently wry sense of humor. Her latest album, City Animals – streaming at Sunnyside Records – is a study in contrasts: urban vs. rural, action vs. stillness, agitation vs. contentment. Su has done a lot of work with dance companies in recent years, so it’s no surprise that there’s an especially lithe quality to a lot of the tunes here. Unlike a lot of vibraphonists, she likes to hang out in the midrange rather than working a bell-like attack way up the scale. She’s playing the Cell Theatre on Jan 19 at 8 PM with her quintet; cover is $15.

The album’s first track, El Coche Se Murio, was inspired by an untimely breakdown on a Spanish highway, four hours from a gig. There’s a coy solo vibraphone intro where the vehicle loses it, an insistent I-can’t-believe-this-happened passage, bustling Alex LoRe alto sax against balmy Matt Holman trumpet, a scampering Su solo and then what seems to be disaster averted.

Sax and trumpet flutter uneasily against each other in Viaje, as Su leads the rhythm section – bassist Petros Klampanis and drummer Nathan Ellman-Bell – with a lingering unease as the segments coalesce in turn, yet never fully resolve. Immigration and similar big journeys are like that.

The surreallistically titled Feet Dance has a steady, almost stalking pulse underpinning bright unison playing and sax-trumpet harmonies. As is frequently the case in Su’s music, those harmonies remain a tantalizing hair away from any kind of traditional chromatic scale, raising the unease factor.

Poncho Song, a jazz waltz, is similar but more wistful, with an expansively stairstepping vibraphone solo at the center and a tasty, nebulous outro that’s over too soon. The album’s title track contrasts fluttery urban bustle with lustrous, lingering phrases, Holman and LoRe bobbing and weaving.

Kuafu, the album’s centerpiece, is a triptych inspired by a Chinese myth about a titan of sorts hell-bent on running down and catching the sun. The first section has Su’s restless resonance paired against LoRe’s animated sax, the rhythm section entering with the hint of a second-line shuffle. Then it’s Su’s turn to go in a carefree direction as the horns converge.

The second part, Starry, Starry Night is the high point of the record, and also its most vividly melodic moment, a bittersweet anthem that diverges to a starry/dancing vibes-sax dichotomy and then a moody rondo. The metrically tricky coda has some irresistibly funny, over-the-top moments from Ellman-Bell and jaunty Indian allusions from LoRe.

The languid ballad Tutu & D – inspired by The Book of Joy, a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu – has cleverly spacious counterpoint between all the instruments and an expansive, lyrical Holman solo. The album’s final number, Party 2AM is more genteel and conversational than the title would imply. Refreshingly distinctive, purposeful stuff from someone who’s really found a sound of her own. 

Another Tasty, Catchy, Swinging Vibraphone Album from Behn Gillece

Continuing yesterday’s theme about top-drawer jazz artists playing some unlikely spaces here in town, today’s is vibraphonist Behn Gillece, who’s doing a live rehearsal of sorts, leading a quartet at the Fat Cat on Jan 2 at 9 PM. You can be there to witness it for the three bucks that it takes to get into the pool hall – if you don’t mind the random polyrhythms of sticks hitting balls and some other background noise, you’d be surprised how many quality acts pass through here when they’re not headlining a place like Smalls, which is Gillece’s regular spot when he’s in town.

His 2010 Little Echo album with frequent collaborator Ken Fowser on tenor sax is one of the most tuneful, enjoyable postbop releases of recent years. Gillece’s previous album Mindset was considerably more ambitious, and on the knotty side; his latest one, Dare to Be – streaming at Posi-Tone Records – is a welcome return to form.

The album’s opening track, Camera Eyes begins as a sparkly ballad, shades of early 70s Milt Jackson until the rhythm section – Ugonna Okegwo on bass and Jason Tiemann on drums – kicks in and then they’re off on a brightly shuffling, distantly Brazilian-tinged tangent. Gilllece’s shimmering lines cascade over a similarly brisk shuffle groove in From Your Perspective, Bruce Harris’ trumpet taking a more spacious approach.

Tiemann’s snowstorm cymbals push the 6/8 ballad Amethyst along, gently, Radley channeling some deep blues, Gillece just as judicious and purposeful. The group picks up the pace but keeps the singalong quality going with the lickety-split swing of Signals, Radley and Gillece adding percolating solos: the subtle variations Gillece makes to the head are especially tasty. His intricate intro to Drought’s End hardly gives away how straight-ahead and understatedly triumphant Harris’ trumpet and Radley’s guitar will be as it hits a peak.

The first of the two covers here. Bobby Hutcherson’s Same Shame is done as a crescendoing, enigmatically scrambling quasi-bossa, echoed in the goodnaturedly pulsing, tropical grooves of Gillece’s. Live It. The album’s anthemic title track grooves along on a brisk clave beat: it’s the closest thing to the lush life glimmer of Little Echo here.

The last of Gillece’s originals, Trapezoid is a rapidfire shuffle: Tiemann’s counterintuitively accented drive underneath the bandleader’s precise ripples and Radley’s steady chords is as fun as it is subtle. The album winds up with a gently resonant take of Johnny Mandel’s ballad A Time For Love, looking back to both the Milt Jackson and Buddy Montgomery versions. Fans of engaging, ringing, tuneful music in general, as well as the jazz vibraphone pantheon spanning from those guys, to Hutcherson, to Gary Burton have a lot to enjoy here. If Gillece wasn’t already on this map, this has put him there to stay.