New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: Wayne Escoffery

Monty Alexander Brings Jamdown Jazz Full Circle at the Charlie Parker Festival

Yesterday evening at the uptown Saturday night edition of this year’s Charlie Parker Festival, Monty Alexander explained that his most recent free outdoor concert here had been in Central Park. He didn’t bother to mention that his mid-90s performance there with guitarist Ernie Ranglin was one of the landmark musical events in this city over the past 25 years.

The pianist and leader of the Harlem-Kingston Express told the crowd that when he’d been booked for yesterday’s show, he’d asked the festival organizers where he’d be playing. When he found out that it would be Marcus Garvey Park, his response was, “Marcus Garvey Park? But Marcus Garvey is Jamaican!”

The exuberant reggae-jazz icon added that he hoped the park’s name wouldn’t be changed back to what it used to be (it was still Mount Morris Park back in 1967 when Alexander led a completely different band several blocks west at Minton’s).

Shifting into serious mode, he and the group launched into an amped-up version of the Burning Spear classic Marcus Garvey. Joshua Thomas, the group’s electric bassist sang it in a strong, soulful tenor, then in a split second the group segued into So What and took the tune doublespeed.  All this dovetailed with the circumstances: Wynton Kelly, the pianist on Miles Davis’ original, was also Jamaican.

Until around the time of that legendary Central Park show, Alexander was regarded as a traditionalist and an expert at ballads. The collaboration with Ranglin, a fellow Jamaican icon, was a game-changer, and their reinvention of Bob Marley classics won both of them a global following far beyond the jazz world. Yet, as Alexander explained, he’s no less a jazz guy for loving reggae riddims. For Alexander, just like Ellington, there are two kinds of music.

This band is very much the first kind. There are two drummers, two basses and two keyboards including Alexander. Most of the time the Jamaican guys play the reggae material and the Americans do the swing stuff, but there’s plenty of overlap, and when both drummers and both bassists are going strong the sound can be epic.

One of the evening’s most anthemic, incisive numbers sounded like a version of the Abyssinians’s Satta Massagana: as with much of the other material, Alexander made a doublespeed swing blues out of it, then returned back to the original theme to wind it down. A little later, they used the opening riff from Marley’s Could You Be Loved to stir up a similar stew. 

The most riveting solo of the night was from bassist Hassan Shakur, juxtaposing crushing chords and ghostly harmonics with a bluesy drive way up the fingerboard. Drummer Carl Radle played thunderous vaudeville against the beat, all but drowning the rest of the crew during his one irresistibly fun solo moment. Similarly, saxophonist Wayne Escoffery went for adrenaline, especially during the Coltrane solo in So What; the band’s trombonist was a bluesy, more low key foil.

Meanwhile, the electronic keyboardist played mostly clickety-clack clavinova behind Alexander’s spacious chords and regal blues phrases, adding organ on the biggest hit with the crowd, No Woman No Cry. They closed with a coy calypso medley that veered into Hava Nagila for a few bars, Alexander spiraling around on his melodica.

This was a tantalizingly short set, especially for these guys, which may portend what’s in store this afternoon at Tompkins Square Park where the festival began in 1993. Festivities start at 3 with a trio of young guns: trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and vibraphonist Joel Ross. Iconic, rapturous AACM pianist/organist Amina Claudine Myers follows at 4, there’s a corporate jazz act whose new pianist is way better than the last one, then postbop sax vet Gary Bartz leading a quartet to close things out at around 6. You might want to bring a folding chair if you have one because blanket space on the lawn will be limited.

Revisiting Some Classics by Mingus and His Many Advocates

Trombonist Ku’Umba Frank Lacy is a mainstay of the New York jazz scene, with a list of recording and touring credits a mile long as a both a bandleader and sideman. His Live at Smalls album, a red-hot straight-up postbop sextet date at the well-loved West Village basement spot, got a big thumbs-up here in 2014. And as big band fans know, Lacy is also an excellent singer with a distinctively gritty, dynamic low register. New Yorkers have at least three chances to catch him over the next week or so. He’s leading his own group on Dec 5 at 10:30 PM at Smalls, their usual haunt; cover is $20. In addition, he’ll be with the Mingus Big Band at the weekly Monday night Mingus ensembles’ residency at the Jazz Standard on Nov 27 and Dec 4, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $25

Lacy’s latest album with the Mingus Big Band, Mingus Sings – streaming at Spotify – is his star turn in the studio with the group. Although Charles Mingus’ music pretty much speaks for itself, he was an underrated wordsmith, and there are four tracks here representing his poetic side, along with others by Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, and a rarity  by his widow and longtime champion Sue Mingus.

Interestingly, Lacy doesn’t play on this record, although the band otherwise is as much of an allstar outfit as it always its, comprising trumpeters Alex Norris, Jack Walrath and the late Lew Soloff; trombonists Coleman Hughes, Conrad Herwig and Earl McIntyre; saxophonists Craig Handy, Wayne Escoffery, Alex Foster, Ronnie Cuber, Abraham Burton and Brandon Wright; bassists Boris Kozlov and Mike Richmond; pianists David Kikoski and Helen Sung, and drummer Donald Edwards.

The material spans the iconic composer’s career, from bustling swing to haunting third-stream epics. Lacy narrates Langston Hughes’ poetic commentary over slowly swaying lustre and then fingerpopping swing in Consider Me, a pensive Stormy Monday-inspired first-person commentary on black empowerment. Clearly, not much has changed in sixty years.

Dizzy Profile, part elegant waltz, part brisk swing, is a mighty, knowing reminder of how much controversy the pioneers of hard bop faced; again, somewhat ironically, it’s Coleman Hughes who gets to take a sagacious trombone solo instead of Lacy.

Weird Nightmare, as you would expect, is one of the real standouts on the album: Lacy holds back to let Mingus’ angst and longing really resonate while the band builds an eerily surreal backdrop. Portrait comes across as quite a contrast between the lyrics and the regal, almost somber quality of the music, animated by solos from Walrath and Handy. Another stunner, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat – with the first of the Joni Mitchell lyrics – is awash in grim, close harmonies, introduced by a gently plaintive Kikoski piano solo, Handy contributing a pensive, achingly angst-fueled alto solo.

Sweet Sucker Dance – from Mingus and Mitchell’s 1979 collaboration – has an infinitely more purist, epic sweep compared to the original and really does justice to Mitchell’s bittersweet, detailed character study. Likewise, Lacy digs in and wraps his tongue around Invisible Lady’s torrents of Elvis Costello noir iconography over murderous, tense  harmonies and nonstop, shadowy urban bustle: it’s the rare resurrection of a classic where the new lyrical dimension isn’t hopelessly ponderous.

Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love, which Mingus did write all by himself, is surprisingly restrained here: Cuber blows some purist blues spirals and Lacy saves his biggest melismatic moment for this one. Contrastingly, Dry Cleaner From Des Moines has a jaunty rumble to match Mitchell’s surreal beatnik narrative.

Noonlight – the one real obscurity here, posthumously discovered along with the scores for Mingus’ magnum opus, Epitaph – gets its lyrics and title from Sue Mingus. It turns out to be a saturnine-tinged but catchy and ultimately cheery ballad, shifting matter-ofl-factly between meters.

Mitchell’s lowdown vernacular and imperturbable narrative fit seamlessly with Chair in the Sky, with its sly bluesiness and unstoppable upward trajectory  – and Lacy has a ball matching its unhinged exuberance. Eclipse, the final number with Mingus’ words and music, is typically symphonic, a study in contrasts, slinky latin ballad morphing into towering anthem, Foster’s flute nailing both when the time comes. The final track is the second-line strut Jelly Roll, with a Costello lyric to match. It’s a good bet that most Mingus diehards already have this album, or at least have it playlisted somewhere; if not, hell, why not now?