One of my favorite jazz bands, Ben Allison’s Medicine Wheel, is playing at the Jazz Standard Nov. 4. Allison is an enticing bassist and composer, agile and inventive, flitting from Herbie Nichols to film noir to raga, ska, funky blues, and straight-ahead jazz without showing a seam, loosening his wit, or abandoning the melody or the swing. The band is first-rate (regular readers will recognize most of them): Frank Kimbrough, piano; Jenny Scheinman, violin; Ted Nash and Michael Blake, reeds; and Michael Sarin, drums.
Andrew Hill, the knotty avant-garde pianist, and Chico Hamilton, the boisterous polyrhythmic drummer, seem an unlikely pair at first (or second) glance. But they set off fascinating fireworks, and carved out sinuous jags of common ground, in a duet recording, Dreams Come True, just released on Joyous Shout!, an Indiana-based label that I’ve never heard of. (Its website seems to be a sort of shrine to Chico Hamilton merchandise.)
Jenny Scheinman is one of the liveliest, quirkiest jazz musicians out there, a violinist with folk roots, a kind of bluegrass cadence, and a deepening mastery of improvisational idiom. She’s playing at the Village Vanguard through this Sunday with Jason Moran (the best pianist on the scene), Greg Cohen (one of the two or three best bassists), and Rudy Royston (a drummer who’s new to me but he’s very good too). If you’re in the tri-State area, go see her.
Speakers Corner Records, the German audiophile vinyl reissue label (distributed in the U.S. by Acoustic Sounds), has one of the more diverse jazz catalogues, drawn from a variety of golden-age labels (Verve, RCA, Impulse, Columbia, among others). Three new additions are worth mining:
It’s been a year and a few months since I’ve seen Anat Cohen, the young Israeli-born jazz clarinetist, play live, and she’s grown still more assured and supple, her swing more insouciant, her tone more sheer and gorgeous. She and her quartet began the early set at the Village Vanguard last night with “Jitterbug Waltz” (as she did the previous time I saw her there) and breezed through it with breathtaking speed, but not just as some virtuosic show: there was brio, gusto, real delight in her playing, as she slid in and out of a slew of styles and rhythms—trad, bop, Latin, quasi-klezmer—seamless and natural and fresh. And so it went through the set, with ballads and blues and multiculti sonic frescoes. She plays tenor and soprano sax as well, though the licorice stick is her glory (second only to Don Byron in fire, versatility and skill). The band consists of the agile Jason Lindner on piano, Daniel Friedman on drums, and Joe Martin (replacing Omer Avita) on bass. The gig continues through this Sunday. She also has a new album, Notes from the Village, which is nice and fine (though I prefer her earlier quartet disc, Poetica, both on her own Anzic label).
Sonny Rollins played at Central Park tonight, as part of the Summer Stage series, and what can I say. A month shy of 78 years old, the man is still a titan, a force of nature. Of course, nature has its cycles, and typically, Rollins in concert takes some time to crank up—you can almost see the gears grinding, then sliding, then grinding, then finally whizzing and swirling with jaw-dropping speed, effortlessly, pulling spins and loop-de-loops as they go. Tonight he hit one such peak in the second song, “Valse Hot,” where he shifted into sheets-of-sound, a la early-‘60s Coltrane. Amazing. Then the concert coasted for a while, sinking into occasional longueurs, the latter due (as usual) to his band, which simply isn’t in his league. It would be fine if they just comped along—kept up the beat, laid down the chords, plucked out the bass line—while Rollins soared to the stars and back. But he’s a very generous man, so he gives them way too much to do. Sometimes they get by (trombonist Clifton Anderson played really well), sometimes they don’t. Twice he traded bars with a bandmate—once with the drummer (who, when his turns came, played the same thing each time), once with the percussionist (who, puzzlingly, played nothing at all). A drag. But then an hour into the concert, the earth moved, as it often does at least once or twice at these events, which is why we keep going to see Sonny Rollins whenever we can. During his solo on “Sonny Please,” he locked into the rhythms of the cosmos and rode them in a dozen directions—a bop cadenza for a couple dozen bars, then an Aylerian wail, then intervals that sounded like something out of Berg (if Berg could do jazz), then something like the brushstrokes of a de Kooning action painting if de Kooning had played the tenor sax instead of the paintbrush, and on it went for 10 or 15 minutes, never repeating a phrase—except when he returned to blow the theme for a couple of bars every now and then, just to keep the rocket in orbit—all the while never losing his grip on the essentials: beauty, wit, swing, and the blues. There’s nothing like him.
The Jeff Gauthier Goatette’s House of Return, on the L.A.-based Cryptogramophone label, is one of the most sinuously pleasing albums I’ve heard in a while. I confess that I haven’t followed this quirky label or its roster of musicians as closely as I should have, but I intend to make up for lost time. The Goatette (don’t ask me why it’s called that—there are five musicians, so it’s not even a Dada play on “quartet”) consists of Gauthier, violin; Nels Cline, guitar; David Witham, piano; Joel Hamilton, bass; and Alex Cline, drums. The way each of them weaves in and out of different tempos, rhythms, and chart-parts (shifting effortlessly from melody-line to chords to between-bar filigree to sonorous atmospherics) is astonishing. The songs range from mysterious ballads to electric rock, with much in between, sometimes within the same song. There’s wit in the compositions and breeziness in the ensemble work, but there’s no fooling around; the air is loose, but the motion is surefooted and the hand-offs are tight, like a Mondrian painting but with more indigo color. Nels Cline is the player I’m most familiar with; he may be second to Marc Ribot as the most versatile jazz guitarist on the block, and it’s due mainly to him that, when the band rocks, it really does rock; it doesn’t sound like some tame fusion-y rock. But the softer tunes have a rich melancholy, an off-centered swing, and a hazy core of blues. The engineering is very good, capturing the tones and overtones of all the instruments and the bloom of the mix.
Herman Leonard’s first New York show in 20 years got underway last week at the Morrison Hotel Gallery in SoHo. It’s open to the public every day until June 1, and anyone with a taste for classic jazz, gorgeous black-and-white photography, or both should take a look. If you don’t know Leonard’s name, you probably know him by his work. He has taken some of the most iconic shots of Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Dexter Gordon, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk—the list goes on. There are, or were, half-a-dozen great jazz photographers covering the same era of the late 1940s through early ‘60s, but Leonard was the genre’s Cartier-Bresson—a genius at capturing the “decisive moment,” when the essence of the man or woman and the music are revealed. Monk at Minton’s Playhouse, one hand on his chain, contemplative, the other hitting just the right-wrong note on the piano (you can almost hear it). Blakey beaming with delight as he bangs out a solo on his trapset. Sinatra, back to the camera, singing before the kliegs, and still, somehow, his very tone comes through. Leonard (who, at 85, is still hearty and good-humored) also captured the human side of jazz: Parker and Gillespie cracking laughs during a studio break; Ellington and Strayhorn sharing a cigarette break; Miles, late in life, fixated on an oil painting; Dexter, in perhaps Leonard’s most famous shot, sitting with his tenor and blowing more smoke than one would have thought human lungs could hold. The lighting is dreamy but not at all soft; these pictures are amazingly sharp, printed on gelatin silver. They’re signed and for sale. I own one of his prints (the Parker-Gillespie, from 1949). A jazz critic gets paid in Leonard photos for one of his regular columns. They are sources of endless pleasure, and they’re probably as safe an investment as any in the art world.
A powerhouse trio is playing at the Village Vanguard through Sunday—Ethan Iverson on piano, Charlie Haden on bass, Paul Motian on drums. I saw them last night, and if you’re a jazz fan who lives in the Tri-State area, you need to go see them, too. Haden, who made his mark 50 years ago in Ornette Coleman’s original quartet, remains one of the supplest and most instinctively musical bassists around. He knows just when to hit the fundamental of a chord, when to spell out the arpeggio, when to walk the scale, or when simply to evoke the mood of a song. The last time I saw him, playing duets at the Blue Note in August, he’d recently had a hernia operation, and while the notes he played were spot-on, in their customary surprising ways, he couldn’t play very many of them; I wondered, in this blog, if age (he was 70) might finally be taking a toll. Last night proved he’s fully recovered and plucking full-throttled. Motian, who has played off and on with Haden since the early ‘70s (he was also the drummer in Bill Evans’ 1961 trio that played at the Vanguard on Waltz for Debby), is, to put it plainly, a magician. Nearly each bar, he attacks his drumkit, usually with brushes, in a completely different way (the Motian Variations, you might call them), sometimes in a way that seems at odds with what his bandmates are doing (double-time is one thing, but is there such a thing as one-and-a-half time?), yet it all merges and converges perfectly. Iverson is best known as the pianist for The Bad Plus. I like that group a lot, but he goes leagues beyond on his own, excavating hidden patterns, rhythms and motifs from jazz standards, while preserving their lyricism or blues or swing. The set I saw, the trio played mainly ballads and blues, including Bill Evans’ “Blue in Green,” Haden’s “Silence,” and a couple Charlie Parker tunes, which generally aren’t up Haden’s or Motian’s alley but they swung hard and clear and just a bit intricately off the beaten track.
Maude Maggart finishes out a six-week stay at the Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room near Times Square this Saturday. She’s an appealing throwback, including in her repertoire; her best album, I think, is a collection of old Irving Berlin tunes. Her voice is sultry yet sweet, laced with vibrato, pure in tone, mischievous in intonation. Her current show, called “Speaking of Dreams,” which I saw last night, is ripe with naturally passionate slow ballads. Her few shifts uptempo (Sondheim’s “On the Steps of the Castle” and a Jobim tune with acid-trip Marshall Barer lyrics called “Lost in Wonderland”) made me wish she’d do more, but I’m not complaining. Her swoon through “Isn’t It Romantic” was bewitching. Even the show’s one cabaret clich—a medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Look to the Rainbow,” and “The Rainbow Connection”—came off as anything but; it was even stirring. Ms. Maggart looks five or so years younger than her 32 years, and she’s been singing in public for more than half of them. Cabaret clubs are not usually my scene, but I’ll go see her again happily.
Has John Zorn gone mellow? His two new CDs, The Dreamers and Lucifer (both on his self-owned label, Tzadik), are swaying, swinging, crazy with catchy hooks, occasionally downright mellifluous. I don’t mean to overstate the contrast with the preceding Zorn oeuvre (which entails over a hundred albums, at least a thousand compositions). The time has long passed when Zorn—whose name is, almost novelistically, German for “anger”—gained notoriety for squealing on the alto sax like a banshee and cutting up compositions into surreal collage. The stereotype was never right: from the start of his career, in the mid-‘70s, he could play be-bop, Hammond-based soul, and Morricone movie-themes at a high level. But in the ‘80s, he delved more avidly into ear-ripping shards-of-sound (with fitting titles like Torture Garden and Grind Crusher). When he turned to exploring chords and melodies in the ‘90s, he didn’t abandon “noise” entirely; several of his great Masada albums alternate between blues or ballads and rippers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Up to a point, I liked that stuff, too. But these two new CDs have almost none of it. They’re jammed with buoyant, playful, joyous music—and I mean that in a good way.
Friday night, I went to the 55 Bar—one of several small, inviting, low-to-no-cover jazz clubs in New York City’s West Village—to hear Kendra Shank sing in celebration of her (improbably) 50th birthday. Audiophiles will recall Shank’s mid’90s album, Afterglow (on the Mapleshade label), one of the best-sounding jazz-vocal records in recent times as well as a balladeer’s strong debut. In the years since, her voice has grown suppler, deeper, more versatile, dynamic, controlled, and adventurous. Her first mentor was the late Shirley Horn, and her biggest strength remains the ballad (she opened Friday’s set with a heartfelt and swinging “Like Someone in Love”). But she has also come under the sway of Abbey Lincoln (her most recent CD, A Spirit Free, is a Lincoln tribute, and a wonder), and so she staggers rhythms, syncopates lines unexpectedly, stretches a phrase, then snaps it back, with a fine feel for the building and release of tension—and she does it all with a purity of pitch and tone that eluded both her teachers (or that they both evaded in any case). Her rhythm section included the wondrous pianist Frank Kimbrough (whose new solo CD, Air, is, as I’ve written here already, one of the year’s best), Dean Johnson on bass, and Tony Mereno on drums. The band is mind-melding tight. Shank sings at the 55 Bar the last Friday of every month.
About a month ago, I lamented that Sonny Rollins, the greatest living tenor saxophone player, had decided not to put out a CD of his Carnegie Hall concert of last year with Roy Haynes and Christian McBride. Rollins was dissatisfied with his playing and so he canceled his release-plans.