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.
I caught Lee Konitz Thursday night at the Jazz Standard, the early set, playing with three fine musicians—Danilo Perez on piano, Rufus Reid on bass, Matt Wilson on drums—but they never settled into a cohesive quartet. Konitz has long been one of my favorite alto saxophone players. Last summer, after a concert at Zankel Hall, celebrating his 80th birthday, I wrote of his “signature airy tone, with its syncopated cadences and wry, insouciant swing,” and marveled at his sinuous way with a melodic line, “darting and weaving, choppy then breezy, sifting changes, shifting rhythms, and all so very cool.” But Konitz also has a tendency to doodle, and when he does, he needs a pianist (or guitarist) to lay down some block chords and reel him back in. Perez didn’t do that. He started noodling with him; the whole band laid back, the center did not hold, the train slid off the tracks, and a lazy chaos ensued. Konitz tried to impose some structure, segueing into “Embraceable You,” but Perez acted as if he didn’t know the song. Reid, the only band member who seemed to be listening, stopped playing a few times, for minutes on end, perhaps unsure of which wayward strand to latch onto. At one point, Konitz switched to “Thingin’,” his oft-played variation on “All the Things You Are,” which for some reason spurred Perez to lay down a Latin beat, which Wilson and Reid eagerly followed, but Konitz didn’t want to go there. This meandering went on for about 40 minutes before Konitz brought it to an awkward halt. For a finale, the band played “What’s New,” in the middle of which things finally came together, Perez launching into a lively solo, Reid plucking soulfully, Wilson recovering his sure footing, and Konitz blowing breezy uptempo.
Ornette Coleman’s concert last Friday at Town Hall in New York City was everything that anyone could have expected—a triumph of individual expression, group improvisation, and sheer, unconventional beauty.
A few months ago, I reviewed Carla Bley’s wonderful CD, The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu, a deceptively Dada title that referred simply to the nature of the session—Bley’s quartet, called the Lost Chords, joined by the Sardinian trumpeter, Paolo Fresu. I praised Fresu’s “appealing” sound, its “clarion tone with a slight huff of breathiness,” but confessed that I’d never heard him before. Now comes a trio album, Mare Nostrum (on the German label, ACT), with Fresu as co-leader—along with the French-Italian accordionist, Richard Galliano, and the Swedish pianist, Jan Lundgen—and, though it’s not as quirkily magical as the Bley, it’s a charmer. There’s at once a twilight intimacy and a panoramic insouciance to this music. Imagine a gentler Nina Rota, as if he’d scored the soundtracks for early Truffaut instead of boisterous Fellini; toss in some Argentine spice (Galliano, who also plays bandoneon, was close to Astor Piazzolla); and you get a sense of the mood. It’s a bit fluffy and sentimental, but in a good, lively way (though there’s also a spirited arrangement of Ravel’s “Ma Mere L’Oye” and a darkly stirring piece, a Fresu composition, inspired by the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet). The sound quality is quite good, though I wish there’d been less reverb on the trumpet.
Heads up. Ornette Coleman’s group is playing at the Town Hall in New York City on March 28. If you have any interest in modern jazz (or modern music, period), you should buy a ticket now before they sell out.
Bad news. Last June 15, in my
first entry of the “Jazz Messengers” blog, I broke the news that three months hence, Sonny Rollins, the world’s greatest living tenor saxophone player, would be playing a rare trio concert at Carnegie Hall—with Roy Haynes (one of the two greatest living drummers) and Christian McBride (an outstanding young bassist)—and that his own record label, Doxy, would release the results on CD along with a similar, recently unearthed, never-before-heard trio session that Rollins played at Carnegie 50 years earlier.
Disaspora Suite is the 4th in a series of albums recorded by trumpeter-composer Steven Bernstein for John Zorn’s Tzadik label (the others were Diaspora Soul, Diaspora Blues, and Diaspora Hollywood). It’s also the most ambitious, far-flung, and satisfying. The band is a nonet that includes the versatile Nels Cline on electric guitar (strumming, plucking, and occasionally wailing), Peter Apfelbaum on saxes, and Ben Goldberg on clarinet. This is by no means simply “Jewish music.” The sounds and influences drift in from everywhere. The first track starts with an electric guitar riff and bongos back-up that’s straight out of Marvin Gaye. Horns enter, blowing slightly dissonant intervals. Two minutes in, the clarinet rolls in with those punchy klezmer chords, but it doesn’t overwhelm the other spices; they all mix and meld, play in and out and around one another. It’s dark, bluesy, danceable (in your head and on the floor). It careens off in unexpected directions, all of them worth following.
Adam Kolker’s Flag Day (on the Sunnyside label) is a knotty pleasure. It may leave your head in a coil (take two tracks of hard bop to unwind), but ride with the twists while they’re winding; it’s a soft-toned heady trip. Adam Kolker, who plays tenor sax, soprano sax, and clarinet, is known mainly as a sideman, and he doesn’t try to get out in front of his bandmates on this session—John Abercrombie on guitar, John Hebert on drums, and the irrepressible Paul Motian on drums. I promised when I started writing this blog that I wouldn’t dwell excessively on any individual musician, but Motian is such a giant, I could write about him every day and not be rightly charged with excess.