I’ve listened several times these past few weeks to Erik Friedlander’s new CD, Block Ice & Propane (on the Skipstone Records label), a haunting, sprawling, majestic piece of Americana. The album is subtitled “Taking Trips to America: Compositions and Improvisations for Solo Cello,” and that sums it up. The cellist’s father is the master photographer, Lee Friedlander. When Erik was growing up, Lee would spend summers driving a 1966 Chevy pickup truck around the country, taking pictures, and he’d take the family along: he and his wife in the front, often blasting the radio, Erik and his sister in the thin shelled-box camper up above, watching the clouds and the road markers flash by. Block Ice & Propane—named after the old techniques for keeping food chilled and gas stoves lit—is a remembrance of those summers, an elegy for innocent adventure, a musical road trip in its own right.
It’s rare that a live concert captures the mind-bending joy of mainstream post-War jazz. (Recitals of the bebop repertory tend toward the worshipfully literal, like museum pieces.) But just such a rare experience was had last night at Smalls, the convivial (and, yes, small) jazz club in the West Village, where pianist Ethan Iverson played standards with a trio that featured Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums.
The JVC Jazz Festival is in New York City (a bit of an absurdity: New York City is a jazz festival, all the time). A crazy schedule prevents me from seeing much this year (less and less of this festival is actually jazz, in any case), but I’m definitely catching the Keith Jarrett-Gary Peacock-Jack DeJohnette trio, Thursday night at Carnegie Hall, and Lee Konitz playing with a few bands, in honor of his 80th birthday (!), Monday night at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall.
Sky & Country (on the ECM label), the new CD by Fly—the trio that consists of saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Jeff Ballard—is a deeply pleasurable album. It’s a tricky thing to improvise sinuous, crisscrossing lines over the span of an hour-long record, with neither a piano to lay down harmonic signposts nor a second horn to pick things up when the pace slacks off, yet still manage to keep a listener’s attention. Some have done it, and brilliantly: Sonny Rollins (A Night at the Vanguard and Way out West), Lee Konitz (Motion), Ornette Coleman (At the Golden Circle and Sound Grammar), and David Murray (The Hill), among others. But this list only amplifies the scope of the challenge. Sky & Country is nothing like any of those albums, but it’s harder to describe what it isn’t than what it is. It doesn’t have much in the way of distinct melody, but neither is it the slightest bit atonal. It’s low key but not mellow, cool but not insouciant. Turner plays the sax in a style reminiscent of Warne Marsh: without vibrato, even-keeled, endlessly inventive but not at all showy about it. (Josh Redman and Branford Marsalis also have pianoless-trio albums out now, but among the three Turner is the only one who doesn’t resort to riding scales or extending arpeggios when he gets stuck in a spot; he always finds ways in and out without lapsing into clich.) Grenadier and Ballard are the bassist and drummer in Brad Mehldau’s piano trio—which is to say they can take anything and shoot it right back while supplying support. Fly is as pure a jazz trio as I’ve heard in a long time; no player dominates, all contribute equally but in very different ways; the strands stream off in several directions at once, yet they seamlessly cohere, like some musical equivalent of superstring theory. I can’t figure out quite how they do it, but they do. The sound quality, by engineer James Farber, is superb: tonally true with plenty of airy ambience.
In my last blog, I referred to “my friend, the pianist Frank Kimbrough,” so some of you may be leery when I tell you in this entry that Kimbrough’s new CD, and his first solo work, Air (on Palmetto Records), is a terrific piece of work, one of the half-dozen or so great solo piano albums of the past few years. If your suspicions keep you from checking it out, well, your loss.
Fred Hersch is playing six nights of piano duets at the Jazz Standard in New York City this week, pairing off with a different pianist each night, and Tuesday’s opening set was a marvel, further evidence that Hersch, not quite 52, is one of the two or three most harmonically imaginative jazz pianists on the scene and keeps carving new pathways—more intricate and probing, but no less swaying or lyrical.
Fred Hersch's new double-disc album (on the Palmetto label) might be called Alive at the Vanguard, instead of the customary Live at . . . , for two reasons. First, it's a declaration that Hersch, who's had HIV-positive for many years and not long ago slipped into a coma for six months, is alive. Second, this music is alive: fire-breathing with adventure, dance, spirits of all sorts . . .
Fred Hersch, one of the top handful of jazz pianists on the scene, spent several months in a coma last year, owing to complications from HIV, with which he’s been living for well over a decade. When he emerged, he had to teach himself how to play piano all over again—not the technique, but the reflexes, the timing, the coordination—but you wouldn’t know it from Whirl (on the Palmetto label), his first album since the return.
Pianist Fred Hersch plays at the Village Vanguard this week, joined by bassist Drew Gress and drummer Paul Motian. I was at last night’s early set, and it was one of the most bracing I’ve seen in a long while.
I veer away from ruminating on war and peace in my Slate column today, to run down my list of Best 10 Jazz Albums for 2011. My piece over there includes hyperlinks to 30-second sound clips (the maximum that copyright law allows), but here's the list (the more devoted of you readers will notice that I've written in this space about all of them over the past year).
Geri Allen’s new album, Flying Toward the Sound (Motema Music), is a stunner. She calls it “a solo piano excursion inspired by Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock.” In jazz pianists’ lingo, this is like Babe Ruth pointing to a spot in right-center field. And she slugs the ball out of the park.
Acoustic Sounds, Chad Kassem’s Oz of analog wonders, has expanded its line of 45rpm jazz reissues to the Impulse! catalogue. Like the Blue Notes, which Kassem and Mike Hobson’s Classic Records have already covered (at 45, 33-1/3, 180g, 200g, black vinyl, clear vinyl, just about any format you might imagine), the great Impulse! albums were engineered by Rudy Van Gelder and featured the masters of their day—Coltrane, Mingus, Rollins, and, one of the most innovative big-band arrangers in modern jazz, Gil Evans.