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.
Oscar Pettiford is one of the least-remembered great jazz musicians, a pioneer of bebop who played bass with the top bands of the 1940s, switched to cello after an arm injury at the end of the decade, then plowed on at the top of his game till he died in 1960. The cello never ascended to the mantle of standard jazz instruments (which may account for Pettiford's unjust obscurity), but Erik Friedlander stands as its greatest champion, so no wonder that, for his 18th album as a leader, at the age of 55, he's finally recorded a tribute to the master.
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.
First things first. Yes, Dave Douglas named his new album, Dark Territory, after my new book of the same title. This may seem odd: my book is about the history of cyber war; Douglas' album is a deep-dive exploration of improvisation, composition, and technology in the risky corners of jazz and electronica. But in an email sent out by his self-owned label, Greenleaf Music, he explains that both works are about "similarly mysterious murky waters of underground activity" and that he found my title fitting because, like the characters in my book, he and his band are "playing through a similar territory without rules where the dangers and challenges of technology are much greater than normal."
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.