Among the many compelling jazz pianists still around, Ran Blake may be the oddest (and the most unjustly, though understandably, obscure). He can’t swing for more than a few bars; he tends to change keys at random intervals; for this reason, he usually plays solo, figuring that few musicians have the patience for his quirks (though some of his best albums—The Short Life of Barbara Monk, Suffield Gothic, That Certain Feeling, and Masters from Different Worlds—were collaborative efforts, involving such established artists as Steve Lacy, Clifford Jordan, and Houston Person). Yet there’s magic in Blake’s music; his chords, dissonant but heartfelt, seem to waft out of a dream. Now in his 70s, a longtime teacher at the New England Conservatory, Blake has called himself a filmmaker who doesn’t know how to hold a camera, and his albums all have a cinematic flavor. (Many years ago, he recorded the soundtrack of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and told me afterward that he could see scenes of the film in his head while he was playing.) Even when not playing movie themes, his songs possess a narrative impulse; he’s a very instinctive pianist (by his own admission, he’s not a strong sight-reader), and he seems to have some weird synaptic nerve that translates images in his brain to chords and intervals in his fingers.
It’s risky, to say the least, for John Coltrane’s son to take up the tenor and soprano saxophones as a profession, yet that’s what Ravi Coltrane has been doing for 25 years, 15 of them as a leader, and his latest album, Spirit Fiction (his first on the Blue Note label), is his triumph.
It’s been several years since I saw Branford Marsalis play live, but if tonight’s late set at the Jazz Standard is anything to go by, let’s just say that his last few albums don’t begin to capture the peaks he’s scaling. He started the set with a slow pure-tone simmer of “Violets for Your Furs,” switched to a raucous original, and, at one point, lit into long, zigzag takes on Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning,” treating it alternately as a funk fizz, a samba, a syncopated frenzy, and a straightforward Monk tune, each switch ripe with wit, adventure, and wry references reminiscent of Dexter Gordon’s (the deftest were two lines from “Jitterbug Waltz”). He blows hot and cool, intense and insouciant. At 48, the onetime wunderkind (and Wynton bro’) has grown fully into his promise and beyond. Another star of the evening was his drummer, an 18-year-old high-school senior from Philadelphia named Justin Faulkner, who’s replaced the longtime Jeff “Tain” Watts. Faulkner is incredible, klook-a-mopping the trapset with ferocious energy and gigantic ears, picking up on every twist from pianist Joey Calderazzo, expanding the spaces left open, then filling them with endless variations. He has a tendency to play louder as the music grows more intense, but hey, he’s 18. There’s a hint of a budding Elvin Jones here. Go watch and listen. The quartet plays through Sunday. The house was jam-packed.
When I unpacked the Rogue Audio Atlas, I didn't know how much it cost. After examining its chassis of high-grade steel, its silver-anodized aluminum faceplate, its sleek and slightly rounded edges, and, above all, its two chunk-o'brick transformers—for such a little thing (a foot-and-a-half square by half-a-foot high), it's heavy—I guessed around five grand. Then I called Rogue Audio and learned that it retails for $1395.
One drawback of the New York-centric jazz world (and I say this as a New Yorker) is that musicians who live elsewhere too often go ignored. Oral histories are full of tales about some tenor saxophonist in Mississippi, or a guitarist in Nevada, who influenced someone who influenced everyone else. And so you should definitely check out the Denver trumpeter Ron Miles’ riveting new CD, Quiver (on the Enja label).
The first thing that strikes you about A Life in Time: The Roy Haynes Story—a 3-CD (plus a bonus DVD) box-set that spans the career of drummer Roy Haynes—is just how wide and varied a span it is. It opens in 1949, with Haynes as a sideman to Lester Young, proceeds to sessions with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Sarah Vaughan, and Nat Adderley; moves into ‘60s avant-modernism with John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Jackie McLean, Andrew Hill, and Chick Corea; and cruises into the ‘70s and beyond (he is still very active at age 82) with bands under his own leadership.
One of the things I admire most about the folks at Music Matters Jazzthe audiophile house that reissues classic Blue Note albums at 45rpm, the tracks spreads out on two slabs of 180gm virgin vinyl, tucked inside handsome gatefold coversis that they focus on the label's later avant-garde titles as well as on its earlier hard-bop chestnuts. Highlights in that realm to date: Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch, Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, and Jackie McLean's Destination Out.
Now add to this list of treasures Sam Rivers' Fuchsia Swing Song. All four of those albums were . . .
In my review of Krell's FBI integrated amplifier in the July 2007 issue, I noted that $16,500 (it now costs $18,000) seemed an astonishing chunk of change to spend on a product category generally associated with "budget" gear. Now, the 2011 edition of the Stereophile Buyer's Guide lists no fewer than 19 companies selling integrated amps for five figuresone goes for $100,000!which perhaps suggests that economic slumps prod even the well-heeled to alter their habits. There are, after all, advantages to cramming a preamplifier and a power amplifier into a single box: you need one less pair of interconnects, one less power socket, one less cabinet shelf. And if the integrated contains state-of-the-art parts, elegant circuitry, and a hefty power supply, what's the problem?
And so we have Simaudio Ltd., the veteran Canadian high-end electronics firm, leaping into this realm after 30 years of business with the Moon 700i, priced at $12,000only two-thirds the price of the Krell, but aimed at the same downsizing but still toney demographic.
I would never have placed Marc Cary and Matthew Shipp in the same category of jazz pianists, but their superb new solo discsCary’s For the Love of Abbey (Motema) and Shipp’s Piano Sutras (Thirsty Ear)find them converging toward close points from different angles.
Sonny's Crib, by Sonny Clark, one of the most tragic and still-underrated pianists in jazz, is one of the greatest blowing sessions on a labelBlue Notethat specialized in blowing sessions, especially in the mid-to-late '50s, when this was laid down.
September 1, 1957 was the recording date, and that's not a gratuitous factoid. First, 1957 marked a pinnacle in Clark's brief career; he recorded 18 albums that year, most of them Blue Notes, as either leader or sideman. (He would die from a heroin overdose in 1963, at the age of 31, and the only surprise was that it didn't happen much earlier.)