Paul Bley's Play Blue: Oslo Concert (on the ECM label) is a bracing solo piano album. Think Keith Jarrett, with less Rachmaninoff and more Monk, but the distinctions sway on the margins. Bley too is a romantic improviser, immersed in jazz idiom but classically trained (and he lets it show, though less showily than Jarrett).
The wondrous drummer Paul Motian died Tuesday morning at the age of 80 (he didn't look much older than 60), and New York, the only city where he ever played for the past decade (and he seemed to be playing somewhere all the time), feels a little emptier.
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:
There's a retro, Heathkit vibe to the curiously capitalized PrimaLuna ProLogue Eight CD player: a shelf of glowing tubes and a chunky transformer case perched atop a plain black chassis. But on closer inspection, it seems there's much more going on here. The chassis is made of heavy-gauge steel, with (according to the manual) a "five-coat, high-gloss, automotive finish," each coating hand-rubbed and -polished. The tube sockets are ceramic, the output jacks gold-plated. Inside, separate toroidal transformers power each channel. Custom-designed isolation transformers separate the analog and digital devices, to reduce noise. The power supply incorporates 11 separate regulation circuits. The output stage is dual-mono with zero feedback. Audio-handling chips include a Burr-Brown SRC4192 that upsamples "Red Book" data to 24-bit/192kHz, and one 24-bit Burr-Brown PCM1792 DAC per channel. Only the tiny silver control buttons (on the otherwise hefty faceplate of machined aluminum) betray a whiff of chintz.
Soon after raving over Fred Hersch’s new piano-trio album, Whirl, I learned that it was also available on 180-gram vinyl. I’ve since obtained a pressing and can report that, good as the CD sounded, the LP sounds considerably better.
Ran Blake may be the most unjustly obscure jazz pianist out there, so it's worth notingshouting, eventhat he has three new albums that rank in the top tier of his career: Cocktails at Dusk (Impulse!), The Road Keeps Winding (Red Piano), and Kitano Noir (Sunnyside).
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.