Last Friday at the Jazz Standard, I saw clarinetist Don Byron play compositions from his 1996 Bug Music, maybe his greatest album, certainly one of the most exciting jazz albums of that decade. It features music from the ‘30s by John Kirby, Raymond Scott, and Duke Ellington—an era largely neglected by jazz musicians and historians.
Donald Fagen isn't exactly a jazz musician, but he is a musician who plays jazz and whose music is suffused with a jazz sensibility, whether on his own or as co-leader of Steely Dan, so here we go. His 4th solo disc, Sunken Condos (on Reprise), is one of his best and maybe the best-sounding since the Dan heyday . . .
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.