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.
There’s been much hand-wringing among the aficionadi over reports that George Wein may call off his JVC Jazz Festival this year, leaving New York City bereft of such an event for the first time in decades. I’m not so bothered.
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.
I have an article in the Arts & Leisure section of today’s New York Times about Andy Warhol’s album covers. Everyone’s seen the covers he designed for The Velvet Underground & Nico, with the banana that peels, and the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, with the zipper that unzips. But who knew that the pioneer of Pop art designed over 50 covers over the entire span of his career, and not just for pop albums but also for jazz, classical, and opera? His work, often signed, appeared on Blue Note, RCA, Columbia—all the giants—and echoed, or often anticipated, the style that he would cultivate not just as a commercial designer but as a gallery-and-museum artist (though he rarely distinguished between the two). A new, lavishly illustrated, fastidiously documented book, Andy Warhol: The Record Covers, 1949-1987, lays them all out. Read about it here. Buy the book here.
I've been listening with great pleasure to Verity Audio's Parsifal Ovation loudspeakers the past few years, so I was intrigued to hear the company's step-up model, the Sarastro II. At 150 lbs each and $39,995/pair, the Sarastro II weighs and costs nearly twice as much as the Ovation. Would it sound twice as good?
Not the least astonishing moment of President Barack Obama’s recent trip to Europe (and for my more serious thoughts on that diplomatic voyage, click here) was when Michelle Obama met Carla Bruni and appeared her peer in every way, not at all outclassed. Ms. Bruni, of course, is the Italian-born French model and chanteuse who last year married French President Nicolas Sarkozy and, soon after, dazzled, nay seduced, every world leader she met at diplomatic soires. Mrs. Obama’s one-upmanship in London in no way shoves Ms. Bruni aside—the pairing marked, more, the reemergence of a French-American cultural entente, and we are all the headier for it.
I’m appallingly late with this, but the photo show “Jam Session: America’s Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World” is up for a few more days (through April 12) in the arcade of Jazz at Lincoln Center (on Broadway and 60th Street, 5th floor, New York City)—and, if you’re in the area, go see it.
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.
I’ve just glommed on to TV on the Radio, and let me tell all those who are as out-of-it as I am, when it comes to contemporary rock, the band is really very good. I first heard them play on Steven Colbert’s show, then bought their latest CD Dear Science (which the Village Voice and others touted as the best album of 2008), and I’ve listened to it since at least a dozen times. As I wrote a little over a year ago about Radiohead, after I first heard In Rainbows, it’s as harmonically and rhythmically sophisticated as just about any work of modern jazz—which is not to say that it’s like jazz but rather that, on any musical level, the purest jazz purist has no grounds for looking down on it.