JAZZ IN SPACE: February 2013

Monday, February 25, 2013


The much-anticipated recording, New Life, (CAM Jazz) from the forceful and swinging drummer Antonio Sanchez delivers an expansive program rich in musical textures and a palpable group sound. Sanchez brings together an ensemble of peers (tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin and alto player David Binney, bassist Matt Brewer) and the insightful young British pianist John Escreet, an up and coming musician who infuses Sanchez's compositions with requisite drama and a lot of positivity. Sanchez, a three time Grammy® winner with two previous solo recordings, has been guitarist Pat Metheny's main collaborator over the last 13 years, which gives the drummer's originals a sweeping sense of storytelling -- the charts favor Binney and McCaslin playing in unison, providing a harmonious luster that reveals the power of Sanchez's compositions. The tunes take their time, most stretching beyond 8 minutes, which empower the musicians to freely explore the full range of their talents. 

The close association with Metheny (who also provides the liner notes) is evident on tracks like "Uprisings and Revolutions," originally a ballad that was rescaled by Sanchez in wake of the Arab Spring, and continues on "Minotauro" and "Medusa," two mythological inspired tunes with impressive structures. Escreet's Rhodes solo on the former is brilliantly nuanced and soulful. Sanchez also knows of writing music as an event. Like Metheny's work, the album's centerpiece is a majestic and melodious tour de force -- the title track "New Life" illustrates what a great composer can do when matched with equally attuned musicians who have the emotional intellect to fulfill Sanchez's vision. Vocalist Thana Alexa provides an aural counterpoint to the lustrous horns, blending and bending her voice to the propulsive steam from Sanchez's kit and there's a resounding joy in her range that lifts this tune way up. Sanchez allows the tune’s flow to calm midway through, where the glitter of Escreet's piano notes fall to a whisper to give way to a magisterial solo. Bassist Brewer shines as well, shepherding Sanchez's melody with a graceful sureness. Also noteworthy, "The Real McDaddy" inserts a choice bit of fun and funk into the playlist (this tune like the others were work-shopped at small venues like NYC's Bar 55, where I initially heard this band play prior to being recorded.) Sanchez is a remarkable drummer and the modernistic "New Life" is an inspiring and affirming effort that gives much on each successive listen. (8 tracks; 72:31 minutes) www.antoniosanchez.net

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Guitarist Kevin Eubanks stretches in a number of satisfying directions on The Messenger, his second release for Mack Avenue Records since leaving his gig after 18 years as the bandleader on The Tonight Show. His previous CD, Zen Food (2011) was an intimate outing flavored with contemporary twists and a laid back vibe as if Eubanks was getting his feet wet after being absent from the recording studio, but there is no hesitation of musical prowess or sound ideas on The Messenger. Keeping a good thing going, Eubanks returns with the wonderful Bill Pierce on saxophones and veteran drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith along with bassist Rene Camacho and brothers, Robin and Duane, playing trombone and trumpet, respectively, who collectively swing on a mix of groove tunes and a pair of lovely ballads.  It takes a bit of swagger to convert John Coltrane's "Resolution" to a finger poppin' taste of soul jazz, but Eubanks' arrangement maintains a proper respect to create a unique listening experience. All the tunes are strong with Eubanks out front, whether he's digging the blues ("Ghost Dog Blues") or slipping into some eye-winking funk ("420.") A family project (band members and three brothers all qualify) with a loose, jam band quality, The Messenger is contemporary jazz at its finest. The stylish music has an import that reveals itself after several hearings and shows a side of Eubanks that was only hinted at previously. (11 tracks; 54:05 minutes)  www.kevineubanks.com

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There's a settled feeling to the music on "Hagar's Song" (ECM), the quietly adventurous duo album from legendary saxophonist Charles Lloyd and modern pianist Jason Moran that forge their generational divide through the connective power of music. Playing songs by Billy Strayhorn ("Star Crossed Lovers") Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo" and Gershwin's "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," it's apparent these musicians may be as equally matched through technique as they are with their mutual love of song. Lloyd, 75, has a resounding facility on the saxophone, instantly recognizable, that weaves melodious strains with avant-garde inflections. It's a sound developed over his many recordings throughout the 60s when Lloyd could be considered a jazz superstar and prior to his self imposed state of seclusion in the 70's. A 2010 MacArthur Fellowship recipient, Moran, 38, circumvents the previous pianists that have played with Lloyd to add his encyclopedic knowledge of jazz piano styles and he applies them here with taste and a naturalistic style -- perfect for these wistful, sometimes romanticized tunes. 

The always dapper, Jason Moran
The album is a storybook, grounded by the title track, a 5-part suite chronicling Lloyd's great, great grandmother, a slave whose life story is expressed in this unique format. There's brilliance to the shine that Lloyd and Moran impart within this music. By turns elegiac and redemptive, "Hagar's Song" is best appreciated in the late hours, where two jazz masters can be heard at the height of their powers. Much like the celebrated Keith Jarrett collaboration, "Jasmine" (ECM, 2010) "Hagar's Song" is an enriching sonic experience that stays with you long after the last note is played.

The spring of 2012 is a momentous time for Charles Lloyd as he celebrates his 75th birthday. In addition to Hagar's Song, his label is re-releasing his first five albums for ECM in a specially priced boxed set, while Lloyd sets to a rare and special tour. On the East Coast, Lloyd will bring the band on his 2011 "Athens Concert" (including Jason Moran) to the Metropolitan Museum Of Art's spectacular Temple Of Dendur on March 15. He will also appear in Princeton, NJ at Wilson College on March 13. (14 tracks; 65:45 minutes) 

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In performance: Ben Williams and Sound Effect, New York City, January 30, 2013

A recent business trip coincided with a remarkable week of jazz performances in New York City, coincidentally all taking place at the illustrious Jazz Standard, a room with pitch perfect sound and an award winning menu (courtesy of Blue Smoke, the exceptional BBQ restaurant located one flight up.) The club's gracious host, the musician and bassist Rob Duguay, smoothly takes charge to guide you to the best seat available (and there are no bad seats at this club; only delicious food.) BTW, Rob's got a new album out called Sea Dream Blues. Check it out: www.robduguay.com

On Sunday, January 27, I caught the last set from a multi-night run by pianist Vijay Iyer and his trio, playing tracks from their recent albums, Accelerando and Historicity. With bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore (Roy Hayne’s grandson) on board, saying they “play” is a disservice to their skill and amazing gift for improvising. Rightly celebrated, Iyer's set combined tunes by Herbie Nichols, Julius Hemphill, John Coltrane (a compelling spectral glance at "Giant Steps") and a take on Michael Jackson's "Human Nature," which contorted the melody and pleasingly turned its familiar melody inside out. Another night celebrated the new CD from Patricia Barber (reviewed in the February issue of ICON) and although she remains a unique artist prone to verbal non-sequiturs from the stage while playing in her bare feet, her set wobbled from introspection to audience-challenging sonics.

photo courtesy of Todd Williams
The most engaging gig was from bassist Ben Williams, winner of the 2009 Thelonious Monk Competition, who at 28 is already a consummate professional and bandleader. His group, Sound Effect, is still touring in support of Williams' debut release, State of Art (Concord Jazz, 2011) and their interplay and on stage chemistry is both endearing and electrifying. With Marcus Strickland on saxophone, Alex Wintz on guitar, drummer John Davis and the up and comer, pianist Christian Sands, Williams eclectic playlist pulled tunes from the album (Stevie Wonder's "Part Time Lover" is a highlight) as well as Michael Jackson (the underplayed "Little Susie") and R&B singer, Goapele. Williams is steeped in all styles, gently weaving Charlie Haden-like phrases during his intros or contrasting classical measures with soulful top notes. Strickland is a fine soloist who runs intricate lines, a leader in his own right, and his role here sounded designed to pump the audience up. He tore things up on soprano sax, tipping his hat to Grover Washington, Jr here and there, while the wonder kid, Christian Sands, got the crowd keyed up with ferocious piano playing and whomping Rhodes solos -- often evoking McCoy Tyner with his approach to the keys, a fleet combination of elegance and deep soul. He's only 22. 

photo courtesy of Todd Williams
The band called up James Brown on "Mr. Dynamite" and previewed a track from Williams’ upcoming album called "Cover Art" as a member of the ad hoc band Next Collective, primed with today's shining young jazz stars (review forthcoming.) “Fly Or Die,” a track by Pharrell Williams (no relation) and N.E.R.D., is arranged by Williams to give the band plenty of soloing space and features a simple, very cool refrain. Watching him play so well that night, I think everyone who was there saw Ben Williams as an ace bassist with an entire, fruitful career ahead of him. He recently won a Grammy® for his role in Pat Metheny's Unity Band (a second album is in the works.) His performance and confidence assure us of great things to come. I'm in.
The Jazz Standard is located at 116 East 27th Street. Visit www.jazzstandard.net for details and calendar of upcoming performances.

 Here's the performance of Mr. Dynamite at the Jazz Standard. Video by Todd Williams

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