JAZZ IN SPACE: September 2013

Sunday, September 8, 2013


Out Here is a seriously entertaining and musically affecting trio record from monster bassist Christian McBride that also serves as an splendid introduction to two of the best up and coming players in jazz, pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. The Philadelphia-born McBride, whose solo career launched in 1995 with Getting’ To It (Verve,) has sideman credits on over 300 recordings in addition to 10 of his own as leader, but this is his first trio recording. Now fully acknowledged as a jazz standard bearer, an astonishing feat for the 41 year old, McBride has adroitly exploited his encyclopedic knowledge of music to find success as a bandleader, mentor, composer and producer.

If a jazz record can be composed of hits, then Out Here is full of them thanks to its robust arrangements and earthy sonics. You could drop any of these tunes on radio or your iPod and easily get caught up in seductive originals like “Ham Hocks and Cabbage,” a tight blues tune written by McBride and Sands. It’s an eight-minute tour de force of swing and evocative interplay that flows with an Oscar Peterson vibe. For more adventurous listeners, the prime pick is the trio’s inventive rendition of “My Favorite Things,” which tips its hat to the experimentation that John Coltrane brought to his iconic version, with McBride providing sparks through juxtaposed time signatures and juicy solos to turn your expectations upside down.  

I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with the 24 year old Sands when he gigged with bassist Ben Williams’ Sound Effect band in New York earlier this year. The pianist is versed in many jazz and pop styles and counts Jason Moran and Dr. Billy Taylor as former teachers. He’s currently studying with pianist Vijay Iyer. He hooked up with McBride for the leader’s Inside Straight band, which was his first big break, and despite coming across as a well-mannered young adult influenced as much by rap and hip-hop, his jazz chops are blazing on the bandstand – you can hardly believe the sound of maturity in his playing. Sands is on subtle fire throughout much of Out Here, with an expressive playing style that’s particularly rewarding on the McBride ballad, “I’ll Guess I’ll Have To Forget” previously recorded by the bassist on Sci-Fi (Verve, 2000.)
At 30, Ulysses Owen, Jr. is a prodigious talent as well, building a portfolio of jazz releases as a producer (singer Jeremiah Abiah, trumpeter Mike Cottone) as well as a leader. His recent album, Unanimous (Criss Cross, 2012) is a state-of-the-art example of modern jazz that’s as tight as it is memorable. He’s also a member of McBride’s Big Band outfit, obviously at ease on his kit whatever the group.

photo by Chi Modu
McBride’s talent spotting is reminiscent of artists like Art Blakey and more recently, Chick Corea (who McBride also plays with) and vibist Gary Burton, two veterans that populate their bands with exceptionally gifted younger players. That freshness is evident throughout Out Here. In case anyone forgets that McBride’s musical background is rooted in R&B, the record closes with the finger-popping “Who’s Making Love” -- soul music, says McBride. The tune is a ripe slice of jazz-infused funk with more ounce to its bounce, courtesy of the bassist’s killer riffs and grizzly vocals, Sand’s fleet-fingered grooves and a ferocious Owens backbeat. This album is a sublime winner that rides a wave of swing and impressive musicianship, surely distinguished by McBride and his pair of aces, pianist Sands and drummer Owens. (9 tracks; 65 minutes)

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The proficient fusion master and boss guitarist John Scofield has been perfecting his brand of jazz rock and fusion for more than 40 years, beginning with his early association with Miles Davis who Scofield credits for keeping his sound both current and accessible. “I've been interested in combining jazz with other rhythmic forms since I became involved in music. I was spurred on in this direction by my collaboration with Miles Davis among others,” says the guitarist in the press notes. “The music on Überjam Deux is one of the styles I feel most comfortable with. If I were to tag a "concept" for the band, it would be exploring different forms of groove music.”

Far more than reconvening a band charged with making a sequel to their first Grammy-nominated Überjam (2002,) Scofield embraces the music he’s compelled to play by enlisting the impeccable rhythm guitarist and composer Avi Bortnick and former Average White Band drummer Adam Deitch to once again supply the riffs and the beats, respectively. It’s a top-notch effort that distills West African dance grooves (“Camelus” and “Snake Dance”) spacey electro riffs (“Boogie Stupid”) and dazzling, improvised R&B funk (“Cracked Ice.”) Assisted by fellow groove engineers John Medeski on organ, Wurlitzer and Mellotron, bassist Andy Hess and alternating drummer Louis Cato, Scofield amps up his groove-oriented style that was once best represented by A Go Go (Verve, 1998) and again on Bump (Verve, 2000.) But Scofield has surpassed himself with this recording, thanks chiefly to Bortnick who supplies killer samples and buzzy currents of sound on which Scofield hangs his innovative solos.

This adult, feel good party album comes to an end too soon with an uplifting take on The Main Ingredient’s 1974 hit “Just Don’t Want To Be Lonely.” As Überjam Deux makes clear, Scofield creates compelling contemporary jazz just as well as his younger acolytes, and he and his band righteously celebrate all music that is good and funky with a set list that’s rich with twitchy grooves mixed with infectious rhythms that are danceable and lots of fun. (11 tracks; 61 minutes)

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Leo Genovese CD release party, photo by Nick Bewsey
SubCulture, the sleek, beautiful new theater space at 45 Bleecker Street in NYC, was the perfect spot to host the CD release party for Argentine Leo Genovese, a pianist who embraces his own spacey reality that’s squarely manifested on his new recording, Seeds  (Montuno/Palmetto.) Genovese, who’s also the pianist in bassist Esperanza Spalding’s band, is partial to composing on the chromatic scale that’s built on 12 tone improvisations (alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher has written a definitive book on the subject.) Seeds makes a powerful personal statement – it’s relentlessly creative, full of ambiguous chords and harmonies that distinguish chromatic music. To less patient ears, Genovese also works in melodic passages and a welcome groove layered with electric keyboards. With this form of jazz, certainly not my everyday listening experience, your sensibility either surrenders to the music or fights against it.

After being introduced as the “Chromatic Big Band,” you know something’s afoot when the leader walks on stage in a robe and carrying a smoldering smudge stick to clear bad mojo from a room, but it seemed more theatrical than purpose-driven. Playing with Dan Blake on saxophones, the powerful drummer Bob Gullotti and Esperanza Spalding on bass and voice, the hirsute Genovese mixed interpretive performance art with his iconoclastic musical style. It was anybody’s guess who the hipster poet was and why he danced and flailed with a skeleton on stage. But there was a definite method and flow to the show, which began with an extended display of dissonant counterpoint between Genovese on piano and game sax player Blake, and continued for an hour with selections from the album.
The music often returned to focus on the Genovese/Blake duo, reaching a climax with an alternating multi-phonic feature that recalled the five-tone motif in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The extroverted performance played out like a suite where song forms blended together and Spalding, who was positioned at the rear of the stage, warbled siren like vocalizations and poetic passages. Midway through, Genovese switched to Farfisa organ, twiddling knobs and coaxing blurts and squirrely runs of sound as an artist stood center stage and interpreted the music by painting wild streaks of red and orange glyphs on a canvas. When the song finished, so did the painter by
putting finishing touches on a blue moon-like orb that floated over sunny smears of color. The slowly building party atmosphere culminated with a hyperactive but celebratory samba with guest appearances by Brian Landrus on bass sax, JP Jofre on bandoneon and guitarist Ricardo Vogt. By this time, Genovese had the standing-room-only audience mesmerized, feeling mostly good and a little heady, many of us essentially communing on the same astral plane.

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