JAZZ IN SPACE: November 2013

Saturday, November 2, 2013


Ever since he released his debut recording, Consequences on Posi-Tone Records in 2008, British pianist John Escreet has persisted in pushing at boundaries. On his subsequent recordings you can hear the influence of avant-pianist Andrew Hill and former teacher Jason Moran, but as beguiling as those recordings were, they were formalized stepping stone albums with ideas for days and musician line-ups where everyone, none more so than the pianist, played their ass off. Sabotage and Celebration (Whirlwind Recordings), his fifth album, finds Escreet in his element. His inspiration comes from a vortex of musical styles, sounds and instrumentation – he’s a passionate enthusiast for disparate composers like Ligeti, Stevie Wonder, avant-garde jazz saxophonist Evan Parker, McCoy Tyner and the ultra-modern pop group, Knower, as well as current events that transpired during his composing process and the album’s production. These are very good things because the finished music on Sabotage makes it Escreet’s most cohesive and rewarding work.

Since settling in Brooklyn, Escreet has maintained a durable work ethic, releasing four solo albums in six years, playing many sideman gigs, touring with trumpeter Christian Scott throughout Europe and, most importantly, continuing as the pianist in drummer Antonio Sanchez’s group, Migration. In May 2013, Escreet had the distinction of performing a commissioned piece at The Jazz Gallery in New York, and consistent gigs leading groups at various jazz venues around New York and Brooklyn.

If you’ve heard any of his previous four recordings, you’ll recognize the heady mix of jazz-fusion, avant-garde improv, alt-rock and rhythm and blues, all of which come together on Sabotage and Celebration in a most effective way. Since the double blast of Escreet’s small group recordings in 2011, The Age We Live In (Mythology) and Exception To The Rule (Criss Cross,) the pianist professes that he listens to a lot of string albums, both classical and jazz, and admits he got carried away once the writing process took flight -- these tunes were written during the suspension of normalcy in New York after Hurricane Sandy and refined in the studio on November 7, 2012, the day after the US re-election of President Obama.  When a youthful jazz musician (Escreet is just under 30) describes his creative process as being driven by making new music, you listen to his records with an ear tilted for the unexpected and Escreet confidently delivers a from-beginning-to-end listening experience that’s boldly expressive.

The album begins with a simmer of live strings, a gentle wave of harmony that dissolves into an off-kilter melody. A darker mood is established, the dramatic element a distinct Escreet trademark, and this brief prologue comes to its end, unresolved and unrequited, before shifting to the funky rhythm that drives track two, “He Who Dares.”  This excellent tune is thrillingly cohesive with a sweet front end of blended horns. Tenor saxophonist Chris Potter and alto player David Binney make for a slippery duo, their horn parts characterize the staccato melody and flow-through to Escreet’s proud theme. Here, the leader has one of his sharpest and most pleasurable solos, flavored with Hancock-like licks, yet certainly Escreet’s own.

The 11-minute+ centerpiece of the album, the title track, has its own definitive arc fueled by the pianist’s frustration with oppressive American voter ID laws, the disenfranchisement of a huge swath of American voters, the tension on election night and the literal celebration of its outcome. This composition covers these many moods and feelings -- it’s outrageously ambitious and challenging -- Escreet teases with a spare, haunting theme, rolls in a fog of strings, ominous and pregnant with suspense, which mutate into a thrash of horns, an aural pummeling from Potter and Binney whose dueling instruments shriek in tandem until they fade into Escreet’s placating piano. This section, an ode to the avant-garde, shifts to a modern jazz vein, albeit fast-pitched and lifted by bassist Matt Brewer, the authentically soulful drummer Jim Black and a killer piano hook.

There’s the tuneful pop-flavored “Laura Angela” with a buoyant Fender Rhodes feature for Escreet, pegged with a back-in-the-day CTI/Bob James-derived groove. His “Animal Style” jumps out with a skewed melody, fierce Jim Black beats, elastic Brewer bass and a tight blend of horns. The last track is perhaps the album’s best. “Beyond Your Wildest Dreams” is an hallucinatory fantasy that combines the beauty of Escreet’s writing with guest guitarist Adam Rogers’ sinewy fretwork, the ethereal vocals of LA pop-performance artists Louis Cole and Genevieve Artadi, a glorious ocean of multi-tracked strings, extra bleats of brass from trumpeter Shane Endsley and trombonist Josh Roseman, a funky backbeat of handclaps, a rapturous soprano sax solo from Binney, all the while with Escreet moving and grooving on harpsichord(!). Is it too much? Not when so many distinct elements seamlessly flow together and it ultimately crowns Sabotage and Celebration as a singular achievement that spotlights John Escreet at his best. This album is definitively the proper way to experience his outsized talent. (7 tracks; 51 minutes)

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Blowing in from Chicago is a hot recording from trumpeter Marquis Hill, a rising regional star in Chicago whose third release, The Poet (Skiptone Music), is a skillfully played modern jazz record that’s steeped in retro styling. His band, the Blacktet, knows their business, easily facilitating the post-bop changes and soul-jazz grooves that characterize Hill’s marvelous original compositions. Reminiscent in style to Roy Hargrove at the start of his career, Hill dives into sturdy rhythmic waters, swinging with confidence and chops, leading his sextet through a dozen tunes that have a pleasing rawness despite the rich, cozy sound that gives all the instruments, especially the bass, an analog warmth. The fleet tempo on “B-Tune,” anchored by a subtle Latin clave rhythm, flaunts a swaggering frontline with Hill and alto saxophonist Christopher McBride weaving their sound into pleasing textures. Another highlight, “The Color Of Fear,” flows with an emphatic bassline, along with taut, punchy solos from Hill and McBride. Vibraphonist Justin Thomas is a revelation in the sonic mix, rolling his notes in a rich, buttery tone. In addition to Thomas, Hill assembles an equally top-notch group of collaborators and a particularly astute rhythm section -- bassist Joshua Ramos, drummer Makaya McCraven and understated pianist, Josh Moshier.  Solid and well-crafted, the album is bookended by Kevin Sparks’ cogent poetry set against Hill’s jazz/hip-hop bounce track, the drums and bass locked in counterpoint that fuels an undulating beat. (15 tracks; 45 minutes)

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Ever inventive and searching, bassist Alexis Cuadrado fearlessly navigates crosscurrents of modern jazz, Latin and world music to underscore the relation between today’s economic disparities with those of the past on A Lorca Soundscape, based on Federico García Lorca’s poems about 1929 New York. Vocalist Claudia Acuña gives the poet’s words a robust and emotional reading that surge with feeling and an appreciated efficacy. But the heavy lift is accomplished by Cuadrado (along with a band of sharp-eared and extremely talented musicians) who gives resounding shape to the material by translating the fire and passion of Lorca’s language into a work that’s resonant and sonically engaging.

Putting together a project like this benefits tremendously from Cuadrado’s fellow musicians – as a collective charged with interpreting this splendid work, pianist Dan Tepfer, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, drummer Mark Ferber and percussionist Gilmar Gomes make an exemplary sonic impression. Precisely recorded up close and with resounding depth, A Lorca Soundscape is adept at conveying the sentiment of Lorca’s poetry, delicately yet emphatically shaped by Cuadrado’s carefully delineated bass. Credit for Cuadrado’s success here would be shared with engineer Mike Marciano, the man behind the soundboard on most of New York’s best jazz recordings. Despite omitting the translation of the song’s lyrics, Lorca’s passionate words are duly interpreted through Cuadrado’s effective arrangements and his exceptional band.  (7 tracks; 50 minutes)

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photo by Melissa Gilstrap
Saxophonist Larry McKenna is the reigning king of Philly swing, but he’s a modest musician and a guy who probably wouldn’t consider himself to be that at all. Though McKenna has been playing and teaching jazz ever since he hit the road gigging in 1959 with Woody Herman’s Big Band, it wasn’t until 1997 that he recorded his first solo CD, My Shining Hour: Larry McKenna Plays Harold Arlen. His workman-like attitude, sheer talent and full-bodied tone has endeared him to countless musicians throughout the Philadelphia area, his is often the first name mentioned when talking about the best tenor sax players in the city.

McKenna’s latest recording From All Sides is a follow-up to his 2009 release, Profile (Dream Box Media), and builds on McKenna’s gifts as a songwriter and composer, putting music to lyrics by his writing partner, Melissa Gilstrap. In the delightful and incisive liner notes, McKenna explains how the songwriting process and his own ambition as a musician intersected quite organically. Their four originals are brought to life by the stunning Philadelphia vocalist, Joanna Pascale, whose crystalline voice and soulful delivery pulls out the tender, evocative feeling in the lyrics. Even the unexpected inclusion of a Christmas-themed song on the playlist gets a pass thanks to Pascal’s artistry.

Give this tenor player a standard or ballad and that’s when McKenna’s rich bluesy sound radiates outward. Supported by an all-star band of fellow Philadelphians, McKenna plays with the exuberance of an up-and-coming newcomer. The smooth swing on “Everything I Got” percolates over a bubbling rhythmic brook and McKenna’s tenor soars, improvising through the changes with a relaxed and supple charm. To his credit, McKenna’s band restores the 1940’s dance club feel with Johnny Mercer’s “That Old Black Magic,” a tune first recorded by Glenn Miller. Most recommended though is McKenna’s arrangement of Kurt Weill’s “September Song,” which features an endearingly casual tempo, yet gorgeous multi-layered instrumentation. And one more as guitarist Pete Smyser and McKenna’s frontline (flugelhorn player George Rabbai and trombonist Joe McDonough) harmonize beautifully over the lilt of McKenna’s original “Samba De Else.” Whether playing on strong instrumentals or underscoring sweetly rendered songs, Larry McKenna always displays first-class musicianship and consummate urbanity. (12 tracks; 76 minutes)

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