Friday, August 27, 2010

Staff Picks: Mikrokolektyw - Revisit

All week, we'll be posting reviews of 10 new CDs just added to the AccuJazz Staff Picks channel. You can keep tabs on all the reviews as they come out here.

10) Mikrokolektyw - Revisit (Delmark)

Polish avant-jazz duo Mikrokolektyw are the first European jazz group to release an album on Chicago's 57-year-old Delmark Records. One wonders why it took Delmark so long to make the leap across the Atlantic, but it does seem an appropriate fit. I think of Mikrokolektyw as something of a Polish version of the Chicago Underground Duo, a similarly open-minded trumpet-and-drums team with little concern for the boundaries of genre. Members of the Chicago Underground (a collective of musicians who record in a number of contexts, from duo to trio to orchestra) have recorded a handful of CDs for Delmark. Also: Chicago Underground Duo's most recent disc was on the inaugural edition of my Staff Picks channel.

The Mikros are a little less "out" than their Windy City counterparts, rarely engaging in the raw, in-the-moment free improvisation that is the M.O. of the Chicago Underground groups. Instead, trumpeter Artur Majewski and drummer Kuba Suchar craft off-kilter loops using both acoustic and electronic elements and improvising on top of them. Drummer Suchar rarely ventures far from the repeating groove pattern, content to be the foundation upon which all manner of electronic sounds and trumpet solos are built.

The acoustic/electric tunes are studies in patience and effective use of repetition. Oftentimes, as in "Running Without Effort," one bass line (played on what sounds like a balafon) persists for the entirety of the track. Yet Majewski and Suchar manage to hold the listener's attention through subtle layers of percussion, synthesizers, and a long, winding trumpet melody. Not all the tunes on Revisit are as minimalist, but all feature the same sort of churning rhythm and soft, melodic trumpet sound, creating a sound world unique unto itself.


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Staff Picks: Julian Waterfall Pollack - Infinite Playground

All week, we'll be posting reviews of 10 new CDs just added to the AccuJazz Staff Picks channel. You can keep tabs on all the reviews as they come out here.

9) Julian Waterfall Pollack - Infinite Playground (Junebeat)

As a jazz radio program director, I'm on the receiving end of a pretty huge amount of new music. When I get an email from an artist representing him or herself, I'm not always in a big rush to get their CD on the air, as there's already a steady stream of new music coming through. But when I got an email from 22-year-old pianist Julian Pollack, it only took me a few seconds of listening to sell me on getting his music on the air as soon as possible.

Something of a wunderkind, Pollack's bio is bursting at the seams with impressive associations and accomplishments: he appeared on Piano Jazz when he was only 18, his trio opened for Chick Corea at the Blue Note earlier this year, and, well, he just put out an immensely satisfying album called Infinite Playground. Clearly influenced by predecessors Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and Brad Mehldau, Pollack manages to avoid sounding like an impostor or an overly technical child prodigy. He's a fully-developed jazz pianist with a distinct voice.

Pollack and his trio open the album with a clever arrangement of Gershwin's "Summertime," taking one of the most overplayed tunes of all time and making it sound fresh, from plaintive start to abrupt finish. The 7 against 3 polyrhythm in the second half of the head is like rhythm porn for drum nerds like me. The disc is about half and half covers and originals, and Pollack turns out to be as promising a composer as he is a pianist and arranger. Among the originals, "Lily" is a spacious and gorgeous ballad, infused with just enough blues among the prevailing prettiness. "Blackberry," a funky odd-time groover, is the aesthetic opposite, with an impressionistic piano melody layered over a knotty bass line, and even a little hint of electronica at the very end.

Throughout Infinite Playground, Pollack and his trio mates, bassist Noah Garabedian and drummer Evan Hughes, keep things interesting, never engaging in the virtuosity-for-virtuosity's-sake grandstanding that plagues many young and ably-equipped jazz groups. Yes, they play Cherokee, that ultimate test of jam session virility, but they treat it tenderly, starting out in a spacious half-time groove, and never muddying up the time even when they're swinging at full speed. Making Cherokee sound effortless, now that's maturity.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Staff Picks: Tord Gustavsen Ensemble - Restored, Returned

All week, we'll be posting reviews of 10 new CDs just added to the AccuJazz Staff Picks channel. You can keep tabs on all the reviews as they come out here.

8) Tord Gustavsen Ensemble - Restored, Returned (ECM)

Restored, Returned is on ECM records, and that's right where it belongs. ECM is known for its spacious, minimalist, Euro-centric jazz-derived music, and pianist Tord Gustavsen's new disc is all of the above. The music on Restored, Returned is unusually spare, sometimes prompting my jam-session-drummer-self to wonder "are you allowed to do that?" And the music answers, "Yes, you are allowed to do that, and while I have your attention, why don't you listen a little closer. Hear those few notes on the sax, that one cymbal swell. Listen to how they resonate in the air, how you hear the overtones of Major 7 #11 chord more clearly than you ever have before. Isn't that beautiful?" "Yeah, sure is. Sure is," I answer, dumbfounded.

Gustavsen's previous three discs for ECM were with his longstanding trio of piano, bass and drums. Restored, Returned is the debut of the "Tord Gustavsen Ensemble," which adds saxophone and vocals to the mix (and switches out the bass player). Saxophonist Tore Brunborg is right in tune with Gustavsen's muted, subtle aesthetic, playing melodic, carefully considered solos that never get louder than mezzo forte.

Vocalist Kristin Asbjornsen is a striking presence, with a voice that is at times dreamy and soothing, at others earthy and gruff. Like the rest of the music on Restored, Returned, Asbjornsen's voice is rich with layers of subtlety. Listening to the symbiosis of Asbjornsen and Gustavsen, I can't help but think of The Bad Plus' addition of rock vocalist Wendy Lewis on their 2009 album For All I Care (one of my favorites from last year -- ah heck, anything by TBP is automatically in my all-time favorites). The music in question couldn't be more different, but it's the same scenario of a longstanding instrumental jazz group adding a female vocalist from outside of the jazz world. It's a risky and outside-the-box move on the jazzers' parts, and the rewards in both instances are many.

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Staff Picks: Sarah Manning - Dandelion Clock

All week, we'll be posting reviews of 10 new CDs just added to the AccuJazz Staff Picks channel. You can keep tabs on all the reviews as they come out here.

7) Sarah Manning - Dandelion Clock (Posi-Tone)

Sarah Manning is part of the ever-growing population of highly-educated young musicians making a go at the jazz life in New York, armed with years of practice, a few big-name mentors, and lots of ambition. Dandelion Clock, Manning's third release and first on the impressive Posi-Tone label, is evidence of the incredibly high level of musicianship coming out of that scene.

Manning the alto saxophonist and Manning the composer are both on display here. As a saxophonist her sound is striking, robust, and immediate. The melodies she writes for herself are memorable and perfectly suited to her distinct voice on the sax. She's also careful to compose thoughtful accompaniment parts for the rhythm section, effectively turning her quartet into a small post-bop orchestra. On "Crossing, Waiting," for instance, the rhythm section careens back and forth between a steady pedal tone and frantic free-bop, mirroring the contour of the saxophone melody.

Manning's band consists of pianist Art Hirahara, drummer Kyle Struve and bassist Linda Oh, whose excellent 2009 album, Entry, made a lot of jazz critics' best-of-'09 lists. It's quite clear from listening that Dandelion Clock wasn't a one-off recording session by musicians who haven't spent much time together. The lines of communication between band members are fluid and open, the rhythm section often subtly changing feels based on what Hirahara or Manning are playing in their solos.

Critics often decry the current generation's lack of passion or originality; with Dandelion Clock, Sarah Manning and her cohorts have proven that technical facility and book smarts can still lead to interesting, risky, and ultimately enjoyable music.

Further reading: A nice AllAboutJazz interview with Manning


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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Staff Picks: Fred Hersch Trio - Whirl

All week, we'll be posting reviews of 10 new CDs just added to the AccuJazz Staff Picks channel. You can keep tabs on all the reviews as they come out here.

6) Fred Hersch Trio - Whirl (Palmetto)

Fred Hersch has been getting a lot of press lately, for two main reasons: 1) he's a really, really great pianist with a new album out, and 2) he suffers from AIDS, and came terrifyingly close to death in 2008, at points developing severe dementia and entering a two-month coma. He lost all motor function during that time, unable to eat, speak or play piano. And yet, somehow, Hersch has managed to produce more excellent music in the past year than most of his fellow jazz musicians who are in good health do in a decade. He released two CDs in 2009, Live at Jazz Standard with a group he calls the Fred Hersch Pocket Orchestra, and Fred Hersch Plays Jobim, a gorgeous solo piano album of songs composed by the timeless Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Now comes Whirl, Hersch's return to the piano trio format, something of a home-base for jazz pianists from every generation. There's no gimmick or over-arching theme to Whirl, just a highly-functioning modern jazz group playing a perfect program of originals and covers. As with the previously reviewed Jasmine by another titan of modern jazz piano, Keith Jarrett, Whirl at times embraces simplicity and stark beauty. Hersch's original habanera, "Mandevilla," opens with an almost-clich├ęd bass line and spins out a perfectly constructed melody that sounds like it could have been written in 19th-Century Cuba. But Whirl isn't all simple and pretty. Hersch originals like "Whirl," "Skipping" and "Snow Is Falling" are knotty and complex compositions, with gorgeous, organic melodies soaring over heady shifts in key and time-signature.

Throughout the album, the sympathetic playing of bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson perfectly compliment Hersch's heartfelt playing. It seems that the crucible of illness has only made Hersch more focused than ever, and, if Whirl is any indication, jazz fans should expect much more great music from the pianist in the future.

Further reading: An in-depth New York Times story on Hersch's recovery from illness


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Staff Picks: Ideal Bread - Transmit: Vol. 2 of The Music of Steve Lacy

All week, we'll be posting reviews of 10 new CDs just added to the AccuJazz Staff Picks channel. You can keep tabs on all the reviews as they come out here.

5) Ideal Bread - Transmit: Vol. 2 of the Music of Steve Lacy (Cuneiform)

The first thing I noticed about Ideal Bread was their unconventional instrumentation: trumpet, baritone sax, bass and drums. For you, the line-up might bring to mind the famous Chet Baker/Gerry Mulligan "pianoless quartet" from the early '50s. For me, it also brings to mind my band. So, naturally, I was excited to hear what this group of expert improvisers was going to do with those instruments. Once I started listening, I was beyond pleased.

The verbosely titled Transmit: Vol. 2 of the Music of Steve Lacy is a set of witty and grooving interpretations of compositions just now receiving a proper airing. Steve Lacy is widely considered one of the great soprano saxophonists and a leading architect of the jazz avant-garde, but damned if I can remember anyone ever playing one of his tunes on a gig. Ideal Bread saxophonist Josh Sinton (also a member of Darcy James Argue's Secret Society) studied with Lacy at New England Conservatory and took up the dissemination of Lacy's music as something of a cause upon moving to New York.

Personally, I wasn't familiar with any of the Lacy tunes on Transmit before hearing the album, but the band does a superb job of illuminating Lacy's unique compositional style. The tunes are remarkably logical. During the heads of certain pieces, like "Flakes," you can almost see the math playing out in front of you on a chalkboard, the simple melodic motif traveling around the band, building in intensity as a descending harmonic line provides counterpoint and forward motion, culminating in a perfectly timed unison statement just before the improvisation begins. The appeal of Ideal Bread is how they take these intensely logical, almost geometric tunes and use them as springboards for soul-searching improvisations that explore the nether regions of bop.

Trumpeter Kirk Knuffke is a killer improviser with a gorgeous sound that has been reaching a lot more ears since his recently joining the Matt Wilson Quartet (who played my favorite live jazz show this year, so far, at the Green Mill in April). Bassist Reuben Radding has a big, classic sound that is used most effectively for laying down foundational bass lines, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara moves lithely between tasteful swing and fluid, out-of-time explorations.

It must also be mentioned that the band has a sense of humor, most apparent on the track "The Dumps," during certain sections of which all four band members yell out, "The Dumps!" in all manner of silly voices before jumping right back into the quirky theme. It takes a special group of jazz musicians to be willing to engage in that type of out-of-the-box music-making, and that spirit is apparent throughout the disc, whether they're yelling with their voices or through their instruments.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Staff Picks: Regina Carter - Reverse Thread

All week, we'll be posting reviews of 10 new CDs just added to the AccuJazz Staff Picks channel. You can keep tabs on all the reviews as they come out here.

4) Regina Carter - Reverse Thread (E1 Music)

Expectations were high for Reverse Thread, the culmination of years of study for Regina Carter, who was awarded the MacArthur foundation's much-coveted $500,000 "Genius Grant" in 2006. The leading jazz violinist of her generation, Carter has explored a lot of musical territory in her 16-year solo career, from classical to hip-hop, and, naturally, plenty of jazz-related territory in between. Reverse Thread is an elegant exercise in cross-genre line-blurring. To create her pliable hybrid genre, Carter delved into the music of Africa, the cradle of civilization and ultimate source of all American popular music forms.

Inspired by field recordings found in New York's World Music Institute, Carter layers ancient-sounding melodies over harmonies more typical of modern jazz. At various points throughout the album, the music is evocative of Argentinian tango ("Un Aguinaldo Pa Regina"), traditional African music ("Hiwumbe Awumba"), Appalachian fiddle tunes (parts of most every track), and reggae ("Juru Nani / God be With You"). Helping her navigate the broad stylistic territory is an impressive band including guitarist Adam Rogers, bassists Mamadou Ba and Chris Lightcap, accordionists Will Holshouser and Gary Versace, drummer Alvester Garnett and most notably, Kora artist Yacouba Sissoko. The arrangements are tailored to feature each player's voice clearly and effectively. I've gone back to Reverse Thread for many repeat listens and I plan on doing so for a good while.


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Staff Picks: Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden - Jasmine

All week, we'll be posting reviews of 10 new CDs just added to the AccuJazz Staff Picks channel. You can keep tabs on all the reviews as they come out here.

3) Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden - Jasmine (ECM)

The first chord of "For All We Know," the lead-off track from Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden's sublime new album, Jasmine, sets the tone for the rest of the disc. It's a major triad, the simplest of chords, held out for an entire measure. It's Jarrett's way of establishing that he and his partner have nothing to prove. Throughout Jasmine's 8 tracks, the name of the game is spare beauty.

It's almost shocking how simple the playing is at times. For a good portion of the album, Haden sticks solely to playing the roots of the chords, forgoing any inkling to fill up the empty spaces with passing tones or clever lines. Many of his bass solos consist of little more than rhythmically running up and down major scales, but his playing is so honest and in-the-moment that it somehow sounds revolutionary.

For Jarrett's part, he delves deep into his romantic side on Jasmine, going so far as to dub it music for lovers in the liner notes. Needless to say, this is no Barry White album -- the music is romantic and lush in the best sense of the words. Jarrett's playing is passionate, but lower-key than his playing with his longstanding "Standards Trio". He, like Haden, keeps it simple and lyrical for the most part, except for on the uber-standard, "Body and Soul." On this most-played of all songbook tunes, Jarrett must feel a little more like he has something to prove, deconstructing and obscuring the melody to a much greater level than on any other track on Jasmine. All 8 tracks, save Joe Sample's "One Day I'll Fly Away," are classic songbook ballads that have aged well through decades of interpretation.

Jasmine should satisfy jazz lovers of any bent. While I'm the first to admit that I can be biased towards the young and cutting-edge in jazz, there's no denying the power of two veterans earnestly playing some of their favorite old songs.


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Monday, August 23, 2010

Staff Picks: Dr. Lonnie Smith - Spiral

All week, we'll be posting reviews of 10 new CDs just added to the AccuJazz Staff Picks channel. You can keep tabs on all the reviews as they come out here.

2) Dr. Lonnie Smith - Spiral (Palmetto)

Dr. Lonnie Smith has taken a place as one of the world's top jazz organists, and he's settled into a steady groove of releasing albums of such high quality as to merit such distinction. At the age of 68, Smith shows no sign of slowing his output or dumbing down his music, and Spiral is an eminently convincing case for the continued preeminence of the Doctor.

Spiral takes a wide view of soul jazz, an idiom of which Smith has become a figure head. From the impossibly funky boogaloo of the lead-off track, Jimmy Smith's "Mellow Mood," to the smoky, snail's pace swing of "Frame For the Blues," Smith and his band make a case for the diversity of the genre. Spiral isn't as eclectic as, say, Claudia Quintet's Royal Toast, but in a way, it's all the more impressive how much ground Smith and his trio mates cover while still staying within the realm of radio-friendly mainstream jazz. "I've Never Been in Love Before" is rendered as a classic swing tune, but it's the lone track on the disc of which that can be said.

Drummer Jamire Williams and guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg lay down an unconventional foundation for the standard "I Didn't Know What Time it Was," playing dark harmonies over a jittery Drum and Bass groove. The familiar tune takes on a whole new character. Harold Mabern's "Beehive" becomes an all-out rock-fusion jam, and Smith's R&B title track is more D'Angelo than DeFrancesco. At this point in his career, Smith could be forgiven for playing it safe, but the music on Spiral, like the album's name, isn't interested in the straight-and-narrow.


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Friday, August 20, 2010

Staff Picks: The Claudia Quintet - Royal Toast

All week, we'll be posting reviews of 10 new CDs just added to the AccuJazz Staff Picks channel. You can keep tabs on all the reviews as they come out here.

1) Claudia Quintet - Royal Toast (Cuneiform)

There is so much compositional, textural, and improvisational depth in Claudia Quintet's new album, Royal Toast, that I don't really know how to do it justice with words. But as your fearless AccuJazz program director, I'm going to do my darndest to try.

The Claudia Quintet is a longstanding group of top-flight New York improvisers led by drummer John Hollenbeck, also the group's sole composer. His singular compositional style reaches levels of sophistication that are truly unique in the world of jazz. Rounding out the Quintet is accordionist Ted Reichman, saxophonist and clarinetist Chris Speed, bassist Drew Gress, and vibraphonist Matt Moran. On Royal Toast, pianist Gary Versace joins the group to make it a sextet.

The group's music is often dubbed "post-jazz," or in Hollenbeck's words, "party music for smart people." It's what happens when a deft composer melds jazz, avant-garde improvisation, contemporary classical, "world" rhythms, prog rock, and a little bit of everything else into one glorious new style that sounds like nothing but itself.

Naturally, with such a broad range of influences, the music contained on Royal Toast spans many moods and sonic landscapes. The record starts off unassumingly, with "Crane Merit," a slow-burning ensemble piece that incorporates Reichian minimalist techniques so seamlessly you don't even realize the depth of what you're hearing until the 8th or 9th listen. Unless you're smarter than I am. Maybe then you get it quicker.

After a brief drum solo, one of many solo interludes by different band members throughout the album, the Quintet offers up "Keramag" as possibly its most ambitious statement. It's 8 minutes of ingenious motivic development complimented by inspired solos and richly layered ensemble parts. 9 times out of 10, the tune's heart-stopping climax has me going back and listening to the entire song again.

From the abstract, overdubbed "duets" of "Ted Versus Ted," "Matt on Matt," "Drew with Drew," and "Chris and Chris," to the rhythmic puzzles of "Armitage Shanks," the remainder of the album covers a lot of ground and is engaging to the very end. It's safe to predict that Royal Toast will have a significant impact on a generation of jazz composers, with musicians and fans alike hipping each other to Hollenbeck's multifaceted compositions for some time to come.


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Staff Picks, Volume 2

I sincerely hope you all have enjoyed listening to AccuJazz's Staff Picks channel over the past few months (for those of you unsure of what I'm talking about, read all about it here). I hope you enjoyed it so much, in fact, that you've been waiting in eager anticipation of the channel's next installment. With many thanks for your patience, I'm happy to present to you 10 new CDs now playing on the Staff Picks channel.

Instead of writing up all 10 CDs in one super-long blog post, as I did last time, I'm going to offer a series of shorter posts detailing my choices. This post right here will act as a "hub" for all the reviews as I post them. All the new additions come from our most recent music update, which you can read about here.