Joe Neal

 

Tom & Joe Neal at his launch of his book The Next Blue Note in The Book Shop Wexford (Copy)

I know of few poets who are as prolific as Joe Neal. The conclusion of one volume is the stepping stone to another. He moves between different worlds so fluidly, so seamlessly.

He is deeply knowledgeable, and neither his observation nor his curiosity has been diminished by the passage of time.

Joe doesn’t forget easily, and so when this current run of books began some years ago, and this is volume number five, Joe had a treasure trove of content.

And if this trove had chapter headings, I would suggest music, nature, the past and above all, love. It is curious why a writer as gifted as Joe, with a voluminous command of the language, should choose poetry and not prose.

The answer might be in his Welsh roots, where the cadence is unlike anywhere else: swagger, pulsation, Biblical, metaphorical. I think this caution or caveat by Dylan Thomas to the first cast of Under Milk Wood in New York, ‘to love the words’, is imprinted on Joe.

Why poetry and not prose for this seducer of words? Readers demand of prose that a subject is developed completely and logically, from A to B etc. It moves like a hot air balloon.

But from poetry we demand leaping from A to Z, implying everything. No walking, but flying. No hot air balloons, but a shooting star. Explosive, and brief. And as fog leaves no scar on the landscape it invades, so too poetry.

While metre and form and rhythm are the building blocks of a poem, the blueprint, without which there would be no beginning or end, is truth. If a poem is alive and is true, it connects with the touchstone of the life within us.

That is the only tuning fork you need. Acute vision, acute memory, acute use of words.

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The New York Standards Quarter

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Sleight of Hand

It’s now approaching twelve years since the New York Standards Quartet  came into being, its core personnel taking time out from their multifarious individual projects to revel in the shared brief of refashioning familiar and lesser- known jazz standards.

Their new release Sleight of Hand builds on their catalogue of five previous albums (most recently, The New Straight Ahead and Power of 10, on Whirlwind) as saxophonist Tim Armacost, pianist David Berkman and drummer Gene Jackson welcome double bassist Daiki Yasukagawa back into the fold.

This is a band that regularly plays and performs together, so there’s a common bond, which brings out the best in the arrangements they conjure.

Recorded at the end of an international tour – in the beautiful, mountainous location of Lake Yamanaka, close to Mount Fuji (the quartet enjoys a special affinity with Japan) – Sleight of Hand’s eight numbers reflect the band’s spontaneous, transformational approach, with the title track (based on Gershwin’s ‘But Not For Me’) irresistibly playful.

The various key modulations in Lover Man are a world away from Billie Holiday’s lingering vocal lines as Armacost’s spritely soprano responds swiftly to Jackson’s syncopated drum accents.

1940s song Detour Ahead – perhaps mostly familiar in composer Herb Ellis’s guitar setting – translates into a luscious tenor and piano-led ballad, sensitively buoyed by Yasukagawa’s bass shaping; Jules Styne/Sammy Cahn favourite I Fall In Love Too Easily is treated to sparkling, percussion-led animation; and Armacost’s rich tenor lyricism in Duke Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood is ravishingly restrained.

Mal Waldron’s Soul Eyes and Thelonious Monk’s Ask Me Now swing with respective vibrancy and jauntiness, while the metrical changes and perky rhythms of ‘This I Dig of You’ pick up on Hank Mobley’s classic Blue Note album origins.

And though the quartet likes to pull out obscure tunes, it’s also important to include touchstones for you can relate to them emotionally and there’s still a lot of awareness there. These are such great melodies, you can do almost anything with them – and, as always with improvisation, that sense of ‘what’s happening today?’ remains exciting. It’s all about a moment with Sleight of Hand.

Andrew Schiller Quintet

 

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Tied Together, Not to the Ground

 

Tied Together, Not to the Ground is the debut album from bassist/composer/bandleader Andrew Schiller, who unveils his unique writing style in this evocative 10-song collection, showcasing a group of adventurous and like-minded musicians. The Andrew Schiller Quintet is: Hery Paz (tenor saxophone), Alec Harper (tenor saxophone), Frank Carlberg (piano), Robin Baytas (drums), and Schiller (bass).

The compositions cover a broad spectrum but maintain a strong underlying theme through Schiller’s unifying compositional aesthetic. The album’s title refers to Schiller’s own attempt to hold on to his identity, his memories, and his beliefs without letting the weight of nostalgia cause stagnation.

Tracks summon array of remembrances and imagery-pivotal places, experiences and encounters, not just as a scrapbook of journeys, but as a gentle reminder to take the occasional leap forward into the unknown.

Little Shoes, begins with a sparse mantra-like statement between saxophone and drums. The introduction of an intervallic counter-melody signals the gradual transformation of the theme and the piece takes on a lush yearning quality.

Ho Get Em Tiger! comes out with all guns blazing, a dynamic contrapuntal duel between the horns and rhythm section. The fragmented waltz emulates the gyrating of a fan with a broken blade rather than the glide of a ballroom dance.

Dancing to Tink Tink would require some well-timed and La La Land choreography, but the song does have an infectious quality that makes one want to move. The bubbly melody, played in harmony by the saxophonists, makes frequents steps away from a home key but remains memorable nonetheless.

Soloists Schiller (bass), Paz (tenor sax), and Robin Baytas (drums) not only navigate the form with deftness, but build upon the sing-song, frolicking nature of the tune. Gluckschmerz is a five-and-a-half minute roller coaster ride. The break-neck, intervallic melody is matched by an equally turbulent counter-line from the rhythm section. The improvisation begins with the two tenor saxophonists, Harper and Paz, trading phrases. This quickly turns into a full-band rollicking collective improvisation. A drum solo from Baytas emerges from all of this, catapulting the piece towards a restatement of the melody.

The title track is introduced by a brief meditation. This ballad drifts patiently forward without a strongly defined beat and the melody is divided between the saxophonists (first Harper, then Paz). A piano solo from Frank Carlberg emphasizes the nostalgic and playful character of the piece. The return of the melody builds momentarily in intensity but dissipates gradually, finally reaching the finish line at a crawl.