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.

 

 

Dayna Stephens

 

Gratitude

 

Life changing moments are often the seed that produces the oak, and for tenor/baritone saxophonist Dayna Stephens it was his recovery from Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis, a rare kidney disorder.

The sound is distinctly American – fluent harmonies and an all encompassing wall of sound feel – but more Pat Metheny, who contributes one of the tracks, We Had A Sister, than Phil Spector.

In recovery Stephens had ample time to assemble songs infused with the light of the sun rather than the dark side of the moon, songs that would edify and irradiate, from Aaron Parks’ In A Garden to Massimo Biolcati’s Clouds, with star turns from exceptional musicians throughout, including Brad Mehldau.

Naturally, Stephens’ lyrical sax takes centre stage, cogitative and reflective, pushing the melodies towards a conceptual end, a depth of gratitude which leap frogs the inescapable uncertainty of their provenance.

Some of the tracks are new and some are old, but they each have had a walk on role in Stephens’ career: Stephens has long appreciated the visual quality of Aaron Parks’ In A Garden, and he grew up with Metheny’s haunting We Had A Sister.

Clouds has its roots in the magical sonic world of producer Louis Cole, whereas the only Stephens-penned track, The Timbre of Gratitude, is a homage to compassion and inspiration, two wells Stephens returned to time and again during his illness.

His band tuned down their instruments to incorporate a tack piano they discovered while recording Woodside Waltz, while Amber is Falling, coming in at over eight minutes, encapsulates the essence of this breezy jazz outing.

 

 

Kari Ikonen

 

Kari Ikonen

Ikonostasis

 Tracks one to five on this taut recording become increasingly longer, from the 37 second Toccatina to  Biangular and Sacrement, both breaking the four minute sound barrier.

 The brevity creates the impression of seamless transitions, but don’t be fooled: each track is an entity of its own, with an independent orbit.

 It happens that you are not gifted with the sense of an ending, for this quartet is ruthless when it decides to bring to a close what is an experimental filtering of sounds.

Like cutting a short story in mid-flow. Perhaps cutting is too serrated. Maybe editing. The experimenting which suffuses the early numbers, can be seen as a kind of foreplay, an illuminative prelude to this recording’s spine, Trinity, which comes in at almost a quarter of an hour.

 Rather than speculate on what Ikonostasis is, it makes more sense to understand the approach by Kari Ikonen, and how an introvert expansion – imagine amorphous cycles where emotional introspection and stylistic expansion are complimentary – is a fluid foundation for collaborators Ra-Kalam Bob Moses (drums), Mathias Eick (trumpet) and Louis Sclavis (bass clarinet) to do their thing. And they do it very well.

With Trinity, the delicate trumpet melodies and dreamy piano chords are sucked under by currents in slow motion: imagine a profusion of notes cantering like a mare against a head wind, and then suddenly set loose.

 This is music of the unexpected, a series of independent essences which have their own thermals and, occasionally, there is a coming together of harmony. The album’s gestation (recorded here and there, according to Ikonen) between June 2014 and October 2016, suggests an enforced hiatus.

Not so. Ikonen is a busy chap and his polymathic knowledge of contemporary music, including p-funk and the avant garde on this outing, gifts the listener a voyage from one landscape to another, such as the Persian delights of Catubada de Teheran.

The New York Standards Quartet

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Sleight of Hand

 
It’s now approaching twelve years since the New York Standards Quartet (NYSQ) 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 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.

 Sleight of Hand refers to the group’s alchemy and chemistry, achieved through twelve years of touring and recording together, so there’s a common bond, which brings out the best in the arrangements they conjure.

Recorded close to Mount Fuji, 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.

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.

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.

Jonne Taavitsainen Threedom

 

Leap of Faith

The sound landscape of Leap of Faith is akin to driving long distance on your own, but not being alone.

Mood, therefore, is pervasive. Some might describe Leap of Faith as having something of the night about it: the effect after repeat listening can be somnolent.

The ten tracks are indisputably hypnotic, impossible to package for popular consumption by lazy or inappropriate metaphors.

Consider Sam River’s Beatrice: all gravitational forces are switched off, all preconceptions are redundant, Joonas Tuuri’s bass pulsates with repetitive beat.

The classical ostinato is repetition within a rhythmic wattle, but Jonne Taavitsainen’s drums and Joel Parvamo’s guitar look to development.

This is the epitome of Leap of Faith’s commitment to an unsettling sonic space, devoid of an endless stream of notes, but leaving the attic door ajar for darkness to descend.

Throughout, the magnetic New Page, the hypnotic Falling and the spatial Home reflect the layered essence of each: essential to the group’s sound is the tightest integration of bluesy guitar and the congenial rhythm section of segued bass and drums.

The Jonne Taavitsainen Threedom is a fusion of varied influences but with a distinct interpretation, which to many will resemble early Erik Truffaz, with a splash of the ambient.

Nicolas Kummert

 

La diversite

 

La diversite is a recording of our time: is it a statement or a comment by tenor saxophonist Nicolas Kummert? Most definitely. The reputation of his native Belgium has been hijacked by Islamic fundamentalists, and their philosophy of hate couldn’t be more alien to his.

Celebrated for his versatility as a saxophonist and his openness to a plenitude of influences outside Europe (he has collaborated with African singers and both house and hip hop DJs), Kummert has also toured extensively in Martinique and Turkey.

At just 17, he collaborated with musicians from Senegal and Mali, and arising from a recording session with Patrick Ruffino, he joined forces with Lionel Loueke, omnipresent on the 14 tracks of la diversite.

The playing by both here is sumptuous, especially on We’ll Be Alright and And What If We’re Not? although Nicolas Thys on bass and Karl Jannuska have the honour with Rainbow People of labouring la diversite into the light.

There isn’t a misplaced or weak track in this collection, though it’s advisable to fast forward to We’ll Be Alright to savour the efflorescence of Kummert’s sonic solo and the terrific interplay with Loueke: the flip side, And What If We’re Not ? is gentler and acoustic, repeating the earlier refrain of We’ll Be Alright. Existentialist jazz? Yeah, why not.

Elsewhere, there is an abundance of quality, including two innovative but truly jazz interpretations of Hallelujah, (one long and lone short) recorded in memory of Leonard Cohen.

Lighthouse shows the quartet as its most sensitive, while Satie’s Gnossienne and Gnossienne a deux are a reminder of the accessibility within paramater-less jazz for experimental classic compositions composed in free time.

Like Hallelujah, the opening notes are instantly recognisable, and then Kummert takes the rhythm and chordal structure and puts his own indelible and frankly gorgeous stamp on them.

Tim Berne/Matt Mitchell

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Tim Berne’s Førage feat. Matt Mitchell

 

The compositions of iconic saxophonist/bandleader Tim Berne have earned respect for their intensely kinetic, dizzyingly intricate quality as performed around the world by his various groups over the past four decades.

With the album førage, you have the chance to experience Berne’s music as never before, in versions for solo piano: virtuoso pianist Matt Mitchell has explored the full range of the composer’s songbook.

This is the first music-only physical product from Berne’s imprint Screwgun in years, the saxophonist having lately released the three most widely acclaimed albums of his career via ECM.

Studio maestro David Torn – a long time sonic co-conspirator with Berne, as well as producer of Mitchell’s past two albums – helmed the recording of førage.

The cover artwork and distinctive CD package is by Steven Byran, who has worked hand in glove with Berne for decades – including the recent Screwgun publication of their joint art book, Spare.

førage refers to Mitchell foraging through Berne’s music to find the pieces that felt best for exploring solo  to find the parts that speak most to him, that inspire him as an improviser.

Mitchell’s re-combinations of Berne material on førage can see the pianist move, for example, in the new track  Cløùdē from music derived from the beginning of Spare Parts (off the first Snakeoil album) to a section from Thin Ice (The Shell Game) back into Spare Parts.

Similarly, the new pieceŒrbs finds Mitchell starting with a loose version of the head from Not Sure (Snakeoil) and then improvising into the intro from OC/DC (Shadow Man).

From the arrangements and performances to the recorded sound and physical package, førage is very much the product of a crew of kindred spirits.

Mitchell not only hears everything that’s going on, he exudes such positive energy – something that’s really important when someone is performing alone.

 

Anat Cohen

 

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Rose Dos Ventos

Rose Dos Ventos (“Wind Rose,” or weather vane) continues Anat’s kindred-spirit collaboration with Trio Brasileiro, with the album’s title hinting at the way fresh inspirations pass into their music like a breeze.

They previously paired up for the 2015 Anzic album Alegria da Casa. In the liner essay to that first album, Brazilian pianist Jovino Santos Neto wrote about how the sound of these musicians playing together transports him not to a concert hall but “to a happy gathering of friends in botequim, or corner bar in a small Brazilian town, where  everyone takes part in the roda, or circle of musicians.”

Formed in 2011, Trio Brasileiro is dedicated to performing traditional choro music as well as their own compositions that put a contemporary spin on choro. The group comprises percussionist Alexandra Lora (whose array includes the pitched “hand pan”), Douglas Lora (a member of the award-winning Brasil Guitar Duo) and Duda Maia, one of Brazil’s finest mandolinists (who plays a special 10-string bandolim on Rose Dos Ventos.

The word translates as “cry” – developed in late 19th-century Rio much like its cousin jazz in New Orleans, with Brazilian musicians combining such traditional European dance forms as the polka, waltz and mazurka with African and South American rhythms. Again, like jazz, choro became a vehicle for improvisers.

For the Rose Dos Ventos sessions, the foursome lived together for a week in Brasilia, inventing freely and recording at Maia’s home studio. They built on the more traditional choro sounds of Alegria da Casa, re-imagining the music with original compositions  by Anat and each member of the trio that incorporate far-flung influences, including from Spain (“Flamenco”) and India (“O Ocidente Que Se Oriente”) as well as the worlds of salsa (“Das Neves”) and even rock (the dramatic “Rosa Dos Ventos”).

There is plenty of effervescence (“Baião Da Esperança,” “Ijexá”) and bitter sweetness (“Teimosa,” “Pra Você, Uma Flor”), as well as lively virtuosity (“Choro Pesado,” “Valsa Do Sul”).

The arrangements are textured throughout, with Anat’s lyricism a key voice whether adding beguiling touches to “Lulubia” (“Lullaby”) or improvising “Sambalelê” as a virtual solo over a spare backdrop of percussion.

 

Guy and Madeline On A Park Bench

 

The common thread coursing through the short but successful career of film director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) is his use of vintage jazz throughout: remarkably for one so young, his predilection is not contemporary, but harks back to the revolutionary years emboldened by Charlie Bird Parker and Miles Davis.

While Whiplash is an excoriating probe of a student drummer’s unceasing quest for perfection, somewhat aided by a punctilious, bordering on the sadistic, mentor and isn’t always easy on the eye, La La Land is anything but. Little on the surface to suggest both were directed by Chazelle, except for the homage to American jazz.

What I didn’t realise until Guy and Madeline On A Park Bench soundtrack arrived by pony express, is how it prefigures the style and tone La La Land: big band jazz and Sinatraesque lyrics.

Guy and Madeline On A Park Bench – scored by Justin Hurwitz – was Chazelle’s first film a decade ago: it was intended as his thesis and both writer and composer (who had never worked on a film before) were completely unknown.

But even then it would seem that Chazelle and Hurwitz had the Midas touch because the 13 tracks (five with lyrics by Chazelle) on

Guy and Madeline On A Park Bench already foreshadow the maturity of La La Land. There is an umbilical cord between both.

Whiplash sits uncomfortably between Guy and Madeline On A Park Bench and La La Land: it is dark, and they aren’t. However, its critical success (JK Simmons won an Oscar) gave Chazelle the leverage to make La La Land, and develop the themes he had worked on ten years earlier.

What is in evidence from the off, cue It Happened At Dawn (vocals by Desiree Garcia), is the debt of gratitude Chazelle and Hurwitz owe to Gene Kelly’s On The Town, whose opening number, like La La Land, was filmed entirely on location on the streets of a city, this time New York. La la Land also, quite blatantly and unashamedly, mimics the visual motifs of French Impressionism used by Kelly in An American in Paris.

And while jazz is pertinent to Guy and Madeline On A Park Bench and Whiplash, it has a walk on role in La La Land, a kind of scene filler to add three dimensional qualities to the one dimensional Ryan Gosling character.

La La Land takes the seeds planted by Guy and Madeline On A Park Bench and boldly and brashly achieves what Kelly original did, segueing the two streams of the American musical before Kelly arrived on the scene, Busby Berkeley’s pyrotechnics and Fred Astaire’s theatrics.

For all that, Guy and Madeline On A Park Bench is a noble endeavour: Hurwitz in the sleeve notes writes that they recorded the score with the cheapest orchestra they could find (Bratislava Symphony Orchestra), armed with only an approximation of what it would sound like from using the notation software Finale.

In other words, he learned film scoring on the job, and there are sections that don’t breathe like he imagined. But, for his minor reservations, and he was only 21, this is an enchanting recording, which is never dull because the orchestration comes with counterpoint and countermelody, and are the ideal vehicle Chazelle’s fully formed lyrics, and exuberance, for which he should be applauded.