Playing

After all the words about history, theory, technique and analysis, jazz can also just be about playing music, and how good that sounds. The theory part is that the music is a unique hybrid of sophisticated art and popular appeal, music that’s based on improvisation, and so abstract for the head, and based in getting people to dance, meaning concrete for the feet. In this regard, in the playing, jazz is doing as well as it ever has, and arguably more so. The music is seeing the results of decades of commitment to pedagogy, which has allowed young musicians to work on their playing in the relatively safe environment of music school, before they are thrown to the wolves to figure out how to live, and gig, as a starving musician.

These musicians have also come along at a time when making a recording is incredibly cheap, and the means are in the hands of anyone with a laptop, an audio interface, some microphones and a space to play in, whether it’s a recording studio or a nightclub or a living room. I think this accounts for what seems to be a glut, and a pleasing one, in well-played and well-made recordings from a variety of jazz musicians. Here’s a handful I’ve been listening to over the past couple of months:

Unsung hero of jazz drumming, Dan Weiss, has an unusual, fascinating and very fine CD out, Timshel, the debut of his trio, the component parts of which are Jacob Sacks on piano and Thomas Morgan on bass. This is a deeply felt and deeply thought-through project, a complete work where the tunes are subtly and firmly integrated into the whole on both a musical and emotional basis. This is beautiful, introverted music, full of variety. It’s a compliment to Weiss that the music is far better than his own descriptions of each track would lead one to believe. Trained in tabla as well as jazz, he describes the exercise of accompanying some of Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon’s dialogue from Glengarry Glenross as illustrating how music and language are similar. Well, yes they are, but “Always Be Closing,” is to his credit so much more, an illustration of the sound of a strain of Indian percussion playing and philosophy, translated through the lens of American popular culture and placed into jazz. And it’s totally hip, as is the entire CD. “Frederic” may be intended to express the melancholic element of Chopin, but with it’s languid left hand arpeggio, doo-wop style waltz meter drumming and jazzy right hand in the piano is an original and refreshing piece of music. The elision between that track, “Teental Song” and “Chakradar #4” are seamless, emphasizing how well all the music works together. Weiss himself wears his learning and influences lightly; there’s no international style-dropping, just the feeling of a musician who has incorporated disparate elements into a personal style, producing a musician working in a definite idiom but whom, like the great tenor Nigel Rogers, who also studied Indian music, stands out as having an almost otherworldly quality to his playing. How else to explain how the simple thematic thread that binds all of Timshel together ultimately works with such concentrated, gentle power? This is a CD that deserves and rewards time spent with it, something best heard whole. An impressive and accomplished recording.

Pianist Frank Carlberg has put out a series of powerhouse recordings, including The American Dream which was one of the best releases of 2009. He and his collaborator, the prodigious singer Christine Correa, each have disc out as leaders on the Red Piano Records label; Carlberg’s set is the CD Tivoli Trio, with bassist John Hebert ande drummer Gerald Cleaver, while Correa is accompanied by panist Ran Blake on Out Of The Shadows, a set of standards and originals. Both are terrific and show an interesting contrast between the music Carlberg and Correa produce together.

Like Josh Sinton and Ideal Bread, Carlberg has collaborated with and been strongly influenced by Steve Lacy. It’s apparent in both his pithy, punchy, polyphonic approach to writing tunes and his adaptation of contemporary poetry and texts into songs. As a pianist, he also seems to have a natural inclination towards contrapuntal playing and is concerned with denser, vertical harmonies, the pleasures of chords. the trio CD is smart, sharp and swinging, the music meant to capture an innocent delight and excitement with the world, and does so with a very adult sense of experience and sophistication. The most child-like tracks are the brief opening and closing statements and a couple interludes dispersed among the other tunes, with the trio making a gleeful racket, the kind of avant-garde banging that comes naturally and guilelessly to kids. The body of the CD shows Carlberg as a musician with plenty of style under his hands. “The Chase” is aptly titled, and has his hands romping aggressively with each other on a riff straight out of the coolest music in West Side Story, “Bill’s Hat” starts off as a march, moves into a funky blues, then as the solos proceed and Carlberg opens up the harmonic palette it dazzles with the cool, expansive colors of his chords. His deconstruction of “Tea For Two,” renamed “Two For Tea,” is fascinating listening; the original source is always in the background, but the result is original enough for Carlberg to copyright it under his own name. He builds on both the long tradition of the venerable piano trio setting and the ideas and possibilities of everything from standards to the music of Ornette Coleman. The CD is deeply musical and full of the kind of stimulating surprises that stop the listener short and bring him in deeper. Not as splashy, perhaps, as some recent piano trio discs, as Carlberg is working firmly and inventively in the jazz tradition, but just as fine.

The same is true for Correa. The title track to Out of the Shadows is a concentrated comment on jazz history, an expression of aesthetic purpose and, not incidentally, great to hear. It’s a great song, and connects Correa directly to the dual legacy of progressive big band jazz and the great, woefully underrated singer June Christy. Christy was one of the greatest of the “canaries,” singers who wore gowns, while the guys in the band wore jackets and ties, and stepped in front of the mic for the occasional ballad. They added superficial sex appeal and, at best, tremendous musical artistry. Christy had an erotically rich, throaty chest voice, superb phrasing and an expressive quality both musically grand and emotionally intimate. Correa, as a singer, has some similar qualities in the power and physical location of her voice, but her musical intellect, while equally accomplished, is her own. The opening phrase is in Christy’s style, then Correa develops the song from there, giving us layer of expression; what she thinks of the musical legacy, what she thinks of the song, what she has to say about herself through it. It’s dreamlike, seemingly frozen in time, and then, once passed, has made the past, present and future richer. That dreamlike quality is emphasized by Blake’s accompaniment. He’s a pianst who frequently eschews standard ideas of jazz playing, like bass lines in the left hand and regular harmonic rhythm. He holds the form together beautifully, though, but where the ear is conditioned to expect the sides and bottom of the music to be filled in with bass and drums, the song, like a dream, drifts enigmatically through unexpected moods. This feeling makes the record unexpected and attractive. The choice of material is great, and keeps a tether on the listeners memory to the great body of jazz and song in America; “The Thrill is Gone,” “Deep Song,” “The Band Played On,” “Fine And Dandy,” and the extraordinary songs “Goodbye” and “The Bad And The Beautiful.” Both Correa and Blake have improvisational features, which adds even more layers of surprise and expression, an intriguing counterbalance to the exceptionally strong renditions of familiar material. A lot of singers sing jazz songs without making jazz, Out Of The Shadows is jazz through and through.

The young, prodigiously talented keyboard player Eldar’s recent recording, Virtue, is all about excitement. His technique at the keyboard is on par with Oscar Peterson and Phineas Newborn, and he has a lot of interesting things to say. This is jazz-fusion, and it explodes from the speakers from the opening moments of “Exposition,” which features Joshua Redman. Velocity, power and precision are the main virtues, and Eldar does come out of the virtuosic, Return to Forever strain of the music, but he’s also moved on from the legacy of Romantic Warrior. There’s plenty of intricate, dazzling shifting passages, and he’s ably supported by his rhythm section of Armando Gola on bass and Ludwig Alfonso on drums, and additional guests Felipe Lamoglia on saxes and Nicholas Payton playing trumpet, and at it’s best, the music displays the musical strengths of fusion; complex funk, exciting and responsive interplay between soloists and band, the power of rock. Tracks like “Blues Sketch in Clave” and “The Exorcist” do more than impress with technique, they satisfy, and “Insensitive” is gorgeous, musical and has the fascination of a young musician conveying the influence of a still relatively young Brad Mehldau (Eldar also does an arrangement of “Blackbird”), and the virtues of his ballad playing on “Estate” are considerable. But there are also parts of the recording, even parts within tunes like the Beatles song, that display the worst of fusion; empty technical flash, complicated rather than complex ideas, lack of musical thinking. It invariably comes down to phrasing, the best music on the recording has jazz in it, the worst lacks it, and Eldar alternates between phrasing his lines with jazz articulation, which works beautifully over the rhythm section, and playing strict, exact runs of straight eighth notes, which sounds like Al DiMeola at his cock-rocking worst. It’s a battle between mindfulness and mindlessness. The balance of great playing and exciting, satisfying music wins out, but Eldar is still a work in progress. It’s rare that an artist so clearly presents both his best and worst sides, and with such a clear choice between them. The best side is in both his fingers and his mind, it will be interesting to see how he chooses.

Just as exciting as the best music on Virtue, consistently creative and completely satisfying is the new live CD from saxophonist Pete Robbins fabulous band, siLENT Z. They are simply one of the finest working bands in jazz right now, on par with the groups of Dave Holland, Henry Threadgill, Steve Lehman and William Parker. And like those bands, they don’t just play superbly, but play superb, creative music. This is clear less than a minute into the disc. The opening track, “edit/revise,” sounds at first like some accomplished, but standard, latin-fusion jazz, but then the core of the tune appears, a bare bones two note theme meant to outline sophisticated ideas about shifting meteres and accents, but done so well with the great Tyshawn Sorey on drums that the feeling is of a groove that satisfies the cerebral cortex and the feet equally. This is a band, and a body of music, that balances mind, heart and body with the best. The great jazz aesthetic of slightly relaxed, slightly understated improvising is inherent in their sound, the classic iron fist in the velvet glove, the mellowness of which draws in the listener and leaves them open to the welcome sucker punch of moments of intensity. Cornetist Jesse Neuman and guitarist Mike Gamble add nice touches of electronic color to the lean ensemble sound, and the group (also including bassist Thomas Morgan and Cory Smythe playing piano on half the tracks) plays the inventive, complex charts with the type of skill and assurance that leaves them to focus on all the musical aspects of the tunes. Like the best jazz, it both satisfies and defies expectations of how the music should sound and where it should go. Tracks like the long “his life, for all its waywardness” and “bugle call” stand out only for how extraordinary they are amongst all the excellent music. The recording itself, made live at the Cornelia Street Cafe by Barry Komitor on two different dates, also deserves mention. It’s unusual but extremely accomplished, the musicians up front but with space around them, and a fascinating stereo separation where Robbins’ sax, for example, can be heard moving from the left speaker to the right. The sensation, even in the problematic recessive sound of the piano, is of the musicians right there in front of you, perhaps the most vivid live sound I’ve heard. An excellent CD, strongly recommended for a taste of the best of contemporary jazz.

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