Archive for December, 2010

Sure Shot: Hawkeye featuring Sam Bevan, Mas Koga, Grant Levin and Bryan Bowman

Hawkeye is a web based release from an ensemble that goes by their names in lieu of a band name. They have been performing together as a cohesive unit for a year but before that had played together on other dates and in various configurations. Sam and Bryan have a decade long association and Chicago transplant Grant seamless fit in, further adding to the chemistry. The album is comprised of a program of all originals written by the band.

The title track starts with soprano, here played in a less nasal cadence than as sometimes occurs when a multi-reedist grew up listening to John Coltrane or Wayne Shorter. The piano takes over, playing the same stated melody as had been started by the sax, dropping back to comp behind the once again present horn. The bass here is more a sonic component adding to the aural mosaic and less a mere time keeping device. It has a deep yet buoyant tone. It is during the piano break under which hi-hats play that the over all tastefulness of the how and what in the band’s interplay really becomes apparent. Sam, who has never been about flash yet manages to make his bass sing, literally accompanies himself with a solo that refrains from cauterizing the listener’s emotions via an overly virtuosic statement. Here is an artist having fun and inviting the audience to enjoy his pleasure. The piece’s tension is realized at its end section where the horn alternates between long lines and a flurry of trilled notes before the melody is reinstated. The verging on aggression discordance, used sparingly at the piece’s end prevents the listener from becoming desensitized to it, the pinch of spice the makes the stew pop.

“Miraje” starts with a contemplative bright toned bass statement over which Grant’s piano enters on a cloud of shimmering notes. There is a definite cerebral component to Grant’s playing but not at risk of emotional involvement to the piece or the group/listeners’ engagement. Mas here plays flute, the melody mirrored by piano, a sort of delicate beauty created by the two voices in unison before a piano solo that differs from what was initially said by change of attack and tone. The song has a soft but not overly fragile feel to it, which is pleasant like watching a steady rain hit the façade of a beautiful building. As the piece ends, Grant races himself, an accurate scattering of soft pink-plink notes fading with the song. Clearly the band have a deep affection and understanding of the Free-Bop genre as best conceptualized by Miles Davis’ second great quintet but there is no restriction brought about by trying to adhere strictly to the genre’s rules nor artistic limitation by remaining only within its template.

The sound throughout the sixty one minute album is pristine but enveloped in ambient warmth which is sometimes lost in modern studios. One of the things which allows for the album to stand up to repeated listening is that many of the tracks switch emotional gears over the course of their execution. There is none of that obvious album construction (i.e. a cooker, followed by a ballad).

“Hanabi” is one of the longer tracks on the album and perhaps one of the pieces I most look forward to hearing live. It starts with Zen-like flute a sonic haiku over which percussion slowly and lightly interjects its wisdom. As the percussion maintains a more steady appearance bowed bass enters along with minimalist piano which adds to the piece’s overall feel of a ghost that moves like fog. The tension of the piece is never fully resolved which adds to the overall feeling of mystery.

Jazz is no longer a “young” art form. There are many genres and sub-genres. One is not better nor more important than another. What is important is that jazz stay a living, ever evolving thing. Here is a band to discover, not merely executing compelling versions from the cannon but forging ahead with new songs while managing to stay linked to the past, used as a Rosetta Stone of inspiration.

Sam Bevan-bass
Mas Koga-soprano, alto sax, shakuhachi flute
Grant Levin-piano
Bryan Bowman-drums, tabla

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Ornette Coleman: Skies of America (Columbia/Legacy)

A word I try not to use too often for fear of devaluing it is genius. In the jazz world there are many players, composers arrangers and even a few producers who are brilliant. Genius how ever you could count on one hand. A recipient of a MacArthur “genius” award (1994), an induction into the American Academy of Arts and letters, and the first recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship for jazz composition only, Ornette Coleman definitely fits into this category.
I must admit that Ornette is not the first thing I automatically reach for every day. For me he is akin to a Truffle. Dark, powerful, mysterious in its fecundity and meant to be enjoyed a little at a time to better savor its rarity.
That is not to say this is not important music. This is actually one of the most important pieces of Modern American art, and unlike a lot of others (in various mediums) it does not largely derives its power from the “shock of the new”. An odd sort of irony is that this manages to be both one of his most accessible works on account of its lack of major free jazz discordance, but also one of his most complex.
The copy of the album I purchased was the new remastered version. The sound is pristine. You hear all the high and low ends no matter what your stereo set up may be. This is the 1972 version and the only commercial recording. This piece had a troubled birth. It was originally supposed to be orchestra with Ornette’s band. A concerto grosso. Due to archaic English union laws the band was not allowed to play, the form and scope of the piece slowly changed. Ornette was only allowed to play having been declared on his work permit/visa a concert composer as opposed to musician.
This work had three incarnations before Ornette moved onto different artistic avenues including a trip to Morocco to live and play in the mountains with The Master Musicians of Joujouka. The album was originally broken up into twenty one “songs” in an attempt to get airplay on the radio. Aside from being a bad idea, this is why the piece is sometimes described as a twenty one movement chamber piece or symphony when in fact it is actually a one movement symphonic tone poem. Aside from cleaned up sound they have gotten rid of the brief dead spaces between each “song” restoring it to its one piece unity which provides a far better cohesiveness and is also what the composer had intended. Another misconception is that this piece is sometimes referred to as “Third stream”
Unlike most third stream music this piece does no forgo stringed instruments. And the orchestra is not just providing a canvas onto which the soloist may paint. Ornette himself makes a very brief appearance during the duration of the piece. Out of twenty one tracks he is heard only on 11,14-19 and 20. In his solo statements listen closely he briefly quotes and morphs “I only have Eyes for You”, “Stranger in Paradise” and most importantly “Rhapsody in Blue” This is all done without irony and without any sense of gimmick. The Gershwin quote is appropriate since they were kindred spirits in their artistic comments on modern American life. For Gershwin, man had just begun the modern age, conquering the sky with both buildings and air travel. There was the promise of lives made easier, things more efficient by the burgeoning modernity, yet there was also a vague apprehension over what we could possibly be loosing, trading in soul for easy comfort. A generation later and the same issues come up in Ornette’s era. Despite unease, both too managed to convey and mix a dose of beauty in with the anxiety.
This truly is modern classical and could easily be mistaken for a piece written by Edgard Varese (1883-1965) or even Petrushka era Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
The first most immediately striking aspect of the piece is symphonic timpani beating out poly rhythms alongside a jazz drum kit. A simple but most effective device which I am surprised is not used more often. The orchestra does a fantastic job and give the effect of knowing the piece and what the composer was aiming for as opposed to just playing the charts. Even so, the good job the percussion does makes me lament the fact that Ornette’s usual drummer is absent from this recording.
There are titles for each little “section” but they were put on very much as an afterthought and one should not read too much into the titles. Even without knowing what the album is about, it is rich in mood. The jagged lines and rhythm of the strings manage to create tension but also become sort of mesmerizing. Bubbling up now and then like a new idea are little trios of winds, sometimes all low, sometimes mixing higher pitched reeds with their more mellow sounding brothers. There are tempo changes which are done under many layers of instruments that you feel the effect but do not notice as this device is used. The piece ends in an intricate web of unresolved tensions. This is by no means a Sunday brunch soundtrack. It demands attention and perhaps a connoisseur’s palate. The first day I got this CD I listened to it four times back to back. Each time I felt as if I was moving further back from a giant mosaic which allowed me to more clearly see the whole picture.
In jazz brilliance is good too, though genius trumps and is rarer. If you are into good music, deep music then do not worry about labels, pick this up.

Ornette Coleman-alto sax
The London Symphony Orchestra (David Measham conductor)

Recommended artistic forefathers:

Igor Stravinsky
Petrushka/The Rites of Spring
The Cleveland Orchestra (Pierre Boulez conducting)

Edgard Varese
The Cleveland Orchestra (Pierre Boulez conducting)

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Songs and Stories: Linda Kosut Live at Jazz At Pearls

Jazz At Pearls is located in North Beach, a great San Francisco neighborhood which is a mix of curious tourists and colorful locals. In the 1950’s it was ground zero for the (literary) beat movement and some of that bo-ho flavor remains for the younger generations to absorb.
The room is small enough that there are no bad seats, but not so small as you feel depressed for the artists. Their concert schedule offers an eclectic mix of local heroes and well known names in jazz who would rather forgo the larger less personal venues.
Multi-award winning singer Linda Kosut brought her tribute to Oscar Brown Jr. (1926-2005) “Long As Your Living” to Jazz At Pearls June 22 for two sets. I was there among the capacity crowd for the first set.
Linda possesses a stage presence which is naturally relaxed while also being able to convey the emotions of each song’s story. The set was made up of songs from her Oscar Brown show with which she has been touring the country interspersed with standards which shared similar emotional cadence and feel. In between songs Linda would talk with the audience, sharing the background of a piece’s history. This never disrupted the flow of the set and never felt show-biz-e. There was an instant rapport with the audience which lent an intimacy to the entire set.
I have seen this show in various venues and I appreciate that it is no cookie cutter affair. Every show and set is different while never losing its main theme. This time there was an expanded band too, still led by band leader Max Perkoff there was now an added multi-reedist/flautist Fil Lorenz. I enjoyed the extra colorations that another instrument allowed for, as Fil added further depth to the pieces.
The set opened with the standard “Let’s Get Lost” taken at a brisker pace than usual and lightly samba flavored. John Mader on drums made his brushes delicately dance across the snare while still getting a nice full sound, the piece having none of that E.Q tinkering sometimes encountered at the start of a club show. There was a nice tartly flavored sax break with a piano solo continuing the horn’s conversation. Being a leader of his own ensemble, Max knows the perfect mix of band interplay and interaction with the singer. Listening, you never feel one component of a song has gone on too long or is merely a bone thrown to the band.
“Birth Of The Blues” was a perfect counterpoint to the previous song’s cheery romanticism without bringing the audience down. It was melancholy as a thing to rejoice as it gives something whose passing can be celebrated. There was a soulful, sanctified sax solo worthy of every late night blue note.
As Linda pointed out, Oscar sometimes would add lyrics to standards of the jazz cannon, not always with permission. A cover of Charlie “Bird” Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce” complete with Oscar’s words came next. The piece was fun and sexy, the sister to Oscar’s “Hazel’s Hips”. Max plays both trombone and piano; here he takes a boppish ride on the eighty eight keys. The cymbals sound like rain falling upon the city of the hip while each musician gets a solo statement before passing it off, radiating the fun they are having out to the crowd.
The next song featured both lyrics and music by Oscar, “Column of Birds”. Here the flute acted as the fluttering wings. Linda can use her voice as a musician, varying cadence and volume depending upon the size of the room and the emotion required. Both in lyric and delivery this song was plaintive yet hopeful.
After sharing the interesting history of the lyrics for “Don’t Fence Me In” which Cole Porter bought off Robert Fletcher, came the actual song. The vocals are answered by a stride flavored piano and sassy horn sounding like a friend with whom a playful joke is shared. The vocals are bluesy and hip and would not sound out of place in the halcyon days of cabaret in Paris or Berlin.
The Doc Pomus tune “Save the Last Dance for Me” was performed after an anecdote of the pieces inspiration. This version differs from the more familiar R&B versions in that the poetical intent of the lyrics is more apparent. Without back up singers echoing the songs refrain, there is a darker strain to the song’s protagonist’s emotions.
Leaving the stage, Linda brought one of her protégées Benn Bacot up on stage to sing “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Benn has strong, natural power in his delivery. He wields a rich baritone which recalls Joe William and Johnny Hartman. In his hands the song became less a fragile lament and more a declaration of heartache and tenacity. For the entire set there was great interplay among the band and with this different vocalist sitting in there was no detectable bump in their performance.
After Linda rejoined the band, Benn would be back for a cover of Nat Adderley’s “Work Song” which Oscar had put lyrics to. His baritone was perfectly tailored to traverse the emotional landscape of the song. Mirroring his blues was a bar walking sax solo devoid of all cliché that style sometimes has.
Daniel Fabricant on bass was a study in tasteful restraint throughout the set. His sound on bass was full but never overwhelmed and there were no over long over flashy solos which can distract from the tension of a piece. One song was performed “Young Jazz” which had lyrics of Oscar Brown over a Lester Young solo arranged into music by Daniel. It got everybody moving in their seats and was the perfect song to end the set with as it served as a reminder that not only was Oscar a poet and activist, but he entertained as well. His art is continuing to be served and served well by Linda and the band.

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