Friday, 25 April 2008

Uri Caine at the Village Vanguard...

It's been longer than usual between posts, but I've been busy writing new reviews for the magazine - deadline next week. That shouldn't be an excuse, because it hardly takes five minutes to post something that's already been written and published, but as an explanation it's at least a start.

Worth mentioning the stunning new album by Bobby Previte (featuring Ellery Eskelin) that I'm working on, and also the new Wayne Horvitz Gravitas Quartet disc (Songlines), which Tony from the label was kind enough to send me and which I'll try to get slotted into the magazine soon.

So, with Previte and Horvitz occupying my mind, I may as well post something with a 'Downtown' connection. This fairly mainstream set from Uri Caine is the best I can do. I tackle the issue of the decline (in my view) of the 'Downtown' scene and namecheck Horvitz, so there's some topicality if nothing else.

I still feel that the new Downtown NY avant-garde (William Parker's separate circle most definitely excluded) is a pale and pretty uninteresting shadow of the old. With the great Wayne Horvitz now based way out west, I'm delighted that Previte's current run of form restores both some quality and some hope for more individualistic and eclectic sounds in future...

Live At The Village Vanguard
Winter & Winter (910102 2)

Nefertiti; All The Way; Stiletto; I Thought About You; Otello; Snaggletooth; Go Deep; Cheek To Cheek; Most Wanted; Bush Wack.

Uri Caine (p); Drew Gress (b); Ben Perowsky (d).
Recorded May 2003.

Prominent in the second flowering of New York’s ‘downtown’ scene in much the same way as Wayne Horvitz was in the first, Uri Caine also perfectly illustrates the differences between the two eras. Although eclectic, adventurous and not averse to musical irony, today’s generation tend to be far less off-the -wall than the class of the ‘80s. Today’s music sits closer to the jazz mainstream and as such is probably less likely to date so noticeably. Caine’s relationship with label boss Stefan Winter goes right back to the JMT days, and you cold say that he’s of similar importance to Winter as Keith Jarrett is to ECM’s Manfred Eicher. Past projects have ranged from re-workings of Mahler and Wagner, to urban crossovers involving DJs and vocalists.

This session, a piano/bass/drums trio, picks up where 1998’s ‘Blue Wail’ left off. Partners Gress and Perowsky , themselves members of the tight-knit ‘downtown’ scene, put aside their more experimental urges to serve up some high quality and uncompromising acoustic jazz. The venue for the recording, with so much history behind it, is a significant factor shaping the music - you couldn’t really imagine the same trio surrendering so much to the idiom at either Tonic or the ‘Knit’.

The programme is well paced, important on a lengthy disc, and consists of Caine originals with a smattering of standards. The leader’s fondness for Herbie Hancock is never too far away, and his classical influences are never strongly evident too. An angular romp through Wayne Shorter’s ‘Nefertiti’ lights the blue touch paper, only for ‘All The Way’ to bring it back down again with its quiet balladry, a la Bill Evans. ‘I Thought About You’ gets an unaccompanied avant-stride intro before Perowsky and Gress enter to set up an ebullient mid-tempo swinger.

The closing ‘Bush Wack’ is the closest we get to ‘downtown’ radicalism, and incendiary salvo aimed at the sitting President of the United States of America. Every track offers some remarkable and unexpected twist, and unlike his classical crossovers, tradition meets the contemporary in a way that never seems too contrived. This trio is meatier than EST, more visceral than Jarrett’s ‘Standards’ trio, and most certainly worthy of your attention. Recommended.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, August 2004)

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Adam Kolker - Sultanic Verses...

Not exactly a request, but Adam Kolker popped up in an email conversation earlier in the week. How many people can say that? Not many, I guess, and I suppose it's indicative of he type of emails that I enjoy reading and sending.

Better known as a baritone sax toting session-man heard in numerous top bands, my initial interest in this CD was probably stirred more by Billy Hart than the leader. As the review hopefully conveys, this is noteworthy for more reasons than just Billy Hart's impeccable contributions from the trap-set.

This is probably the 'real' Adam Kolker we're hearing here. Thoughtful and individual music, Kolker gets the chance to expound on tenor and soprano horns. I gather he's made several more discs since this one, and I'd like to get to hear them if at all possible...

Sultanic Verses

Sultan’s Dream; Waves; Verse 1; Track 4; Verse 2; Epistrophy; Dolphin Dance; Verse 3; All Or Nothing At All; Blues; Verse 4; Remembrance.

Adam Kolker (ss,ts); Bruce Barth (p); John Hebert (b); Billy Hart (d); Ray Baretto (perc).
Recorded June 2001.

Although previously aware of Kolker as the bari-slinger from his work in the horn sections of many top-flight contemporary big bands, the saxophonist that emerges on ‘Sultanic Verses’ is a revelation of the most pleasant kind. Noted employers of Kolker have included Maria Schneider, Bobby Previte and Ray Baretto, and when not performing his other major gig is as a teacher. This is only his second recording as a leader, and by sticking to soprano and tenor saxophones exclusively you could say that this is the real Adam Kolker standing up to be counted.

The cast of players he’s assembled for the occasion needs no introduction, and from the dancing opener ‘Sultan’s Dream’ to the haunting ballad ’Rememberance’ it is obvious that Kolker is both a soloist and composer of uncommon depth. Coming out of late period Coltrane with the compositional guile of Wayne Shorter and the cerebral leanings of Charles Lloyd, Kolker happily is able to bring enough of himself to remain very much his own man. The emphasis is on the spiritual properties of music, inspired by a meeting Kolker had with a musician called Sultaan.

The four ‘verses’ of the title are free improvisations, pitting gritty soprano against a polyrhythmic backdrop provided by Hart and Baretto. Short and punchy, they provide dramatic foils for the mix of standards and originals found elsewhere. ‘Epistrophy’, played on soprano, is delivered at a gallop, whilst ‘Dolphin Dance’ is a reflective duet with Barth that finds seemingly limitless space within Hancock’s elegant composition. The transformation of ‘All Or Nothing At All’ into ‘Crescent’ era Coltrane is an unexpected delight, and it gives the quartet, minus Baretto, a chance to really turn up the heat. ‘Blues’ studiously avoids any statements of the obvious, Kolker’s soprano lines sufficiently oblique to conjure the memory of the late lamented Steve Lacy.

There are no tricks or gimmicks on ‘Sultanic Verses’, just a reassuring affirmation of the values that make jazz such a vital music. Individuality and conviction collide with familiar traditions to produce a deeply satisfying piece of work.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, October 2004)

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Happy Birthday (to me)...

It's now one year since this blog was created. Whether or not that's anything to celebrate is not easy to say, but I'm certainly glad to keep it going and don't intend to let it fall by the wayside.

A clip of the Afric Pepperbird quartet would have been a nice way to mark the occasion, but I couldn't find one. It's no hardship though to 'make do' with this mid '70s clip of Garbarek and Jarrett performing live. Lasting almost 20 minutes, the clip is well worth sticking with.

Jan may be looking a bit Vulcan here, but I still hope you enjoy it, and thanks for reading...

Robert Glasper...

Also appearing at this year's Gateshead International Jazz Festival was Robert Glasper. Now something of a phenomenon, at the time I reviewed this CD in 2003 I only had first impressions to go by. I wouldn't call it prophecy, but by and large I think my review is pretty realistic and I give myself some credit for at least being able to identify the 'real deal' when I hear it.

I didn't of course go to the Glasper gig at the festival - he clashed with Alexander von Schlippenbach - but would have liked to. I managed to catch him with Wallace Roney's electric-Miles inspired project a few years back, but if the trajectory of steady improvement in his work is continuing at the same rate, I imagine the Gateshead show would have been quite a gig.


Maiden Voyage; Lil Tipsy; Alone Together; Mood; Don’t Close Your Eyes; Blue Skies; Interlude; In Passing; L.N.K. Blues

John Ellis (ts); Marcus Strickland (ts); Robert Glasper (p); Mike Moreno (g); Robert Hurst (b); Damion Reed (d); Bilal (voc). Recorded 5/00.

Fresh out of Manhattan’s New Music school, 23 year-old pianist Robert Glasper enters the arena as a technically gifted musician striving courageously to lay down the markers of a personal voice. Convincingly playing the lexicon of post-Hancock, Evans, Tyner, Corea and Jarrett with ease, Glasper’s willingness to take chances make this more than just another debut by a young hopeful.

Mood could hardly have a more audacious start, with a hauntingly rhapsodic re-working of ‘Maiden Voyage’, composed of course by the unfairly maligned (in these pages at least) Herbie Hancock. Glasper’s trio take the piece apart, while the wordless and erotically charged vocals of Bilal Oliver float serenely atop. What impresses me most about Glasper, other than his ready sense of adventure, is the patient way in which he explores ideas over extended durations without overplaying his abundant technique. Apart from the impact of the arresting opener, it is the trio tracks, solidly underpinned by the bass of near-veteran Robert Hurst, which showcase Glasper’s conception to best advantage.

The marvellous ‘Blue Skies’, where the three truly break free, is convincing evidence that something special is at work. The two larger group pieces ‘Mood’ and ‘L.N.K. Blues’ are rather anonymous in comparison, though the two tenor chase sequence on the latter does at least provide a memorable finale. ‘Don’t Close your Eyes’ is another feature for Bilal, who normally traverses rap and R&B terrain. There’s much to admire about a lot of today’s genuinely underground hip hop, but perhaps the kindest thing to say about Bilal’s delivery in this context is that he interprets lyrics in an unusual and highly personal way.

Given the vast pool of music school graduates with chops to spare, Glasper’s breakthrough will depend as much on luck and good marketing as on his ability. With maturity well beyond his years, and Bilal’s appearance likely to court valuable crossover exposure, he stands a chance and I wish him well.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, July 2003)