Solo in Mondsee
by Thom Jurek
Fully 35 years after Open, to Love, Paul Bley's seminal solo piano recording for ECM (which stands as a watermark both in his own career and in the history of the label -- i.e., unconsciously aiding Manfred Eicher in establishing its "sound"), the pianist returns to the label for another go at it on Solo in Mondsee. Recorded in Mondsee, Austria, in 2001, and not issued until Bley's 75th year, these numbered "Mondsee Variations" were played on a Bösendorfer Imperial grand piano, an instrument that is, like its player, in a class of its own. Bley moves through ten improvisations lasting between two and just under nine minutes each. His range of thought, instinct, and motion is staggering. In a little over 55 minutes, he combines melodic and abstract notions of jazz and blues (especially on "VII" for the latter), ghost traces of popular song from the 1930s to the present, various folk musics, contemporary classical ideas, and reflections on the art of improvisation itself. This set isn't about flash, nor is it about transcendence. It's about the investigation of space, and the arrangement of music within it. While Bley has recorded other solo albums in the last 35 years, none is more diverse and tender in its sparseness than this one. His sense of detail is also his sense of economy on the instrument, which is graceful and elegant, rarely simply "percussive." In this manner Bley is a poet of sound. He pushes a line only as far as the extension of his own "breath," as the late poet Charles Olson put it regarding written language. Where the writer felt compelled to use the "/" symbol as a way of creating a break, Bley is not so specific; he is not interested in being a celebrated "technician." He pushes the line in any way that suits the idea at hand, which in turns suggests others; he allows room for its reverberations and trace echoes to inform each following sound, creating song from silence, lyric from air. His vast knowledge of musical forms is never knotty or purely intellectual; there is a great deal of emotion put into -- and coming out of -- each and every piece; the harmonic reflections on "IV" and "V" are particularly beautiful in very different ways. There is a wall that writing about this music presents; there is only so much explaining to do, because there isn't a written language that can even hope to convey this except poetry itself, and even there, it falls short. For anyone who has ever wondered about Bley and his amazing 60-year career in jazz, or for anyone interested in either the piano or improvisation, this recording, like its predecessor, will mystify, delight, and satisfy in ways that cannot really be imagined until Solo in Mondsee is actually encountered.
Conversations With Christian
Conversations with Christian is an unusual release, as it features the veteran bassist playing duets with a number of good friends. The vocal meetings include Angélique Kidjo, Sting, and Dee Dee Bridgewater (the latter with a hilarious, funky cover of the Isley Brothers' signature song "It's Your Thing"). The pairings with musicians of McBride's generation (trumpeter Roy Hargrove, tenor saxophonist Ron Blake, and guitarist Russell Malone) all exceed expectations. There are several enjoyable duets with pianists, one featuring Latin jazz master Eddie Palmieri, a duo improvised tango by Chick Corea and the leader, plus an all too rare acoustic outing by the talented George Duke (who tears up the keyboard with his hard-charging "McDukey Blues"). But McBride's meetings with Dr. Billy Taylor (playing his beautiful "Spiritual" with some potent arco playing by the bassist) and the elegant, swinging meeting with the gifted jazz master Hank Jones ("Alone Together") remain moments to savor, as they are among the final recordings by the two jazz greats, both of whom died in 2010. The last track is a funky blues just for laughs, with actress Gina Gershon joining the bassist by playing a Jew's harp, with lots of comic spoken exchanges between the two. Throughout it all, Christian McBride plays with the chameleon-like adaptability of a Milt Hinton or Ray Brown. In the two-plus decades since arriving on the jazz scene, Christian McBride has demonstrated that he is a jazz master in the making, and this is easily one of his most compelling CDs.
The Bowie Variations ( For Piano )
I don't often suggest you take a listen to a particular disc: after all, musical taste is a pretty personal thing, and one person's breathtaking piano jazz is another's lift-music.
But there's a bit of a closet Bowie fan-base here in the WHFSV office, from one-time completist Simon Lucas to myself and photographer Steve Waters, both of whom are old enough to remember seeing the Dame on his Ziggy Stardust tours, back in the (whisper it) early 1970s, so I thought I'd pass this one on for those of a similar persuasion.
I have to say I had serious misgivings when I got the press release from Reference Recordings in the States about Mike Garson's new disc The Bowie Variations: I have a serious problem with so many 're-interpretations' of music I love, to the extent that despite being a big fan of Philip Glass, I really loathed his ponderous, over-portentous Heroes Symphony, based on Bowie's album.
(Nick Lowe's Bowi EP, released in response to Bowie's Low LP, made me smile a lot more.)
But I really needn't have been so concerned that I was going to be confronted with lounge versions of the Bowie catalogue, a la Mike Flowers' Wonderwall – Garson's disc is no novelty item, but rather a beautifully crafted disc of solo jazz arrangements from the pianist who was, after all, described as 'the fourth Spider'.
While David Bowie himself may have insisted that The Spiders from Mars were only really three – guitarist Mick Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Mick 'Woody' Woodmansey – it was pianist Garson who joined the first Ziggy Stardust tour at very short notice, and whose jazz styles played so great a part in the band's sound at the time.
It's Garson's atonal solo you hear soaring through Aladdin Sane, the pianist later telling an interviewer 'It was just two chords, an A and a G chord, and the band was playing very simple English rock and roll. And Bowie said: “play a solo on this.”
I'd just met him, so I played a blues solo, and then he said: “No, that’s not what I want.” And then I played a latin solo. Again, Bowie said: “No no, that’s not what I want.” He then continued: “You told me you play that avant-garde music. Play that!”
'And I said: “Are you sure? ‘Cause you might not be working anymore!” (laughter). So I did the solo that everybody knows today, in one take.
'To this day, I still receive emails about it. Every day. I always tell people that Bowie is the best producer I ever met, because he lets me do my thing.'
In the same interview, Bowie's long-time collaborator Tony Visconti was quoted as saying 'Mike Garson listens attentively, then plays whatever the hell he wants.'
Garson got his gig after an audition in front of Bowie and Mick Ronson in the RCA studio in New York – 'Mick, who was a well-trained musician and also a great pianist, gave me the chord changes to the song Changes. He put it up to the music stand.
'And I think I played only six or eight bars, six or seven seconds, and he says: “You've got the gig!”'
Garson went on to play on some of the best-known Bowie tracks: his piano underpins We Are the Dead on Diamond Dogs, and also the title track of Young Americans.
In all, Garson has been working with Bowie for the better part of four decades now: not bad going for an eight-bar audition.
So, The Bowie Variations, then: a series of short piano works based on tracks such as Space Oddity, Life on Mars, John, I'm Only Dancing,Ashes to Ashes and, of course, variations on the song that started it all,Changes. And each and every track is surprising, involving, and just superb.
Using a Yamaha Disklavier piano, which is able to record a performer's playing then play it back on cue, Garson has created multiple layers of sound while still playing live – 'It's like having six hands,' he says.
The music was recorded at the Oxnard Centre for the Performing Arts in California, which Reference Recordings has used several times in the past – and what a recording it is!
In the hands of engineer 'Prof' Keith O Johnson (left), Reference Recordings' chief engineer and technical director and fresh from his success in the most recent Grammy Awards, this HDCD-encoded disc is perhaps the best-sounding piano disc I have ever encountered.
It has a stunning sense of the presence of the instrument in a very real acoustic, and really breathtaking percussive impact as the hammers hit the strings.
Plus there's a beautiful combination of close-up definition and the natural decay of notes.
I've only ever really heard a piano sound much better than this once, and that was when I sat up close and personal at a very small, intimate recital given in the Bosendorfer Hall in Vienna last year, after a day spent touring the company's piano factory.
Yes, this recording is that good.
If you're a Bowie fan, you should hear this disc. If you're a fan of jazz you should, too.
And even if you just want to hear just how good a CD can sound, with a disc able to push your system to its limits, this is one you should have.
Peter Erskine/Bob Mintzer/Darek Oles/Alan Pasqua
Standards 2 - Movie Music
While the songs featured on Standards 2, Movie Musicwere given an initial audience through the medium of film, some of them have led a fruitful existence beyond the borders of the silver screen. Some melodies—like Tara's Theme," from 1939's Gone With The Wind—will always be associated with their point of origin, but much of Cole Porter's catalog, including the two inclusions on this album ("Night And Day" and "I Concentrate On You"), is more familiar to current audiences than the films that spawned these standards. This quartet treats both types of material with equal respect as it plies its trade with the utmost care.
The "2" in the title presents this album as a sequel of sorts, following on the heels of theGrammy-nominated Standards (Fuzzy Music, 2008), but a few major differences in personnel set this album apart. Drummer Peter Erskine and pianist Alan Pasqua continue their fruitful partnership, but the bass chair, which was left vacant when Dave Carpenter passed away suddenly in 2008, is now filled by Darek Oles. While this changes the group dynamic in certain, minor ways, the addition of tenor saxophonist Bob Mintzer is the bigger game changer. Mintzer adds different layers of emotion, from jubilant soloing ("Cinema Paradiso") to haunting melodism ("Rosemary's Baby"), and his sound and overall conception fit perfectly within this group.
Each piece on this album retains its core essence, but these four musicians also manage to bring something new into the picture. The sense of drama that was overstressed on the original recording of "Tara's Theme" is completely gone, with a nonchalant, easy swinging attitude in its place, while "Somewhere" is shrouded in the mist given off by Erskine's sizzle cymbal. Erskine possesses the most finely calibrated ride cymbal pulse of any drummer in the business, and this helps to provide a comfortable rhythmic ride whenever he leans on this skill.
The other three members of the band have a chance to shine, sans-Erskine, on the sunny introduction to "Cinema Paradiso." Mintzer swoons over Pasqua's piano, and Oles is almost invisible, save for his seamlessly subtle arco backing. "Night And Day" is the most oft-covered selection on the album, but it also turns out to be the most wholly integrated quartet performance. Erskine provides a calypso groove that detours into swing, and a snare-based solo that speaks of Brazilian carnivals. Pasqua and Mintzer provide disjunct introductory material that gets in line when the quartet starts to move as one while, all the while, Oles resides in the background, holding it all together.
Like its predecessor, Standards 2, Movie Music benefits from the KMF Audio microphones used to record the album, but the recording ultimately boils down to the musicianship. Microphones can only take in what musicians put out, and this quartet delivers solid gold.
Tara's Theme; Somewhere; Dr. Kildare; Three Stars Will Shine Tonight; Night and Day; Rosemary's Baby; Cinema Paradiso Intro; Cinema Paradiso; I Concentrate on You; For All We Know.
Bob Mintzer: tenor saxophone; Alan Pasqua: piano; Darek Oles: bass; Peter Erskine: drums.
Jean Michel Pilc/Francois Moutin/Ari Hoeing
by Andrea Canter at JazzPolice
Sometimes the origin of an album title is elusive, but not here. Threedom readily conjures the spirit of this recording, three equal partners freely interacting, be it on compositions of their own invention or in dismantling formerly familiar covers from the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Charlie Chaplin, Duke Ellington and the Gershwins. Similar to the construction of Pilc’s solo Essential, the components of Threedom are all offered in relatively small doses, with 18 tracks filling the total.
The collaborative compositions share an underlying elegance, often dark or at least a bit dusky. “Morning” is a little countrified tune, a walk through a garden on a spring morning, Moutin’s voicings and contra-beats giving this a slight edge as if some clouds are on the horizon. “Birth” unfolds slowly with the majesty of a hymn, filled with Moutin’s gorgeous, deep basslines and Hoenig’s ever so gentle cymbals. “Slow” finds Pilc executing repeating tinkle chords over Moutin’s ominous undercurrent and Hoenig’s restless punctuations; danger lurks but the mystery never resolves. “Touch” moves quickly as Moutin drives erratically and Hoenig sputters the pulse (by hand?), Pilc gathering his zinging resources from under the hood.“The Grinch Dance” spins as if in a Latin carnival thrust into a House of Mirrors, a playground for the percussive antics of both Pilc and Hoenig and the fleet melodicism of Moutin, filled with shifty rhythms, sudden bursts of sunlight and furious bolts of lightning—unrestrained energy times three. “Dusk” also suggests a dance, with its swaying rhythm from Moutin and Hoenig countered by Pilc’s more obtuse exploration. Another study in dark shades, “Lily” highlights Pilc’s exquisite piano lines, while on the title track, Moutin’s opening solo inspires his cohorts to a thrusting, rhythmically twisted debate. “Hymn for Her” opens with a rim/cymbals solo from Hoenig , ultimately giving both Moutin and Pilc an airy cushion for bluesy melodic experiments that evolve into a more simple prayer.
Of the covers, the opening “Nardis,” at over 7 minutes, is the most extended piece, displaying Pilc at his abstract best. But it is indeed a collaboration, featuring a solo of despair from Moutin. “Think of One” is a quick and delightfully off-quadrant (even for Monk) spin, featuring percussive ploys from both Moutin and Hoenig; the trio builds intensity through repetition, jerky rhythms, and Pilc’s dazzling cascades offset by Hoenig’s slappy punctuations. “Giant Steps” is condensed into 2 ½ minutes, no horn necessary in this double-time, sputtering march arrangement, Moutin and Pilc running counterclockwise over Hoenig’s nonstop skittering. Staying in Coltrane mode, the trio follows with a version of “Afro Blue” that seems to rise slowly from a dark cave to grab a few shafts of muted sunlight.
Pilc’s solo opening on “I’m Beginning to See the Light” is a masterful example of taking a well known theme and seriously reshaping it without losing its essence; Moutin takes his turn with bounce and comment over Hoenig’s grooving pulse. Sure, we know this tune….Oops, what are they doing and where are the going? And will they get back? “Confirmation” maybe the most played high school jazz band chart, but this is not your student’s “Confirmation.” It’s Parker on an assortment of mood enhancers that even he never thought of, complete with hallucinations and wildly irregular respiration. Moutin offers an ingenious display of pounding fury. By the time we actually hear the theme of the closing “Smile” (and very briefly), we are already held prisoner by the inventive interplay of three titans of collaborative improvisation. And we’re in no hurry to escape.
A New Orleans Christmas Carol
Christmas music doesn't usually come into stores, radios and homes until Thanksgiving time but, in a year when snow covered the East Coast before Halloween, early arrivals seem to be the norm. Guitarist Doug Munro delivered a Django Reinhardt-styled set of holiday classics on A Very Gypsy Christmas (GotMusic, 2011) in September; pianist Geri Allen tackled songs of the season on A Child Is Born, which hit stores around Columbus Day; and now, 2011 NEA Jazz Master Ellis Marsalis joins the group with A New Orleans Christmas Carol.
The elder statesmen of the best known family working in jazz today tackles a long list of timeless tunes in various configurations, from solo piano to quartet, and the resultant music is a display of pure pleasure and beauty. While the title of the album might lead some to believe that NOLA-slanted arrangements are plentiful, with second line grooves or Meters-style funk forthcoming, that's not the case. Marsalis merely uses the name of this collection to indicate from whence this wonderful music came.
In some places, Marsalis' playing simply evokes imagery of a family surrounding the piano to soak in the warm and tender sounds of the season on Christmas Eve ("Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas"), but the majority of this music swings, sways and/or soothes in seemingly effortless fashion. Solos are succinct and stylish, and the arrangements are classy and charming.
Particularly notable performances include a trio take on Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride," a warm interpretation of Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown-associated "Christmas Time Is Here," which features some fine vibraphone work from Jason Marsalis, and a rendition of "We Three Kings" that's built in the image of McCoy Tyner. "Christmas Joy," which features vocalist Johnaye Kendrick, is the better of the two vocal numbers on the record, but Cynthia Liggins Thomas' vocal performance on Thad Jones' "A Child Is Born" is far from second rate.
Each holiday season welcomes a new batch of Christmas-themed CDs, but far too many of them are ill-advised efforts to simply cash in on the spirit of the times. While it can be assumed that Marsalis would like to sell his music as much as the next person, A New Orleans Christmas Carol doesn't seem to have been made with that goal in mind. This is heartfelt music of merit.
O Tannenbaum; The Little Drummer Boy; We Three Kings; A Child Is Born; God Rest You Merry, Gentleman; It Came Upon A Midnight Clear; O Holy Night; Winter Wonderland; Christmas Time Is Here; Silent Night; O Little Town Of Bethlehem; Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; Christmas Joy; Sleigh Ride; Greensleeves; The Christmas Song; We Wish You A Merry Christmas; Winter Wonderland (Remix); Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; The Little Drummer Boy.
Ellis Marsalis: piano; Bill Huntington: bass; Peter Harris: bass (13, 14, 18); Jason Marsalis: drums, percussion, vibraphone (7, 9, 17, 19); Roman Skakun: vibraphone (3, 6, 11, 15); Cynthia Liggins Thomas (4): vocals; Johnaye Kendrick: vocals (13).
Stefano Battaglia Trio
The River Of Anyder
by Thom Jurek
Italian pianist and composer Stefano Battaglia has recorded three previous offerings for ECM, all in different settings. Interestingly, The River of Anyder is his first to feature his trio, with bassist Salvatore Maiore and drummer/percussionist Roberto Dani. Battaglia, formerly a classical pianist, approaches composition and improvisation from that vantage point. When he does enter the jazz realm, it is through Italy's own grand jazz tradition from the '70s era on. The album was recorded in 2009 and produced by Manfred Eicher at Lugano's Radiotelevisione Svizzera. Location matters, because the silences and spaces on this set are much warmer, and more intimate, than those Eicher usually gets in his Netherlands studio. The ten selections here are all titled for mythical geographies inspired by sources as diverse as Thomas More, J.R.R. Tolkein, Rumi, Rimbaud, Black Elk, Hildegard Von Bingen, and Francis Bacon. Battaglia begins the set with "Minas Tirith," introduced by hushed cymbals and a series of skeletal triads, Maiore enters playing the same note pattern, accenting and syncopating before Battaglia lets the still sparse, regal body of the tune come to the fore. The title piece features a near-classical solo prelude for an intro. When Maiore's bass enters with big wooden tones, the work begins to unfold as a minor-key lyric melody, full of elliptical, implied runs on the piano that are actually given forward movement by Dani's drums and percussion. The Rumi-inspired pieces like "Ararat Dance," for starters, find the pianist beginning his jazz ascent, taking a more prominent role, and double-timing his rhythm section with stellar arpeggios and ostinati. "Sham-Bha-Lah," one of the three longest tracks (which are all in the middle of the album), offers skeletal, harmonic frameworks that are fleshed out by drones from Maiore and circular rhythms from Dani. Inspired by von Bingen's "Columba Aspexit" plainchant sequence, Battaglia builds extended modes and knotty half-step arpeggios from her work. "Bensalem" (a mythical island of Atlantis) is the most straight-ahead tune here with pianist and rhythm section engaging one another in a songlike construct that flows openly and freely. Battaglia returns to Rumi in "Ararat Prayer" near the album's close. His minor-key melodic and modal inventions are simultaneously mysterious, fluid, and rhythmic, with gorgeous percussion work from Dani. The River of Anyder is an excellent addition to Battaglia's ECM catalog to be sure; more importantly, however, it is a fine showcase for the power, drama, and discipline of this trio in a recording studio.