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Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis

The Music of Wayne Shorter

Blue Engine

Wayne Shorter is one of the living giants of jazz. In his career he’s been a critical member of legendary groups including Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis’ ensembles. With Miles and later as co-founder of Weather Report, Shorter helped birth the fusion jazz scene. He’s an innovative player on tenor and soprano saxophone and many of his compositions have become jazz standards. In 2008, The New York Times called Shorter “probably jazz’s greatest living small-group composer and a contender for greatest living improviser.” He was awarded a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2014. There are some culture critics who call jazz African America’s Classical music.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is a personification of that view of jazz. The large ensemble’s home base is one of the world’s preeminent cultural institutions. The group is lead by trumpeter, composer and music philosopher, Wynton Marsalis. The Music of Wayne Shorter is the best kind of tribute. The members of the Orchestra have worked up new arrangement of Wayne’s material that doesn’t concentrate on the obvious hits. The best thing is, the tribute is taking place while the artist is still alive. Not only is he still alive, Shorter is up there on the stage, playing with the younger cats, breathing life into other people’s reimagining of his songs.

The Music of Wayne Shorter brings compositions originally composed for small ensembles to a big band setting. The arrangements are lushly orchestrated with intricate interplay between the sections. The opening flourishes of “Yes or No” set the tone for the album. The trumpets announce the coming of the Master; the rest of the band answers and the man himself fills the spaces. It’s a big sound that commands attention. The songs then moves into a bright swing tempo number with the kind of tones you can only achieve with a big band. Shorter’s soprano sax shines on three compositions, including the timely title, “Endangered Species.” On the remaining tracks, Wayne plays tenor. The ten selections on this two disc collection are culled from three 2015 concerts, when Shorter was 81. You can also hear selections from these shows on NPR’s Jazz Night in America and see the show’s companion video online. Shorter sounds great on these songs. He looks like he was having a lot of fun judging by the smiles seen in the video. This is the best way to pay tribute to a venerated musician, while they’re still alive and with them actively participating.

www.jazz.org

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Music Reviews

Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk

The Complete Riverside Recordings

Riverside Records

I was introduced to the music of Thelonious Monk, and to jazz in general a few years after high school, when I was at the house of a record store employee. Like anyone who worked in music retail, his abode was stocked floor to ceiling with albums and tapes (the CD hadn’t been invented yet). At one point he handed me a stack of cassettes. The two I recall to this day was a A+M collection of the early works of Captain Beefheart, and Underground by Monk.

The album’s bizarre cover- Monk at an upright piano smoking, wearing a machine gun, surrounded by grenades and other weapons of the underground, gave me a hint as to what waited sonically inside. At first the unsettling piano, with Monk’s weird chords, invented time signatures and his habit of grunting along with his playing, well, it was a far cry from the guitar-fueled rock I was accustomed to. But at some point it clicked- and clicked hard, and I was hooked. From Monk I discovered Charles Mingus, then it was Coltrane and Miles and beyond. But I always came back to Thelonious Monk, finding in him the freedom and the startling creative vision his music brought. It has remained to this day.

So when the chance came to review The Complete Riverside Recordings I welcomed the task. 15 CDs, recorded between 1955 and 1961, is a treasure trove of magnificent Monk. It contains his early trio work with Oscar Pettiford on bass and either Kenny Clarke or Art Blakey on drums with material such as Ellington’s “Mood Indigo”, “Black and Tan Fantasy” and standards such as “Tea For Two” and “Honeysuckle Rose”. Starting in 1956 Monk began to record with horns such as Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane, and began writing his own compositions. Songs such as “Brilliant Corners”, ‘”Round Midnight”, “Bemsha Swing” are standards in their own right, and “Crepuscule With Nellie”, “Ruby, My Dear” and “Well, You Needn’t” have been recorded by literally thousands of players.

Now, I’m not a good enough listener- or writer- to exactly explain what the music of the brilliant yet troubled genius has come to mean to me. Monk’s music sounds like no other. No one puts together those chords, against those rhythms, in quite the same way. Even a oft-played “singers song” such as “Darn That Dream” becomes something unique in his hands, his skittering, daring piano that makes the song his own. But beyond what can be transposed onto a piece of sheet music is something more, something more grand than mere notes and timbre. It’s has always sounded defiant, rebellious, always reaching for something a little bit further than before. Thelonious Monk sounds like America to me. His wide-opened freedom, his unique and compelling vision, his reluctance to playing it safe, that’s America. He improvised his life, and in the end, it might have drove him mad. America will do that, particularly to it’s problem children, the rebels.

But god do they make a brilliant noise along the way.

www.concordmusicgroup.com/labels/riverside

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Music Reviews

Axis Trio

Axis Trio

Anthem

Accretions Records

You wouldn’t guess this from just hearing the tracks, but this is a Cheese Themed Jazz Album. Not cheese in the sense of “badly done” or “campy,” but in the sense of a semi-solid fermented dairy product first developed in the Middle East. With musicians from Iran, Pakistan and Morocco, you might expect something exotic, and the sound offered here is a layered complex (or complex layering) of rhythms, odd noises, and broken time signatures. Song titles provoke, and “When the Curd Meets the Rennet,” “Whey It Out,” and “It Shall Ripen” offer strong smells and strong compositions. A sense of foreboding infuses one track, blatant electrical distortion another, and Art Blakey haunts the rest.

Not as smooth as the works of Stan Getz, but beyond Thelonious Monk’s early compositions, this group taunts us with shattered shards of melodies, partially reassembled with Elmer’s Glue and duct tape. Perhaps they make this up as a jam, perhaps it’s notated out in 64th notes, but its soul lies somewhere over the middle Atlantic, just about 28 degrees north on a line connecting two societies at odds, but potentially united in music.

Axis Trio: www.axistrio.com

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Music Reviews

Bill Bruford’s Earthworks

Bill Bruford’s Earthworks

Random Acts of Happiness

Summerfold

Drummer Bill Bruford (Yes, Genesis) founded Earthworks back in 1986 while on hiatus from the progressive rock outfit King Crimson, but many jazz listeners — myself included — are still “discovering” his brainchild almost two decades on. I first tuned in two years ago for Footloose and Fancy Free, and have since been drawn further and further into Earthworks’ back catalogue.

The live album, like Footloose, Stamping Ground (1994) and the new Random Acts of Happiness, has been a regular occurrence in the Earthworks discography, appearing after every three or four studio releases. You could even make a solid case that the live discs are the best of the lot, an argument that Random Acts of Happiness, recorded at Yoshi’s in Oakland, CA in May 2003, will certainly sustain. Here Bruford introduces clarinetist/flautist/saxophonist and Chick Corea veteran Tim Garland, effecting a slight line-up change to the Earthworks ‘Mark II’ line-up (‘Mark I’ lasted until around 1994 and included multi-instrumentalist Django Bates and saxophonist Iain Ballamy); he has retained pianist Steve Hamilton, who departed after the recording, and bassist Mark Hodgson but replaced saxophonist Patrick Clahar.

Garland’s bold but versatile presence ought to surprise and please Earthworks’ fans. He helps Bruford and his bandmates revive “My Heart Declares a Holiday,” a song that dates back to 1987’s Earthworks, giving it a fresh treatment that shakes off some of the elevator jazz sound of the original. His collaborative and solo compositions are also some of the album’s highlights. “White Knuckle Wedding,” a Bruford/Garland chart, is full of tempo and key changes, leaping from a spicy conga line anthem to a moody and menacing interlude. Taking in the whole, however, shouldn’t diminish the spots of Garland’s excellent flute playing.

Bruford is at his lightest on Random Acts of Happiness; his drumming is full of finesse. He seems to have stepped away from any and all flamboyance — an echo from his prog-rock days, perhaps — choosing instead to dazzle with subtlety and soft-spoken complexity. He made some pretty audacious claims about himself in an interview I conducted with him around the time of Footloose, at one point comparing his drumming to a Blakey/Morello/Roach fusion. But some of those assertions are justified here, as on the three-minute drum interlude “With Friends Like These.” “Tramontana,” a Hamilton/Garland composition, benefits greatly from Bruford’s rhythmic backbone. “Modern Folk” is likewise teeming with delicious little fills.

The first release on Bruford’s new Summerfold label, Random Acts of Happiness is the best Earthworks album to appear in a several years, and one of the better modern jazz albums in recent memory. Newcomers to jazz and Bruford’s work within the genre are highly encouraged to give it a listen. This is an outfit that deserves to be a household name, firmly established in listener’s minds, and no longer waiting to be discovered by curious erstwhile prog-rockers or out-of-the-loop jazz enthusiasts.

Bill Bruford: www.billbruford.com/

Categories
Music Reviews

Bill Bruford’s Earthworks

Bill Bruford’s Earthworks

Random Acts of Happiness

Summerfold

Drummer Bill Bruford (Yes, Genesis) founded Earthworks back in 1986 while on hiatus from the progressive rock outfit King Crimson, but many jazz listeners — myself included — are still “discovering” his brainchild almost two decades on. I first tuned in two years ago for Footloose and Fancy Free, and have since been drawn further and further into Earthworks’ back catalogue.

The live album, like Footloose, Stamping Ground (1994) and the new Random Acts of Happiness, has been a regular occurrence in the Earthworks discography, appearing after every three or four studio releases. You could even make a solid case that the live discs are the best of the lot, an argument that Random Acts of Happiness, recorded at Yoshi’s in Oakland, CA in May 2003, will certainly sustain. Here Bruford introduces clarinetist/flautist/saxophonist and Chick Corea veteran Tim Garland, effecting a slight line-up change to the Earthworks ‘Mark II’ line-up (‘Mark I’ lasted until around 1994 and included multi-instrumentalist Django Bates and saxophonist Iain Ballamy); he has retained pianist Steve Hamilton, who departed after the recording, and bassist Mark Hodgson but replaced saxophonist Patrick Clahar.

Garland’s bold but versatile presence ought to surprise and please Earthworks’ fans. He helps Bruford and his bandmates revive “My Heart Declares a Holiday,” a song that dates back to 1987’s Earthworks, giving it a fresh treatment that shakes off some of the elevator jazz sound of the original. His collaborative and solo compositions are also some of the album’s highlights. “White Knuckle Wedding,” a Bruford/Garland chart, is full of tempo and key changes, leaping from a spicy conga line anthem to a moody and menacing interlude. Taking in the whole, however, shouldn’t diminish the spots of Garland’s excellent flute playing.

Bruford is at his lightest on Random Acts of Happiness; his drumming is full of finesse. He seems to have stepped away from any and all flamboyance — an echo from his prog-rock days, perhaps — choosing instead to dazzle with subtlety and soft-spoken complexity. He made some pretty audacious claims about himself in an interview I conducted with him around the time of Footloose, at one point comparing his drumming to a Blakey/Morello/Roach fusion. But some of those assertions are justified here, as on the three-minute drum interlude “With Friends Like These.” “Tramontana,” a Hamilton/Garland composition, benefits greatly from Bruford’s rhythmic backbone. “Modern Folk” is likewise teeming with delicious little fills.

The first release on Bruford’s new Summerfold label, Random Acts of Happiness is the best Earthworks album to appear in a several years, and one of the better modern jazz albums in recent memory. Newcomers to jazz and Bruford’s work within the genre are highly encouraged to give it a listen. This is an outfit that deserves to be a household name, firmly established in listener’s minds, and no longer waiting to be discovered by curious erstwhile prog-rockers or out-of-the-loop jazz enthusiasts.

Bill Bruford: www.billbruford.com