modern jazz

The Bad Plus, Inevitable Western

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As nearly 2 years worth of blogging have presumably demonstrated, wellyouneedit loves The Bad Plus. I remember that moment of epiphany when I stumbled across These are the Vistas (2003) playing on the headphones in the deserted jazz section of my local record store. On their 10th studio album, Inevitable Western, the genre-bending trio bring their nonpareil mix of low-brow complexity, constantly reinventing themselves and transcending the confines of musical categorization. As bassist Reid Anderson brilliantly summarized in a recent interview, « at the core, we’re jazz musicians and we’re improvisers, but don’t consider we have to make our music sound like jazz necessarily. We try to bring a strong energy to what we do. »

Point taken. I would even argue that this band, by deliberately steering clear of the well-trodden path, does great justice to the perpetuation of the artform on their own terms. The Bad Plus celebrates the timeless appeal of jazz as a freeing process, a way to make improvised music culturally relevant in any time period. But I digress…

Consisting of 9 songs, the album features all the trademark elements of Bad Plus music: Tuneful deconstructions, collective improvisation, tight interplay, multisectional songs, catchy melodies played over intricate and changing meters, and plenty of drama. Try “Self-Serve”, the third song. Sure, drummer Dave King pounds out a solid 4/4 rock beat at times but the song is driven by the band’s signature stop-and-go motion, fits and starts that give the song an offbeat and layered quality. They make it sound so natural and yet at every listen you’re scratching your head and wondering how in the world can anyone hear music that way.

“Gold Prisms Incorporated” gets the classic epic anthem treatment, a rollicking train charging through the wild west, picking up multiple variations and rhythmic displacements along the way. As often in The Bad Plus funhouse, repetition is the tricky vehicle for motivic improvisation. At 2.42, Iverson’s solo begins on a folkloric note, gradually building away from the initial melody as King and Anderson continue to restate it underneath. Soon enough, King and Anderson lock in with Iverson’s syncopated left hand line – the new melody in progress. And bang! At 3:48, the new motif takes over, the story reaches its apex, played in unison as King chops the beat to smithereens. After the storm blows over, at 4:25, Anderson’s bass introduces a nice simple vamp soon picked up by Iverson that takes the song to its logical conclusion. That’s a pretty eventful train ride right there in 6:28 minutes.

“Epistolary echoes” is a fun merry-go-round, with hand claps and a toy piano thrown in for good measure. Bass and drum seem very happy to chase each other as Iverson tosses off Cecil Taylorish clusters, seeking a way out of the jungle. Luckily, there is always one.

After 15 years of intense touring around the world, the band has developed a habit of honing their songs live. Studio albums come about as a documentation of an ongoing process, each new album seemingly picking up where the last one left off. A funny game if you want to indulge your Bad Plus fanhood is to try to match songs from various albums and notice their similarities in conception. That’s where cohesive art comes in. It’s an oeuvre in and of itself. If one really wants to come up with a catchall adjective to define this music, cinematic seems to be the operative word. Structurally, it is hard to dispute the narrative arc of these songs, which all have their own story and mood, revealing their drama in suspenseful sections. Just imagine if “Mr Now” had been the A-Team theme music in the 80s? Of yeah, I can so much see Mister T storming out of a burning truck over that frantic piano line. Sorry…

“Inevitable Western”, the title tune, is the fitting coda to this thrilling movie. After the brainy comedy, the action flick, the epic western and everything in between, it’s time to take things down and revel in some Bad Plus melancholia.  Introduced by Anderson’s gorgeous tone, Iverson’s ballad smolders gently and showcases the pianist’s compositional talent and command of the jazz and classical canon, right down to the very filmic last note.

In this fast-evolving and increasingly complex age where nothing seems to make sense anymore, these consummate musicians make complexity somehow make sense. In that way, they are in my book one of the most compelling soundtracks to this early 21st century. Nobody sounds like The Bad Plus. Nobody.

The Bad Plus, Inevitable Western (OKey, Sony Music Masterworks)

Full discography here: http://www.thebadplus.com/discography.php

Charlie’s last song

It pains me that this blog increasingly looks like a jazz musicians obituary  but what can you do, they are passing on, one after the other.

The profoundness of Charlie Haden’s contribution to modern jazz and bass playing cannot be overstated. In Ornette Coleman’s opinion, he had the biggest ears. If there ever was a sound close to the human voice on the upright, Haden was probably its quintessential representative. My admittedly screwy theory is that when he lost his vocal chords to polio aged 15, he got even with life and decided to turn his bass into a midrange baritone voice (not sure it’s the right descriptor though!).  He could carry a tune, that’s for sure. I’ve already contributed some basic analysis of his style in an old post. So I feel like the best way to remember him by is to listen, over and over again, and realize ecstatically how deeply he listened. Unsurprisingly, my man over at DTM has all the good stuff, complete with lengthy interviews, insightful analysis, and a wealth of archives.

Very nice tribute post from Hank Shteamer here.

 

Selected recent recordings:

Keith Jarrett & Charlie Haden: Last Song (ECM, 2014)

Keith Jarrett & Charlie Haden: Jasmine (ECM, 2010)

Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian: Live at Birdland (ECM, 2011)

 

 

 

THE BAD PLUS SPRING

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Spring is here. And The Bad Plus have a record out. Perfect timing for releasing their interpretation of Stravinsky’s modern masterpiece, The Rite of Spring.

That one of the most innovative jazz groups of the early 21st century is taking on one of the most innovative musical statements of the 20th century should not be surprising. Anyone who has seen The Bad Plus live knows that their most aggressive acts of deconstruction are always waged with a peaceful agenda and an ingrained loyalty to the original mood of a piece. This time around, that loyalty shines in minute detail, minus the deconstruction. At this point in their nearly 15-year-old journey, the band has amply demonstrated they are equally good at transcending the most unlikely material and writing music that feels immediately and distinctively theirs.

I hope their take on Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring will cause the same rioting as the original did at its Paris première back in 1913. Consider this: a seminal jazz trio consisting of piano, acoustic bass and drums perform their rendition of a piece that a hundred years down the line hasn’t lost its revolutionary appeal.

As pianist Ethan Iverson explained a while ago on his excellent blog DTM (like to drop that every chance I get), the three musicians were initially awed by the task. Who wouldn’t be? The amazing thing about this album is that it sounds so much like the original masterpiece and so much like a Bad Plus album. In fact, it almost feels like Stravinsky wrote a trio score of The Rite. Of course, they are inevitable adjustments to make in the pared-down instrumentation of a trio, the drums being a major one. Taut, pulsing, swinging, this literal interpretation of a classical masterpiece is a both reverential and transformative tribute to the original orchestration.

The reviews have flooded the Internet in the last few days, with detailed and insightful commentary. So I might as well back off here and let you read them and enjoy the music.

To think that these guys are cranking out original compositions regularly and still finding the time to interpret Stravinsky is pretty confounding. But what can you do? They are The Bad-ass Plus. They will always surprise us.

Listen to the album on NRR here

Or live here

PS: The Plus have tackled Stravinsky previously. Check out their take on Variation d’Apollon from their album For All I Care.

Thelonious Sphere Monk: modern genius

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Because you make every wrong note sound right

Because your jagged melodies have a rock-solid consistency

Because there is a playfulness to your serious art

Because you outhipped hipness before the term got hip

Because you never played the same thing twice and played it all the time

Because you once took a cigarette out of and back into Miles’ shirt pocket during his solo, and it would have hurt his pride to stop playing

Because you wrote a tune with all the accents in the least evident places and called it Evidence

Because the beauty of your music is in what you don’t play, in the silences

Because yours is a dance of hard-won joy, a song of inherited freedom

Because to the statement “it appears you’re famous, Thelonious”, your response is “famous, huh, ain’t that a bitch?”

Because with a name like that, you had to be an original

Because you poke and nudge us: the music is everywhere, you seem to say.

Mr Ahmad Jamal still going strong at 83.

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That was a gamble.  Presumably, every music fan feels the same way when attending a concert by one of their aging heroes. Is he/she going to do justice to the countless hours of passionate listening I’ve dedicated to them or is it going to be the just a sad and disappointing swan song that will send me rushing back to their early catalog for reassurance’s sake?  I’ve probably worn out the Ahmad Jamal 50s trio records more than a person in their right mind should. When Mr Jamal – the man deserves this distinctive title – stumbled over to the piano last night, I started getting worried. A concern that evaporated five seconds into the first song as Mr. Jamal’s fingers rippled up and down the keyboard like rushing water, tossing off power chords with disarming abandon and throwing vamps at Reginald Veal’s bass which happily picked them up. Drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Manolo Badrena complemented the fierce rhythm section, which was tight as can be. That concept where bass and rhythm assume a large part of the melodic duties leaving the piano to build momentum with off-kilter runs and timely ostinatos is Jamal’s signature style, going way back to his pioneering trio with Israel Crosby and Vernell Fournier. To hear it 60 years on with even more interaction between the players was pretty thrilling. Starting off with Randy Weston’s “Hi Fly”, the almost uninterrupted set mingled standards and a couple of new originals of Mr Jamal’s. The old neoclassical Théâtre de l’Odéon in Paris provided an ideal, though unusual, setting for Mr Jamal’s ingrained sense of drama. Like a classical conductor improbably admitting to be on a James Brown kick, Mr. Jamal pointed up when signaling transitions or turned around to Veal, Riley or Badrena to distribute solo space. Short and to the point, these collective improvisations never strayed too far from the melodic core of the songs but showcased the group’s amazing cohesion and tight adherence to the master’s concept. Drummer Herlin Riley really blew me away, dancing around his set with balletic grace and an infectious groove that was hard to believe. I had mixed feelings about the merits of percussions in Mr Jamal’s recent music but, admittedly, they contributed another layer to the potent rhythmic mix. Why the percussionist decided to growl and act like he was walking offstage at one point remains a mystery – funny though – but he served the music well.

At 83, Mr Jamal lives up to a well-deserved reputation as a pure-class musician and performer. At a time when that generation of veteran musicians is becoming scarce, that’s pretty good news . And thank you to my beloved girlfriend for setting up a fund drive for these pricey tickets. Definitely worth it.

New album “Saturday Morning” is out on Harmonia Mundi/ Jazz Village

Recommended listening:

Ahmad Jamal Trio, Complete Alhambra and Blackhawk Performances

Ahmad Jamal Trio, Complete Live at the Pershing Lounge 1958

Ahmad Jamal Trio, Complete Live at the Spotlite Club 1958

Listening to silence. Dave King’s “I’ve been ringing you”

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As one third of The Bad Plus, Dave King is known for his high-powered drumming and phenomenal precision, fitting qualities for this leaderless trio that makes telepathy seem like a walk in the park. King’s versatile drums are so integral to the band’s organic chemistry it’s hard to imagine the drummer lending his voice to other musical adventures. Yet, he maintains a hectic musical schedule, playing in 8 bands of various styles and configurations.  To great effect.

On his new record under his own name, “I’ve been ringing you” (Sunnyside), King hooks up with fellow Minnesotans, pianist Bill Carrothers and bassist Billy Peterson, and makes quiet but intense music. The album consists of 8 songs, including 7 standards tastefully reconfigured for the 21st century and infused with a dark introspection. The record documents King’s deep reverence for the jazz tradition and showcases his impressionistic talents when playing songs in a more “straight-ahead” format.  The choice of slow tempos on all the songs emphasizes the meditative mood that permeates the album, which would not be out of place in ECM’s stylish catalogue. In fact, King’s subdued drumming, not so much playing time as messing with it, sounds to some degree like an inspired continuation of the late Paul Motian’s work on Manfred Eicher’s prestigious label.

The opener “goodbye” (Gordon Jenkins) sets the mood, a spacious meditation that never seems to start and actually sounds all the better for it. Carrother’s eerie voicings are an invitation to daydreaming appropriately highlighted by Peterson’ discreet pedal-point commentary and King’s soft touch on brushes and whale songish waterphone. The band continues with Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman”, a respectful rendition that honors the melody by roving around it and stating it in various permutations. As on the rest of the album, that particular song is a striking example of cohesive collective improvisation, drums and bass rumbling along with Carrother’s ghostly lines, constantly interacting with piano.  Cole Porter’s “So in Love” is introduced by King”s crisp  crackle and features a resonant solo by Peterson, a new name for me that shines throughout the record. Clocking in at 38:45 minutes, the album delivers on a bold agenda, one that finds King reassessing his well-deserved place alongside today’s preeminent jazz improvisers. While the music remains consistently calm, it is executed with an intensity suggesting a brooding storm. There is no mushiness in the way the trio addresses the standards here. Listen to how “If I Should Lose You” gradually emerges from Peterson’s cavernous glissandi, taking shape along meandering lines, picking its way through the murk, with King latching on to piano and bass every nanosecond.  The title song  and only original that bookends the record is the perfect coda of this suite, picking up where the opener left off.  With winter only a couple of months away, it’s a record you might consider playing on a cold snowy day, huddled up under the quilt or late at night, lights out on any given day. Having said that, what will sound like a singular take on familiar territory to the hardcore jazz fan will always sound a little esoteric to the casual listener.  But if anything, the record will hopefully resonate with anyone who enjoys the strange intensity of silence.

Dave King, I’ve been ringing you (Sunnyside, 2012)

When Will The Blues Leave

© Elise Fimbel

© Elise Fimbel

If jazz is America’s distinctively homegrown art form, blues is probably its most sustainable foundation. The dramatic evolution of this so simple 12-bar form from the black laborer’s work song to modern-day jazz deconstructions never ceases to fascinate me. There is just something indestructible about the blues, probably because it developed out of resistance to one of the most disgraceful chapters in the history of humanity. But hey, I’m no music scholar, and to gain some theoretical insights into why jazz came to be what it is – a music style that consistently refuses to be categorized– a good place to start is to read Leroi Jones’ Blues People, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

But what I’d like to share today is a video of the Billy Hart quartet delivering their own personal take on the blues. The handful of loyal readers out there will surely notice that I’m lavishing praise on the usual suspects here, pianist Ethan Iverson (of The Bad Plus fame), saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Ben Street and of course the veteran drummer Billy Hart. But what can I say? This is a stellar cast and they are just killing! I guess what made me want to squander away precious time on Youtube is to hear how each musician appropriates the idiom with their signature chops while somehow summoning its 100-plus history off the well-trodden path. I have to admit I first didn’t identify the song as a blues until Iverson’s solo kicks in. The opening theme’s convoluted line played in unison by Turner and Iverson over Street and Hart’s spacious time doesn’t really give any hint either. Soon enough though, the essence of the blues shines through in all its fascinating beauty, each musician appropriating the lineage with casual resolve. What I find particularly engaging here is that despite the well-known adventurous nature of these improvisers, this is a pretty straight-ahead take on the blues! I don’t detect any major reharmonization or complex time signatures, or any kind of “device” usually required to avoid clichés and hackneyed licks. So, what’s going on here? What is it about this rendition that does justice to the blues in the refreshing context of modern jazz?

Let’s try to break it down a little bit. The song begins with an intro played in unison by Iverson, Street and Hart. This sets the mood very nicely and allows Hart and Street to lock in and build up the ensuing drama. The slow-burn groove these two establish is one reason the song works so well, Hart’s subtle ride and crash shadings wrapping seamlessly around Street’s roving line. And in comes Turner, stating a darkly sinuous theme totally in sync with his lyrical tone. By this time, things are still fairly open-ended as to what kind of improvisation will follow. Psyched, I grab my bass and listen for the bass. Well, I’ll be damned, they’re playing a blues in G7! Of course, they would choose a relatively common key, stupid. It’s what they do with the obvious that commands respect.  So, Iverson’s solo starts, his spare line building out of little fragmented dabs and leaving huge chunks of space to devastating effect. It feels so good to hear Monk, Wynton Kelly or Paul Bley lurking in there, melded into Iversonian mode. As the piano solo gathers steam, bass and drums switch into 4/4 swing, the music takes off, swinging hard but softly, if you know what I mean.  I love the way Turner comes in, four bars into the form, taking his own sweet time but just nailing it. Everybody seems relaxed but dedicated to celebrating the mysterious appeal of this simple form. But that does it for my tentative shot at the jazz concert review (I wasn’t there anyway!). Though this is an all-star band, there are no heroic displays of virtuosity here.   But somehow, in the way they put their modernist vibe on the blues, these musicians are showing tremendous respect for its vital contribution to jazz.  From the Mississippi Delta to the Village Vanguard, the blues has come a long way. There’s comfort in knowing that jazz musicians today still believe in its undying power. But don’t take my word for it. Check it out: