Friday, August 13, 2010

Jim Rotondi - 1000 Rainbows (Positone)

Contextual questions of excessive repertory fealty are largely moot in the music of Jim Rotondi. A trumpeter who’s canny style blends Hubbard-like velocity and clarity with a persuasive lyricism, his fixation on a stripes of hardbop steeped in 60s Blue Note decorum is hardly worth getting bent about, though there are those who would likely fault him for it just the same. This set couples his lubricious brass with Joe Locke’s vibes and a standard rhythm section for a nine-song program that moves along at a brisk and mannered clip from the opening incisiveness of “Bizzaro World” through the lovely tone poem closer “Not Like This”.

Locke is a veteran player versed in a set of antecedents similar to those favored by his employer. He’s also imbued with a comparable instrumental command that engages multiple mallets in the crafting of complex melodic leads. He and Rotondi make for sharply cast team in the company of pianist Danny Grissett, bassist Barak Mori and drummer Bill Stewart, all of whom unflappably fulfill their respective roles. Mori and Stewart don’t get much in the way of solo space, but each man still makes his presence known through cogent and creative support.

The set list combines a handful of originals with a small clutch of tunes culled from popular songbooks. Buddy Montgomery is the source of the title piece, a lush ballad piece bracketed by soothing ensemble statements. Lennon and McCartney’s “We Can Work it Out” is thankfully denuded of most of its pop baggage, the unison theme working surprisingly well as a blowing vehicle for the two principals. It’s a very pleasant and well-parceled program, one filled with numerous platforms for the leader and Locke to strut their chops. Again, the collaborative catalogs of Hubbard and Hutcherson aren’t too far out of mind when listening to tunes like “Gravitude” and “One for Felix”. That’s hardly a trait worth a grimace or a grouse.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Schlippenbach Trio - Bauhaus Dessau (Intakt)

The Schlippenbach Trio’s latest release is an album couched in celebratory anniversaries: the ensembles 40th coupled to their chosen venue’s 90th. Recorded at the vaunted German playhouse in the fall of last year it recalls their last Intakt outing in that saxophonist Evan Parker leaves his straight horn capped and cased. The resulting focus on tenor is something of a treat though it also means that his circular breathing feats of stamina and precision play out with comparative brevity and tempered speed on the larger horn. Rather than a detriment, it makes for a fascinating contrast. The tenor-centric nature of the set also precipitates the greater presence of jazz elements in his playing as interplay that ensues.

For their parts, pianist Schlippenbach and drummer Paul Lovens sidle back into their customary positions on bench and stool, respectively. The three players subscribe to a framework familiar from countless past concerts with a lengthy sectional piece followed by two shorter encores. At this point in their venerated partnership the thrills come through discovering how they shave away the weight of precedence and keep the long-standing shared vernacular free of hindering predictability. One thing remains certain, the tones and structures hatched upon are well enough removed from the litanies loosed on storied conclaves prior.

Play-by-play hardly seems prudent as the three hit their reliable strides and pacing, peeling off into duos and solos along with ensemble statements that fluctuate between heated and measured. Parker spools out some lushly nuanced melodic playing, particularly on the pair of encores, and it’s a vector buttressed by his partners from their own corners of the stage. Lovens manages his hat trick of assembling asymmetry, color and momentum without a sacrifice to any constituency. Schlippenbach scurries adroitly up and down his keyboard, expertly working the pedals for added gravitas while keeping a variable bead on his colleagues’ compass points. In sum it’s that rare breed of professional improvised performance, one that keenly calibrates fervor with skill.

The Schlippenbach Trio’s last Bauhaus hit was 28 years ago, a time lapse all but erased by the fresh scattershot of musical manna imbedded in the venue’s vaulted architecture this second go round.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Stephen Gauci/ Kris Davis/ Michael Bisio - SKM (Clean Feed)

Operating under the ostensible leadership of saxophonist Stephen Gauci, but still very much an ensemble affair, versatility factors prominently on this straightforward trio set. Gauci and bassist Michael Bisio are well-established colleagues, their associations formed in the last decade on a number of projects for CIMP. Canadian pianist Kris Davis moves in similar circles having worked with New York notables like Tony Malaby and Tom Rainey. Their rapport manifests right away, stressing spontaneity rather than any predictable path with their instrumentation. It’s a “down to brass tacks” approach echoed in a simple initials-as-album title summary.

All but one of the program’s eight pieces is collectively composed. Only “Now” sources from Bisio’s pen, a solo feature for his signature emery board arco bass. Gauci sits out the opening minutes of “The End Must Always Come” setting a precedent that shapes the other tracks in the set. Sharply drawn duos and solos thread through various pieces with Davis and Bisio frequently pairing off for tightly braided interplay. The bassist is no stranger to pared down settings in the company of a piano and that familiarity serves him well here.

Davis responds in kind though repetitive aspects of her playing grate on occasion. In the closing minutes of the aforementioned opener she locks on an ostinato pattern wears it down to a nub as Gauci flutters in circles around her. It’s an action wrought with intent, but one that ends up sounding overwrought. “Something From Nothing” takes the tactic to an even greater extreme, barely equating with its title as the three musicians built a constrictive repeating weave from the barest of rhythmic materials. It’s an initially interesting exercise in self-imposed group parameters that ultimately feels overly hermetic.

Other pieces like the comparatively aerated Gauci/Davis duo “Groovin’ for the Hell of It” fare better in speaking to the trio’s strengths. Davis’ dusky and staggered chords have a Bley-like luster to them and Gauci’s fastidious feather-duster tone plies in the service of suitably diagonal phrasing. Those comparisons bring immediately to mind the classic Giuffre trio, but it’s really just a surface point of comparison. Balancing liberating extemporaneousness within the context of carefully considered structures these three players arrive at a music that both invites and largely withstands close scrutiny.

ROW: Stan Getz - Nobody Else But Me (Verve)

The Getz/Gary Burton nexus was a relatively brief occurrence and one comprised almost completely of concert dates. This ‘lost’ session constitutes their only studio meeting in a pianoless setting and it’s quite the archival find. Bassist Gene Cherico and drummer Joe Hunt complete the ensemble in yeoman fashion, but it’s Burton who truly brings out a singular side of Getz, particularly on two originals “6-Nix-Quix-Flix” and “Out of Focus”. The vibraphonist’s veiled anecdotes hint at predictable frictions with his temperamental employer and the Bossa Nova strains that were the tenorist’s then-bread-and-butter infiltrate the rhythmic arrangements for ballad numbers like “Here’s That Rainy Day” and “Waltz for a Lovely Wife”, but there are shades of modal freedom audible in the principals’ exchanges as well. Vintage Van Gelder sound gives the instruments a greater clarity and balance than what they would encounter on air shots and audience recordings. Hard to find in these days of the waning compact disc, this set still stands out in Getz’s voluminous discography as a memorable departure from the norm.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Greg Lewis - Organ Monk (self-released)

Don’t let the barefaced cover art on this one act as a disqualifier before disc meets laser. Organist Greg Lewis might be a bit lead-handed with his monastic imagery, but his work on the B-3 is brimming with shades and subtlety. It certainly helps that the side-persons he’s chosen for the date include the redoubtable Cindy Blackman and a new name to me, Ron Jackson, on guitar. All but one of the disc’s fifteen tracks come from the songbook of Thelonious, a brave move on Lewis’ part to begin with given the preponderance of tributes past and present to the inestimable hat-and-bearded composer.

Lewis hardly seems stymied by the challenge inherent in saying something new with the time-tested material. In fact he goes it better by not shying away from the humorous and downright weird. His command of his console is startling complete, beginning with a burning take on “Trinkle Tinkle” where he plies the spiral staircase melody without missing a beat. The corkscrew freefall of “Four In One” falls similarly in line under Lewis’ nimble digits. Elsewhere on “Criss Cross” he combines the floating atmospherics of Korla Pandit and Sun Ra as Blackman builds tension and release accents for a spate of bracing contrasts. “Boo’s Birthday” contains a swirling church-inflected prelude before the trio states the theme proper.

Lewis’ has obviously internalized the masters of pedal-built organ bass from Smith on down through Holmes. His corpulent patterns balance tonal weight with adroit articulation as during the frothy give and take with Blackman on “Played Twice”. Jackson shifts between thick bacon-cut comping and cleaner single note solos. In the latter capacity he sometimes almost sounds like an extension of Lewis’ keys so close and custom-calibrated are his chord voicings. His solos are fewer in frequency than those of his employer, but he makes them count, as does Blackman most commonly within the context of drum breaks.

A word also seems warranted regarding the disc’s artwork, which includes a stylized tray card photo of a shirtless Lewis seated, his nude wife straddling him as their infant soon coos nearby from a baby rocker. It’s a striking image and one initially incongruous with the music. Lewis’ visuals may err on the obvious, but his take on Monk’s music preserves that reservoir of spontaneity so often depleted from the tunes in the hands’ of other interpreters. This is certainly a set to audition for jaded listeners who’ve all but given up on the organ’s application as a vehicle for singular expression.

Monday, August 9, 2010

It was 39 years ago today...

Stuck at the day gig today despite the arrival of a birthday. Thought I’d give myself a consolation present just the same by skipping a Monday review. Regularly scheduled programming to resume tomorrow. In the meantime, please dig this if you haven’t already: Jackie McLean on Mars

Friday, August 6, 2010

Dick Oatts - Two Hearts (Steeplechase)

Ballad projects can be dangerous prospects for the sentiment-sensitive saxophonist. Dip too deep into the romance bag and the results run a strong risk of coming across as treacly or trite. Constrict the emotive spigot and the outcome can be construable as bland or aloof. Midwestern mainstay Dick Oatts is well-acquainted with negotiating such obstacles of temperament over a professional career that spans nearly four decades. Counting sideman and jam session appearances this is his nineteenth title for Steeplechase though it dates back to January of 2009. Pianist Michael Weiss, bassist Ugonnna Okegwo and drummer Rodney Green are regular Oatts confreres. Bassist David Wong pinch hits for Okegwo on three pieces without upsetting the programmatic flow.

The ten tune set is an assemblage of notable standards, all of which have revolved through the Oatts playbook at one time or another. It’s testament to Oatt’s improvisatory powers that such a program can still yield green pastures for his horn. A medium-slow tempo sortie through “If I Should Loose You” starts things off in relatively sedate fashion with the rhythm section offering up a warm accompaniment the leader’s ranging alto. Slower pieces actually offer more succulent fruits starting with the lilting interpretation “We’ll Be Together Again”. Oatts sounds even more inspired on Ellington’s “Come Sunday”, his by turns plush and piquant tonal shifts accentuating the aged standard’s beatific theme. Weiss works well as frequent foil, his deft chordal work aligning with the steady throb of Okegwo and the skeletal rhythms of Green.

Raising the tempo a couple ticks, “Yesterdays” brings a dark edge of Weiss’ rolling, pedal-weighted momentum and some acrobatic emoting by the leader. The mood shift proves short-lived thanks to the soothing trifecta of “My Foolish Heart”, “Darn That Dream” and “Angel Eyes”. Echoing the intimation of its concluding foray through “Hello Young Lovers”, this is an album to savor in the company of a spouse or lover, snifter of top-shelf cognac and comfortable couch at the ready to see what develops.