By Ed Enright
When it comes to arranging the music of Frank Zappa for big band, Ed Palermo has demonstrated uncanny ability. The bandleader and multi-instrumentalist has released two acclaimed albums dedicated to Zappa’s music, starting with his big band’s 1997 debut, The Ed Palermo Big Band Plays Frank Zappa (Astor Place), and continuing with Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance (Cuneiform) in 2006. Early last year, Palermo released an ambitious double album featuring his big band arrangements of songs by various British rockers. Now comes The Adventures Of Zodd Zundgren, which reinvents music by Zappa and Todd Rundgren, two much-admired but drastically different American rock composers who made a strong impression on Palermo during his teenage years in the 1960s. Palermo and band navigate seamlessly between the Zappa and Rundgren oeuvres, playing with passion and precision one moment, embracing hilarity and absurdity the next. Highlights include prominent baritone saxophone parts smartly executed by Barbara Cifelli (as on Rundgren’s “Influenza”), Bruce McDaniel’s intricately layered vocals on the Zappa tune “Echidna’s Arf (Of You),” Bill Straub’s breathy tenor saxophone statement on Rundgren’s “Wailing Wall,” Katie Jacoby’s fine violin work on Zappa’s “You Are What You Is,” and Palermo’s wailing electric guitar solos on Rundgren’s “Kiddie Boy” and Zappa’s “Marqueson’s Chicken.” Madcap humor abounds, which should come as no surprise from Palermo, who wryly credits controversial White House adviser Kellyanne Conway as the project’s “alternative executive producer.”
By Bobby Reed
The band name WM Project nods to the first letter in the surnames of pianist Andrzej Winnicki and tenor saxophonist Krzysztof Medyna, who are longtime collaborators. They performed together in Europe in the 1980s before relocating to the United States, and in the 1990s, they were members of the band Electric Breakwater. Also, they were both in the band the Komeda Project, which was dedicated to the music of Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda and recorded a few albums, including 2009’s Requiem. For their new band’s debut, the pianist and saxophonist have assembled a terrific lineup: trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, trombonist Marshall Gilkes, guitarist Rafal Sarnecki, bassist Jeff Dingler and drummer Michael Winnicki, who is Andrzej’s son. “Looking Ahead”—an Electric Breakwater tune that has been recast in an arrangement that features Pelt—displays the muscularity of a large ensemble and the nimbleness of a combo. Michael Winnicki’s “Das Bounce” illustrates the band’s mastery of shifting moods and time signatures, while Andrzej Winnicki’s buoyant “Praeludium” offers driving momentum, a potent bass line and a horn riff that becomes an earworm. The bulk of the album consists of original compositions, but the program’s two standards, “Take Five” and “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” are refreshed with creative arrangements. The WM Project will promote the album with a March 29 concert in New York at the Kosciuszko Foundation, a center of Polish culture located at 15 E. 65th St.
By Dave Cantor
The break toward the end of “Tizita,” the lead track on Hailu Mergia’s Lala Belu, brilliantly encapsulates a career that stretches back decades to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Bassist Mike Majkowski and drummer Tony Buck, of Australia’s The Necks, push the album toward its most traditional jazz conceit just before Mergia—a keyboardist, synthesizer player and accordionist of the highest order—drops back in with a dose of supremely soulful soul-jazz. Then the groove subsides as Mergia offers up a musical denouement, pulling from an earlier portion of his life, prior to his relocation to Washington, D.C., in the early ’80s.
Reintroduced to the world several years ago, thanks to the Awesome Tapes From Africa label’s reissues of Shemonmuanaye (1985) and Tche Belew (1977), Mergia’s become a well-regarded player who, after decades of living as a civilian, slowly has reclaimed a career as a musician. Although the reissues certainly helped pave the way for this new release, these most-recent recordings constitute a strong, stand-alone statement.
“Addis Nat” is unexpurgated funk, as Mergia takes to the accordion, his contributions a bit loose in contrast to his taut rhythm section. And while there are repeated turns to jazz-funk, Lala Belu offers quiet moments, too. “Yefikir Engurguro” closes out the disc in somber fashion, spotlighting Mergia’s solo piano prowess. It’s a poignant moment, one that gives the listener an opportunity to contemplate the long, almost unfathomable path that led Mergia from Ethiopian dance halls to D.C. to widespread fame.
By Bobby Reed
On the second album that Thomas Strønen has recorded with his band Time Is A Blind Guide, the Norwegian drummer offers a highly improvised program that is challenging, accessible and hypnotic. The ensemble pursues an aesthetic that draws upon many genres, including jazz, folk, baroque (and other European classical styles), new music, avant-garde sounds, film scores and traditional Japanese music. Strønen, who wrote or co-wrote all the tracks here, gives his bandmates—Ayumi Tanaka (piano), Ole Morten Vågan (bass), Håkon Aase (violin) and Lucy Railton (cello)—plenty of room to improvise. As one would expect from a project helmed by Manfred Eicher, the production incorporates ample sonic space, allowing the listener to revel in intricate details, such as the reverberations of Vågan’s bass strings and the sound of Strønen’s brushes moving across drum heads. The title track, one of the more structured pieces, features Tanaka’s elegant piano lines and Strønen’s insistent cymbal work. “Truth Grows Gradually” exploits the beauty of the instrumentation here, with a track that feels a bit like the pairing of a piano trio and a string trio. Listening to this 52-minute program is akin to strolling through an art exhibition in which some of the musical segments are serene landscapes and others are “action” paintings by Abstract Expressionists. Overall, this sonic journey is a rewarding one.
By Ed Enright
The shiny aluminum trailer depicted on the cover of Rudy Linka’s latest album is a 1964 Airstream Bambi, an iconic piece of American culture that the Czech-born guitarist received as a birthday gift from his wife. The trailer is a hit wherever Linka takes it, whether on the set of his Czech TV show Linka or at one of the many stops along the route of his traveling Bohemia Jazz Festival. And apparently it’s a source of inspiration for Linka, a seasoned road warrior who gives nods to Americana, Delta blues, rock, straightahead jazz and more on this tasteful new trio recording with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Rudy Royston. Linka gives a tonal and stylistic wink to guitarist John Scofield on the ballad “Field Of Sco.” The trio acknowledges the late Jim Hall, a formative influence on Linka, in the swingin’-and-boppin’ “Big Hall Blues.” And Linka’s “Just Right” is based on a rockin’ blues riff that screams Jimi Hendrix, right up to the “Purple Haze” quote that marks the end of the tune. The first of two distinctly different takes on The Beatles’ “Come Together,” which opens the album, is reharmonized and played at a measured pace. The second, which appears nine tracks later, is delivered with more bite and rhythmic drive. American Trailer is constructed entirely of such solid material, making for a memorable road trip through the wide world of Linka.
By Frank Alkyer
Twio presents the terrific tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III in a tight, tight, tight trio setting. His tone and melodicism are just killing with a flow of ideas that’s vast and beautiful. Smith has been an outstanding player for a long time on his own leader projects and as an accompanist for everyone from Roy Haynes and Terence Blanchard to Sean Jones and Ambrose Akinmusire. But here on Twio, you can tell he’s been peeling back the layers of his art form to focus on the essence. The program is a set of nine standards, or takeoffs on standards, and Smith felt that this material allowed him to just go in, play and enjoy the camaraderie of the musicians around him. At the end of the Monk classic “Ask Me Now,” drummer Eric Harland and bassist Harish Raghavan drop out after swinging beautifully, leaving Smith to whoop, wail and riff for a full two minutes of saxophone colossusism. (OK, that is a made-up word, but that’s the level of respect Smith commands.) He floats across the perfect swing laid down with grace by Harland and guest bassist Christian McBride on “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman also guests on this set, dueling with Smith on “Contrafact” (based on “Like Someone In Love”) and “On The Trail,” a loping jam on the Ferde Grofé standard. All three takes are spot-on fantastic. And so is the entire album, which also features “We’ll Be Together Again,” “The Peacocks” and “Nobody Else But Me.”
Smith allowed himself to have some fun, both when recording and marketing this album. On his website, you can check out cuts from the album, along with some cool video of the recording sessions. Another highlight is a humorous clip devoted to the album’s name. Smith gets dozens of musicians—from John Clayton to Steve Lehman to Linda May Han Oh—to say the word “Twio.” Theo Bleckmann and Thomas Pridgen offer several ridiculously funny takes on how to pronounce it.
By Dave Cantor
The exquisite corpse apparently was a part of Arnan Raz’s childhood frivolity in Israel. The tenor saxophonist used the game’s underlying concept—where one person starts drawing a portrait, then passes it along to a friend, who adds to the work without being privy to what’s initially been scribbled down, and the process is repeated until the drawing is complete—to create his new album, Chains Of Stories. This approach offers a weird form of indeterminacy: John Cage would approve. What’s surprising, though, is how cogent Chains Of Stories sounds.
Arriving two years after Raz’s debut as a bandleader, Second To The Left, this new album is a sonic continuation, illustrating the saxophonist’s growth as a melodist. Both albums adhere tonally to a contemporary sound clearly indebted to West Coast cool. But whereas Raz’s melodic intentions occasionally needed to be shoehorned into the proceedings on that earlier album, here the material coheres gracefully.
However genteel most of this disc is, a nasty bit of saxophone—akin to something Charles Mingus might’ve coaxed out of Eric Dolphy—erupts on “Two Worlds One Soul,” then quickly subsides. It’s the surprising moments that make Chain Of Stories so compelling. Raz displays a noteworthy confidence here and throughout the album, both as a composer and as a bandleader with a vision.
By Bobby Reed
Fans of straightahead jazz should check out the compelling new album Straight Forward by the sextet New Faces. Producer and label head Marc Free’s stated goal with this disc is to provide a “representation of the musical aesthetics and operational ethos of Posi-Tone Records.” Because each member of New Faces is a gifted bandleader, this album serves as an intriguing calling card for trumpeter Josh Lawrence, vibraphonist Behn Gillece, tenor saxophonist Roxy Coss, pianist Theo Hill, bassist Peter Brendler and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza. The first half of the program features interpretations of gems from the Posi-Tone catalog—including pianist Jon Davis’ catchy composition “Happy Juice,” originally recorded as a piano trio number—and the second half focuses on newer compositions, including two from Lawrence and three from Gillece. The catalog songs are delivered with inventive new arrangements, exemplified by “Delilah Was A Libra,” which originally appeared on guitarist Edwing’s 1995 album, Trapdoor, and here becomes a showcase for Gillece’s luminous vibraphone tone. Lawrence’s “Hush Puppy” highlights the band members’ ability to spice up an arrangement with individual contributions—Lawrence’s muted trumpet, Hill’s fluid pianism, Sperrazza’s concise interludes—while serving the song as a whole and avoiding grandstanding. The program concludes with the bluesy swing of “Preachin’,” a composition from organist Jared Gold, who doesn’t play on the track but gives Lawrence a vehicle for a fine and mellow solo.
By Dave Cantor
Many of the compositions that guitarist Nick Millevoi has been toying with for the past several years feel like exposition. With his Desertion Trio, Millevoi churns over dusty tones reminiscent of a Spaghetti Western soundtrack, if Ennio Morricone chose to spotlight an appreciation for high-minded jazz scaffolding and noodling psych-rock jams. Midtown Tilt, the bandleader’s second effort with his desert-themed group, continues to benefit from the whirring of Jamie Saft’s organ, which adds a shot of soul to the proceedings. On Millevoi’s 2016 effort, Desertion (Shhpuma/Clean Feed), the guitarist still seemed to be grappling with the premise of the newly constituted ensemble. Here, it moves toward fruition.
For a listener dropped into the middle of any of these seven compositions, it’d be difficult to differentiate between tracks; these tunes aren’t for whistling. But Millevoi has worked to find a highly specific setting for his shredding. And Midtown Tilt offers time—and space—for him and Saft to get free. “The Mynabird” ventures into jazz-rock territory, while “It’s A Hard World For Little Things” counters that aesthetic with relatively easy-to-resolve melodic figures and a decidedly doleful pacing. “Numbers Maker,” which opens with Saft and drummer Kevin Shea pirouetting around each other, momentarily disrupts the rhythmic similarities within the program. It also further establishes Millevoi’s compositional capacity as he expounds on music that could have come from any time during the past 40 years.
Millevoi and his troupe are still on the ascent. Whatever they come up with next likely will build on the successes of the highly satisfying Midtown Tilt.