By Ed Enright
Brian Landrus’ inner Harry Carney comes into full bloom on For Now, his 10th album as a leader.
Like Carney—who anchored the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s reed section and wrenched listeners’ hearts as one of the band’s featured soloists for more than 45 years—Landrus finesses the baritone saxophone and bass clarinet in a most loving manner, deftly mining the sonic treasures that dwell at the core of those instruments. And, à la Carney, he frequently indulges in waves of invigorating vibrato that bring the most lustrous tones of those low woodwinds to life.
Shedding all inhibition, Landrus bares his soul on this emotionally charged program of 10 original compositions, two brilliantly interpreted Thelonious Monk tunes and a fresh take on the standard “Invitation.” The dream-team rhythm section of pianist Fred Hersch, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Billy Hart enables Landrus every step of the way, engaging in a constant exchange of ideas with the leader and providing appropriately hip contexts for the wide range of earnest emotions he puts on exhibit.
Also on board are the excellent young trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, who dovetails with Landrus on octave-unison lines and harmonized passages throughout For Now, and violinist Sara Caswell, who on several tracks joins Joyce Hamman (violin), Lois Martin (viola) and Jody Redhage-Ferber (cello) on velvety, collaborative string quartet arrangements by Landrus and the distinguished opera composer Robert Aldridge.
As on Harry Carney With Strings—the Norman Granz-produced mid-’50s gem that presented the Ellingtonian baritonist at the helm of a jam-session-sized combo augmented by a small orchestra—the strings enhance the emotional impact of For Now with elegantly voiced touches of sophistication, drama and mystery. The string section also plays an important role here in giving voice to many of the classically informed harmonic concepts that Landrus brings to bear upon his jazz compositions, a modern-minded approach manifested most recently on his remarkable 2017 large ensemble recording, Generations (BlueLand).
Landrus always has swung his low-B-flat off on bari, and he offers plenty of that swagger on For Now. But throughout the new album, a gentler approach to the big pipes comes into the foreground. His bari flutters with utmost grace, his bass clarinet sobs for humanity and his alto flute floats cloud-like through moody skies. With For Now, Landrus has created a work of astonishing beauty. Let the revealing liner notes by Grammy-winning composer Herschel Garfein, who co-produced the album with Aldridge, serve as your listening guide.
By Bobby Reed
Singer-songwriter Ruthie Foster embodies the celebrated aesthetic of musicians in Austin, Texas, who frequently blend genres in an organic way. Her new album, Live At The Paramount, finds the Americana vocalist fronting a big band that glides through John Beasley’s arrangements in a program that includes Foster’s original tunes alongside gems from the worlds of gospel, blues, soul, country, New Orleans songcraft and the Great American Songbook.
With a three-octave vocal range, Foster knows when to croon and when to belt, whether she’s delivering a completely reimagined rendition of the Johnny Cash hit “Ring Of Fire” or paying tribute to Ella Fitzgerald by spiking “Mack The Knife” with doses of scat-singing. Although 15 musicians and three singers accompany her, Foster’s charismatic voice is so powerful that it remains the focal point throughout the 64-minute program.
The big band’s punchy horns lend a Stax/Volt vibe to a rendition of Foster’s original tune “Runaway Soul,” before the singer engages in a buoyant call-and-response dialogue with fiery tenor saxophonist Joey Colarusso. Other highlights include a tour de force version of “Phenomenal Woman” (from her 2007 album, The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster) and a sweet, swinging stroll through “Fly Me To The Moon.”
The program concludes with waves of the crowd’s boisterous applause reverberating inside the 105-year-old Paramount Theatre, one of Austin’s architectural treasures. During the current pandemic, those recorded sounds serve as a bittersweet reminder of the joy that live performances can generate.
By Dave Cantor
Guitarist David Torn has worked at the edges of the jazz genre for more than 30 years, moving from his synth-indebted Cloud About Mercury on ECM to more recent works with rock act Sonar and reedist Tim Berne, whose Screwgun imprint issued Fur/Torn. The album continues a solo approach Torn cultivated on works like Tripping ꞉ Over ꞉ God, a 1995 recording. But on this latest effort, he’s stripped away everything other than his guitar and almost overwhelming waves of distortion.
A loop pulses behind “lone rider, open plains” as Torn ricochets lines against it, turning the whole undertaking into an unceasing breaker of sound, while a tacit blues feeling swells for a moment on “they were then, now & again.” This is a contemplative music—both for the performer and listener. Deriving some sort of nefarious meaning from all of these dark reverberations would be easy to do, given the moment we’re living in. And while Fur/Torn is inexorably heavy and difficult to parse—though “someday find a waltz” engages a sunnier disposition through delicately plucked progressions—it’s comforting to take in through headphones, knowing that the music must have worked as some sort of catharsis for Torn, even if it was recorded prior to the world convulsing with seemingly endless chaos.
By Dave Cantor
During the past couple years, flutist Elsa Nilsson’s recorded duo and quartet projects, while still finding time to write Between The Beats, a book on rhythms aimed at players of melodic instruments. South By North East, a collaborative trio, finds a way to fold in a bit of everything she’s explored in those previous endeavors.
“Forward,” the opening 31-minute track here, finds Nilsson distorting her flute and dashing across a steady, repetitive Bam Bam Rodríguez bass line and a wealth of 16th notes, provided by drummer Rodrigo Recabarren. At least three distinct movements take the ensemble through a contemporary version of bop, prog-indebted explorations and snatches of contemplative quiet. That introversion crops up again during “Within.” But “Perception” gets readily funky for a spell, a surprising turn given some of the rockist intent here. It also intimates that Nilsson and her cohort are as ready to shift gears as they are to discard genre considerations altogether.
The flutist is out front across the recording, making the band, at times, sound like a ’60s psych act as much as a batch of jazz adherents. A spate of recent recordings, though, should have hinted at such an expanse. Nilsson’s work on a duo album—After Us—with pianist Jon Cowherd could sate traditionalists. And while her Hindsight explored a rock-related vibe that’s also a part of for human beings’ DNA, it was less fully realized, stumbling in places. This latest effort, though, exerts Nilsson’s mercurial skills as a musical marauder with as many interests as skills to deploy her ideas.
By J.D. Considine
The relationship between Debussy and jazz goes way back. The composer is said to have been inspired by the harmony and rhythm of African American musical forms, and numerous jazz musicians—most notably pianist Bill Evans—have cited his work as an influence on their ideas, particularly about harmony. Even so, while jazz arrangers have been more than happy to repurpose works by such contemporaries as Ravel, Albéniz and Stravinsky, there’s been precious little in the way of Debussy-jazz on the market.
Impressions Of Debussy attempts to correct that, albeit in a somewhat roundabout fashion. At the suggestion of Daniel Gustin—director of the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in Kalamazoo, Michigan—Lori Sims’ 2016 performances of Debussy’s Preludes, Books I and II, were sandwiched around a separate concert of Debussy-derived improvisations by soprano saxophonist Andrew Rathbun and pianist Jeremy Siskind. The idea was to contrast a straightforward classical interpretation of the work with a jazz-informed expansion of the composer’s ideas. Impressions Of Debussy compresses those three concerts into 78 minutes of music, with Sims’ excerpts from the Preludes followed by Rathbun and Siskind’s elaborations and improvisations.
Sims’ readings are a delightful surprise, offering solid but understated technique and an impressive control of tempo and dynamics, a combination that brings out the coloristic depth of these pieces. Siskind and Rathbun, by contrast, put less emphasis on technique, stressing instead the harmonic and melodic language of the material. They don’t do jazz “covers” of the preludes. Instead, they sometimes rework Debussy’s ideas into improv-friendly shapes, and sometimes riff on specific phrases to pull the music more toward the jazz vocabulary. Their take on “Minstrels,” from Book I, is perhaps the most successful example of the latter, with Rathbun seizing on a simple, ascending phrase and working it until it leads the two into an interpolation of Monk’s “I Mean You.” Siskind then expands that into a stride figure that winks back to Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” and then things explode from there. It’s lovely, erudite fun, though not obviously Debussian.
Elsewhere, their efforts are less exuberant, in part because there isn’t as much rhythm to play with. Take “… des pas sur la neige,” also from Book I. It’s given a gorgeous reading by Sims, who makes much of its leading tones and moody, rubato phrases; Rathbun and Siskind, however, can’t really follow that route, and instead offer a more romanticized extrapolation on the melody’s path through Debussy’s chords. Their take is pretty enough, but can’t quite muster the urgency to make its ideas sparkle.
Impressions Of Debussy delivers an attractive balance between classical music and jazz, but it doesn’t quite solve the problem of how to translate Debussy’s music into jazz. Perhaps even the best improvisors can only offer impressions.
By J.D. Considine
Composition and orchestration have long been recognized as essential skills in the art of making music, but what about personnel management? Getting the right players for a project can make all the difference, whether on the stage or in the studio, yet somehow “how to hire a band” remains absent from some conservatory curricula.
Should a school decide to establish such a course, I strongly would recommend hiring James Carney to teach it, if only on the basis of Pure Heart. On five tracks, the Brooklyn-based pianist offers music of astonishing complexity, both in terms of composed counterpoint and improvisational interplay. Listening to how perfectly the parts fit together and feed off one another, the metaphor of a watchwork comes to mind, with its intricate balance of cogs and gears. This is the sort of sound that typically takes months of rehearsing and touring to perfect—not something that simply can be thrown together with strangers in the studio.
And yet, that’s pretty much what Carney did. Although tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane appeared on Carney’s first album, 1994’s Fables From The Aqueduct, none of the others had played with Carney before—or, for that matter, with each other. Just listen to the effortless precision with which they dispatch the slow build of “Inharmonicity,” where the horns enter gradually and individually over a knotty, polyrhythmic pulse before slotting into a tangy ensemble section. If that doesn’t suggest long hours spent playing together, then certainly the interlocking, conversational lines of the subsequent group improvisation does. How else to explain the way Stephanie Richards’ trumpet works so perfectly against Oscar Noriega’s bass clarinet, or how Coltrane’s tenor so frequently locks in with Tom Rainey’s drumming?
There’s more, of course. On “Mayor Of Marceluus,” the sinuously serpentine melody and 31-bar form is effortlessly anchored by a linkage between Dezron Douglas’ bass, Rainey’s right foot, and Carney’s left hand. There’s the harmonic lushness of “Forty Year Friend,” on which the ensemble writing sounds like a small big band, and Noriega and Richards manage an almost telepathic degree of interplay while improvising. There is, to be honest, more spark, wit and passion in the playing than strangers ought ever to be able to manage, and for that Carney deserves a critics poll category of his own: Best Blend of Players for a Studio Project.
By Dave Cantor
We can’t help read meaning into art and music. And clearly, the weird adventure we’re all living through now isn’t what this improvising quartet was getting at with the title of its album. The music here, though, swings a bit more than the names billed might lead folks to believe.
Two extended excursions bookend a shorter four-minute piece, “Scintillate,” where 577 label owner Daniel Carter offers up a cool tone on both trumpet and saxophone, sometimes poking around a bit to figure out where pianist Matthew Shipp is tonally—and where he’s leading the group. This is exploratory music—yes, the title gives it away. But it’s also the kind of music that benefits from listeners being able to sit around together and discuss what they’ve heard—or what they think they’ve heard, expanding their own knowledge of music in the process.
Shipp and bassist William Parker have decades of musical partnership behind them, and drummer Gerald Cleaver’s been an occasional compatriot in the past, too. So, what does it mean that they’re performing within this context? Is Carter’s approach as good a fit as when the rhythm section here helped record reedist Roscoe Mitchell’s ECM album Nine To Get Ready in 1997? Maybe. Or maybe not. It’s not a topic that folks currently can sit around at a bar and discuss. Discourse around the music, too, has been kneecapped by the pandemic. And we’re all a little worse off for it.
Parker playing arco during a short stretch on “Majestic Travel Agency,” the opener here, is a nice detour before the song sputters to a stop. And on the heroic 20-minute closer, “Ear-regularities,” the quartet rumbles along its journey, with Shipp steering the way. We’ll have to see when further adventures actually can be chartered, so listeners and acolytes can again congregate and let the music direct their imaginations toward new intellectual panoramas.
By Bobby Reed
In March 2019, a group of superheroes assembled in Cologne, Germany. Their mission—to record a great album—might not be the stuff of comic-book plots, but in true, Avengers-like form, it was accomplished by accentuating each participant’s unique strengths. Guitarist Dave Stryker teamed up with Bob Mintzer and the WDR Big Band (for whom the tenor saxophonist serves as principal conductor) to record Blue Soul. The result is album that showcases the turn-on-a-dime precision of the large ensemble, as well as the composing and arranging acumen of the two marquee leaders.
Some of the tunes here—two Marvin Gaye classics, Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” and Prince’s “When Doves Cry”—will be familiar to fans of Stryker’s series of Eight Track albums, which feature jazz arrangements of old-school pop and r&b tunes. On Blue Soul, the big band adds intriguing textures that enhance the material without blunting the impact of Stryker’s clean, potent guitar lines.
Stryker and Jared Gold’s arrangement of Gaye’s “Trouble Man” spotlights a team of selfless players who value the sophisticated elegance of a big band and the greasy muscle of a small combo. Elsewhere, the duo’s arrangement of “What’s Going On” highlights Stryker’s remarkable ability to craft instrumental lines that evoke the cadence of Gaye’s vocal flights.
The program concludes with Mintzer’s arrangement of Stanley Turrentine’s “Stan’s Shuffle”—a bag of aromatic catnip for lovers of traditional big-band sounds. Thanks to Mintzer’s own reed work, the rendition subtly nods to the melodious playing style of Turrentine (1934–2000), who was once Stryker’s employer. Just like a great Avengers movie, this album could leave some fans fully satisfied, yet also longing for a sequel.
By Bobby Reed
Drummer Vanderlei Pereira’s choice for his band’s name—Blindfold Test—and the title of his leader debut—Vision For Rhythm—both convey the positive attitude of a gifted musician who, as a youngster, lost his sight due to retinitis pigmentosa. In concert, his bandmates occasionally don blindfolds when performing their most intricate numbers, helping to draw a personal connection to the way in which their leader experiences music. But when a band plays this well, no such stunts are necessary to win over new fans.
Fluent in many musical styles associated with his native Brazil, the New York-based Pereira has assembled a 70-minute program that includes four of his original compositions, as well as works by Antonio Adolfo, Edu Lobo and Toninho Ferragutti, among others.
On this album of sextet recordings, the leader has crafted arrangements that give his bandmates plenty of room to shine, as evidenced by Jorge Continentino’s authoritative flute work on “Misturada (Mixing),” a 7/4 samba composed by Airto Moreira, as well as Gustavo Amarante’s compelling electric bass solo on “O Que Ficou (What Remains),” a Pereira original.
The leader’s wife, Susan Pereira, elevates the program with a variety of wordless vocal acrobatics, often adding a percussive element via rapid-fire bursts of coloration. On a rendition of Zeca Freitas’ “Alma Brasileira (Brazilian Soul)” she delivers a dazzling performance, precisely mirroring the shifts in Rodrigo Ursaia’s tenor saxophone lines. The effect is as impressive as it is hypnotic.
The band name Blindfold Test has another connotation, too. DownBeat readers have been enjoying the Blindfold Test—in which a musician is asked to comment on unidentified tracks—since 1951. Now, the challenge arises for a fervent journalist to play a track by Vanderlei Pereira & Blindfold Test during a future DownBeat Blindfold Test. After all, Vision For Rhythm offers a dozen great tracks from which to choose.