By Ed Enright
This debut recording from Josh Sinton’s collaborative trio What Happens In A Year is a completely improvised affair, a collection of spontaneous compositions recorded in the close quarters of Oktaven Studio in Mount Vernon, New York, back in 2018.
Featuring Sinton on baritone saxophone and bass clarinet with guitarist Todd Neufeld and electric bassist Giacomo Merega, cérémonie/musique is, as its title implies, ceremonial in essence, the product of weekly get-togethers dedicated to creating new music in the moment. Sinton originally intended the products of their improv summits to serve as fodder for written compositions with predetermined melodies and set forms, but soon realized that the music they’d been making was already perfectly valid in and of itself. It’s a new tack for Sinton, a prolific composer who leads multiple groups and long has played a vital role on Brooklyn’s creative music scene.
The work on cérémonie/musique is hushed and never rushed; listening to the album’s seven tracks gives a feeling of strolling through an art gallery or botanic garden, taking in the surrounding beauty and coming upon each breathtaking surprise at one’s own pace. It breathes easily and conveys a sense of spaciousness that’s the antithesis of the chaotic, frantic sounds associated with so much New York-style “free” playing. Each track is an intimate conversation, from the interval-centered opener “la politique des auteurs” to the drifting sonic textures of set-closer “music from a locked room.” With cérémonie/musique, Sinton and his collaborators have transformed a shared ritual into a collective work of art.
By Ed Enright
Tenor saxophonist and Miles Davis alumnus Rick Margitza is the star of the fourth recording from bassist-educator Chuck Bergeron’s South Florida Jazz Orchestra, a powerhouse ensemble consisting of top players from Miami’s jazz scene. The crackerjack group does a bang-up job performing big-band adaptations of eight Margitza originals and one standard (“Embraceable You”) in this thrilling celebration of their honored guest, who blows on all nine tracks.
The compositions chosen for Cheap Thrills span Margitza’s career, dating back to “Widow’s Walk,” a radio-friendly tune from the 1989 compilation New Stars On Blue Note that included Bergeron in the rhythm section; “Brace Yourself,” a Latin cooker originally recorded on Margitza’s Blue Note debut Color, also from 1989; and the swinger “Walls,” which first appeared on the saxophonist’s early-’90s album Hope. More recent fare includes the extended composition “Premonition,” an ambitious piece colored with a full palette of woodwind timbres, and the propulsive, brass-powered title track. Margitza, who did seven of the nine arrangements here, has substantial big band experience—including stints with Maynard Ferguson and Maria Schneider’s orchestras—and sounds particularly inspired in the large ensemble context. He sounds better than ever on tenor, with a consistently strong, bright sound in the horn’s natural registers and a crystal-clear, extended altissimo range with lead-trumpet power. The presence of several ringers—including trumpeters Bryan Lynch and John Daversa, guitarist John Hart, percussionist Xavier Desandre Navarre, trombonist/co-producer John Fedchock and baritone saxophonist/bass clarinetist David Leon—raises this already tight ensemble’s game to new levels of exceptionalism and excitement.
Margitza and Bergeron are old friends who spent time making music together in New Orleans and New York, as well as studying at Frost School of Music, where the leader and many of his band members are currently on faculty. Cheap Thrills is a testament to the strength and longevity of their musical connection.
By Dave Cantor
Live From The Prison Nation ranks as Alonzo Demetrius’ leader debut, an album that finds the trumpeter angling for a space somewhere between the smooth and thoughtful tones of Theo Croker, and the driving precision of Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah.
Opening with a vocal sample of Angela Davis outlining the difference between “prison reform” and addressing a system that benefits from mass incarceration, Demetrius details a soothing melody that distinguishes itself from “Expectations’” pensive piano refrain before moving into a funky bridge. A few tracks on, “Mumia’s Guidance”—named for Mumia Abu-Jamal—finds the ensemble offering up a spacey authority, undergirded by bassist Benjamin Jephta and drummer Brian Richburg Jr. The approach enables both Demetrius and tenor saxophonist Yesseh Furaha-Ali to carefully consider their solo spots, never rushing, savoring each successful maneuver and animating the struggle of the track’s incarcerated namesake.
In addition to Live From The Prison Nation introducing its leader to a wider audience, the album also marks the first release from Onyx Productions—helmed by drummer and educator Ralph Peterson—that doesn’t feature its founder. That’s a significant vote of confidence, and the music here seems to bear out the trust Peterson’s invested in the young trumpeter.
By Bobby Reed
Two decades ago, Steve Spiegl arranged compositions by Bach, Brahms and Scriabin for Enigma, an album by his namesake big band. On his 17-piece ensemble’s new disc, The L.A. Sessions At Capitol Studios, Spiegl dives into the world of opera, crafting instrumental arrangements of works by Handel, Puccini, Verdi and Wagner.
Spiegl rounds out the program with three of his own compositions and an arrangement of Jerome Kern’s “All The Things You Are,” which, as Spiegl points out in the liner notes, is a song that incorporates “a classic chord progression in use since Bach and Handel.” Overall, the result is one of the best big band albums of the year—an ambitious work that has an operatic scope, but without pomposity.
Despite the disparate sources of material, Spiegl sculpted a cohesive 75-minute program; all the arrangements reflect the distinctive sound of his artistic voice. Nothing here feels constrained or academic, partially because Spiegl’s arrangements build in plenty of space for solos. Andy Waddell, in particular, gives the music a modern sheen, whether he is coaxing tender notes from a nylon-string guitar (as on the leader’s “Gardens Of Cordoba”) or shredding on an electric axe (as on “Ave Maria,” from Act 4 of Verdi’s opera Otello, here rendered as a jazz waltz). A masterful arranger, Spiegl has taken themes from throughout Puccini’s Tosca to create an 11-minute suite, featuring solos by trumpeter Ron Stout, tenor saxophonist Doug Webb and Waddell, whose use of distortion pedal gives the tune some unexpected grease.
Puccini’s Turandot has inspired dozens of pop culture performances—such as the renditions of “Nessun Dorma” sung by Aretha Franklin at the 1998 Grammy telecast and the instrumental version by Jeff Beck on his 2010 album, Emotion & Commotion—and now we can add Spiegl to the list. A highlight of his 12-minute suite, touching upon themes from throughout the opera, is Charlie Morillas’ gorgeous trombone work. Whether you’re a dedicated opera buff or a big-band fan with little interest in classical music, Spiegl’s album offers a wondrous world to explore.
By Bobby Reed
At first glance, it might seem that The Royal Affair Tour: Live From Las Vegas is an album only for hardcore Yes devotees. A spin of this excellent disc, however, reveals it to be a fine entry point for casual fans curious to know what the band sounds like today, more than 50 years after it was founded. At least 19 musicians have been members of Yes, and the lineup that played at the Las Vegas Hard Rock Hotel on July 26, 2019, was guitarist Steve Howe, vocalist Jon Davison, keyboardist Geoff Downes, bassist Billy Sherwood, drummer Alan White (a member since 1972) and supporting drummer Jay Schellen.
Over the past seven years of tours, Yes frequently has built set lists that include the performance of an album in its entirety, such as Fragile, Close To The Edge and Drama. But for the 2019 tour, the group took a different route, as reflected by the track listing here.
In addition to classic-rock radio staples like “Roundabout” and “I’ve Seen All Good People,” the band added a few twists to the set list, all of which worked splendidly. An epic, 11-minute rendition of Paul Simon’s “America” that folds in Howe’s composition “Southern Solo” proves that he remains just as agile as he was decades ago. John Lennon’s “Imagine” is delivered as a poignant vocal duet between Davison and John Lodge (one of the opening acts on the tour). Howe cleverly makes his guitar “sing” in a way that mimics Lennon’s famous vocal line, and the drums are courtesy of White, who played on the composer’s original 1971 recording.
The current members of Yes realize that comparisons to the group’s mid-’70s personnel are inevitable. Davison, gifted with an elastic tenor, can’t sing exactly like band co-founder Jon Anderson; Sherwood, capable of crafting an earth-rattling rumble, can’t play bass exactly like band co-founder Chris Squire (1948–2015). But neither Davison nor Sherwood is required to mimic their predecessors; their job is to honor the compositions. No one alive can swing like Count Basie, but that doesn’t prevent his namesake orchestra from making transcendent music. And the same is true for Yes.
Howe, who replaced Peter Banks as the group’s guitarist in 1970, remains the heart of the band. From the album’s opening track—an arrangement of Richie Havens’ “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed” featuring Howe’s psychedelic-flavored, twangy quotes from Jerome Moross’ score to the 1958 film The Big Country—to the gravity-defying, intergalactic riffs on the closing track, “Starship Trooper,” the six-string wizard ensures that the 75-minute program remains authentically Yes.
By Dave Cantor
Pedal steel doesn’t have to sound like Sneaky Pete Kleinow. And even if Charles Lloyd’s enlisted Gregory Leisz for his ensemble, The Marvels, there’s still room to roam on the instrument in just about any musical context.
Susan Alcorn—who’s been associated with avantists like guitarists Tom Carter and Eugene Chadbourne for decades—generally has gotten slotted into the experimental category during a career that stretches back to 1970s Texas and a clutch of country gigs. But there’s a tunefulness embedded in Pedernal’s outré moments, something that defies expectations of the avant-garde, the history of her chosen instrument, as well as the jazz genre.
For Pedernal, the pedal-steel player’s enlisted a cache of jazz performers, though—guitarist Mary Halvorson and bassist Michael Formanek among them. But it’s violinist Mark Feldman who contributes to the essential airiness here, dashing in and out of the space between Alcorn’s wavering tones on “R.U.R.” There’s also the purely exploratory “Circular Ruins,” where the quintet dispatches with time, gliding along Alcorn and Feldman’s strings to arrive at some dark intersection of jazz, classical, country and improv.
Hearing the bandleader count off “Northeast Rising Sun,” the closer, and dive into her melody might make listeners anticipate a classic country-style tune. But with Halvorson’s unassailable gambol, the song goes on to perfectly encapsulate the breadth of American music as drummer Ryan Sawyer shuffles a pulse and Formanek blithely injects his timekeeping with a swollen sense of melody that only could have been summoned during a joyous meeting of likeminded collaborators.
By Ed Enright
For this latest installment from the Analog Players Society—an eclectic collective featuring a rotating cast of top New York players since 2012—mix masters Amon Drum and Ben Rubin brought tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Eric McPherson into the Bridge Studio in Brooklyn to jam on a few standards and do some group improv. That three-hour session served as source material for two recent albums. TILTED, released in August, consists of three full songs culled from the session (Jobim’s “One Note Samba,” Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy,” the collective improv “Freedom Is, But A Fraction of Humanity!”). Soundtrack For A Nonexistent Film, out this month, is a mesmerizing program of 11 short, streetwise, hip-hop-based cut-ups cast in a cinematic soundscape that’s flush with surreal dystopian ambience straight out of Gotham City. The first six cuts on Soundtrack were helmed by Amon Drum, and the final five by Rubin.
“Chase,” the opening track, evokes a run-for-your-life urgency with its pulsating drum loops, throbbing synth bass and anxiously winding saxophone lines. The slow-groover “The Water Is Rising” disorients with detuned, under-the-sea piano effects. “Space And Time” dwells on a simple, four-note piano motif that conjures vast stillness while the bass and drums drive the incessant ticking of the cosmic clock. Dreamy saxophone floats into the foreground on “Starry Night,” occasionally interrupted by the heavily processed mechanical clang of Evans’ toy piano. On “Rock The Block,” chromatic shifts in the piano, bits of wailing tenor and tasty acoustic bass lines all are layered over a foundation-shaking monster-walk drum groove. Soundtrack embraces a fuzzy analog vibe with a low end that frequently pushes into the red zone. Echoes of “One Note Samba,” with its suspended harmony, and “Epistrophy,” a font of chromatic motion, abound throughout these trance-inducing mixes, all of which were assembled by ear, without using any click. Amon Drum and Rubin have created something truly compelling with these mixes, which merit comparisons with the uncut material on TILTED.
By Dave Cantor
Barre Phillips has been releasing solo bass recordings for about 50 years. And while an unengaged listener might just take away the idea that he’s careened from screech to screech and back again during that time, there’s a lot more to take in.
Maybe some of the most malevolent sounds Phillips cajoles from his instrument on Thirty Years In Between come off like wildlife field recordings interspersed with arco finesse. But there’s a train of thought here, the first of two discs offered with an occasionally more percussive approach to bass, Phillips testing the tensile strength of strings on “A Quake’s A Comin!” during a 2019 appearance at Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville. For disc two, an audio document from a Vancouver, Canada, venue in 1989, Phillips coaxes a different sort of brooding elegance from his instrument: “Camouflage” presents as something akin to nervy “new music.” But the sum total of this—as well as his solo works for the ECM imprint that supposedly concluded with the 2018 album End To End—feels like the examination of a core sample, offering the chance to deeply study the layers of sediment, the rocks, their coloration and whatever debris has been collected during the decades and centuries that’ve flown by.
With Thirty Years In Between, if you listen closely enough, maybe you can discern flecks of Peter Brötzmann or Barry Guy, Paul Bley or Keiji Haino, all collaborators during Phillips’ decades of exploration.
By Bobby Reed
On Vanessa Collier’s rollicking anthem of self-confidence, “Take A Chance On Me,” she employs a full-throated vocal style to declare, “I know what I’m here for/ So, don’t get in my way/ And let me be me.” Those lyrics could describe an interpersonal relationship, but they also could apply to preconceived notions that festival attendees might have about Collier, a star on the blues festival circuit whose artistry incorporates r&b, soul, funk, jazz, rock and Americana. With influences ranging from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to James Brown and Bonnie Raitt, Collier is impossible to pigeonhole.
To craft her fourth solo album, Heart On The Line, the Dallas native did some heavy lifting: She composed eight of the 11 tracks, played six instruments, wrote the horn arrangements, produced the disc and sang lead vocals, as well as the multitracked background vocals.
A two-time Blues Music Award winner in the category Horn Player of the Year, Collier opens the album with a slice of sly funk, reworking Brown’s classic “Super Bad.” In the Godfather of Soul’s original version, he encouraged tenor saxophonist Robert “Chopper” McCollough by yelling, “Blow me some Trane, brother!” In Collier’s rendition, when she nods to Brown by shouting, “Take me to the bridge,” it’s a cue to deliver her own wailing sax solo. (In the album cover photo, she’s posing with an alto saxophone on her lap, but she also plays soprano, tenor and baritone sax on the disc.)
Tracks like the original compositions “Bloodhound”—which is nestled firmly in the blues tradition—and the title track—which is flavored by some New Orleans brass revelry—seem tailor-made to win over festival audiences. On the foot-stomping “Weep And Moan,” Collier’s vocals show that she can belt with authority, while electric guitarist Laura Chavez takes a pointillistic approach, adding sonic dots of color to enhance the drama. Elsewhere, “Freshly Squozen” beautifully illustrates Collier’s originality as a composer and her dynamic range as vocalist. On this ode to a mother and daughter’s relationship, William Gorman’s organ work and Collier’s tenor sax solo add emotional punch to the vivid images conjured by the cinematic lyrics.
A graduate of the prestigious Berklee College of Music and a musician comfortable blurring genre lines, Collier is artist whose music can generate some much-needed smiles during this pandemic.