Monday, October 19, 2015

Arturo O'Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra: Cuba: The Conversation Continues (2015)

Arturo O'Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra: Cuba: The Conversation Continues
"I believe that there is no country in the world including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in part owing to my country's policies..." —President John F. Kennedy, October 1963

Revolution and musical genres share the characteristic of having an embryonic state. While the United States and Russia bore witness to the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the symbolic end of the Cold War, part of that war refused to end. An economically strapped Soviet Union withdrew support for the island nation of Cuba and the ideologically muddled US would not forgive the offenses of Fidel Castro despite years of supporting his ruthless predecessor. The onetime vacation paradise of Las Vegas mobsters, US politicians and corporate predators became a poor, weather-beaten relic with the exception of its art community. When Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika took hold in the Soviet Union, the halo effect—if not the economic benefit—was felt in Cuba. Cautious optimism led to a slow shift back toward the in-country evolution of Cuban music after years of talent migrating to more culturally forward thinking countries.

Like the music of the US, Cuban music has its primary origins in West Africa and the colonizing counties of Europe, chiefly Spain but also France. The creole elements were well entrenched when the country's music began to have more impact on salsa, tango and Afro beat styles. But jazz is where the Cuban sensibility has most greatly enhanced another genre through folk forms and earlier cultures and unique regional rhythms. There seems to have been an innate sense within the country that spoke to a cultural emergence that would be defined by the oppression and struggles of the past and a new order to come. Wisely, the purveyors of the movement would not shy away from the stability of nostalgia nor reject the rectitude that demanded some groping for a way forward.

Pianist and composer, Arturo O'Farrill was born in Mexico City, the son of famed Cuban composer/trumpeter Arturo Chico O'Farrill, who fled the regime of the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1948. The younger O'Farrill crossed paths with the like of Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, and Stan Getz as well as more modern Latin musicians of that era such as Tito Puente. When the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba was confirmed by the administration of President Barack Obama, O'Farrill and GRAMMY winning producer Kabir Sehgal were in a studio in Havana and quickly realized the enormity of the situation. O'Farrill designated a selection of composers from both the US (Dafnis Prieto, Michele Rosewoman and Zack O'Farrill) and Cuba (Alexis Bosch, Cotó Juan de la Cruz Antomarchi, and Michel Herrera) along with others, to get into the studio within forty-eight hours of President Obama's historic proclamation.

The energy and buoyancy of political events led to Cuba: The Conversation Continues; a commemorative celebration this historical transition. The two-disc set opens with Prieto's "The Triumphant Journey," a swirl of horns and percussion that wraps up with powerful brass and reeds. Commissioned by the Apollo Theater and written by O'Farrill, the twenty-one minute "The Afro Latin Jazz Suite" consists of four movements and strong performances from Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto sax and trumpeter Jim Seeley. As some of the movement titles imply, the suite is influenced by Islamic Northern Africa, Western Africa and the Americas and it is the expansive centerpiece of the first disc.

Guest pianist Alexis Bosch infuses his slowly building composition "Guajira Simple" with tension while Rosewoman's "Alabanza" is a highly textured amalgam of ethnic Nigerian, soul and jazz influences. Wrapping up the first disc, the vocalizations of Bobby Carcassés—including some impressive scat singing—dominate "Blues Guaguancó," a tune that wavers between mambo and bop. Interspersed are fine solos from Bosch, bassist Gregg August and trumpeter Jesusito Ricardo Anduz. The second disc opens "Vaca Frita" and it is in a very different vein given the presence of DJ Logic's turntables. The turntablist and O'Farrill had previously worked together on O'Farrill's The Offense of the Drum (Motéma Music, 2014). The piece also features third-generation O'Farrills with composer/drummer Zack and trumpeter Adam O'Farrill on hand.

Adam O'Farrill returns with a blistering solo on "Just One Moment." The Cuban alto saxophonist Michel Herrera composed the piece and is featured as a soloist as well. The relatively short song manages to tumble through myriad brass and reed passages. Two more vocal numbers follow; "El Bombón" with lyrics written and sung by Guantánamo resident "Cotó" Juan de la Cruz Antomarchi and an Earl McIntyre/ Renee Manning composition, "Second Line Soca" (Brudda Singh). Rudresh Mahanthappa returns on the concluding number "There's a Statue of José Martí in Central Park." Zach O'Farrill's celebratory composition pays tribute to the early advocate of Cuban independence, José Martí and his link to New York City. The thirteen-minute piece is part free jazz inspiration and part traditional Cuban carnival.

Even without the current US/Cuban political events Cuba: The Conversation Continues would have been an epic production. O'Farrell surrounds himself and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra with performers and composers who speak to a potentially global perspective as well as new audiences for the music of the Caribbean region. The album is a sprawling, adventurous collection that crosses genres and political borders, respecting tradition while forcing boundaries. This is O'Farrill's most ambitious work and—especially for those involved in the project—a once in a lifetime experience.

Track Listing: (Disc 1) The Triumphant Journey; The Afro Latin Jazz Suite: Movement I: Mother Africa, Movement II: All of the Americas, Movement III: Adagio, Movement IV: What Now?; Guajira Simple; Alabanza; Blues Guaguancó. (Disc 2) Vaca Frita; Just One Moment; El Bombón; Second Line Soca; There’s a Statue of José Martí in Central Park.

Personnel: The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra: Arturo O’Farrill: piano and musical director; Gregg August: bass; Vince Cherico: drums; Carlos Maldonado: bongos; Tony Rosa: congas; David DeJesus: alto sax; Ivan Renta: tenor sax; Seneca Black: trumpet; Jim Seeley: trumpet; John Bailey: trumpet; Jonathan Powell: trumpet; Tokunori Kajiwara: trombone; Rafi Malkiel: trombone, euphonium; Frank Cohen: trombone; Earl McIntyre: bass trombone; Peter Brainin: tenor sax; Alejandro Aviles: alto sax, clarinet, flute; Jason Marshall: baritone sax; Rey David Alejandre: trombone; Vince Cherico: drums; Adel Gonzalez Gomez: congas, percussion. Additional personnel: Jesus Ricardo Anduz: trumpet (1-8); Carlos “Hueso” Arci: guiro (1-8); Alexis Bosch: piano (1-6, 1-8); Bobby Carcasses: vocals (1-8); “Coto” Juan de la Cruz Antomarchi: tres, vocals (2-3); DJ Logic: turntables (2-1); Antonio Duverger: bongos, marimbula (2-3); Maria Gomez Matos: guiro (2-3); Michel Herrera: alto sax (2-2); Rudresh Mahanthappa: alto sax (1-2, 3, 4, 5, 2-5); Yasek Manzano: trumpet (1-7); Antonio Martinez Campos: bata (1-7); Renee Manning; vocals (2-4); Adam O’Farrill: trumpet (2-1, 2); Zach O’Farrill: drums (2-1), conductor (2-5), Roberto Quintero: maracas (1-3); Michele Rosewoman: piano (1-7).

Record Label: Motema Music

Michael Sarian & The Chabones: The Escape Suite (2015)

Michael Sarian & The Chabones: The Escape Suite
When he was all of one year of age, trumpeter Michael Sarian relocated from his birthplace in Canada to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Learning from some of that country's top musicians, Sarian began touring in Europe while still a teenager. Having worked in rock, disco and big bands, he eventually moved to New York where he studied jazz at NYU. While enrolled in that program he played and recorded with Joe Lovano and fusion guitarist Wayne Krantz among others.

Sarian's debut album Subtitles (Self-produced, 2014) was a straight-ahead acoustic effort with occasional hints of Argentina's folk style. The Escape Suite is a clear departure from its predecessor and owes more to Sarian's earlier experiences with rock and jazz fusion. The sextet (enlarged to a septet on three of the seven numbers) is populated with a mix of electric and acoustic and—on the whole—the sound doesn't so much skew in either direction but works as a synthesis.

There is a deep fraternal nature to Sarian's sextet/septet which is billed as "The Chabones," an urban Argentinian word for "dude" or "guy." All the players are alumni of the New York University Jazz program. Saxophonists Ricky Alexander and Jim Piela, trombonist David Banker, bassist Trevor Brown, drummer Josh Bailey, trombonist Christopher Misch-Bloxdorf and Michael Verselli on synthesizer and Rhodes have all benefitted from the all-star faculty at NYU and the effect is evident in their playing

With album art work that is strikingly reminiscent of Berkeley Breathed's Bill the Cat, we have a visual indication of Sarian's somewhat quirky cross-pollination of styles on this collection of original compositions. "Brett Atlas" opens the set with a soulful feeling; Banker's guest appearance on trombone and Verselli's thick monophonic minimoog adding depth to Alexander's stirring tenor solo. Sarian's trumpet literally speaks at the start of "Skirt Shock" which morphs into a Rick Wakeman/Chicago Transit Authority-like amalgam that breaks midway for another great sax solo.

A seamless segue into "North" maintains that fusing of brass and soul-rock impression until Verselli's Rhodes moves the tune into a mode that's not dissimilar to Return to Forever. Continuing unbroken, Sarian's trumpet and the reeds adopt a more flat out rock beat led by Bailey's persuasive beat on "Chain Mobile." "Bruises" is by far the most soulful piece on The Escape Suite and the tune on which Sarian's playing really shines. "Bitch Whistle" diverts with an electronics drenched experimental sound before the album wraps up with a marginally Latin tinged "Rise" featuring Misch-Bloxdorf's rich trombone lead.

The Escape Suite for all its electronic components and rock beats, can have a meditative effect at time. Sarian's compositions are complex and layered but easily accessible and the musicianship of all involved is first rate. The album should be an effective launching point for Sarian and company and for listeners, an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of some promising talent.

Track Listing: Brett Atlas; Skirt Shock; North; Chain Mobile; Bruises; Bitch Whistle; Rise.

Personnel: Michael Sarian: trumpet; Jim Piela: alto, soprano saxophone; Ricky Alexander: tenor saxophone; Michael Verselli: Rhodes, minimoog; Trevor Brown: electric bass; Josh Bailey: drums; David Banker: trombone (1); Christopher Misch-Bloxdorf: trombone (2,7).

Record Label: Self Produced

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Mostly Other People Do the Killing: Mauch Chunk (2015)

Mostly Other People Do the Killing: Mauch Chunk
If ever a jazz group defied labeling, it is Mostly Other People Do the Killing (MOPDtK). With their self-titled debut (Hot Cup Records, 2004), the group had demonstrated a wildly engrossing pastiche encompassing influences as diverse as Ornette Coleman and traditional New Orleans swing. MOPDtK was founded by bassist Moppa Elliott and trumpeter Peter Evans who met in the late 90s as students of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. When the two relocated to New York, saxophonist Jon Irabagon and drummer Kevin Shea, an eleventh-hour replacement at their first quartet performance, joined to form the long-running quartet. Mauch Chunk represents the first recording in more than ten years, where the core group has modified their personnel.

With the recent departure of Evans, the group interplay is altered, if not the methodology; still ranging from bop to free improvisation with the occasional reference to chamber jazz, and veering from structure to free form. Pianist Ron Stabinsky, now the fourth member of the quartet, is not new to MOPDtK, having performed with the group live in 2013 and expanded the group to a quintet for the very cool Blue (Hot Cup Records, 2014). Stabinsky's fit with MOPDtK would not be obvious from the note-for-note recreation of Miles Davis' ground-breaking Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959) as the album is completely atypical of MOPDtK's output. Mauch Chunk, however, makes it clear that Stabinsky's contribution is not only refreshing but also an anchoring element as the band matures.

Stabinsky jumps right to the front, quickly joined by Irabagon on the Henry Threadgill dedicated "Mauch Chunk is Jim Thorpe" and the piano/saxophone combination imparts a far different accent compared to past dynamics of Irabagon and Evans. What has clearly not changed is the quartet's penchant for effectively mixing passages of engagement with those of cooperation and the addition of a chord instrument enhances both. "West Bolivar" is a bossa nova-themed dance on the third rail with Shea pushing Stabinsky and Irabagon in and out of harm's way. The off-kilter rhythmic structure of the Dave Holland inspired "Obelisk" features some explosive soloing from Irabagon matched by Stabinsky's inventive—if more structured—contribution. More consistently melodic is "Niagra," a subdued waltz for the late saxophonist Will Connell whose club of the same name was the first live venue for MOPDtK.

Hard bop and blues dominate "Herminie" while "Townville" utilizes three distinct melodies linked by free improvisations. The Latin R&B flavor of "Mehoopany" features classy and soulful solos from Stabinsky and Irabagon; Shea interrupts the mood with a hectic snare performance before the piece returns to its central theme. The odd title is, like almost all of Elliott's compositions, taken from the name of a Pennsylvania town. Mauch Chunk itself is the state's former name for the town that—as explained by the extended title track—is now Jim Thorpe, PA.

As the wider recognition of MOPDtK builds, it's appropriate to point out that Elliott has become a leading composer of complex scores with the kind of high-wire flexibility needed to maneuver between structure and improvisation. The new quartet, as with the Evans era group, can sound like a large ensemble or an intimate club act as they seamlessly move from lyrical expression to the sound of an exploding junkyard. After more than ten years, Mostly Other People Do the Killing sounds better than ever; reinvigorated, mischievous and perhaps more willing to take a deep breath in the midst of these multifaceted works.

Track Listing: Mauch Chunk is Jim Thorpe; West Bolivar; Obelisk; Niagra; Herminie; Townville; Mehoopany.

Personnel: Jon Irabagon: alto saxophone; Ron Stabinsky: piano; Moppa Elliott: Bass; Kevin Shea: drums.

Record Label: Hot Cup Records

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Yago Vazquez/Scott Lee/Jeff Hirshfield: Stream (2015)

Yago Vazquez/Scott Lee/Jeff Hirshfield: Stream
These are good times for piano trios. Emerging groups like those of Pier Luigi Salami and Romain Collin, as well as the more establish work of Stefano Battaglia, have contributed to a recent spate of highly creative and renewed approaches to the format. Add to that list pianist Yago Vazquez, bassist Scott Lee, and drummer Jeff Hirshfield, collectively known as Stream, with their debut release of the same name. While Vazquez is in the process of establishing his resume, the mix of veterans and a relatively new face works well here.

The well-established Lee has recorded or performed with the late Chet Baker, saxophonists Lee Konitz and Joe Lovano along with Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Werner and countless others. His versatile career has included a role with the Metropolitan Opera Guild as well. Lee wrote nine of the fourteen tracks on Stream while three are penned by Vazquez and two are group improvisations. The other veteran player, Hirshfield, has an equally diverse background including a stint with the Joffrey Ballet and later with bandleader/composer Toshiko Akiyoshi, Tim Berne and Paul Bley as well as many other well-known artists.

Vazquez composed the title track which opens the album and quickly establishes that both quirky and intelligent approaches are welcome on Stream. "On Your Own"—the first of Lee's compositions—begins at a leisurely pace and takes its time building. Like the subsequent "F World," these pieces are solidly structured but leave both Lee and Vazquez plenty of room to improvise while Hirshfield deftly keeps the moving targets on the same page. "Nocturno" plays out like a lullaby though it rises and falls unexpectedly and is edged with unique personality.

The disconcerting "Times Square" is the first of the two group improvisations and is sometimes dark, sometimes chaotic. In comparison, a very brief "The Cloisters" is gently led by Vazquez' luminous piano and doesn't stray far from the central theme. Vazquez, Lee and Hirshfield have been playing together for roughly the past two years and have developed an effective and empathic method that works nicely across a variety of styles. Stream is fine first outing that should be of interest to those who like the piano trio format with a more adventurous feel.

Track Listing: Stream; On Your Own; F World; Nocturne; 456; Blue Country; Same But Different; Miniatura; New Old; Times Square; Missing One; Brake Tune; NoWhere; The Cloisters.

Personnel: Yago Vazquez: piano; Scott Lee: bass; Jeff Hirshfield: drums.

Record Label: Fresh Sound New Talent

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Galen Weston: Plugged In (2015)

Galen Weston: Plugged In
Moving from his high school listening experiences of groups like ACDC and Kiss, guitarist Galen Weston discovered jazz through the influences of well-established guitarists such as Pat Metheny and Mike Stern. After attending the highly-regarded jazz program at Toronto's Humber College, Weston opted out of music for more than ten years while pursuing other business interests. While traveling, a chance sit-in at a bar session in a small Greek town reignited Weston's interest in music. The result of his self-imposed emersion is documented on Plugged In.

After trading in his childhood acoustic for a yellow Fender Stratocaster, Weston brought together a group of seasoned Toronto session players for his debut. Bassist David Woodhead has worked with Gil Scott-Heron and Loreena McKennitt while percussionist Rick Shadrach Lazar's credits include Canadian alternative icon Bruce Cockburn as well as McKennitt. Drummer Al Cross has worked with The Black Crows and recorded on the Windham Hill Records label. Saxophonist Richard Underhill has performed and recorded with drummer Han Bennink, Julius Hemphill and Taj Mahal. His solo on "Song for Daphne" is particularly appealing.

Weston wrote ten of the twelve songs on Plugged In with "Like Someone in Love" penned by the 50s-era pop composer Jimmy Van Huesen and "Country" written by Keith Jarrett. The Jarrett tune—from My Song (ECM, 1978)—originally featured a soulful performance from tenor sax performance by Jan Garbarek whereas Weston's interpretation is more in the style that the title would indicate. One of several styles tackled by Weston, Plugged In opens with the fusion piece "Funk Opus #2" and like "Bensonite" (for George Benson), "Galen's Vice—A Tribute to the 80s," "Tasteless," "Late and Never" and "Rock Jam," much of the album skews toward rock.

The more jazz oriented compositions, particularly "A Song for Daphne," "The Yellow Guitar (A Guitarra Amarela)" and "Austin" (with a fine solos from pianist Matt Horner and Woodhead) fit comfortably in the smooth jazz category and are in sharp contrast to the fusion pieces. Weston is a gifted technician with a fine sense of lyricism. The disparity and placement of styles can sometimes be disconcerting but, in general, Plugged In should help Weston shape a following based on his potential as both composer and performer.

Track Listing: Funk Opus #2; Song for Daphne; Bensonite; The Yellow Guitar; Rose Garden; Country; Galen's Vice - A Tribute to the 80s; Austin; Tasteless; Like Someone in Love; Late and Never; Rock Jam.

Personnel: Galen Weston: guitar; David Woodhead; bass; Al Cross: drums; Simeon Abbott: keyboards (1); Matt Horner: piano; Richard Underhill: saxophone; Rick Shadrach Lazar: percussion; Lenka Lichtenberg: vocals.

Record Label: Blujazz Productions
Style: Modern Jazz

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Romain Collin: Press Enter (2015)

Romain Collin: Press Enter
On his way to creating this extraordinary album, French pianist Romain Collin had the opportunity to chat with Wayne Shorter about those who delay and defer their aspirations. Shorter's two word strategic summation would become the title for this project, Press Enter. Now a New York City resident, Collin did not begin his musical journey through the customary club circuits of Europe or New York, instead touring India and Vietnam with players from the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz. His worldly touring experiences (including dates with Shorter and Herbie Hancock) and the mentoring of Ron Carter, Charlie Haden, Wynton Marsalis and other top artists have been impactful but Collins style is unique and engaging without obvious influences.

The lush, propulsive opening number "99," has the best elements of progressive jazz and art rock and is the perfect hook to lead into Press Enter. The pace and atmosphere melding into "Clockwork" before a well-placed "Raw, Scorched and Untethered" provides a roller coaster of tempos and dissonance that demands closer attention. "Holocene"—one of two compositions from a source other than Collin—slows down the program as if to contemplate the backdrop Collin is working to create. The leisurely swing of "The Kids" resets the album and the forceful "Webs" returns to a more hard-driving theme.

"San Luis Obispo" is a beautiful Appalachian-tinged lullaby, sparse and haunting with the wordless vocal of Megan Rose. The powerful and poignant "Event Horizon," with contributions from cellist Laura Metcalf and Rose, chronicles the experiences of death row prisoners freed after wrongful convictions. In conjunction with the Innocence Project, we hear the overlaid voices of the convicted and the effect is memorable and disturbing. Equally moving is the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn inspired "The Line (Dividing Good and Evil Cuts Through the Heart of Every Human Being)" with its persistent urgency and drama reflecting the turmoil of the writer's Soviet era experience. Press Enter closes with Thelonious Monk's "Round About Midnight," a fitting cap given Collin's roots.

Collin's drummer Kendrick Scott and bassist Luques Curtis move impeccably from the theatrical themes to the more lyrically understated interchanges working with both symmetry and independence but always focused on the pictures that Collin intends to paint. The music here is intelligent and intuitive, the improvisation in a lyrical spirit. The defining characteristic of this group is that no one is an island and collectively Collin, Scott and Curtis have astonishing capabilities filling a landscape of incredible expanse.

Track Listing: 99; Clockwork; Raw, Scorched and Untethered; Holocene; The Kids; Webs; San Luis Obispo; Event Horizon; The Line (Dividing Good and Evil Cuts Through the Heart of Every Human Being); Round About Midnight.

Personnel: Romain Collin: piano, sound design, programming; Luques Curtis: double bass; Kendrick Scott: drums; Mino Cinelu: percussion (09); Megan Rose: vocals (01, 08); Jean-Michel Pilc: whistles (05); Grey McMurray: guitar (04); Laura Metcalf: cello.

Record Label: ACT Music