Rhapsody Streamnotes: April 7, 2008

Jazz Prospecting (CG #16, Part 10)

This is the last week of jazz prospecting for this round. Next week, unless I take a break, starts the next round. I finished off some records from the replay shelves, but for some reason I didn't feel like opening up anything new from the unplayed shelves. So I did something different this week as an experiment. I used Rhapsody to stream a bunch of jazz albums I never received. I think my first idea was that I might find a usable dud, but I soon got distracted by more interesting fare. I also have to report that I had a lot of trouble finding things. Mainstream European labels that I have been wanting to hear more from, like Criss Cross and Steeplechase, are not available. Avant-garde stuff is very spotty. Last year's "wish list" came up virtually empty, and checking stuff off the Voice's jazz poll didn't offer much more. And in the end I didn't bother with the few pop jazz things I thought of (Chris Botti, Kenny G) -- figured I'd just as well spend my time with, well, see below.

Like my year-end round-up plunge into Rhapsody, these are snap judgments, based on one or (rarely) two plays. Credits and discographical info are spotty. My policy on these is evolving. At present, I'm not using any of these records in Jazz CG, unless I find a particularly egregious dud. I am keeping track of B+(***) and up, and may seek out real copies. In any case, if/when I do get copies, I'll reconsider, write a second-pass jazz prospecting note, and possibly write something for Jazz CG. I don't know how often I'll do this in the future. It certainly helps in the case of some labels that produce interesting music but don't make promos available -- e.g., Tzadik.

Brad Mehldau Trio: Live (2006 [2008], Nonesuch, 2CD): I thought I might use the last week of the cycle to stream some records I never got -- the paranoid idea being that I might pounce on one or two for my Duds list. But to stream them, I have first to think of them, and this was the first that popped into my mind. I haven't gotten any of Mehldau's releases since Jazz CG started, although the publicist has been more/less supportive in general. (Bill Frisell's records have also been hard to come by, but they send me the Black Keys, so what can I say?) In some ways it's just as well. With few exceptions, Mehldau works trio or solo, and I often have trouble there. Mehldau is probably the biggest star to come out of the Fresh Sound New Talent series, and he made a tremendous splash when Introducing Brad Mehldau came out on Warner Bros. I concurred, but the following five Art of the Trio volumes left me increasingly speechless -- I think Vol. 5 is still unplayed (at least unrated) somewhere on a shelf here, and that's the last I have. I don't doubt that he is one of the major jazz pianists of the age, but he's so unidiosyncratic he's hard to characterize, and so consistent he's hard to sort. Larry Grenadier has been his bassist since 1995. Jeff Ballard plays drums, replacing Jorge Rossy sometime between 2002 and 2005. They take 12 songs deep here, the shortest the opener at 8:44, longest "Black Hole Sun" at 23:30, most in the 10-15 minute range. I got the most mileage out of "The Very Thought of You," no doubt because it was the most familiar song. Too long to digest, so pleasant and thoughtful and moderate it folds readily into the background. No doubt the sound is better on disc. Grades on streamed records are necessarily swags, but will hold for now. At some point I have some catching up to do with Mehldau. B+(***)

John Zorn: The Dreamers (2007 [2008], Tzadik): Not much evidence of Zorn's alto sax here. In some ways this more closely resembles his Film Works, although having heard only one or two of what are now 19 volumes hardly makes me any kind of expert. A dozen groove pieces, most led by Marc Ribot's guitar, with keyboards (Jamie Saft), vibes (Kenny Wollesen), bass (Trevor Dunn), drums (Joey Baron), and percussion (Cyro Baptista). Several build into substantial pieces of music, while most ingratiate and beguile. An earlier album, The Gift, is reputed to be similar. B+(***)

John Zorn: Filmworks XIX: The Rain Horse (2008, Tzadik): Might as well check out some of the latest film music while I'm at it. Zorn is prodigious, especially since he started his own label. The label doesn't provide any promos to reviewers, a big disappointment when I started Jazz CG. I've picked up his records when I had the chance, but have only heard a dozen or so out of more than 100 -- some wonderful, at least one awful. This one was written for a film by Russian animator Dmitri Geller. The pieces are played by Rob Burger on piano, Erik Friedlander on cello, and Greg Cohen on bass. Minor charms, the kind of thing that slips into a film without you noticing too much, but stands up to playing on its own. Leans a bit toward Russian, by which I mean Jewish, chamber music. B+(**)

Cyro Baptista: Banquet of the Spirits (2008, Tzadik): Brazilian percussionist, in US since 1980, with several previous albums on Tzadik and a lot of side credits. Starts out in disjointed Brazilian psychedelic mode, with Baptista singing over his disjointed beats, a style I've rarely if ever managed to follow. Later on several pieces pick up a Middle Eastern vibe, thanks to Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz, playing oud, bass, and gimbri, and they're easier to handle. Probably some good ideas here, but too much weirdness for me to handle on short order. B-

Karrin Allyson: Imagina: Songs of Brasil (2007 [2008], Concord Jazz): Singer, from Great Bend, pretty close to the dead center of Kansas, although we think of it as out west. Ten or so albums since 1992, starting with cabaret material and moving around a bit, including a couple of previous forays into Brazil. Plays some piano too, but Gil Goldstein is also credited here (also on accordion), and I don't have the breakdown. Most songs start off in Portuguese, then slip into English. I don't find either all that convincing, although it settles into a bit of a groove. B-

Marcus Miller: Marcus (2008, Concord Jazz): Two cuts in (called "Blast" and "Funk Joint") I wondered whether his minimalist bass fuzz would sustain interest at album length. Three cuts I got a negative answer, in the form of vocalist Corrine Bailey. I could have gone longer, but he didn't. Fourth cut fuzzed up Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground." Fifth cut guest slots Keb' Mo': 'nuff said. More fuzz, especially on pieces he was inspired to call "Pluck" and "Strum." More guests. "When I Fall in Love" is semi-amusing; "What Is Hip?" isn't. Closes with a second take of "Lost Without U" with Lalah Hathaway singing, an improbable and mostly fuzzless choice cut. B

Jacques Schwarz-Bart: Soné Ka-La (2007, Emarcy): Tenor saxophonist, from Guadeloupe, b. 1962; father French-Jewish; grew up partly in Switzerland as well as Guadeloupe. I've run across him several times before, and he's often impressed me with strong tenor sax lines, but he's fairly mild here, even playing a bit of soprano, flute, and guitar. The album mostly rides along on the gwoka drums, and various vocalists drop in for a world pop fusion thing. B+(**)

Roberta Gambarini & Hank Jones: You Are There (2005 [2008], Emarcy): Italian singer, from Torino. Don't know how old she is, but she seems to have recorded in Italy since 1986 or so. First US release was Easy to Love in 2006, which got a lot of notice, although I missed it. This looks to be import only, at least for now -- it seems like a lot of jazz artists on major labels in Europe and Japan never get picked up here. But it's probably just a matter of time in this case, not only because she's crossed her first hurdle but because her duet partner is something of a name in these parts. Just voice and piano. She sings in remarkable English, marvelous voice, clear and precise, a good ear for detail. The songs are all standards -- "Stardust" and "Lush Life" the most common, the latter as nicely turned out as any I can recall. Also a luscious version of "Just Squeeze Me." Other songs haven't connected yet, partly lack of familiarity. Of course, it's tempting to pick this up just for the pianist, and anyone so inclined won't be disappointed. B+(***)

Irving Fields Trio: My Yiddishe Mama's Favorites (2007, Tzadik): A pianist, b. 1915, still playing at 92. In his heyday he was what we'd now call a "lounge pianist," best known for his 1959 novelty record, Bagels and Bongos, which was a remarkably successful recasting of Jewish songs like "Hava Nagila" with Cuban percussion. He returned to the bongos thing many times, recording not only More Bagels and Bongos but also Pizzas and Bongos, Bikinis and Bongos, and Champagne and Bongos. It seems inevitable that he would be rediscovered by Cuban percussionist Roberto Rodriguez, who elevated Jewish-Cuban fusion to a whole new level, and that they would record as part of John Zorn's Radical Jewish Culture series. This is a much tamer, more respectful album: the songs are older, the piano dominates, the percussion is subdued and sometimes incidental. But they do reprise "Hava Nagila," and that picks up the pace. Greg Cohen plays bass. B+(**)

Irving Fields Meets Roberto Rodriguez: Oy Vey!!! . . . Olé!!! (2006, Tzadik): An earlier meeting, this time Fields' piano fits nicely into Rodriguez's rhythmic framework, with the instrumentation filled out by Gilad Harel on clarinet, Uri Sharlin on accordion and organ, and Meg Okura on violin -- also some vocal early on, but thankfully that didn't stick. The principals alternate songs, including Fields oldies like "Miami Beach Rhumba," "Managua Nicaragua," and "Song of Manila." Not sure how good it all is, but the shtick is pretty irresistible. B+(***)

Jeremy Pelt & Wired: Shock Value: Live at Smoke (2007, MaxJazz): Trumpet player, got some notice a few years back as the hot new kid on the block. Doesn't seem so hot here: don't know whether he's using a mute, riding the flugelhorn, or stuck in his effects -- probably a bit of all three. Opens with a long blues jam called "Blues," led by guitarist Al Street. Frank LoCrasto plays Fender Rhodes and B3, a smorgasbord of soul jazz clichés. Bass is probably electric too, hence the group name. Becca Stevens sings one song, which started off unpromising anyway. Only the closer, "Scorpio," starts to show off his trumpet to advantage. Too little, too late. B-

Third World Love: New Blues (2007 [2008], Anzic): Fourth album by this group, consisting of three Israelis based in New York, plus native drummer Daniel Freedman. I've been filing the records under trumpeter Avishai Cohen (Anat's brother, not the same-named bassist). The others are pianist Yonatan Avishai and bassist Omer Avital. All four players write, and the closer is by someone named Ellington -- Avital, who has a substantial body of work on his own, has the most, but Avishai's one piece is particularly nice. Slight Middle East flavor -- nothing too specific, nor generically world. Subtle enough it gained on the second play, and might benefit from more exposure. B+(***)

Tyshawn Sorey: That/Not (2007, Firehouse 12, 2CD): As far as I've been able to tell, one of the best young drummers to appear recently. Plays a little piano too, but so does Corey Smythe -- not sure what the breakdown is, but probably favors the specialist. In any case, this is a composer's record: the drums play minor, but sometimes startling, roles, with either piano or Ben Gerstein's trombone taking the leads. The long (42:50) "Permutations for Solo Piano" dominates the first disc. I figure it for sub-minimalism, mostly slow two-note patterns with a lot of resonance. Once you get acclimated, it doesn't much matter how long it goes on -- could be hours, but 42:50 is long enough to make the point. I can go either way on the piece. The trombone leads are more immediately appealing, especially the latter third of the 22:52 "Sacred and Profane." Most of the pieces are abstracts, sound dabbling with a limited palette. Many of them make sense only if you're playing close attention -- which among other things means noticing bassist Thomas Morgan. The record got a lot of positive notice when it came out, including a number two spot on Francis Davis's year-end list. When I asked for a copy, I was pointedly turned down, and I'm still rather pissed about that. Admittedly, it's the sort of record that I rarely find much more than interesting. After two plays I could go up or down on it, making credible arguments either way. But the second play revealed more, and there's so many diversely interesting stretches that it could conceivably cohere into a tour de force. A-

Ken Vandermark: Ideas (2005 [2007], Not Two): One of a number of albums -- a couple dozen is a wild guess -- that are little more than impromptu improvs Vandermark cut on the road with whoever managed to hook up the recording equipment and a small label interested in the product. Here the road is in Poland, and the band are the Oles brothers, Marcin Oles on bass, Bartlomiej Brat Oles on drums. Typical, I would say. Mostly tenor sax, some clarinet, some baritone -- the latter strikes me once again as exceptional. B+(**)

Ken Vandermark & Paal Nilssen-Love: Seven (2005 [2006], Smalltown Supersound): Rhapsody lists this as a single, but at 43:55 it comes to more than LP length: one long pieces (26:36), one medium (14:03), one short (3:19). Duets, the third set between Vandermark and his favorite Norwegian drummer. The long one starts ugly and takes a while to sort itself out, before turning into the usual cornucopia of sonic assaults. That, in itself, is not something I'm inclined to complain about. But a better place to start, not least because it was thought out from the start, is Dual Pleasure. B+(*)

The Thing With Ken Vandermark: Immediate Sound (2007, Smalltown Superjazz): The Thing is a Norwegian group, led by (mostly baritone) saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, with Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on bass and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums -- all names that will be familiar to anyone following Vandermark around. Vandermark started playing with Gustafsson back when the latter was in the Aaly Quartet, and they've collided a dozen or more times since then. Gustafsson is an inveterately noisy player. for the most part, I find him a difficult taste, but I've liked it when the Thing takes on pieces of grunge rock, where there is some structure to wrap the noise around. This isn't that. It's a four-part improv thing, which comes together neatly with rotating baritone lines near the end, but makes a bloody mess along the way. B+(*)

Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet: The Middle Picture (2005-06 [2007], Firehouse 12): Plays cornet. Student of Anthony Braxton; seems to have a continuing relationship. First and last cuts are trio with guitar (Mary Halvorson) and drums (Tomas Fujiwara). The rest add a second guitar (Evan O'Reilly), Jessica Pavone (viola, electric bass), and Matt Bauder (tenor sax, clarinet, bass clarinet). Very fractured, discontinuous music. The two covers ("In a Silent Way" and "Bluebird of Delhi") are useful for gauging the deconstruction -- the latter, from Ellington's The Far East Suite, is especially striking. The originals are difficult abstractions, intriguing but hard to get a handle on. The sort of thing I'd save for some extra plays if that were practical. B+(**)

Mary Halvorson & Jessica Pavone: On and Off (2007, Skirl): Halvorson plays guitar: grew up in Boston, studied at Wesleyan with Anthony Braxton, works out of Brooklyn. Plays in Braxton's Quintet, Taylor Ho Bynum's Trio and Sextet, her own trio. Pavone plays viola. Also has a relationship with Braxton and Bynum, and has appeared on a couple of Assif Tsahar's records. Also that Vampire Weekend record that's been getting a lot of hype lately. She has a couple of string thing records on her own label. Name reminds me of the great bassist Mario Pavone, but I haven't seen any references. AMG classifies both as Avant-Garde Music, not as Jazz. Fairly abstract chamber music -- not as broken up as on the Bynum album, but no swing or bop. Not an instrumentation I find appealing, plus I usually demur (or worse) from vocals, which both indulge in, but in the end I found this oddly charming. B+(*)

Free Fall: The Point in a Line (2006 [2007], Smalltown Superjazz): Third album by Ken Vandermark's trio, featuring the same clarinet-piano-bass lineup as appeared on Jimmy Giuffre's namesake album. Håvard Wiik plays Paul Bley, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten plays Steve Swallow, and Vandermark handles the clarinets. Beyond the lineup, I've never seen much affinity to Giuffre's trio, but I've also never turned into a big fan of the Free Fall album. Still, this is an interesting album on whatever terms apply: Wiik is more pro-active on piano, and Vandermark's aggressiveness is muted by the clarinet's limited volume. B+(**)

Derek Bailey: Standards (2002 [2007], Tzadik): Don't have a recording date, but reports are that this set was recorded two months before the widely acclaimed 2002 album Ballads. Bailey was an avant-garde guitarist -- perhaps I should say the avant-garde guitarist, at least on the British scene. The has a vast catalog, of which I've heard next to nothing (4 albums), and have no particular insight to. Not sure whether he's mannered or just obscure, or whether I'm just confused. This is acoustic guitar, solo. The seven songs are credited to Bailey. They may or may not code references to real standards -- "Please Send Me Sweet Chariot" seems like a promising title. No idea what it means. But there is something semi-hypnotic about his approximately random attack. It must means something that I wouldn't mind hearing it some more. B+(*)