Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Because I play better when I'm breathing... next gig, this Friday.

This weekend I will be playing my first public gig in awhile: I am involved in a Boston Fashion Week benefit at the Langham Hotel on Franklin Street. The website is here. I'll be playing before the runway show with a trio featuring fantastic guitarist Greg Duncan. All proceeds benefit the Zakim Center for Integrative Medicine. It is sort of a collision of my professional worlds- it will be a yoga-heavy crew, and a lot of my friends and colleagues in the yoga world were photographed for the exhibit. I'd love to see you there.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Bad Plus, Berklee, 9/17/10

The usher who introduced The Bad Plus at Berklee lauded their "avant-garde populism" and career longevity. (Their new album, Never Stop, celebrates their tenth year together touring, and is the first to eschew covers of pop tunes, relying wholly on the band's originals) If you can get past the inherent contradiction of that descriptor, both were on display Friday night. The band started the set with Ethan's free ballad "2pm", then the band went into a run of their most familiar originals: "And Here We Test Our Powers of Observation", "The Empire Strikes Backwards", and "Anthem for the Earnest". (Possibly also three of the best jazz song titles ever) I don't think I've been to a jazz show where so many people cheered after the first phrase of so many tunes. The second half was devoted to the material on the new album: "People Like You", "Beryl Loves to Dance", "You Are", fashion ditty "Never Stop", and "The Radio Tower Has a Beating Heart". The guys gave each tune backstory recently on NPR's Blog Supreme.

The second half was vintage Bad Plus- tremendously tight, with forms taking hairpin turns through tremendously virtuosic meter change. Some tongue in cheek playing- Ethan pounding away in the "Never Stop" transitions, free jazz power balladry on "Radio Tower", and a downright loopy illustration of "Beryl". The first head of "People Like You" was quiet to the point of shy, then the tune built to a point of bombast, before bassist Reid Anderson reeled it in with a few beautiful lines. I've reviewed TBP a few times in the past, and in this music I have little to add.

But the first half was different from anything I've heard them do. From early in "2pm", the comfort with both the music and each other led to some really transcendent music making, from the way pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer Dave King hooked up on and built an idea together, the kind of hookup Herbie and Tony Williams or McCoy and Elvin knock you out with. Reid followed with a solo that reminded you of Charlie Haden, again, in passion and tone rather than content. The band has frequently talked about its passion for Keith Jarrett's American Quartet, and it was on display here. That kind of brilliance- in my notes I wrote "kinetic transcendence"- was obvious throughout. There was an elasticity to the breaks and transitions in "Anthem", as if they could have stopped on a dime.

For encores, the band played their cover of "Flim", then an abuse of "Have You Met Miss Jones" that changed speed every six bars or so. Here perhaps was the kicker- if you got past the goofyness of the conceit, when the band settled on a tempo it really swung. Despite my enthusiasm for the band, I wasn't sure they had it in them (Sorry guys) to the point that I'd happily stay for a set of "Perdido" and "Nardis". Not that that'll happen anytime soon, right guys? Guys???

Monday, September 20, 2010

Ran Blake Birthday Celebration at NEC

Tonight at New England Conservatory there is a celebration of the inimitable Ran Blake, 75 years young, featuring an all-star cast of current and former students, live music to wild films, and surely many surprises. I was fortunate enough to be at the 70th birthday (I'm not able to make it tonight) and it was a remarkable evening. John Medeski reflects with Ran in yesterday's Globe. It should be a great evening, and Happy Birthday Ran!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Kurt Rosenwinkel and OJM, Berklee Performance Center, 9/15/10

The president of Berklee, on hand to kick off the Berklee, er, Beantown Jazz Festival, quoted no less than Bill Frisell in describing Kurt Rosenwinkel as one of the most distinctive voices on guitar today, playing brilliantly and wearing no particular influence on his sleeve. Last night at Berklee, Rosenwinkel took his most distinctive playing to a venerable setting, painting his playing and writing on top of a big band, in this case the Portugese OJM (Orquestra Jazz de Matosinos). The concert consisted of seven of the nine charts on their new album, Our Secret World.

I have to admit I stupidly slept on Rosenwinkel in my time in New York- when I was there he was playing at Smalls a lot- so listening to his records in preparing for this concert has been a pleasant discovery. Frisell is not overstating; his improvising is at once thoughtful and virtuosic. I bumped into a former student who is studying at Berklee, and she said in his afternoon workshop Kurt talked a lot about guitarists paying more attention to the sound of the guitar, and trying to be musical and thoughtful in even the most mundane parts of your practicing. You can here it in his playing- his block chord intro to "Zhivago" was lovely, a warm tone and clever dense chords lingering in a wash of reverb. And his lines are remarkable, smart, clean and at once studied and kinetic. While Kurt took most of the solo turns, there were a couple of saxophone solos (the band was introduced, but I couldn't catch names through the thick Portuguese accent of the conductor and the fuzzy acoustics of the room). They were solid players, clearly very competent and checking out all the hip New Yorkers- the tenor player owed a lot of his phrasing choices to Donnie McCaslin. The rhythm section was generally solid, with the drummer shining on the brighter tempos and a little sluggish on the slower waltz "Cloister".

While I came out a much bigger fan of Kurt, I can't say I loved the show. Part of the problem was the charts- Kurt writes twisty, abstract tunes, which are inherently hard to arrange. (having not once but twice written terrible charts on Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge", I understand both the attraction and the peril of this work) "Zhivago" was the most successful chart, with Kurt's long but lilting waltz form embellished attractively with lots of twisty counterlines, and a nice Kurt plus saxophones soli just before the final restatement of the head. But the title track was more the norm- I felt like the tune was hard to grab onto, and then there was a lot of dense writing thrown on top of an already dense tune, which left me more confused than happy as a listener. And the writing favored long pads and, with few punches in the brass against the melody, which especially in a tall room like Berklee can make the band sound wishy-washy. (The band didn't help by being very casual with the end of notes. Even at the end of some of the tunes the cutoffs weren't clean)

In addition, I thought there was a sameness to a lot of the writing- brief intro, Kurt playing the melody doubled by a saxophone, Kurt solos, with backings coming in somewhere in the second half of the first chorus, then a little writing- usually development, only one tune, "Deja Vu" had an old fashioned shout chorus, then the head out. There were beautiful nuggets in the writing- the middle of "Cloister", with the drums only barely present and an ethereal melody, shimmered and glowed, leading to an inspired bit of blowing by Kurt, and the aforementioned "Zhivago" was a lot of fun- but my ears screamed for more space and clarity. It reminded me of some of Kenny Wheeler's and Dave Holland's lesser big band work in both good and bad ways. The good- ambitious representations of challenging music, with a lot of harmonic richness and brilliant blowing by the frontman. The less good- a certain monochromaticism and muddiness in both writing and ensemble playing. That said, there was some great music made, and I hope both sides pursue this collaboration further- there is room to expand here.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Baked bean updates

I neglected to mention in yesterday's post that both Rosenwinkle and the Bad Plus are giving workshops at Berklee, 1pm on the day of their respective shows. A work commitment keeps me from TBP, but I'm hoping to check Kurt out tomorrow. Both are free and (I believe) open to all.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The beans slowly start to simmer

This week the annual (is this 5?) Beantown Jazz Festival kicks off, and it is in many ways a step up. The BJF is a mix of focused concert booking by Berklee, it's major sponsor, high impact visibility by the two big clubs of Boston, Scullers and the Regattabar, and a free all day concert in the South End, behind the other gargantuan of music education, New England Conservatory. The full schedule is at their website.

I'll be writing a little more as it gets closer, but the hit of the week is Kurt Rosenwinkle with big band Wednesday night. Darcy tweeted that they were great in New York, and I'm interested to see what they bring to the table. The Bad Plus follow on Friday, on the heels of their tenth anniversary album, out tomorrow. I'm also excited about (hopefully) my first listen to Robert Glaspar live, and Greg Osby for free!