Hot Wax – Album Reviews – October 2014

October 24, 2014


Andy Bey
Pages From an Imaginary Life (HighNote)
Andy Bey – vocals and piano

While also a pianist, it’s as a singer that Andy Bey has established his singular career. Aside from the (early-to-mid-1960s) jazz vocal group Andy and the Bey Sisters, Bey has lent his smooth, expressive baritone voice (with a touch of vibrato) to the recordings of Stanley Clarke, Gary Bartz, and Max Roach. Like his previous HighNote release The World According to Andy Bey, Pages From an Imaginary Life is Bey accompanying himself on piano. Pages… is something of a concept album, a general chronicle of the pathways and pitfalls of romance via a collection of Great American Songbook standards, plus some interesting obscurities (Billy Strayhorn’s “All Roads Lead Back to You”) and four originals.

Bey has a very distinctive vocal style reminiscent of Johnny Hartman (albeit with a deeper, darker tone) and even slightly evocative of Brook Benton. He draws-out the syllables of certain (crucial) words as a lover might caress that certain someone that might be on the way out of a relationship. “How Long Has The Been Going On” gets a gently bereaved reading, as it were a weary and sorrowful accusation—there’s a moment wherein Bay departs slightly from mellow balladry with a thudding, death-knell piano note. I dare almost any listener to find a more unique and/or better version of “Love for Sale,” wherein Bey not only retains the original gender of the lyrics but wails “love” with a more than a touch of gospel-charged fervor. But it’s not all gloom—“Lover Come Back to Me” gets an earnest, hard-swinging (yet slightly wary) treatment. Bey gives the usually jovial swinger “Take the A Train” a wry, slightly reflective reading with some soulful scat-singing.

While it’s something of a cliché, in this case it truly fits: With his stripped-down, bare-bones approach and unique vocals, Andy Bey truly reinvents some done-to-death standards in a fresh, engaging manner. Fans of jazz vocals seeking something truly distinctive: This is a must. (Mark Keresman)


The Bad Plus
Inevitable Western (Okeh/Sony Music Masterworks)
Reid Anderson – bass
Ethan Iverson – piano
David King – drums

You never really know what to expect from the capricious trio collective known as The Bad Plus.  Audacious takes on the music of Nirvana (“Smells Like Teen Spirit”) and Blondie (“Heart Of Glass”), a collaborative outing with vocalist Wendy Lewis, a headlong dive into Igor Stravinsky’s most notorious work, and band-plus-one encounters with such singular artists as Bill Frisell and Joshua Redman are all par for the course for a band that doesn’t actually follow a set course. Despite the disparate nature of The Bad Plus’ projects, this group has managed to develop an identifiable sonic signature built around the marriage of erudition, agitation, restlessness, charm, and whimsy.  It’s that unique mixture that informs this outfit’s work.

Inevitable Western, the band’s tenth studio album, finds bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson, and drummer David King forging ahead with a program of original music, something of a return to form after their encounter with The Rite of Spring (Sony Music Masterworks, 2014).  And despite any titular allusions, it should be noted that there aren’t references to “I’m An Old Cowhand,” clickety-clacking drums, or anything of the sort here. This is The Bad Plus’ take on the West, not a revision of an already-painted picture, and this trio sees it as it once truly was: an untamed expanse ripe for exploration.

This program contains nine numbers – three apiece from each band member – and much of the music plays off of a loose-tight duality, a curved line approach to moving from Point A to Point B, and a simultaneous appreciation for tradition(s) and desire to pull down walls.  Things start off innocently enough with the gently inviting, toned-down “I Hear You,” a number that eases the ears into the music.  “Gold Prisms Incorporated” comes next, bringing excitement and flair into the picture.  Iverson’s steady eighth notes set things in motion while King’s rocking drums and Anderson’s bass deliver accented hits that define or play against the metric pathways.  As time moves on, Iverson engages in some kaleidoscopic rhythmic play that leads into a piano solo.  A rock-solid feel in seven eventually emerges, helping to ground things while Anderson does a bit of exploring.  There’s a lot to digest in those six-and-a-half minutes, and though the parts may sound incongruous on paper, they’re woven together seamlessly on record.

As time marches on, it also comes in and out of focus.  Iverson occasionally hints at the less percussive and more reflective spirit of Monk during “Self Serve,” but the general attitude, loose jumble of rhythm, and eventual straight course are miles away from the High Priest of Bop’s music.  That number is one of several pieces here that toy with time and togetherness.  As the album continues to unfold, the band explores chaos and the calm after the storm on “You Will Lose All Fear,” gazes down into the spooky and distant abyss during “Adopted Highway,” and gives Iverson a chance to shine as he unspools some song-defining sixteenth note lines during “Mr. Now.”  In some places, less is more, and in other spots, excess simply rules the day.
To call The Bad Plus the most notable trio to emerge this side of the millennial dividing line may be something of an overstatement, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson, and drummer David King have opened up worlds of trio possibility and made jazz a bit more inviting for those formerly on the outside looking in. (Dan Bilawsky)


Charles Lloyd
Arrows To Infinity DVD/Blu-Ray (ECM) / Manhattan Stories CD (Resonance Records)
Charles Lloyd – Tenor saxophone, flute
Gabor Szabo – guitar
Ron Carter – bass
Pete LaRoca – drums

Having weathered the vicissitudes that go hand and hand with a thorny profession, any prominent jazz musician now entering his or her late seventies inevitably has an unpredictable, at times extraordinary, tale to tell. The saxophonist Charles Lloyd certainly does, and the documentary, Arrows To Infinity  – co-directed by Lloyd’s wife, Dorothy Darr, and Jeffery Morse – tells it extremely well. However you evaluate the music of Lloyd’s five-plus decade career – transcendent or lightweight, groundbreaking or derivative, heartfelt or pretentious, or a complex and compelling blend of all these contradictions – you come away from the film convinced that you’ve encountered both a serious musician wholly committed to his art and a complex individual on a passionate quest for spiritual fulfillment.

Mingling Lloyd’s personal observations with talking head appearances from a dizzying host of associates ranging from, among others, Buddy Collette, Zakir Hussain, Robbie Robertson and Herbie Hancock to Stanley Crouch, Don Was, Phil Schaap and Manfred Eicher, with exceptional archival footage from the breadth of Lloyd’s career (Images not soon forgotten include former Lloyd sideman Keith Jarrett garbed in full hippie regalia, playing as if possessed, as well as exceptionally moving sequences that capture Lloyd bonding with Ornette Coleman over a game of pool and duetting with a gravelly ill but indomitable Billy Higgins,)  “Arrows” paints a vivid picture of an omnivorous artist who has remained wide open to musical possibilities, drawing on pop music, Indian and Latin idioms, international folk forms and gospel in search of musical renewal. Not every move on Lloyd’s part was equally visionary – the aural samples of his rockish albums “Moon Man” and “Waves” may not have you dashing to eBay to procure copies – but Lloyd’s hunger for change remains inspiring.

Drama is unavoidable. At the height of his fame following the crossover success of the 1966 album, Forest Flower, Lloyd, generally disgusted with the music business and plagued by substance abuse, dropped out of the scene for the better part of  the 1970s. His deep commitment to spiritual matters, a catalyst that eventually brought him back to public attention and continues to provide sustenance, plays as significant an element in the film as music. Lloyd’s resurgence in the 1980s, a sustained creative surge reflected still in his current ensemble (featuring such exceptional younger improvisers as the pianist Jason Moran) is a well-deserved triumph in a life defined by unceasing searching.

Previously unreleased live recordings of a bold 1965 Lloyd ensemble have also surfaced. Recorded at two legendary New York venues – Judson Hall and Slug’s  – Manhattan Stories features Lloyd alongside the adventurous guitarist Gabor Szabo and the wiry rhythm section of Ron Carter – on leave from the Miles Davis group – and the undervalued Pete LaRoca. Characteristic of the mid-Sixties, the six performances are all lengthy outings, splitting the stylistic difference between the exploratory and the conventional. “Sweet Georgia Bright” finds Lloyd investigating Coltrane tinged free improvisation, while “How Can I Tell You” offers a taste of his fine tenor balladeering and the loose “Slug’s Blues” encourages some easy swing from all.  Two versions of the modal, Indian infused “Lady Gabor” (both with Lloyd on flute) speak plainly to the admirable if not always fully convincing boundary crossing inclinations of the decade. Offering satisfactions rather than outright revelations, Manhattan Stories fills a gap in an important player’s career, revealing eclectic instincts apparent in Lloyd’s art even today. (Steve Futterman)


Wadada Leo Smith
The Great Lakes Suite (TUM)
Wadada Leo Smith – trumpet
Henry Threadgill – alto saxophone, flutes
John Lindberg – bass
Jack DeJohnette – drums

Since 1967, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith has been at the forefront of America’s jazz avant-garde. From a charter AACM member to establishing himself as a leader to performing/recording with Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Kaiser, John Zorn, and UK electronica duo Spring Heel Jack, Smith always follows his own singular and evolving path. While Smith’s recent albums have been massive in scope (both in terms of subject matter and number of musicians involved), The Great Lakes Suites finds Smith getting back to a lean, powerful quartet setting, substituting saxophonist (and fellow AACM-er) Henry Threadgill for a pianist in Smith’s long-running Golden Quartet.

The results are mostly riveting. At first listen, the piano-less quartet concept might evoke the Ornette Coleman Quartet of the late 1950s – much of Smith’s music here has that blues-rooted “cry”  and  dirge-like themes heard in Ornette’s music then (and now, for that matter). Smith’s trumpet reflects something of the apocalyptic crackle of Miles Davis’ ‘70s electric period, but his tone is more parched and more vocalized – one can discern the early 20th century New Orleans smears and blatts. Yet there’s nothing derivative her– Smith has simply absorbed these inspirations into his overall approach. Threadgill’s lithe, bittersweetly (a la Eric Dolphy) fluid alto tone sears while his flute playing is dazzlingly but gently lyrical; DeJohnette’s drumming for the most part eschews swing for bracing, stormy propulsion throughout, and bassist Lindberg has something of the firm, earnest throb of the great Charlie Haden but utilizes some extended techniques to draw out cello-like sound buzzes and low moans.
The only downside of Lakes is the compositions and improvisations tend to meander a bit. But then, this music is less about conventional melodies and themes and more about the elemental aspects of the Great Lakes – ebb, flow, waves, storms, and the almost primal emotions these stir in many people. The stormy, heartfelt musicianship here alone makes this worth investigating for fans of “outside” musics. (Mark Keresman)

Avishai Triveni Cohen 
Dark Nights (Anzic Records)
Avishai Cohen – trumpet
Omer Avital – bass
Nasheet Waits – drums
Anat Cohen – clarinet
Gerald Clayton – piano
Keren Ann – voice

It’s tough enough to establish a personal musical identity, but tougher still when you share a name with someone in your field. By now, however, after roughly a decade, and seven albums under his name as a leader, people have begun to understand that this particular Avishai Cohen is the Israeli from Tel Aviv identified by his 2003 album, “The Trumpet Player,” not the slightly older, distinguished bass player of the same name from Jerusalem.  Avishai has also become familiar to audiences not only through his travels with his own Triveni trio (with bassist Omer Avital and drummer Nasheet Waits) but with his older siblings, reed players Anat and Yuval, in the 3 Cohens Sextet, and in the collective Third World Love (with Avital, pianist Yonatan Avishai, and drummer Daniel Friedman). These days he’s also a key member of saxophonist Mark Turner’s quartet.

But even among trumpet-playing composers, this Avishai has distinguished himself, standing apart not merely with sound and chops, but with a larger sense of musical context and vision. Not that his sound hasn’t served him well – it’s learned (he was a member of the Young Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra and attended Berklee), with beautiful tone and articulation, and a spare lyricism that owes a bit to the likes of Miles Davis, Chet Baker, and Kenny Dorham. But Cohen has built that sound in relation to compositions, collaborators, ensemble format.

Cohen’s most spare setting of choice is Triveni – with only a single front-line instrument, and no chordal support in the form of a guitar or piano, the trio is afforded maximum rhythmic and harmonic flexibility. (Cohen’s use of space, his taste for contrapuntal action and harmonic ambiguity, also makes him the perfect foil for Turner in the saxophonist’s “pianoless” quartet.) Cohen does tweak the format a bit. He deploys overdubbed electronics on a few tracks as another melodic voice, recalling Davis’s vocal approach to electrified trumpet. And for this album, Anat joins him (on clarinet) on two songs, as does pianist Gerald Clayton. But the approach is still spare, uncluttered. Even the final “I Fall in Love Too Easily” (a Baker tribute) is just Clayton, singer Keren Ann (a regular Cohen collaborator), and the leader, who takes a fine, muted solo.

Cohen has a knack for giving fresh voice to standards – besides “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” the trio gives delicate wing to an exploratory “Lush Life,” and breaks Frank Foster’s “Shiny Stockings” down to its swinging essentials. Mingus has a special place in Cohen’s affections – one his titles with 3 Cohens is the dedication “The Soul of the Greatest of Them All.” Here “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is a standout, Avital taking a guttural, chattering solo behind Cohen’s slow statement of the theme. Ornette Coleman also gets a shout-out with the fast folky swing and drum breaks of “The OC.”

That’s the one out-and-out uptempo piece here. And you could miss some of the folkloric African grooves that drove albums like Cohen’s Flood (with guitarist Lionel Loueke). More typical are brooding pieces like opener “Dark Nights, Darker Days.” Even a big, fat blues like “Betray” takes its time. But that’s not a bad thing. The poised, continuous three-way conversation of the Cohen original “In All Directions” is a masterclass in how to build a spontaneous, coherent group conversation from simple materials. It’s indicative of the steady simmer of Cohen’s intelligent musicianship. (Jon Garelick)

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