Hot Wax: Jazz Album Reviews – October 2018

November 16, 2018

Satoko Fujii/Joe Fonda/Gianni Mimmo

Triad (Long Song)
Satoko Fujii – piano
Joe Fonda – acoustic bass, flute
Gianni Mimmo – soprano saxophone

For that big Six-0 birthday, people celebrate in different ways. Some have quiet dinners with friends, others have rowdy blow-outs. For Japan-born USA-based pianist Satoko Fujii, she’s released new music, and as is her wont she’s released platters of her in different contexts, from unaccompanied to big band. Fujii seems fond of duos, trios, and quartets and generally pushing the envelope when it comes to collaborators. While she’s performed (live and studio) with bassist Joe Fonda (Nu Band, Anthony Braxton), Italian soprano saxophonist/composer Gianni Mimmo was a “new commodity” to both – they heard his music and thought it’d be swell if they could play together…and since all were in Italy last year, they did.

As a pianist, Fujii can be unto a force of nature, a torrent of swirling notes and spiky clusters. For the uninitiated she can evoke powerful key-crackers Cecil Taylor and Don Pullen; Fujii also embodies the oblique lyricism and delicate touch of Myra Melford (with whom she’s duetted) and Matthew Shipp. While no one is liable to mistake her for Errol Garner, Fujii’s output features sublimely lyrical and emotionally directly playing. Fonda has a big, wide sound, not unlike that of the late Charlie Haden. Mimmo’s soprano sax has a profoundly deep sound, closer to the oblique tartness of Steve Lacy than the lithe, Coltrane-descended bittersweetness of, say, Wayne Shorter. All together they weave tapestries wherein the concepts of “composition” and “spontaneous improvisation” are blurred, all use extended techniques to draw more-than-usual sounds out if their instruments. The opener “Available Gravity” finds Fonda on melancholy flute, Fonda coaxing what sounds like electric guitar feedback (albeit judiciously) and Fujii plucking on the inside the piano for some rather things-go-bump-in-the-night resonances. “Available Partner” has Fujii’s notes ringing in the air, Fonda bowing, and Mimmo plumbing the depths of melancholy before the trio get turbulent – the playing is free but there’s drive, forward motion, the suggestion of rhythm – plenty of exploration but it’s done as a group (as opposed to three individuals playing simultaneously but not together), with empathy, a touch of (raw) elegance, and an eerie sense of calm.

This is not really for novices to free playing, but for devotees and/or fans of the principles: heartily recommended. (Mark Keresman)

Kurt Elling

The Questions (Okeh)
Kurt Elling – voice
Stu Mindeman – piano, Hammond B3 organ
John McLean – acoustic and electric guitars
Joey Calderazzo – piano (tracks 4, 6, 9)
Clark Sommers – bass
Branford Marsalis – saxophones
Marquis Hill – trumpet, fluegelhorn
Jeff “Tain” Watts – drums

Religion or jazz: that’s the career choice, in a way, that Kurt Elling made when he decided on a jazz singing career, leaving a Chicago divinity school just one credit shy of graduation. Not that he’s become a heathen. In fact, it could be said that that although he did turn down serving the church, he sings with the fervor of a good preacher.

His decision likely didn’t surprise anyone who had heard him perform regularly during his school years at the fabled Windy City Green Mill jazz club. Jazz has welcomed him, as it should, from his early ‘90s start. Blue Note, the most prestigious and oldest (1939) major label released his first album in 1995. This is his 13th.

Elling is a unique, unendingly creative artist, far from just another singer – or even a typical jazz singer. He has an incredible, almost other-worldly, voice that seems to cover the scale from low-bass to tenor. Dynamically, he moves from a near-whisper to a full-throated, near-shout. Phrasing? There isn’t, nor has there been, anyone quite like him. Although there were many before him, going as far back as Louis Armstrong, using scat and/or vocalese improvisational techniques, Elling uses them in an original manner. He combines a narrative or spoken word, story-telling style with a more conventional smooth, flowing, melodic approach – all this sometimes on the same song.

He perhaps is just a little too different for some listeners… and critics. Though every one of his albums has been nominated for a Grammy, he has won only one. The Jazz Journalist Association (JJA), however, has named him best male vocalist 14 consecutive years.

Elling and his uniformly superb musicians offer nine numbers – a well thought-out mix of mostly familiar pop, rock, theatrical, and modern jazz tunes, including several written and/or arranged by Elling and band. This is a strongly collaborative recording with all musicians involved in one or more functions beyond accompanying – composing, arranging, adapting, and of course, soloing.

The nine-song repertoire begins and ends with musical giants. The opener is a highly emotional take on Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and the closer an impassioned but unfortunately – and obviously intentionally – just a bit off the melody interpretation of famed songwriters Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael’s lovely “Skylark.” Elling’s improvised version still sustains the sweetness of the original. Other noted composers/songwriters heard from are an eclectic group: Peter Gabriel (“Washing of the Water”), Paul Simon (“American Tune”), Leonard Bernstein, Adolph Green, Betty Comden (“Lonely Town”), Oscar Hammerstein, and Richard Rodgers (“I Have Dreamed”).

Not to overlook the musicians, Branford is mastering the soprano, “Tain” Watts is his highly regarded high-energy self, and the ear-opener is Calderazzo. Not heard from in a while, his three extended solos are everything anyone could ask for. (Bob Protzman)

Art Hirahara

Sunward Bound (Posi-Tone)
Art Hirahara – piano
Linda May Han Oh – bass
Rudy Royston – drums
Donny McCaslin – tenor saxophone (tracks 2, 4-6)

If the act of ascension seems to be painted into this album’s theme, it’s with good reason. Pianist Art Hirahara has long been on a steady climb toward the light, using reflection and experience as the driving forces toward self-actualization, and he seems to come closer to reaching it with every outing. This, his fourth date on the Posi-Tone imprint, is his strongest yet.

“Ruse For Blues Shoes,” an opener that tests the plasticity of the blues and the elasticity of Hirahara’s musical relationship with bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Rudy Royston, makes an immediate impression, as does the Donny McCaslin-enhanced “Brooklyn Express” train that comes on its heels. Both numbers speak to an extroverted ideal, holding little back in their unfolding, but there’s an introspective quality at play here, too. A moving performance of Japanese lullaby “Akatombo” makes that crystal clear.

Having worked with the same personnel on Central Line (Posi-Tone, 2017), Hirahara knows exactly what everybody is capable of. That knowledge, wisely, is put to good use at every turn. In shifting gazes skyward on the uplifting title track, loosening the shackles of harmony on “Unbound,” and visiting a state of repose on “Suspended,” Hirahara makes sure that the talents in his presence stand in clear view as they enhance the music and support his visions.
While Hirahara reaches outside his own oeuvre, claiming the aforementioned cradle song, painting a strong-minded anti-war movement across the Hibari Misora-associated “Ringo Oiwake,” and briefly exploring labelmate David Ake’s “Inverted Fountain,” the central role of his own pen shouldn’t be discounted when examining this album’s success. Through the eight originals that appear, he shrewdly expresses a pointed knowingness and the fate of the free-minded. No matter how you slice it, this is elevated Art. (Dan Bilawsky) 

Miho Hazama/Metropole Orkest Big Band

The Monk: Live at Bimhuis(Sunnyside)
Miho Hazama – conductor & arranger
Marc Scholten, Paul van der Feen, Leo Janssen, Sjoerd Dijkhuizen, Max Boree – reeds
Ray Bruinsma, Martjin de Laat, Nico Schepers, Ric Moi – trumpets
Jan Oosting, Louk Boudesteijn, Jan Bastani, Martin van den Berg – trombones
Hans Vroomans – piano
Peter Tiehuis – guitar
Aram Kersbergen – bass
Marcel Serierse – drums

Like Duke Ellington and select few others, Tokyo-born, NYC-based pianist/arranger/etc. Miho Hazama utilizes the orchestra as a palette – her own outfit, of course, and here, the Metropole Orkest Big Band. Hazama has a go at the catalog of Thelonious Monk. The Metropole Orkest Big Band, managed and subsidized by Netherlands Public Broadcasting is a hybrid organization of sorts, equally at home with film scores, jazz, and assorted tributaries of pop. Through the past few decades, the MOBB has performed with Ella Fitzgerald, Ivan Lins, New York Voices, Elvis Costello, and Steve Vai.

Arranging Monk’s decidedly quirky, wonderfully sly music for a big band might at first seem a daunting prospect, but it’s one Hazama handles with brassy aplomb. Superficially, her approach is in the tradition of the Woody Herman and Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestras – grand-sounding, bold, and swinging mightily, but as listening proceeds Hazama proves adept at the classy modernity of Gil Evans and the twisty/twisted subtleties and humorous asides of Carla Bley. The opener “Thelonious” is a brisk welcome-to-the-party swinger with some surging, crackling trumpet and saxophone solos (alas, soloists are not identified on the CD jacket) and a droll, animated Dixieland/New Orleans-flavored passages. “Ruby My Dear” is a tender ballad with some Duke Ellington-like unison playing from the horns and a suave, buttery trombone solo.

“Hackensack” finds Monk’s melody being enriched with some Hollywood melodramatic cool (hints of the soundtrack to the film The Man With the Golden Arm) and the burly, joyous, danceable swing of Count Basie. The quintessential Monk ballad – heck, perhaps the quintessential jazz ballad – “’Round Midnight” is essayed tenderly… the schmaltz is factor increased, which is not really a bad thing – this version makes it sound as if it dates from the Tin Pan Alley era before bebop (or even before the Swing era), accenting the lovestruck/late-night reverie at the heart of the song. The intro to “Epistrophy” is imbued with some playful menace, evoking soundtrack music to a 1950s horror or B-list suspense movie. The guitar and piano buoy the soloists with some choppy, turbulent textures and then the band comes roaring in like Basie or Maynard Ferguson. The closer “Crepuscule with Nellie” is chilled-out balladry featuring the MOBB’s pianist Hans Vroomans with some impishly lyrical soloing (in an un-Monk-like fashion, at that – more akin to Hank Jones or Herbie Hancock).

All in all, The Monk is a creatively invigorating set. (Mark Keresman)

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