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Hot Wax: Album Review – February 2020

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Jeff Denson, Romain Pilon, and Brian Blade

Between Two Worlds (RidgewayRecords)

  • Jeff Denson – double bass
  • Romain Pilon – guitar
  • Brian Blade – drums

You just never know what you’re going to get from bassist Jeff Denson. With a discography that includes a duologue concerned with spirituals, a string trio nod to The Beatles, meet-ups with the legendary Lee Konitz, vocalized spins on the music of Soundgarden and Peter Gabriel (among others), and post-modern pastiche as presented by the band Minsarah, diversification seems to be the norm. It’s perfectly clear that Denson delights in the opportunity to broaden his outlook and expand the borders of his very being with each and every project. He’s simply a restless seeker, and his search continues to yield positive results. 

With Between Two Worlds, the bassist forms an alliance built on history and chemistry. Joining forces with guitarist Romain Pilon, a friend and musical associate for two decades, and in-demand drummer Brian Blade, a newer acquaintance who shares Denson’s appreciation for space, groove, and sensitivity, communicative bonds are apparent. This all-original program showcases material from both Denson and Pilon, who contribute five songs apiece, but there’s no split in terms of preferred expressive language and trio dynamics. Regardless of who wrote what, these three are locked into the same frequencies.   

Capable of delivering on multiple levels – artfully balancing gravity with grace, power with restraint, and passion with poise – this music thrives in the titular limbo. Whether adding a funky undercurrent to the sweet post-bop of “Sucré,” playfully working over a ballasting bottom on “Song of a Solitary Crow,” or tunefully waltzing along on “En Trois Temps,” Denson and company always manage to allow impulse and strict ideation to work together in harmony. Beyond that aforementioned opening triptych, further wonders await in this betwixt-and-between state. “Nostalgic Farewell” wins over with its winsome charms and a cool current. “Listen Up” finds Blade’s dynamic drumming leading the way and filling some gaps before the spotlight pans to the leader. “Madrid” bounds along on Spanish streets paved by Denson’s wide beat. And the title track presents with astral allure while positioning Denson’s arco work as a central element. This music may exist between two worlds, but this trio is truly of one mind. (Dan Bilawsky) 

Johnny Griffin & Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis

Ow!: Live at the Penthouse (Reel to Real Recording)

  • Johnny Griffin – tenor sax
  • Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis – tenor sax
  • Horace Parlan – piano
  • Buddy Catlett – bass
  • Art Taylor – drums

They were called “The Tough Tenors” and rarely was a moniker so apt. Tenor saxophonists with tones as wide as Park Avenue, and aggressive streaks that could make a streetwise dog cower, Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis matured in an environment when a jazz musician seemingly had to prove himself against all rivals every time he hit the bandstand. These two musical gladiators obviously respected each other’s immense talents, but make no mistake, with each encounter they were out for blood. Forming a band in 1960 that lasted a brief but potent two years, Griffin and Davis made consistently exciting music that also simply dismissed any pretense of their making nice together.

Recorded at two separate sessions at Seattle’s Penthouse club at the tail end of the partnership, Ow! captures both players in peak form, tearing into chord changes with frightening force on tempos that are way up. Although Davis was six years older than Griffin, both men had similar formative experiences coming up through the invaluable training grounds of the big bands, with first hand exposure to the most influential tenor saxophonists of the Swing Era including Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, and Don Byas, among others. You can hear glimmers of all these giants in the playing of the two acolytes, but both men were also thoroughly steeped in bebop practices. Applying the hefty tones of the swing greats to the rhythmic explorations of Charlie Parker (much as the pioneering Dexter Gordon did in the late 1940s) Griffin and Davis each formed a vibrant style that sampled much of the best of both worlds. Griffin may sound a bit more fluid than Davis who has more touches of earthy R&B in his conception, but birds of a feather they most certainly were.

While the mutual respect between the bandleaders is obvious, the sense of ravenous competition is never far from the surface. On storming versions of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Ow!,” “Blues Up and Down,” and the Swing standards “Second Balcony Jump,” “Tickle Toe,” and “Blue Lou” the tenors dive in quick and just never let up on themselves or each other. (The Latin-tinged “Bahia” provides a bit of a breather) Exhilarating it all may be, but admittedly it’s also a bit exhausting – by the time Griffin takes a ballad feature on “Sophisticated Lady” you may feel as winded as the two tough guys.

Stars of the show, Griffin and Davis are stoked from note one, but drummer Art Taylor is right behind them. As part of a steaming rhythm section that also includes the pianist Horace Parlan and the bassist Buddy Catlett, Taylor is simply unrelenting in his swing – precise and in total command of tempos that might have gotten the best of even the most formidable of drummers. Catlett, in another difficult role, is a solid timekeeper, while the ever swinging Parlan, for his part, makes the most of his short spots. Let’s put it this way, these three men earned their pay.

Ow! provides a time capsule view of an era when musical machismo was still part and parcel of the jazz experience. To make it you had to be tough, and it sounds like Griffin and Davis would have wanted it no other way. (Steve Futterman)

Dick Hyman & Ken Peplowski

Counterpoint Lerner & Loewe (Arbors Records)

  • Dick Hyman – piano
  • Ken Peplowski – clarinet, tenor saxophone

An earnest request from Emily Altman, president of The Frederick Loewe Foundation, set this imaginative affair in motion. Nonagenarian piano icon Dick Hyman, most willing and eager to take a deep dive into Loewe’s catalog, got down to business by constructing frameworks to house and support fantastical explorations; and multi-reedist Ken Peplowski, one of Hyman’s favored duo partners, gladly signed on for the journey. The rest, as they say, is history. Just don’t expect it to be laid out in black and white. Rather than simply perform the music of the storied composer and riff on the rhythmic cadences of his collaborator, lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, Hyman and Peplowski deal in wondrously weaving contrapuntal interpretations. The integrity of the originals – songs from film classic “Gigi” and Broadway masterworks “Brigadoon,” “Camelot,” and “My Fair Lady,” among others –remains essentially true, but those compositions also prove to be positively pliable when these two start winding around each other.

From the playful “Waitin’ for My Dearie” opener right on through to the caffeinated “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” sendoff, Hyman and Peplowski are in the zone and on the mark. Their instinctual rapport, clearly displayed in the crafting of these variations on familiar favorites and off-the-beaten-path gems, is second to none. Whether taking on a jazz-friendly classic like “Almost Like Being in Love” or exploring and leveraging the wrinkles in underexposed numbers like “I Talk to the Trees” and “A Jug of Wine,” they project a near-telepathic connection that lodges comfortably within Loewe’s writing. 

The high times in this portfolio turn out to be a real hoot – just listen to Peplowski’s clarinet navigating the currents on “They Call the Wind Maria” for confirmation of that assertion – and the more measured deliveries, like the appropriately reflective “If Ever I Would Leave You” and an unusually downcast “On The Street Where You Live,” are equally agreeable in their own subtle ways. Performing the work of Lerner & Loewe as we’ve never heard it before, Hyman and Peplowski remind us of a truth rarely uttered yet always worth noting: One great pair truly deserves another. (Dan Bilawsky)

Dave Douglas

Engage (Greenleaf Music)

  • Dave Douglas – trumpet
  • Jeff Parker – guitar
  • Tomeka Reid – cello
  • Anna Webber – alto and bass flutes, tenor saxophone
  • Nick Dunston – bass
  • Kate Gentile – drums

While he’s not anywhere near household name status, Dave Douglas is one of American jazz’s premier trumpeters. Since the ‘80s (before establishing himself as a leader) Douglas played with an impressive range of hepcats: Horace Silver, Jack McDuff, Vincent Herring, and John Zorn; as a leader, his bands and album projects have included aces such as Chris Potter, Andrew Cyrille, Uri Caine, and a quintet co-led with Joe Lovano. On his own and with others, Douglas has recorded and performed in decidedly different contexts – hard bop, fusion, Third Stream, avant-garde, Balkan folk, and combinations thereof. He is a proud jazz player but not limited to/by it, openly and proudly embracing many influences including Joni Mitchell and Wayne Shorter. (Douglas has albums devoted to the music/inspiration of both.)

Engage is politically inspired albeit in a somewhat conceptual manner – there’s no overt “protest” element about this music. There are subtle gospel undertones slightly recalling the ‘60s works of Charles Mingus (who himself drew upon sanctified sources to intertwine with his socio-political statements, such as his recordings for Impulse in the ‘60s). This is not angry but rather excited music, a wake-up call to all, if you will. “Showing Up” finds Douglas testifying in a languidly sardonic manner over a soulful matrix of Jeff Parker’s electric guitar and Tomeka Reid’s sinuous cello. Parker peels off a solo with bluesy overtones and an ambiguous psychedelic tone. Anna Webber contributes some deeply soulful flute too, enriching the ensemble work and providing a counterpoint of sorts to Douglas’ laconic poignancy. “In It Together” features some wry, understated free passages, united under the leadership of Douglas’ muted horn and the richness of Reid’s cello. The urgent, restless, slightly Andrew Hill-reminiscent “Faith Alliance” uses slight gospel strains more aggressively and finds Parker’s guitar wailing in an agreeably dissonant (some might even say gnarly) manner. The languorously bluesy “Free Libraries” reflects more sanctified shades, the close pairing of cello and horn especially delicious here (and Parker’s vivid, tangy six-string statements don’t hurt either). “Heart Science” could be a pick-to-click radio hit – a deceptively easy-to-like groove, gently expressive solos (Douglas pert ‘n’ slightly bittersweet, brittle strut by Parker), and rich ensemble playing (Parker’s cello is like unto a one-person string section whilst Webber’s flute enriches the ensemble passages).

While there are indeed inspired (and inspiring) solos a-plenty, Engage is very much a group effort. Solos are curt and to the point while never abrupt. Chalk up another one in the “win” column for Dave Douglas. (Mark Keresman)

Carla Bley/Andy Sheppard/Steve Swallow

Life Goes On (ECM Records)

  • Carla Bley – piano
  • Andy Sheppard – tenor, soprano saxophone
  • Steve Swallow – electric bass

Born in 1936, just after the Swing Era kicked into full gear, Carla Bley has been making unclassifiable and utterly personal music for the majority of her adult life. Utilizing ensembles of all sizes, from big bands to duos, Bley has devised compositions and arrangements that, while drawing on the stylistic resources of whatever era she’s working in, somehow always maintain a typically skewed musical personality, one that speaks to her unmistakable idiosyncratic vision. By now she’s a jazz national treasure, who, nonetheless, wears her status lightly, as befits the occasional irreverent flavor of her work.

Bley, on piano, takes equal billing in a longstanding yet infrequently recorded trio with her husband and longtime musical compatriot, the bassist Steve Swallow, and the British saxophonist Andy Sheppard, comprising a critically acclaimed outfit that recently celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. Taking the consistently high quality of Swallow and Sheppard’s work into account, the focus of Life Goes On, as well as the trio’s two previous ECM recordings, always shifts back to Bley thanks to the alternately tart, lyrical, stark, and playful tone of her inimitable compositions. Relying on Bley’s writing (rather than that of the talented Sheppard or Swallow, himself a renowned tunesmith), the trio makes quietly riveting chamber jazz that finds its own firm place in the overall scheme of her distinctive oeuvre.

Divided into three suites, Life Goes On commences with the four-part title work, quickly establishing the understated property of the entire album as well as the minimalist character of Bley’s pared-to-the-bone keyboard work and Sheppard’s similarly unfussy and equally arresting blowing. We are also introduced to Swallows’ ear-grabbing playing. Producing an instantly recognizable tone on his instrument that can at various times evoke a plucked cello, a high strung acoustic guitar, or at its most incongruous moments, a whirring, yet highly musical, household cleaning device, Swallow sounds like no other electric bassist. Always gracefully supporting Bley’s music and his two compatriots, Swallow is also capable of gorgeously lyrical and inventive improvisations; his intelligent solos are among the highlights of a recording bursting with refined details.

“Beautiful Telephones” contain the most caustic moments of the project. Evoking dark clouds on the horizon, Bley’s dramatic writing for parts one and two provide Swallow and Sheppard with forums to display contained yet emphatic improvisations. Reflecting Bley’s pointed overt political mindfulness, the concluding movement of “Telephone” (inspired by the President’s comments on the White House having “the most beautiful phones I’ve ever used in my life”) finds Bley’s piano slyly slipping in quotes from “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and “Hail to the Chief” – the point, without words, is made.

The concluding “Copycat” suite is distinguished by its opening movement, “After You,” an unabashedly beautiful tune with Sheppard exhibiting, by way of his understated and evocative tenor playing, that he is an uncannily complementary interpreter of Bley’s masterful writing. The playful moods of the concluding two movements are indicative of Bley’s cunning ability to effortlessly shift terrain.

Speaking in a soft yet authoritative voice, Life Goes On is a tribute to both an exceptional jazz ensemble, and a wondrous polymath of jazz, Carla Bley. (Steve Futterman)

Jerry Bergonzi

The Seven Rays (High Note)

  • Jerry Bergonzi – tenor sax
  • Phil Grenadier – trumpet
  • Carl Winther – piano
  • Johnny Aman – bass
  • Anders Morgensen – drums

New York City’s loss became Boston’s gain when tenor saxophonist (also composer and educator) Jerry Bergonzi relocated from the former to the latter. His history includes stints with Dave Brubeck (nine years), Richard Sussman, and Alex Riel. He’s been blazing his own path as The Seven Rays ably attests.

Bergonzi’s band this time out is a fusion (no pun intended) of his American and European accompanists – the fact that these lads have history together contributes to the cohesion and consistency of this album. The Seven Rays is based on several aspects of various (yet kindred) philosophies which are best explained in this platter’s liner notes. The music, however, stands on its own – Bergonzi and company have fashioned a set that leans to that rare Ellington-ian plateau: Beyond Category.

The opener, “1st Ray: Intention,” crackles out of the speakers like some of the best Freddie Hubbard music of the ‘60s, the horns rich with a blue-sharp intensity, with assorted emotions – impatience, urgency, intent, and more. Bergonzi’s big-toned tenor roars with great focus on getting out The Word, not unlike a clarion call. Bergonzi’s style is not easy to summarize – he has the hard, shiny tone of Sonny Rollins but the language is all his own. Trumpeter Phil Grenadier hugs the middle register of his horn but with no less intensity – without ever coming off as imitative, Grenadier captures – or to be more precise, channels – the white-hot-ness of Hubbard and Booker Little through his own experience. Playing in unison at the beginning, Bergonzi and Grenadier make it seem like the Apocalypse is nigh. The rest of the band plays with a tense, seemingly cool contrast – pianist Carl Winther has a sleek restraint akin to Grenadier’s, albeit tossing in some spiky dissonant notes that go with the flow.

“3rd Ray: Creation” at first seems thematically (slightly) similar to “1st Ray” but Bergonzi’s solo after the theme is more leisurely-paced but loaded with bluesy undertones. Grenadier gives with some cool off-handedness until he slips in some white-hot moments. The horns seem to be carrying on a frenzied conversation – they’re looking at the dawn of Creation and it all seems to be good, ending with a wry suddenness. “4th Ray: Harmony” seems loaded with blue-shaded content, as if the Creator realizes you got to have showers along with the sunshine. Winther plays with set-‘em-Joe leisure, as if he carefully surveying the aspects of the big project, with a wondering, tentative quality. Bergonzi’s solo IS The Blues, almost sounding as if he were trying them out for the first time – expressing bluesy musings with a mix of insight and sorrow (as if he knows the “harmony” is not going to last very long). “6th Ray: Devotion” is perhaps the standout/pick-to-click track herein – it has an insidiously catchy minor-key opening melody and Bergonzi’s solo is perhaps his greatest on this session. He plays with an unfaltering sense of purpose, tossing in some free clusters along the way. Grenadier gets all over his horn, some dynamic high-pitched trills that never sound off-handed or gratuitous. Winther is spiky and somewhat McCoy Tyner-like here, letting loose some free-ish flurries while never losing a sense of forward motion. Near the conclusion, Bergonzi and Grenadier engage in some back-and-forth dual/duel-ing, each echoing then diverging from then intertwining with from other – it’s exhilarating, the band provides a shifting matrix of subtle but firm swing. The conclusion “Sun Worship Ritual” is a simmering near-ballad piece that subtly recalls the entire work while suggesting that the future is uncertain – Bergonzi lays some slightly Albert Ayler-like squeaks ‘n’ wails.

Throughout, bassist Johnny Aman and drummer Anders Morgensen hug the background, providing vibrant and ever-shifting yet solid support to the compositions. Solos never go on for too long, there’s always a sense of economy. Overall the mood is thoughtful and somber yet never oppressively doomy or gloomy. Terse, thoughtful ‘n’ hearty hard bop free of clichés – that’s the ticket. (Mark Keresman)

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