Hot Wax: November 2019

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Laurie Antonioli

The Constant Passage of Time (Origin)

  • Laurie Antonioli – vocals
  • Sheldon Brown – saxophones, clarinets
  • Dave MacNab – guitar
  • Matt Clark – piano
  • Dan Feiszli – bass
  • Jason Lewis – drums

The movement of time and tide remain unhampered by artistic intentions, yet music has a way of marking or defining a moment and fixing itself to specific points on existence’s steady line of progress. This seventh album from veteran vocalist Laurie Antonioli emphasizes that fact while also showcasing her way with words, wide-ranging interests, and deep interpretive insights.

Celebrating several milestones in 2018 – her 60th birthday, two decades of sobriety, the birth of a second grandchild – Antonioli took time to reflect in the studio, exploring music that speaks to her passion for jazz’s expansive nature while also acknowledging roots and influences previously highlighted on American Dreams (Intrinsic, 2010) and Songs of Shadow, Songs of Light: The Music of Joni Mitchell (Origin, 2014). With virtually the same band from those projects returning for this album, she’s able to settle into a zone that’s both comfortable and collaborative in nature.    

Opening on “Longing for You,” Antonioli immediately shows herself to be the total package. Her lyrics to this retitled Russell Ferrante composition reflect the sense of yearning embedded in the music, her phrasing is completely at peace with the hypnotic flow below, and her wordless vocals blend to perfection with the surroundings. From there, not surprisingly, Antonioli investigates the American spirit while also exploring her own psyche. Her take on Sheryl Crow’s “Riverwide,” with a tabla-graced introduction and some strong solo work from saxophonist Sheldon Brown and guitarist Dave MacNab, is shot through with passion and purpose. A trip through “Layla” – guitarist Nguyên Lê’s “Bee,” with Antonioli’s own lyrics – sounds attractively diaphanous. And the rocking “Highway,” co-written with German saxophonist Johannes Enders, encapsulates the eternal urge for the road.

Extending on her earlier tribute to Joni Mitchell, Antonioli includes a few nods to that most celebrated of figures. First there’s the artful marriage of “Harry’s House,” from The Hissing of Summer Lawns (Asylum, 1975), and “The Arrangement,” from Ladies of the Canyon (Reprise/Warner Bros., 1970). That melding of two different worlds proves to be a stroke of genius on Antonioli’s part, as each number suggests sympathies to the other. And then the presence of “Love,” originally appearing on Wild Things Run Fast (Geffen, 1982), shines a light on a slice of biblically-aligned beauty. Among Antonioli’s many gifts are her ability to uncover overlooked gems and her skill in binding seemingly dissimilar material(s). Both are proudly on display during The Constant Passage of Time. (Dan Bilawsky)

Saxophone Summit (Dave Liebman/Joe Lovano/Greg Osby)

Street Talk (Enja)

  • Dave Liebman – saxophone
  • Joe Lovano – saxophone
  • Greg Osby – saxophone
  • Phil Markowitz – piano
  • Cecil McBee – bass
  • Billy Hart – drums

Take three of today’s hep-est sax-slingers, put them together with some aces to comprise what used to be known as the rhythm section and what have you/we got? A shimmering mirage, a vat of creativity, and a darn dandy contemporary jazz (post-bop division) platter, that’s what. Before establishing themselves as solo performers, each have dazzling resumes – Dave Liebman (soprano saxophone) played with Elvin Jones and Miles Davis; Joe Lovano (tenor) with Paul Motian, Woody Herman, Lonnie Smith (the organ man), and John Scofield, and Greg Osby (alto) with Andrew Hill, Franco Ambrosetti, Jason Moran, and a resurrected version of the Grateful Dead known as The Dead. Each saxophonist has long been established as a leader (and composer) in their own right (with Osby the new kid on the block – just kidding… but he’s the youngest of them).

“Point” is a slightly dark-toned, mid-tempo bit of hard bop – after a tastefully terse into by pianist Phil Markowitz and an elegiac melody of which Hill would’ve likely approved, Liebman swirls with hints of Middle Eastern overtones, after which Lovano, full-bodied, and Osby, lean and sleek, exchange some somber call-and-response/thrust-and-parry. Markowitz sounds slightly McCoy Tyner-esque here while bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Billy Hart provide a sturdy ebb-and-flow churn throughout. The mournful “Carousel” has a semi-free intro by composer Osby before the other sax-fellows come in, their contrasting tones twisting confidently around each other, subtly building and maintaining a questing, contemplative but gripping mindset. Superficially it might seem a bit abstract, but this tune is definitely goin’ places. Billy Hart’s darkly moody “Toli’s Dance” has moments where all three sax-fellows play together in a choral manner – not particularly lengthy but so compelling. Each leader gets to shine herein – Osby contemplative but wiry, Lovano smooth on the outside yet tart within, Liebman vibrant, fluid, and crackling. Further, if it’s free-wailing saxophone-ery you crave, dig the fleeting, tantalizing tracks “Intro” and “Outro.”

Street Talk is a true collaboration – no one saxophonist dominates; soloing is tersely to-the-point, the whole band performs (well/tightly) as a unit and not simply a bunch of cats in a studio. Let’s hope this bunch is a recurring configuration. (Mark Keresman)

Polly Gibbons

All I Can Do (Resonance)

  • Polly Gibbons – vocals
  • Tamir Hendelman – piano (1, 2, 5, 7, 12)
  • James Pearson – piano (3, 4, 6, 8-11)
  • Shedrick Mitchell – Hammond organ
  • Paul Bollenback – guitar
  • Richie Goods – bass
  • Mark McLean – drums

This third Resonance release from breakout British vocal star Polly Gibbons is a show of colossal talent uninhibited and unbound. Recorded in front of an attentive and adoring audience at New York’s famed Power Station studio, it’s the perfect platform for her soul-stirring pipes.

Accompanied by a crack crew and working her way through a playlist moving comfortably across genre lines, Gibbons makes good in every sense and sentence. Whether visiting church, Broadway, the blues, or the bedroom, she testifies in raw and truthful fashion while giving a story its due and then some. Her art is gutsy and direct, without a hint of pretense, and every one of these songs is putty in her hands.

Opening with Horace Silver’s “Permit Me to Introduce You to Yourself,” Gibbons immediately raises the rafters while holding up a mirror in the name of winking self-reconciliation. Then she moves on to the slow 6/8 soul of “Good Hands Tonight,” underscores the fundamental message in the Doctor Dolittle-derived “Beautiful Things,” delivers a sincere plea and piece of advice with her own “If You Had the Chance” (co-written with pianist James Pearson), and puts out a smoky and witty “Some of My Best Friends Are the Blues.” In each instance, her voice is raspy perfection and the band is on point. With Pearson and Tamir Hendelman providing the arrangements and taking turns on the piano bench, organist Shedrick Mitchell lighting the way from the pulpit to the corner bar and beyond, guitarist Paul Bollenback adding some serious guitar smarts to the mix, and bassist Richie Goods and drummer Mark McLean holding things down and steering the ship, every tune fits Gibbons like a glove.

Those first five numbers completely sell this singer’s gifts and range, so much of the material in the balance of the program simply sweetens the deal. Whether standing strong on an “Anything Goes” that vacillates between half-time backbeat territory and the expected swing thing, investing her spirit into Duke Ellington’s world through a rousing “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So,” painting a poignant “Nothing Compares 2 U” in naked light, or signing off with the ribald rise of “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” Gibbons proves mesmerizing. (Dan Bilawsky) 

Avishai Cohen/Yonathan Avishai

Playing The Room (ECM)

  • Avishai Cohen – trumpet
  • Yonathan Avishai – piano

There is a certain something about the jazz duet format – one can get to feel that one is eavesdropping on a conversation, or hearing unadorned (or less adorned, at any rate) musical give-and-take (or thrust-and-parry) as it happens. Avishai Cohen is a trumpeter from Israel, Yonathan Avishai is an Israeli pianist based in France – together they fashion a series of piano/trumpet duets as if it were a classy contender for posterity (and it is, really).

“Dee Dee” is a droll tune with a cheerfully zig-zagging theme, Avishai jauntily and sparely walking his keys down the street while Cohen playfully chases the ghosts of all tuneful trumpeters past – his playing could fit in an old MGM soundtrack, each gent swinging ‘round the other with feints of note-flurries and cheerful motifs. “Ralph’s New Blues” evokes more-than-slightly Willie Dixon’s blues standard “Spoonful” (the melodic hook), the blue notes practically sticking to Avishai’s fingers as he essays them, Cohen engaging in some jaunty lyrical lines as if he were rehearsing for a Mardi Gras parade, the two of them dovetailing into a perfect, slightly nostalgic conclusion. Stevie Wonder’s Duke Ellington tribute “Sir Duke” gets turned on its head somewhat with a beautifully idyllic piano introduction skirting the melody before getting familiar oh-so-sweetly, taking Wonder’s strutting celebration of Ellington’s music and making it into an intro to a cheery house in Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, Cohen evoking all the good peaceful ‘hood vibes into his muted trumpet. “Azalea” is a ballad wherein Cohen sounds as if he’s distilling all the well-dressed angst and sweet melancholia into one song before time runs short; Avishai’s playing luminously elegant, as if he were evoking Errol Garner, so to speak (and he gets close, at that). Avishai’s key-strokes reverberate with portent in the nocturnal air as if it were ten minutes past the club’s closing time, Cohen waxes a curious mix of sweet nostalgia and regret-laden-but-necessary farewells – it fades, with some echo, like a dream or a fable.

Who’d’ve thunk it? ECM Records, primarily known for European and American exponents of cutting-edge jazz, classical (old and new), and folk music (and crystalline sonic quality, to boot) delivers a disc of old-school-like delights, albeit one free of any corny or retro-ish baggage. Two cats, leaning to the short-and-sweet (nine tracks!), groovin’ on shades of old masters’ opulent and emotion-laden styles without ever being obvious (or worse, corny) about it. (Mark Keresman)

Yuhan Su

City Animals (Sunnyside)

  • Yuhan Su – vibraphone
  • Matt Holman – trumpet, flugelhorn
  • Alex LoRe – alto saxophone
  • Petros Klampanis – bass
  • Nathan Ellman-Bell – drums

The third album from Taiwanese vibraphonist Yuhan Su taps creature commutation for creative juice: By drawing inspiration from a documentary about migratory patterns and comparing said discoveries to her own experiences living in New York since 2012, Su creates a fascinating tapestry of story and song concerned about life moving with – and around – the flocks and herds. It’s a collection that’s uniquely her own, analogous to said film, no doubt, in ways that we can never fully comprehend. But it also speaks to many of the daily struggles everybody faces in the wilds of existence. It’s a jungle out there for sure, and Yuhan Su reminds us that we are, in some small part, the creatures keeping the ecosystem thriving.

There’s a freedom of thought in Su’s work that’s connected to an embrace of open landscape principles – she’s the harmonic gatekeeper here, as there’s no pianist or guitarist to fence things in – and a love of structural oddities. Her compositions practically overflow with unexpected harmonic implications, shifts of character, rhythmic trap doors, and combinatorial play. And curiosity is one of her greatest strengths, manifesting in a willingness to try different things at the drop of a hat – or mallet. On album opener “Y El Coche Se Murió,” which relives the harrowing tale of a tour vehicle breaking down between cities in Spain, a solo vibraphone introduction paints an uncertain picture for a solid minute before a measured sense of anxiety sets in. Fortunately, Alex LoRe’s alto saxophone and Su’s vibes are there to spin the wheels of thought and work through the worries in succession. “Viaje,” capturing the complex emotions surrounding a move and providing airspace to admire the tangled tangents of LoRe and trumpeter Matt Holman, essentially chronicles Su’s stateside story. At times it’s fraught with uncertainty, but in essence it’s an expression of a woman’s triumph over fear. Yuhan Su slays the beasts of doubt and the unknown with nary a problem.

As City Animals develops, a deeper picture of Su’s passions and humanity emerges. On “Feet Dance,” this crew magically conjures thoughts of an asymmetrical elegance offered on the dance floor; with the title track, a charged atmosphere comes to serve as a parallel for the Big Apple’s aura; during “Tutu & D,” a balladic purity is held aloft as an ideal representation of happiness itself; and through closer “Party 2AM,” the band turns into a feral beast set free by all that New York’s nightlife has to offer. Amidst these varied wonders of Su’s imagination, which also produces the charmingly buoyant “Poncho Song,” rests an even higher indication of ambition in the form of the three-part Kuafu Suite. Tapping into Chinese mythology to explore the perils of overestimating oneself, the vibraphonist ironically shows us that she may not be capable of falling prey to that problem. Su sets the bar high, be it with upward ideals on the suite’s opening, a shimmering mandate in the middle, or a driving course at its end, but she and her bandmates vault right over it with aplomb. While Yuhan Su may have arrived in New York as a different animal, she’s now clearly part of the pack that makes the city’s scene so vital. (Dan Bilawsky) 

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