Playlist, 12/11

DAVID MURRAY CUBAN ENSEMBLE PLAYS NAT KING COLE EN ESPANOl;   Motema. Nothing like the original except the tunes. Murray, always adept at finding new ways to frame his music, works with a nine-piece ensemble and strings to do what he does best: cry, caterwaul, lose control (never; it only sounds like it) and get fresh during ballads. More to come on this outstanding recording.

FURTHER EXPLORATIONS, Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez, Paul Motian; Concord Jazz, release date: January 17,2012. Recorded live at the Blue Note in NYC and celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of Bill Evans Explorations this two-disc set warms us with the sort of interplay that LaFaro and Motian attained on the original. Nobody would mistake Cora for Evans and that’s the beauty of it. For the late Motian, an extension, a perfect circle.

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY SOUNDTRACK  by Alberto Iglesias; Silva Screen Records. Pedro Almovodar’s favorite composer has strung together a variety of downbeat themes that sound as a continuous whole. We hear some John Adams, some Phillip Glass, even some Steve Reich in this moody music. More on this later as well.  

Motian Detector

Pianist Anat Fort’s work is known for its mood, sense of touch, use of space and a feel for the exotic. Her latest recording And If assumes these qualities in less obvious ways, giving the music a natural and holistic feel. In a sense, she’s brought new subtleties to her subtlety.

That’s not to say that she can’t show some personality when its called for. “Clouds” is a sky-full of gathering electricity. “Nu” snaps with sparks. Both are emphatic and  powerful even as they turn on Fort’s characteristic style. In short, she’s capable of wide-ranging tone and emotion.

Still, it’s the more considered pieces that standout. Fort’s 2007 ECM release A Long Story included drummer Paul Motian whose touch and painterly percussion was the perfect compliment to the pianist’s thoughtful, occasionally colorful ways. Her trio on the new recording has bassist Gary Wang and drummer Roland Schneider. But Motian is still a presence; the disc’s opening/closing number, its most sensitive, bears the drummer’s name.

Fort gets similar sensitivity from Wang and Schneider, the kind of backing that’s at once austere and appropriate. There are tunes that except for a bit of rhythmic juice might be thought lyrically classical. “Minnesota” is an apt tribute to a state known for its waters. The tune shimmers and splashes inside its folk-like theme. “Nu” is pure punctuation with a flow of its own. By the time she revisits “Paul Motian” you expect her to deepen its brief reflection…and she does. This is an exemplary recording full of individuality and crafted sensitivity. Not your usual piano trio.–Cabbage Rabbit

Days of Future Passed

Jazz-fusion, jazz-funk, jazz-rock…we’ve never been quite sure how to define the music that plugged in around 1969 with Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way and burned out some five years later when “jazz” pretty much left the hyphenate and all the other components—the things that hybridized it—began to short-circuit in our ears. Oh, sure, lots of good electric and cross-cultural improvisational music has been recorded in the intervening 35 years. But nothing quite matches the frantic burst of creativity unleashed by the melding of electric instrumentation, rhythmic innovation, cultural assimilation and avant jazz improvisation, all played with amazing speed and dexterity. We’ll never forget the first time we heard Miles Davis’ Live At the Fillmore East or Tony Williams’ Emergency! or John McLaughlin’s My Goals Beyond or Chick Corea’s first Return To Forever recording. Here was music that matched the era’s cultural shift, played at speeds that paced changing times, that embraced global influence, that turned on to the electricity and promise of those psychedelic days. In the parlance then current, we were blown away.

And then it was over. Miles, as documented on Pangaea and Agharta, melted down and disappeared. McLaughlin and Corea, having recruited massive audiences with Mahavishnu and Return To Forever, began to repeat themselves (to the delight of their fans). I can’t tell you what happened to Tony Williams after the release of the excellent Turn It Over (with Cream bassist Jack Bruce), even as he continued to play like no one else. Like the rest of the fusion movement, he seemed to be reaching for something that was never there.

So forgive the Rabbit for getting all nostalgic—and a bit bitter—about those days of once-and-future glory. The mood’s been brought on by the new McLaughlin-Corea project Five Peace Band, which was recorded live at various European concert locations in the fall of 2008. The double album, while not exactly a rehash of those bygone energies, certainly recalls the spirit of that time—dig the word “Peace” in its name–as well as something of what it became.  Much of  it is good, even great, in surprising ways. And some of it–the minority–disappoints in ways that fusion came to disappoint us. A good part of the music is new, and what isn’t—“It’s About That Time,” Joe Zawinul’s “In A Silent Way,” Jackie McLean’s “Dr. Jackle” and “Someday My Prince Will Come”—all traces back to Miles.

So does the core of the band. Corea and McLaughlin both appeared on In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew as did guest keyboardist Herbie Hancock. Saxophonist Kenny Garrett, who provides much of FPB’s (sounds like a florist, eh?) linear excitement, was a member of Davis’ last bands. Though we’ve never been able to confirm Davis’ alleged comment that Garrett played like he was wearing Sonny Stitt’s “dirty shorts,” we can confirm a certain rank tone to his often suggestive play. Rounded out with frequent Corea collaborator Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and bassist Christian McBride, the quintet has definite super band credentials. But that doesn’t mean it always flies.

The first problem here, as with a lot of post-glory-days fusion, is a tendency to riff. The principles aren’t so much guilty of this in their play as they are in their composing. The main offender is Garrett who too often sets up camp when he should be breaking it. Then there’s the drumming. The best fusion drumming brought funk and poly-rhythms to otherwise straight beats. The worst of it just played it straight and Colaiuta, as quick and agile as he is, often falls into this trap. When he’s challenged with less obvious rhythms, he rises to the occasion with color and shading.

The disc opens promisingly enough with McLaughlin’s “Raju,” its theme moving as quickly as a summer thunderstorm with plenty of lightning-like punctuation. As he does throughout the set, Corea tinkers with his electric sound as much as he does with the lines he improvises. Listen to McLaughlin comp behind the keyboardist and you can’t help but recall the fine, unpredictable backup he provided on Bitches Brew. Corea’s “The Disguise” is one of the recording’s better pieces, with the composer’s quirky acoustic piano making something hopeful of the minor-key theme. McLaughlin’s “New Blues, Old Bruise,” is more bruise than blues but his “Senor C.S.” with melancholy suggestions of “My Funny Valentine” in its introduction, takes to soaring like a wide-winged glider once Colaiuta and McBride get it air borne. The tune also features Garrett’s best play and is the disc’s standout piece.

The other standouts are those that look back, both to the fusion era and past. With Hancock on board, the group makes something new out of the Zawinul tune Miles made famous. McBride’s electric bass on “It’s About That Time” is a monument to what the instrument’s become since  Jaco, Stan Clarke and  others  first broke from the ranks. “Dr. Jackle” is played at a much slower tempo than what’s heard on Milestones and with a bit of stride. Corea thoughtfully introduces “Someday My Prince Will Come,” even as McLaughlin anxiously races around the piano as if that day will never come. By the time they break into the familiar theme, the two, unaccompanied by bass and drums, show how well attuned they are to each other. In a sense, the piece represents what the recording is all about: making something new out of something old. Saying this is one of the best fusion recordings of all time is a lie. Saying it’s one of the best in the last 35 years, well, that’s not saying much. But it is. Who should buy it? You know who you are.—Cabbage Rabbit

He’s No Keith Jarrett

I once had a minor tiff with Brad Mehldau, an exchange of words in the pages of the L.A. Weekly that, I hope, ended up serving us both well. It started when I wrote up a plug for a rare Keith Jarrett appearance, saying that Jarrett had influenced a generation of young musicians. For proof one needed to look no further than Mehldau’s recorded rendition of “Blame It on My Youth”

BRAD MEHLDAU TRIO LIVE, Nonesuch Records

I once had a minor tiff with Brad Mehldau, an exchange of words in the pages of the L.A. Weekly that, I hope, ended up serving us both well. It started when I wrote up a plug for a rare Keith Jarrett appearance, saying that Jarrett had influenced a generation of young musicians. For proof one needed to look no further than Mehldau’s recorded rendition of “Blame It on My Youth” and compare it to Jarrett’s. Mehldau, of course, didn’t like the insinuation that he had mined Jarrett’s work—he claimed to have never heard Keith play “Blame It On My Youth”—and wrote a pointed letter to the editor saying as much, taking the time to belittle some of the other things I’d said in the Jarrett piece, including the fact that for me listening to the pianist and his trio over the years had become a near-religious experience.

Mehldau was playing the following week at LA’s Café Largo and the appearance gave me the opportunity to respond while making him the subject of my jazz pick column. I stuck to my contention that there were a lot of similarities even if they were accidental in Jarrett and Meldau’s takes on “Blame It on My Youth” (maybe the pointed melancholy of Oscar Levant’s lament made for a collusion of mood and approach). And, I argued, it wasn’t such a bad or unusual thing, especially for us godless sorts, to find inspiration, meaning and yes, reason to live in music as wonderful as Jarrett and Mehldau’s.

All (apparently) was forgiven—the keyboardist certainly had larger considerations in his life than what some alternative rag journalist had said about him—and we had a nice chat between sets one Sunday afternoon at a downtown concert sponsored by the Da Camera Society. Mehldau even granted me an interview a year or so later in which he espoused intelligently on his direction. The pianist is known to pontificate about art and his music. Some of his liner notes go to great academic lengths while dropping the names like Goethe, Foucault and Thomas Mann. While they may seem a little overblown at times, these insights are revealing. His notes to House on the Hill are one of the best explanations of the jazz form’s theme-and-variation concept we’ve read (you can find it here [http://www.bradmehldau.com/writing/index.html#]) and Mehldau continues to practice what he preaches. That he has a good intellectual understanding of what he does is a refreshing and educational change from what passes as exposition and criticism of art of any sort (this screed included).

I bring up the Jarrett story to make a similar, hopefully less foolish, Keith-and-Brad comparison. It strikes us that Mehldau is his generation’s Jarrett. The comparison is not so much musical–despite “Blame It on My Youth”–as situational. Both have a long-standing trio (drummer Jeff Ballard replaced Jorge Rossy in 2005) making the evolution of interplay between the three men as interesting as any other component. Both have impeccable musical tastes and an ability to do almost anything they like on the keyboard (which may be truer in Mehldau’s case, Jarrett’s forays into classical music aside). Both attracted young audiences, Jarrett in the ‘70s with his extended solo excursions, Mehldau with his renditions of alt-rock music and a certain rumpled hipster cachet which comes to him without him really trying. This is just the kind of fan recruitment that the so-called jazz world needs to maintain its audience, especially now. That Mehldau seems to do this without compromise—and what he makes of “pop” tunes isn’t a compromise—is all the more to his credit.

Brad Mehldau Trio Live makes Mehldau’s familiar case for opening up the jazz canon to worthy contemporary music even as it establishes a new level of greatness for the trio. (No, those cover photos aren’t of The Village Vanguard where the discs were recorded in October of 2006.) Who else could follow a Soundgarden tune with one by 1930s-era swing band leader Ray Noble and get away with it? Mehldau’s trio is able to pull this kind of thing off by finding a rhythmic core to the music and relating it directly to its mood. They get straight to the heart of a melody and then mess mightily with it (unlike the bits-and-pieces technique Jarrett uses). That they develop all this during the variation part of their theme-and-variation approach makes listening to the trio something akin to reading a good novel. This is one of improvisational music’s great pleasures: it’s as if you can follow what’s going on in their minds as you listen to what’s coming from their hands.

Trio Live gets right into this modus with Oasis’s “Wonderwall,” a rhythmically accessible way to enter the recording. Mehldau’s harmonically kinky assertions stretched across Larry Grenadier’s pin-point bass groove. Mehldau compiles lines on a descending left-hand line and his improv strengthens as it goes along, winding tighter and tighter on Ballard’s irresistible groove. Mehldau’s a master of resolution, able to find his way out of a tight spot as coolly as some action character in a spy thriller. Here it happens so seamlessly that you don’t see the bridge coming until he’s crossing it.

The rest of this two-disc set mixes jazz standards—“More Than You Know”, the John Coltrane vehicle “Countdown”—with Mehldau originals. Unlike Jarrett’s often droning originals, Mehldau pushes his own compositions all over the room, taking them to unexpected corners, stirring up dust and diamonds. Moods vary. There’s the quick and insistent “Ruby’s Rub,” the swing and grace of “B-Flat Waltz,” the romance and intimacy of “Secret Beach.” Mehldau’s sharp reading of Jimmy Heath’s “C.T.A.” cuts new meat from its bop-bones. If Mehldau’s solos seem to go on too long (see liner notes above), one must remember that the same thing was said of John Coltrane, especially in live performance. Like Coltrane, Mehldau has things to get off his chest.

The other comparison Mehldau has garnered, especially early in his career, was to Bill Evans. This came from his audible sensitivity, a quality lacking in the work of many emerging pianists, rather than any stylistic comparisons to Evans. That Mehldau is sensitive, thoughtful and melodically inventive is old news. Here, he finds beauty in a soft touch, melodic sense in even the roughest handling. His approach to “The Very Thought Of You” convinces one, true or not, that this guy knows the depths of love. No you wouldn’t and shouldn’t confuse Brad Meldau’s work with Jarrett’s (guilty) or anyone else’s. We wouldn’t be the first to say there’s no one like him. Highly recommended. –Cabbage Rabbit