Fresh in the glow of its 50th anniversary celebration, kicked off by a party a few nights earlier and extending through the end of the month, Nighttown put its eclecticism fully on display February 10, presenting powerful Scandinavian free-jazz group Atomic. The Nighttown faithful are, by and large, a straight-ahead crowd (two Manhattan Transfer shows set for Friday, February 13, sold out well in advance, for example), so it’s good to see the folks there are still willing to push the envelope—it is, in fact, part on the club’s vitality. Atomic, in just their second visit to Cleveland—the first a 2004 go at the Beachland Ballroom—made that vitality palpable, exploding with an orchestrated chaos that the 30 or so in attendance will likely not soon forget.
After spending the past 50-plus years mining the traditional music of what Greil Marcus has termed “old, weird America,” and expanding it into the contemporary worlds of folk, rock, country, gospel and other singular hybrids thereof, on Shadows in the Night Bob Dylan gives us his take on the Great American Songbook. Thankfully, Dylan doesn’t jettison the weirdness for the trip, choosing (unlike so many other rock and pop stars) to interpret these standards in his own idiom; choosing, that is, not to prop himself in front of some large orchestra with knockoff, ’50s-sounding charts, but to record the songs live with his five-piece touring band. The result is a wee-hours drift through the American psyche, one that is by turns eerie, achingly sad and warmly nostalgic, as Dylan pines for lost love, lost selves, waning life and the sentimental virtue of enduring.
Invigorating set last night from the Matthew Shipp Trio at Nighttown. Playing in a dimly lit room (as the musicians desired, I’m suspecting, with Shipp himself nearly lost in the shadows and the three musicians rarely bothering to open their eyes) to about 20 to 25 people (come on, Cleveland!) the group clamored nonstop for 90 minutes, featuring tunes from last year’s Elastic Aspects thread organically into a continuous musical string. Shipp, his swiveling torso tossing hands onto the keys to rake out feverish sounds—tough, twirling melodies to crashing, dissonant bomb blasts, seemed wholly one with the music throughout. His chin remained bowed to chest during much of his playing, and when bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey each took an extended solo (Bisio’s stretching 10-15 wild, forceful minutes, with bowed passages bookending a plucked core) Shipp draped himself over the piano, head buried between outstretched arms, as if needing to recuperate or, simply, to maintain an unhindered focus on the music. Similarly, Dickey cradled his forehead in left hand through much of Bisio’s solo, signaling that there might be something painful in producing this music—a serious commitment that expended both physical and mental faculties. For the listener, however (or, at least, for this listener), the sounds were energizing, restorative in being dug from the stuff of life and tossed out, with precision, yes, but with no cotton padding to soften the blow—joy, sorrow, violence, dance unfiltered.
Saxophonist Chris Potter and his quartet fulfilled every promise with their 100-minute set Saturday evening at the Lakeland Jazz Festival. While focusing on tunes from his January release The Sirens (ECM), Potter allowed more air to inhabit the pieces, as when launching “Penelope” and “The Sirens” alone on soprano sax and bass clarinet, respectively, working his way into the haunting melody of each as if raking the melodies together out of all the possibilities offered by sonic space. Many of the tunes fed quietly, organically into those that followed. But in between the demarcation points (however blurry they might be) swam a sea of mood and crescendo.
Even with his reputation for perfectly hewn lines and phrases, Potter’s tightly twined bop solo on Thelonious Monk’s “Four in One” was a wonder to behold. His bass clarinet on “The Sirens” was more forlorn than foreboding, as if sounding a eulogy for those drawn by the Sirens’ call—for all life that must crash inevitably into death. Bassist Larry Grenadier followed this with a dark but highly melodic bowed bass solo that drew out the piece’s Indian undertones and seemed, upon its finish, to suck the room of its air. It was also interesting to hear pianist David Virelles fully attack this music (he plays on Sirens, but Craig Taborn covers the main keyboard duties therein). Virelles employed more dissonant voicings than Taborn, in addition to some Cuban flare, most notably on “Five Points.” Drummer Eric Harland never took a solo during the set, but propelled the motion ever forward and added inventive rhythmic underpinnings, as when knocking a tambourine against the rim of his snare on “Sky.”
It was quite a set, and hopefully I can do it justice in my upcoming full review for All About Jazz. Additional photos are again available on the AAJ site.
Wine Dark Sea (Chris Potter)
Five Points (Potter)
Four in One (Thelonious Monk)
The Sirens (Potter)
Encore: Darn That Dream (Eddie DeLange/James Van Heusen)
Just a few weeks back I hastily surmised that Joe Lovano’s latest release might already have sewn up Best of 2013 honors. With much intended hyperbole, I suggested that others might as well just stop playing. Of course, none of us really wants that. A variety of voices is what it’s all about, after all. And one of the biggest, most invigorating voices in jazz today belongs to saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who himself just put out a new album, Gamak. And this—no, really—this is the album of the year! (Hey, it’s Grammys weekend—what do you expect?!)
Mahanthappa’s music, as I’m sure most readers of this blog well know, is a highly energized one, becoming almost frantic at times (though never out of control) as the saxophonist tangles with his chosen group of musicians—often those with feet and instrument cases planted in various musical genres, allowing Mahanthappa to explore the classical Indian music of his heritage along with jazz, rock and other wild, modern sounds. Joining Mahanthappa for Gamak (a word, according to the saxophonist, derived “from the South Indian term for melodic ornamentation ‘gamaka’” and that serves, apparently, as both album title and group name; his 2011 title Samdhi likewise fulfilled this dual purpose) are musicians he’s played with in other contexts. Drummer Dan Weiss and bassist François Moutin are part of the quartet last heard on the saxophonist’s 2006 album Codebook. Weiss is also part of the saxophonist’s Indo-Pak Coalition, and Moutin played on the 2010 Mahanthappa/Bucky Green Apex album. Guitarist David Fiuczynski appeared with Mahanthappa regularly last year as part of The Jack DeJohnette Group. That Group, in fact, made a stop in Cleveland as part of the Tri-C JazzFest, albeit without the services of Mr. Mahanthappa.
Fiuczynski is a key to the success of this latest release. That a guitarist holds this favored position on a Mahanthappa record should be of no surprise to his fans—for me, at least, a good deal of the excitement over a forthcoming Mahanthappa album comes from anticipating his new guitarist foil. In guitarists like Rez Abbasi and David Gilmore (and, now, Fiuczynski), Mahanthappa has found energetic partners who can expertly run with him along the ragged line of his Indo-fusion music. The electric guitar, in fact, seems uniquely qualified for this role–not only can it keep pace with the power of the saxophonist’s own playing, but it also can (at least in the hands of these chosen musicians) effortlessly, organically move in and out of the various cultural and sonic spaces that the saxophonist likewise traces and that this music demands. Fiuczynski aptly fits the bill. In one moment his electric guitar might release the warbling lines of traditional Indian or other Asian musics, the next it’s spanking out crunching rock chords that segue into blistering metal solos or slack-key surf-music vibes. “Lots Of Interest,” as its title might indicate, provides a perfect example. Mahanthappa and Fiuczynski both run the musical gamut herein, and it’s interesting to note how their playing colors Moutin’s acoustic bass solo, lending it Asian shadows it might not cast in some other setting.
From the opening, funk-boogie alarm of “Waiting Is Forbidden,” Gamak fires a sparkling mesh of musical possibility, laying out swaths of Indian, jazz, rock and funk music as if they are inseparable parts of the same, universal music. This is never an esoteric exercise, but more full-blooded sport, a heated exchange that, as the abrupt ending to the closer, “Majesty of the Blues,” demonstrates, can only be silenced by pulling the plug. Why you would ever want to do such a thing remains unanswered.
Joe Lovano seems to have developed a taste for launching brilliant New Year salvos into the jazz firmament. As he did with 2011’s Bird Songs (Blue Note), the saxophonist released this year’s recording by his Us Five group, Cross Culture (Blue Note, 2013), in the lifting fog of January’s opening hangover. And, like its predecessor, it sends a blaring message to the rest of the jazz world: “Yeah, the year’s just getting started, but it may already have its greatest record. Thanks for playing.”
Lovano probably isn’t trying to make such a boast through his release schedule (nor, at this point in his lauded career, does he likely feel the need to do so, at any time of year). Nevertheless, both releases have gotten their respective years off to a bang, one that, in Bird Songs’ case proved hard to match. And, if anything, Cross Culture sets the bar even higher. It’s a forceful, exploratory record, that finds Lovano wielding tenor sax, G mezzo soprano sax, the double-throated aulochrome, and taragato (often switching up horns in the middle of a piece) to probe and wrestle the musical landscape. There’s a deep, questioning intelligence in everything the reedman plays here. Even boisterous numbers like “Blessings In May,” “In a Spin” or “Royal Roost” speak of a mind elated or agitated in physical exertion, they don’t just scream with brute, dumb force. Joe’s reading of the Ellington/Strayhorn nugget “Star Crossed Lovers” beautifully, naturally runs the full amorous cycle from breathy anticipation, through cocky, lighthearted swagger, to heightened exuberance and the low sighs of exhaustion.
Us Five has, in fact, been about crossing cultures since its formation in 2009 and the release of Folk Art (Blue Note)—blending cultures from both the music world and the world at large. The group’s musicians hail from various generations, ethnic backgrounds and “schools” of jazz, and they come together as an inquisitive, joyful, penetrating, rolling temblor. But for this date, Lovano extends the cultural convergence, inviting African guitarist Lionel Loueke to sit in on six of the numbers. For the most part, Loueke’s guitar employs a highly modern, Western accent as it trades with Lovano’s saxes. But on “Drum Chant” Loueke’s strings seemingly become skins for a percussive conversation with drummers Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela.
Indeed, it’s this dual-drummer format that gives Us Five a good deal of its distinctive character. Brown and Mela weave a multidimensional percussive backdrop for the others to inhabit and explore. Lovano extends that model as well here, bringing together bassists Peter Stavov and Esperanza Spalding for a duet on “Golden Horn.” Stavov, a new addition to the group, plays on five additional tracks, while much-in-demand Spalding, the group’s original bassist, handles just three others. Pianist James Weidman rounds out the group, laying down pointed support, jumping, classically tinged solos, and a fine torch-song open to “Lovers.”
It’s January. It’s bite-ass cold in Cleveland. But native son Joe Lovano and his Us Five combo have given us sweet respite from the frigid temps, lighting the way for (hopefully) good things to come in jazz. Next week alone sees the release of anticipated recordings by saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa and Chris Potter. (Potter, incidentally, will be headlining the Lakeland Jazz Festival next month—a performance that’s likely to go down as the highlight from the 2013 Northeast Ohio jazz scene). Wayne Shorter, whose performances with his current quartet have widely been regarded as among the best in jazz over the last several years, releases a live album the following Tuesday, Feb. 5.
Ah, yes, 2013 is shaping up to be a lucky year indeed for jazz heads.
“Yo, Yeo, Yough”
In other release news, Mostly Other People Do the Killing, the experimental group led by bassist Moppa Elliott and featuring his fellow Oberlin grad, trumpeter Peter Evans, released their fifth album, Slippery Rock (Hot Cup Records) this past Tuesday. I haven’t got my grubby hands on it yet, but here’s a typically bizarre video put out in support of the album: