Sung Twice

Nighttown features pianist Helen Sung twice this week: Tuesday with her quartet and Wednesday backing singer (and Cleveland native) Vanessa Rubin. Sung’s quartet, playing in support of her latest release, Anthem for A New Day, features John Ellis on sax, Hamilton Price on bass and Jamire Williams on drums. The interplay between the classically trained yet exuberant Sung and the groovy, funky Ellis should be particularly fun, and that prospect alone is enough to recommend this show. Rubin, with her recent (at least part-time) relocation to Cleveland, has been performing fairly frequently in town of late (something all jazz fans here should be happy about). If you haven’t had a chance to check her out, this set Wednesday, with the world-class, expressive backing of Sung and local bassist Peter Dominguez (plus a drummer TBA) may be your best opportunity yet.

Pick of the Week: Gabriel Alegría Afro-Peruvian Sextet (3/19)

The Gabriel Alegría Afro-Peruvian Sextet, formed in 2005 by trumpeter Alegría and drummer Hugo Alcázar, makes its Cleveland debut on Tuesday, March 19 at Nighttown. While the band’s music incorporates the expected Latin and African rhythms, there’s also a lush, orchestrated feel to much of what they do, a quality found most readily in its leader’s sailing trumpet passages. Show starts at 7 p.m. $20.

Matthew Shipp Trio Shatters Nighttown

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.

Pick of the Week: Matthew Shipp Trio (3/7)

Avant-garde pianist Matthew Shipp makes a stop with his trio at Nighttown on Thursday. It’s been a long time coming. I’m not sure he’s ever come closer than Erie, Pa., which, incidentally, he’ll play again on Wednesday night, part of a five-day sweep around Lake Erie that will also take him to Toledo, Detroit and Toronto.

That he’s touring in support of a Greatest Hits (Thirsty Ear) album should tell you something about the 52-year-old pianist who’s revered by fans on the fringe, well-known and highly regarded within the jazz world, but surely hasn’t tasted any Casey Kasem-bestowed success. I’m not sure what it should tell you—is he being ironical, cynical, comical, delusional? Actually, he has indicated that he’s just being practical—releasing a “compendium” of material to give those new to his music a good place to start.

Whatever the reason, if there were any justice in the world (or at least in the world of the arts) Matthew Shipp truly would be a hit maker. His music is adventurous, jarring, energetic, riveting. It can turn dark, run through affecting, perhaps despondent, passages, then explode in a fit of cathartic clamoring. There is nothing of sentimentality or fluff in Shipp’s music. For lack of a better word, it’s intense. And always eminently and truthfully human, which, sadly, isn’t something you can say too often about a good deal of the art that floats around and gets puffed up.

Shipp will be joined by bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey, who played with the pianist on last year’s Elastic Aspects (Thirsty Ear), easily one of the best records of 2012. Show starts at 8 p.m. and cost is $20. I advise all Cleveland humans to be in attendance.

Picks of the Week: Sultans of String (1/31), Jackie Ryan (2/1)

After a brief respite from winter at the beginning of this week, temps are predicted to plummet again by Thursday. Perfect time to take in Sultans of String, who will be bringing their fusion of Flamenco, gypsy jazz, Latin and various Euro café sounds (by way of Canada) to Nighttown on Thursday night. Heavy on guitars, violin and pulsating acoustic rhythms, the Sultans should be able to simmer the chill from your bones. Just nominated for World Group of the Year by the SiriusXM Canadian Indie Awards, a category they won in November at the Canadian Folk Music Awards, the group is touring in support of their latest release Move (2011).

On Friday at Nighttown, vocalist Jackie Ryan makes her (long overdue) Cleveland debut. Too many contemporary jazz singers seem schooled in (or for) Broadway musicals, singing with a polished sterility that has little to do with the club or the street, let alone life. Ryan is an exception. She’s that rare thing: a traditionalist who also happens to be genuine. Following the lead of the greatest jazz singer of them all, the divine Ms. Sarah Vaughan, Ryan has a penchant (and the skill) to play with a melody, with individual notes, to lend a song her own unique accent. It’s the mark of any great jazz musician. Ryan is touring in support of her just-released Listen Here (OpenArt, 2013).


Another Year, Another Joe Lovano Us Five Stunner

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:

“Yo, Yeo, Yough” – Mostly Other People Do the Killing from Yuan Liu on Vimeo.

Esperanza Spalding at Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland

Bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding brought her Radio Music Society tour to the Tri-C Metro Auditorium last night as part of the Tri-C JazzFest. This second stop on the tour found Spalding and her 11-piece band in fine ’70s funk/R&B form, as they ran through the bulk of the tunes on the Radio Music album released in March. While perhaps not fitting some purist definition of a “jazz show,” the live performance of these songs incorporated a lot more jazz-oriented fills than are heard on the record. And the sold-out auditorium howled its approval time and again for Spalding’s latest groove.