Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Lennie Tristano at 100

The music of Lennie Tristano holds a special place in my heart. No one told me to listen to him, I discovered him largely my accident - hearing Lee Konitz on Birth of the Cool was the kicker. That led to the recordings on Capitol, which remain some of my all time favorites - "Intuition" and "Digression" blew my 18-year old mind and they still do today.  My interest continued to grow as I saved up busking money to buy the Atlantic set on Mosaic records. The  exchange rate at the time made it horrendously expensive - but worth it!
Lennie Tristano Descent Into The Maelstrom
Considering what Tristano's music means to me, I really haven't written much about him. That's true for a few other musicians that have affected me on a very deep level (Connie Crothers and Richard Tabnik). Maybe in time I will write more about them too, it just hasn't happened yet.

There was that period where it was rather hip to name drop Tristano (and/or Warne Marsh & Lee Konitz) as an influence. I don't hear it nearly as much nowadays. For the most part, it was simply a name drop, as any influence I could hear was largely superficial if it existed at all. And I'm not only taking about nuts and bolts (notes, rhythm, harmony) but aesthetics too. And while the name-droppers got some attention those with deep connection to Tristano were for the most part ignored.

For the week leading up to what would have been his 100th birthday, I've listening to Descent Into The Maelstrom. It's great the album has finally been re-issued by Jazz Records Inc. (the label founded by Tristano in the early 50s) - hopefully they delve into the archive and provide us with a few more gems. Originally released in the 1970s it features tracks selected from various sessions in the 50s and 60s.

The title track is a wonderful reminder of what a visionary Tristano was. In the early 50s many were still trying to come to terms with Bird, yet Tristano was blazing a path of his own. It's a shame it stayed unreleased until 1976, I wonder what the reception would have been like in 1953?

"Stretch", from 1966, is another track I have listened to a lot over the years. It was introduced to me during my studies with Richard Tabnik [one of the highlights of studying with RT was hanging out and listening to records.... everything from Prez to Lenny Bruce to Zappa to Konitz to Armstrong to The Beatles to Bach to Lenny Popkin and more!]. The drive is reminiscent of his work at the Half Note on Continuity (which also featured the pairing of Sonny Dallas and Nick Stabulas on bass and drums).

The interweaving lines on "Pastime" was something that grabbed me this week. It reminds me a little of his trio sides from the 40s moreso than the slightly later Capitol sides. I like the way he and Billy Bauer (the forgotten man of jazz guitar?) bounce off each other on those trios sides. The recordings of the trio from the 40s tend to be overshadowed by his later work, but don't sleep on them! But here, and on "Ju Ju", Tristano weaves contrapuntally with his own overdubbed lines. I'd have to look it up, but I think those two overdubbed tracks kind of slipped under the radar when they were released. Not so once Tristano was recording on Atlantic. It's funny how, due to the overdubbing, there was uproar when Tristano released "Line Up", yet less than 8 or 9 years later Bill Evans wins a Grammy and gets a 5-star review for Conversations with Myself." 

There are times when I have binged on all of his recordings (the last time was probably with the release of Chicago April 1951). Do I listen to his music as much as I used to? No, these days I'm more likely to listen to a track or two here and there. But his music still travels with me every day, and it still thrills me.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Blair Latham Quartet at Rogue and Vagabond

New Zealand JazzBlair Latham (ts/as/b cl) Al Campbell (g) Paul Dyne (b) Thomas Friggens (I think? d)

Due to the regular slot clashing with the vigil for the mosque shooting victims, the gig started early. Although I was in town in time, social media algorithms failed to work in my favor so I was unaware as I followed up a honk in the park with a cup of tea thinking about band ideas. I showed up early for the regular kick-off and they were just about to start the second set. While I expected to hear some original tunes from Blair, instead, I was treated to a set of standards. It was great to hear Blair on alto again - I don’t recall hearing him play alto since he made the switch to tenor many moons ago (I feel he managed to bring some of the buoyancy of the alto across to the tenor). They finished things off with Coltrane’s “Spiritual”, which seemed like an appropriate choice in light of current events. Al’s use of e-bow and various effects could easily have been over done but I think he got the mix just right. I was disappointed to catch only one set but it was enjoyable nonetheless. 
New Zealand jazz

While I was a Rogue, Chris mentioned that Ben van Gelder was playing at LBQ. I knew he had been in town last week with Reinier Baas but I hadn’t realized they were still here. I arrived during the set break and contemplated bailing so I could get the next train home - but I stuck around to catch the second set which featured: Ben Van Gelder (as) Chris Beernik (bass) Myele Manzanza (d) Reinier Baas (g) Brad Kang (g). It was my first chance to hear Brad live - particularly interesting him and Baas (who played one tune) playing on the same set up (shows how much sound is in the hands/feel). It was definitely a “jazz school” crowd - the first I’ve come across since I’ve been back. I don’t get the applauding solos thing, maybe it’s something you learn at school? I used to do it but stopped when I realized I didn’t know why I was doing it. It was a little bit too much on the “epic contemporary jazz” side of things for me, but I’m still glad I didn’t get the early train. 

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Arthur Street Loft Orchestra - Blair Latham and Anton Wuts

This week the Arthur Street Loft Orchestra was a 10-piece group comprised of five reeds, two brass, guitar, bass and drums playing compositions by Blair Latham and Anton Wuts. I was really keen to get along as I hadn’t heard Blair live for quite some time (years), and I can’t recall hearing Anton since he moved out of Wellington (15 years ago!).

I always found their music to be have plenty of energy with a quirky edge. And not much had changed in that regard. The evening had an interesting contrast between buoyancy and darkness. Tunes often moved in unexpected ways, sometimes the changes were abrupt, other times smooth. Blair’s “Message in a Bottle” featured a great soprano solo from Jasmine Lovell-Smith, who was wonderfully melodic and mysterious (that intriguing combination of light and dark). My only real complaint is that I would have enjoyed both Anton and Blair giving themselves a bit more room to stretch out.

The inspiration for some of the tunes hit home. The increased celebration of military is something I too had noticed on my return home. However, Blair's “Unknown “Warrior”, chose to celebrate the unknown musical warriors he heard while in Mexico. The “Daily Grind” is a familiar concept to many, and increasingly why I want to find an outlet for my music. And “Money Isn’t Everything” is something I can get behind.

New Zealand Jazz
This next paragraph is in no way directed at the music written by Anton and Blair - just a comment on the series in general. Last week while chatting to Jeff Henderson about the series, I mentioned the under-rehearsed nature of the group and he has a great suggestion - if you’re composing knowing that there will be minimal rehearsal time, it should inform your writing. Wise words.

I'd like to see the Arthur Street Loft Orchestra record a selection of tracks from the various composers. The series is a welcome addition to the scene and it would be a shame not to see the efforts of those involved documented. Or how about a featured spot at the Wellington Jazz Festival? The latter will have to wait until 2020 now as the headliners have been announced - and based on that, I’ll likely be checking out the lower profile local groups - I’m looking forward to seeing the full program.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Music for Commuting: Alexander Berne

I’m pretty sure it was my friend James Wylie who put me onto the series of recordings that comprises Alexander Berne’s Composed and Performed By. I can't remember when exactly, but it couldn't have been that long after it was released (2010). Regardless, it had been ages since I had given these three discs a blast. An early morning trip to, and late night return from the airport felt like the appropriate time to be joined by The Abandoned Orchestra and The Soprano Saxophone Choir. While The Saduk got a run the following morning on the way to work. I know very little about Berne, and considering how much I enjoy these recordings, I'm not sure why I haven't bothered exploring further.
Composed and Performed By Alexander Berne

Sunday, March 03, 2019

NZ Jazz: Jasmine Lovell-Smith - Fortune Songs

Jasmine Lovell-Smith's Towering Poppies – Fortune Songs
Jasmine Lovell-Smith (ss) Russell Moore (trpt) Cat Toren (p) Patrick Reid (b) Kate Pitman (d) 2011 

While this listening series was designed to get me listening to more jazz by New Zealanders, with a particular focus on albums/artists I hadn't listened to, occasionally I make an exception and revisit a work – as was the case this month. Originally, Fortune Songs was slated for a straight-horning post, but then I thought of the NZ Jazz series and put that on hold (I'll have to revive that series), so now I'm finally getting around to spending more time with the Tower Poppies. 

I've known Jasmine since the early 2000s, and it's always tricky writing about your friends. But I have to say, it's a really solid outing – lyrical, joyous, hints of darkness and drama, plaintive, and conversational. 
New Zealand Jazz

Having two takes of “Confidence” is a nice touch. Each draws something quite different from the piece. The first is uplifting, buoyant and warm. While the second version strips things back for a more reflective approach. I can't think of many soprano/trumpet pairings (a couple from Lacy come to mind playing very different music) but I like the blend they get.

“Darkling I Listen” is somewhat more dramatic with a nice dialogue between piano, bass and drums as the horns step aside following the melody. There's elasticity to the underlying feel. Patrick Reid's bass is bold and the way he comes out of his solo seems like the perfect fit.

There is something chilled-out, yet driving, about “Let Go Be Free” that I find very appealing. During my studies with Richard Tabnik and Connie Crothers, we worked on making notes come alive, listening to where they want to go (rather than subscribing to preconceived lines). Some of Jasmine's notes here (2.06 and at other spots on the album) feature an unstable resonance that really pop out. It's a quality that makes me feel that the note could go anywhere.
The drumming of Kate Pitman is a highlight of the album. Her accompaniment is inventive throughout. She has the knack of not over-doing things while still maintaining propulsion. I enjoy the way she spreads the time around the kit. The propulsion is important factor as many of the tempos are on the slower side but she keeps things moving and interesting.

Cat Toren is pretty understated but that is the approach that is needed with this music. I really enjoyed her comping throughout the album. A nice example is her work behind Russell Moore on “Let Go Be Free”, where she mixes up single note lines, lush chords, and composed material from the melody, yet it never seems to get overbearing or in the way.

“Seven of Swords” is similar to “Darkling” in that is dramatic and features a rubato melody supported by busy accompaniment. I like the way the density backs off following the melody into a section collective improvising. In this case I think I would have like the improvised section to be a bit longer and have the out head stripped back to just soprano, bass and drums – but I'll survive!

Moore throws a bit grease on things during his solo “A Nest To Fly.” It adds a bit of spice to the relaxed groove and the band responds. But restraint is shown (once again). No one is going overboard. Jasmine plays a couple of notes at 2.59 that always remind me of Nathan Haines' “Chinese Burn." The rhythm section just a great job at varying the color and textures behind the soloists.

“Lover's Knot” is a nice example of Jasmine's need not to rush, and her approach permeates through the band. Buy-in from the band, supporting Jasmine's vision, creates a cohesive ensemble sound – one of the strengths of the album (along with her choice of personnel). Sometime I'll have to ask Jasmine how she feels that her love of poetry has influenced her improvising (and writing).

I love the fragility of the opening phrase of “When The Tide Is Right” and how it grows bolder with repetition – but not overly so. From that comes an assuredness to her phrasing of the improvised line. As with here playing throughout the album, it's a lyrical style that doesn't need to rely on an arsenal of well prepared material. A personal approach to the horn. 

Why have I been so slack to get hold of the follow-up, Yellow Red Blue?