Daily Archives: March 31, 2014

ONE, TWO, THREE: JOE POLICASTRO, MAX JOHNSON, DAY ONE TRIO

The triangular shape works beautifully in nature, in mathematics, and in creative improvisation: three examples of jazz trio playing for your consideration — offered as they sit near my computer, without any ranking, implied or expressed.

I have a long familiarity with the music from the Bernstein-Sondheim WEST SIDE STORY. I grew up in an era where adults with phonographs (“record players”) had original cast albums — MY FAIR LADY, CAROUSEL, OKLAHOMA — and the songs were part of our common vocabulary.  But my sister (to whom I am thankful for so much) was a WEST SIDE STORY devotee, attending many performances and making friends with cast members (I recall seeing part of a performance from the back of the house when I was small enough to be lifted up without causing anyone injury) . . . so I knew the music as part of my household soundtrack.

When there were original cast recordings, there were also “jazz versions” of familiar scores, and I think many improvisations on the lingering melodies of WEST SIDE STORY have been recorded in the last half-century and more. This might have daunted any set of twenty-first century improvisers, but string bassist Joe Policastro and his Chicago friends    know that this music has much to offer in itself and as fertile material for jazz improvisation.

west_side_story

Their 2013 recording of the WEST SIDE STORY SUITE balances gracefully between the familiar songs and the music’s possibilities for jazz improvisation. But there are depths here; as Policastro writes, “[the] songs have failed to enter into standard, everyday mainstream performance. There is definitely a reason for this. Behind the unforgettable lyrics and catchy melodies are some of the most unusual and tricky harmonies, phrase lengths, and song forms ever written for the theatre. I think it’s a testament to how good the material is that one hardly notices the constantly shifting keys or the abundance of 3, 5, 7, or 9 bar phrase lengths. Good luck finding a friendly 32-bar AABA song form amongst this bunch!”  Policasttro’s arrangements of the material can veer between the rhapsodic and respectful to the angular and open-ended.  The trio of Joe, string bass; Dan Effland, guitar; Adam Sorensen, drums, honor the original textures and intentions while offering many surprising shifts of perspective within each performance; they show just how much pleasing variety they can find in the material and in their varied approaches to it (from a charged urban conception to the arco statement of the melody on MARIA).  The songs are PROLOGUE / SOMETHING’S COMING / MARIA / JET SONG / AMERICA / ONE HAND, ONE HEART / COOL / TONIGHT / GEE, OFFICER KRUPKE / I FEEL PRETTY / SOMEWHERE.  The disc is available here, and you can hear a sample here:

Another string bassist (and composer) Max Johnson has issued a disc of his Invisible Trio — himself, cornetist Kirk Knuffke, and Zev Ravitz, drums — playing his compositions THE PRETZEL / BIZZA / HELD FOR QUESTIONING / DON WRINKLES / THE INVISIBLE TRIO / MOVING VEHICLE / A PAIR OF GLASSES / THE GOLEM.

MAX JOHNSON Cover

You can hear samples of the music or download the whole CD here.  I confess that here I have no past familiarity with the material to guide me, nor liner notes to borrow from . . . so I will simply say that the CD feels like a conversation between three energized speakers, the collective mood shifting as one or the other moves to the fore and the subjects for discussion change and slide, the mood moving from querulous confrontation to tranquility to sorrow.  I don’t know Max’s compositional methods, so I will let the music speak for itself, to recall Charlie Parker.

Balancing freedom and lyricism, the DAY ONE TRIO — Dos Allen, tenor saxophone; Adam Everett, drums; Yoshiki Yamada, string bass, with a guest appearance on one track by tenorist Ben Flood,  experiments in a rewarding way.  The music on this CD is an intriguing mixture of on-the-spot improvisation and variations on those improvisations, considered as compositions.  As the notes state, “We recorded our improvisations and later listened to what we had played. There were an enormous number of really beautiful moments, as well as entire songs that felt great start to finish. We chose our favorites of those improvisations, mostly taken from our first night playing together, and wrote out the basic framework for each. We have re-recorded some of these favorites in the studio for you to enjoy. The interludes throughout the CD are the actual recordings of us playing together for the first time, and are a reminder of how this music came to be.”

DAY ONE TRIO

Thus, the CD feels like touring the museum, looking at the paintings, with a facsimile of the artist’s sketchbook in hand — as tje trio moves from quiet explorations over ticking drums and bass lines to full-fledged yet open-ended melodic collaborations.  The effect is airy but intense, most rewarding when the trio becomes a quartet, with Allen and Flood quietly trotting alongside one another, lead and commentary on FRIENDS.  The offerings are NO TURN SIGNAL / INTERLUDE 1 / ONWARD WITH A LIGHT HEART / INTERLUDE 2 / FLOATING IN TIME / THE IMPORTANCE OF BREATHING / INTERLUDE 3 / GET SOME / INTERLUDE 4 / AFTER DARK / FRIENDS / GOODNIGHT.  You may listen and download the music here.

Each of these trio adventures offers its own pleasure.  I invite you to sample them.

May your happiness increase!

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IDEAL PLACES: MINIMUM, THREE DOLLARS A PERSON

I think I had three dollars when this card was in vogue, although I was seriously underage . . .

CONDON'S circa 1958

but I can hear this band now — either in my imagination or in the Columbia sessions circa 1958.  They sound wonderful either way.  And Cliff Jackson!

Note to Bob Wilber: Does this seem familiar?

May your happiness increase!

“BLUE NOTES THAT FRAME THE PASSION”: RAY SKJELBRED’S TRIBAL WISDOM

Pianist / composer / scholar / poet Ray Skjelbred is one of the rare ones.

I don’t say this only because of his deeply rewarding piano playing — soloist, accompanist, bandleader — but because of the understanding that it rests upon.  Ray understands that he is one of long line of creators — members of the tribe of improvising storytellers, some of them no longer on the planet but their energies still vividly alive.

He doesn’t strive to copy or to “recreate”; rather, he honors and embodies in ways that words can only hint at.  Call it an enlightened reverence that takes its form in blues-based melodic inventions, and you’ll be close to understanding the essence of what Ray does, feels, and is.

Here are some of his own introspections: “I get ideas by trying to hear the world differently, sometimes even misunderstanding sound on purpose. . . . I like to see things differently, to shape a song, to make it mine. I like to make tempo changes, especially fast to slow, I like to make the notes as round and warm as possible and part of that comes from shading a composition with blue notes that frame the passion. I like to fill in harmonies when the melody feels a little bony to me. . . . I think music is an adventure, a chance to shape sound with your bare hands.”

I’ve admired his playing for some years now — before I knew him as a soloist, I heard him through ensembles on recordings led by other musicians, rather in the way one would hear Hines, Horace Henderson, Joe Sullivan, Frank Melrose, Jess Stacy, Zinky Cohn, Tut Soper, Cassino Simpson, Alex Hill, or a dozen others subversively and happily animating the largest group.

There are several ways to experience this magic — Ray making himself a portal through which the elders can speak, while adding his own personal experiences.  One, of course, is to witness his transformations in person.  To do this, you’d have to know where he is going to be playing — check out the bottom of the page here for his appearances in the near future.

Another way t0 have a portable Skjelbred festival is through his compact discs, recent and otherwise, listed here. I call two new issues to your attention.  One, RAGTIME PIANO, is — beneath its rather plain title — a continued exploration of subversive possibilities, witty and warm.

I remember the first time I began to listen to it — with small surprises popping through the surface like small flowers, catching me off guard, subtler than Monk creating his own version of stride piano but with some of the same effect.  Each track is a small hot sonata, with the surprises resurfacing to make the whole disc a suite of unusual yet comfortable syncopated dance music.

The sixteen solo piano performances offer classics, stretched and reconsidered: SWIPSEY CAKEWALK / SOMETHING DOING / WHOOPEE STOMP / LOUISIANA RAG / MOURNFUL SERENADE / DANCE OF THE WITCH HAZELS / PINEAPPLE RAG / AT A GEORGIA CAMP MEETING, as well as Ray’s originals — inspired by everyone from Emily Dickinson to Julia Child: SMILING RAG / LEAN AND GRIEFY RAG / DON’T CROWD THE MUSHROOMS / COCHINEAL RAG / LITTLE ELMER’S RAG / THE PICOT RAG / REFLECTIONS RAG / BALLS AND STRIKES FOREVER.

Another deep lesson in how to get the most music possible — and then some — from the piano can be found in Ray’s PIANO PORTRAITS, which demonstrates his range of endearing associations, from the Hot Five and early blues singers to Carl Kress and Eddie Lang, from Jimmie Noone and early Ellington to Bix, Hines, and Charlie Shavers. It’s a filling and fulfilling musical banquet: SITTING ON TOP OF THE WORLD / FEELING MY WAY / I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA / WEATHER BIRD RAG / SQUEEZE ME / I NEED YOU BY MY SIDE / DINAH / READY FOR THE RIVER / ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS / CLARK AND RANDOLPH / CANNED MEAT RAG / BLUES FROM “CREOLE RHAPSODY” / BLUES FOR MILLIE LAMMOREUX / FATHER SWING / WHEN I DREAM OF YOU / A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND / MY HEART / MUGGLES / UNDECIDED.  Ray’s prose is as forthright and evocative as his playing, so this CD is worth reading as well as hearing for his recollections of Johnny Wittwer, Joe Sullivan, Burt Bales, Art Hodes, and Earl Hines.

Another way to experience Ray, his mastery of “those pretty notes and jangly octaves,” can be through these video performances.  He has been more than gracious to me, allowing me to capture him in a variety of settings.  I offer one here, BULL FROG BLUES, recorded on November 29, 2013, at the San Diego Thanksgiving Jazz Festival — with his Cubs, that savory band: Kim Cusack, clarinet; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar; Mike Daugherty, drums:

Wherever Ray goes, whatever the context in which he makes music, it’s always rewarding.

May your happiness increase!