Monday, December 22, 2014

CD Review: Phil Haynes-No Fast Food - In Concert

Phil Haynes - No Fast Food
In Concert

Drummer Phil Haynes drew inspiration for the No Fast Food trio from Elvin Jones' post-Coltrane trios, which featured bassist Jimmy Garrison and saxophonist Joe Farrell. On two albums, that trio kept one foot on the ground while pushing the limits of piano-less, horn driven jazz. 

The name No Fast Food implies that these guys aren't going to settle for mass producing something lacking in quality ingredients or nutrition, which would be easy to consume and forget about once that moment is over. Quite the contrary. If names alone establish credibility, saxophonist David Leibman (who played with Elvin Jones a few years after said albums) and bassist Drew Gress (a leader as well as one-time bandmate to Tim Berne, Fred Hersch and Ravi Coltrane) take the cake. Together with Haynes  - himself a 30-year vet who has worked with Anthony Braxton, Dave Douglas and others - these guys operate on the same plain, with the ability to shift from pensive to wild, ballad to free squonk. 

Most of the two-disc set was recorded at Rochester, New York's Bop Shop, with a few tracks coming from Elk Creek Cafe & Aleworks in Millheim, PA. (It's good to know that a place like that caters to this kind of adventurous music. The audience seems to agree.) Haynes receives credit for all the compositions, but many could very easily have been spontaneous group efforts. "Zen Lieb" opens the second disc with a bowed bass and wooden flutes, making it one of the more esoteric pieces of the set. Haynes sounds content to keep his efforts to the cymbals, rolling and bowing as needed, making the whole thing a unique tone poem. 

The leader's unique approach to his kit factors into the music's impact. In "West Virginia Blues," his mix of kick drum accents and stick work almost sounds like two drummers intertwined. Liebman, who projects authority from the first note he plays, whether on disc or in person, begins the track with an unaccompanied tenor solo. The jagged melody that cues in the group recalls Tim Berne's Bloodcount, establishing order out of limitless freedom. 

Gress is one of those musicians who shows up on numerous albums by an array of leaders, and In Concert offers plenty of reasons why. "Together," which probably comes the closest to those early Elvin Jones trio sides, has a bass solo marked by some fine double-stops. On his own in "Out of the Bowels," Gress produces some wonderfully jarring harmonies, that shift into fast runs and bits of disjointed melodies that actually convergence into a richer picture. 

Despite coming from two different sources, the music on In Concert was recorded only two days apart and the whole thing has the feeling of two complete sets. From the moment the trio hits on the first track, the engagement of a live performance comes across.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Me and the 2014 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll

For about the past five years, I've been polled as part of a national survey of jazz critics for the best albums of the year. The results have run on a few different websites, and this year, it's on NPR. The results were posted this past Friday, and can be found here.

Often times, I feel like the odd man out. The albums that top the charts are ones that I either haven't heard yet or that fly under my radar. Not so this year. Four of the Top 10 albums were things that I picked, including #1 and #2! Does it mean that I'm keeping up with the big guys, or that my tastes are finally gaining wider acceptance? I'll let you answer that.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

I'll Have a Bland Christmas...

I've never really cared either way for the holiday perennial "Santa Baby." Eartha Kitt's original version was fine, complete with male "ba-boom" vocals in the background and Henri Rene's sly swinging bachelor pad accompaniment. Recorded in 1953, when Ms. Kitt's shopping list ('54 convertible, yacht, a big fancy ring) was mildly amusing, as few gals really expected to get that. Still as far as Christmas songs about riches go, I prefer Pearl Bailey's "Five Pound Box of Money," for its sheer audacity, not to mention the singer's easygoing honesty, as opposed to Ms. Kitt's iciness.

When Madonna covered "Santa Baby," it came as no surprise. After all she was known as the Material Girl, and who better to make like she was entitled to the fancy wish list (or should that be "demand" list.). From what I recall, her version is pretty much a carbon copy of the original, which begs the question, what's the point?

But, it's all in the delivery, right?

Now, granted I'm behind the times by about seven years on this. But I was forced to hear Taylor Swift's version of "Santa Baby" recently, not knowing it was her or that it'sold news. Yes, everyone does a Christmas album these days, because it practically guarantees that no matter how bad your career goes, you at least get some airplay one month out of the year. (I"m talking about you, Wilson Phillips)
The thing that's so annoying about Ms. Swift's "Santa Baby," is that the modern country arrangement of the song was done completely by the numbers. They got the chord changes right. But there's no feeling. There's no camp to this song. There's not even any, um, sexy quality to it. Swift was 18 when the song came out, so she can be excused for not giving it that quality.

So all we're left with is a big-voiced gal belting out a shopping list for Santa, which in post-millennial years doesn't sound as outrageous because we expect to see pop stars with all sorts of bling, like a fancy ring and a convertible. And Taylor already has the deed that gets mentioned in the song. Which is probably why she doesn't sound any more believable singing this song than some 7-year old big voiced kid who you'd find on America's Got Talent. But she really doesn't (or didn't) have the credibiliy to pull it off. She would have been better off singing "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas."

But then again, what do I know? I never get tired of the Singing Dogs doing "Jingle Bells."

Friday, December 05, 2014

CD Review: Bud Powell - Live at the Blue Note Cafe Paris 1961

Bud Powell
Live at the Blue Note Cafe, Paris 1961

This album marks the second reissue by ESP of live Bud Powell recordings this year, following the three-disc Birdland 1953 set of radio recordings that appeared earlier. While the pianist's output after 1954 is considered inconsistent, thanks in part to his mental instability, here he shows no signs on weakness, playing with sympathetic musicians (French bassist Pierre Michelot and American expatriate Kenny Clarke) who know how to lock in with him. Additionally, several tracks capture him stretching out, which is exciting to anyone used to hearing Powell in the three- to five-minute format.

The same year as these performances, Cannonball Adderley produced a Powell session for Columbia Records called A Portrait of Thelonious that featured four compositions by his good friend. Monk was clearly on his mind and in his set that year. "Thelonious" sounds particularly compelling because of the way Clarke accents the melody so tightly, right in the pocket with Powell, who adds the appropriate spark to the simple melody. While the composer recorded that tune several times, it rarely possessed this kind of interaction in tandem with his musical personality.

"Monk's Mood," a lesser known ballad with an equally lush and deceptive line, sounds strong too. "Round Midnight" was well on its way to becoming a jazz standard, but Powell keeps it fresh by attacking the chords with gravity.

The first three tracks on the album augment the trio with tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims. They stretch out on "Groovin' High," which includes two separate solos by Powell. "Taking a Chance on Love" gives everyone blowing time, with the pianist's melodic ideas sounding especially crisp and concise. Sims' subdued, somewhat smoky tone fits right in with the trio, most notably on the "Bud Blues," a mid-tempo 12-bar workout that segues into the set-closer "52nd Street Theme," another Monk tune. Bebop vehicle "Shaw Nuff" was the rapid tune that proved the mettle of players during this time, and Powell definitely flies here.

The sound quality is strong throughout the set, which is a good part of the reason this session sounds so rewarding: Michelot's strong walking line is heard clearly in a track like "Bud Blues," Clarke's bomb drops put Powell's creativity in high relief and, overall, the leader seems to have an unending, focused well of ideas. More than simply another collection of jazz evergreens, this album provides another worthy addition to the Powell canon from a time when he was still firing on all cylinders.