Live from Denmark: The Copenhagen and Aarhus Jazz Festivals (2017)

If jazz is about freedom of expression, then it is also about expression of freedom. Both philosophies were alive and well in Denmark’s coastal cities of Copenhagen and Aarhus, as if to quell the tide of social unrest that is our zeitgeist.

The Copenhagen Jazz Festival (July 7-16) boasted an overwhelming 1,400 concerts over 10 days. For the three I was there, Denmark’s capital was bursting at the seams with music. Whether catching tenor saxophonist Jens Erik Sørensen swinging with his quartet in the central square of Café Sari, drowning in the torrent unleashed by French guitarist Nina Garcia and Danish trombonist Maria Bertel outside the city’s Jazzhouse or reveling in the Dixieland delights of reedplayer Henning Munk and Plumperne on the postcard-perfect Nyhavn canal, there was something fresh to be sourced in nearly every quarter.

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(Garcia and Bertel)

Anticipation was largely met by the festival’s bigger draws. On the beautiful stage of the Royal Danish Playhouse, Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias presented her tribute to the samba with bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Rafael Barata. The trio bobbed and weaved through meaty arrangements of Antônio Carlos Jobim, João Donato, Roberto Menescal (an epic take on his “Você” being a highlight of the set), João Bosco (his “Coisa Feita” being another), along with a smattering of the tried and true, including “The Girl from Ipanema,” one of three encores.

Erykah Badu plied her soulful trade to a boisterous audience at Tivoli Gardens, where she preached some of the jazziest creeds of the festival. Decked in ebony from head to toe and with a drum machine ever-present at her left hand, she and her airtight band dipped healthily into the songbook of her New Amerykah duology. She allowed plenty of room for improvisation and her bandmates even took part in one of the legendary after-hours jam sessions at Copenhagen’s La Fontaine later that night.

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(An eager crowd swoons to Erykah Badu)

Higher expectations, however, made for lower returns in the case of guitarist Jakob Bro, who offered an even-keeled set with a sizable band that included drummer Andrew Cyrille and saxophonist Mark Turner. But while the music showed artful restraint and Cyrille proved his mastery in a memorable solo, Bro never really acknowledged the audience. Furthermore, Turner’s presence felt wasted, as his brilliance was subdued in favor of breathy long tones in a role that was rarely more than supportive.

It was on the wings of Copenhagen’s local talents that the most surprising flights took place. Whether in the blues-tinged art rock of guitarist Mikkel Ploug and his tight rhythm section or the appropriately named I Think You’re Awesome, led by bassist Jens Mikkel and standout guitarist Alex Jønsson, pleasant surprises abounded.

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(Mikkel Ploug)

Vocalist Mads Mathias was another noteworthy act. Though often compared to Harry Connick Jr., Mathias showed refreshing lucidity and a sense of humor all his own.

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(Mads Mathias and his band)

This year also marks the 150th anniversary of Denmark’s diplomatic relations with Japan and the festival did its commemorative part by inviting a range of Japanese artists, including MoGoToYoYo. This brilliant project of drummer Yasuhiro Yoshigaki, by its deft balance of play and patience, was on par with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, an obvious influence.

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(Yasuhiro Yoshigaki)

The Aarhus Jazz Festival (July 15-22) was an altogether different experience. Bassist and vocalist Kristin Korb, backed by pianist Magnus Hjorth and drummer Snorre Kirk, set the tone for the Aarhus journey, making the city’s sunlit Concert Hall foyer that much sunnier. In addition to playing tunes off her 2016 tribute to Johnny Mercer, Beyond the Moon, Korb gave insight into her globetrotting personal life, belting out life-affirming energy with tact and hospitality. Two days later, singer/songwriter Madeline Peyroux headlined in the Concert Hall proper with guitarist Jon Herington and bassist Barak Mori, slinging a politically savvy program by way of her sly yet heartfelt delivery.

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(Kristen Korb)

The choicest action went down under the auspices of 12 Points, a roving festival-within-a-festival. Featuring twelve acts from as many countries, it was a veritable cross-section of the future of European jazz. Danish pianist Lars Fiil kicked off 12 Points with his aptly named group, Frit Fald (Free Fall); much of the music was through-composed, but gave leeway to free interpretation. Other composition-leaning groups were Norway’s Significant Time (a hodge-podge ensemble featuring wordless vocals); cinematically inclined Marie Kruttli Trio from Switzerland; Louis Sclavis-inspired Post K of France; and SCHNTZL, a keyboard- and-drums duo from Belgium.

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(Kirke Karja)

The atmospheric Kirke Karja Quartet from Estonia was especially on point. Featuring the Terje Rypdal-esque stylings of guitarist Kalle Pilli, the quartet played mature arrangements of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Waage (Libra)” and Bill Frisell’s “Hangdog,” as well as original tunes. Other groups were more improvisation-heavy. The Francesco Orio Trio from Italy, for example, built Giovanni Guidi-like bodies around fragmentary organs of melody. The best balance between these two soft extremes was struck by chuffDRONE of Austria. Backed by the intuitive drumming of Judith Schwarz and brought into unexpected directions by soprano saxophonist Lisa Hofmaninger, chuffDRONE achieved a welcome balance of cloud and sky. Another highlight was Tommy Moustache. This savvy quartet of unabashed Dutch gentlemen brought verve and high-octane precision to their humorous yet rigorous blues.

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(Francesco Orio)

The remaining bands were rooted in noisier soil. These included Ireland’s Big Spoon and Lithuanian outfit Sheep Got Waxed. The latter trio of alto, guitar and drums (along with an array of electronics) was another zenith and brought about an energy rarely produced since the heyday of John Zorn’s Naked City.

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(Simonas Špiavičius of Sheep Got Waxed)

The festival closed with a set from UK act Taupe, another fierce trio of similar makeup balancing blast and groove with clear punctuation.

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(Two thirds of Taupe)

Despite being separated by a three-hour train ride and thematic divergences, Copenhagen and Aarhus were cut from the same dynamic cloth. Depth of appreciation was palpable across the board, further emphasized by a variety of child-focused programming at both festivals. Such outreach to a growing generation of jazz lovers and creators served as assurance that jazz is healthier than ever and that we are fortunate to lend an ear at its cusp.

(This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

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The Women in the Room

Throughline
(Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

Throughline
March 28, 2017
7:30pm
Cornell University, Kiplinger Theater

I can tell you that Alicia Hall Moran is a singer with countless biographies woven into her lungs; that Rachel Eliza Griffiths and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon are poets of vast interpersonal awareness; that LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs is a sensitive purveyor of visual and sonic incisions. But this conveys only who they are on paper and not what they became in person when their forces cross-pollinated in Cornell’s Kiplinger Theater on March 28, 2017.

The title of their performance, THROUGHLINE, felt like both descriptor and mission statement as they drew lines through the curio cabinets of our minds even while rearranging them, jumping from soul to soul until only a singularity of verbal perfume was left. Amid top notes of citrus and spice, girlhood’s questioning turned into womanhood’s indestructibility and floral mids scented the skin of forgotten children, while a base of grasslands and burnt umber evoked the muck of conflicting narratives from which these four singular artists excavated common themes.

Moran’s voice carried ahistorical futures written in historical registers. Presenting selections from her debut album, Heavy Blue, as well as new songs composed around the poetry of her sisterly collaborators, Moran spotlighted the nooks of maturation in which understandings take deepest root. Whether intensifying her mezzo brilliance in the original “Open Door” or modernizing the spirit of John Dowland’s “Flow My Tears,” she proved that emotional celebrities must first unlock their own silence before preaching to the silenced. Throughout her collage of serenades and broken dreams, she pulled at the seams of self-proclamation until “self-” dropped off and fell into the lottery of brighter tomorrows.

Griffiths likewise blurred languages of light and grain, ever the auditory bokeh in our depth of field as listeners. She took Moran’s photorealistic impulses of yearning and spun them into a pastiche of reflections. Her lyrics were odes to lived experience. Through pulling of moon and tide, creation and womb, a life-giving dance took place in everything she embraced. In her world of submarine maternity and spirits within spirits, she rendered birth pangs as tactile substances to be fashioned into words. Like a child looking upon her mother for the first time, every poem was precious and beyond worthy of the swaddling by our attentions.

Van Clief-Stefanon drew a vertical axis to Griffiths’s horizontal, exploring hierarchies of musical impulses, chemical time signatures and the types of choices that fuel epiphanies of social justice. Her breaths of transitioning spring held their shape despite the infernos of ignorance that have beset our present age, and tipped her scales of allusion toward the popular canon — polishing, for instance, Rihanna’s diamond until its dark matter threw open the wings of an intergalactic politic. Pulling names from the depths of her blood, she homed in on key tones of physical relationships and lifted valor with gloved tongue as an object worthy of study. Flipping over male dominance like a fish in a pan, she captured its briny smoke in her nostrils and exhaled sweet critique.

Diggs’s conveyance of videos and stills taken by Griffiths was the rhythm section behind the soloists, to which she added her own interdisciplinary foraging as filtered through a tabletop array of electronica. Her digitally altered singing worked at molecular levels, made clear as the artists laid down a path of composites aching from the grammar of their integration. Diggs divided the moon like an egg and deferred her feel for montage to three women who shelter all the beauty of the world in their consonance.

The THROUGHLINE project sees something beyond the obvious. Experiencing it was akin to seeing a dream you once forgot now being laid bare, newborn edges and all. Its discourse was so precise that it sharpened blades of memory until only reality was left by their slice. It was music for those that fortune once threw into a pool of amniotic fluid and walked away disappointed when they didn’t drown. Music for those who’ve since learned that every change of dress is another chance at remembrance. Music that looked us straight in the eyes and said: You want to know what real privilege is? Sharing the duty of those dismantling its infrastructures, throwing away the master’s tools, and rebuilding — letter by letter — the temples of our bodies without warning signs, fire escapes or trigger alarms.

Moran, Griffiths, Van Clief-Stefanon and Diggs were their own microphones, amplified through self-expression — the strongest form of faith — and built on the assertion that nothing is real until spoken, nothing spoken until real. These were the women in the room, voices of a collective body whose signatures imprinted ears and eyes with every individual step forward, and the honor of unfolding said signatures out into this tightly and artfully folded world will stay with us. Perseverant. Honest. Unafraid.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)

Pluck and Verve: Jerusalem Quartet at Cornell

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(Photo credit: Felix Broede)

Jerusalem Quartet
March 25, 2017
8:00pm
Cornell University, Barnes Hall

Since the mid-1990s, the Jerusalem Quartet has been slinging its unmistakable tone and adroit programming to audiences worldwide, and at last to Cornell University’s Barnes Hall on March 25, 2017. What distinguishes Jerusalem Quartet from its umpteen contemporaries is its interlocking tonal spread, meticulous attention to rhythm and balance of repertoires. For this performance, these spirited musicians presented a trifecta of drama, whimsy and lyricism.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Quartet No. 11 in F minor set the stage not only musically, but also technically, as idiosyncrasies came immediately to the forefront. First violinist Alexander Pavlovsky brought a clarion register that meshed superbly with second violinist Sergei Bresler’s warmer colors, while violist Ori Kam and cellist Kyril Zlotnikov completed the picture with an organic rusticity and dance-like undercurrent. From the opening movement’s latticed spaces to the folkish fourth, the playing navigated every change of pace with the adaptability of a racecar driver. The Bach-inspired fugue of the second movement, with its gyroscopic core, was especially moving, and snuggled nicely against the conversational third. Though a pleasant piece with which to begin, one that showed its composer’s penchant for cellular invention and negotiations of ferocity and finesse, it was but an appetizer to the main course of Sergey Prokofiev’s Quartet No. 1 in B minor. This compact yet multifaceted gem spanned only three movements, upending convention by ending with the slowest. That final Andante was as songlike as it was ashen and overcast. Like a memory snagged on a branch, it resisted our attempts to seize it in a most beguiling way. From root to branch, it maintained integrity with solid growth and showed off the flair of cellist Zlotnikov’s way with (and without) a bow. This was preceded by an Allegro which, with abundant rhetorical flourishes, felt like Prokofiev guiding us through a maze, running down certain passages and tiptoeing through others.

After intermission, we luxuriated in the depths of Antonín Dvořák’s Quartet No. 13 in G major. Among the composer’s final quartets, it reaffirmed the fact that few understood the sonority of the genre more than he did. Delightful yet weighed by the ante of human contemplation, every dance-like gesture in the surrounding movements only served to emphasize the anthemic beauty of the Adagio. Like a restless dream during hibernation, it changed colors and textures with almost surreal seamlessness and epitomized what violist Kam in his program notes cited as their goal of showing the string quartet as a “singular instrument.” Likewise the encore, which presented the Allegretto pizzicato from Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4 in the manner of master clockmakers offering a glimpse of their craft.

Uniting all of this was a sense of hearing not only composers but also performers unafraid to think out loud. Like a great jazz performance, it reminded us that even within the borders of prescribed music there is infinite room for variation and interpretation.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)

Winds of Exchange: Simon Shaheen’s Zafir at Cornell

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(Photo credit: Adrian Boteanu)

Simon Shaheen presents Zafir
March 10, 2017
8:00pm
Cornell University, Bailey Hall

String Theory: VIDA Guitar Quartet Live at Cornell

VIDA portrait

VIDA Guitar Quartet
February 23, 2017
8:00pm
Cornell University, Barnes Hall

On February 23, 2017, the VIDA Guitar Quartet made its Ithaca debut at Cornell’s Barnes Hall. Since 2007, the British ensemble has been impressing a conscientious sonic footprint on listeners. Seeing them live, however, the interlocking nature of their artistry is apparent not only in their craft, but also in their choice and assembly of programming.

There is, of course, plenty of savvy over which to marvel regarding each player’s technical wheelhouse. Mark Eden’s highs, Mark Ashford’s harmonizing and melodic leads, Amanda Cook’s unbreakable ground lines and Chris Stell’s rhythmic backbone (enhanced by tapping of the guitar body) make for a kindred fit that is rare among quartets of any constitution. By an uncompromising equanimity of individual allotments, VIDA shows its truest colors as a holistic unit.

The concert opens with selections from VIDA’s latest CD, The Leaves be Green, thereby nodding to their homeland. The three-part English Folk Songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams, based on melodies collected from the British Isles and originally written for marching band, feels most tactile in the version presented here. Two marches, and between them an intermezzo, morph from vivacious to tender and back again. In addition to introducing us to the quartet’s sound, the piece also lends insight into Vaughan Williams’s love for music in its most rudimentary forms (even a tune heard whistled at a pub was fair game for a composer so enamored). By contrast, Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite, a collection of six French courtly and lay dances that would be the short-lived composer’s most popular work, is just as vibrant under VIDA’s fingertips in guitarist Chris Susans’s reimagining (the only arrangement of the program not produced by one of the quartet’s members). More latticed than the macramé of the Vaughan Williams, it emotes as much vertically as horizontally, stretching more than enough canvas to support VIDA’s flourishing foregrounds.

From there, the program seems to change costumes into George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Formidably arranged over a three-year period by VIDA frontman Chris Stell, the new version highlights the brilliance of this timeworn classic’s rhythmic complexities. A piece normally rendered far too grandiose for my taste by dint of its popular orchestral arrangement (the piece was originally written for two pianos), it blossoms through VIDA’s intimate filter and begs new appreciation for its source and for the feat of making it amenable to plucked gut.

After flexing their knuckles during intermission, the musicians return for a lighter — though no less engaging — second half, starting with a highlight of the evening: Mark Eden’s nimble retelling of J. S. Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto. Smooth yet punctuated, flowing yet rhythmically precise, this perennial favorite reveals an inner heart too often glossed over at the touch of a bow. It also shows the quartet at its tessellated best, and underscores the unique sonority of each instrument.

This is followed by two contemporary pieces. The first is by composer Phillip Houghton, who bases his Opals on the beloved precious stone of his native Australia. Each of its movements plies a different atmospheric trade. Where “Black” is jagged and strong, “Water” evokes a pond shimmering in moonlight and “White” coheres with the precision of a jigsaw puzzle. Next is The Great British Rock Journey, written for VIDA by friend Nick Cartledge. A brilliantly composed piece that is a joy to hear, it cycles through familiar riffs of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and others. In keeping with the rhapsodic theme, Queen’s instantly recognizable bohemianism provides the longest and most indulgent section, and a quotation of Coldplay’s “Clocks” is surprisingly fresh.

VIDA ends with a selection from the Hungarian Dances of Johannes Brahms, which after the excitement of its predecessors might fall flat if it wasn’t for the musicians’ deft balancing act of texture and character. On that latter note, an encore rendition of the theme from director Carol Reed’s 1949 classic, The Third Man, exits the stage amid a dash of humor by which to remember a performance otherwise steeped in enchanting rigor.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)

Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer: Bringing the Love

Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer
Bailey Hall, Cornell University
February 3, 2017
8:00pm

The double bass is a perennial fixture of many jazz combos. And yet, how rare to hear it on its own terms. Rarer still in duet with a like partner. The Cornell Concert Series kicked off its spring season by proving that a duo of basses could be more than meets the ear. As twin ramparts of their generation, Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer are as masterful as they come. Where one cut his teeth on the jagged edges of jazz, the other was baptized in classical waters. Yet, both have eroded the boundaries of their chosen genres in mutual respect. This respect was nowhere so evident as in Bailey Hall on Friday, where they conversed as friends and allies do: without judgment or fear.

McBride and Meyer evoked a symbiotic relationship on stage. The combinatory powers of their artistries spanned the gamut. On the technical front, Meyer carried a resonant tone and perfect pitch throughout, as emphasized by his mellifluous bowing. McBride, meanwhile, drew a z-axis straight into the audience, going playfully off pitch as only a seasoned jazzman can, to emphasize flexibility of every note. In short: Meyer sang and McBride spoke.

This dynamic held true whether the duo was navigating the well-trodden landscapes of standards like “My Funny Valentine” and “Days of Wine and Roses,” or escorting listeners along far-less-traveled compositions between them. The concert opened in the latter vein with Meyer’s own “Green Slime,” a decidedly funky jaunt bearing all the benchmarks of either musician’s idiosyncrasies. McBride’s “Lullaby for a Ladybug” later revealed a softer side, and for it the composer played at the piano, by which he clothed its childlike whimsy in the tender skin of balladry. And their jointly written “Bass Duet #1,” a blues with postmodern touches.

The reigning highlights of the program were both solo pieces. Meyer performed an untitled composition for bass alone, which danced like a Hindemith viola sonata in its legato turns. McBride, for his part, treated us with a solo rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon” that was as acrobatic as it was insightful. Although McBride played it all-pizzicato, he too is an adept wielder of the bow and his gloss of “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered” was even more heartfelt.

A double-dip into the Miles Davis songbook yielded fresh versions of “Solar” and “All Blues” (the concert’s encore), while another into rural waters came up with a downright orchestral arrangement of Bill Monroe’s “Tennessee Blues” and the frantic virtuosity of Meyer’s aptly titled “Barnyard Disturbance.” The musicians’ free-spirited approach served the authenticity of these tunes and made for an inspiring evening. Like Meyer’s “F.R.B.,” which paid homage to the late, great Ray Brown, their love for each other, for the music and for all who inspired them was the most engaging melody of all.

Click here to read my pre-concert interview with both musicians.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun by clicking here.)

ECM @ Winter Jazzfest 2017

For the second year in a row, ECM commanded the stage at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium for Winter Jazzfest in New York City. Whereas 2016’s showcase spanned two nights, this year’s was a one-night event, and featured sets by the Michael Formanek Quartet (with Tim Berne, Craig Taborn, and Gerald Cleaver), Jakob Bro’s trio with Thomas Morgan and Joey Baron, two duos (Ravi Coltrane/David Virelles and Bill Frisell/Thomas Morgan), and a concluding performance by Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile. Click the concert photo below to read my full report.

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(Nik Bärtsch; photo by Glen DiCrocco)