Uusitalo/Sloniker/Louhivuori: Northbound (feat. Seamus Blake)

Northbound-cover

Despite what its title would have you believe, Northbound hits every cardinal direction. At its core are Tuomo Uusitalo (piano), Myles Sloniker (bass) and Olavi Louhivuori (drums), who together form an indivisible unit of expression. Unlike some other simpatico ensembles, their rapport isn’t so much one of interlocking as hybridization, as evidenced by the free improvisations peppering the set. In these, the voice of each musician breathes through the same body. From the microscopic cartography of “Focus” to groove-seeking insights of “Awakening,” the music gels organically and with clarity of purpose.

Similar intuitions fortify the meat surrounding these bones, into which guest Seamus Blake blends the protein of his tenor saxophone throughout six originals. Each lends insight into its originator’s talents. Sloniker’s “Counterparts” and “Gomez Palacio,” like the bassist’s playing, balance arcs and angles, unraveling two knots for every one tied. Louhivuori offers a diptych of his own with “Forgotten” and “Song For Mr. Moorhead,” building in each a patient reach for consummation. The drummer bridges these with the free solo “Rumble,” evoking a distant storm, before Uusitalo rounds everything out with the album’s strongest compositions. “Pablo’s Insomnia” is a highlight for its composer’s right-handed solo and command of space while “The Aisle” builds to anthemic parting.

Regardless of the complexities of the mazes put before him, Blake navigates with his eyes closed and heart on autopilot. He emotes with boldness yet manages to be sensitive to his environment. Neither overpowering nor overpowered, he knows exactly when to unhinge himself with a screech of color and when to sing in monotone, thus embodying the rarest aspect of Northbound: namely, its gracious handling of every melody. There’s something sacred to be found here and respecting it demands full attention.

(This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available to download here.)

Noa Fort Reviews for All About Jazz

I recently attended a performance in celebration of No World Between Us, the debut album by pianist and vocalist Noa Fort, sister of ECM recording artist Anat Fort. Noa’s songwriting is insightful and touching, and in a live setting reached new heights of expression. Click the cover to read my thoughts on the album, and the live photo below that to read my review of the CD release concert.

No World Between Us

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Maya Youssef review for RootsWorld

My latest review for RootsWorld online magazine is of Damascus-born qānūn virtuoso Maya Youssef’s Syrian Dreams, a heartfelt album of mostly original material evoking the tragic spirit of her war-torn homeland. Click the cover below to read more and listen to sample tracks off the album.

Syrian Dreams

Alon Sariel: Telemandolin

Telemandolin

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) is the subject of this superbly realized album by mandolinist Alon Sariel, who has arranged the music on Telemandolin for an instrument that, while popular in the German composer’s day, was never one he wrote for. Much has been said, at times critically, of Telemann’s influence and prolific output, but in Sariel’s hands such debate is shed like a skin of unimportance by an undeniable vitality. The resulting program is many things: a self-styled greatest hits collection, a master class in historical charm, and, above all, a story to be told.

Sariel himself describes Telemann’s music as “a sea of colorful flowers,” and in this recording this sensibility comes across as fragrantly as the analogy would have it. This is reflected not only in Sariel’s role as soloist and the accompaniment of his brilliant ensemble, Concerto Foscari; it shows also in the ways in which the music interlocks like a sentient puzzle that solves itself.

Nowhere is this more crystalline than in the Mandolin Concerto (TWV 51:fis1) and the Sonata de Concert (TWV 44:1), wherein Sariel shows just how beautifully his forte is suited to Telemann’s sound-world. The mandolin’s short decay gives every note a crispness of articulation that more resonant cousins such as the lute are at pains to achieve. And while it may be stereotyped as a fast instrument, it reveals its delicacy in every Allegro while slower time signatures reveal its most robust evocations, especially in the latter composition’s heartrending Largo.

Another fine example of this tension may be found in Telemann’s forward-thinking suite, “La Bizarre” (TWV 55:G2), of which we are treated to the Overture (a decidedly French convention that some claimed Telemann did better) and closing Rossignol. Therein, playful allusions to inspiration epitomize both the technical and emotional sensitivity of Sariel as interpreter.

Alongside these grand extroversions, the intimate Fantasias turn our ears inward. Whether playing archlute on the Fantasia I (TWV 40:26) or returning to his mainstay in the Fantasia X (TWV 40:23), Sariel understands the push and pull that characterizes baroque music at its finest, as proven in his rendition of the Partita No. 2 (TWV 41:G2). With only continuo to accompany him, he evokes equal parts stone and glass with nary an errant scratch.

A few pieces by Telemann’s contemporaries round out the program. The “Hamburger Sonata” (Wq 133) by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) casts a dreamlike spell that culminates in an awakening Rondo. A solo viol piece (WK 209) by Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787), played here on baroque guitar, unfolds with geometric precision. And the Lute Concerto (FaWV L:d1) of Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688-1758), via archlute, finishes with the flourish of a quill.

After listening to Telemandolin for the first time, my immediate reaction was to listen to it again. Such compulsion is rare for me at a time when I have more music than ever on my desk waiting to be reviewed, and speaks to the visceral impulses awaiting herein. What we’re left with, then, is more a beginning than an end, for its cyclical tendencies are part and parcel of Telemann’s genius. The sheer volume of his extant oeuvre, then, is to be seen not as an exercise in quantity over quality, but rather experienced as proof that music flows like breath out of only those blessed enough to channel it.

Bobby Previte: Rhapsody

Rhapsody

For the second installment of his Terminals trilogy, an ongoing ode to transit and migration, drummer Bobby Previte has convened a dream group. Although featuring musicians often found in electr(on)ic settings, Rhapsody unfolds a grand mise-en-scène by purely acoustic means. “Casting Off” and “I Arrive,” respectively, begin and end the album by threading the vocal delivery of Jen Shyu (whose erhu playing is another distinct color in this palette) through the netting of John Medeski’s piano and Fabian Rucker’s alto saxophone. As the center of the action, Shyu imbues Previte’s lyrics (a first for him) with theatrical punch, singing the role of an airplane traveler cycling through various stages of self-awareness until she reaches her unknown destination under cover of night.

That state of liminality—of hanging suspended between locations with only a thin layer of metal and composite between you and certain death—is beautifully rendered in Previte’s downright cinematic movements, each of which variously highlights the strengths of one or more of his bandmates. Medeski shines in “When I Land,” his precise syncopations seeming to chart every leg of the journey, and, in tandem with harpist Zeena Parkins, he renders the backdrop of tracks like “The Lost” and “The Timekeeper” while Ruckman carefully links his own chains of melody and abstraction. Hearing Parkins unplugged is an especial privilege; in this context, her crystalline beauty feels nearly all-consuming. Guitarist Nels Cline treads a parallel path and to highest effect in “All Hands,” in which his slide guitar sounds almost like a pipa. Previte himself completes the picture, playing an assortment of drums and percussion and, in “Last Stand/Final Approach,” autoharp and harmonica to boot. He treats himself no differently than his other musicians, letting his singular compositional voice ring over all, handing us a light to navigate the darkness in which he leaves us.

(This review originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Turtle Island Quartet: Bird’s Eye View

Bird's Eye View

The Turtle Island Quartet presents a new program centered on the spirit of Charlie Parker. Although only one of his tunes is included, these four impeccable musicians share Bird’s penchant for expanding parameters and the results of their alchemy are just as golden. Like the other jazzy ingots herein—namely, “Subconscious-Lee” (Lee Konitz) and “Miles Ahead” (Miles Davis)—“Dewey Square” makes artful use of extended techniques. Violinist/founder David Balakrishnan employs scratch tones for a delightfully percussive effect while cellist Malcolm Parson (who, along with violinist Alex Hargreaves, is new to the group) plays the role of bassist via robust pizzicato. The in-house arrangements alone boast of interdisciplinary genius at play, allowing for plenty of improvisation to show the quartet’s combinatory properties.

The Modern Jazz Quartet’s “Django” gets a welcome spin and in its central section evokes the fluidity of Stéphane Grappelli, whom Balakrishnan calls a “patron saint” of the quartet. Yet Balakrishnan’s own compositions are the support beams of this soundly engineered structure. They sometimes reveal an underlying quirkiness, as in his “Rebirth of the Holy Fool,” which puns on Davis’s Birth of the Cool, and “Squawk,” taking its inspiration from a mysterious incident in 2011 when the town of Beebe, Arkansas awoke on New Year’s Day to find that 5,000 dead blackbirds had fallen from the sky. The composer navigates these images with delicate rigor. His “Aeroelasticity: Harmonies of Impermanence,” however, is the album’s centerpiece. A multivalent suite in four movements, it hums with the very propulsive energies that inspired it. Influences range from Indian classical music to mathematical properties (the piece is, after all, dedicated to his father, a UCLA professor of engineering), bringing solid returns on his emotional investments. There’s a backwater charm lurking within and a feeling of memory tying it all together. Violist Benjamin von Gutzeit’s “Propeller” is something of a sister piece, as it deals equally with mechanisms in motion, if on a more intimate scale. Its balance of curves and straights is emblematic of what this quartet is capable of at its finest.

(This review originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Amao Quartet review for All About Jazz

My latest CD review for All About Jazz is of the Amao Quartet’s self-produced Improcreations. A beautiful example of free improvisation (here featuring four Brazilian electric guitarists) that is neither overbearing nor confrontational. Click on the cover to discover!

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Amine & Hamza review for RootsWorld

Amine & Hamza are an oud and kanun duo from Tunisia. Their album Fertile Paradoxes is the subject of my latest review for RootsWorld online magazine. Fans of Anouar Brahem: do not pass this one up. Brahem himself calls the new album “a spell-binding repertoire of new compositions full of emotions. We are taken on a delicious trip of intoxicating rhythms and subtle, yet powerful melodies. Far from being run-down clichés, we are struck by its strength of suggestion and the modernity of its arrangements. There is a strong sense of being on a voyage of surprising passages and undiscovered timbres. Fertile Paradoxes owns the evident and natural qualities which are the hallmarks of an authentically inspired work. A beautiful success!”

Click the cover below to read my full review and hear sample tracks.

Fertile Paradoxes