Sunday, August 29, 2010

Helen Sung

   Helen Sung- Going Express - Sunnyside SSC 1263
    A prominent bassist once confided to me that he had on-going problems getting a record date as a leader. And when the occasion did arrive, he hired top flight cats recorded the session in record time and released it on his on indie label. Much to his dismay record distributors and a handful of club owners told him the same thing - "You got a band full of sidemen"!
    He said that it became a running joke. A band full of sidemen.
    Here he was an experienced bassist and he had some of the best jazz guys around and couldn't catch a 'cold' as they say! Such is the similar fate of many jazz musicians. From the well known to those who labor in the vineyards for years, sometimes decades in relative obscurity. In fact, there seems to be a circuit, a thriving one of 'sidemen' who operate just under the radar. They work the neighborhood clubs and taverns, some art houses and outdoor festivals but never seem to grasp the brass ring or nail down the big contract. Was it Mingus who deemed them 'beneath the underdog'?
    That's where labels such as Sunnyside and others with vision come into play. Yet exposing newer and 'forgotten', 'overlooked' and 'maligned' talent can be a tricky thing in this business. Who will be the next, 'big star', the next Joe Lovano or Wynton Marsalis? And much to it's credit Sunnyside has gone the distance in exposing such here-to-fore talent deserving wider recognition. It could be a 'hit or miss' proposition.
    One of their new talents pianist Helen Sung offers up a 'live' quartet session. Of the music documented one could ask if this was the best of what was recorded? If so then this is no more than a run-of-the-mill date that is quite the forgettable proverbial session of 'all sidemen'. Sung, an able but stiff handed, non swinging keyboardist chooses the right guys in Lonnie Plaxico, bass; Eric Harland, drums and Seamus Blake, reeds. Well, sort of. Plaxico is rudimentary and has always seemed the pop/smooth jazz bassist. He's got no thump in his bump. Eric Harland is indistinguishable from the other Eric. Eric McPherson. In fact, aren't they the same guy? And Blake I couldn't pick his tenor and soprano sax work out of a line-up of Tommy Smith to Ralph Bowen. Just has no identifiable sound and gives up school taught lick after lick after lick.
    If this sounds disparaging there is no cause for alarm for I'm sure Ms.Sung will probably have much success in the world of academia, where there is a need to teach jazz. But right now she's hardly ready for prime time. Being a 'sideman' can be tough.
L.A. Emenari, III

Rajiv Halim Quintet

Rajiv Halim Quintet/ Live @ the Velvet Lounge
  When considering Charlie Parker would have been 90 years old in August 2010 it puts life's blessings into perspective. The 1950s after-all seem more than many lifetimes ago when Bird sunk into eternal slumber. With the median average life expectancy for African American men today being 73 Bird's early demise at 35 was unusual for any era.
    None-the-less in keeping with those blessings, relative youngster Rajiv Halim and his also youthful co-horts did themselves and Bird quite proud. Only days before Bird's celebrated birthday, on a misty Thursday night down at the Velvet lounge Halim's quintet lit up the jazz universe with some stratospheric sounds from yesteryear  above and beyond. They spoke in the not too ancient herald tongues of the bebop language with a renewed freshness and mined fervor.
    Making a name for himself the alto saxophonist has been gaining steady ground around town as perhaps one of the best and brightest of jazz players in some time. (Halim along with another young saxophone wonder, Dudley Owens have taken a back seat to no one). The quintet's Charlie Parker tribute that night couldn't have been a more perfect setting. Not three months removed from the late owner Fred Anderson's death, housed in the Velvet are photos and portraits of Bird draping the rooms walls like patron saints symbols warding over the comings and goings of all that enter. Ironically Anderson's first venture as a club owner some 20 odd years hence was naturally christened in honor of his musical hero, 'The Birdhouse'.

    Lest we forget impresario Joe Segal's foresight designating each and every August since Bird's passing 'Charlie Parker Month', it is a proverbial cold slap upside the head to awake, rise and shine! Recognizing the true genius and importance of such a significant chapter and man in America's history.

    Going about the business of keeping the flame Rajiv Halim's group 'with no shame in their game' as said in the hood did just that! They took care of business.
    The quintet's rhythm section highly tight and swinging note for note includes bassist Andrew Voight's insightful, bountiful buttress along with drummer Xavier Breaker holding it down takes a back seat to no one. Breaker, a new name to these eyes and ears is a smooth moten whirlwind of motion and rhythm. Not overwhelming but yielding that right touch to command torrents of thunder and no nonsense ease of swing. He called to mind the outright back beat bashing of a Jack DeJohnette and the downright groove of a Papa Jo Jones and J.C. Heard. Breaker has the right name for a drummer cause he damn near broke open the drums with pure movement and able grace. He's a very musical drummer as well who listens to every nuance of band-mates, particularly that of pianist Michael King, whom he seem to zero in on every step of the way.
    King is also a new name and someone to watch out for. He is a thought provoking soloist who seems to be content investigating the symmetrical harmonic intricacies of the musics melodic content. He takes chances and seemingly devilish dares at times that can throw one's sensibilities into a cacophonous tizzy. He's very much akin to the intellectual vices of an Andrew Hill and/or atmospheric Herbie Hancock. King forces you to listen carefully and in this regard he can be somewhat mysterious, oddly frustrasting, yet hip and sparklingly original.
    Out front is Halim's musical soul mate in trumpeter Marquis Hill. One could ask no more for a complimentary partner. Hill is world class talent. No question about it. He can conjure up images of the brawnish bluster of Lee Morgan to the searing no holds barred note bending rapidity of Chicago legend Billy Brimfield (the late Anderson's long time sparring foil). Hill would easily fit the front line of any Jazz Messenger band of any era. He is quite a joy to hear. 
    Leader Rajiv Halim's distinctive quality is of that an attentive listener and all aware presence. Armed with a big fat beautiful sound akin to long gone masters like Cannonball Adderly Halim's thrilling solos can fill the heart, mind and any room (with or without air), with a joyous revelry and emotive fluidity. Halim has a take-no-prisoner approach something very much like Bird did - play every solo with undeniable passion and artistry. A young master in the making Halim seems to breeze through a program of Bird fare such as 'Passport' and 'Chi Chi' and several other long shelved chestnuts. He is the delightful balladeer and soulful wailer on originals such as 'The Hardworker'. He's fluid with a creative stream of consciousness that comes from some unknown wellspring within. He is an incredibly thought provoking and insightful soloist.
    With the quintet's median average age hovering around 30 years there is no limit in sight. That is a real blessing. Charlie Parker tributes will abound and so will picturesque landscapes of Ellingtonia to Ornette to maybe even vistas of the late Fred Anderson. We can only hope so for the music is in the artisticly able bodied head, heart and hands of Rajiv Halim and his men.
by L.A. Emenari, III

John McNeil/Bill McHenry

John McNeil/Bill McHenry - Chill Morn He Climb Jenny - Sunnyside SSC 1268
    Let it be said that this writer is 'officially' dubbing this band, 'The Mac Band'. And I'll bet 2 to 1 that title has already been taken. After-all two guys with the last names beginning with Mc its a natch! And another thing about these two is that their music is full of pathos and humor.Throw in some tense drama for effect. And from their CD liner pics both appear faintly familiar. McNeil, as the iritable neighborhood coot who walks up and down the street carrying old newspapers and mumbling to himself. And McHenry comes off as the hilarious yet once rebellious ex-punk rocker waiting on the next prank to pull or beer to down. Whom else would have a CD titled, "Chill Morn He Climb Jenny"? What the hell!!!???
     Appearances aside these guys along with their more than able rhythm team of Joe Martin, on bass and Jochen Rueckert at the drums are remarkably a no nonsense ensemble.     
    Recorded 'live' at the Cornelia Street Cafe the Mac Band from their first very notes on this CD are serious arbiters of some great jazz. 'Moonlight In Vermont' comes off weirdly like a Bill Dixon-Archie Shepp opus. Dry and pale but damn fulfilling. Which bespeaks tenorist McHenry's bold and sometimes pithy death defying solos. The man grunts, groans, squawks and in the same breath reels off these thrilling rapid fire staccato cadences - ala Grossman-Liebman in their Elvin Jones days. McNeil on the other hand is a lingual painter. With a plaintive lyricism McNeil never runs out of fluid ideas and thoughts. And the slate of tunes they've chosen are arid landscapes for their unrestrained interplay. I can think of no one else who would have the where-with-all let alone audacity to play 'Maid In Mexico', 'Batter Up' and 'Bea's Flat', three moldy oldies that get a clean redress here. On top of these the 'Mac Band' pulls out a Wilbur Harden tune, 'Wells Fargo'! The nerve of these guys! They're balls can't be bigger! Nor are their hearts because they do an incredible job. They are breathtaking! This recording is a minor classic from beginning to end.
    When talking about 'freedom' in music, or the authentic 'avant garde' - jazz thy name is McNeil and McHenry - the Mac Band! 
John McNeil,trumpet/ Bill McHenry, tenor saxophone/Joe Martin, bass/ Jochen Ruekert,drums 
L.A.Emenari, III

Rez Abbasi

 Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet - Natural Selection - Sunnyside SSC 1264

    Undeniably guitarist Rez Abbasi is one of the most unusual guitarists today. Not so much because of his style per se but because of the refreshing playing situations he puts himself in. (Admittedly, this writer was never really endeared to Abbasi's music prior to this recording. But prejudices aside I've been won over).
    With the burgeoning ascent of 'world music' as a 'legitimate' aesthetic classification, being a branch of the jazz tree does instrumentalists like Abbasi well. They are able to have a 'toe-hold' in both arenas thereby bridging a much needed gap audience wise. The only 'grey' area is the melding of 'world music' with 'smooth jazz' genres by some well meaning record companies.
    This new recording by Abbasi's Acoustic Quartet, 'Natural Selection' on paper seems spare, with guitar, vibes, bass and drums. Yet because of Abbasi's great writing and unique arrangements of tunes like Joe Henderson's 'Punjab'; Keith Jarrett's 'Personal Mountains' and a Bill Wither's nod, 'Ain't No Sunshine' this quartet comes up sounding a lot larger than what appears on paper. There are some moments like on the disc's opener, 'Lament' that sonically harken back to the ECM sound of the 70s;  an eerily ornate and stately atmospheric aura recalling Ralph Towner, Egberto Gismonti and John Abercrombie.
    In the discs liner notes Abbasi is very clear on his vision for the music, "the blend of the acoustic guitar with vibraphone is one I've envisioned for years and that I've not heard so far on other recordings". And that, "I was conscious of magnifying the group's unique chamber-like sound..."
    And yes, there are moments of chamber-like playing and essence. Which gives a nod, if ever so slight to the genius of John Lewis. But it is the cohesive quality of continuity that ultimate gives us a satisfying session and anticipation of things to come. Hopefully Abbasi will flesh out more acoustic terrain for all to hear.
(Kudos to Christopher Drukker for the tremendous cover art)
Rez Abbasi, acoustic guitars/ Bill Ware, vibraphone/ Stephan Crump,acoustic bass/ Eric McPherson,drums


L.A. Emenari, III