Michael Formanek Elusion Quartet

Time Like This
(Intakt)

There’s a woozy feeling emanating from bassist Michael Formanek’s latest leader date.

It’s not anything like staggering intoxication; more like a calm, yet unrestrained, creativity that seems to shift these eight tunes from section to reeling section with the assistance of limber-limbed Ches Smith scuttling a surprising clangor on his kit. Smith’s never overwhelming, though, just poignant and poised as pianist Kris Davis adds leagues of color to the spate of original tunes. That backdrop enables these impressionistic works to succeed so well.

Despite its lineup and track names—“This May Get Ugly” and “A Fine Mess”—Time Like This is a quiet, knotty set of tunes that wends its way through the complexities of its namesake bandleader’s capacious writing. Tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby functions as the featured voice here, though he’s never overbearing, meeting the music on its conspicuously collected terms. For as free as portions of “Culture Of None” and “The Soul Goodbye” might seem, if only for a few brief moments, the beauty cultivated, as Davis moves sprightly alongside Smith’s patter, seems almost miraculous. That it’s all achieved without boisterous theatrics speaks to not just the compositional mastery behind Time Like This, but also to these players’ abilities to foster Formanek’s vision while maintaining their individual sonic personas.

The BBB Featuring Bernie Dresel

Bern Bern Bern
(Dig It)

Drummer Bernie Dresel’s new album exudes a super-sized aesthetic: Bern Bern Bern offers more, more, more. For this 72-minute program, a 17-person iteration of the Bernin’ Big Band recorded 14 tunes—including two tracks that feature a nine-piece guest ensemble (The Los Angeles Clarinet Choir), plus a 15-minute take on Bill Cunliffe’s “Suite B.” Dresel is a sonic craftsman with a large assortment of tools. In the liner notes amid commentary on the band’s rendition of “Anything Goes,” Dresel writes: “On this cut you will hear washboard, backwards low guitars that blossom from trombones, sticks on upright bass, backwards slap bass, balalaika, ukulele, marimba, xylophone, 55-gallon metal drum, spiral cymbal, drum corps snare … and tap dancing!” Despite the diverse instrumentation and a large number of personnel, Dresel and his co-producer, Gary Reber, prevent any excesses from derailing their project. Reber has worked with Buddy Rich, and Dresel formerly was in Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, so these two collaborators have ample experience in helping a large ensemble soar.

This album gracefully nods to tradition—via standards like “Body And Soul,” “A Night In Tunisia” and two Cole Porter tunes—while also refreshing the big-band concept, thanks to gifted musicians who look forward, not backward. Two BBB members composed songs in the program: Trombonist James McMillen contributes three compositions (“BBB Opener,” “Bern Bern Bern” and “The Summit”), and baritone saxophonist Brian Williams offers two (“Early Spring” and “ALL The Things!”). Other composers represented include former Tower of Power trumpeter Greg Adams (“Zuit Soot”) and trombonist (and Prince band alumnus) Michael B. Nelson (“New Dell Inn”).

A sparkling version of funk band War’s 1972 hit “The World Is A Ghetto” incorporates drumming influenced by Gene Krupa, an excellent soprano saxophone solo by Brian Scanlon and some trippy sci-fi sound effects—while still remaining sonically cohesive. The Los Angles-based studio musicians in the band prove themselves to be remarkably adaptable, whether playing traditional big band fare, a guitar-laced rock riff or music that feels like a film score. The overall result is a big-band gem for the current millennium.

Bern Bern Bern is available in four formats: vinyl, CD, digital download and Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc. Fans interested in the technical aspects of the recording can check out the detailed liner-notes essays about the microphones, production processes and tools used to make the album, including Auro-3D Native 9.1 Immersive Sound.

New York Standards Quartet

Heaven Steps To Seven
(Whirlwind)

Over the course of 13 years, fans have come to expect exquisite musicianship from the New York Standards Quartet. The band consistently is dazzling. Much of the charm on its impressive seventh album, Heaven Steps To Seven, lies in the quartet’s ability to deliver powerful straightahead sounds and blend them with “outside”-leaning segments within the same arrangement. One particularly compelling example is an eight-minute rendition of the standard “If I Should Lose You” that melds traditional swing with dynamic, verging-on-chaotic sections. An eight-minute reading of Cole Porter’s “I Love You” opens with a poignant bass solo segment and eventually unfurls with knotty, unpredictable twists.

In the year that marks the centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, it’s fitting that the band—Tim Armacost (tenor and soprano saxophones), David Berkman (piano), Ugonna Okegwo (double bass) and Gene Jackson (drums)—would open an album with a clever, robust rendition of “Tonight” from West Side Story. Other tunes in the program include Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” Charlie Parker’s “Cheryl” and Horace Silver’s “Peace.” A rendition of Bud Powell’s “I’ll Keep Loving You” features Berkman’s elegant pianism, Armacost’s mellow, romantic tenor tone and some fine, subtle brushwork from Jackson. On a reading of Herbie Hancock’s “The Eye Of The Hurricane” (from his 1965 classic, Maiden Voyage), Jackson gives a drum clinic as he combines overlapping cymbal crashes to fuel the locomotive thrust.

Standards remain standards because bands like NYSQ keep finding new avenues of meaning within them. Heaven Steps To Seven is a reminder that standards don’t necessarily reside in museum cases; living musicians can set the music free.

Josephine Davies’ Satori

In The Corners Of Clouds
(Whirlwind)

With an advanced degree in existential psychotherapy, UK-based saxophonist Josephine Davies pushes her Satori trio toward illumination through the exploration of small-group interplay.

In The Corners Of Clouds, a follow-up to 2017’s Satori (Whirlwind), finds the bandleader joined by bassist Dave Whitford and drummer James Maddren, who replaces Paul Clarvis from that earlier date. Here, Davies sketches eight open forms to benevolently move through as she whispers, pronounces and bleats during tracks like “Lazy” and the Coltrane-esque “Song Of The Dancing Saint.”

The title track opens quietly, as Davies enmeshes with Maddren. It doesn’t intimate an overwhelming display of technical prowess, but the track does show the bandleader in a seemingly reflective mode, Maddren poking around the kit tentatively, but in perfect unison with her mission. There’s such an easy-going intimacy on each of the nine tracks here, it’s tough to understand how Davies hasn’t made a bigger impact on this side of the Atlantic, with or without tour dates in the States.

The only real critique of In The Corners Of Clouds just might be that everything comes off at about the same tempo. But really, that could be attributed to Davies setting the tone and mood for her enlightened trio to explore a shared language.

Carol Liebowitz/Birgitta Flick

Malita-Malika
(Leo)

Carol Liebowitz is a specialist in one-on-one improvisation.

Of the pianist’s seven albums to date, five have been duo projects, mostly with saxophonists. And we’re not talking about quiet runs through a handful of standards; her duets tend to be collectively improvised, deeply conversational and quite fond of taking risks.

Malita-Malika, recorded with German tenor saxophonist Birgitta Flick, breaks with that model a bit. Flick—who’s probably best known through Flickstick, the quintet she co-leads with German trombonist Lisa Stick—is a strongly melodic player whose carefully shaped lines have a wistful lyricism that sometimes verges on melancholy, a sound that balances so naturally against Liebowitz’s intricately prodding piano that it would be easy to mistakenly assume that parts of improvisations like “Moon” and “Jasmine” were written out. The title track actually was (it’s one of Flick’s), yet the playing is so in character with the composition that the dividing line between reading and improvising all but disappears.

There also are some standards in the mix, two of which are sung by Liebowitz. She does a lovely job with the Harry Warren/Al Dubin chestnut “September In the Rain” (which is introduced by a playful rendition of Billy Bauer’s “Marionette”). But it’s her powerfully emotional rendering of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” that really makes the album. Where other versions tend to focus on the regret within the lyric, Liebowitz makes us also hear the anger bubbling beneath those words, not only in the edge in her voice, but in how the harmonies darken as she sings of having “kissed and had to pay the cost.” Add in Flick’s breathless blues abstraction, and it becomes the perfect torch song for the #MeToo era.

Yuhan Su

City Animals
(Sunnyside)

Having worked with both Brian Krock’s Big Heart Machine and Miho Hazama’s m_unit, vibraphonist Yuhan Su collects a quintet for City Animals, a follow-up to 2016’s Virginia Woolf-referencing A Room Of One’s Own (Inner Circle).

Exploring ideas that spring from Su’s experiences on the road and as a ballet accompanist, the title track embodies the bandleader’s engagement with New York, after arriving there in 2012 as a Berklee College of Music graduate. Dispensing bursts of notes to aurally capture the city’s mood, alto saxophonist Alex LoRe serves as a character in Su’s story; her vibes seem to portray Su gamboling through New York as drummer Nathan Ellman-Bell’s thrum reflects the city’s non-stop energy. Some of the rock-styled drumming on “Viaje” might roil purists, but the stylistic inclusion points toward the unending dialogue among jazz-world players, and diverse and personal influences. Of course, the rockist drumming endures only at brief interludes, as Su’s discordant harmonies with LoRe and trumpeter Matt Holman carry the following track, “Feet Dance.”

But it’s the three-part Kuafu suite that expands Su’s storytelling ambitions, as the bandleader reels off a skittering opening portion for “I. Rising” that might mirror the Chinese myth’s giant chasing after the sun. It’s followed by a sleepy nocturne, “II. Starry, Starry Night,” when the story’s namesake protagonist takes a break from his impossible task, and “III. Parallel Chasing,” still vibrant and bouncy, detailing the giant’s continued pursuit. Su, too, still is pursuing a goal, and as “Party 2AM” weaves in and out of three-part harmonies, listeners get the sense that she’s only written the first few chapters of her unfolding tale.

The Beatles

White Album (Anniversary Edition)
(Apple Corps Ltd./Capitol/UMe)

For its Nov. 16, 1967, issue, DownBeat put The Beatles on the cover—but the band wasn’t alone. A portrait of the Fab Four appeared in the upper portion of the cover, while a larger concert photo of saxophonist Cannonball Adderley appeared in the lower portion. John Gabree’s essay “The Beatles in Perspective” asserted that the ensemble responsible for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was overrated.

Released on May 26, 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s was an extravagant collaboration with studio wizard George Martin that involved intricate layers of overdubbed parts on multitrack tape. The Beatles’ eponymous 1968 album (commonly called The White Album because of Richard Hamilton’s stark album cover design) was an altogether different animal. The songs were more stripped down. In preparation for the studio sessions, the four musicians recorded demos—an unusual move for the band at the time. These demos provided a roadmap for the 30 tunes that would be recorded at Abbey Road and Trident studios and released on Nov. 22, 1968, as the double LP officially titled The Beatles.

To celebrate the album’s 50th anniversary, the surviving members of the band—Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr—worked with George Martin’s son, producer Giles Martin, to assemble multiple reissue editions, including the three-CD version that is reviewed here. The set’s first two discs offer a new stereo mix of the classic album. The third disc, titled the Esher Demos, is the juicy fruit that will have fans salivating. It contains 27 tracks that the band recorded at George Harrison’s bungalow in Esher, Surrey, after the quartet had returned from a sojourn to India, where many of these songs were composed. (Hardcore Beatles fans might be familiar with seven of the Esher Demos tracks because they appeared on the Anthology 3 compilation.) These acoustic demos vividly illustrate the band’s camaraderie and love of harmony. There was no drum set used, so percussion comes in the form of things like handclaps, shakers and tambourine. Because Harrison had a professional four-track recorder, the demos aren’t crude; some include double-tracked lead vocals and overdubbed instrumental parts.

Of the 27 demos, 19 are of songs that wound up on The White Album. Half a century later, fans get the “fly on the wall” experience of hearing the musicians jovially run through the tunes, some of which were still in development (such as “Honey Pie”). Even in demo form, “Blackbird” and “Mother Nature’s Son” were simply exquisite. The demo of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” includes a couple of verses that didn’t make it into the eternal version on The White Album. Elsewhere on the Esher Demos, the famous line “the walrus was Paul” doesn’t appear in the lyrics to “Glass Onion.”

Some of the Esher Demos tunes later would be recorded in the studio for other albums. “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam” appeared on Abbey Road. Other tunes surfaced on the Beatles’ solo albums. “Junk” re-emerged on McCartney’s first solo album, McCartney. Particularly noteworthy is the gorgeous demo “Child Of Nature,” a tune for which John Lennon would later write new lyrics and record as “Jealous Guy” for his 1971 album, Imagine.

The three-CD edition will satisfy the longtime fan who wants to hear a new, vibrant stereo mix and ponder the drafts of iconic tunes (including “Dear Prudence,” “Happiness Is A Warm Gun,” “Rocky Raccoon,” “Julia” and “Yer Blues”). But dedicated Beatles fanatics will want to check out the Super Deluxe edition (six CDs and a Blu-ray disc with 5.1 Surround Audio and other mixes). That edition contains 50 additional recordings from The White Album studio sessions, including a 13-minute version of “Helter Skelter,” plus a 168-page hardback book. Purists who aren’t interested in studio outtakes will be drawn to the 180-gram, four-LP vinyl box set, which includes the new mix and the 27 demos. There’s also a standard two-LP version with no bonus tracks.

When Anthology 3 was released in 1996, some wondered how long Beatlemania could be sustained. The public’s reactions to the reissues of Sgt. Pepper’s in 2017 and The White Album this month seem to indicate that there’s no end in sight.

Woody Shaw Quartet

Live In Bremen 1983
(Elemental)

Trumpeter/flugelhornist Woody Shaw’s second quintet with trombonist Steve Turre, pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist Stafford James and drummer Tony Reedus in the early 1980s was one of the great modern jazz ensembles of its time, grounded in the straightahead tradition of bebop, but embracing newer avant-garde concepts.

When the group performed in concert at Post Aula in Bremen, Germany, on Jan. 18, 1983, Turre was not present for some reason; the quintet was reduced to a quartet, with Shaw the sole front-line horn player. With Turre missing, the gig turned out to be as much a showcase for the well-established Shaw as it was for Miller, who would become a Jazz Messenger later that year and, like Shaw, eventually would develop into one of the best-of-the-best on his instrument.

Recently discovered and previously unreleased, the music on this new two-disc deluxe set from Elemental—originally recorded in pristine two-track stereo and bearing the production stamp of Shaw enthusiast Michael Cuscuna—is an interesting and exciting bit of jazz history. The group’s enthusiasm immediately shows on the opener, “You And The Night And The Music,” a standard that was new to the group’s repertoire at the time. Other memorable tracks include Shaw’s “Rahsaan’s Run,” a fierce blues full of invention; Miller’s “Eastern Joy Dance,” with its interesting melodic lines and unconventional song form; Miller’s “Pressing The Issue,” with its dramatic, darkly rhapsodic piano cadenza intro leading into a hard-driving, uptempo thrill-ride of challenging harmonic turns and impassioned soloing; and Shaw’s “The Organ Grinder,” on which the leader—who forever will be remembered as a master of technique and a wellspring of endless chops—reveals his ability to use tonal nuance, lyricism and finesse to make a powerful emotional statement.

Shaw’s son, Woody Shaw III, curated Live In Bremen 1983, as well as other recent releases in a series of historic recordings from Elemental that include newly discovered live performances by Shaw and other iconic bandleaders (including tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon)—all of which are highly recommended.

Michael Dease

Bonafide
(Posi-Tone)

More than just a celebration of the sliphorn, Bonafide reflects versatile trombonist Michael Dease’s commitment to and love for all things straightahead. His bonafide colleagues here include fellow trombonists Conrad Herwig (on three tracks), Marshall Gilkes (on three tracks) and Gina Benalcazar (on two), as well as an ace rhythm section of pianist David Hazeltine, bassist Todd Coolman and drummer E.J. Strickland, plus guest tenor saxophonist Sam Dillon (on two tracks).

Taking on various configurations, ranging from full-on four-piece ’bone section to a one-horn jazz quartet, the ensemble swings hard through a program that includes five Dease originals and a Hazeltine composition, as well as fresh arrangements of classics by Sonny Rollins (“Tenor Madness”), Phineas Newborn Jr. (“Theme For Basie”), Marcus Belgrave (“Batista’s Groove”), J.J. Johnson (“In Walked Wayne”) and Brazilian composer Johnny Alf (“Nós”). In the process, the trombonists absolutely tear it up, delivering fiery solo improvisations, neatly trading playful improvised phrases, indulging in gorgeously voiced tutti passages and dancing in delicate counterpoint. Hazeltine, Coolman and Strickland play consistently in the pocket and contribute impressive solos of their own, and Dillon enraptures when featured. The brainchild of Posi-Tone’s Marc Free, Bonafide presents Dease as a torchbearer for swing, blues, groove and soul who aspires to authenticity while revitalizing the trombone’s image.


On Sale Now
December 2018
Medeski Martin & Wood
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