Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Recommended jazz recordings: a list of one

We are smack dab in the middle of Jazz Appreciation Month — pretty meaningless for some of us, but still a nice try at giving exposure to a sophisticated, exciting, and unlikely art form that cuts through class, racial and national considerations. In practical terms, this means events, photo-calls, blurbs, smiling faces... and lists of recordings. Of these we have many, past and present, and they tend to rely more on received wisdom and hype than on critical value — fine if you're OK with "this is great", but not so much if you need "this is great because...".

Besides, there's the wishfulness of recommending more than, say, five records to someone who's not really into jazz at all. With all the incredible stuff around us today, all kinds of music, books, films, TV... either physically or through the internet, an hour of undivided attention has become a luxury.

Because of that, and the fact that recommending anything above five records is an open door to political correctness (of all misconceptions about jazz, the one about its cultivated, unprejudiced listeners is the funniest) and, frankly, a way out for wimps, let's see if I can cut through all that background noise by telling you one (1) jazz album you should have.

It won't be anything by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, or John Coltrane. Those are extraordinary musicians, genres unto themselves, which are not representative of jazz. Say what? No, they're not. Go for any of those by all means, but don't think for a second that the rest of "jazz" is at the same level as the best of their recorded works; bear in mind their excellence and avoid future disappointments. And although many wouldn't admit this, you wouldn't be alone if your first impressions are that Kind of Blue is too slow, or Giant Steps is too overpowering (and don't get me wrong, those are masterpieces).

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

RIP Juan Claudio Cifuentes, 'Cifu' (1941-2015)

(For once, this entry is not a parallel translation of its Spanish sister)

After all the arguments and bickering — which, yes, it's better than many other things, but we could do without most of it, really — there is something about intense music fandom, including jazz, that benefits your health. Case in point would be the dean of Spanish jazz commentators, Cifu who, even as a septuagenarian and having survived two cancers, never lost the enthusiasm for the music. I would introduce him to new, unknown, talent with zero commercial value, and, if he liked it, he would push it harder than Samson in the temple. Last time we spoke, it was about Gigi Gryce and his looking forward to doing a series of programmes with the complete recordings of Artie Shaw and His Gramercy Five. We never got around to finishing it.

Cifu by Jaime Massieu, October 2014

Cifu is how friends called Juan Claudio Cifuentes de Benito, who's died earlier today, having suffered a stroke last week. He was husband, father, grandfather, friend... but for a gigantic amount of people in Spain and beyond he was the face and voice of jazz, judging from the reaction in social media (and he didn't even like computers).

Monday, March 16, 2015

Carmelo Bustos at 90 and the sax in Chile

In Chilean jazz, there are two ruling instruments. As expected, the guitar is one, not only for its prevalence in 20th century popular music, but for it's standing in folk and other local musics (think Violeta Parra and Víctor Jara).

The other one is the saxophone. That happens everywhere in jazz, yes, but in Chile it goes way past the average. Besides shooting stars like the tragic Alfredo Espinoza (Valparaíso, 1942), the younger generations are astonishing. Melissa Aldana may have taken a lot of headline space lately, and deservedly so—not just for winning the Thelonious Monk competition—, but there is much more to Chilean saxophone. One of my first impressions in Chile was seeing Franz Mesko (Santiago, 1989), barely 20 at the time, tearing it up on tenor at a jam session in the old Club de Jazz de Santiago. Besides, or before, rather, a salient feature of these musicians is their attention to language. To wit, this recent video of Agustín Moya (Santiago, 1981).

Don't take it from me. None other than Loren Schoenberg, saxophonist and über-expert on Lester Young approves, and rather enthusiastically at that, of Moya's playing. And don't be mistaken, Moya is his own man, with three albums of original compositions under his belt.

More names to take into account: Claudio Rubio (Santiago, 1976), a keen student of Lennie Tristano, as he proves here (and a surprisingly funny guy to boot). And to keep things short, Andrés Pérez and Cristian Gallardo (both Santiago, 1983), either together as the front line of Contracuarteto, or in their separate projects, of which Gallardo's first album, Sin Permiso, less-than-perfect-sound and all, is a keeper.

Let this rather long introduction serve as a long drum roll to introduce a man without whom there wouldn't be such a rich tradition of the saxophone in Chile: Carmelo Bustos, who is 90 today.

Carmelo Bustos (left) and Marcos Aldana

Monday, March 2, 2015

Steve Brown & Guillermo Bazzola

Una Pequeña Alegría
Brown Cats Productions (BC9508)

Guillermo Bazzola, Steve Brown (g).

Recorded on April 8, 2013. TT: 58:36

This record, "A Little Joy", is the latest by Steve Brown and Guillermo Bazzola, an unlikely duo of pares inter pares (the notes don't state who plays what) for its great gaps in age — rare but irrelevant — and geography: Brown is based in Ithaca, NY, whereas Bazzola lives in Madrid, Spain. Perhaps for this reason this was recorded as in olden times, in one day.

The guitar duo has a long tradition in jazz, but it's a tricky format. There's the sameness in sound, even with imaginative arrangements, and the unavoidable technical pyrotechnics. In this instance, the first notes here are not really promising: both guitars are close in timbre, a rather conventional clean jazz sound, and the tune is a bossa nova, a trap that can be either beautiful or terribly inconsequential.

Although pretty and with a certain weight, like many first tunes at live gigs, the opening "Caminhos Cruzados" (a Jobim song) works well but it's not representative of this record; the other bossa, "Esencia" (by Spanish pianist Alberto Conde) is played with more verve. It is with the second track, "Los Mareados" ("The Dizzy Ones"), where Brown and Bazzola do get down to business. This is an old tango brought to the session by Argentinian Bazzola, and its theme is performed with sensitivity and elegance. This a highlight of the record together with the other tango of the session, "Nada" ("Nothing"), whose beautiful melody is framed by the minute rhythmic nuances, the way the comping guitar falls ever so slightly behind the beat.

Friday, February 27, 2015

That stumbling feeling

Ah, rhythm! Possibly the most primitive element of music. It's there even if you don't want to: just listen to your heartbeat and your breathing. Anyone can relate to it, even if they cannot produce it consciously. It's in some of the most memorable moments in the history of music, from the beginning of Beethoven's Fifth, to Fats Domino "I'm Walkin'", Steve Reich's "Clapping Music", or what Art Blakey does on Thelonious Monk's original "Straight, No Chaser".

Rhythm may also be considered the unifying feature for a lot of contemporary music (so much so that in Denmark they have a "Rhythmic Music Conservatory" encompassing exactly that). In jazz it's such a central element that I wouldn't know where to begin.

There's a small feature that appears frequently, though, which is the playing "in three" over a four-beat rhythm. Sounds complicated? You just have to check out what this early Brad Mehldau trio does here from 0:25 onwards, and you'll get it immediately

Monday, February 23, 2015

Daniel Cano / Julian Lage

Don't Touch the Blue
(Blue Asteroid DCQ-012154)

Cano (tp, fh, comp), Pedro Cortejosa (ss, ts), Wilfried Wilde (g), Paco Charlín (b), Jesús Pazos (d).

Recorded on February 15-16, 2014. Total time 50:15

With the blessings of fellow trumpeters Chris Kase and Paolo Fresu, UK-based Spaniard Daniel Cano brings about his own take on 21st century hard-bop. As a composer — 8 originals, 1 standard — he's comfortable in Monk's shadow (as in "Don't Touch the Blue" and "Buenordías", where he also sneaks in a quote of the "West End Blues" cadenza). The rhythm team provides an unobtrusive pulse — even in a busy tune like "Plutón", especially bright when Charlín sticks to the vamp — which is, helped by the absence of a piano, the perfect fold for the unhurried and thought-through work of the soloists. Minor cavil, perhaps: a few more sprinkles of the fire shown on the closing "Canción carpiana" might have enhanced the end result. Worth catching live (they're in Seville, Spain, tomorrow 24).

Available on Spotify

~ ~ ~

World's Fair
(Modern Lore Records)

Lage (acoustic guitar)

Recorded March and June, 2014. Total time 38:02

Julian Lage. He may be the sweetest interviewee ever, a true unassuming laid-back Californian; his playing may sound effortless, as if there were no merit to what he does. But don't let all that mislead you. If you listen to this recording, you may well be hooked by second #4 (0:04), and that doesn't happen with lightweights. Lage, in fact, is a monster guitarist, one of the most extraordinary musicians we have today. The fact that he's been playing since he was a child and that he loves the instrument puts him in a different category way past instrumental virtuosity rendering it invisible. You can also forget about styles and genres, although annotator and fellow guitarist Matt Munisteri's "post-Internet folk" sounds like an apt definition: even if it has a certain local flavour, despite the acoustic instrument and current trends this is not an "Americana" album (phew!). With tunes like "Peru" and "Japan", this is rather Lage's own worldview. His tale is, at times, very evocative, pensive but not sombre, energetic and joyful, with moments of ridiculous guitar-playing (his sonic palette with the acoustic guitar is astonishing). Lage's only apparent limitation is his own imagination, and at the moment, it seems far from drying up.

Available on BandCamp, YouTube and Spotify

Friday, February 20, 2015

The joy of zest (introducing the Lucky Chops)

Every once in a while the tired discussion on how to bring jazz to people, or make it "popular" reappears. When it does, I always think of these two quotes.

Years ago, singer, pianist and raccounteur Ben Sidran asked Art Blakey to describe jazz in one word, to which the master drummer replied: 
"Intensity. Intensity. Intensity. Even on the ballads."
Sometime in the early seventies, trombonist, pianist, composer and arranger Bob Brookmeyer, a serious guy with zero tolerance to nonsense, said this, as published by Downbeat magazine:
"Above all, you're supposed to have a good time with it. Otherwise you missed the whole point, and you can't do that."
Well, admittedly the music on the video below is not jazz (let's not go into pointless arguments just now), but besides being a grand example of how much fun music can be (and of the value of music as a social tool—the baritone player is obviously nuts, and here he is, being useful to society), I think it provides a good hint of the zest that would be most welcome in any kind of music, and especially in (some) jazz.

(Same video, on Facebook)