Monday, January 2, 2012

Best Downtown Music of the Year - Even More Intriguing Instrumentals

5. Ben Allison - Action Refraction

"Jazz musicians are often their own worst enemy," bassist and composer Ben Allison says. "The classic trap is trying to add interest to a piece by making it more complex."

So when Allison sits down to compose, he keeps his "jazz" instincts in check by keeping things simple. Allison's compositions, like on his terrific 2009 album "Think Free," are quirky but tuneful, expressively direct but filled with little hidden surprises.

Because of his interest in tunes over pyrotechnics, one would think that Allison would be an expert at the art of the cover. In reality, Allison is deathly afraid of taking on well-known tunes, whether songbook standards or the rock hits he grew up with. On his first nine albums as a leader, Allison performed only two covers total.

That has all changed with "Action-Refraction."

While a jazz album with tunes by PJ Harvey and the Carpenters may appear to the cynical as a self-conscious grab for younger audiences, in Allison's case it is a great risk, and one that pays off fantastically for both performer and listener.

Even on a jazz classic like Theolonius Monk's "Jackie-ing" and classical composer Samuel Barber's "St. Ita's Vision," Allison imbues the entire album with a strong rock vibe. Drummer Rudy Royston tunes his kit dry and low, grounding the tracks in that kind of  time-feel that makes you clench your lips in approval. Pianist Jason Lindner sticks mostly to keyboards of the electronic variety, including the Prophet synth that seems to pop up on every hit today. And to complete the package, guitarists Steve Cardenas and Brandon Seabrook unleash scurrying lines and thrashing dissonances that could even make Nels Cline a bit jealous.

What's most impressive about "Action-Refraction" though is how thoroughly Allison reinvents each tune without losing its essential personality. “We’ve Only Just Begun” is retrofitted with a hyperactive breakbeat from Royston as guitarist Cardenas emits full-bodied downstrums. Saxophonist Michael Blake lofts a languorous interpretation of the melody on top, capturing the casual innocence of Karen Carpenter’s vocal. All together, the cover elicits the feeling of someone caught in a crazy urban pace of life, using this song of their youth to ground them.

But the cover that sticks in the mind longest is of Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” Trying to duplicate Hathaway’s greasy, moving vocal from the original is an unwinnable battle, so Allison instead attempted to translate the cathartic feeling of the song into an instrumental gesture. After a subtle statement of the melody from Lindner, the band launches into a simple, two-chord slow build. Little by little, Steve Cardenas’ lines become more churlish and Brandon Seabrook gradually threatens to down the vessel with unholy noises coming from a Walkman plugged into his guitar pickup. After four and a half minutes of building tension, it all explodes in a cathartic release at the return of the main hook. Ohmygod. Dry mouth. Chills. You turn the album off for a minute just to make sense of it all.

4. NOW Ensemble - Awake

A band name like "NOW Ensemble" makes a big statement. Capitalization is confrontation in typeset. It's really like having one of those exclamation points-within-parenthesis, but without the ridiculousness. So this band name asserts hipness, newness, all-around now-ness with such force that it would be an utterly pretentious name if the music didn't encapsulate what's going on in classical music today, which it does.

If the record label New Amsterdam (see the Jefferson Friedman/Chiara Quartet album too) is the face of the alt or indie classical movement in New York, and NOW Ensemble - which is co-led by New Amsterdam co-director Judd Greenstein - is the flagship group of New Amsterdam, then by syllogism NOW Ensemble is the face of New York indie-classical. On their sophomore album "Awake," this chamber presents a set of 6 distinctive compositions that articulate the indie-classical values of textural novelty, cross-genre engagement, and a mindset of "We care if you listen!"*

There is much to like in all of these pieces. There's the spine-tingling pins & needles texture in Prix de Rome winner Sean Friar's "Velvet Hammer." There are the moody, eye-liner black harmonies of Missy Mazzoli's "Magic With Everyday Objects." There's Bon Iver-like lyricism in David Crowell's "Waiting in the Rain for Snow" and darting Afro-pop guitar lines in Mark Dancigers' "Burst."

But you may not even get to those tracks for a while after falling in love with Greenstein's own "Change." It starts with a solitary flute fragment and over the course of 13 minutes blossoms into a full-on dance party. With halting phrases and bouncy rhythms borrowed from Hip-Hop and an inviting modal harmonic palette, it goes down as easy as a pop tune but with intricacies that demand repeated listens. Your culturally-aware non-listener friends will exclaim "I can't believe it's classical!" It certainly doesn't pander to fans of the National and Dirty Projectors, it just articulates a belief that classical music can be enjoyed by anyone willing to tune in.

*"Change," "Velvet Hammer" and "Burst" are by Princeton University grad students and premiered at the University, a far cry from the Babbitisms of eras past.

3. Gerald Cleaver & Uncle June - Be It As I See It

Like its counterpart on the vocal list (The Roots' "undun"), drummer Gerald Cleaver's "Be It As I See It" is an ambitious concept album. It translates into musical form the Great Migration of African-Americans in the early 20th century - and the move of Cleaver's own family from the rural South to Detroit, Michigan in particular. Just as no family's story, or no person's retelling of the family story, is the same, each track here has a different mood, a different soundworld, a different sense of narrative and pacing. All in all, it's quite the messy affair, but held together by the indefatigable drummer-leader and his killer band featuring the likes of Mat Maneri on viola (he of the Paul Motian strings album), Craig Taborn on piano (he of the prodigious solo piano album), and Tony Malaby on saxophone (wait, how's he not on my list this year?).

Much of the album is dense and abstract, sometimes Beefhearty on "To Love," sometimes AACM/chamber jazzy on "Fence & Post: Lee/Mae." But there's a intense warmth that permeates every inch of the music, probably stemming from Cleaver's old world, trashy cymbals. It's familiar free jazz, a story told over dinner, or a fire in the living room.

You feel the sense of history most intently on "Fence & Post: Statues/UmBra." It starts with a calm broken eighth-note feel, Taborn adding an array of lush keyboard harmonies on top. Visions fly through the darkening mind - open fields seen from a train, tall buildings far off. Then it all disintegrates under a wall of indecipherable voices, distorted guitar, and phosphorescent keyboard splotches. Cleaver and co. have just transported you to a time you didn't think you knew.

2. Jeremy Udden's Plainville - If the Past Seems So Bright

You've probably found a couple of commonalities in what I liked this year and since we're getting near the end, I'll freely admit them.

I love messy music.

I love music that sustains a wonderful mood for a long time.

"If the Past Seems So Bright" is both messy and leisurely, and got me right from the start, as my review from May certifies.

But what makes it hold up against all the other great music I've heard this year is how it pushes those long sustains to extremes. It is the most patient music I've heard all year.

The opening track "Bright Eyes" is the prime example of the album's patience. The tempo is in the ballpark of 40 beats per minute, about 66% slower than a big hit from the likes of Gaga or LMFAO, literally at the far end of the metronome. Drummer RJ Miller rarely deviates from this dirge-like boom-chick the entire tune, maybe adding a sizzle-cymbal accent once a minute. Keyboardist Pete Rende, guitarist Brandon Seabrook (yep, him again), and the leader-saxophonist Jeremy Udden each take long, spacious solos, upwards of 2 minutes each. They aren't laden with vocabulary, but emphasize and explore the individual sounds their instruments make. It may not "go anywhere," but it sure doesn't need to.

Maybe "If the Past Seems So Bright" can be a part of 2012 resolution: take an analog break from this crazy digital world once each day.

1. David Binney - Graylen Epicenter 

The nebulous genre of "post-bop" is a real hard one to navigate for musicians. First to describe post-bop. It's um, like, gosh. Maybe the best way to describe is just any music descended from the tradition of Charlie Parker & John Coltrane (and others of course). There's an emphasis on vocabulary & harmony, playing changes. Actually, it's really the style of jazz that's taught in American conservatories. And herein lies the dual rub of this style.

First, with everyone being taught the same scales and ways of improvising, how is one going to forge and individual voice. And second, why waste your breath when Miles & Trane have already played it all?

This looks like a pretty bleak picture of post-bop, and for jazz in general, considering that it's the dominant style. But some players and composers have found their way out. Tenor Sax player Mark Turner embraced the woody sound of pre-Coltrane cool players like Warne Marsh. Trumpeter Terrence Blanchard embraces cinematic harmony and pacing (he does do a lot of film scores for Spike Lee), a moody style picked up by acolytes like pianists Aaron Parks & Fabian Almazan and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. Then there's the whole crew of musicians that embraced different strains of Afro-Latin music, a list that would stretch far too long.

And then there's alto saxophonist David Binney.

In the two decades since his move to New York City, Binney has done pretty much everything a saxophonist can do. He's formed collaborative bands, some funky, some Latin-tinged. He's been a first call sideman for jazzpersons of all stripes, from Joel Harrison (see no. 9) to garrulous saxmaster Donny McCaslin. He's held a regular gig at Greenwich Village's 55 Bar for a decade now. He's even spent some time backing up the likes of Maceo Parker and Aretha Franklin. Out of all these experiences, Binney has formed a unique musical vision, combining post-bop's reputation for uncompromising angularity with a punkish sense that Binney might die if those notes don't come out of his horn.

Binney's style has reached a new apotheosis with his uncompromisingly-titled "Graylen Epicenter." And it sure does start with bang.

The beginning of the opener "All of Time" feels you're being shot out on one of those 500-foot-tall phallic roller coasters at Six Flags or Cedar Point. But instead of being over in 30 seconds, it goes on for 3 minutes without letting up. The second 2 are occupied by a thrashing and altogether astonishing dual drum solo by Brian Blade and Dan Weiss over an unrelenting ra-ta-tat tat vamp (since when is it ok to start a tune with a drum solo? Oh well, I'm not gonna argue here). Just to make sure you don't die from an adrenaline-induced heart attack, the solo subsides into a lightly swinging piano solo by Craig Taborn (see what I said about the sideman thing?). But Taborn builds it all back up before too long, unleashing a typically wild and passionate solo from Binney. Then unexpectedly at the 8:30 mark, a voice pops up in the mix. No, it's not that of Gretchen Parlato, who's been wordlessly vocalizing the melody throughout, but that of Binney himself. "If I only could only see you," Binney intones like a lost backup track for Brian Wilson's "Smile" record, "then all of time would stand still for you and I." With all the thrash and edge leading up to it, it's a disarming and vulnerable moment and it somehow feels like the just the thing the piece needed to send it out into the stratosphere.

Ok, now it is time for you to listen to this face-meltage.

Good. Now that's taken care of.

Even after a transcendent performance such as this, the rest of the album doesn't disappoint. There's still plenty of drum dueling on the quirky free-funk jams "Terrorists and Movie Stars" and "Any Years Costume." There are dynamic, exploratory solos on the title track and the chipper vamp-based "Equality At Low Levels." And there's tenderness too on the slow-build pop ballad "Everglow" and the tropic lullaby "From This Far."

On "Graylen Epicenter," David Binney takes a defibrillator to post-bop, cutting through all the irregular chaotic beats, showing that there is a pulse there, and still many new adventures to be had.

For all of time, you ask? I can't say for sure, but I wouldn't count anything out with Mr. Binney around.

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