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Wining Spins By George Kanzler
The Big Apple continues as a hub for big bands, notwithstanding the close of the Big Band Era generations ago and the demise of Manhattan’s famous ballrooms by the turn of the 20th century. The tradition remains strong, currently manifested in the weekly gig of a host of big bands taking their cue from the now half-century long (Village) Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. The VJO pioneered a modern, Big Apple big band style inspiring many groups that followed. One of them is trombonist John Fedchock’s quarter-century-old New York Big Band. Rejuvenating an older, more swing and mid-20th century style (e.g. Count Basie, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Duke Ellington) is a more recent entry in the local big band roster, alto saxophonist Eyal Vilner’s Big Band. Their latest albums comprise this Winning Spins.
Like It Is, John Fedchock New York Big Band (MAMA Records), is split between Fedchock originals and jazz and pop standards, at five each. But Fedchock’s take on standards isn’t exactly standard. “You and the Night and the Music,” at a fast clip, is presented in an intricate, tricky run through contrasting, overlapping passages, just glancing at the familiar theme. Then, after a round of riff and shout supported solos, the melody returns punctuated by drum breaks.
There’s whimsy in his chart of Ellington’s “Just Squeeze Me,” Scott Robinson’s baritone sax stating the theme, interspersed with frenetic bursts from the ensemble. Of the other standards, “Never Let Me Go” is the leader’s ballad feature, his satiny trombone lines supported by billowing clouds from the group; “For Heaven’s Sake” is a ballad feature for Barry Ries’ flugelhorn.
Afro-Latin percussionist Bobby Sanabria appears on three tracks, including a tropically brisk take on Cedar Walton’s “Ojos de Rojo” with pianist Allen Farnham doing his best Eddie Palmieri impression. Sanabria also adds the “funky cha-cha” element to Fedchock’s boogaloo “Like It Is,” and beguiling bolero beats to “Havana,” the Cuban feel enhanced by Mark Vinci’s flute.
Other originals include an impressionistic “Hair of the Dog,” ranging from dreamy to perky; a Wayne Shorter inspired “Just Sayin’” with notable solos from the leader and soprano saxophonist Charles Pillow and, climactically, “Ten Thirty 30,” written for a Clifford Brown symposium (Brown’s birthday is 10/30/30) and consisting of thematic material from Brown’s music. It’s a challenging piece with tempo shifts and engaging solos from trumpeter Scott Wendholt, the leader, and tenor saxophonist Rich Perry.
John Fedchock New York Big Band unveils music from the new CD at the Blue Note, Aug. 10.
Coming next, Eyal Vilner Big Band
Ben Allison: Being Yourself By Seton Hawkins
This month, the master bassist and composer Ben Allison will celebrate the 30th anniversary of his arrival in New York City with a multi-night run at Birdland. As he prepares for the gig, Allison will do something that has been a running theme in his storied career: he’s going to try something new.
“About ten years ago, I stopped using piano in my band and started using guitar instead,” Allison explains, a nod to his current ensemble’s line-up of guitarist Steve Cardenas, drummer Rudy Royston and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt. “Previous incarnations of my band had Frank Kimbrough on piano, and this gig brings Frank back. It’s the first time I’ve done a line-up like this with piano and guitar and I’m quite excited to see what we do.”
To be sure, the spirit of adventure and risk-taking is a hallmark of Allison’s music. In the three decades since his arrival in New York, Allison has established himself as a superlative bassist, an extraordinary composer, an innovative thinker in the music industry and a tireless advocate for creative musicians. Continually reimagining his older projects while also tackling new and exciting music, Allison has amassed an impressive discography of highly acclaimed albums, most closely associated with Palmetto Records. However on his latest, 2013’s The Stars Look Very Different Today, Allison took an additional risk, breaking his string of recordings with Palmetto and self-releasing on his own imprint, Sonic Camera Records.
“Musicians who are mid-career, like me, end up taking stock and see what’s working, what’s not, and where we’d like to go,” Allison explains. “I don’t make decisions lightly, so I thought long and hard and decided to try releasing my own music. I have always been a DIY person and, on my earlier albums, was very involved in the production, mixing, mastering and marketing of the projects. I got to learn so much with each release. So I was excited when I released my own album because I got the chance to put into practice everything I had absorbed in the past 15 years.” Indeed, the risk paid off as the CD returned a profit, enjoyed widespread critical accolades and received extensive, enthusiastic radio support.
“It was difficult, but I’m in the black, which for a record label is often not the case,” he notes. “We made it into the top five on the radio, which isn’t bad considering that it was me and an intern doing the radio promotion!”
The self-driven record release and its success also resonate strongly with an earlier venture of Allison’s: The Jazz Composers Collective. Established in 1992 as a collaborative project between Allison, Michael Blake, Ron Horton, Kimbrough and Ted Nash, the Collective ran for 13 seasons, premiered over 300 new works, took up residencies throughout the world and brought more than 250 musicians on as collaborating artists. Enabling Allison to create new music on his own terms, the collective proved a crucial and formative experience. “It really helped me to find my style as a bandleader as well as my personal voice as a composer,” he remembers. “And ultimately that’s the goal: to find your voice and to be yourself.”
This DIY road may have been challenging, but its reward has been tremendous for Allison and has helped to define his career. With 11 albums to his name, not to mention a massive array of composer credits, Allison has ensured his ability to create music he loves on his terms: “The musicians on my records are my friends. We put this music together ourselves and when we show up in, say, Canton IL and half the crowd knows our tunes and are calling out to request titles, it’s gratifying. It’s a harder road, yes, but the joy is immense.”
As he prepares for the Birdland gig and considers uniting his recent and older projects through the enhanced ensemble, Allison is excited. “The whole point of what we do is to play live,” he says. “We love playing and I feel more strongly than ever how important it is for all of us to gather in a room to make music and listen to music. That feeling cannot be beat.”
Ben Allison performs with Jeremy Pelt, Steve Cardenas, Frank Kimbrough and Rudy Royston at Birdland Aug. 11-15.
Stay tuned to learn more about Erroll Garner tribute by Geri Allen
Another Reason to Celebrate by Elzy kolb
Form, function, flexibility
Pianist/singer/composer Deanna Witkowski loves arranging, and draws from influences and inspirations ranging from folk songs to 19th-century hymns to jazz standards to classical works. “I experiment with re-harmonizing, changing the rhythmic structure of the tunes, just imagining stuff in different ways.”
In 2010, the bicentennial of the birth of the composer Frederic Chopin, Witkowski started thinking of doing a project that would take an improvisational look at some of his works, with the goal of “going with different styles of music and having it feel like it’s all one.” The result is her recently released solo CD, Raindrops: Improvisations with Chopin (Tilapia). “Some of the arrangements came more easily than others; the forms are different.” The concept for a well-known piece Witkowski first studied in sixth grade was one of the easy ones, while others took more trial and error. “I jump in and try things quickly, then decide what I like and what I want to change. There’s a lot of improvisation on the recording—a ton of improvisation.
“It’s sad that so many classical musicians and other types of musicians are not taught how to improvise. They’re tied to the page and don’t know where to start. Church musicians, for example, have to be able to improvise—there are lots of times when you have to fill space or provide some kind of music—but that’s something they’re rarely taught.” With that in mind, the pianist has started writing a monthly column on improvisation, “Stepping Off the Page,” for the blog PianoAddict.com. Witkowski aims for the column to be accessible to a full spectrum of readers, from non-players to professional musicians. “The idea is, you don’t have to be a musician—improvising is like learning a language. Beginning players can improvise, as well as more advanced players.”
During her solo piano midday gig in Bryant Park, Aug. 3-7 and an early evening appearance at the Signature Theatre Café on Aug. 7, Witkowski will delve into compositions from her new CD as well as material she’s working on and tunes she rarely gets a chance to play. On most solo gigs, Witkowski doesn’t prepare a detailed set list. But the casual atmosphere in the park makes her strive for more structure, so she often maps out the entire set. “People come up and talk to me while I’m playing and in between tunes. In that situation, I can’t be thinking about what’s next.” That’s not to say the song list is set in stone: This is her 11th year of playing the Piano in Bryant series and Witkowski remembers occasions like the afternoon it started to sprinkle and she switched her focus to songs to suit the weather, such as “Here’s that Rainy Day.” Material from Raindrops would be a natural under the circumstances!
Best of both worlds
Singer/guitarist Diane Hubka has been based in Los Angeles for the past decade, but there are still certain things she misses about New York, her home for 20 years pre-California. “It’s a very stimulating city; I was very productive when I lived there. The pace of the city is so inspiring. And it was great to meet and study with people who were so influential to me,” including Howard Alden, Anne Marie Moss, Harold Danko, Sheila Jordan, Mark Murphy, Connie Crothers and Jay Clayton.
The quantity, quality and accessibility of the music here is another plus. “The jazz scene is so great in New York; it’s so nice to be able to go to more than one thing in one night.” Hubka discussed strategies for squeezing in several sets, such as starting out at the 55 Bar (“That’s always interesting, great music.”), then going around the corner to the Village Vanguard (“The history of that place, and the quality of the bands.”), before checking out another club or two within walking distance.
Hubka also has fond memories of Jazz at Kitano and enjoyed hearing friends and colleagues play at the original upstairs venue. She’s looking forward to checking out the newer, larger space when she makes her Jazz at Kitano debut Aug. 13 with pianist Mark Soskin, bassist Dean Johnson and drummer Tim Horner. In addition to material from her recent recording, West Coast Strings (SSJ), expect to hear “not so standard standards,” Hubka says.
“There are so many great songs no one does. I enjoy lesser-known songs, things written by members of the band and people I know.” And she’ll add some familiar favorites to the mix. “It can be too much work for non-musicians to go through a night of tunes they haven’t heard before. People often request things like ‘Moon River,’ songs they know and love.”
Though she praises the Big Apple, Hubka is more than content living in LA. She cites performing opportunities such as a recent series of outdoor concerts singing a Sinatra medley with an 80-piece symphonic wind band. She also gives high marks to California’s rich guitar scene, as evidenced by West Coast Strings, featuring contributions from eight other guitarists, including Mimi Fox, John Pisano and Anthony Wilson.
Hubka hopes to resume formal music study soon. “I haven’t had private lessons in a while, but it’s something I want to do my whole life. Whatever I study on an instrument helps my singing, it all goes into the same ear-training bank,” she explains. “I strive to be like the Shirley Horn of guitar. She was such a fantastic piano player. She would use such gorgeous, lush voicings behind her singing and swing the hell out of everything. That’s something to work toward.”
And a final West Coast plus: “I think I’m going to live longer from living here; New York is very stressful: stimulating, but stressful. And it’s lovely to have sunny, warm weather all the time.”
Bridge Crossings by cary tone
“Matt Brewer has established a foothold as one of the stalwart young bass players on the progressive jazz scene” (NY Times). Also a composer, bandleader and recording artist, Brewer’s credits include Lee Konitz, Steve Coleman, Terence Blanchard, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Jeff “Tain” Watts and Greg Osby.
Q. Tell me something about your latest recording project.
A. The only record I’ve done as a leader is my recent album on Criss Cross, Mythology. I had been wanting to make a record for quite some time, but had been pretty busy with sideman work (and maybe a little lazier than I’d like to admit). . . Everyone on the record is one of my absolute favorite musicians on their respective instruments and I was genuinely surprised and delighted that they were all available at the same time.
Q. What, other than your own recordings, have you been listening to lately?
A. I’ve been a little obsessed with the first track on Sly Stone’s album Fresh. That whole album is great but I catch myself listening to “In Time” over and over. I’m always listening to some Coltrane album or another, and some Miles album as well. I got Amandala on vinyl recently and I love the writing. I love Miles from any and all time periods. Porgy and Bess is probably one of my top five favorite albums of all time. Other things on the turntable recently have been Lightning Hopkins, Jimi Hendrix Band of Gypsies, Aphex Twin, Bartok’s Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste, Hank Mobley Soul Station (and anything with Paul Chambers, really) and that record that Ben Webster and Sweets Edison did together with George Duvivier on bass.
Q. What sort of intelligence, mind set does it take to appreciate jazz?
A. None. I’ve never thought it was a music only for the elite. If you can find beauty in literature, film or art of any kind, you can find it in jazz. The idea that you need to acquire some secret knowledge to be in the club is antithetical to what music should be about.
Q. Can jazz be taught? To play it, appreciate it?
A. I’d mostly say yes. It’s like anything else (science, cooking, sports). Most aspects of it can be taught, but aptitude and natural ability play a role. Some of the most beautiful aspects of our favorite musicians are the things that cannot be taught. I have musician friends who have been gifted from a young age and others that had to work more constantly throughout their life. Hard work is important no matter what your ability, though.
Q. You’re from Oklahoma City and spent your youth in Albuquerque. How and at what age were you exposed to jazz?
A. Oklahoma at one time had many greats. Charlie Christian, Don Byas and Chet Baker, were all from there. My grandfather was a great musician and played trumpet with Charlie Barnett, Woody Herman and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. He died before I was born, but those stories and bootleg recordings were an early inspiration. My dad plays trombone and teaches music and showed me a lot about theory at a young age. My mother had a radio show and interviewed lots of jazz greats. Her mother was a great music lover as well so there was constantly music in the house. I started playing bass when I was ten.
Q. A couple of your favorite websites, blogs, apps?
A. I’m not too up on any of the blogs. I’ve read Ethan Iverson’s blog and enjoyed the interviews there. I think it’s great that a musician is taking the initiative to have conversations with some of the masters. A musician will conduct an interview in a way that’s different than say, a critic.
Q. How has technology changed your recorded music listening habits?
A. We all have tons of music on our phones and if there’s something we want to get, it’s a couple clicks away. That’s good and bad. When faced with so many options it becomes difficult to focus on any one thing. I don’t think people listen to entire records as much as they used to. The sound quality suffers nowadays as well. All the chopping up and digitizing of sound information that your brain has to then put back together is probably tiring whether we realize it or not.
Q. life in music: more perspiration or inspiration?
A. Hard work is important, but if you don’t love what you do it’s hard to stay motivated and keep getting better. Also, I think audiences can sense inspiration, love and sincerity and are attracted to it.
Q. If there’s an afterlife, one piece of music you heard here that you’ll remember there?
A. Bach’s B minor Mass.
Q. Your favorite musician of all-time? A favorite or two playing or composing today?
A. Kind of impossible to pick one! I could say John Coltrane and that would be pretty honest. Although I’d really want to say Miles and Bach too. As far as people today, Steve Coleman, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Mark Turner are very inspiring to me. I learned a ton from being in Greg Osby’s band when I was younger, too.
Q. You are having a dinner party and can invite three musicians. Who would they be?
A. I like getting people together over food and drink to listen to music or talk about things. If I could invite anybody from the past I’d think I’d invite Thelonious Monk, Elvin Jones and John Coltrane.
Matt Brewer performs at Cornelia Street Café Aug. 14.