Tag Archives: New Music

Beyond Now: Donny McCaslin

Spare a thought for the chameleon and, perhaps a little later, after reading further, some praise. Why? Because it was the chameleon that brought us here.

The changeling that I have in mind is the late David Bowie. His 2014 single release, Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) utilised a big band with Donny McCaslin to the fore on tenor saxophone. McCaslin was later to play on Bowie’s Blackstar (which contains a different rock version of Sue without much sax) where he was showcased with a solo on Dollar Days (and to a lesser extent I Can’t Give Everything Away).

Beyond Now was recorded in April 2016 following Bowie’s death in January 2016 and McCaslin states on the sleeve:-
“It was like a dream, except it was something that I could never have dreamed of. David Bowie was a visionary artist whose generosity, creative spirit, and fearlessness will stay with me the rest of my days. This recording is dedicated to him and all who loved him.”

Since the 1970s I’ve always been ready to listen to Bowie because he was a truly innovative and compelling artist. In mid-2014 I looked at a reprise of his Berlin songs recorded by Dylan Howe and it was my favourite contemporary set of the year for 2014. I’m therefore delighted that this jazz saxophonist who worked with Bowie has produced an album that he influenced. Beyond Now, which was released at the end of 2016, will be the first contemporary recording to be reviewed on downwithit.info in 2017.

Proceedings get underway with Shake Loose, a staccato funk piece that offers a great warm-up for McCaslin who covers the full range of his tenor saxophone, from high to low and back again with every stop in between. This could be a set opener as it certainly seizes the attention. I particularly enjoy the second phase, where things slow down a bit, the keyboards come in and longer notes are played.

McCaslin is content to operate as the lead accompanist on A Small Plot of Land, the first of two David Bowie tracks. Jeff Taylor supplies vocals on this ponderous version of a composition which was originally used as background to the funeral of Andy Warhol segment in the film Basquiat. The elegiac quality may possibly go some way to explaining why McCaslin chose to cover it here on an album recorded so soon after Bowie’s passing. It is a good choice, which repays repeated airings and which adds further layer of variety and texture to the album.

I need listeners to help me out on the title track, Beyond Now, as I think McCaslin is playing clarinet on the opening of this fine ballad. Jason Linder gets space to play a rather good piano solo here too.

Coelacanth 1 is a tune originally composed by Grammy Award nominated DJ and producer Deadmau5. McCaslin’s tenor paints a soundscape over long drone notes delivered from the keyboards. It is a contemplative piece in the style of so much that appears on ECM albums by the likes of Jan Gabarek.

On Bright Abyss McCaslin ranges over both the upper and lower registers of his tenor and shows that he is comfortable with the lower notes, which can often expose the limitations of lesser musicians.

McCaslin solos inventively over the increasingly frenzied straight ahead rock rhythms on FACEPLANT (uppercase sic). If Neil Cowley was to collaborate with a saxophonist, DMc would be a shoe-in for the job as this track has the same feel as some of the rockier pieces on Spacebound Apes.

With Warszawa, from Low, David Bowie and Brian Eno took us into new territory that seemed strange and somewhat challenging on a 1970’s rock album. Here, Donny McCaslin’s mournful tenor is played beautifully and this is a worthy homage to The Thin White Duke.

Glory builds slowly towards an engaging keyboard bridging section, before the saxophone comes in with overtones and sparkling upper register runs concluding with an exciting finish.

The Great American Songbook, that loose mishmash canon of jazz standards, is not known to have expanded to include the final track, but perhaps it should. Remain, originally written and recorded by Mutemath, is an exceptionally beautiful ballad, almost wistful in tone and the highlight of the album for me. It is just the sort of tune that Miles Davis could conceivably have chosen to cover in the twilight of his life. It is worth the price of admission to this set by itself. Although there are currently plenty of Donny McCaslin tracks on YouTube, at the time of writing, Remain was not one of them. However, you can hear a short slice of it on the album sampler:-

Treat yourself and play it now courtesy of YouTube. You won’t regret it.

To play, touch or click on the arrow

Donny McCaslin was born in 1966 in Santa Clara, California and was the son of a vibraphonist. He won a full scholarship to the world famous Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1984 before touring with Gary Burton’s band from 1987. In 1991 he replaced the eminent horn player, Michael Brecker in Steps Ahead and in 1998 he recorded the first of his 12 albums released to date. The Bowie link began when he was recommended by composer Maria Schneider and Bowie watched him and his band play in 55 Bar, New York City (which sounds like a must visit place in Greenwich Village).

downwithit.info will continue to cover selected contemporary CDs and Beyond Now has certainly got 2017 off to a great start. I wholeheartedly recommend this recording which has confirmed that David Bowie made an excellent choice of saxophonist for his last known projects. Cheers to The Chameleon for that and so much more!

The band etc.:- Donny McCaslin (tenor saxophone, flute, alto flute, clarinet); Jason Linder (keyboards); Tim Lefebvre (electric bass); Mark Guiliana (drums); supported by: Jeff Taylor (vocals- track 2); David Binney (additional synths and vocals, tracks 5 & ); Nate Wood (guitar, track 2). Recorded 4-6 April 2016. Systems Two, Brooklyn, New York. Produced by: David Binney. Recording Engineer: Mike Marciano. Mixed by: Nate Wood. Cover photo: Jimmy King. Art Direction and Design: Rebecca Meek. Issued as Motema 234310.

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Spacebound Apes: Neil Cowley Trio

spacebound-apes

Spacebound Apes is one of those releases that I had very high expectations of. In 2014 I took a look at Neil Cowley’s last album Touch and Flee. At the time I wondered whether it would survive the test of time as a set that I would return to. It did and I have enjoyed revisiting it occasionally over the last two years.

I was delighted when I received a copy of the current set to listen to and I said I would try to review it immediately.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to turn this around quite as quickly as I had anticipated and well over a month has passed by.

I’ve finally got there after some difficulty and it is time to publish, if only to mark this down as ‘done’ and move on towards other projects.

Spacebound Apes is a concept album and this sets the alarm bells ringing for me. The 1970’s and 80’s saw the release of numerous musical extravaganzas in which rock musicians, who had often delivered strong earlier recordings, were allowed to develop themed albums where absurdity was often a highly visible passenger in the stagecoach of grandiosity. Thank heavens for honest to goodness soul, pub rock and punk which provided an alternative and eventually sluiced out the Augean Stables of pomp rock. Sorry if this offends but you can keep Topographic Oceans, Tommy, Tarkus, Olias of Sunhillow and each and every one of Henry VIII’S six wives and don’t expect me to start work on a musical interpretation of The Labours of Hercules any time soon.

Does music benefit from an associated comic book, animations, short films, costumed performers and other embellishments? I suppose it can do but, in live performance, a short verbal introduction from the artist can take us into the world of our own imagination that can be even more powerful than an unwanted and superfluous picture or projection.

While struggling with Spacebound Apes I wanted to make sure I was giving the piece a fair hearing and I went to see a live performance by Neil Cowley and his band. Introducing his show, Cowley was engaging and unpretentious. All three musicians were very talented and were listening intently to each other. The first section offered the current album in its entirety, with an accompanying slide show which helped to set the scene for the track that was being played.

The second half dispensed with the visuals, without losing anything. Tracks included Bluster and His Nibs. When Cowley announced that the last song was called She Eats Flies the title led me to assume that we were in for something that would disappoint. However, he disclosed that the ‘she’ in question was a spider the size of a Labrador dog that lives at the bottom of his garden. That simple explanation conjured up an image and added to what we heard without needing its own comic strip, back projection or articulated arachnid prop.

Time to take a look at the album, which concerns a 43 year old male who is having a mid-life crisis. I don’t know about you (and this excludes all younger and female readers), but I’ve been there, done that and, over time, the scars slowly healed. If you want to know more about the concept under consideration you can google the Spacebound Apes website. As for me, I’ll just follow my usual format of offering a brief listening note for each of the tracks on the CD:

Weightless ia a piece on which the piano trio are supplemented by electronics. I particularly enjoyed the bass playing here.

Hubris Major starts with a further electronic phase before Cowley’s piano and the bass drum move us through another of his delightful numbers on which Cowley really conjures a sense of space.

Governance is a track with a staccato feel seemingly conveying an image of monotony and stultification. It is definitely not something to jump out of bed to in the morning.

The City and the Stars, a dynamic track. On the video, Rex Horan plays an electric bass hung down low in a stance reminiscent of Peter Hook.

The next track, Grace, is a beautiful tune that has a hymn-like quality. It is the high point of the set for me. Take a look at the accompanying images:-

Echo Nebula presents us with another dreamy soundscape.

The Sharks of Competition led me to imagine a frenetic combination of Devo and Joy Division, which is OK in its place.

Duty To The Last. Brooding sense of menace gives way to the solemnity of an elegy.

Garden Of Love. Conjuring images of passing through something and marvelling without engaging.

Death of Amygdala. The Amygdala lies deep within the brain and, according to Wikipedia, ‘…performs a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making and emotional reactions.’ A dreamy track, which has a classical feel about it and while pleasant enough could possibly do with more development to turn it into something a little more special.

Finally, The Return of Lincoln is a short closing track.

Overall, I was disappointed by Spacebound Apes. As stated, I’ve liked some of Cowley’s earlier work and the band delivered a fine live performance at Islington’s Union Chapel at the end of October 2016. I feel somewhat churlish in my reaction, as a great deal of thought and effort has obviously gone into the making of this. But I also have a deep suspicion, verging on aversion to ‘concept albums’. This one offers up a series of moods and soundscapes, as they all do with varying degrees of success, but, for me, the overall dish doesn’t work.

I’m not giving up on Neil Cowley and will return to tracks like Grace and Weightless whilst hoping that he navigates away from grand concepts in the future. It really isn’t what the World needs, while a great piano player and composer will always be in demand. The Neil Cowley Trio are well worth catching live and play with great energy so don’t ignore them if they are in a venue near you.

The band etc:- Neil Cowley (piano); Evan Jenkins (drums); Rex Horan (bass); Leo Abrahams (guitar, FX). Produced: Dom Monks. Recorded: RAK Studios, London. Released September 2016. HideInside Records.

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The Epic: Kamasi Washington

Kamasi Washington The Epic2

Readers, I’m sorry that it has taken me so long to get round to taking a look at this celebrated release from Kamasi Washington.

Every so often an artist comes along that it is important to have an opinion about. Kamasi Washington is of that ilk. His first release is a triple CD set featuring nearly three hours of music. Some of the tracks are indeed epic in scale featuring large choirs together with a 32 piece orchestra and he appeared live in concert at the BBC Proms at the end of August 2016. His tenor saxophone work is likened to that of some of the greatest musicians of all time. The album is entitled The Epic for a reason and trying to do it justice will be no easy task, so I will be doing so over the whole of August and September 2016, starting with some initial impressions before working towards some conclusions by the end of September 2016. If you want to join me and have some dialogue, get yourself a copy. There is also an opinion poll at the end of the piece that you are welcome to participate in (the current results are shown after you have voted).

Here goes:-

Volume 1: The Plan

Change of the Guard is dedicated to Austin Peralta, a musician of great talent and tremendous promise who died at the age of 22. You can read about him here.

Askim contains a long solo which builds from the mellifluous and slowly moves towards the discordant before calm returns. This track introduces us to another side of Washington’s playing. Again, I find the choir distracting.

Isabelle is played by a septet and the choir take a break. It is a gentle contemplative piece.

Final Thought is funkier with Brandon Coleman’s organ to the fore before Washington comes in with an exciting and powerful solo.

The choir are back on The Next Step. KW’s sensitive solo does not to be surrounded and this piece is over-embellished.

The Rhythm Changes is a song featuring Patrice Quinn on lead vocals, initially accompanied by the trombone of Ryan Porter. Again, I’m not convinced by this saccharine confection.

Volume 2: The Gloroius Tale

Miss Understanding. Trumpet run from Igmar Thomas

Leroy and Lanisha. A light lilting piece featuring a duet between trombone and tenor saxophone. A high point of the opus so far.

Re Run is next and the gargling choir are back on a Latin flavoured piece which turns into something special during Washington’s solo. Get out those soft jazz dance shoes, or better still, wait for the superior version of this track on the third CD, where the choir do not feature (although Washington’s solo is far less interesting).

Seven Prayers is played by a nonet with both acoustic and electric bass. Instruments are voiced in unison and guess what, they sound a little like a choir.

Henrietta Our Hero features another lead vocal from Patrice Quinn, which gives way to an enjoyable chorus on saxophone from Washington.

The Magnificent 7. Once again some great soloing from Kamasi but the choir is present to dilute the power of what he is serving up . The composition is a good one that is over developed and submerged in cloying sweetener. I could imagine this working on a big festival stage and this is stadium-sized rather than club jazz.

Volume 3: The Historic Repetition

Re Run Home is one of the most immediate tracks on the entire set. Uptempo and anthemic. However the soloing seems a little simplistic. You can have a listen courtesy of Brainfeeder on YouTube:-

Cherokee starts like a bright and bushy 1990’s Diana Brown track before the lead vocalist comes in. She doesn’t do much for me, I’m afraid.

Clair de Lune is a dreamy realisation of the Debussey piece on which the choir makes an appearance. There is a Hollywood, 30’s feel on this.

Malcolm’s Theme is a tribute to Malcolm X with extract from a speech which is liberal in its content and argues in favour of religious co-existence between Islam and Christianity and black and white. The music takes second place here on a piece that probably would not have made it onto a single CD, although KW’s solo is strong and it is a pity it is compromised by the other more indulgent aspects of this track.

The Message is a pleasant jazz funk meander which provides a springboard for a deft and exciting KW solo but is overlong.

My initial reactions are that Kamasi Washington overdoes things with this triple set. He offers up a full menu in one sitting when we would probably be better served with smaller portions featuring complimentary favours rather than a whole gargantuan blow-out. As will be clear by now, the choir doesn’t do much for me but some of you may like it. Washington clearly has at least one strong film score in the locker as there is much about The Epic that signals this to be the case.

I have added a quick single choice poll to see what you and fellow readers think of Kamasi Washington. Please feel free to complete and also to add a comment to get a lively debate going.

I’ll keep on listening and try to supplement this within the coming weeks.

First update:- Saturday 3 September:- A recording of KW’s BBC Proms performance from The Royal Albert Hall is on BBC iPlayer for the next 26 days and I have just listened to it. Unfortunately, the presence of The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and choir resulted in the aspects of KW’s work that I enjoy least being aired. The audience who saw the performance were very vocal in their appreciation and seemed to enjoy themselves.

Update: Tuesday 6 September 2016:- Six responses to the opinion poll so far and all positive, with five people wanting to hear more and one going for the even more enthusiastic ‘future of jazz’ position. Please keep the responses coming in and feel free to leave a comment.

Update: Thursday 8 September 2016 The liveliness of Final from the first CD was exciting after reviewing Grant Green’s Street of Dreams. The stripped down band can play and this was fun.

Update: Friday 9 September 2016. Miss Understanding is 8 minutes and 46 seconds long and the seven minutes that the choir sit things out for is very good. The introduction is somewhat ostentatious but after 90 seconds it settles to a fine track on which KW plays with fire and gusto.

Update: Sunday 11 September 2016. 8 votes so far, with 6 regarding KW as ‘Interesting new talent’ and one each for the other two choices

Update: Tuesday 16 November 2016. 77% of voters, so far, regard KW as ‘Interesting new talent’; 8% agree that KW is ‘the future of jazz’ while 15% go for’over-rated and unlikely to listen to again’.

Update: Monday 2 January 2017.
I’ve not felt inclined to re-listen to’The Epic’. Eventually I will get round to a selective re-listen concentrating on the tracks that I do like. I’ll also watch out for Kamasi Washington’s next release in the hope that he veers in the direction of work with small bands without choral arrangements and vocals. Just in case you are unable to read the poll on your machine or phone, as of today 15 readers had voted in the poll:- 67% of voters, as of 2/1/17, regarded KW as ‘Interesting new talent’; 20% agreed that KW is ‘the future of jazz’ while 13% went for’over-rated and unlikely to listen to again’. Thanks for taking part- I will leave the poll open until KW releases another set.

You need to vote to view the results as only the premium version of this plugin offers a preview option, although I will visit and provide a breakdown in the updates from time to time.

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Marc Ribot live at Cafe Oto: 28 April 2016

image
(A2 screenprint sold via Cafe Oto- see link below. Permission granted for use here).

Marc Ribot is a brilliant guitarist and composer, whose last two releases have been reviewed here at downwithit, most recently, in March 2016, when I looked at his Young Philadelphians project (which you can read about here).

The diverse musical interests of this artist have resulted in him having an extensive and wide-ranging back catalogue of recordings. These include film scores; free-jazz; classical guitar; New York avant-garde; Cuban; funk and session work with an impressive list of artists. I was looking forward to this show, which was the first of two at this London venue but I was curious and indeed slightly apprehensive about what aspects of his repertoire would be featured.

This was my first visit to Cafe Oto which is located a couple of hundred metres from Dalston Junction Overground Station in a street that shows signs of recent changes of use from commercial to residential and entertainment and which now hosts a theatre and a couple of interesting bars, including Cafe Oto. The venue concentrates on cutting-edge music that is rarely heard elsewhere. My fellow audience members were an older, urban crowd drawn from the thoughtful and knowledgable segment of concertgoers. Conversations around me in the long line outside the club centered on gallery openings and other arts related matters and I felt confident that Ribot was going to be received with rapt attention for this sold-out performance.

A support slot was provided by Paul Abbott (drums) and Pat Thomas (piano). Back in the 80’s I saw Cecil Taylor play an extremely challenging set at Ronnie Scott’s. It was not to my taste and was 90 minutes of my life that could have been put to better use. For this set I was fortunate to be able to have a very clear view of the keyboard and, for this non-pianist, seeing exactly what Pat Thomas was doing made this free form performance intelligible. Thomas played keyboards on the Black Top album that I looked at back in August 2014 and it was good to have an opportunity to see him play live. The single long piece that they delivered had much of the complexity of a fiery late John Coltrane composition like Interstellar Space, although I felt it took on a degree of predictability towards its conclusion as I found myself having a very clear idea of where the duo were taking us. Perhaps I’m more open to less conventionally structured music these days so I have to say that I enjoyed this live set, although in my opinion it was music best heard in a live setting rather than something that would easily fit with my home listening.

It was soon time for Marc Ribot who played a single well worn-in steel strung acoustic guitar throughout the entire performance. His set included two pieces by classical composer Frantz Casseus and a John Zorn number which involved ‘preparation’ of the guitar using an additional bridge and what looked like a nail file and playing utilising a steel bottle neck, a bow and several balloons. As you may assume, this did sound most unconventional but was well received within the context of Ribot’s show. Overall, his playing entranced and shook away the cares of the world. There was no direct reference to the music of Young Philadelphians or to Albert Ayler but I was more than happy with the artist’s own choice of material.

Marc Ribot showed that he is a virtuoso guitarist, in complete command of his instrument and willing to forge out beyond the conventional range of the guitar. He can play beautifully but can also present the sour with the sweet in a way which stretches and enriches the listener’s metaphorical palate. I enjoyed myself tremendously and will be the first in the queue for tickets next time he plays at a venue near me. If you enjoy great guitar you may want to do the same.

If you like the image it is screenprinted on thick, quality paper by Tartaruga. Design by Oliver Barrett from photos by Dawid Laskowski. It is available from Cafe Oto here while stocks last.

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Same As You: Polar Bear

Polar Bear Same As You

The latest Polar Bear album has been out for about a month now and it was to have been my contemporary album of the month for April but other demands on my time conspired against reviewing it until now. It’s even more accessible than last year’s In Each And Every One and I have enjoyed listening to it, both at home and on the bus and tube to work, where it has enlivened my trip through London Bridge.

Life, Love and Light Is an invocation which gets things underway. It wouldn’t be out of place on a Pharoah Sanders Impulse set and it is a meditation designed to set up a train of thought and take you somewhere else.

We Feel The Echoes moves things along. I like it but the backing beats feel somehow independent from the the gentle meditative saxophone improvisations. The track has a sense of calm, despite the pacy percussion. It is restorative music offering a chance to slow down your heart rate and let your mind go where it will.

The First Steps has a driving beat underlying it as a horn player contributes a simple phrase.

Of Hi Lands would not be out of place on an ECM album, which probably isn’t surprising as Seb Rochford recently worked on Andy Sheppards ECM debut Surrounded By Sea. The introduction is followed by a sax led, beat driven track which is how I would imagine may be like waking up while on some sort of bespoke safari to a place where unfamiliar sounds surround.

Don’t Let The Feeling Go includes vocals from Hannah Darling and Gar Robertson, while while Shabaka Hutchings makes an appearance on tenor saxophone. The track has a great and relentless bass line which is reminiscent of dub reggae and reminded a second set of ears of a visit to Morocco. You can take a listen courtesy of YouTube:-

To play touch or click on the arrow

Unrelenting, Unconditional is a long meditative track and is definitely in ECM meets Augustus Pablo territory. Once more there is an Eastern feel here, or maybe it is the influence of the high Californian desert where Seb Rochford mixed this album. There’s an enjoyable piece of solo percussion before we have a reprise of the Don’t Let The Feeling Go vocals to close.

So Polar Bear have produced another set which oozes atmosphere. Indeed, when it gets heard by the people who seek out and source engaging yet somehow brooding background music for TV there is likely to be a regular stream of royalty payments.

I hope to catch Polar Bear live in the not too distant future and if I do I’ll tell you about it here at downwithit.info

The band etc: Mark Lockheart (tenor saxophone); Pete Wareham (tenor saxophone); Tom Herbert (bass); Leafcutter John (electronics); Sebastian Rochford (drums). Written and Produced by Sebastian Rochford. Recorded by Sonny at Assault and Battery Studios, London. Artwork: Sanchita Islam. Released on The Laef Label. April 2015. Website: www.polarbearmusic.com

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