critic’s picks: the jazz at lincoln center orchestra with wynton marsalis featuring jon batiste, ‘the music of john lewis’

There are five sterling minutes early into the “The Music of John Lewis,” a deeply satisfying new concert recording by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, where guest artist Jon Batiste gives the host ensemble a break in order to seek the spirit of a gentle jazz giant on his own. What results is a sublime solo reading of “Django,” one of Lewis’ many signature tunes with the Modern Jazz Quartet from over a half century ago. For the composer it was an ode to the famed gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and reflected an inherent sense of swing with the kind of reserved elegance only Lewis could summon. In Baptiste’s version, the song becomes a more global travelogue criss-crossing between its Euro-classical heritage and Americanized struts through New Orleans, a region Baptiste and Jazz at Lincoln Center trumpeter/musical director Wynton Marsalis know well.

Marsalis and the Orchestra, perhaps more than any other nationally recognized jazz performance institution, are scholars at presenting retrospective primer programs designed to enlighten new generations to the career works of jazz masters without making the music sound stuffy or overly academic. But they are really in their element when they veer off more obvious stylistic paths. Lewis and the MJQ were hardly hermits, but with all of the group members long deceased, its sound now falls in danger of being forgotten. What a quietly glorious sound it was, too. Its music was the epitome of jazz cool and refinement with a novel instrumental design of piano, vibraphone bass and drums.

As usual, Marsalis and the Orchestra don’t set out to recreate the music, especially in terms of arrangements. For instance, the slinky turns of clarinet by Victor Goines introducing the album opening quintet reading of  “2 Degrees East, 3 Degrees West” suggests a blues variation on Gershwin (an inspiration that later plays out far more literally on “Delaunay’s Dilemma”) before guest guitarist Doug Wamble sets the blues in stone with a wiry, heavily atmospheric solo. Batiste then enters bearing a beautifully channeled inhabitation of Lewis’ piano grace.

The Orchestra’s dynamics later set up an animated exchange between Batiste and Marsalis during “Piazza Navona” that leap frogs between ensemble swing and more pastoral reprieves.

It should be noted that the performance from which “The Music of John Lewis” was taken was presented in January 2013, a full 2 ½ years before Batiste’s career broke open with his nightly television residency as bandleader for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” This recording shows how complete an artist Batiste already was by rescuing the repertoire of a stylist being edged closer to jazz oblivion and subsequently providing the music a new platform for a new generation. The results are sublime.

allan holdsworth, 1946-2017

allan holdsworth,

What defines greatness in a rock guitarist? Is it speed? Intensity? Histronics? Is it an elemental understanding and construction of a groove? Is it a combination fashioned to cultivate an image or simply convey an emotion?

For Allan Holdsworth, who died on Saturday at the age of 70, none of that was entirely the case. For this veteran British prog and fusion stylist, his decades-long career was about developing a voice of his own for an instrument that superseded all the clichéd rock star profiles many guitarists subscribed to. Holdsworth could play with the speed and potency that everyday guitar heroes viewed as virtues. But by the time he was gigging with the pioneering prog band Soft Machine as far back 1974, Holdsworth had developed a voice that was uncompromisingly distinct– one that continually stretched tone and technique through winding lyrical phrases that always packed a strong emotive jolt without ever sounding forced.

For the remainder of the ‘70s, Holdsworth cultivated that voice as a hired gun guitarist for, in quick succession, the New Tony Williams Lifetime, Jean-Luc Ponty, UK and Bruford. Though he continued with a prolific career of his own during the ‘80s that highlighted the MIDI-controlled synthaxe, it was Holdsworth’s collaborative sets with the latter two artists that, for me, defined the beauty of his playing.

On UK’s 1978 self-titled album, his solos were astounding not because of flash or indulgence, but for the opposite. They were vignettes of concise, complete construction that yielded a sense of exquisitely contained drama. His solo during “In the Dead of Night” stands as an ideal example. With Bruford 1979’s album “One of a Kind,” one of the era’s most tastefully crafted prog albums, his work served as a consistently complimentary color to the playing of drummer Bill Bruford, keyboardist Dave Stewart and bassist Jeff Berlin.

The last decade produced little by way of new music, although the 2002 concert album “All Night Wrong” stands as a wonderful trio band primer on the tone, power and expression that provided Holdsworth’s guitar voice such a rich musical vocabulary.

“Allan Holdsworth’s unique contribution to the electric guitar is unquantifiable,” said fellow guitar pioneer Steve Vai in a Facebook post yesterday, “I remember him saying to me once that his goal was to create a catalog of music that was undiluted. Well, that he did.”

various artists “outlaw: celebrating the music of waylon jennings”

Remember after Johnny Cash died when scores of country celebs started donning “Cash” t-shirts in an effort to assert what a personal and heartfelt influence he was even though their newest albums sounded like warmed over Jimmy Buffett records?

Well, on “Outlaw: Celebrating the Music of Waylon Jennings,” a roster of more Americana inclined stylists and hardcore country traditionalists put their musical minds and souls where their wallets normally are. The record chronicles a 2015 tribute concert held for Waylon Jennings, the late Lone Star stylist and figurehead performer of the so-called “outlaw country” movement that ripped Nashville out of its bank of safe, self-pitying songs and tossed it onto the highway of life, along with all the danger elements that came with it.

Given the Buffett-ization of modern country, very few Nashville celebs inhabit “Outlaw,” although a few Kentucky ambassadors show no shyness in taking the wheel. Right out of the starting gate, Chris Stapleton detonates the party with “I Ain’t Living Long Like This,” the Rodney Crowell tune Jennings scored a major hit with in 1979. Not only do Stapleton’s unaffected but soul-saturated vocals cruise with consummate authority, the tune establishes in its first line what the whole outlaw movement, as well as Jennings’ ascent within it, was about. “I look for trouble and I found it, son – straight down the barrel of a lawman’s gun.”

Then on the accompanying DVD to “Outlaw,” another Kentucky renegade, Sturgill Simpson, slides with Southern dignity through the 1974 Lee Clayton-penned Jennings hit, “Memories of You and I.” Simpson has regularly discounted stylistic comparisons to Jennings, but the influence of the country icon’s slow smoked reflection is as regal as it is undeniable.

“Outlaw” also boasts fine performances by Robert Earl Keen (a beat crazy bust-up of “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”), Kacey Musgraves (a lovely, longing take on “The Wurtlizer Prize”), Jamey Johnson (on a gorgeously spacious and patient “Freedom to Stay”), Shooter Jennings (a dramatic barroom reading of “Whistlers and Jugglers”) and Alison Krauss (a stunning, graceful “Dreaming My Dreams of You” that sounds like it was written just for her).

But the whole party comes back to Kentucky when Willie Nelson and Stapleton team for one of the great duets the former cut with Jennings at the height of the Outlaw movement over four decades ago, “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.” Though age has begun to show some wear in Nelson’s voice (he was 81 at the time of this show, for crying out loud), his sense of steadfast soul remains undiminished. Hearing Stapleton beside him, full of a youthful brand of the same rustic spirit, makes “Outlaw” more than a simple tribute. It’s a righteous, roaring passing of the generational torch.

in performance: peter evans septet

Peter Evans Septet, from left: Levy Lorenzo, Peter Evans, Jim Black, Tom Blancarte, Mazz Swift, Ron Stabinsky and Sam Pluta.

“Start living.” That was the advice Peter Evans gave at the onset of his Outside the Spotlight performance earlier tonight at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center. Depending of your perspective, such a preface could be seen a sign of assuredness or an invitation to arrogance. Perhaps fittingly, the music the New York trumpeter unveiled in the 80 minute program that followed was a bit of both.

To begin with, the entire concert consisted of one extended, untitled (or, at least, unannounced) piece that balanced composed sections with improvisational passages that ebbed and flowed with the sometimes weighty involvement of the former approach and the more intriguing spaciousness of the latter.

The primary exponents introduced early in the set were electronics – the kinds of oscillating, neo-industrial colors that gave the performance a seething pulse at some points and a more intrusive, robotic feel at others that flew in the face of the more organic improvisations. That two of the septet players were devoted to these designs – Levy Lorenzo (who doubled on percussion) and Sam Pluta with a keyboardist, Rob Stabinsky, who regularly dabbled on synths – might suggest textures of sounds were in the making. But with few exceptions, the electronics had a largely leaden feel.

In direct contrast was violinist Mazz Swift, bassist Tom Blancarte and, to a lesser extent, Evans himself, whose collective sounds morphed more readily as the work flirted between dissonance and groove. Swift was masterful at this, blending unobtrusively with the electronics but also creating an appealing harmony with Blancarte when the latter played with a bow.

It was especially interesting hearing Evans in this kind of setting, as the sounds he summoned on trumpet and piccolo trumpet (often in quick succession) seldom sought out the horns’ expected tonal range, favoring percussive punctures and breathy scratches just as often. But as the piece began to wind down, Evans let loose and soloed off a groove established by Swift, Blancarte and Lorenzo (on, of all things, triangle), largely shedding the cold electronic stagnation that often loaded down the septet for music that was lighter and more approachable, but no less adventurous.

After the many lulls, builds and deconstructions, the piece came to no apparent conclusion and stopped cold.

“We hoped we helped you,” Evans offered as a parting message, ending the evening in a manner just as offsetting as the one that started it.

 

j. geils, 1946-2017

J. Geils in 2011. Photo by Scott Legato / Getty Images.

The first time I heard the J. Geils Band was during those early ‘70s late night performance programs on TV – “Midnight Special,” “In Concert” and “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert,” to be exact. While it wasn’t the first champion roadhouse rock band to roll across the screen, it was one of the first – for me, at least – to have so many components of rock ‘n’ roll, in its most live and celebratory form, make sense when slammed together.

There was the outrageous frontman in Peter Wolf (a hotwired Boston hybrid of Mick Jagger and James Brown), a band with a tireless rhythm section bolstered by two monster soloists and a musical palette that took blues, R&B and juke joint influences from decades past and fashioned them into a roaring sound of its own. The results countered music cooked up by all the faux boogie-men of the era with a sense of combustible soul that quickly ignited in a performance setting.

Geils, who died yesterday at the age of 71, wasn’t even the focal point of the band that bore his name. That was undeniably Wolf. Geils wasn’t a showoff as a guitarist, either. As a rhythm player, he propelled a roots-savvy sound and the undeniable party atmosphere it triggered. As a soloist, he was always commanding in his playing. On several seminal ‘70s albums, especially 1973’s “Bloodshot” and “Ladies Invited” and 1974’s “Nightmares… and Other Tales from the Vinyl Jungle,” his playing was often the second half of a one-two punch initiated by the band’s other principal instrumentalist, harmonica ace Magic Dick. The last songs on each of those albums, “Give It To Me” (a 1973 hit built around an unlikely reggae groove), “Chimes” (a blast of funereal cool) and “Gettin’ Out” (one of the meanest sounding and most overlooked tunes the J. Geils Band ever cut), respectively, were diverse examples of how resourceful the group was. In short, the Geils crew could do battle with the most outrageous rockers of the era, but it also boasted the charisma, depth and drive to be something far greater.

Of course, stardom took hold of the band during the early ‘80s with the albums “Love Stinks” and “Freeze Frame.” Fun as both were, neither possessed the roots abandon of records Geils and company cut a decade earlier. Curiously, the next most appealing era of the guitarist’s career came in the ‘90s when he and Magic Dick toured in a jazz, blues and swing unit called Bluestime that purposely downplayed his rock roots but not the roots itself.

“We had a lot of fun and a fair amount of success in the old days, but I had gotten a little tired of it,” Geils told me in an interview prior to a Bluestime show at the Kentucky Horse Park in 1995. “I just want to make it clear that we’re not some rockers trying to capitalize on the blues boom. Any serious jazz or blues guy will tell you the same thing, that music like this is a lifelong journey. The more you learn, the more you learn how much you don’t know yet.”

critic’s pick: the sadies, ‘northern passages’

Before we run away with spring, let’s rewind for a moment so as to catch up with a delectable little recording that surfaced in early February. It comes to us from The Sadies, one of hippest acts out of the Great White North. Within its grooves are varying layers of country psychedelia, a sound the band and its sibling guitarists/singers Dallas and Travis Good have been perfecting for the past two decades. But lest you think some kind of askew musical regionalism is at work, consider the album’s title – “Northern Passages” and its cover art of the Aurora Borealis in full incandescent splendor. That’s when you know exactly where the allegiance of the Good brothers sits.

The thing is, “Northern Passages” carries with it a trait the most of the Sadies’ other nine studio albums possess – a musical lexicon of luscious contrasts. One moment it’s all hazy, plaintive country mystique (as on the album-opening “Riverview Fog”). Then as soon as you settle into a sense of reflection, the walls crash down with a pair of garage rock intrusions (“Another Season Again” and “There Are No Words”). The mood settles again as the Goods yield the floor to Kurt Vile for a guest lead vocal and co-write on “It’s Easy (Like Walking),” a tune sporting a dark hued but infectious chorus that sounds like Drive-By Truckers’ Mike Cooley in an after hours mood.

Musically, it all sounds like the Sadies have been soaking in inspiration from well below the Canadian border. But dig past the very appealing sounds and you discover storylines of less boundary-specific unrest. A case in point is the corrupted romance at the center of “The Good Years.” Under its storyline of liquor and drug-induced doom sits a country sentiment that doubles as a simple but crushing reality check (“She can’t miss a man she never knew”). Of course, the song’s musical atmosphere eschews anything remotely country – by contemporary standards, that is – for a dark, ominous shuffle. It’s the musical equivalent of a midnight drive along a deserted stretch of highway.

There are loads of other treats, as well, including the politically rooted “God Bless the Infidels,” a waltz that rips along with the cosmic country charm of the Byrds during the height of Clarence White’s electric tenure, and the brilliantly paced “Questions I’ve Never Asked,” which initially wears its country longing openly before erupting into a full psychedelic meltdown.

Servicing as an exquisite coda is the “The Noise Museum,” a instrumental rich in twang, reverb, guitar jangle and the kind of distant wordless vocalizing that suggests this ghost train roaring through Canada began somewhere in the ‘60s before arriving so gloriously in the here and now.

in performance: california guitar trio

california guitar trio: paul richards, hideyo moriya and bert lams.

“You are about to witness a very strange thing,” remarked Paul Richards as he, Bert Lams and Hideyo Moriya – collectively known as the California Guitar Trio – were about to embark on a journey down what was being promised as an unexpected musical offramp.

But little about the CGT could be considered an expectation – not the unassuming stage demeanor that offset a wildly versed and versatile technical command and certainly not the instrumental makeup of three acoustic guitars that last night at a packed but still intimate performance at the Kentucky Coffeetree Café in Frankfort mixed slyly subtle original works with tunes popularized by The Beatles, The Ventures, Ennio Morricone, The Shadows, J. S. Bach, Dave Brubeck and more. Not even the trio’s seemingly non-descript moniker revealed much. Though the CGT formed in California in 1991, its members hail from Utah, Belgium and Japan.

So what constituted “strange” in Richards’ estimation? Try the realization of the CGT taking on country music. But what unfolded wasn’t country by any contemporary definition. Instead, the resulting “Buckaroo” – the Bob Morris instrumental that became a huge 1965 hit for Buck Owens – stretched its vintage Bakersfield feel to approach jazz and swing. As with everything the CGT served up during its 90 minute program, the rendition was harmonically and compositionally complete without any semblance of a traditional rhythm section present as aid.

The stylistic moods would shift regularly, from Moriya’s spacious and gorgeously contemplative title tune off the trio’s new “Komorebi” album to a take on the 1962 Shadows’ surf hit “Wonderful Land” (complete with the choreographed “Shadow walk” that took the three even further away from their often stoic stage stance). But the CGT’s internal chemistry revealed itself time and time again, whether it was in the way Richards, Lams and Moriya effortlessly juggled lead melodies during original compositions like “The Marsh” and “Cherry Trees,” the manner in which the Bach “Prelude Circulation” was passed from one player to another a single note at a time or the blending of Astor Piazzolla tango inspirations with the modern minimalism of Philip Glass on the ultra clever mash-up “Glass Tango.”

But there were also remarkable dynamics at work. The evening’s most moving moment was also one of its quietest – a pastoral delivery of “Spiritual,” a Josh Haden work recorded by his late father, the great jazz bassist Charlie Haden. Working off a Lams solo that bowed briefly to the blues, the song moved with a slow, cyclical feel peppered by melodic phrases that sounded like chimes and/or chants. What emerged was a piece of subtle, sonic beauty that completely hushed the audience, especially as the tune concluded with an eerily natural sounding fadeout. It was a blissful gem of a moment slipped within a performance full of reserved and, yes, “strange” brilliance.

 

paul o’neill, 1956-2017

Paul O’Neill of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. (Jim Cooper, File AP Photo)

With the Trans-Siberian Orchestra becoming a near annual performance staple at Rupp Arena, so came frequent opportunities to interview Paul O’Neill. He wasn’t one of the ensemble’s principal performers. As far as I knew, he was never even at any of TSO’s Rupp appearances. O’Neill was instead the CEO of TSO, the sole brain trust of what had become a consistently strong selling touring act that merged metal, ‘70s-era prog and pure arena rock pageantry.

These were educational experiences, to say the least. An interview with O’Neill was largely a one-sided affair. A journalist’s question was essentially a point of ignition. Once asked, O’Neill would speak effortlessly, endlessly and informatively for the rest of the allotted time – and often beyond. He wasn’t being rude or inattentive to his interviewer. O’Neill simply knew the story he wanted to tell, whether it dealt with specifics about a particular TSO album or, with greater relish, his whole concept for TSO – a band he thought of in terms that were always large – large in personnel, large in audience attendance and especially large in terms of presentation.

“I wanted a band that could do anything, a band that could take the best of all the great acts that I worshipped – bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Queen – and have a marriage of classical and rock,” he told me in a 2009 interview. “I wanted to give a third dimension to the music.”

I’ll put my cards on the table here. I always thought of TSO as a glorified Spinal Tap. Their shows were exercises in quite purposeful excess that no review (or reviewer) could adequately describe. But as with bands like Kiss, whose shows TSO seemed to most closely emulate, fans were beyond devout. For them, what mattered was spectacle – something O’Neill’s TSO army always delivered, along with a serving of holiday sentiment that was as huge as the band’s overall presence.

It was hard not to enjoy the ride as O’Neill held court during interviews, offering outrageous stories like this 2009 yarn detailing how a TSO concert literally sucked the electric life out of The Meadowlands in New Jersey.

“About 15 minutes into the show, the stage goes dark. The production manager comes running over and goes, ‘Paul, we just blew the circuit breaker for the Meadowlands. I thought, ‘Really? Cool.’ It was one of the high points of my life.”

Or this tale, from a 2014 interview, when O’Neill recounted what triggered the inspiration for TSO’s double-platinum album “The Christmas Attic.”

“Well, the statute of limitations ran out on this a long time ago, so it’s okay to talk about. I think the technical term for it is breaking and entering.”

O’Neill died unexpectedly today at the age of 61. But there is no question that his vision for the TSO will remain larger than rock ‘n’ life for years to come.

“Ultimately, TSO is like any other living thing,” O’Neill told me in 2012. “It’s just that it’s musically driven as opposed to celebrity driven.”

critic’s pick: the doors, “the doors: 50th anniversary deluxe edition”

How integral was 1967 to the future of contemporary pop and rock music? To start with, consider the number of keystone artists who issued debut albums that year: Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, The Velvet Underground, Van Morrison, Sly and the Family Stone, Procol Harum, Traffic, Cat Stevens, The Nice, Ten Years After, Tangerine Dream, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Captain Beefheart and Arlo Guthrie.

Oh yes – and The Doors. Four days into the year, the self-titled debut by Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore surfaced, the product of a Los Angeles scene out to counter the psychedelic invention emanating up north out of San Franscisco.

Though re-issued several times since then, “The Doors” has been spruced up once more in a spiffy boxed set package. The components are a disc of the album’s original stereo mix (previously available), its original mono mix (previously unavailable, save for a limited vinyl edition issued in 2010), a new vinyl pressing (of the mono mix) and a new, truncated version of “Live at the Matrix” (more on than in a moment).

Audiophiles will likely argue until the next millennium about the specific virtues of the stereo vs. mono mixes. To my ears, mono always wins out. But listening to both, one after the other, affirmed what a masterfully produced record “The Doors” was. You hear that in the way Manzarek’s jazzy organ intro and Morrison’s near-baritone vocal suggest cool before the hullabaloo explodes on the opening “Break on Through.” But the effect is as much a credit to the precision of producer Paul Rothchild and engineers Bruce Botnick and Doug Sax. Ditto for the way the band and production crew team to capture the 12 minute psyche-fest finale “The End,” a descent into the pop maelstrom that likely scared the daylights out of every unsuspecting parent that heard it blaring from their kids’ stereos.

The “Live at the Matrix” disc is the curiosity. Rhino first issued it in a more complete form in 2008, but with audio quality barely above bootleg level. This version, though limited to eight songs (performed in the order they appear on “The Doors”) boasts considerably sharper quality. Still, hearing Morrison and company perform rampaging groove-a-thons like “Soul Kitchen” and unnerving meditations like “The Crystal Ship” as an unknown act before an audience that offered little more then perfunctory applause is peculiar indeed.

If “The Doors” was the sound of a raging tempest, this cleaned up “Live at the Matrix” presents us with the gathering storm. A half century later, both stand as documents of a juggernaut band whose vitality, influence and importance have only grown more brilliant.

critic’s picks: tedeschi trucks band, ‘live from the fox oakland’; gary clark jr., ‘live/north america 2016’

Live recordings can be many things. They can help fill the void between studio projects, they can fulfill obligations of a recording contract or, if enough thought and purpose is provided, they can reveal the immediacy and dynamics of an artist in ways studio albums strive to but seldom achieve.

Two wonderful new live albums by Tedeschi Trucks Band and Gary Clark Jr. opt for the latter. Both are vital documents of artists that thrive in a concert setting but also serve as statements by new generation artists favoring a soul, blues and rock blend born out of the 1960s. It should also be noted that TTB’s “Live from the Fox Oakland” and Clark’s “Live/North America 2016” are the second concert recordings by both acts, so they are well versed in preserving a live performance for posterity.

On the surface, one might also surmise these works represent the live adventures of gifted guitar stylists. While that certainly holds true for Derek Trucks’ playing throughout “Live from the Fox Oakland,” from the bright Southern soul struts draping “Don’t Drift Away” to his learned jazz excursion during a tripped out raga reading of George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You,” there is so much more happening in these grooves. Topping the ingredients are the vocals of Susan Tedeschi and Mike Mattison, the colors of brass and vocal trios and a cumulative sensibility that makes TTB sound like an astute hybrid of Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” band and Sly and the Family Stone.

The highlights include a gospel friendly version of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire” (from a performance given two months prior to the master songsmith’s death last fall) and the 14 minute version of the soul savvy tent revival party piece “I Want More” that morphs through passages of Traffic-like psychedelics before falling back to earth with the closing groove of Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice.”

It’s only natural that Clark’s “Live/North America 2016” focuses more succinctly on guitar play as he is one of the decade’s more heralded successors to Jimi Hendrix’s brand of electric mayhem. Though echoes of Hendrix surface frequently, Clark is no imitator. The opening “Grinder” suggests the late ‘60s/early ‘70s with its hazy, purposeful groove. But the record later veers onto expressways of vintage soul via Clark’s sleek falsetto during “Cold Blooded” and a summit with guest vocalist Leon Bridges on “Shake” (not the Otis Redding classic, but an original and far grimier rumble).

Best of all, Clark doesn’t overplay here the way he did on his earlier studio records. A marked maturity reveals itself in the heavy but purposeful grind of “When My Train Pulls In” and a righteously ragged solo take on Elmore James’ “My Baby’s Gone” that beautifully validates Clark’s ascension to guitar rock royalty.

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