The Boston Phoenix December 28, 2000 - January 4, 2001

[Music Reviews]

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Jazz tangents

Local jazz -- year in review

by Jon Garelick

Uri's Bach. Pianist Uri Caine -- following on similar projects with the music of Mahler, Wagner, and Schumann -- here attacks The Goldberg Variations (Winter & Winter). Working with Bach's 32-bar "Aria" as if it were a pop song, Caine apparently invited every jazz pal he could think of, plus a couple of seasoned Baroque ensembles, and played variations on top of Bach's own. In the span of two CDs he goes for all the variety of affect and emotion implied in the original. Where Bach wrote a gigue, Caine invited DJ Olive in for some drum 'n' bass; where Bach writes after Vivaldi, Caine writes after Mozart, Verdi, and Louis Armstrong. The "harmonic grid" of the "Aria" gives the set an all-over unity; no matter how far afield they stray, all the pieces are short; and Caine's various "bands" dig with authority into whatever they're assigned (check the post-bop ripping by Ralph Alessi and Greg Osby, and Caine plays all the keyboards). Despite this project's length and breadth, it's as light as a Viennese pastry, with rewarding details at every turn.

Don's Argument. Regular bandmates Byron and Caine are on each other's albums, but clarinettist Byron's A Fine Line: Arias & Lieder (Blue Note) is the inverse of Caine's Bach. Instead of playing infinite variations on one piece, Byron plays the broadest variety of pieces possible, but with a unified concept. Canadian mezzo-soprano Patricia O'Callaghan sings Leonard Bernstein's coloratura romp from Candide, "Glitter and Be Gay," but also Stevie Wonder's "Creepin'." Jazz diva Cassandra Wilson gives the finest recorded performance of her career on Sondheim's "The Ladies Who Lunch." And Byron saves some of the finest "vocal" turns for his own reeds: the Four Tops' "Reach Out I'll Be There," Puccini's "Nessun dorma," Schumann's "Zwielicht." Casting against type, Byron makes one of his boldest statements yet.

the year in review

art - classical - cultural explosions - dance - film
film culture - fiction - jazz - internet - law - local rock
local punk and metal - nonfiction - queer - pop
protest - theater - tv

Roswell Rudd Roswell's return. The grand trombone buffo of jazz, Roswell Rudd, now 65, returned to the scene on two fronts, recording a major-label debut with his old running buddy, soprano-saxist Steve Lacy (Monk's Dream, on Verve), and his own Broad Strokes (Knitting Factory). The former brought Rudd and Lacy to the Regattabar for a stirring live show. By our count, Broad Strokes failed only in one dubious vocal performance; otherwise it showed Roswell in all his glory -- as a composer and arranger (check the singular Ellingtonia of "All Too Soon/Way Low"), as an experimenter (with Sonic Youth on the Saint-Saëns-derived "Theme from Babe,"), and as a big-hearted soloist whose blues are as deep as his comedy.

James Carter Cartesian logic. Over the past decade, young multi-reed maniac James Carter has been intent on proving that he can do it all -- play more horns in more styles and with more authority than anyone else on the scene. The simultaneous release of Chasin' the Gypsy and Layin' in the Cut may have been a stunt, but the music wasn't. The former is a tribute to Gypsy jazz-guitar great Django Reinhardt, the latter an Ornette-styled harmolodic-tinged electric jazz-funk blowout. Both showed off not only Carter's chops (from the deepest bottom of his biggest bass saxophone to the tippity top of his clarinet) but also his musicality: his arranging skill and his acumen for picking the right horn for the tune and getting to the heart of it. At Scullers, Carter's electric outfit was fearless in a show of "free" jazz that was on a par with the best plugged-in squalls from Miles and Ornette.

Jim & Joe. In a world full of derring-do guitarslingers, Jim Hall -- in his soft-spoken, understated way -- proved once again that he is the hippest of them all. In January he recorded with a superstar quartet (the line-up included tenor-saxophonist Joe Lovano) at the Regattabar. In the fall, Telarc released Grand Slam: Live at the Regattabar, and it confirmed everything we'd heard: complex, playful structures with surprising starts-and-stops; sharp rhythmic and harmonic left turns; a tribute to Hall's other famous sax partner, Sonny Rollins ("Say Hello to Calypso"), and a Lovano piece that out-Ornette's Ornette ("Feel Free"). Soloing or comping, Hall was everywhere, opening new directions in the music, completing it. And if that wasn't enough, he more than held his own with the up-to-the-minute quintet on Greg Osby's The Invisible Hand (Blue Note).

Fifteen and counting. After a couple years off, bandleader Russ Gershon reconvened his Either/Orchestra in time to celebrate their 15th anniversary with both a new line-up (including original members Tom Halter and Charlie Kohlhase) and a new album, More Beautiful Than Death (Accurate). In the past, Benny Moten, Sun Ra, Bob Dylan, and King Crimson have been among the varied sources for the band's original stew. Here it's relatively obscure North African pop that serves as the inspiration for the "Ethiopian Suite," a dancing conga line of counter-melodies and cross-rhythms that snakes its way through the album.

Dandy Andy. Andy Biskin's album title gets you part way there: Dogmental (GM). It's a tight group: the leader's clarinet plus trumpet, trombone, bass, and drums. But the sound is expansive and (that word again) comic. Imagine Weill oom-pah and the Stravinsky of L'histoire du soldat crashing into the Armstrong Hot Five on the parade ground or in the saloon. Rhythms march this way and that, fox-trot into a chair, climb the walls. But that doesn't account for the intricacy of detail in the arrangements (the perfect matchings of woodwind and brass) or the wonderful straight jazz grooves (from bassist Ben Allison and drummer Matt Wilson). All eminently swinging and unfailingly tuneful.

Maria Schneider Maria! Former Gil Evans protégée Maria Schneider is an unabashed student of the master, and sometimes it's seemed she'd never get beyond that. Indeed, the first chord of "Nocturne" on this year's Allégresse (enja) comes right out of Sketches of Spain. But after that she takes off: this is masterful orchestral jazz, with Evans's gorgeous pastels of reeds and low brass but Schneider's own sense of movement (indeed, she says dance was her initial inspiration for the album). Call the open harmonies impressionist, but her cloud formations of sound build and resolve in unexpected ways, and she deploys her soloists (especially pianist Frank Kimbrough and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen) beautifully. The longest piece here is 20 minutes, but they all fly with the supple shape and flexibility of pop tunes.

Top of the Hill. Andrew Hill's appearances on record have been sporadic since his '60s heyday as a pathbreaking pianist, composer, and bandleader on Blue Note. But Dusk (Palmetto) is a good indication of why he's revered among musicians and fans. The pieces for sextet here must be murderous to play: tricky time changes, "free" sections amid tightly arranged ensembles and unison passages (one tune is called "15/8," and Hill isn't kidding). Yet the inner workings that give these pieces their variety and depth reveal themselves only on close examination. On the surface you hear intensity produced through relaxed swing, ideal solo settings, various combinations and recombinations for brass and reeds, and incisive playing all around. And then there's Hill: as rhythmically and harmonically idiosyncratic as Monk, with his own halting, soulful, conversational phrasing.

Live! Sometimes a record is a poor document indeed. On first listen, bassist Charlie Haden's The Art of the Song (Verve) seemed to indulge all the weaknesses of his Quartet West conception -- the "American songbook" of a vaguely noirish Hollywood cast carried to a string-enhanced elevator-music extreme. But on stage as part of the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival last May, Haden, his Quartet, and an ensemble of freelance Boston string players pulled off one of the great concert events of the year. Alan Broadbent's arrangements brought compositional steel to every romantic sigh and whisper, singer Bill Henderson's readings of Haden/Arthur Hamilton originals gave them true songbook-era depth, and when Haden himself sang the gospel "Wayfaring Stranger" from his position at the back of the Sanders Theatre stage, it was as though the 62-year-old jazz legend and the boy who sang on his family's country radio show had become one.

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