Sunday, May 16, 2010

Chick Corea with Hubert Laws @ Blue Note, May 13, 2010

The fact that Chick Corea can pack New York’s Blue Note club for 24 shows over a two-week period is firm proof, if any was needed, that he remains a jazz superstar. The theme was ‘Further Explorations of Bill Evans’ and Corea had for the occasion put together a trio with two important Evans alumni: Paul Motian played drums with the pianist’s legendary trio since 1959 till 1964; Eddie Gomez became the chosen bass player for Evans in 1966 and stayed with the maestro for eleven years recording a number of classic trio and duo recordings.

On selected evenings of this month’s Blue Note gig, the trio was supplemented by stellar guest artists, such as Joe Lovano, Greg Osby and John Scofield. I timed my concert going to the evening when the guest soloist was the flutist Hubert Laws, an early hero since I was a boy back in Helsinki. This was actually the first time I’d ever heard Laws live, as the gentleman is not a frequent sight at even New York’s best and foremost jazz venues. Apart from having had an outstanding career as a studio musician and the preferred flautist to producers such as Quincy Jones, Laws has released some twenty records under his own name (many of them, I must admit, fall under the category of smooth jazz, some borderline schmaltz). He has also played solo flute with top-notch classical orchestras, such as the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. His records Afro-Classic and The Rite of Spring, released in 1970 and 1972 respectively, in which he combined his classical acumen with jazz arrangements, were cherished treasures to me when I was studying the flute.

So I was appropriately excited when the band walked down the stairs of the legendary West Village club onto the stage in front of a packed audience. Corea, who will turn 69 in June, appeared as boyish and communicative as ever. He stood up to introduce the band—each member of which has been a leader in his own right—including Laws with whom he said he’d been buddies since the 1960s. Then he simply announced that, “This is a jam session. We’re going to start with something.” He sat behind the piano and started a lively solo, which the band joined in after just a brief intro. Laws initially took the lead melody but the band soon settled into a mood that would permeate the evening.

While all of the players are virtuosos in their instruments, none of them would dominate. The music was distinctly characterized by collective interplay where all players would closely listen to each other and keenly react to impulses emanating from their band mates. Throughout the concert, Paul Motian would keep a low profile avoiding any flashy displays, rather sensitively contributing to the music with delicate accents. The music played this evening would be light as a feather.

After the first tune, Corea and Laws apparently felt that the flute microphone wasn’t turned high enough in the mix. The leader got up and told the soundman in a thick fake foreign accent, “The flute player need more flute.” Once the volume was adjusted, Corea continued joking, “The flute player will now play solo flute.”

What followed was one of the high points of the evening for me. The piano led the band into a light medium waltz, which I soon recognized as the familiar and wonderful Bill Evans piece ‘Waltz for Debby’ from half a century ago. Laws played the lovely melody with a beautiful tone. With Hubert Laws, you don’t expect vocalizing or any of the other gimmicks so common with many jazz flutists; just smooth and beautiful playing with a fluid technique. His tone is thick like Gazzelloni’s and his double and triple tonguing as facile as Rampal’s. Indeed, Laws’ flute playing sounds so light and easy that it belies the complexity and skill.

Next, Corea explained that they would now try to play a Bill Evans tune that they had just discovered on a tape and transcribed this week. He said shrugging that it had simply been titled ‘Song #1’ on the tape. It turned out to be an exquisite ballad with a melody that fit perfectly the band’s harmonic combination of flute, piano and bass.

The next number was introduced by Gomez skilfully bowing his bass in a classically-inspired solo, which at times sounded like a cello as he climbed high on neck. The solo then morphed into a dramatic tango rhythm into which the rest of the band joined. This to me would be the second high point of the show. The band explored the piece from various angles and in his solo Corea himself brought out the unmistakably Moorish roots of the Argentinean music. The atmosphere intensified, as the players ventured outside of the strictures of the genre, the Puerto Rican born bass player slapping the strings before switching back to his French style bow, again bringing order to the dance.

The remaining two numbers were more mainstream jazz. Hubert Laws played both somewhat unusually on a piccolo. The first, a medium swing, was light and good humoured. Finally, a fast be-bop version of the standard ‘What is This Thing Called Love?’ brought the concert to a satisfying close.

Yukari @ Tea Lounge, 21 April 2010

Flute is my thing, so when I learn about new flutists on the scene I always head out to check them out. Yukari has been around for a while and has actually produced several CDs under her own name (the latest one, Dreams, is just about to be released and features recording artists such as Greg Osby). I’ve heard her play in bands and in a private party. Recently I’ve also come to know her personally. However, I had never heard her own band live before I listened to her at the Tea Lounge in Brooklyn last month. It has to be said that she is very versatile and plays many kinds of music—from jazz to pop to classical—so the Brooklyn performance was but one example of her many sides.

The Tea Lounge in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighbourhood is an eclectic place with a variety of comfy sofas for folks to lounge in and a well stocked bar (‘tea’ in this case has to be understood more broadly than just referring to the stuff brewed from the leaves of the evergreen bush grown in Asian highlands). When I entered from the rain outside, the place was already crowded, so I settled into the bar to wait for my buddy Nanthi to arrive. Not all people in the spacious joint were there for the musical experience, but as the evening wore on I noticed that a solid following had gathered at the back of the room where the band would play.

Tonight’s band consisted of a trio, with Yukari on the flute, Mike Pride on drums and Peter Bitenc on double bass. The two lengthy sets remained interesting throughout despite the limited instrumentation and no-one providing chordal accompaniment. This of course is testimony to the creativity of the players. Yukari herself is a highly skilled flautist. Since moving to New York from her native Japan, Yukari studied at the Manhattan School of Music and has played with many of the city’s premier young jazz players.

The repertoire of the evening ranged from free improvisation to be-bop tinged contemporary pieces. Most were Yukari’s own compositions, although one or two standards made it into the mix, including one Ellington ballad, which showcased the flutist’s beautiful sound. The mood in the dimly lit cozy café was warm and enthusiastic as the audience witnessed the performance of this highly original new force in jazz flute.

Tomasz Stánko New Quintet @ Birdland, April 13, 2010

In Europe, Tomasz Stanko is a legend. The Polish trumpeter has been around as a composer and band leader in the forefront of modern jazz since the 1960s. He made it big in the 1970s when he co-led a highly innovative orchestra with the late Finnish percussionist Edward Wesala. When my friends and I headed to the famous Birdland club on a mid-April evening, I wasn’t sure what to expect and whether the audiences on this side of the Atlantic would be equally familiar with Stanko. I needn’t have worried. While the place wasn’t exactly packed, most of the tables were filling up quickly. I could hear Polish and Finnish spoken.

Tomasz Stanko is often compared to Miles Davis, whom he is also said to admire. There are distinct similarities in their rather sparse and thoughtful style of playing, Another particular parallel between the two is that both musicians have been known to be sharp-eyed scouts and cultivators of new talent. Stanko’s new quintet that he brought to New York consisted of four young Nordics joining the leader: two Finns—Alexi Tuomarila on piano and Olavi Louhivuori on drums—and two Danes—Jakob Bro on guitar and Anders Christensen on electric bass. As we would find out, the band was already very cohesive and created its own distinct sound around Stanko’s compositions.

The concert basically featured songs from the new Tomasz Stanko Quintet CD, Dark Eyes, released on ECM in 2009. Stanko stood in his tennis shoes at the centre of the stage wearing a hat and all grey clothing. He would not once communicate verbally with the audience during the concert, which started with the rubato theme of ‘So Nice’ played in unison by trumpet, piano and guitar. The piece would then gradually break up into a slow and lyrical solo by Tuomarila, his playing clearly reminiscent of Keith Jarrett.

The rubato melody starting a song, often played in unison, is a Stanko trademark and several numbers in the concert followed that formula. Stanko’s melodies contain a haunting beauty. His music is introspective and rather dark, belying his Slavic background. It is definitely northern European and perfectly fits the ethereal ECM trademark sound. This doesn’t mean that Stanko’s music doesn’t have a groove. On the contrary. But it is different from the blues based harmonies and syncopated rhythms of American jazz.

Alexi Tuomarila received the first real applause of the evening following a crisp and thoughtful solo that reminded me of the playing of another ECM pianist, Richie Beirach. After a couple of more soft tunes which Louhivuori backed with brushes, the band started a tune based on a one note bass pick. Bro played a Scofield-inspired solo on his Telecaster on top of the vamp. Then the trumpet entered with a high growl that was the most exuberant that Stanko had played thus far in the evening. An inspired piano solo followed and the temperature in the room rose noticeably.

This was followed with yet another rubato passage with a unison theme by the entire band. Then Tuomarila started a vamp in the lower section of the piano. The drums followed with an enthusiastic, light but steady beat on top of which the trumpet and guitar played a catchy melody. This was ‘Grand Central’, perhaps the most memorable piece in the entire evening.

My friend Nanthi commented how he was startled to discover similarities in the tonalities and rhythms of Stanko’s Slavic dances with those of his own native Sri Lanka. This was a new connection to me as well.

The next tune, ‘Samba Nova’, continued in similarly festive mood. It started with a long rubato segment before settling into a soft bossa nova rhythm. Louhivuori’s light and nuanced percussions ensured there was not a dull moment. The tune provided one of the rare opportunities in the evening for Jakob Bro to solo. His guitar solo was clean with no gimmickry.

‘The Dark Eyes of Martha Hirsch’, a slow tune with oriental overtones brought a new twist to the repertoire. It highlighted the baseball cap wearing Anders Christensen, who played an oddly low keysolo on his bass guitar. His sound was quite without resonance and the solo left me cold. Apparently, both of the Danes see their role as adding to the sound of the band, rather than shining as soloists. Both seem to approach their stringed instruments more from an intellectual rather than emotional perspective.

Another one chord romp followed. Then came a tune with an actual straight jazz rhythm and walking bass plucked by Christensen on his electric instrument. The solos by Stanko, Bro and Tuomarila were short and controlled. This was one of the most enjoyable moments of the concert.

Clearly some of the most inspired playing this evening (and I’m not saying this as their compatriot) came from the Finns. Louhivuori’s percussions were sensitive and musical throughout the evening and, at best, his beats were truly intense. The most sparkling solos were no doubt provided by the young Tuomarila who increasingly found his own style as the evening progressed. He follows in the intellectual tradition of Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, thoughtfully developing his solos with a beautiful sense of melody. He also possesses an admirable technical facility.

All in all, this was a beautiful and satisfying concert, but despite the intensity of the faster jams there was strangely little what could be described as ‘physical’. Although the program was paced with the quiet segments intercepting the upbeat sections with fine solos, I afterwards found it difficult to distinguish between the different pieces. That was probably the intention, to create a whole that flows seamlessly from one part to the next. Stanko melodies have great brooding beauty, which make even the more joyous romps feel a bit melancholy. I do think that his new quintet is one of the more cohesive and interesting working bands around these days. And that’s a lot.