The Ocular Concern – “Sister Cities”

July 28, 2014


Ocular Concern - "Sister Cities"At the heart of Sister Cities, the new release by The Ocular Concern, is the four-part suite which lends the album its name.  Sister Cities touches upon the theme of a modern world with increasingly fuzzier boundaries, with the quartet’s Portland, Oregon home as the glue that binds it up.  Of equal relevance is that the theme is analogous to the music itself.  Contemporary music of complex structures and infinite details, it lends itself to no one influence, except in fleeting moments.

There’s some voicing of the tango form on “The Island Milonga,” though approached more with the indie-rock flavor of Calexico than, say, a more traditional expression on recent releases by Latin Jazz artist Mark Weinstein’s Todo Corozon or Julio Botti’s Tango Nostalgias or even the innovative Line Kruse’s approach on Dancing on Air.  And the use of African mbira on the ephemeral “Ghost Town City Council” is eclipsed by the song’s opening indie-rock twang and its hard rock burly outro.  There’s also the chamber music opening to “Portland In Reverse” and how it intermittently cedes to the singular modern jazz influence of a Todd Sickafoose Tiny Resistors.

And that’s the jumping off point to what makes Sister Cities so damn successful.  Todd Sickafoose was one of the early innovators to this new style of contemporary music that calls Jazz home but travels to so many genres that home is simply wherever the ensemble briefly lays down its notes.  The key to moving in complex directions from genre to genre with a whirlwind of motion that it all seems to blend together is the quality of its melodies, and the way in which they are stamped onto the listener’s attention during the intro, the conclusion, and some well-timed spots in between.

Sister Cities is dotted with its shifting tides of influences and expressions, but it’s the album’s well-crafted, thoughtful, quirky melodic statements that makes this music supremely affable and an effortless listen.

Your album personnel:  Dan Duval (electric guitar, toy piano), Andrew Oliver (electric piano, percussion), Stephen Pancerev (drums), Lee Elderton (clarinet), Nathan Beck (vibraphone, mbira), and guests:  Erin Furbee (violin), Brian Quincey (viola), Justin Kagan (cello), and Alex Krebs (bandoneon).

Released on PJCE.

Jazz from the Portland, Oregon scene.

Available at:  Bandcamp | CDBaby | Amazon MP3


Sunna Gunnlaugs & Maarten Ornstein – “Tear”

July 27, 2014


Today’s featured video is from the duo of Sunna Gunnlaugs and Maarten Ornstein, performing the song “Tear,” live at Splendor Amsterdam in May of 2014.

On her Twitter account, Gunnlaugs hinted that this duo collaboration might result in a future recording.  Let’s hope.

Your video personnel:  Sunna Gunnlaugs (piano) and Maarten Ornstein (bass clarinet).


Have a great Sunday!


Another “Jazz is Dead” column? Just copy-and-paste this…

July 26, 2014


BitW square avatarI’m as tired as anyone from the occasional, random columns, both on blogs and, shamefully, in conventional news sources, typically entitled something to the effect of “Jazz is Dead.”


I encounter way too many excellent new jazz recordings to believe that statement to be anything but a whole lot of fuck-all.

Every week I’m highlighting outstanding new recordings, which serve to illustrate the breadth and variation of expressions that call Jazz its home.  Some of them are forward-thinking, while some of them are rooted firmly in the Jazz of Today, and then others immerse themselves lovingly into the Jazz traditions that serve as the foundation and lineage on which Jazz continues to grow… and thrive.

These Jazz musicians I listen to and spotlight on this site (and on Wondering Sound), I want them all to have huge financial success and be able to focus solely on their art.  But their ability to do so isn’t an indicator of the medium’s spirit.  It’s the music itself.  And if a columnist proclaiming that Jazz is dead is citing commercial considerations or just revealing a lack of knowledge of the music that’s out there, then that’s got nothing to do with Jazz… it’s a sign that the columnist doesn’t have a clue about where to look for signs of life.

I give a pretty good rant.  On a lot of subjects, really, but when it comes to music, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I have strong feelings about these “Jazz is Dead” columns.

But I just got left in the shade.

A recent visit to the AllAboutJazz forums had me fall upon a post from forum member Alypius, who shot down the latest “Jazz is Dead” column, which somebody linked to on the forum.  It should be standard boilerplate response to any of those stupid columns.

This is pretty much the entire post word-for-word.  I removed a couple sentences and left off the opening and closing sentences, just because they were specific to the article in question and looked out of place when removed from that context.  And like I said, now it’s ready for you to copy-and-paste into the comments section of the next “Jazz is Dead” column you encounter.

Here it is:

Your essay is a real head-scratcher.  Man, I have to ask: Are you even listening? Are you really aware of the range of creativity going on out there? I find all such global hand-wringing tiresome. And it’s tiresome because it’s not true. I am not prone to rants, but hand-wringing such as what you have posted provoke them. Lack of innovation? Give me a break. There is a richness of creativity going on today that makes a lot of jazz of the past look staid and old-fashioned. There are rhythmic innovations, harmonic innovations, innovations in the choice and use of instruments, an unheard-of compositional richness, and dialogues with musics from across the planet.

You heard Steve Lehman? He’s drawing on compositional techniques from the cutting-edge of contemporary classical. Have you bothered to go and hear the Wayne Shorter Quartet perform recently — these mind-boggling hour-long fearless explosions of sound? Have you bothered to chart the ambitious and prolific career of Dave Douglas? John Zorn? Brad Mehldau? Heard Craig Taborn? Darcy James Argue? David Binney? William Parker & Hamid Drake? If you’ve actually heard any of these folks, you would not have the audacity to speak as you did. Lack of innovation? Please, give me a break.

Go dig out some of those 1960s LPs. In that supposed heyday of jazz, that supposed golden age, there were lots of copy-cat records. Lack of innovation abounded. In their defense, some of those guys were just trying to make ends meet in a tough economic environment. What is different today is not the creativity. It’s the abysmal state of music industry. Jazz artists have very, very few clubs to play. They get virtually no publicity for latest ventures. They certainly get no support from record companies. Don’t rose-color the past: artists really struggled back then too.

You ever actually read a history of jazz? The biggest jazz audiences were during the fusion era when Miles Davis played rock festivals like the Isle of Wight. It wasn’t just Miles’ musical creativity. He was very gutsy in terms of his business decisions — for instance, figuring out how in the late 1950s to move from Prestige to Columbia, then later throwing his venerable jazz legacy to the wind by embracing electric trends and working with Bill Graham and the rock scene. By the way, some people are pretty critical of the “creativity” of the fusion era — exactly the period when jazz had, numerically speaking, its biggest audiences. As for today, many of the economic issues faced by creative jazz artists are, often enough, the very same ones that plague creative classical artists and plague creative rock artists: people don’t seem willing to pay to listen to music any more. Creativity abounds — but it doesn’t pay.

Let me go back to the beginning of my rant: Are you listening?


Here’s a LINK to the original discussion thread on the AllAboutJazz forum.  After some downtime, it appears that they are back up and running.  This thread was one of the first things I came upon since checking back in on the AAJ forum.  It gave me a real chuckle, and reminded me of why forums like that need to be supported… just a great environment to shoot the breeze about this music.

Speaking of which, Alypius has put in some serious sweat work on that forum developing a very cool resource, the discussion thread entitled “Playlists for Newcomers to Jazz.”  You can find it HERE.

In honor of Alypius’s post, here’s a track from one of his favorite albums of the year thus far, from Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band, the album Mother’s Touch

And here’s a link to an album review I wrote on this site.


Andrés Thor – “Nordic Quartet”

July 25, 2014


Andres Thor - "Nordic Quartet"Andrés Thor made a statement in 2012.  For Mónókróm, he utilized an unconventional array of guitars… the standard electric, the occasionally seen acoustic, but also string sets like dobro, lap steel, and pedal steel… instruments rarely seen on jazz albums.  He did this while also serving up a Nordic version of a Bill Frisell Americana recording.  Mónókróm found the space to offer up tunes that ranged from drifting tranquilly to those with a tight catchiness sure to grab the attention of plenty of ears along the way. It was a strong moment.

His 2014 release shows that the moment hasn’t ended.

Nordic Quartet has Thor scaling back on the guitar arsenal, sticking primarily to electric and pedal steel.  Two benefits come from this decision.  One, it allows him more time to express himself with nuance on lap steel and electric guitars… doing more with less and sidestepping the risk of spreading himself thin on too many instruments.  The other benefit is that the album displays a greater cohesiveness, which allows the quartet to stretch out further down different avenues, especially in terms of melodic development.

The other big change for this recording is switching out piano for woodwinds.  Bringing in Anders Lønne Grønseth for this session provides a different kind of foil for Thor’s guitars, and the melodic sparks that fly between the deep sigh of bass clarinet and the bright optimism of electric guitar (“Basic”) are exceeded only by the harmonic loveliness afforded by the partnership between tenor sax and pedal steel (“Komodo”).

On his newest, Thor sheds the Frisellian Americana influence.  It is difficult to deduce whether this shift in sound allowed him the opening to bring in new personnel and instrumentation or if, instead, the changes were necessitated by his vision for the new project.  Perhaps some of both.  There is also the roots of the artists themselves.  With completely different personnel comprising the quartet for his new recording, the mix of regional influences of Thor’s native Iceland and those of the other quartet members (from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway) are going to inform this music at varying degrees.

The distant warmth and hint of sadness on “Fjarðarmáni” are indicative of the music’s Icelandic roots.  The gentle melancholia of “Sea” can be traced back to Grenseth’s Norway.  The flashes of straight-ahead jazz on “Utilforladelig” would be a fine fit for the Swedish scene.  The playful “Squiek” embraces the quirky experimentalism of the Danish scene.

And while the Frisell influence is gone, it doesn’t prevent Thor from shaping a folk-jazz recording out of Nordic Quartet.  Even the four referenced locations aren’t sufficient to represent the wholeness of the album’s expressions.  “Stuttlega” could just as well be an alternate track to Plainville, saxophonist Jeremy Udden’s Northeastern, USA vision of modern folk-jazz, and the bounce and flutter of opening track “Butterfly” could easily partner up with music from Pete Robbins’ Transatlantic Quartet (NYC modern jazz which, also, has some Copenhagen roots).

Whatever the inspiration for the changes, Nordic Quartet is a compelling next step, and a fine reason to be optimistic for what’s to come.

Your album personnel:  Andrés Thor (electric guitar, acoustic guitar, pedal steel guitar), Anders Lønne Grønseth (tenor & soprano saxophone, bass clarinet), Andreas Dreier (double bass), and Erik Nylander (drums, drum machine).

Released on Nordic Notes.

Jazz from the Reykjavík, Iceland scene.

Available at:  Bandcamp | Amazon CD

(Note: Andres Thor also goes by the name Andrés Þór.  The alternate spelling of the name is a matter of convenience for the English-centric keyboard and databases.)

(Note:  If additional retail links become available, I’ll add them later.)

Andres Thor - "Mónókróm"And here’s a LINK to a Bird is the Worm review of Mónókróm, which, as you can probably tell, I highly recommend.  And for those who have already read that review, just an fyi that the album is available at more retail outlets than when I initially pubbed the review. I’ve updated the article with those links.


Todd Bishop Group – “Travelogue”

July 24, 2014


Todd Bishop Group - "Travelogue"It was going to be interesting to see how the Todd Bishop Group emerged from their excellent 2012 release, Little Played, Little Bird.  An album that covered obscure Ornette Coleman tunes, Bishop and company spoke to the heart of the Coleman originals without trying to out-free the free jazz artist.  While there was no mistaking the inspiration of those tunes, Bishop gave the music his own voice… a voice that situates itself pretty squarely in the modern post-bop sound.  Bishop returns with that sound on his newest recording, Travelogue, and, intriguingly if not expected, his sound remains remarkably consistent.

Shouldering the potent combo of being a fan and recording an album of Coleman music, it would have been excusable had some of the Ornette Coleman catalog bled into Bishop’s newest recording.  But then again, this is someone who has also tackled the songs of both Don Cherry and Serge Gainsbourg, so perhaps we have a situation where an artist is spreading out their influences sufficiently to allow their own personal voice to congeal within the midst of it all.

Most tracks keep within reach of a modern straight-ahead sound.  Opening track “Moving” has a pleasant rhythmic bounce, briskly stated, with saxophonist Cole and pianist Iago taking it in nice and casual over the top.  The melody is clean and simple and gets referred to at satisfying intervals.  Subsequent track “Far and Awake” slows it down a bit, but charts a similar course to that of its predecessor.  “Ventimiglia” is upbeat from the start, and spaces things out so that everyone gets in a good solo.

A few tracks stray further away from modern jazz center than others, and these tend to be the stronger album tracks, courtesy of Richard Cole switching to bass clarinet and baritone sax.  On “Rover,” Cole’s light dose of thrash & stomp bookends either end of some nice work in the upper registers by bassist Higgins, who benefits from some tasteful accompaniment by pianist Iago.  With “Norwegian,” the quartet smolders moodily at the outset, then gradually builds up a bit of steam and sunlight, maintaining it even when they close the song with a return to the opening statement.  At a different extreme, “Somnambulist” morphs in and out of its structure.

A couple tracks have Iago switching over to Rhodes.  “Dom’s Riff” is a happening little tune, all well and good, but it’s the album closer, a cover of dream pop band My Bloody Valentine that steals the show.  Bishop lends “Only Shallow” the catchiest groove, with Higgins providing some sweat work to dig it in deep.  Meanwhile, Cole adding some alto flute to enhance the glittering beauty of Iago’s Rhodes brings the song on home.

A thoughtful, supremely listenable album is how Bishop’s last recording was often described.  It’s just as useful in describing the closing song to Travelogue, as well as every song that preceded it.

Your album personnel:  Todd Bishop (drums), Richard Cole (bass clarinet, alto flute, baritone, tenor & soprano saxes), Weber Iago (piano, Fender Rhodes), and Chris Higgins (bass).

Released on Origin Arts.

Jazz from the Portland, Oregon scene.

Available at:  eMusic | Bandcamp | Amazon: CDMP3


toddbishop_littleplayedlittlebirdAnd if you haven’t checked out Bishop’s last album, Little Played, Little Bird, I highly encourage you to do so.  Follow this LINK to a review on this site.  It received the #12 slot on the Bird is the Worm Best of 2012 list.