Bob Stewart – “Connections: Mind the Gap”

August 28, 2014


Bob Stewart - "Connections- Mind the Gap"More often than not, it’s the visionaries of jazz that are likely to incorporate the non-traditional instruments into their sonic lexicon.  Bob Stewart plays the tuba.  And while it’s not uncommon to see the tuba as part of the lower register section of a jazz orchestra, there’s going to be a certain number of forward-thinkers and avant-garde statesmen who will view instruments like the tuba in a different frame of reference.  It’s why, in addition to more straight-ahead projects by artists like Wynton Marsalis and Nicholas Payton, Stewart and his tuba have been enlisted to work with a number of artists whose work situates itself out on the fringes… musicians like Muhal Richard Abrams, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Lester Bowie, David Murray, Arthur Blythe, Bill Frisell and Charles Mingus.  It’s those last three names that have a particular relevance to Bob Stewart’s new release, Connections: Mind the Gap.

Back in 1992, music producer Hal Willner spearheaded a tribute album to the late great Charles Mingus, bringing together a wide cross-section of different musicians from different genres (of which guitarist Bill Frisell was a key component) to reinterpret Mingus’s music.  Bob Stewart, who had performed with and recorded for Mingus, was a part of that recording, entitled Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus.  Its mix of jazz, avant-garde, folk, rock, classical, pop and spoken word created an intoxicating blend of music that sounded a bit like each of those genres, but in its totality sounded like something completely different, entirely new.

Over twenty years later, and Stewart’s Connections: Mind the Gap has created an album that utilizes a similar recipe while devising a meal that, in and of itself, is no less mesmerizing and inimitably singular.  The music is a thick fog of influences, creating a wall of impenetrability out of something that shifts focus from one passage to the next.  Tracks like “Simone,” “Bush Baby” and “Odessa” express themselves with an odd tunefulness, behaving like a sonic Rube Goldberg contraption where disparate moving parts incomprehensibly function in concert to guide the song from first note to last.

The latter two of those three tracks are Arthur Blythe compositions.  The history between Stewart and Blythe goes back over thirty years to the NYC loft scene, and has included some excellent sax-tuba-percussion trio sessions, as well as larger unit works, both serving to expand the horizon line of jazz and the role of tuba in it.  The fact that Stewart is able to breathe life into these pieces in a modern setting and with a new vision says a lot about the staying power of the original music as well as Stewart’s ability to show new facets of that vision with the changing of time.

Also front and center on Connections is the five-part suite “In Color,” dispersed throughout the recording, and featuring Stewart’s tuba interacting with the swirling harmonies of the string quartet, PUBLIQuartet, of which his son Curtis is a founding member (as well as a member of Stewart’s working unit, First Line Band).

The rendition of Mingus’s “Jump Monk” comes out swinging and allows the traditional elements to rise to the surface.  This is also the case with three other renditions.  One is of Henry Thomas’s “Fishin’ Blues,” which has guitarist Jerome Harris taking a turn at vocals on a blues track with a lazy afternoon charm.  Another is an inspired rendition of “Monk’s Mood,” with its boozy disposition and a melody viewed through a haze and rhythms staggering with an impossible fluidity.  And then there’s Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango,” with its bursts of propulsion and unqualified grace, adding a nice dose of differentiation to the album while remaining part of its confluence.

Just a brilliant album, serving up something quite different without turning its back on all that has come before.  It’s a testament to the diversity of projects that Stewart has been a part of and his ability to transcend conventions imposed upon his instrument.

Your album personnel:  Bob Stewart (tuba), Matt Wilson (drums), Jerome Harris (guitar, vocals), Randall Haywood (trumpet), Nick Finzer (trombone), and the PUBLIQuartet: Curtis Stewart (violin), Jannina Norpoth (violin). Nick Revel (viola), and Amanda Goekin (cello).

Released on Sunnyside Records.

Jazz from NYC.

Available at:  eMusic | Bandcamp | Amazon CD | Amazon MP3


Matt Wilson Quartet – “Gathering Call”

March 28, 2014


Matt Wilson - "Gathering Call"Drummer Matt Wilson has a style and sound that just naturally seems to result in bouts of euphoria.  Whether swinging like mad or hard driving head first, Wilson is emphatic in his approach, and the logical reaction is to sit up, take notice, and smile.  Even on a rare moody track, there’s a joyfulness that’s tough to miss.  With a stellar line-up and simpatico modes of communication, Wilson’s crew burns through a set of straight-ahead tunes that just sing with a wild enthusiasm.

Your album personnel:  Matt Wilson (drums), Jeff Lederer (tenor & soprano saxophones, clarinet), Kirk Knuffke (cornet), Chris Lightcap (bass), and John Medeski (piano).

Wilson opens the album with a rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Main Stem,” and gets things off to a brisk pace.  Lederer and Knuffke trade volleys on sax and cornet, feeding off the high voltage established with the very first notes.

“Main Stem” is one of a couple Ellington tunes he hits upon, of which about half of the album’s thirteen tracks are renditions, the other half Wilson originals.  Second track “Some Assembly Required” falls into the latter category, with the kind of crazed motion and serious concentration associated with children skipping rope in tandem… and equally as fun.

“Dancing Waters” is another Wilson original, and illustrates that his writing talents aren’t all just a matter of high octane.  Opening with a nifty Lightcap bass solo, this leads into long slow sighs from the wind instruments… a place where the melancholy is a construct of beauty and nothing about its expression is bittersweet.

This leads seamlessly into the thick groove and funky swagger of the Hugh Lawson tune “Get Over, Get Off and Get On.”  Channeling the spirited charm of Yusef Lateef’s late-60s outfit, Medeski incites the act of motion with his lively piano work and sets the groundwork for some crack solos by Knuffke and Lederer.

As a tribute to recently deceased jazz legend Butch Warren, Wilson includes the Warren composition “Barack Obama” on this session.  Intriguingly, Wilson delivers it with light tones of delicate sadness, of that meeting point where sorrow and celebration come together and transform into something of a wistful, comforting blues.

The title-track “Gathering Call” is a short piece, and it comes on fast and furious.  This differs from Wilson’s other rendition of an Ellington tune… on “You Dirty Dog,” Lightcap’s walking bass line develops a cadence not unlike a cool stroll down the street, where motion has both a confident bravado and a light touch.  On tenor sax, Lederer belts out a solo, loading up with each punch.

Wilson’s “Hope (for the cause)” takes a minute to reveal itself before coalescing into a beautiful, drifting melodic passage.  His interlude “Dreamscape,” on the other hand, gets right to the point with a clattering of sticks, piano twittering excitedly, and wind instruments punchy and irrepressible.

Perpetually overlapping lines of communication highlight the animated “How Ya Going?”  It gives the sense of one conversation breaking off into complementary fragments, reuniting at strategic words and phrases, and revealing that it has always been one conversation from the very start.

Wilson continues the Jazz tradition of adapting modern pop songs for Jazz performance with a rendition of Beyonce’s “If I Were A Boy,” and like those who came before him, Wilson susses out the melodic facets and possibilities unaddressed by the original.  Wilson sticks to the melody’s original path, allowing tangential diversions from its course to add some depth and nuance.  Substituting the original’s melodramatic flourishes with a bit of intense deconstruction is a nifty swap of emotional devices, and brings out a new aspect of the song’s character.

“Pumpkin’s Delight,” an up-tempo burner of Charlie Rouse’s from his Sphere days, sees the album in its homestretch.  The quintet toys with tempo a bit here, as a fierce Lederer sax solo feeds into a Medeski piano solo that leaps and lags with an enticing playfulness… an effect punctuated by a thrilling Wilson drum solo.

The album ends with the traditional love song “Juanita,” a lovely tune expressed with a loving grace and noble elegance by the quintet, concluding the album on a quieter note but no less evocative than its predecessors.  Outstanding.

Wilson’s newest is what Jazz is all about.  This album has all kinds of heart.

Released on Palmetto Records.

Jazz from NYC.

Available at:  eMusic | Amazon CD | Amazon MP3


While most of this review is original to Bird is the Worm, some of it was written when I originally recommended Gathering Call in my weekly eMusic Jazz Picks column… so here’s some language protecting eMusic’s rights to the reprinted material as the one to hire me to write about new jazz arrivals to their site…

New Arrivals Jazz Picks,“ reprints courtesy of, Inc.
© 2014, Inc.

As always, my sincere thanks to eMusic for the gig.

Ken Peplowski – “Maybe September”

January 27, 2014


Ken Peplowski - "Maybe September"There’s an abounding warmth and intimacy to the new recording by reed man Ken PeplowskiMaybe September is the kind of sublime outing that pulls the listener right into the studio session and forges a connection with not just the music itself, but a sense of closeness, as if it were being listened to in the moment of its creation.

Of the album’s eleven tracks, only one is a Peplowski original (the swinging “Always a Bridesmaid,” on which drummer Matt Wilson absolutely takes flight), but the quartet’s caring touch to all the compositions lends each a personal sound and allows the renditions to breathe on the quartet’s terms.  It’s a mater of embracing the original, then letting go as if it were a part of you to begin with.

Your album personnel:  Ken Peplowski (clarinet, tenor sax), Matt Wilson (drums), Martin Wind (bass), and Ken Rosenthal (piano).

The quartet’s rendition of Artie Shaw’s “Moon Ray” adopts the casual sway at the heart of the original, then kicks up the pace a bit, swinging where the original’s orchestration often soared.  Peplowski adapts another jazz orchestra piece with Ellington’s “Main Stem,” though where the original stomped exuberantly, Peplowski’s quartet keeps the chipper attitude, but moves lighter on their feet.

But it’s not all music from Jazz past.  Peplowski’s clarinet accentuates the prevailing heartbreak expressed by Paul McCartney’s lyrics on “For No One.”  And the quartet extends that heartbreak with a rendition of Nilsson’s “Without Her,” where Martin Wind’s bass provides a dark edge to Peplowski’s clarinet’s melancholy tone.  They perform an extended rendition of the Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No,” and while Peplowski’s tenor sax captures Brian Wilson’s fragile vocals, it’s pianist Ken Rosenthal’s striking piano work that resonates strongest, presenting an elegance to a moody tune.

However, it may be the quartet’s take on Francois Poulenc’s clarinet sonata that may represent the album’s shining moment.  There is an appealing formality to the abounding grace of “Romanza,” and an austere presence to its palpable warmth, all lending textures to a song that seeks to envelop completely while still maintaining a distance… something to observe and feel, simultaneously and neither at all.

A sublime outing, conveying an intimacy and warmth that is positively embraceable.

Released on Capri Records.

Jazz from NYC.

Available at:  eMusic | Amazon CD | Amazon MP3

Steven Lugerner – “For We Have Heard”

August 2, 2013


Steven Lugerner - "For We Have Heard"Steven Lugerner made a hell of a splash by releasing co-debut albums to lead out the 2011 year, utilizing two different ensembles and presenting two divergent sounds.  One of those recordings, Narratives, was a lesson in potent melodies and story-like song construction.  The second of those two simultaneous debuts was These Are the Words, an album of sharp angles and clipped conversations… a perfect counterbalance to its partner album.

With his new release For We Have Heard, Lugerner returns with the same quartet from These Are the Words, and builds on that album’s pricklier nature.  Basing this album’s compositions on a numeric approach to biblical text, Lugerner presents music that challenges the ear, just as it must have challenged the composer as he went about the task of crafting the songs.  And as it is with any challenge, the effort to engage comes with its rewards.

Your album personnel: Steven Lugerner (Bb clarinet, bass clarinet, oboe, English horn, soprano & alto Saxophones, flute & alto flute), Darren Johnston (trumpet), Myra Melford (piano), and Matt Wilson (drums).

The album opens with “Us and Our Fathers,” a contemplative piano-led piece with some saxophone accompaniment.  It channels the stillness of the morning.

“When a Long Blast Is Sounded” begins with a strong martial cadence.  This holds fast, so that when the ensemble strays from a tight formation, there remains a sense of marching straight ahead.  Drummer Matt Wilson, who brings a joyful swing to many of his own projects, displays yet again the breadth of his talent by contributing essential parts to an album with an acerbic disposition and one that employs an unconventional geometry in shaping songs.  On subsequent track “Drove Out Before Us,” Wilson picks up right where he left off on the previous track, driving the tune with a cadence that crackles and pops with electricity, and partners with Lugerner’s sax in raising up and calling out into space.

There are several themes that act as threads throughout this recording, but it may be Wilson’s drums that serves as the unifying force.

On “Be Strong and Resolute,” the quartet’s development of an edgy groove breaks suddenly into a mesmerizing piano solo, which marks one of several occurrences of Myra Melford infusing a song with an austere beauty, providing a lightness to counteract the music’s tendency to go heavy and hard.  Later, on the title-track, Melford adds some gentle accompaniment, partnering with the whisper of Wilson’s drums as Lugerner and Johnston work a melodic line that is about as fluid as any on this album of unpredictable motion.  A musing ballad, the title-track is a bit of a throwback to Lugerner’s previous albums.

Trumpeter Darren Johnston fits in with this project easy-peasy.  Whether it be with his quintet on a recording like the Clean Feed Records release The Edge of the Forest or a collaboration with top-tier players from the Chicago free-improv scene on an album like The Big Lift, Johnston is right at home with compositions that demand an aggressive expressiveness within an atypical framework of genially displayed ferocity.  On “All Those Kings,” Johnston punches woozy notes through the spaces in between Lugerner’s flailing sax lines, giving illusory form to a song that presents an illusory dispersion.

Half of the album’s ten tracks clock in around two minutes in length each.  They behave as vignettes, rather than simple interludes between songs, and as a result, express themselves as flash fiction… glimpses of imagination, with a brief life and an evocative punch.  They have the added feature of being the most effective doorways into connecting with this album.

Of all of Lugerner’s work to date, this is easily the most challenging.  But patience brings familiarity, and that leads to changes in how the album is perceived.  It’s one of those albums that rewards effort.  And considering Lugerner’s relative newness to the recording scene, it marks an intriguing chapter in his development.

Released on the Primary Records label.

Jazz from the Brooklyn scene.

Available at eMusic.  Available at Bandcamp.  Available at Amazon: CD | MP3

Deric Dickens – “Speed Date”

August 17, 2012


When Deric Dickens emailed me about Speed Date, I was hooked on the premise alone.  When he began listing off some of his collaborators, I was fully in at that point.

Here’s what I learned about the album before I sat down to listen to it.

  • Dickens wanted to record with some of his New York City musician friends.
  • He wanted the album to be predominately free, but to also base some of the music around Ornette Coleman- and Don Cherry-inspired melodies he’d been writing.
  • He wanted to keep things short.  Nothing over ten minutes, preferably far less.
  • He wanted to impose a restraint.  As a result, it gave the album a great hook (more on that shortly).

This is what I love about the creative process.  Artists who have worked together previously, recognize that they shed in the same peapod, and they decide to record an album that allows complete artistic freedom as long as they abide by a nifty hook/restraint.

Your hook for this album is the stopwatch.  On six of the album’s twenty tracks, a stopwatch was set to expire at just under a minute fifteen seconds, and when that timer went off, that was the end of the tune.  In fact, on title-track “Speed Date,” the timer alarm is audible at the end of the track, something I’m glad Dickens left on the finished recording… it’s just more proof of the good cheer of this album’s origins.  No track is less than a minute twenty in duration, and only one track exceeds five minutes in length (the seven and a half minute tune “Swing It Sista,” with Jeremy Udden).

In many ways, this is a ridiculous challenge set to the musicians.  They’re required to sit down, aware of the time constraint under which they must suss that creativity out, and then they’ve got that stopwatch staring at them.  To my mind, the reasonable reaction to that scenario is to laugh.

Here’s what my assumption was about the music before I sat down to listen to it:

  • This was going to be fun music.  Challenging, probably, but in the spirit of fun.

I was right.

Your album personnel:  Deric Dickens (drums, percussion), with guests:  Jeremy Udden (alto & C-melody sax), Jon Crowley (trumpet), Ben Cohen (tenor sax), Kirk Knuffke (coronet), Jeff Lederer (tenor sax, clarinet), Matt Wilson (drums, wooden flute, Marks Mark Bottle).

All of the tracks are duos between Dickens and a guest musician.  Six guests in all, they each participate on three tracks total, except for Wilson and Knuffke, who participate on four tracks each.  While Speed Date does have a remarkable cohesion considering its sizable guest roster, it’s also noticeable how each guest artist is able to give voice to their specific sound on their respective tracks, and the consistency of that sound across the span of their contributions.

On trumpet, Jon Crowley generates an energetic bounce throughout.  Sometimes it’s a buoyant march, sometimes it’s a sadistic hopscotch, hitting notes that don’t seem to make sense in the moment, but perpetually sounding to land right where they were supposed to (Dickens sounds like he’s played this game before).

On alto and C-melody sax, Jeremy Udden provides his familiar lazy Sunday afternoon sway.  Dickens sounds right at home matching Udden’s easy breeze pace.

Ben Cohen’s first contribution on tenor sax is about as straight-ahead jazz as it gets on this album, but the other two tracks he blows on possess a plaintive lighthouse moan, and Dickens colors it with percussion like the sounds of a pier, as the sea gently laps against it.

Jeff Lederer is tough to nail down.  Whether on tenor sax or clarinet, he is shadowboxing personified.  Sometimes circles Dickens’ rhythms, sometimes he creates squiggly lines that Dickens playfully tries to nail down, and sometimes they trade spastic bursts of sound.

Three of Kirk Knuffke‘s four contributions have plenty of fight to them.  Shooting out sharp notes on cornet, sometimes definitive statements, sometimes inquisitive challenges.  On his fourth and final track, Knuffke sounds to be done with all the provocation, and he and Dickens have an amicable conversation on their instruments.

Drummer Matt Wilson, who aided Dickens in the planning of this album, has four enjoyable tracks, either doubling up on drums or playing a wooden flute, giving an intriguingly rustic haze to Dickens’ free jazz bursts of rhythm.  On “Termites,” the duo utilizes a full bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon.  Once the bottle became less full, Wilson uses it as a wind instrument while Dickens mans the drums.

Taken as a whole, the album is to appreciated as much as a creative experiment as a music listening experience.  For musicians to embrace a fun, exciting challenge, and then endow the music with those same qualities, that’s the kind of thing we should want from our artists… to take chances, to produce creative pieces of quality, and for it spring from some kind of emotional basis that elevates the piece from simple craft to inspirational art.

This one came from a place of good humor.  Speed Date communicates that loud and clear.

Released in 2011 on Mole-Tree Music, which appears to be Dickens’ own label.

Jazz from NYC.

There’s a nice interview of Deric Dickens by jazz interviewer extraordinaire Jason Crane on Crane’s site, The Jazz Session.

You can stream the album, and purchase it, on Dickens’ Bandcamp page.  There’s also a link on the Bandcamp page to purchase the physical CD, too.

Available at:  CDBaby | Amazon MP3