Don’t dismiss harpist Carol Robbins because of her instrument. My immediate reaction is to state that this isn’t your typical jazz harp album, but the relative rarity that is the jazz harp album precludes use of the word ‘typical.’ Moraga has got some ballads and it’s got some swing, and Robbins coaxes her harp into seamlessly blending its innate elegance with the allurement of the former and the boisterousness of the latter. This album keeps both feet in conventional jazz far more than another recent jazz harp release, Iro Haarlas’s Vespers, which focused more on the harp’s tendency to soar like mad, or say, another harp contemporary, Rachel Gladwin, who, lately, has been channeling the sound of Alice Coltrane’s spiritual jazz with Nat Birchall’s outfit.
The thing of it is, the use of harp in jazz is so infrequent, that it’s easy to make assumptions based on the singular voices of those rare harpists who do get into the spotlight. And often, the harp position in the ensemble is sufficiently compelling as to impose its will upon the other instruments. Robbins displays that this doesn’t have to be the case.
Your album personnel: Carol Robbins (harp), Billy Childs (piano), Gary Meek (saxophones, clarinet), Larry Koonse (guitar), Darek Oles (bass), and Gary Novak (drums).
For instance, on the sublime “Three Rings,” clarinet is the bird singing into the night, and harp’s interaction with it is to ruffle its feathers with a soft breeze and carry its voice out into the darkness. But on album opener (and title-track) “Moraga,” Robbins play it straight, fitting expertly into place with the rest of the ensemble and keeping the jazz bounce going even during her solo. No different on the up-tempo “Straight Away,” where Robbins tosses out a few sheets of revved up elegance, but shows a similar comfort riffing with the rhythm section. The album ends with the mysterious “Rotadendron,” a song that is as much soothing as haunting, and which features interplay between harp and piano that ends this solid album on a very high note.
Forget preconceptions of what a harp jazz album should sound like. This is a little gem of a straight-ahead jazz album.
I’m almost at the point of feeling self-consciously repetitive by announcing yet another excellent Matthew Halsall recording. Though separated by almost exactly a year, 2008′s Sending My Love and 2009′s Colour Yes were like a quick one-two punch. Halsall’s voice on trumpet is clear and fresh, sounding very modern while also sounding startlingly reminiscent of Miles Davis. He built on his growing reputation with 2011′s excellent On the Go, an album that didn’t break any new territory, but sounded to take a stab at new shapes, even if forgoing any new directions. If any fault of Halsall can be drawn out, it’s that he puts out consistently excellent albums, all sounding consistently alike. It’s a pretty impressive “fault” to have.
2012′s Fletcher Moss Park is a revealing glimpse into the shape and directions of Halsall’s music that never made it onto prior recordings. Of the seven album tracks, the first five were recorded between 2010-2011, at or before On the Go. In explaining why the Fletcher Moss Park tracks were left off of On the Go, Halsall explained in an email correspondence, “I normally record around ten to fifteen tracks and then I pick the ones that I think work well together. With the ‘On The Go’ album, I composed a lot of the music very late at night and tried to create a kind of sixties smokey jazz club feel.”
It was a wise choice. I’ve made no effort to hide my love of an album that displays a strong cohesion, and there’s little doubt that the Fletcher Moss Park tracks wouldn’t have made such a great fit on albums like On the Go or Colour Yes. The surprising thing about it is that the Fletcher Moss Park “leftover” tracks all work so well together. As Halsall explained, “It just so happens that all the tracks on this album were actually composed in Fletcher Moss Park, and even though they were written and recorded over two years, they had a certain sound and feel that brought them all together.”
Let’s talk about that music…
Your album personnel: Matthew Halsall (trumpet), Nat Birchall (sax), Rachael Gladwin (harp), Adam Fairhall, Taz Modi (piano), Gavin Barras (bass), Gaz Hughes, Luke Flowers (drums), and guests: Lisa Mallett (flute), Holly Simpson (violin), Davinder Singh (violin) and Adrianne Wininsky (cello).
What the music reveals is a more expansive sound, one that rises up and out of the classic late-night jazz club imagery and blossoms outward from there. The trumpet has a greater tendency to soar. Harp is given wide latitude to seek new territory. A string trio adds an element of luxuriant harmony. Sax speaks more to spiritual jazz than modal, a quality buoyed by a well-placed flute section.
“Cherry Blossom” opens the album with a nice harp and sax/trumpet pairing. Sax and trumpet walk stride for stride a bit, before the song enters a new section. Piano gives a few simple chords with brush work by drums. Trumpet then enters, slow and easy. It has now come back to a more typical Halsall composition, but he’s thrown out some signals that it isn’t going to be business as usual.
On the title-track, harp takes a large role, giving this album a texture lacking from previous ones. A pattern starts here, whereby harp lays out the canvas, while piano chooses some colors, drums and bass set the light and form of the room, and then trumpet and sax begin painting.
Third track “Mary Emma Louise” is notable for harp and bass trading some nice lines. There’s an easy pace to the song, a sensation not contradicted by its quick shuffle and hop tempo.
Another notable addition has to be the addition of a string trio for two album tracks. “Sailing Out To Sea” is a short interlude of strings, brief but beautiful. It leads right into “Wee Lan (Little Orchid),” which has harp and string trio in conversation. Harp twitters patiently while string trio draws out the sound of each lush word.
Also added to the mix, flute floats prettily to open “The Sun in September,” with harp buffeting it skyward from below. Trumpet enters in the last section of the tune, calling out a few times, but letting flute maintain its spot in the light.
Album ends with “Finding My Way,” which has a pleasant scattering of rhythmic bursts which draw Halsall’s trumpet into their orbit. It has a nice stop-and-go feel to it, creating a tempo that gives piano plenty of space to breathe clearly through the patterns.
So, here I am talking about yet another solid Matthew Halsall release. Except, this time, while the standard of excellence expected from a Halsall album is still achieved, he’s also raised the bar on expectations and the level of inquisitiveness on where Halsall goes from here.
If you check out the personnel section for this album, you’ll find those names appearing on some excellent albums of their own in the span on the last year. Pianist Adam Fairhall released The Imaginary Delta, which will likely place in my Best of 2012 final list (review HERE). Earlier this year, bassist Gavin Barras released Day of Reckoning, and a few months before that, as part of the EU Quartet, released The Dark Peak (reviewed HERE, along with other Barras albums). Nat Birchall has brought his sax to all of Halsall’s recordings to date, and Halsall has repaid the favor by appearing on all of Birchall’s albums, including his latest, the intriguing Sacred Dimension (reviewed HERE).
I asked Halsall about the Manchester scene…
BirdIsTheWorm: Jazz has often been signified by its geographic pockets of musician communities. I can’t help but notice that over the course of your recording history that many of your sidemen have been releasing some excellent music of their own. Do you get the sense of something special happening in the Manchester scene? Do you have any observations about what’s going on there that could give some insight to those outside looking in?
Halsall: “Manchester is full of amazingly talented musicians and DJs, and there’s a really nice sense of community. Everyone’s checking out each other’s work and supporting each other. A lot of people have a real passion for music and want to share it with each other. You see many jazz musicians at folk, classical, electronica and various other gigs (and vice versa), and the city has a number of great venues and festivals that support musicians and give them the opportunities to try out new projects and explore new sounds. Manchester also has a number of great independent record shops (Piccadilly Records, Vinyl Exchange King Bee Records, Vox Pop Records), which have a broad selection of music and knowledgeable staff.
It’s this community that makes Manchester special and you only have to ask around to find the right people. For instance I found Nat Birchall after listening to a load of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders records, and I asked a friend if he knew any saxophone players who where into that sound and vibe and he recommended Nat. I met Adam Fairhall through a couple of hip hop producers I was mates with. I met Rachael Gladwin through a folk singer-songwriter who was working with her brother on the design of her album cover. I met Gavin Barras at a jazz jam session.”
Recapping the Best of 2011, featuring: David Braid, Iro Haarla Quintet, Naked Truth, Paul Fox Collective, and Julian Lage.
David Braid – Verge
While many are talking about pianist Craig Taborn’s solo album, it’s worth noting that another excellent solo piano album was released in 2011. Under-the-radar pianist David Braid doesn’t (yet) have the name recognition going in his favor, or the backing of the ECM label (which carries a substantial reach and prestige), but his album Verge is no less deserving of recognition as one of the top albums of 2011, and his name should be getting mentioned in conversations about Jazz’s top pianists. Let’s try to balance the scales here a bit.
Braid seems to have a knack for recording flawless jazz albums full of exuberance and musicality. Two live releases, Zhen and Vivid, display Braid in sextet blowing sessions that embody everything that’s great about a straight-ahead jazz recording: thrilling improvisation, expert musicianship, and fun fun fun compositions. He also recorded Spirit Dance, where he’s joined by Canadian Brass for a set of Braid’s jazz-inspired compositions for piano and brass quintet.
And now he’s offered us Verge, a solo piano recording full of quiet moments that never threaten to elicit drowsiness, dramatic moments that never devolve into cheesiness, and some prepared-piano effects that never come off as gimmicky. It’s a wonderful effort deserving of more attention.
The album is self-produced, fifty minutes of solo piano. Jazz from the Toronto, Canada scene.
A free album track is available at AllAboutJazz, courtesy of the artist.
Iro Haarla‘s music is just too damn beautiful. The Finnish pianist-harpist follows up on her excellent 2006 release Northbound with Vespers, a series of atmospheric, blissed out tunes that have the sonic effect of making all your worries go away. A tone is set with the opening notes that this is a recording that will reach thrilling heights, but it’ll be a slow unhurried build to get there. It’s a rough challenge she’s put to herself and her ensemble, but Iro proves up to it on an album that’s dripping with talent.
Your album personnel: Iro Haarla (piano, harp), Mathias Eick (trumpet), Trygve Seim (saxophones), Ulf Krokfors (double-bass), and Jon Christensen (drums).
All these guys make strong statements in the Euro-jazz scene, mostly on the ECM label. Mathias Eick has been written up on Bird is the Worm for his 2011 release Skala. If you’re looking for trails of breadcrumbs to discover new jazz, the personnel on this album are a great place to start.
But back to Vespers. These tunes shimmer with an epic beauty, like music filling the air around stained glass churches, out over snow peaked mountaintops. Eick and Seim trade long plaintive notes, reaching upward. Haarla’s piano buoys them up higher and her harp gives them wings. Christensen, who mans the drums on many classic ECM albums, shines here just as bright with his patented restrained touch to percussion comparable to how a soft lullaby can knock a child out cold, and bassist Krokfors keeps things close to the ground with his earthy tone. A beautiful album.
Cuong Vu is on a roll these days. In addition to his excellent Leap of Faith, he joins the Naked Truth quartet for a sizzling set of avant-garde tunes. Vu’s trumpet is a singular voice, unlike anyone else on the scene, and I love hearing it juxtaposed against a variety of players, and in this instance, a variety of distinct and unconventional sounds. Walls of electronic effects, free jazz growling over rock flourishes, fiery singular notes peaking through waves of dissonance, resulting in an album that engages engages and engages.
Your album personnel: Cuong Vu (trumpet, electronics), Lorenzo Feliciati (guitar, electric guitar, keyboards, electric bass), Roy Powell (piano, Rhodes, various keyboards), and Pat Mastelotto (drums and percussion).
Quirky keyboard riffs over squiggly electronics, guitar pluck and static, poly-rhythmic battering rams, and Vu’s shuffle and wail trumpet. It’s a collective effort; not a lot of soloing, and everyone pulls their weight to build the tension from beginning to end. This stuff is way out on the fringes of jazz, but that’s insignificant in the face of this fascinating music. When I find music this engaging, that gets in my face and challenges me to try to weed my way through it, mundane topics like genre classification get shuffled to the bottom of the stack.
Released on the Rare Noise Records label, who have a very eclectic stable of musicians, and who offer all types of freebies and streaming opportunities. Well worth exploring their site.
A free album track is available at AllAboutJazz, courtesy of the artists and label.
An enchanting set of modern jazz tunes. Very much with one foot in the indie rock tent, with its swirling melodies and rhythmic approach, but I’ve always been a big tent guy when it comes to jazz, so as long as one foot is on jazz territory, I’m all for inclusion. Besides, the sound on this album is becoming more and more commonplace in jazz circles (most notably on Brian Blade’s Season of Changes, which this album compares to favorably), and so it’s becoming an increasingly fuzzy measurement on where Jazz’s “center” is.
Your album personnel: Paul Fox (drums, compositions), Robert Kesternich (piano, Rhodes), Markus Ehrlich (tenor/soprano sax), Maurice Kuehn (bass), Zacharias Zschenderlein (guitar), and Stephanie Neigel (vocals)
Moody sound, but with a fighting spirit. Ehrlich’s sax, with its somber expressive tone, carries the day, but Kesternich on piano strikes some emotionally potent moments throughout. I’m not typically a fan of jazz vocals, but Neigel’s contributions on a few of the songs are quite enchanting and the album would’ve suffered without her. This album came out of nowhere for me, and months after I first heard it, I still relish the times when I see it’s up next in my stereo queue. This is one of those albums that can slip by unnoticed if you’re not careful.
Released on the Jazz ‘n Arts label. Jazz from the Luxembourg scene.
Guitarist Julian Lage wanted to create a concept album around the fictional town of Gladwell. After hearing the album, I know where I want to take my next vacation. Mixing back porch languor with front porch intrigue, Lage has constructed an abstract vision of this musical town from the soil up to the sky.
Your album personnel: Julian Lage (guitars), Aristides Rivas (cello), Tupac Mantilla (percussion), Jorge Roeder (bass), and Dan Blake (sax).
Lage is his own man on this album, his sound unique on a unique album. If I had to compare to anything, it would be the folk-jazz of Jeremy Udden or perhaps the quasi-bluegrass of Leo Kottke.
Dreamy guitar lines with an undercurrent of cello and hazy sax, choppy percussion the barking of neighborhood dogs on a lazy Sunday afternoon while the bass is the lawn mower off in the distance. Just a fantastic album that delivers the expansiveness of a city skyline and the solitude of a rooftop view of it.