Review - Glen Ackerman - 'The Glenious Inner Planet'

NOTE: This review originally appeared in EJazzNews.

CD Review: Glen Ackerman, The Glenious Inner Planet (Blue Bamboo Music 2010)

                Jazz is always at its most interesting when it looks to the future – or even when it sounds like it’s coming from the future – and bassist Glen Ackerman’s latest release, The Glenious Inner Planet, looks and, more importantly, sounds as if it might have been sent back in time from the 23rd century.  Or maybe it was sent forward in time from some 1960s sci-fi movie.  In either case, this CD offers all the quirks, surprises, and hilarity you could want in a collection of music that is most recognizably classified as jazz.  It’s jazz, yes, but Ackerman’s Planet, doesn’t exactly keep a close orbit around a center of gravity that is straight-ahead-and-in-the-pocket. This music is far out – as in, intergalactic.

Opening with a reworking of Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” – not exactly a straightforward tune, with its eccentric time signature, Ackerman  switches the instrumentation around – substituting guitar for piano, soprano sax for alto – and he turns the choruses into a searing succession of solos.  Chris Cortez rips into his solo with a wild series of guitar acrobatics, and Ackerman slaps and pops his solo on the electric bass (his usual axe) in a most audacious way.  By the song’s last note, the tune has been completely reworked, and Ackerman actually chooses to retitle the tune “Blue Rondo a la Raad,” which I believe may be a reference to a certain type of missile found most often in some parts of the Middle East.  It’s a confident move, but he’s earned it.

The next tune, “There is a drop of Roppongi on my shorts,” is a fairly easy to follow number, constructed as it is around a reliable vamp, and it offers strong playing from Paul Chester on guitar, Joel Fulgum on drums, Woody Witt on sax, and, naturally, Ackerman, who manages to solo memorably on the groove without falling into a rut or losing his way.  “Inner Planet” is a loosely structured, textural composition held down by tight work from the drum and bass while the guitar, sax, and keyboard (Ted Wenglinski) go exploring.  “Khalil,” as well, is a atmospheric piece taken at a slow tempo and in a mode that evokes the exotic -- all the more so for the shimmering piano work and lyrical clarinet throughout. Ackerman’s work on the acoustic bass on this song is especially strong, as he employs the percussive capacity of the instrument to free the drummer to investigate the sparkling sounds of the cymbals.

We return to an angular but swinging groove with “Potato Wagon,” which features my favorite solo from guitarist Chester, Ackerman’s funk chops on full display, and the strongest ensemble playing on the entire CD.  After all that sweating, it’s perfectly acceptable to slow things down with a ballad, especially one as charming as “. . .this lontano i.” a tune that, with the sharp simplicity of its melody, is all the more memorable for the suspended chords that underpin the song and inspired solos from Witt, Chester, and Wenglinski.

The influence of Dave Brubeck is felt on “The Thing, and the thing that makes The Thing,” which lilts along in what feels like a 5/4 time signature, only to offer shades of the prog-rock band Yes in some of its instrumental back and forth, with work on guitar and bass that would make Steve Howe and Chris Squire proud.  This rock dynamic is even more evident on the gleefully herky-jerky “4 is a Feeling,” which you might just feel compelled to get up and dance to, only to find yourself inexplicably skipping through the song’s phrasing.  “The Angel of the Odd,” which closes the album, builds around a thorny four-bar phrase carried forward by all the players at one point or another to the song’s midpoint, which pauses for an interval, only to have the song resume its happy trudge, this time to the outer limits of everyone’s musical imagination, then fading into whimsical oblivion.

At its best – and there are many good moments – The Glenious Inner Planet will remind listeners of Miles Davis in his pre-comeback fusion years, of Weather Report, and even of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.  Ackerman’s strength as a musician is not so much in his playing – and he is a fine player – but as a composer.  For all the thoroughly enjoyable flash and fun of this release, each song is also written around very clear and interesting ideas, and Ackerman, one suspects, is wise enough to back off on his playing and let his writing speak for itself.  So, kids, get your space helmet polished and stock up on Tang and powdered eggs – it’s time to fire up the spaceship and chart a course for that inner planet called Glenious.

Glen Ackerman – bass
Joel Fulgum & JD Guzman – drums
Paul Chester & Chris Cortez – guitar
Ted Wenglinski – keyboards
Woody Witt – tenor and soprano saxes, clarinet

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PN 204 - Ben Katchor - 'The Cardboard Valise'

The comics creator (and MacArthur Fellow) talks about his latest collection.

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Gil Scott-Heron - 'The Last Holiday: A Memoir'

Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Holiday: A Memoir (Grove Press 2012)

Gil-Scott Heron’s death last year took away a voice that, looking back, meant more to us in its eloquence, compassion, and wit than perhaps we had realized.  It seems we’d been listening all along to what Scott-Heron had been saying, and, with the arrival of a hip-hop sensibility in the mainstream during the 1990s, the man frequently cited as the “godfather of rap” looms ever larger in the shadow of his death.  All the more happy we should be, then, to have such a vibrant, personal record of Scott-Heron’s life in his memoir, The Last Holiday.

As much as Scott-Heron was known for his poetry and lyrics, he began his life as a writer with the publication of two novels early on, The Vulture (1970, when he was 21) and The Nigger Factory (1972), and there’s a third novel (Circle of Stone) sitting in the archives at Johns Hopkins, where Scott-Heron earned his MFA in creative writing.  A publisher’s note explains that The Last Holiday was “written over many years, starting in the 1990s and all the way up to 2010, and during this period the book has undergone some significant transformation.  Even calling it a memoir may be misleading, because it certainly is not a memoir in the conventional sense.”

For all of the occasional shifts in tone and style, The Last Holiday engages the reader with a fascinating structure – the narrator’s particular journey to fame as an artist, and the larger framework of the voyage to have Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday declared a national holiday.  The Last Holiday was published, after all, on King’s birthday very same day this year.  Maybe, the title suggests, a day commemorating King will be the last one America needs if we can all reach the full promise of social justice and freedom that make up the nation’s professed ideals.  And that’s just the kind of sardonic, poetic twist you’d expect from Scott-Heron.

The earliest parts of the book are strongest – those that deal with Scott-Heron’s family life in Jackson, Tennessee and his relationship with his extended family in the South, his coming East to live with his mother in New York even as the city was sliding into urban decay, and his negotiation of the educational institutions of Fieldston and Lincoln University – in short, his youth.  Certainly, by the time Scott-Heron signs with Arista records and releases The First Minute of a New Day, about 1975, the book loses its focus, as his life may have lost focus in the rush or recording and touring. But, as he notes, "I signed on for the shows.  I saw where I had to be and when.  I came in after 1 a.m., called the desk after 2 a.m., asked for a wakeup call at 7 a.m., and got over my amnesia about 7:05."

The latter parts of the book have moments of clarity at but a few points: touring with Stevie Wonder in 1980 and the election of Ronald Regan, as well as the death of Scott-Heron’s mother.  The factors that contributed to his death – drug use, primarily, as well as some rough patches and prison time in the last decade or so – aren’t touched on much in the book.  Maybe Scott-Heron would have gotten around to that in another work.  It makes you wonder what's in that novel sitting there in the archives at Johns Hopkins.  Let's hope some wise publisher gets around to releasing Circle of Stone some day.

So take as a guiding principle the title of the work, The Last Holiday, the day set aside by the nation to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.  As Scott-Heron argues, it’s not just that King led a successful movement of resistance to injustice, it’s that it was nonviolent.  As Scott-Heron knew well, to speak truth to power was one thing; there were many preparing to fight back with fists and blood and bullets.  What King did, he argues, is to save us from another civil war.  That is something to celebrate, and a victory as important for what it prevented from coming into the world as what it did.  Scott-Heron should know; he was there to see it all happen.  That alone makes this artful, human, provocative and brilliant book well worth your time.  And it will make you wish that Gil Scott-Heron – writer, musician, activist, and a compassionate soul – had a little more time on this Earth.

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Reader's Notes - 'The Jazz Review' Online

Check out the treasure trove of jazz writing from Nat Hentoff, Martin Williams, LeRoi Jones, Orrin Keepnews, Gunther Schuller, and Studs Terkel, among others, in this online archive of The Jazz Review.  A short-lived journal, but one of the best. Hopefully, the full run of this excellent publication will be available for all.

Link to the archive.

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Review - Suresh Singaratnam - 'Lost in New York'

NOTE: This review originally appeared on EJazzNews.

Suresh Singaratnam – Lost in New York (2010 Suresong)

     Meet Suresh Singaratnam. Like Wynton Marsalis, to whom he will often very likely be compared, Singaratnam is trained in both the classical and jazz traditions.  His first two records have offered classical music -- 2009’s Two Hundred Sixty-One, Volume 1 -- and jazz -- 2010’s Lost in New York, the subject of this review.  To have a career begin in impressive musical presence of Marsalis is a bit much, so let us give Singaratnam enough space to let him be his own man.  He’s not lost at all.  He finds his way pretty well, no matter what music he’s playing.

     Canadian by way of the United Kingdom and Zambia, Singaratnam distinguished himself as a teenager in Toronto concert circles, excelling beyond the usual stars of the philharmonic pack on piano and strings.  After a year studying classical trumpet at the University of Toronto, Singaratnam transferred to the Manhattan School of Music, eventually transferring as well to jazz, working with Lew Soloff.  Soloff’s name, of course, is often preceded by “classical trained jazz musician.”  Singaratnam’s graduate work was in the classical field, and it clearly informs his compositions.

     But the whole classical/jazz dichotomy gets tedious, doesn’t it.  It’s like the old commercial for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.  “Your jazz is in my classical!” “No, your classical is in my jazz.”  But the truth is that Louis Armstrong loved his operatic arias, Thelonious Monk loved his piano concertos, and Marsalis – well, everybody already knows about Wynton.  So let’s talk about Suresh’s music.

     “Temporal Incursions,” the opening track of Lost in New York, evokes great energy and a real sense of disorientation, blending tempos and textures  across driving two-bar bass lines that anchors the song like the pavement beneath your feet. Drummer Lee Pearson and pianist Fraser Hollins step up to the challenge of this song and never really lose their sense of time or place.  Following the wildness of the first track, “m104” – named after a Broadway bus route – rolls along through a familiar bebop opening and a blues-based structure. Singaratnam and tenor Saslow chase the rhythm section through this up-tempo all the way uptown and back again
     The breezy mid-tempo bounce of “Beneath A Smile,” complete with springy guitar chords-on-the-quarter-notes courtesy of Jesse Lewis, gives way to dissonance and free jazz work from Singaratnam and Lewis, the latter whose solo sounds as if piped in from one of the moon’s of Jupiter. “Spring For All But Me,” a ballad that features a self-assured vocal by CharenĂ©e Wade and a read on Singaratnam’s lyrics:
           Time has passed, blossoms now illuminate the trees,
           Once bare branches soon dressed in green
           It is springtime, a chance to start anew
           Hopeful spring for all but me. . .
 Singaratnam’s solo at the bridge is lovely and wistful, but appropriately brittle and pinched in parts, as if the horn player is more doubtful of the prospects of the new season than his words would suggest.
“Chrysanthemum,” is a perfectly pleasant and layered tune, presenting Saslow another chance to step forward on sax.  One of the high point of the album is “Fortress of Song,” its simple and direct foundation carried forward by bassist Hollins’ secure efforts at the bottom end as the rest of the players build the tune into an awesome mass of musical ideas.  “Remnants of Eternity” has a bright quality that doesn’t seem to fit its ominous title, and “She Spoke So Well,” a jazz waltz, has a contemplative romance

     Singaratnam wisely closes with the outstanding “Peripheral Fission,” which highlights his precision as a player and his boldness as a composer – or is that his precision as a composer and boldness as a player.  Opening with nothing more than some astoundingly fast playing from Singaratnam, the tune locks into a driving vamp that stalks along until, just in time, it releases into a liberated swing.  All the musicians distinguish themselves on this tune – although Lewis, regrettably, is not given a solo – but Pearson’s drumming is exceptional on this last number.

     So let’s just say that Lost in New York is not just an outstanding debut album for a gifted player and composer – it’s simply an outstanding album.  Add to the music the fascinating CD booklet – the first half of which is a miniature graphic novel , the second half being an expert and inspired set of liner notes from Nathaniel Smith, and Lost in New Yorkis an unmistakably original and engaging announcement: Suresh Singaratnam has arrived. He’s standing on the corner of Broadway and West 122nd Street.  Just how he got here – via the jazz bus or the classical one – you’re not really going to care.

Suresh Singaratnam – Trumpet
CharenĂ©e Wade – Vocals
Jake Saslow – Tenor Saxophone
Jesse Lewis – Guitar
Fabian Almazan – Piano
Jamie Reynolds – Piano
Fraser Hollins – Bass
Lee Pearson - Drums

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New World School of the Arts - Jazz Ensemble Broadcast

Tonight at 7:00, WDNA will be broadcasting (and streaming online) the end of the year concert from the New World School of the Arts Jazz Ensemble.  You can tune in the broadcast at 88.9 FM in the South Florida area, or listen online at wdna.org.  Look for the "Listen Live!" in the upper right corner of the station's web page. Congratulations to these young musicians.  Enjoy the concert!

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Sunday Time Warp - Playlist 6/3/12

We had a few technical glitches in the studio today that prevented the show from going off exactly as planned, so my apologies for those of you who were looking forward to Lettuce and Us3.  We'll make sure to play those artists next week!

Song, Artist, Album

Whap!, Jack McDuff, The Honeydripper
Coconut Boogaloo, Medeski Martin and Wood, Combustication
Message From The Meters, Leon Spencer, Jr, Sneak Preview
(Don't Be Comin With No) Weak Sauce, Stanton Moore, III
Four Folk Songs, Ben Allison and Man Size Safe, Little Things Run The World
The Sequel, Mulgrew Miller and Wingspan, The Sequel
Chariots of Fire (Theme From), The Bad Plus, Suspicious Activities
Brother Can You Spare A Dime? Dave Brubeck Quartet, Brubeck Time

Donna Lee, Anthony Braxton, In The Tradition - Volume 2
Action Figure Party, Greg Kurstin, Action Figure Party
The Robot's Attack, Spam All Stars, Contra Los Robotoicos Mutantes
Blues March, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Moanin'
Bagpipe Blues, Rufus Harley. Courage - The Atlantic Recordings
Flute Bag, Herbie Mann and Rufus Harley, The Wailing Dervishes
Hold On I'm Comin', Herbie Mann, The Evolution of Mann
Heavyfoot, Jazz Punks, Smash Up
Blues for Tillmon, Spectrum Road, Spectrum Road
Blue in Green, Cassandra Wilson, Sings Standards
Freedom Jazz Dance, Nils Lundgren Funk Unit, Funk Da World

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