The start of Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile’s “Fence Post in the Front Yard” contains picking so fleetly virtuosic, it is to laugh. Chops city yo, and in case you’re unfamiliar with the esteemed bassist and beloved mandolin player, they have all sorts of eloquence at their disposal. But speed is a momentary titillation and guys like these know it. Useful, sure—in short doses.
Thile, of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers fame, likes playing rigorous passages but chooses his material wisely. The aforementioned 2008 duo disc is built on motifs much more informal than the frenetics of “Fence Post” would have us believe. That’s a plus. Regardless of his prodigy childhood and expert way with Bach, the new host of “A Prairie Home Companion” proves most engaging when a bit of tradition stays tucked into his pocket.
That’s not to say the Punch Brothers, a string band built on prog notions, wasn’t a hoot. Yet they had arcane moments, usually when grandiosity swamped a tune’s allure or complexity yielded a cul de sac. Thile’s new duet disc with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau occasionally feels like it could get soggy with excess. Ornamental moments dot the landscape. But—ta da!—the pair showcases myriad ways of lining these performances with persuasive aplomb.
“Daughter of Eve” sports a sideways structure, zigging left when you think it might zag right, and tilting toward the labyrinthine in an intriguing way. The duo kicks off its filigreed interpretation with baroque flair, but their commitment to both clarity and vernacular remains deep enough to ground the action. As its eight twisty minutes conclude, it feels as if a symphony gets hidden inside a folk song.
Although an oddity on paper, the mandolin/piano choice makes for a fetching combo. The instruments cover lots of turf, timbre-wise, and the alliance between these players is terrific. They toured together a few years back, establishing a songbook and nurturing camaraderie. Here it feels like they’re not only on the same page but simultaneously writing the same sentence. The braided lines of “Tallahassee Junction” speak to the kinship of counterpoint. A gliding momentum energizes the Mehldau original “The Watcher.” Synched nicely, these guys prioritize poise. As the latter track alludes to “Love for Sale,” the action dips and swoops exactly the way it should if it’s going to claim the victory of total integrity.
The old-guard bluegrass formulas and simpler song designs that bubble up are enticing in their own ways. By keeping things sparse, the duo accentuates the dread of Gillian Welch’s “Scarlet Town.” And, rightfully, there’s no flash in play on Joni Mitchell’s “Marcie.” Mehldau simply provides his partner with a plush cushion to sparingly decorate. While they have some fun prancing through a vocal-less version of Elliott Smith’s “Independence Day,” the modesty of Ruaidri Dáll O Catháin’s “Tabhair dom do Lámh” resonates just as much. As a duo, their artistic persona comes across as convincingly during the ornate drama of “Noise Machine” as it does amidst the jaunty lilt of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”
Splitting the difference between embellishment and restraint is the true achievement at hand. Seems like their signature virtuosity can be summoned at any time, but it’s only dispensed when needed. Maybe this is actually a trio, with judiciousness always riding shotgun.
You’ve been prepping, right? Going to bed early, drinking Emergen-C, listening to nothing but ambient music so your ears will be fresh? Good. You need stamina to weather the Winter JazzFest action – especially the whirlwind marathons of Friday and Saturday night.
The annual gathering’s scope and impact increase each year. It starts tonight with Pharoah Sanders and closes next Tuesday with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra (a must-see show, y’all). In between they’re celebrating Monk’s Centennial with a spin on their round robin style improv party. A shifting array of artists will have their way with the tunes from Solo Monk.
Choosing from more than 60 shows each night at the Friday and Saturday marathon presentations can be daunting. Here are five gigs that should really find a spot on your schedule.
ANDREW CYRILLE / BILL McHENRY DUO
One of 2016’s most compelling albums was Proximity (Sunnyside), the drummer and saxophonist’s pas de deux through a variety of rhythm motifs and pulse-based song forms. Here, rapport was paramount, and the music resounded because the camaraderie was deep. Cyrille is this year’s JazzFest artist-in-residence, and as proven in the video above (captured during an Arts for Art presentation), he can be a one man orchestra; his elaboration upon basic beats gets kaleidoscopic fast, and his creativity always brings fresh ideas into each new improv gambit. As a foil, McHenry is an expert in moods, goosing his partner’s sense of whimsy one minute, enhancing his natural drama the next.
New School Tishman Auditorium, 63 5th Ave – 8:20 Jan 6
Andrew discusses his career with Johnathan Blake in an open forum at the New School’s 5th Floor Theater at 1 pm on Sunday, Jan 8
URI CAINE TRIO
Freebop stalwarts – dudes who helped fashion the lingo from the jump – are some of my biggest heroes. Pianist Caine turned 60 this year, and he couldn’t sound any more authoritative than he does right now. He’s been honing his ideas about blending out and in for so long that they seem to be the most natural notions around. Deep swing here, hard splash there – and everywhere a sense of balance that bolsters the deep volition that drives the music. He’s often changing rhythm sections, but the squad that rounds out the pianist’s Calibrated Thickness album – bassist Mark Helias and drummer Clarence Penn – are locked in tight, and fashion a true group sound.
New School 5th Floor Theater, 55 West 13th Street – 10 pm Jan 6
DAVE DOUGLAS & HIGH RISK with SHIGETO
The more I listened to the Dark Territory record, the more I bought the notion that Douglas connected with the perfect personalities to vivify his jazztronica goals. The music is thick and nasty, ominous and aggressive, lithe and alluring – don’t blink, it’s always morphing. And it always has as much gravitas as it does digital sheen. The trumpeter has said that this band deals with the “dangers and challenges of technology.” Along the way, their electro-acoustic ruminations emit both seductive designs and emotionally provocative missives.
Le Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleeker Street – 7:40 pm Jan 6
JAKOB BRO / THOMAS MORGAN / JOEY BARON
This is the band that made last year’s Streams (ECM), a hushed joy that put melody on a pedestal, and touted gentility even during its mildly manic moments. The guitarist arrives from Copenhagen with an aesthetic of calm in his pocket, but a gleam in his eye for the occasional freak-out; something like a unholy blend of Jim Hall/Terje Rypdal. Because bassist Morgan and drummer Baron always obsess over the details, the ethereal sections of tunes such as “Heroines” and “PM Dream” are rife with detailed maneuvers that keep you on the edge of your seat.
New School Tishman Auditorium, 63 5th Ave – 7:20 pm Jan 7
CHRIS LIGHTCAP’S SUPERETTE
You recall what happened when the bassist’s Bigmouth outfit put two reeds out front? Swoop, glide and soar were all part of the to-do list, and it was often in contrast to the beautiful belligerence created by the rhythm section. His Superette band ditches the horns and opts for guitars, with Jonathan Goldberger and Curtis Hasselbring trading lines and causing a ruckus. They’ve been fine-tuning the deal of late. A record produced by David Breskin (a dude that knows how to refine these kind of sonic affairs) is in the wings. Lightcap and his squads are all about lift-off, and this show should be an ear-opener.
New School 5th Floor Theater, 55 West 13th Street – 11 pm Jan 7
Feeling alone, feeling separated, feeling like it’s impossible to fit in even though you gave it your best shot – it all comes to head in this fuzz guitar opus from Mitski’s ‘Puberty 2’ album. It’s a song with a deeply forlorn vocal to match its wounded lyrics of tried-and-failed romance, a reportedly true tale from Ms. Miyawaki’s life. A relationship blossoms but never reaches its peak, subsiding due to cultural differences between the Brooklyn-based Japanese native and a former lover. Director Zia Anger amplifies the ache by capturing the singer waving goodbye to her beau, and watching him make out with another woman – a gleaming couple so wholly Americanized that they look like they’re cut from a 4th of July GAP ad. As they dry hump wrapped in the Stars and Stripes, Mitski caresses herself, passionately tongues her own hand, and grabs that guitar to blast away the confusion. When the dust settles, our alleged melting pot has been stirred a bit, and a lesson arises: planting a flag for your sense of self is usually worth the pain it creates.
Vevo staffers chose and wrote about their fave vids of the year. Lots of strong choices. Read and watch.
Scholarship has been implicit in Randy Weston’s music from the get-go. From rhythmic inspiration to melodic brainstorming, mama Africa and its mighty diaspora has guided the 90-year-old pianist’s art since he placed “Zulu” on his third album as a leader in the mid-50s. Now, after cutting more than 45 records, he gets explicit on a two-disc portrait of a 2012 NYC presentation. Uniting academics, writers and musicians, this amalgam of voices is an expressive overview of the continent’s cultural impact on civilization.
With dollops of erudition interspersed with the music itself, the show’s lay-out is novel – a multi-narrator TED Talk with particulars being cited in real time. I used the word presentation rather than performance above. Though ensemble efforts open and close the disc, an extensive string of solos and duets drive it, and they’re positioned as examples of specific historical turning points referenced in the commentary of Weston’s guests, such as Dr. Wayne Chandler. As it moves from Howard Johnson’s tuba resonating with the tones of Ethiopian forebears to the seductive drones of the Moroccan gnawa music to the flute and kora blend celebrating Gambian griots to Min Xiao-Fen’s delicate pipa strings dancing with Weston’s piano, they’re all unusually fetching.
The narrative arc is both pithy and inclusive. The leap between an African children’s song and the playful allusion to Tricky Sam Nanton’s jubilant trombone spotlights the music’s various pleasures. And Billy Harper’s fierce nod to Cleanhead Vinson injects a sensuousness into the action; it’s as reliable an energizer as Alex Blake’s explosive bass solo, which harks to the rhythms of Panama. By the time poet Jayne Cortez ignites the show with her fiery lines about women and their various forms of wisdom, Weston’s exultant history lesson has accomplished its goal of vivifying accomplishments galore.
A spontaneous notion is enough to get things going – just a gaggle of notes, really. In his fully improvised solo work, Keith Jarrett doesn’t need much more than a sketchy vamp or a hint of a riff to ignite the ever-shifting parade of melodies he inevitably conjures. It’s a babbling brook approach. The water is essential, sure, but once its moving, the momentum is the most inviting aspect of the experience. Where’s it going to wind up? Splashing rocks, soaking leaves, eddying into a pool created from pure fluid force? Possibilities abound. Through 15+ solo albums since his 1971 recital debut Facing You, Jarrett has become uniquely eloquent at concocting themes from his rich imagination and – perhaps more importantly – connecting them in rhapsodic episodes. In a word: flow.
A Multitude of Angels catches the pianist in both a place of vulnerability and strength. Comprised of four CDs from four concerts in four Italian cities, these unedited 1996 improvisations were recorded right before a major career break due to his extended bout with chronic fatigue syndrome. He bounced back from its pernicious clutches a few years later, but these days he chooses to break his virtuosic solo sets into discrete sections rather than sustain the uninterrupted sense of adventure that earned him a global rep via live masterpieces such as Bremen/Lausanne and The Koln Concert.
This current approach hasn’t played havoc with the key elements of Jarrett’s aesthetic boilerplate, though. Comparatively recent discs such as Rio and Paris/London: Testament brim with passages that range from two-fisted frenzy to one-fingered poignancy. Using the entire instrument to voice the details of his overtly emotional music has always been a Jarrett forte. A full blush of broad strokes and nuances comprise his work on Angels, so I thought it might be helpful to list a few of the maestro’s cornerstone artistic elements and point out their agency here.
DELICACY: Jarrett sat down Torino, Italy and, at a courageously limpid tempo, began to sketch an extended musing that consistently folded inward with enough commitment to be deemed a public meditation. By the time he whittled away his need for the middle register and headed up to trillville, he’d reached the kind of composure that only needs a note or three to speak its mind. His music has long been built on sensitivity. At its most dubious, far too much so. But as his right hand ekes out a series of exquisite glisses that prove a pivot point to the feistier ardor to come, he reminds us just how much terrain he can convincingly traverse while illustrating the power of grace.
EXPRESSIONISM: Frenetics aren’t a Jarrett staple but he’s certainly a fan of the high-flying vigor that reaches out and grabs an audience. His second improv in Modena takes off with a small storm of action that that dodges the dissonance but tips a hat to the cagey delirium Cecil Taylor so judiciously employed in ‘60s. As his fragmented phrases land on top of each other and the pianist determines the architectural logic in real time, a hurtling momentum arises. This skyscraper is built on shards, but its integrity is obvious.
CATHARSIS: Repeat a riff or lick with just the right volition and there’s a good chance you’re going to enhance its meaning with every new go-round. Blues musicians know all about it. About 10 minutes into “Verona 2” Jarrett reaches a point where his Morse Code repetition of one note starts to blossom into a left-hand motif that brings a hammerhead force front and center. A few more minutes and it’s a Steve Reich barrelhouse scenario – spilling, building, intensifying. The pianist takes it farther than others might – for a moment or two it seems like the soundtrack to an OCD episode. But by the conclusion the extended pounding makes way for a breakthrough. Like Van Morrison throttling the phrase “streamline promenade” during hell-raising live performances of “Moonshine Whiskey,” Jarrett wallops the instrument until the mountaintop has been reached.
TRANSCENDENCE. He poured out the passion in two extended Ferrara pieces, but the pith of this untitled encore winds up speaking volumes. Touch is a Jarrett hallmark – he can have a single note resonate in a variety of ways – and this bittersweet sign-off has the feel of a drone. He feathers the keyboard, and with one note bleeding into the next, it almost sounds like a horn player is center stage. An abstract spiritual with a folkish, vaguely Celtic, aura.
In his notes for the box set, the man who once said he slept under the first real piano he got for his birthday as a child because he was so smitten with its possibilities, reports that the “angels” of the album title are many – the audiences, instruments, concert halls, and energy that got him through these shows all conspired to reach what he deems a “pinnacle” of his career. Jarrett has had numerous successes, so as far as pinnacles go, maybe it is, maybe it’s not. But a couple things seem irrefutable. The resourcefulness and vision of this music is obvious, and these luminous excursions repeatedly cut right to the heart of the matter, even when they take the long way ‘round.
There’s no lack of great guitarists in country music. Start with Merle Travis, veer over to Chet Atkins, make way for Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant, and you’ll still have plenty of killer string-players left to discover. From grace and nuance to speed and authority, their pickin’ usually brings out the lyrical character of the song at hand while helping sell its emotional clout. Absorb what Atkins does with James P. Johnson’s “Carolina Shout” and you’ll hear how a delicate statement of melody, flecked with a handful of witty fills, can be tied up in a swinging little package.
It probably won’t surprise longtime fans, but John Scofield has a way with twang, too. It’s an opinion that continuously unfolds on Country For Old Men, a romp through tunes associated with Hank, hollers, and honky tonks. Somewhere in the middle of “Mama Tried” the 64-year-old bandleader reminds us that prioritizing lyricism is a forever winning approach when it comes to broaching eloquence, and that pacing is an expert’s game.
In the first verse, Scofield starts off shadowing Merle Haggard’s melody, and from “doin’ life without parole” to “her pleading I denied,” he makes it seem like he’s fully happy to color inside the lines. Then, ka-boom, it’s lift-off time. As drummer Bill Stewart, bassist Steve Swallow and keyboardist Larry Goldings flip Hag’s steady clip-clop rhythm into something much sleeker, Sco roams the back 40, blowing a string of idiosyncratic phrases and adroitly linking ‘em together. Merle loved to swing, too – he was a Bob Wills freak, after all – and it genuinely seems there’s a legit nexus being forged between the two as the guitarist messes around with the singer’s melody.
This all works because Scofield is a song guy. From his earliest albums on, originals such as “Holidays” and “Fat Dancer” were the kind of improv vehicles that were easy to hum along with. As the decades flew by, that skill was sharpened. Quiet’s “Away With Words” and Works For Me’s “Not You Again” are earworms par excellence. By the time he started putting his spin on Ray Charles (check the boo hoo version of “Crying Time”) and the gospel canon (see the bouncy prayer of “I’ll Fly Away”), an approach had been fashioned. Country music has been in his head for a while, too. In 2007 he added extra a dollop of grace to Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors.” Personally, I wanted to hear more Nashville notions from him right then and there.
Scofield’s known as burner; in the last 15 years, he’s spent time reinvigorating the jam band formula and proving how cogent some psychedelic explorations can be. Country For Old Men is flecked with firecrackers; it has a “Red River Valley” that conjures Booker T & the MGs playing at CBGB, a straight-up frantic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and an “Wildwood Flower that might give A.P. Carter heart palpitations – hard-driving stuff. But as he did on Rich’s chart-topping ode to lust, here Sco shows us just how strong his ballad game is. Old Men finds him on a George Jones jag, racking up three gorgeous tearjerkers by the country icon. “A Girl I Used To Know,” approximates Possum’s jukebox melisma, deploying all those swoops and slurs in the “I won’t be-ah-egg you not to go” line. As “Mr. Fool” closes out, the guitarist alludes to Freddie King – launching single-note exclamations everywhere. And you can certainly feel the shot ‘n’ beer woe at the heart of “Bartender’s Blues,” the gin mill waltz that James Taylor laid on Jones’ plate in the late ‘70s. Mix this old-school beauty with the drama Scofield brings to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and the cunning of his flow on Shania Twain’s “Still The One,” and a through-line emerges: lilt and whimsy are essential to his toolbox these days. No wonder he closes with a 30-second tintype refraction of “I’m An Old Cowhand” that manages nods to both Sonny Rollins and Roy Rogers.