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Always Knew Jon Could Kick Azz

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Five Must-See Bands at the 2011 Newport Jazz Festival

It’s coming up fast, and as veteran’s know, you have to have your map laid out in front of you if you want to catch all the good stuff. Which there’s plenty of, by the way – this is another well-curated program for the Fort Adams affair. Ambrose Akinmusire, Randy Weston, Miguel Zenon – there are lots of big talents taking the stage in Newport (check this wider list). Here are five groups that need to be circled in advance. Grab a ticket and head to the Ocean State this weekend. Can’t make it? The heroes at NPR bring it to your ear-buds (donate to your local station this year!).  Here’s the Spotify list

1. John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble

Wow, a working big band. Meaning they may have charts in front of them, but they play often enough to bring a true immediacy to the table – there’s always lift-off when they take the stage. That’s key, because the percussionist-composer’s detailed pieces sound best when all the nuances are being appreciated. The title track from Eternal Interlude (Sunnyside) offers flashes of swing-based history and allusions to pulse-driven minimalism, and the subtleties need to be attended to. The who’s who of NYC improvisers that comprise the outfit usually do their boss proud.

2. Steve Coleman & Five Elements

Can a band be simultaneously skittish and stable? Coleman’s rigorous M-BASE antics – an amalgam of precise zig-zag melody lines and intricate cross-rhythms – offers a resounding “hell, yeah.” Led by the  revered alto saxophonist, they’re one of the most self-assured outfits you’ll ever see, exploding the concept of counterpoint, stressing individuality while proffering collectivism, and making the funk woof in an idiosyncratic way. Saw them last month, and was reminded of one thing: their precision is devastating.

3. Wynton Marsalis 

He has a way of making raucous and rowdy morph into sweet and sultry, and if you’ve seen his small ensemble of late, you might agree: his version of swing encompasses so many of jazz’s outre impulses it’s impossible to mistake how widely inclusive his approach actually is at this late date. Terrific musicianship and judicious sense of experimentation? I’ll take it over one-dimensional radicalism any day.

4. Mostly Other People Do the Killing

Trumpeter Peter Evans, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, drummer Kevin Shea, and drummer-composer Moppa Elliott have been together long enough to let their cohesion be represented by swagger. The cover art of their latest disc sticks out its tongue at Keith Jarrett’s The Koln Concert – a wealth of deep thoughts that finds the pianist judiciously gauging each note. Cagey and cavalier, MOPDTK has a blast plopping a cream pie in the face of such sobriety, romping through their sets with an agitated informality. Their rambunctious freebop is built on a manic esprit that’s proud of its entertainment skills.

5. Apex: Rudresh Mahanthappa & Bunky Green

Twenty five years ago, Steve Coleman hit NYC talking Bunky Green, Bunky Green, Bunky Green. The 70-something educator is an idiosyncratic alto man who bends the norm to suit his needs and comes away with solos that burst with singularity. Ten years ago Mahanthappa, himself a singular alto firebrand, also stressed BG’s skills in conversation. Now they’re a wily intergenerational front line, winning accolades for their fervent exchanges and clocking critical awards for the very impressive debut disc, a record that storms in several different ways while wafting strains of South Indian music into the mix.

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Mostly Other People Do The Killing: Round Bottom, Square Top

They don’t make a move without injecting their music with sass. But Mostly Other People Do The Killing‘s explosive improv is anything but frivolous – and only a smidge sarcastic. The New York quartet blends puckishness and profundity, and their expertise at both has been obvious for a few years now. The Coimbra Concert,  which captures them at their high-flying best, conjuring the eruption of Charles Mingus, the humor of Raymond Scott and the boisterous beauty of the Art Ensemble, is yet another wiseacre triumph (check my review of it on page 111 of this month’s Tone mag). But you really have to see ‘em on stage to get the full hit – especially the depth of drummer Kevin Shea’s swinging mania on a piece like “Round Bottom, Square Top.”   That means it would be wise to head to Zebulon this evening. They may be serious improvisers, but they know from droll.

Other smart places to be this weekend:

Impulse! Nights at Jazz Standard. 

Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band 

George Wein Puts On His Glasses, Life Improves For All

Nice to see the inventor of the jazz festival looking in the nooks and crannies again, and writing about it as well. But isn’t this what Peter Watrous was basically nudging him to do 20 years ago in “The Big Lie”? I’ll have to go find that piece.

Mostly Other People Do The Moosic

Humor should always be welcome in jazz. The music is tacitly intellectual, so an injection of wit can be helpful, whether coming in the form of whimsical exchange or wiseacre glee. Mostly Other People Do The Killing builds its esthetic on the latter, but does its best work when the former is in full play. With fluid banter central to the action, bassist-composer Moppa Elliott and his cohorts use a steady stream of quips to make their points on the new This Is Our Moosic. They may be serious improvisers, but they know from droll.

Part of this playfulness is shtick. The New York quartet’s pieces are named after towns in Pennsylvania (Fagundus, Dunkelbergers, Belfry), and the CD cover is a nifty replica of Ornette’s similarly titled original. But a more important part is MOPDTK’s willingness to grant its brainy maneuvers enough wiggle room to make space for some slapstick. They run an “ancient to the future” esthetic here, kicking ersatz boogaloos, mock jump tunes, and Raymond Scott echoes to infinity and beyond. As trumpeter Peter Evans filters a blues vocab through an extended technique lingo of blasts and squalls, alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon (who recently won the Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition) chirps and spirals to punctuate Elliott’s ditties. Throughout, they specialize in the kind of freebop that puts the fun up front.

Of course, the silliness would scan as trite if the playing lacked weight. It doesn’t.  The band’s signature trait is a splashy collective oomph that’s reliant on genuine poise. Even while flying around the wild blue yonder they’re terrifically tight. Drummer Kevin Shea loves him some Han Bennink (check his percussion solo/puppet show during “A Night in Tunisia” on YouTube), and he’s a firestarter throughout; there’s not a measure of Moosic where he doesn’t sustain the action with rattling swing. Along with his mates, he concocts an atmosphere of controlled flamboyance.

Always brash, often giddy – no wonder pundits are saying MOPDTK is making jazz more entertaining. True, they probably couldn’t exist without “Chippie” and the Art Ensemble and Sex Mob and “Eat That Chicken” and The Bad Plus, but as they sort through the good stuff that came before them, they generate some pretty good stuff themselves. Call ’em Old and New Dreams for the MySpace generation, and realize that their wit is the red blood that fuels the gray matter.