CD Reviews - June 2013 

by Tim Willcox

Ode, Brad Mehldau Trio; Mehldau, piano, Larry Grenadier, bass, Jeff Ballard, drums.
Mehldau’s name has become synonymous with phrases like “the face of modern jazz” and “the most influential jazz music of our time” -- and rightly so. There is nary a musician alive who possesses the musical intuitiveness, technical proficiency and imagination of Mehldau. It is also not outlandish to say that both Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard are at the forefront of innovation on their respective instruments. So it comes as no surprise that this trio has released another gem in what has become seemingly endless wellspring of great recordings.

Mehldau has aged gracefully -- from the virtuosic “young lion” who produced some of the most influential recordings of the 1990s -- into a thoughtfully restrained yet somehow more daring musician. The opening track, a tribute to the late great saxophonist Michael Brecker simply titled “M.B.,” showcases Mehldau’s ever-growing romance with space. Some of his earlier recordings seemed to be brimming with too many notes and an over-abundance of displays of technical prowess. Mehldau seems more content with letting things happen, even if he might sound slightly less perfect or impressive from a technical standpoint. This isn’t to say that his virtuosity hasn’t remained completely intact, it’s just that he seems more willing to let things go. These imperfections give his music a more breath-like quality, a welcome addition to Mehldau’s already broad palette of textures. The Paul Bley’s trio recordings come to mind whilst listening to “Ode.”

Mehldau’s cohorts also seem more comfortable with this ever- developing group aesthetic. Since replacing the trio’s original drummer, Jorge Rossy, Ballard has played a major role in reshaping the sound and concept of the trio. As is evident on the whimsical original, “Bee Blues,” Ballard comes from a different sonic space than Rossy. While Rossy might have been more keen to follow Mehldau’s direction and arc of intensity, Ballard is the perfect counter-weight to Mehldau’s flights of fancy. It makes the music less predictable and more subtle.

Perhaps it’s due to each musician becoming older and feeling more at ease in their own skin. Grenadier has always seemed to be the most patient member of the group, letting his solos develop methodically from whatever initial spark inspires him. He uses his virtuosity only when the music calls for it.

Mehldau has always written a curious mix of jazz-meetspop- meets-classical. This most recent batch of tunes revels in that same gray area of his prior releases. Several tracks -- “26,” “Dream Sketch” (which came to Mehldau in a dream), and “Kurt Vibe” have a soulful, groove-music quality to them, both kind of a cross between ‘60s Herbie Hancock and the soul tunes from Mingus’ “Ah Um.” The title track is almost classical in nature, reminiscent of Chopin’s prelude in E minor. The last four tracks are mainly straight ahead affairs. Two up-tempo numbers, “Stan the Man” -- an abstract, up-tempo take on Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” -- and “Aquaman” -- a full-on classic Mehldau tune -- showcase the band’s ability to burn. “Wyatt’s Eulogy for George Hanson,” a tribute to the character from the film, “Easyrider,” is a rubato ballad, and “Days of Dilbert Delaney” is an all-out swing-waltz with a nod to Coltrane and Elvin Jones.

While Mehldau has shifted focus to various other projects outside the trio format, “Ode” and it’s companion album, “Where Do You Start” (recorded at the same time), seem to signal a return to the setting which brought Mehldau so much acclaim in the past. The music on “Ode” merits repeated listening.
Nonesuch Records, 2012.

Gouache, Jacky Terrasson, piano.
French pianist Terrasson’s latest release is a smorgasbord of styles. All that he has to offer -- from virtuoso instrumentalist to composer to arranger and re-interpreter -- is on display here. First of all, this is a terribly fun recording. Terrasson’s imagination has always been his strong suit, and he’s thrown everything, including the kitchen sink, into this album. Terrasson is obviously a happy guy, and this recording is full of humor and joy, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Stylistically, “Gouache” is all over the map. From the crazy atonal electric bass-line opening of “Try to Catch Me” to the soulful and spacious R+B take on Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab,” there’s something on this album for everyone, regardless of whether or not they’re jazz fans. While Terrasson comes out of the Keith Jarrett school (complete with audible grunting), he also shows that he’s checked out a whole lot of Ahmad Jamal and Oscar Peterson, as is evident on his arrangement of Justin Beiber’s (yes you read that correctly) “Baby.” The tune gets an uptempo reinterpretation, in the vein of Jamal’s Pershing recordings, then comes crashing to a halt as it transforms into a Captain and Tennille ‘70s style loveballad.

This willingness to defy the common conception of what a jazz album is (or should be) makes Terrasson an interesting figure in today’s jazz world. He seems comfortable playing anything, without giving a thought to what the typical jazz listener might want or expect to hear.

The Jarrett influence is especially noticeable on the title track, which resembles “The Wind-up” from Jarrett’s “Belonging” album. “Mother” is another nod to Jarrett’s ‘70s rock-vibe trio and quartet recordings. Brad Mehldau also seems to have had an influence on Terrasson, as is apparent on “Happiness,” which is reminiscent of Mehldau’s “Unrequited.” While these tunes may be heavily influenced by others, they don’t feel like mere imitations. Terrasson seems to be extending an honest thank you to his heroes and peers.

Other standout tracks include impressionistic composer Erik Satie’s “Je Te Veux,” which receives a slow Latin treatment, and John Lennon’s beautiful “Oh My Love.” Both feature a guest appearance by Cecile McLorin, a gifted vocalist in the tradition of Billie Holiday. While a few tracks are augmented by trumpet, percussion and bass clarinet, most of “Gouache” is centered around the piano trio (with Terrasson occasionally playing the Fender Rhodes).

Young drummer Justin Faulkner (Branford Marsalis Quartet, Kurt Rosenwinkel) is an exceptionally versatile presence here, seemingly comfortable playing authentically in virtually any style. At the tender age of 21, Faulkner is already playing with some of the world’s greatest musicians. It’ll be interesting to watch his career trajectory from here on out. Bassist Burniss Earl Travis II is equally adept at both the electric and acoustic basses. He’s at no loss for chops and plays with a Scot Lafaroesque sense of interplay, which is especially evident on the album’s only jazz standard, Sonny Rollins’ “Valse Hot.”

While Terrasson has been a fixture on the international jazz scene for nearly two decades, his music remains fresh, unique and unrestrained by convention. This is yet another recording in a long line of unusual and inspired albums.
Universal UK, 2012.

Alive, Tunnel Six; Chad McCullough, trumpet, Ben Dietschi, saxophones, Brian Seligman, guitar, Andrew Oliver, piano, Ron J. Hynes, bass, Tyson Stubelek, drums.
This is the newest offering from the sextet of young, cutting edge musicians from various places in the U.S. and Canada. Two Northwest jazz stalwarts, Andrew Oliver of Portland and Chad McCullough of Seattle, are responsible for making the group a fixture in this region. Former Portlander Stubelek plays drums in the group, although he relocated to NYC several years ago. Formed in 2009 at the Bannf International Jazz Workshop, Tunnel Six also released a very nice recording in 2011 titled “Lake Superior.” This one was recorded live during the group’s 2012 tour.

One of their greatest attributes is the ability to make a sextet sound like a miniature orchestra. Five of the six members contributed beautiful and unique originals, all of which take advantage of the group’s openness to various styles as well as their attention to the tiniest of details. Dynamics and imaginative mixing of timbre and rhythmic textures play a major role in making this recording diverse and fun for repeated listening.

McCullough contributes some of the prettiest originals to the recording. He writes in a fashion which evokes beauty and a certain solemness while managing not to sound sentimental. “The Admiral’s Lament,” for instance, showcases this. Oliver is one of the most prolific composers in our region, having founded the Portland Jazz Composers’ Ensemble as well as the new PJCE Records label. Here he contributes two numbers, a beautiful waltz titled “Columbia,” and the pointillistic, Latin jazztinged “No Mongoose.”

Guitarist Seligman, who has been strongly influenced by Bill Frisell in both playing and writing, gives us the album’s imaginative opener, “The Wagon and the Gun.” The track showcases Dietschi and McCullough’s musical camaraderie on an open vamp featuring both men improvising simultaneously. Seligman’s other contribution, “ Heavy Weight,” fuses jazz with rock and is reminiscent of the music of drummer Jim Black’s group, AlasNoAxis. Seligman has written some of the more genre bending music on “Alive.” Hynes and Dietsche both contribute one track apiece, both more straight-ahead affairs with nods to the modernist and minimalist classical music. There also seems to be touches of Steve Reich’s signature “looping counterpoint” throughout the album.

I know I’ve focused on the writing side of things, but let’s not forget that all of these guys are great instrumentalists too. Each player has their own sound, a feat in this day and age when there are literally thousands of clones out there. McCullough has one of the most honest approaches to trumpet in modern jazz. A dark and warm tone coupled with fresh, spontaneous ideas makes him a real joy to listen to.

None of the musicians rely on things that merely “fit under their fingers,” and I get a sense that they’ve all taken paths around the typical modern influences which produce so many imitators. Saxophonist Dietschi reminds me a bit of both Dewey Redman and the lesser known British saxophonist Stan Sulzmann. It’s refreshing to hear a young saxophonist who isn’t imitating Chris Potter, Mark Turner, or Seamus Blake.

Drummer Stubulek is a real point of interest, playing with a delicate touch when needed but able to breathe fire into the music when called upon to “r-r-r-rROCK!” He is one of my favorite young drummers, with the musical approach, openness and dynamic range of Paul Motion and Joey Baron, but with a technique and touch along the lines of Brian Blade.

Stubelek’s childhood friend, Oliver, is a unique pianist, devoid of cliches as well. He never seems to play “licks” or the conventional jazz lines that we’ve all heard a million times. All of the playing here is a breath of fresh air. I must admit that I haven’t seen this group live yet, but after hearing the album, I’ll be making a point of hearing them on their next jaunt through town. You should as well.
Self-produced, 2012.

Made Possible, The Bad Plus; Ethan Iverson, piano, Reid Anderson, bass, Dave King, drums.
Speaking of genre-defying music ... The Bad Plus, famous for their unique reinterpretations of songs from virtually every corner of the musical world, have released another gem. This CD finds the three men playing with more sensitivity and less showmanship than ever before, especially drummer Dave King, who is still capable of awing audiences with his insane vocabulary and technical prowess. Here, King is more subdued, playing with more restraint and more of a jazz sensibility compared to their prior releases. The trio has also subtly incorporated some electronic ambient sounds into the mix, something they haven’t done before. It’s done in a tasteful manner, used sparingly, never detracting from and only adding to the sonic landscape.

Still drawing on a bottomless magic hat of inspiration, from the prog-rock flavored “Wolf Out” to the New Orleans meets the Caribbean, “I want to feel happy,” to sensitive ballads such as “In Stitches” and the late Paul Motian’s “Victoria,” this latest of- fering finds the Bad Plus continuing to twist our ears with some of the most interesting music being made today.
E-One Music, 2012.

Live at Wiener Konzerthaus; Thomas Gansch, trumpet/vocals, Georg Breinschmid, bass/vocals.
It’s not often you pick up a copy of an album by two guys you’ve never heard of, playing in an unusual format,and have your mind blown. This live recording is full of discovery, beauty and humor (the two share a strong passion for Monty Python). Both Gansch and Breinschmid -- virtuosos on their respective axes -- dropped out of the University of Vienna’s classical program to dedicate themselves to jazz, and they have developed a comedy-meets-theater-meets-music routine. By the sounds of the applause, musical participation and laughter from the audience, they’ve hit upon a magical recipe.

Jazz musicians are notorious for taking themselves too seriously, creating an invisible wall between themselves and their audience. This duo does just the opposite here by bringing their audience into their strange little world, all the while not sacrificing an ounce of musicality.

The material ranges from the beautiful to the absurd. Nearly every imaginable style, from jazz to classical to blues, rock and parlor music, are covered. From the spacious ECM-like track simply titled “5/4,” which showcases the duo’s capacity for subtlety and seriousness, to the hilarious performance piece, “Klassik Gstanzln,” there’s something for everyone.

Breinschmidt is more than just a bassist. He’s an orchestra rolled into two hands, complete with percussion section. His work with the bow -- he uses it for both textural shifts and percussive effects -- is also astounding, something that you don’t hear that often in jazz (excepting Christian McBride). His unique ability to play both the role of bassist, chordal instrument and drummer gives the listener the impression that we are listening to a group much larger than a duo. He has an incredible control over harmonics and timbre, never plays an out-of-tune note (unless it’s on purpose), and has an uncanny time-feel.

Gansch’s control of the trumpet is also freakish; he’s brash, bright and wailing one second, soft, dark and supple the next. Aside from being an obvious classical virtuoso, he is equally at home playing in a Louis Armstrong style, mimicking Clark Terry, or skirting the avant-garde musings of Lester Bowie and Don Cherry. There’s also a strong Gypsy and Klezmer influence in his playing.

The duo’s use of vocals, sound-effects and whistling (yes, whistling), both as effect and as instruments, also adds to the possibilities. They are both quite competent singers with great intonation and intricate harmony-singing abilities. While the duo performs their act speaking German, they still manage to translate their joyous form of comedy perfectly to the non-German speaking listener. There’s really no way to aptly describe what they do in words, you just have to get the album and listen. If you have a sense of humor, you’ll definitely enjoy “Live at Wiener Konzerthaus.”