In general I have no problems with music critics as long as they speak with knowledge and actually do more research into the record they are reviewing than just listening. Liner notes can give the particular CD some perspective. Peter Hum who writes for the Ottawa Citizen and has a great blog called THRIVING ON A RIFF is one such writer that does just that! Here are some great reviews he did for Cellar Live.
Some months ago, I wrote here about my envy for New Yorkers who continually have an embarrassment of jazz riches to choose from. These days, however, I’m looking West instead of South — to Vancouver, that is.
This year’s National Jazz Awards acknowledged Vancouver’s talent pool in a big way. The country’s top jazz CD was Foundations from Vancouver bassist Jodi Proznick. Her band was named Acoustic Band of the Year, and she was picked Bassist of the Year. Fellow Vancouverites Brad Turner (trumpet), Hugh Fraser (trombone) and Phil Dwyer (a saxophonist now living on Vancouver Island, but close enough) won their instrumental categories. Turner was also Producer of the Year. A label for which many Vancouver jazz musicians record, Cellar Live, was picked Label of the Year. Vancouver’s jazz festival topped its counterparts across Canada. What about the rest of Canada, you ask? I wrote here that the NJA’s perspective might have been blinkered, because, for one thing, Montreal’s vibrant jazz scene had been almost completely overlooked by the nominators. But that wasn’t to take away from the jazz achievements flowing out of Vancouver.
Indeed, it’s now my turn to tip my hat to Vancouver’s jazz output, and more specifically, to Cory Weeds. Shown above, he’s the city’s jazz renaissance man — saxophonist, owner of the Cellar jazz club, power behind the Cellar Live label, radio-show host and jazzblogger. A lengthy and meaty recent interview with Weeds can be found here
Weeds sent me a batch of Cellar Live releases soon after the National Jazz Awards were announced. I’ll blog about as many as I can until I run out of steam.
Most of the Cellar Live releases stick to the main trunk of the jazz tradition, affirming heavy-duty swinging and the language of bebop as eternal verities. Well-codified forms and songs are the norm on most CDs — with an exception being Accelerated Development, a CD from the James Danderfer Group that I very much liked and reviewed here. Weeds at his blog commented on his friend Danderfer’s music: “You couldn’t pay me enough money to try to improvise on Danderfer’s tunes… Danderfer writes complex tunes, with complex melodies and harmonies yet the average person still walks away humming the tunes!” I agree. For his part, while Weeds enjoys Danderfer’s forward-looking writing and playing, he prefers a comfort zone rooted in 1960s sounds. Here, he blogged that “innovation is overrated.” Me, I might be more in agreement with the flipside — that the swinging, bopping tradition is underrated. And I think that music can somehow be both of the above, not either/or, and that art that all-encompassing may even have the broadest emotional range too.
The first Cellar Live CD that I’ll mention is drummer Joel Haynes’ Transitions. I’ll give it a lengthier treatment because it’s my favourite of the label’s straight-ahead discs, exemplifying Cellar Live’s sound and virtues in technicolour. Like many of the discs, it was recorded at Weeds’ club, and you really get the sense that the room and its patrons inspire the musicians to kick serious jazz butt when they play. The music has no lofty compositional ambitions (such as Danderfer’s), but the tunes are smartly crafted to be catchy from the get-go and moreover, to encourage soloists to take off. So with these parameters in mind, Transitions really is the standout.
I may have missed the trees for the forest here… the disc is from Toronto drummer Joel Haynes, who lives about 800 kilometres from his saxophonist of choice, New Yorker Seamus Blake, shown above. Haynes’ other bandmates, pianist Tilden Webb and bassist Jodi Proznick, are Vancouverites, another 3,300 kilometres away. Unite them on the bandstand, however, and they sound as thick as thieves. Given that Haynes, Webb and Proznick have a history dating back to their McGill University days in the 1990s, the simpatico’s not surprising. Blake’s ease with the trio makes sense too, given the broad swath of jazz styles that his covers, as well as his split-second musical reflexes. So the sense of a shared common purpose — the “bandness” of the people playing — is one big delight of Transitions.
The bulk of the CD consists of originals from Haynes, Webb and Proznick. They’re three separate writers, but they dip their pens in the same well, drawing inspiration from 1960s sounds and progressions. It’s the spirited immediacy of their playing and “right-now” feeling of their improvising that ensures that the music sounds, well, “un-innovative,” if that’s a word. The CD’s only cover is a bit of twist — Oasis’s Champagne Supernova, which elicits some contemporary testifying from pianist Webb.
Tearing up every tune, and making the CD exceptional, is Blake, a high-energy, positive musical force. He’s a double-time wonder, always articulate and exciting, constructing cascades of melodies that are marvels of logic and exertion. His soloing on the CD’s opener and title track, and on Impress Me, Haynes’ Coltrane-inspired blowing vehicle, are remarkable for their overall shape and pacing as well as for so many succulent phrases.
This CD should be a contender for 2008’s best Canadian jazz disc, and I can heartily recommend the quartet’s appearance at the Ottawa International Jazz Festival.
Bassist Proznick and her husband Webb are the core of Proznick’s award-winning disc Foundations, which is an upbeat, well-conceived studio outing.
Beyond its similar title, Foundations naturally shares some common ground with Transitions. free dance of the dead It smartly reworks well-written pop (Joni Mitchell’s Help Me), just as Haynes group remade Champagne Supernova. Proznick’s disc also has a superb band feeling, perhaps because drummer Jesse Cahill and saxophonist Steve Kaldestad were also McGill contemporaries of Proznick and Webb. Cahill is a snappy, driving drummer like Haynes, and Kaldestad is a lean, lyrical and expressive player like Blake, although he lacks Blake’s wow factor. (But to be fair, nearly all other saxophonists do.)
How do the discs differ? Foundations tends in places to be boppier, more 1950s you might say, with Wray Downes’ blues-with-a-bridge RB’s Line and Lucky Thompson’s Dancing Sunbeam as paragons of uncomplicated, straight-ahead playing that will definitely have your head nodding in time. Proznick gets more time to solo on her CD — and that’s great. She swings up a storm especially on Dancing Sunbeam.
Weeds’s own CD, Big Weeds, is a strong outing, with the leader arguably showing a bit of New York envy himself. He’s imported three New York/Smoke jazz club heavyweights — guitarist Peter Bernstein, organist Mike LeDonne and drummer Joe Farnsworth — to back him. That, I say, takes guts. Weeds could surely have played with his regular Vancouver cohorts and been comfortable in those circumstances. Instead, he wanted to bask in and be inspired by the brilliance and soulfulness of three Big-Apple players who likely represent the epitome of straight-ahead playing for him.
Weeds is an alto player first and a bopper above all, showing agility and a big, welcoming sound on the deep-groove blues No Bull and the aggressive closer Modal Issue. He has a hearty approach to tenor too, well-suited to the bright blues opener Darben the Redd Fox, the greasy loper For Fathead and the big, open-hearted ballad Blossoms in May. (He can also plays a smooth soprano saxophone when required… as he does on the NuJazzy tune featured in this video from Vancouver singer Melody Diachun:)
However, with Bernstein and LeDonne sharing the stage with him, Weeds has surrounded himself with truly striking players. While Bernstein and Weeds speak the same language, Bernstein speaks its more fluidly and freely, pretty much at a world-class level. LeDonne is a one-man orchestra, and a double-time, long-line whiz in Seamus Blake’s league. So as good as Weeds is, Bernstein and LeDonne can’t help but upstage him.
But then again, the jack of many jazz trades masters none. Are those New York guys club owners too, with radio shows and blogs and their own record labels?
Big Weeds is far from a vanity project. It’s an honest and worthy debut from a musician who plays not only saxophones, but also a crucial role sustaining the music he loves in the city where he lives. I’ll be glad to get to the Cellar the next time I’m in Vancouver, enjoy some fine music, and buy Weeds a beer.
James Danderfer: Inspired by Shanghai
I gave my first listen to James Danderfer’s CD Accelerated Development without so much as a glance at his extensive liner notes. I really liked what I heard. Its mix of horns (Danderfer’s clarinet and flute, Chad Makela’s baritone sax and Brad Turner’s trumpet) was distinctive. Chris Gestrin’s piano and tricked-out electric piano work was masterful — vital, I thought, to help realize the compelling, contemporary original material. I liked the bits of captured street sounds and exotic percussion that found their way into certain tracks. With some songs, the unique blend of timbres was so evocative and fresh that I wanted to play them repeatedly to savour them. You can hear a few snippets here and make your own observations
Once read, the liner notes solved a few mysteries. (I read them, in English, by the way, not in the Chinese mixed in with the copy.) Danderfer, a Vancouver native, had relocated to Shanghai a few years ago and then composed his stirring music based on his impressions of the great Chinese city in its throes of transformation. Had the timing been right, I might have worked Danderfer into last week’s blog posting on jazz in China, or into last month’s discussion about jazz and multicultural jazz.
I’ve found Danderfer’s disc yielding more pleasures and prompting more insights with repeated listenings. It’s consistently full of strong, provocative compositions and hearty improvising. I like too that its allusions to China are more a matter or imagination than classical or stereotypical. There’s no erhu (Chinese two-stringed violin), no arrangements of Asian folksongs as Kenny Garrett, the most celebrated of jazz’s Asiaphiles, often offers.
Instead, Danderfer, who is just 30 and has recently moved back to Vancouver after two-and-a-half years in China, is being true to the Shanghai he experienced, conveying a newcomer’s sense of wonder and urgency, track after track. There’s not a dud in the bunch of them, but for me, the standouts are:
Blues Migration — the CD’s opener is easy on the ears but substantial, setting a chattering melody over an earthy groove. There are solos all around, but everyone is definitely playing the song rather than their favourite cool lines over the chords. The rhythm section is nice and interactive, and Gestrin on Rhodes and piano has a really orchestral way of adding to the music.
The title track — a furious jam first for Danderfer’s clarinet and Makela’s bari, and then for Turner’s trumpet and Gestrin’s distorted keyboard. The energy and sophistication here remind me of some of Dave Douglas’ recent music.
Memory Loss — an insistent, melancholy odd-meter song driven by a spiraling piano figure, and perhaps because of that feature reminiscent of Brad Mehldau’s composing.
Freecracker — Foreboding from its opening gong, its mysterious, processed keyboard intro and Danderfer’s ominous melody.
The Constant River — A poignant ballad that keeps building and changing, balancing Turner’s pinched trumpet with cinematic piano and background horns.
Throughout, the music is spirited and deeply resonant, with Danderfer’s clarinet prominent and deservedly featured. Don Byron notwithstanding, the clarinet seems under-utilized in modern mainstream jazz, more associated with swing kings like Benny Goodman or Buddy DeFranco, or with klezmer-inspired outings by Don Byron or Chris Speed. On Danderfer’s CD, the instrument’s less familiar sound plays the foreigner very well. Gestrin gets the music’s MVP award for his versatility, all-round expertise with groove and harmony, and his striking facility for manipulating timbres. He’s up there, I think with those keyboardists like Craig Taborn, Jamie Saft and Adam Benjamin who, following Joe Zawinul’s great example, impress above all with their sounds but have every other musical detail in place as well. In other words, Gestrin’s playing is pretty close to magical.
Accelerated Development is a CD that gets your skin. I can only imagine that Shanghai does too.