Saturday, August 29, 2009

Miami soulman Bobby Stringer: Still in the mix

On his new disc, I'm Not To Blame, veteran Miami soulman Bobby Stringer more than lives up to the album's promise of "deep soul, downhome blues and a lil' funk." While he can smoothly croon a silky soul ballad, Stringer is equally adept at getting down with a slowburning blues. Dig his sweat-raising vocals on "I've Been Trying To Get Next to You," in which the singer engages in a little back-and-forth with the heated guitar licks of South Florida blues stalwart Jimi Fiano. Throughout, Fiano and his frequent bandmates, bassist Vinnie Fontana and drummer Guido Marciano, provide expert accompaniment, and are joined on a few tracks by saxophonist Stan Waldman and backup singer Betty Padgett.

You can catch Stringer on-stage 8-midnight tonight (Saturday, Aug. 29) with his Special Touch Band at LJ's Paradise Gardens Banquet Hall (12783 S.W. 280th St., Homestead, 305-257-1006). On Sept. 5, he'll share the marquee with longtime friend and colleague Jesse Jones Jr. for what's being billed as An Evening of Jazz and Blues at the South County Civic Center (16700 Jog Road, Delray Beach, 561-495-9813). Saxophonist Jones will supply the jazz part of the evening with his own set, while Stringer and Special Touch do their own funky thang. At the end of the evening, both men will come together to relive their glory days in the clubs of Coconut Grove, Overtown and Liberty City in the 1960s and '70s.

In the meantime, check out my interview with Stringer, which appeared on WLRN on Friday.

Friday, July 31, 2009

So then ... a conversation with Jesse Jones Jr.

It's always a treat catching up with Miami sax great Jesse Jones Jr. Earlier today, WLRN (91.3-FM) broadcast my interview with Jones, in which we talked about his new recording, The So Then Collection, and his recent experiences performing at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia. Check out the interview here and dig Jones' performance of a Charlie Parker classic alongside his excellent band and the always-remarkable Ira Sullivan (above).

Monday, June 15, 2009

The sublime leading the sublime

The group was supposed to be a democracy, drummer Adam Nussbaum jokingly informed the audience. But he was the one with the microphone, and so the role of dictator fell on his shoulders. Nussbaum's leadership wasn't limited to emceeing Saturday night's Nuttree Quartet concert at the Miniaci Performing Arts Center in Fort Lauderdale, though. Among the most musical of jazz drummers, he drove the action from behind his kit, providing a veritable swatch book of colors and textures as he traded sticks for brushes, brushes for mallets and swung in all tempos. More of a role player than a dazzling soloist, he shone brightest when supporting his bandmates than in his solo spots.

Joined by longtime colleague John Abercrombie on guitar, Gary Versace on Hammond B3 organ and Bill Evans on tenor and soprano saxophones, Nussbaum led the group through two sets of exciting and highly imaginative modern jazz. Although incarnations of the quartet recorded two albums of standards (last year's uninspiringly titled but brilliant Standards, which featured Jerry Bergonzi on saxophone, and the soon-to-be-released Something Sentimental, with Dave Liebman on sax and Jay Anderson on bass), the concert rarely delved into the Great American Songbook. And when it did, the pieces were so radically reharmonized as to render them almost unrecognizable. Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is the Ocean" was taken at a brisk clip and featured some outstanding solo work from the ever-creative Versace, who approximated the bubbly sounds of the briny deep. Evans stated the theme to Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love," but then Abercrombie's superb solo unraveled the skein of the melody like a cat toying with a ball of yarn.

A master of understatement, Abercrombie's hushed and sublime sonics provided a counterweight to his bandmates' exuberance, commanding a dazzling array of lovely chords and exuding quiet eloquence on his deeply soulful solos. The group opened with a couple of the guitarist's more joyful compositions, the brightly hued "Jazz Folk" and an ever-shifting tune he penned for his wife. On the latter, Nussbaum handed the microphone to the seemingly taciturn Abercrombie who got the night's biggest laughs with his intro to the piece; he explained that he wrote it at the suggestion of his wife after forgetting to get her an anniversary present. Another Abercrombie original, "A Nice Idea" showcased a mysterious and complex melodic line.

A couple of Nussbaum's original tunes made it to the highlight reel, as well, with the ballad "We Three" seguing into the charging "BTU," which the drummer teasingly said stood for something a mite more personal than "British Thermal Unit" (maybe "Black Thong Undies?"), and once again displayed the group's dynamic synergy. Evans offered a big, confident sound on tenor, his horn perhaps a bit too prominent in the mix. Still, his ideas were terrific, and his tone and phrasing even more engaging on the soprano sax. His composition "Cool Eddie" kicked off the abbreviated second set on a funky, uptempo note, and gave Abercrombie the opportunity to unspool some fiery blues licks, as well.

But the biggest revelation of the evening was Versace. Ensconced behind what appeared to be a much-used B3, he appeared to be having a blast, his playfulness and orginality on the instrument in evidence throughout. Cherrypicking notes, providing warm atmospherics, keeping a pulse on the bottom end and even dipping into reggae riddims, the keyboardist was truly a breath of fresh air.

The Nuttree Quartet concluded its performance with a read of Wayne Shorter's modern classic, "Footprints," a tune from Nuttree's Standards disc that truly allows Nussbaum to shine. From his (abbreviated) tribal intro to his slippery, snaky cymbal work and insistent sticking, he snapped the reins and drove the team through a quickstepping jaunt on this bit of modal exotica that surely sent what remained of the audience out the door buzzing. Of course, those expecting to hear a night of standards played the way they've always been played had already split.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pianist has South Florida Jazz wrapped around her finger

You probably could run on-stage and beat Randy Brecker's kneecaps with a tire iron and the cat wouldn't make a bad note. Fortunately, no one tested that theory Saturday night at the Miniaci Performing Arts Center in Davie. The trumpet master blew one gorgeously toned solo after another in the company of pianist Lynne Arriale's new quartet, which provided a preview of its recording, Nuance: The Bennett Studio Sessions, due out in May. The superb rhythm section from the recording, bassist George Mraz and drummer Anthony Pinciotti, were also along for the ride.

Like a graybearded alchemist, Brecker turned brass into liquid fire, effortlessly shaping notes of great volume and clarity on trumpet and flugelhorn. As he inserted a mute into the bell of his horn before a sublime read of "Ballad of the Sad Young Men," Brecker asked the soundman to turn up his mike. But even without amplification, it's likely he would have been heard out in the parking lot.

Possessing enormous melodic gifts, the fiery-haired Arriale was hardly overshadowed. In fact, her assured touch and supple phrasing are quite compatible with the trumpeter's, as displayed from start to finish on-stage and on the new recording. Arriale used the platform Saturday to showcase Nuance, performing the album in its entirety (or damn near), but out of sequence. The program began with the mellow uplift of the pianist's spritely original "Carry On," a perfect kickoff that spotlighted the pairing of sparkling piano and burnished brass. The ensemble then delved into Sting's "Wrapped Around Your Finger," teasing out the cool, mysterious vibe of the song, which was particularly evident in Arriale's solo, one of her finest of the night.

The group also flexed well-honed bop muscles on an excellent and nonderivative read of Monk's "I Mean You," on which the musicians seemed to revel in the tricky, push-pull rhythms, and also hung fire on Dizzy's "Night in Tunisia," as drummer Pinciotti seemed to be channeling Roy Haynes or Max Roach. But the ensemble's ballad playing was breathtaking. On the aforemenioned "Ballad of the Sad Young Men" (check out my Examiner page for a brief history of the tune), Brecker's muted horn perfectly captured the song's aching wistfulness, contrasting beautifully with Arriale's brighter but no-less-contemplative solo and tender comping. Pinciotti's light touch with brushes and mallets and Mraz's minimalistic bass notes added sensitive shadings, and the bassist's fine, elegant solo that ushers the song to its close serves as a reminder why he's been in demand since emigrating from his native Czechoslovakia more than 40 years ago.

After intermission, Brecker played the second set entirely on the flugel, sacrificing none of his fluency or fluidity on the softer-sounding horn. The group dived right in on a dreamy, avant-garde-sounding read of "I Hear a Rhapsody," which was reminiscent of Freddie Hubbard's take on Beiderbecke's "In a Mist."

Always drawing a crowd in South Florida — where she's long performed for South Florida Jazz, the organization that brought her back Saturday for its Impressions series — Arriale proved a charming hostess. Dressed, as is her custom, in elegant stage attire, she introduced the spiky original "Yada Yada Yada" by explaining that European audiences were often confused by the idiom that entered our lexicon, like so many, via Seinfeld.

Look for Nuance in stores or online beginning May 12.

Monday, April 6, 2009

A young drummer sparks the Branford Marsalis Quartet

Branford Marsalis wouldn't choose just any old drummer to fill in for his longtime comrade Jeff "Tain" Watts. No, he selected a turbo-driven windmill named Justin Faulkner, and the recently turned 18-year-old stole the show from his accomplished bandmates Saturday night at the Gusman Center in downtown Miami.

A packed house roared its approval after each dynamic solo, even hooting wildly when the exciting young Philly drummer was augmenting solos by pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and saxophonist Marsalis; while the other musicians elicited sometimes enthusiastic, sometimes obligatory applause, there was no mistaking the exuberance this crowd felt for the battering batterista. "You don't have to live with him," Marsalis groused, as he jokingly implored the audience to tone down its appreciation for the sure-to-be-swell-headed Faulkner.

The quartet drew heavily from its excellent new recording, Metamorphosen (Marsalis Music), opening with its first two cuts. The pulse-quickening Watts composition "The Return of the Jitney Man" — which kicks off both Metamorphosen and Watts' recent self-titled release for Dark Key Music — provides a showcase for Marsalis' swift bop riffs on tenor and Calderazzo's equally fast-stepping runs. The foursome then downshifted into Calderazzo's lovely ballad "The Blossom of Parting," as Marsalis switched to soprano, getting a sweet, sentimental clarinet-like sound on the straight horn. As on the recording, the tune features a lengthy sax and drums duet. Faulkner truly made the most of the moment, his limbs blurring as he drummed up a hurricane-force reaction to Marsalis' masterful blowing, which was never overwhelmed or obscured by the percussive onslaught. Undoubtedly flashy, Faulkner never showboated at the expense of any song or bandmate.

The quartet also nodded to Thelonious Monk, an obvious influence on its rhythmic and harmonic approach, with a superb read of the bop icon's "Think of One," and revisited Marsalis' own "In the Crease," a burner from the early days of the quartet, which has now been together for 10 years. Returning to Metamorphosen, the group offered Marsalis' slippery "Jabberwocky," as the leader took his alto sax for a rare spin; another tearstained Calderazzo reflection in "The Last Goodbye"; Watts' intriguing "Samo," which cooked on a higher flame than on the recording; and Revis' beautifully toned solo showcase "And Then, He Was Gone." Unfortunately, several ADD-afflicted audience members took the last title literally and made a mass exodus to the bathroom or bar; perhaps goosed by Faulkner's spark-throwing displays, Revis also unleashed a few fleet-fingered (and somewhat superfluous) flurries that, predictably, brought wild applause.

In Faulkner, Marsalis has snared a young lion by the tail and seems to be enjoying the drummer's uncaged ferocity — not to mention the gape-mouthed, goggle-eyed reaction of audiences on both coasts. Make no mistake: Watts is indeed the percussive pivot on which this band turns, and he drives his bandmates as well as complements them with restraint and sublty and color, as is brilliantly evident on Metamorphosen. Still, there's something about hearing a young, unknown musician out to make his bones that brings another dimension of crackling electricity to this band.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sam Rivers: An avant master awes UM

Sam Rivers talks pretty much like he plays. Ideas come fast and furious as the words tumble forth, and you get the sense that he's improvising a good deal of the presentation. Such was the case as the 85-year-old, Orlando-based avant-garde jazz icon gingerly took the stage Friday night at Gusman Concert Hall on the University of Miami campus and joined the Frost Concert Jazz Band in a raucous set of his big-band compositions. A bit winded, Rivers explained that he had recently fractured a hip and, while in the hospital, developed pneumonia which necessitates his use of a breathing tube, although the apparatus did not appear on stage. Nor did his condition, which seemed to improve as the performance wore on, keep him from issuing a torrent of humorous anecdotes, reminding one and all that his career not only encompassed stints with the greatest jazz figures of his time in both the avant and mainstream realms, but that he also shared stages with the likes of T-Bone Walker, B.B. King and even Jimi Hendrix (too bad no tapes exist of that matchup). Although he soloed infrequently, what he played was richly toned and masterful — especially on the soprano sax — if less forceful than in his heyday.

Under the direction of trombonist and educator Dante Luciani, the young musicians — all male — of the Concert Jazz Band were more than up to the task of playing Rivers' challenging charts. The maestro, who bopped, shimmied and mugged from his perch atop a wooden stool, truly seemed to enjoy hearing them interpreting and improvising on his music. Warming the stage for their guest, the band swung hard on a few numbers, joyously digging in on a handclapping, pew-shaking read of Don Rader's "Hallelujah Time." Best of all was a gorgeous version of Kenny Werner's "Compensation," which made use of a muted tonal palette that recalled the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band, for which it was written.

Living up to his rep as a spontaneous showman, Rivers had no intention of merely following the concert's printed program. In fact, the first tune he played, an absolutely stunning tenor-sax ballad, was one he had just written and it didn't even have a title yet. Apparently, he was able to run through it with the rhythm section, and pianist Dan Strange, guitarist Sam Petitti, bassist Josh Allen and drummer Danny Susnjar provided inspired support. The next piece, "Duke," an exuberant homage to Ellington, involved the full band and included ample room for solos, and was also nowhere to be found on the program, which proved pretty much useless as Rivers roamed where the muse took him.

A funky, sinewy piece titled "Vines" was inspired, said the saxophonist, by his amazement at how vines can grow on brick and concrete walls, and "Neptune," which he introduced with a humorous tale of keeping track of the planets now that Pluto has been downgraded, boasted a galactic vibe reminiscent of the space-travelin' Sun Ra. Of course, he had to play "Beatrice," the lovely composition he penned for his wife, who passed away three years ago. Rivers acknowledged that out of the many, many pieces he'd written over the decades, this was the only one that really made him any dough, as the lyrical melody has become something of a standard.

Rivers is truly one of the great figures of modern jazz. The Frost School is to be commended for honoring his legacy and giving its fine student musicians the opportunity to work with this one-of-a-kind artist.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Right on Q: Terry Adams' rock 'n' roll anarchy

Like the Marx Brothers on a mission of musical anarchy, Terry Adams and his Crazy Trio stormed the stage at Alligator Alley Saturday night, launching right into a hayseed-gone-haywire rendition of "Hey Good Lookin'" that combined the fractured bebop of Thelonious Monk with the sourmash hillbilly stomp of Hank Williams. Among the small but mighty crowd of NRBQ die-hards who had come to see the cult band's founding pianist, a way-jazzed Bonefish Johnny suggested the term "Thelonious Hank" to describe the tantalizing mashup.

Joined by original NRBQ drummer Tom Staley, who lives in St. Pete, Chicago-based vocalist and guitarist Scott Ligon and central Florida-based saxophonist Gene Oliveri, the idiosyncratic piano wildman slapped, pounded and caressed a pair of electric keyboards, and seamlessly traded off on vocals with Ligon, who played bass for most of the show. (And yes, even though the "trio" had four members, Adams proved he could count when the group gleefully launched into the Q classic "12 Bar Blues." ) The absence of guitar put the emphasis squarely on Adams' antic piano work, as he provided his own take on boogie-woogie, blues and honky-tonk, filtered through the avant-garde sensibilities of Monk and Sun Ra and performed with the elan of showmen like Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Oliveri hung fire on tenor and soprano saxes, peppering the proceedings with old-school rock 'n' roll bravado.

Staley's relaxed demeanor and seemingly effortless time-keeping belied his righteous snare-drum crack, while the sweet-voiced, baby-faced Ligon proved the perfect foil for Adams's Kentucky twang. The vocal pairing was particularly effective on NRBQ classics such as "Wacky Tobacky" and "Rain at the Drive-In," and the infectious new Adams gem "My Girl My Girl," which leads off his latest solo recording, Holy Tweet, also featuring Ligon. Also from the new album, they performed "Feet," an ode to a lovers' tootsies that somehow doesn't come across as freaky, and "Not Tonight, Hon," in which Adams screeches the familiar lament, "Not tonight, hon, I've got a headache!" Versions of "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" and "When You're Smiling" captured a surreal early-jazz vibe, you know, back when the music was still dangerous and fun. Adams did actually play a Monk tune, but as Bonefish pointed out, just about everything he did started off as if he were going to launch into "Misterioso."

Although the now-defunct NRBQ boasts roots in Miami, having formed here in 1967, they split for points Northeast soon after. However, Adams is currently staying with friends in South Florida, and rumor has it, he may be looking to return to the area. A bit of luck for local rock 'n' roll fiends, if that means more shows like Saturday's.