What a night it was when the Ella 100: Live At The Apollo! (Concord Jazz) concert was recorded for posterity. It was on the same stage where 85 years earlier a nervous homeless 17-year old named Ella Fitzgerald was preparing to dance at the local talent show in Harlem. Fate, though, had a different plan. Ella was so cowed by a previous act’s hoofing that she—on the spur of the moment—decided to sing instead.
It changed the course of American music.
Starting with a vintage radio broadcast and then a recreation of that fateful night of Nov. 21, 1934, the highlights come fast’n’furious. Patti Austin barrels through “When I Get Low I Get High,” a song Ella sang with the Chick Webb Orchestra. Some Ellingtonia is in order here so actor/vocalist David Allen Grier positively nails “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me.” Count Basie may have been dead for 32 years at the time of this 2016 concert but his ghost orchestra was still strong. It provided one big-time slam-bang horns-a-pumpin' aesthetic to the proceedings.
When the program calls for intimacy, The Ella 100 All-Star Quartet—pianist Shelly Berg, bassist Nathan East, guitarist Brian Nova and drummer Gregg Field—gets behind gospel singer Lizz Wright like a second skin. Afro Blue (the Howard University a cappella band) fleshes out Nigerian vocalist Ayo’s perfecto version of “Oh, Lady Be Good.” Cassandra Wilson does a show-stopping “Cry Me A River.” Monica Mancini and guitarist Brian Nova recreate what Ella once did with guitarist Joe Pass on the elegant and haunting “Once In A While.” Finishing it all off is Ella herself singing the Streisand hit “People.”
Canadian band Songs of Tales’ debut, Life Is A Gong Show (Roots2Boot Records), has these four musicians—as different as different can be—all coalescing under a progressive-fusion umbrella that succeeds in making disparate sounds into a cohesive whole. The unique instrumentation on 11 uncommon compositions is thoroughly entertaining, bewitching and memorable, ripe for repeated listening.
Drummer Jean Martin—who doubles on vibraphone—has all kinds of effects and electronics up his sleeve. Keyboardist Petr Cancura doubles on sax. He’s a renaissance man who also plays mandolin in bluegrass bands and has a history performing Brazilian, Balkan and African music. Bassist Gordon Grdina—also on oud and guitar—lets traces of his Arabic Classical fascination seep in. Violinist Jesse Zubot also plays bass and congas plus adds some squiggly synthesizer sounds to his arsenal. Now just imagine what a mix all those diametrically opposed sounds and styles must engender…and it’s even better than that. All original, except for the 1960 Mingus classic “Moanin’,” this could be construed as jazz for people who don’t like jazz. Its tentacles reach deep into prog, world and soundtrack-styled mysticism.
Canadian band Peripheral Vision stakes its claim as pioneers with the monumental 2-CD package of Irrational Revelation and Mutual Humiliation (self-released with the help of a grant from the Toronto Arts Council). It’s been a decade for guitarist Don Scott and bassist Michael Herring. They’re the bandleaders and composers but tenor sax man Trevor Hogg and drummer Nick Fraser shine bright. Born out of long German tours, this fifth album, produced by mad sound-scientist Jean Martin, features guest appearances by vibraphonist Michael Davidson, synth whiz Chris Pruden and keyboardist Craig Harley. This amalgam creates a jazz/classical/rock synthesis that will tickle your brain as well as your ear (with layers and layers of overdubs).
Disc #1, Irrational Revelation, has seven tracks of wild imagination. Highlights? Opener “Whistle Up A Rope” (its title from a Marilyn Monroe line in the 1953 movie, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) sets the scene perfectly. The three-track “Reconciliation Suite” ends with “Kaddish For Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women And Girls,” inspired by Herring’s memories of the death of his grandfather and memories of his father chanting the traditional “Mourner’s Kaddish” in Synagogue. “For Kent Monkman” takes the chord-changes of Ray Noble’s 1938 “Cherokee” and adds a completely new melody.
Disc #2, Mutual Humiliation, has seven tracks of crazy-sick arrangements that never fail to capture the imagination. All seven are highlights. When Herring was gigging in Panama, he took hikes in the jungle, but was scared stiff of snakes. So he wrote “S N A Kee SSS.” He wrote “Neo-Expressionism For Pacifists” to approximate in jazz a 19th Century art form—neo-expressionism—that attempted to illuminate angst via poems and paintings. “Schleudern” is guitarist Scott’s prelude, written about his time studying composition in Berlin. The closing masterpiece, “Mutual Humiliation Society,” is every composer’s dilemma, and is meant to convey the frustrations of incorporating rhythm to melodies.
It takes two CDs to present all the ideas and collective improvisations within Event Horizon (Giant Step Arts) by the wildly inventive alto saxophonist Michael Thomas. (It took him nine years to follow up his 2011 The Long Way debut.) Thomas shares the front-line with trumpeter Jason Palmer as bassist Hans Glawischnig (on loan from Miguel Zenon’s quartet) and drummer Johnathan Blake (a leader in his own right) provide ample support.
Recorded live at The Jazz Gallery in New York City, the two sections of opener “Distance” were written to convey the solitude of composition as you gaze fondly out the window at the Manhattan skyline yet realize the current chaos of those streets. “Dr. Teeth” is for the bandleader of The Muppet Show, loosely based on Dr. John, thus its New Orleans feel. “Framework” affixes different contexts fit together as one to create a new whole. “Chant” uses elements of ancient vocal styles (Gregorian) with stop-on-a-dime counterpoint. The duality of “Underground” makes for complex listening. The title track starts slow and soft but builds and builds and ends with a totally different melody! Closer “Fox And Cat” is loosely based on Wayne Shorter’s 1968 “Pinocchio.” (The two animals in the title are for the wooden puppet’s original two nemeses.)
“Paraphernalia” was originally a track penned and performed by Wayne Shorter on the 1968 Miles Davis album Miles In The Sky. Paraphernalia: Music of Wayne Shorter (Tapestry Records), by guitarist Dave Askren and saxophonist Jeff Benedict, takes 10 Shorter tracks from his days with Miles, with Weather Report and solo, reconfigures them, and with bassist Johnathan Pintoff plus percussionist Chris Garcia, provides ample evidence of the compositional genius of the author and the chops of the players.
Once Wayne joined Miles, all bets were off. The two shared an extra-sensory chemistry, so much so that Miles named his 1965 album E.S.P. It opens this gem-fest. “Iris” is a waltz also from that album. There’s two from Wayne’s 1964 Juju album. “Yes and/or No,” originally a swing, is now a mambo. “Mahjong” features an Afro/Latin groove. “Fall,” a swing from the 1967 Miles album Nefertiti, is now in 6/8 time like a delicious Cuban sandwich. The electronic “Harlequin,” from Weather Report’s 1977 Heavy Weather, is now acoustic.
Fans of Wayne Shorter would do themselves well to latch on to this beauty!