Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Jazz Concept CDs?

For the iPod generation, singles rule. The compressed nuggets of digital information are readily available for purchase and download in their lonesome, entirely independent of accompanying extended recordings. No context required.

But whatever happened to concept albums, AKA song collections actually consisting of interrelated compositions? Didn’t they go out with the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the pre-crotchety Stones, the band that bred Who2, and, uh, vinyl, cassettes, 8-tracks and CDs?

What once were the domain of pop groups lately have been adopted by jazzers, as major artists experiment with concept-based recordings. Several such releases are among this fall’s most notable jazz albums.

Like the young lions of 20 years ago, vibraphonist Stefon Harris worships at the altar of Duke Ellington, as demonstrated on the just-released African Tarantella … Dances With Duke (Blue Note). It’s not a bad place to bow down.

Harris, an engaging improviser, is also an inventive arranger, and he re-energizes five Ellington pieces – taken from “The New Orleans Suite” and “The Queen’s Suite” – by employing unusual instrumentation: Trombonist Steve Turre plus musicians bearing flute, clarinet, viola and cello are joined by Harris and his reliably sturdy rhythm section, with pianist Xavier Davis, bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Terreon Gully.

Turre is particularly incisive, wielding a plunge-muted ‘bone over galloping triplet figures during “Portrait of Wellman Braud,” which later relaxes for a blues-drenched romp by Harris and opens up for Hodge’s beefy interludes. Harris’s chiming, airy vibes and marimba go unaccompanied for much of a gorgeous reading of “The Single Petal of a Rose.”

The final third of the CD is devoted to three movements from Harris’s “The Gardner Meditations,” a suite he was commissioned to write last year. “Memoirs of a Frozen Summer” is crystalline, stately and exceedingly pretty, while the title track bristles with multiple sections, dancing rhythms, dazzling solo turns and myriad moods; the same might be said for the entire recording.

Jason Moran, for Artist in Residence (Blue Note), also mixes and matches, performing what he calls a “cut/splice” with three commissioned works -- “RAIN,” “Milestone” and “The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things.” The result is one of the year’s most intriguing jazz discs, as Moran and his regular bandmates (bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheen Waits) plus guitarist Marvin Sewell juxtapose rootsy jazz grooves and improvisations with experiments in rhythm and structure.

“Break Down” is centered on a sampled spoken-word piece calling for the smashing of barriers between audience and artist, while the conversation patterns of the same speaker (Adrian Piper) are used as the basis for Moran’s melody line on the related “Artists Ought to Be Writing.” Percussive scratching, Ralph Alessi’s mournful trumpet lines and somber piano chords signal the start of “RAIN,” which later shifts to a furiously intense passage; the tune’s sequel is the spiritual “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” topped with bleeding guitar.

Other recently released jazz concept albums:

• Kenny Garrett, Beyond the Wall (Nonesuch). Concept: The alto saxophone firebrand, inspired by a recent trip to China, assembles a superb lineup for a program heavily indebted to the modal explorations of John Coltrane. Legendary tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders makes a perfect foil for ex-Miles Davis sideman Garrett, and the two are urged on by the volcanic drumming of Brian Blade. The band, on tunes that run as long as 12 minutes, also includes vibraphone master Bobby Hutcherson, underappreciated pianist Mulgrew Miller and bassist Robert Hurst III. Like Moran’s CD, this one is destined for jazz critics’ end-of-the-year lists.

• Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau, Metheny Mehldau (Nonesuch). Concept: The veteran and rookie jazz stars record together for the first time, for collaborations that sound simultaneously fresh and warmly familiar. Upshot: Their bebop-rooted, post-fusion sensibilities come off as made for one another. Can you say, “You complete me?” Mehldau’s trio mates, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, add extra rhythmic propulsion on two tracks.

• Patricia Barber, Mythologies (Blue Note). Concept: The Chicago pianist-singer creates a song cycle based on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” Upshot: Barber’s singing is dynamic, her lyrics are poetic and her smart music is laced with references to pop and rock circa the ‘60s, including Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell. Still, some pieces are forbiddingly chilly.

• Keith Jarrett, The Carnegie Hall Concert (ECM). Concept: The pianist, caught live last year in New York, gives his first North American solo performance in a decade. Upshot: The double-disc package lives up to the concert’s acclaim. Jarrett is the picture of brilliant invention on two sets dominated by entirely improvised pieces – some brief, some expansive and collectively covering a wide range of emotional, tonal and stylistic terrain.

• Tony Bennett, Duets: An American Classic (Columbia). Concept: The ageless jazz-inspired crooner celebrates his 80th birthday by pairing with younger celeb singers, including Barbra Streisand (“Smile”), James Taylor (“Put On a Happy Face”), Bono, Tim McGraw, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Elton John and Sting. Upshot: It’s slick, yes, but more organic and artful than might have been expected. A classic in name only.

No comments: