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CD Review: Jason Palmer: The Concert: 12 Musings for Isabella

Jason Palmer The Concert: 12 Musings for Isabella









Thirty years ago today, as Boston’s raucous St. Patrick’s Day celebrations approached last call, two men wearing police uniforms entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and made off with 13 works by Rembrandt, Degas, Vermeer and others. With a value exceeding $500 million, the daring theft is probably the largest property crime in U.S. history, and remains unsolved.

Now, Boston-based trumpeter Jason Palmer has taken this cool story as the unlikely inspiration for The Concert: 12 Musings for Isabella, an effervescent new double-CD set for Jimmy Katz’s Giant Step Arts label available today.

You might call it a jazz version of “Pictures at an Exhibition,” though, unlike Mussorgsky, Palmer, who moved to Boston in 1997 to attend the New England Conservatory, has never seen any of the works that inspired his 12 compositions (two of Degas’ sketches were combined into a single composition).

It’s a work bristling with lines of pinpoint accuracy, snaky unison themes and thought-provoking soloing from the front line of Palmer, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and vibraphonist Joel Ross. What really stands out, though, is the way that bassist Edward Perez and the almost absurdly musical drummer Kendrick Scott hustle you through the Gardner’s Renaissance-revival halls. They’re busy, but they leave plenty of elbow room for the soloists to stretch out.

And they do; the shortest track of the 135-minute program clocks in a two ticks under 8 minutes. So, this is very much a blowing session, though Palmer keeps things interesting through various strategies. He’ll mix meters within the same composition, as in the tumbling “Chez Tortoni” (after Manet), one of several pieces that feature chase choruses that call forth soloistic bravura, albeit of the most thoughtful sort. His heads have a uniformly brainy shapeliness, even when he changes things up by sometimes making them unison, sometimes harmonized with a stroke of West Coast-y counterpoint added for good measure.

You’d expect nothing less from the pairing of Palmer and Turner, two of the most punctilious composer/improvisors on the scene. The leader is the kind of trumpet player who enters the upper register only when he has a point to make, as he does on the now-he-dips, now-he-soars “A French Imperial Eagle Finial.” He paints his solos with short, precise musical brushwork, a brassy Fragonard.

Turner is similarly scrupulous, though he works in longer lines that are unsurprisingly surprising. His command of both his instrument and his ideas is sovereign, even when he’s hurtling through the harmonic chutes and ladders of “Landscape with an Obelisk.”

Joel Ross is in fast company here, but he often threatens to steal the show as on the roiling chase choruses of “Christ in a Storm on the Lake of Galilee” (after Rembrandt) where the musical waves were anything but calmed. Ross chooses intervals that are often surprising (a Fauvist, maybe?) and his comping in the pianoless quartet is never pushy.

I can’t say enough about the supple and responsive rhythm team of Perez and Scott who are up for every challenge, as on the opening “A Lady and Gentleman in Black” (after Rembrandt). As Palmer takes apart and reassembles his stop-start melody, Scott takes up the challenge with a subtle application of heat and washes of cymbal color.

It all makes for a stimulating day of phantom museum-going, and at $15 for a download, it costs approximately .000003 percent of the estimated value of the stolen artwork. With museums closed, it’s an incredible bargain and one that you should take advantage of immediately when your purchase can do the most good for artists who could really use the support.

Jason Palmer: The Concert: 12 Musings for Isabella
(Giant Step Arts)

Jason Palmer – trumpet, compositions
Mark Turner – tenor saxophone
Joel Ross – vibraphone
Edward Perez – bass
Kendrick Scott – drums

Jason Palmer’s Weblog

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CD Review: Mara Rosenbloom presents Flyways: Murmuration

Murmuration cover









One of the most extraordinary musical events of the last year was the appearance in Erie last September of pianist Mara Rosenbloom‘s Flyways with the vocalist Anaïs Maviel and Sean Conly substituting for Rashaan Carter on bass. This concert stood out both for risk taken by JazzErie, the usually conservative presenting organization, and for the quiet audaciousness of Rosenbloom’s music, which cast a spell over the audience at Mercyhurst University. If you want to know more about that occasion, I previewed the concert for the Erie Times here and reviewed it here.

At that concert, she hinted at an imminent release of this music and it has arrived. Mara Rosenbloom presents Flyways: Murmuration, recorded last March and June, presents music of understated audaciousness and captures the often confessional intimacy of that concert.

The centerpiece is the 36-minute-long “I Know What I Dreamed – Our Flyway” a setting of the second of Adrienne Rich’s 21 Love Poems. That cycle describes the difficulties of maintaining a relationship that is not supported by the community, but there’s also a rich subtext about the difficulties of the creative life. This portion of the work, with strong bass support from Carter and subtle, heartbeat percussion from Maviel, begins when she sings “I’ve been writing for days,” interrupting the reverie of the lover’s awakening with music of swirling, agitated obsession. That’s a state many of us know well, and it calls forth some of Maviel’s most looping and soaring lines. Her voice is not large, but it is pure and flexible and she brings a rapt, soft-focus inner glow to the text’s many moments of glowing introspection. It’s fair to say that though most of the work is improvised, it doesn’t sound like jazz, a style in which Rosenbloom and Carter are admittedly rooted. It’s more like a dramatic scena or a monodrama, and it’s quietly dazzling.

The CD’s other 18 minutes consist of five evocative miniatures, “Improvised Prelude – Greetings,” “Bird Migration Theme 2 – Take Off,” “Bird Migration Theme 1 – Murmuration” and “Bird Migration Theme 2 Reprise,” and a further Rich setting, “Dream of a Common Language – Irruption.” That text, from Rich’s Origins and Histories of Consciousness, is about the necessity and anxiety of change. It’s agitated and unsettling and captures perfectly the mood of a society on lockdown.

It’s a high point on a record that defies categorization and ignores genre boundaries. Still, the most touching moment might be the CD’s most conventional: the concluding solo piano take on one of the most familiar of standards, “These Foolish Things.” Rosenbloom dedicates it to her teacher Connie Crothers, a pianist whose stubborn originality kept her far from the recognition she deserved.

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen to Rosenbloom. Flyways: Murmuration is a strong statement about the most vulnerable places with us. It’s a work of rare bravery and candor, an illumination of an inner life to which we are all called to examine, never more so than now.

Mara Rosenbloom presents Flyways: Murmuration
(Fresh Sound/New Talent )

Mara Rosenbloom – piano, compositions
Anaïs Maviel – voice, surdo drum
Rashaan Carter – bass

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Reviewing CDs by Aaron Novik, Ted Quinlan, Eric St. Laurent and Mal Waldron

I get an avalanche of records for review, almost 400 of them last year alone. Some were great, a small handful were not worth listening to, but still someone took the trouble to send me physical product or downloads.

To repay the senders’ faith in me and to ensure that their efforts will not have been in vain, I’m going to attempt to say something about every 2020 release I receive, however briefly, starting with this batch released after the deadline for the NPR Poll in which I was honored to participate. Wish me luck.

Ernesto Cervini is my favorite drummer on the Toronto scene, a crisp, energetic presence who elevates every date he’s on. You could say he does the same thing for his scene through his side hustle as the tireless owner of Orange Grove Publicity.

Call it confirmation bias, but I think there’s a Canadian sound, one that reflects some of that great country’s virtues: beauty, spaciousness, tolerance and moderation. Cosmopolitanism is in there, too, so it’s no surprise that the city’s large Caribbean community informs Bliss Station by guitarist Eric St. Laurent. It’s a guitar trio with lilting rhythms from Michel DeQuevedo’s hand drums (there are no traps) and bassist Jordan O’Connor that sometimes veers toward the decorative, a lazy afternoon in a beachside bar. The leader plays pretty, too, in the amiable program of nine originals, but the strongest voice here might belong to Berlin trumpeter Sebastian Studnitzky whose whispery, papery tone adds a chill to the lukewarm Haitian ambience.


The cover of Ted Quinlan’s Absolutely Dreaming shows the Toronto skyline at dusk. It’s the kind of image jazz albums since the 1950s have used to signal sophisticated urbanity, which Quinlan delivers in the music. If you want to locate the absolute center of the mainstream in 2020, push the pin into “Absolutely Dreaming,” a program of nine Quinlan originals. They don’t deviate much from the mean, and so you get pretty melodies, head-solos-head structures, accomplished solos uninterested in pushing boundaries and collegial ensemble work from pianist Brian Dickinson (who turns in some sparkling Herbian solos) and the rhythm team of bassist Kieran Overs and drummer Ted Warren. It’s all very polished and understated in a way that feels quintessentially Canadian.

One of the most inescapable storylines of 2019 is the ever more porous border (if such a thing ever existed) between jazz and contemporary classical music. The musicians on Aaron Novik‘s No Signal work this borderland productively in this compact, three-part, 45-minute recording. It’s two pairs of instruments tuned a half-step apart: the leader’s A clarinet and Jeremiah Cymerman’s B-flat instrument pitted against—and sometimes with—the guitars of Ava Mendoza and Matt Hollenberg. Sometimes the music moves glacially, with tectonic plates of sound slowly grinding over one another and at others, a shower of top notes from the guitars rain down like July Fourth sparklers. These players find more interesting possibilities than you might have thought possible from their limited instrumentation.

At the end of its 50th anniversary year, ECM Records has gone back to the beginning, offering a reissue of the first record the label released, Mal Waldron’s Free At Last. A lot of the ECM DNA is already in place for this date recorded in November 1969: an affinity for piano trios that continues to this day, and certainly the vaunted sonics that have become the label’s signature, miraculously rendered in this reissue. Waldron’s flinty, sometimes obsessive piano style is worlds away from the rhapsodic Nordic mysticism that has come to characterize ECM, fairly or not. So, this is a special release, not less for what it delivers than what it promises. ECM has done reissues before, starting with the “rarum:” series, but I cannot recall one that includes unissued material, as this one does. There are four alternate takes here, nearly a half-hour of music—including the complete take of “Willow Weep for Me” that was edited to fit on the original LP. How much more is in the ECM vaults? As producer Manfred Eicher looks back on his long career, what might we have to look forward to?

Coming next: Duo dates by Toh-Kichi (Satoko Fujii/Tatsuya Yoshida) and Matthew Shipp/Ivo Perelman

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CD review: Surefire Sweat

Surefire Sweat







“It’s the humidity,” pianist David Torkanowsky told Larry Blumenfeld in an article in Chamber Music Magazine to explain a factor that contributes to the singular sound of New Orleans music.

Toronto, too, is a waterfront town, though less perilously so than the Crescent City, and it can get plenty humid in the summer. Keeping that summer perspiration working might have been the goal of Toronto drummer Larry Graves who assembled Surefire Sweat as his first band as a leader.

Of course, rhythm leads and every member of the eight-member band pitches in. That’s made explicit from the opening “Threshold,” which bounces along on an Afrobeat groove, and the call and response of “Number Nine.”

With its meaty, unison horn riffs anchored by baritone, this project might read as a Canadian Antibalas. That’s an intriguing proposition given how many members of the African diaspora settled in Toronto. And the best cuts on the 44-minute CD share the lift and flow of the New York band (though not the signature sound, close and, well, humid, of Brooklyn’s Daptone Studios).

Graves tries on the sly fun of John Scofield’s “Hand Jive” band on the concluding “Scoffle Strut.” Graves doesn’t quite have the knack of sustaining tension in a laconic beat as Bill Stewart did on that 1994 session. I guess, you have to move pretty briskly to break a sweat in Toronto. “Sunshine Interference,” does just that riding a New Orleans parade groove in five.

It’s fun record, in a wholesome, earnest sort of way. By the way, do Canadians sweat?

Surefire Sweat: Surefire Sweat

Larry Graves – drums, percussion, vocals
Rob Neal Christian – flute
Elena Kapeleris – tenor, vocals
Paul Metcalfe – baritone
Brad Eaton – trumpet
Paul MacDougall – guitar, vocals
Liam Smith – bass, rhodes, vocals
Dave Chan – percussion, Hammond organ, vocals

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