Category Archives: Live review

Enrico Rava Quintet at Berklee

TRIBE: Gianluca Petrella, Enrico Rava, Giovanni Guidi, Gabriele Evangelista, Fabrizio Sferra. Photo © Luca d'Agostino/ECM Records

TRIBE: Gianluca Petrella, Enrico Rava, Giovanni Guidi, Gabriele Evangelista, Fabrizio Sferra. Photo © Luca d’Agostino/ECM Records

Performances in Boston by the great Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava are rare, so the Tuesday night appearance by his quintet at the Berklee Performance Center was a major event. And there was much attendant hullabaloo. The concert was organized by the Italian Ministry of Foreign affairs in conjunction with the Berklee Global Jazz Institute and Umbria Jazz. There were introductory remarks by Jazz Institute managing director Marco Pignataro and faculty member John Patitucci as well as by the Italian general consul. And before the show, many audience members could be heard speaking Italian.

Two warm-up groups of GJI students played, including a quintet that featured both Pignataro on tenor and bassist Patitucci. But the main event was Rava. The 69-year-old trumpeter has long had a reputation as the Miles Davis of Italy, and it’s not hard to hear why — his concise, lyrical soloing, his phrasing, with its dramatic use of space, plus a golden tone that perhaps surpasses the Master’s own vulnerable, rough-hewn sound. He secured his cred with early stints in New York and in collaborations with Americans Steve Lacy, Roswell Rudd, Cecil Taylor, Gil Evans and others.

At Berklee, he was introduced by Patitucci, who joined him for a couple of duo numbers, and Rava made the Miles connection immediately, launching into a sideways take of the melody of “My Funny Valentine.” Here was that spare lyricism — Patitucci easily played many more notes in his fluid accompaniment than did Rava in his solos.

But when Rava’s young band joined him, you could more readily hear what he was about. The band played nearly all originals, easily flowing from tangos and ¾ not-quite waltzes and fast swinging 4/4 to dreamy rubato and roiling free time. But it was those silences and the way they were filled that drove this band from moment to moment. The tension of the quintet’s restraint was made visible in the squirming of Giovanni Guidi on the piano bench.

Rava has spent much of his career on ECM, where the refinement of the production can add another reverby layer of gauze to his natural impressionism. (This quintet’s most recent release is 2011’s Tribe.) But live, the band crackled. The variables of live amplified sound can be bedeviling – so credit the soundman at Berklee, or credit this band for its internal dynamics. At any rate, they certainly sounded different than the student bands. Drummer Fabrizio Sferrra drives his rhythms with tonal clarity in every beat and no live-drum muddiness. Similarly, bassist Gabriele Evangelista somehow played quietly while making every note sound throughout the hall. And he didn’t play nearly as many of them per song as Patitucci. He played in a more blunt, rhythmic style that nonetheless sang as one motive built on the next to create melodic arcs. Guidi, meanwhile, earned his physical mannerisms with his mix of impressionistic chords and angled chromatic lines and blurry clusters. (He is also the author of his own fine new CD on ECM, City of Broken Dreams.) And he cut quite a figure as he leaned this way and that at the keyboard, in a long-sleeved T-shirt of broad black-and-white bands.

But it was the front line of the grey-maned Rava and trombonist Gianluca Petrella who ultimately defined the band’s sound.  In Petrella, Rava has found a partner who recalls his association with Rudd — a stylist who plays in big broad strokes, whinnies and elephant cries, but also with subtle, beautiful swing. He’s the perfect complement to Rava’s more liquid tone. The two often played in counterpoint, or Petrella would offer short punchy responses to Rava’s long-lined, lyrical phrases.

The band played for more than an hour, and for at least the first half of the show they played without pause as they segued from one song to the next. It was almost too much of a good thing (Rava didn’t announce song titles or introduce band members until the end of the show). And for all the ensemble cohesion, I would have liked to have heard at least one extended solo — Rava or Guidi or Petralla burning over some hard, fast swing. But that’s just a quibble. This unique band is entitled to its every eccentricity, and for the listener the rewards are many.

(A version of this review has been posted at The Arts Fuse, which is another good source for writing about jazz.)

Arrival day: The Allan Chase Septet does right by Sun Ra

Sun Ra in 1968.

Sun Ra in 1968.

For most of us, Sun Ra is a proto-psychedelic figure of the ‘60s avant-garde and later. But Ra’s roots (as Herman “Sonny” Blount) go all the way back to his days with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. And in the early days of his own Arkestra, he was making music that would have fit right in with the post-hard bop of Charles Mingus, George Russell, and many another outward explorer.

That’s the music Allan Chase’s septet presented at the Lily Pad on Wednesday night – music mostly from 1955 and ’56, with only one tune as late as 1960. This music suited the septet beautifully, the crosscurrents of Ra’s tricky themes split between brass (trumpet and trombone) and reeds (alto, tenor, and baritone). There were hints of the big band era in some of the declamatory themes, but also of the avant-garde that was soon to follow, and Ra’s own particular paths into the spaceways of multiple musical galaxies.

The occasion was Sun Ra’s “arrival” 99 years ago (he shunned the word “birth,” as Chase explained, with its suggestion of “be-Earth”).  This was about as expert a presentation of Ra’s music as you were likely to find outside the surviving members of the Sun Ra Arkestra itself (now under the direction of 88-year-old Marshall Allen). Chase wrote his ethno-musicology masters thesis on Ra, and bassist Dave Clark and reed player Charlie Kohlhase have long played his music. Chase even had a couple of the Arkestra’s original arrangements by his late friend, Prince Shell.

But this was no fusty “historically informed performance.” There were anecdotes both funny and revealing. (Chase played with Pat Patrick, a founding member of the Sun Ra Arkestra who also happened to be the father of the Massachusetts governor.) And, oh that swing. Maybe it was the way Clark locked into the grooves with drummer Mike Connors or, specifically, the light rim-shot “tock!” on the second beat throughout the medium groove of “Kingdom of Not.” Or maybe it was the handclaps on the offbeats of the same tune. Then there was the inspired economy of Daniel Rosenthal’s solos, his subtle shifts in phrasing driving a tune into the turnaround. (Kohlhase seemed to pick up on Rosenthal’s energy whenever he followed the trumpet in the solo order.)

And there were the pieces themselves, with their beguiling mix of bebop swing and spooky off-center harmonies, voicings that drifted this way and that.  With Rosenthal and trombonist Randy Pingrey deploying a variety of mute effects, and those criss-crossing lines, textures expanded and contracted. Backing choruses supported and commented on the solos. On “El Is the Sound of Joy,” a crooked descending horn figure was matched by an unhinged ascending piano line (pianist Joe Berkovitz was incisive all night). The Harry Revel tune “Possession” (in an arrangement for the Arkestra by Prince Shell) became a kind of mini-concerto for Kohlhases’s tenor. On the Pat Patrick/Charles Davis composition “Two Tones,” Kohlhase and Chase both picked up baritones and let it rip.

This was a show without the outlandish theatricality of a Sun Ra Arkestra performance. (Everyone was in street clothes.) But that only helped focus attention on the playing and the pieces, which made a cogent argument for Ra’s place among the great jazz composers, and his book a barely explored lode for standards. Chase said that in his first encounter with Pat Patrick, he pointed out that he’d heard the older player on records with Coltrane and Monk. Yes, and with Duke Ellington, Patrick pointed out. But of all of them, Patrick said, the heaviest was Sun Ra.

(For more jazz coverage, go to the Arts Fuse!)

Nicky Schrire at Scullers: Beyond Words

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Nicky Schrire is a 27-year-old South African, now living in New York, who is one of the new breed of jazz singer. She clearly identifies as jazz, but her book is not standards-driven. Covers tend to come from the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Loudon Wainwright, and even Florence Welch of indie-rock darlings Florence and the Machine. And, unlike jazz singers of yore, she writes a lot of her own material. Though her approach has earned her comparisons to Gretchen Parlato and Becca Stevens, the similarities are superficial. Like Parlato, she’s an assured technician with a whole bag of impressive tricks. Like Stevens and, for that matter, Esperanza Spalding, she has an affinity for folk. But, as she shows on her only disc, Freedom Flight, and as she showed at Scullers on Thursday night with her quartet, she’s got her own thing, and it’s very much worth listening to.

At Scullers, she started with an original, “Together,” which began with a single interval repeated in the piano, then rhythm on hand percussion, and then a wordless major-key melody. Schrire does a lot of wordless singing. Her lyrics are simple, homespun, skirting sentimentality even when their purpose is straightforward affirmation (“We will cross this land together”). Her “jazz” is in her chords and in those wordless melodies and the improvisations they inspire. This isn’t “scat” singing — none of the note-stuffed runs of bebop syllables, but more of a simple ooh-ahh, om-bah-yay approach, with lots of long held notes sketching the arc of a melody.

On “Together” she worked the song into high held tones that seemed to take the band with her into more agitated rhythms and then catapulted them into their own series of solos. She sings with little or no vibrato, which also helps account for the unaffected directness of her approach. Songs sometime climax with her improvising in a pure tone way up in her top register, like a bird darting on an updraft. And there’s a logic to Schrire’s  wordless passages — sometimes they’re introductory, as if she’s gradually finding her way to the lyrics that fit her memories or emotions, and sometimes they take off from the lyrics as if to feelings that words can not express.

Schrire’s band members weren’t just improvising on chord changes, but playing the songs (during the night she took duo turns with each). Pianist Glenn Zaleski and bassist Sam Anning always kept the melodies in close sight, often just paraphrasing them outright. Drummer Jake Goldbas not only had a strong arsenal of rhythms, but a great touch, never overwhelming the singer even when he was playing hard.

Schrire does sing some standards, of course. (Her book includes “If Ever I Would Leave You” and “Someone To Watch Over Me.”). At Scullers she didn’t offer any Great American Songbook fare, but she sang the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” (relishing the opportunity to land on and play with the repetition of “sun, sun, sun, here it comes”). The humor in Loudon Wainwright’s “The Swimming Song” made for tickling improvisatory extremes. And an a cappella encore of the Bobby McFerrin arrangement of “Blackbird” gave her a chance to show off her technique, melding improvisations on the melody with her own hocketing rhythmic accompaniment.

Schrire’s new album, Space and Time, is due at the end of August. If we’re lucky, that will mean another visit to Boston soon.

The rest of our Fest: New Orleans after thoughts

The band is Tuba Skinny, but the tuba player is Todd Burdick. Photo by Jean Hangarter.

The band is Tuba Skinny, but the tuba player is Todd Burdick. Photo by Jean Hangarter.

Okay, the weather in Somerville is finally catching up with what it was in New Orleans two weeks ago.  But I still want to hang on to those memories of New Orleans and the 44th annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, especially of bands we were discovering for the first time.

The first was Natalie Mae and Her Unturned Tricks. Since the Fest is held at the Fair Grounds Race Course and Ms. Mae and her crew were performing in the paddock area (on the Lagniappe Stage), let’s call this a name bet. It was also one of the best places to seek shelter in the first of Sunday’s several downpours.

She came out and sang a country-gospel tune — high and lonesome with plenty of Appalachia twang, accompanied by just banjo and bodhran. Then she said, “We’ve got some Unturned Tricks coming up for you now.” That would be: tenor sax, trombone, trumpet, guitar, fiddle, female backup singer, keyboards, bass, drums. In short order they moved through a country two-step, country-swing, rockabilly, a John Hiatt cover, and all-out rock and roll.  The variety of the arrangements, the playing (especially Michael Lentz’s big, resonant hollow-bodied Gibson), and Mae’s original songwriting all grabbed me. And that voice. By the time she’d turned the corner for the out-chorus of her own rockabilly “Something to Me” and poured on the gas, she’d left the mountains for the big city.

We’re bludgeoned with cooking shows these days, but I have to admit that some of the most moving performances I’ve seen at Jazz Fest have been at the Food Heritage Stage in the grandstand. I’ll never forget one of my first Fests, where neighborhood chef James Batiste told the story of his life as he made oyster pie. On top of the insider chef confessions (“I can make pie crust — I just can’t make a pie crust that I like”) was the epic story (replete with Oedipal struggle) of the journey to owning his own restaurant.

On Sunday, with the rain still coming down, we watched Rebecca Wilcomb, chef de cuisine of Donald Link’s Herbsaint restaurant, make crawfish & sausage stuffed eggplant. She’d worked at both Harvest and Oleana in Cambridge before moving down to New Orleans in 2008. She talked about her Italian heritage and about food in Louisiana being about community, and about attending her first crawfish boil: “Crawfish is more than just a little critter.” And that she had always thought “Cajun food was hot. It’s not. It’s seasoned and balanced.”

Then it was back into the paddock to catch the end of Tuba Skinny’s set. Tuba Skinny, though the name is adapted from the late Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, is not a person, but a band. Formed in 2009, they were first recommended to me by my friend Daisy Novoa after one of her visits to Nola, but this was my first hearing of them. Despite the name, they were no joke. Looking funky and twentysometing, they played a serious selection of rags, early jazz, Depression-era ditties, and blues, arranged with sharp instrumentation and idiomatic solo breaks. The reed players mixed up alto and tenor with clarinet, and there was also banjo, tuba, trombone, washboard, and a singer who played bass drum. But maybe most impressive was Shaye Cohn on cornet. Every break she took rang with exuberance and authority, and she seems to play a leadership role — counting off the tunes, calling the breaks, and even writing an original tune on one of the CDs we bought from the band. She also seems to the manner born: granddaughter of saxophone great Al Cohen, and daughter of distinguished guitarist Joe Cohn.

As the rain cleared for a minute, there was pianist Ed Volker, formerly of the Radiators, playing acoustic piano accompanied by baritone sax and drums, and singing radically re-arranged versions of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “House of the Rising Sun,” and “Big Chief,” often slowed way down and sometimes with new lyrics (“Don’t follow leaders/watch the Funky Meters”).

What haven’t I mentioned from that weekend? A DJ trio of Native Americans (from Ottawa) tearing it up and getting the crowd screaming with their “pow wow step.” Eddie Palmieri’s Salsa Orchestra floating on one of his deathless son-montuno grooves. Joshua Redman admitting from the stage of the Jazz Tent that although this was one of the few jazz events that his family wanted to join him for, they were probably “out there looking for food” rather than watching him play.

Beyond the festival was a marching band face-off outside Tipitina’s for their annual Instruments A Comin’ Fundraiser, more Tuba Skinny on Royal Street, more Frenchman Street with Donald Harrison and Freequinox at the Blue Nile and the Young Fellas Brass Band down the block at Vaso.  And I can’t forget our visit to the slowly recuperating Lower Ninth Ward and Ronald W. Lewis’s backyard-shed Mardi Gras Indian museum, the House of Dance & Feathers. His collection includes a trumpet from his nephew Shamarr Allen and a Tz’ dakah box for donations, courtesy of his friends in the Krewe du Jieux. It was a small room, packed with countless artifacts and several full Indian suits, books, and photos. We were invited to stay as long as we liked and ask questions. “Like I say,” Lewis reminded us, “everything has a story.”

Craig Taborn Trio at the Regattabar

Gerald Cleaver, Craig Taborn, and Thomas Morgan. Photo by John Rogers, courtesy of ECM.

Gerald Cleaver, Craig Taborn, and Thomas Morgan. Photo by John Rogers, courtesy of ECM.

There’s nothing new under the sun, and most musicians are working within some kind of tradition.  Still, there’s always an urge  to hear that tradition extended and transformed. At the Regattabar Wednesday night, the Craig Taborn Trio, although clearly working within the jazz tradition, essentially created their own language.

Pianist Taborn, now 43, has been has been a “one-to-watch” since first recording with James Carter’s quartet in the early ’90s, someone who could play inside or “out,” with great chops and a broad sense of jazz vocabulary, from bebop to Cecil Taylor. During the 2000s, he had a lot of visibility playing Fender Rhodes with Dave Douglas’s band, Chris Potter’s Underground, Tim Berne, and David Torn.  He was also releasing his own recordings as a leader and playing with everyone from Roscoe Mitchell to Bill Laswell and Mat Maneri.

But in 2011 he released a solo acoustic piano album, Avenging Angel, and then, in 2012, a trio record, Chants, both on ECM. The first was like a series of etudes, intense formal exercises, but full of expression and dramatic dynamic constrasts. Some tracks, like “Glossolalia,” wouldn’t have been out of place on a classical program.

The trio is another thing again. Taborn has reportedly been working with this trio — bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Gerald Cleaver — for eight years, but Chants was their first release. There’s very little on the album that you’d call “tuneful.” Taborn likes to work with intense, repetitive rhythmic-melodic devices — a little cell of melody that expands or contracts as the trio explores it. That’s not all they do, but at this point you don’t go into a Taborn performance expecting “How High the Moon.”

At the Regattabar, Taborn introduced the band, and then they played for a solid hour, with only three brief pauses and no further commentary. They began with a spare, softly played repeated piano figure in a hazy harmony with a low rumbling pulse from Cleaver, very dry, with snares off, light cymbal strokes, and isolated notes from Morgan’s bass. At first, Taborn played so softly that I worried that at some point we wouldn’t be able to hear him over the drums. Gradually the piano figures unfolded into insistent repeated tremolos in the left hand and more free dulcimer patterns in the right. The incremental shifs in the music suggested one of Morton Feldman’s meditations, and soon the volume and number of notes had increased. Cleaver’s steady rumble picked up. At about the 10-minute mark there was a shift to a near-swing dotted rhythm in Cleaver’s cymbals, but still with that arrhythmic rumbling pulse underneath. Soon, the left-hand repetition — joined by the throb of Morgan’s bass with Cleaver’s tom-tom — created an exquisite tension that was miles from the impressionistic dreamland of the opening few minutes. How had we arrived here?

Taborn played longer lines, approaching the extended right-hand lines of jazz piano, but pungent, with plenty of dissonance between right hand and left. He began to spell out chord progressions, unison lines between left hand and bass, and then a final fortissimo cadence by the band. The audience exploded. The band had been playing for about 20 minutes, something that was essentially one extended piece. This was not one “tune,” with long solos, but a carefully calibrated group effort. In fact, you couldn’t easily identify any portion of the piece as a solo.

The night went on like that. Two more pieces completed the hour, then a 10-minute encore. One driving vamp suggested a slightly askew Cuban son-montuno. A twisty solo piano introduction hinted at Monk and early Cecil Taylor, as if about to become a jazz standard before the harmony became unmoored. And always there was the astonishing independence of Taborn’s hands — at times hammering out one of those impossible fast, odd-meter repetitions in the left hand while the right marched in slow, stately chords against the fury of Cleaver’s drums, Morgan’s bass pivoting between the two. And in one passage, Taborn took off in furious parallel runs in both hands.

Jazz fans often talk abut the “telepathic” communication taking place in bands, but the formal integrity the Taborn trio achieves in the balance between written material and improvisation is special. Morgan has a beautiful touch, sometimes nearly as soft as Taborn’s quietest passages, and in the beginning of that encore they all seemed to be playing as quietly as they could. There were extended passages where Taborn and Morgan played in pure counterpoint — extended lines, completely independent, but also in sync. In the encore, Taborn fell into one of his odd-meter left-hand repetitions (a pianist friend counted one passage as being in 11, “unheard of”), while his right hand shouted freely with big exultant chords. A kind of call-and-response. He smiled and nodded at his bandmates, and everyone fell into a slamming unison figure and — bang — it was over.

I never saw the original Bill Evans trio — in fact, I never saw a lot of things — but I did see this.

Ah, Frenchman Street!

NEW ORLEANS — Frenchman Street. How did it take me so long to discover what our friend Brett Milano calls “a musical theme park.” At least half a dozen clubs within a couple of blocks, all with their own particular thing, but mostly leaning the jazz way. At the Three Muses, we had dandy cocktails and fine snacks (oh — duck! duck! duck! On pizza! With an egg! And rabbit boudin!) while the house act, Miss Sophie Lee, sang old-time blues and jazz standards from a small stage in the storefront window. Mirrors over the bar instead of widescreen TVs (no more fucking NFL draft, thank you, just Abita Seasonal!). Quiet, stylish, funky. We like.

Formerly I knew Frenchman Street only as the home of Snug Harbor, the New Orleans modern-jazz mecca where you went to see Terence Blanchard and Ellis Marsalis and McCoy Tyner. Who, fine as they all are, are NOT the reason I come to New Orleans. I can see all these fine gentlemen in Boston. No, I come to New Orleans to hear people and bands who rarely if ever travel north of I-10 – Mardi Gras Indians, Frankie Ford, Ed Volker, Meschiya Lake, Tim Laughlin, Tuba Skinny, Natalie Mae and Her Unturned Tricks. Those last two acts I had never seen before this year, but I’ll look for them again next year and forever more.

But yes, Frenchman Street now extends far beyond Snug Harbor. Friday night my wife and I ventured out there for the first time — around the bend of Decatur, past Checkpoint Charlie’s — to see singer John Boutte at d.b.a. You may know Boutte as the vocalist for the title song of the HBO hit Treme, but in New Orleans he’s a long well-respected artist. Brett told us that Boutte is usually far too big a deal these days for d.b.a., but this was Jazz Fest week, where the big names invade the smaller clubs. And besides, Boutte had a gig coming up at the Fest’s second weekend — his band needed to play. It was a superb, generous band, with trombone, trumpet, and alto sax, guitar, bass, and drums. Introducing the esteemed trumpeter Wendell Brunious, Bouttee said, “You’re getting your $20 worth.”

He wasn’t kidding. The band played inventive arrangements for nearly two hours without a break. And Boutte proved himself a remarkable vocalist. You could complain that any number of his tunes were too familiar by half, especially on the New Orleans tourist circuit — “Basin Street Blues,” “Do You Know What It Means (To Miss New Orleans).”  But it was the aggregate force of his song selection, and his honest, often stunning delivery, that made Boutte’s set special. Yes, there was “La Vie En Rose,” but it was as good as his delivery of “Lush Life,” which was to die for. Boutte has a light tenor with an appealing burr in its grain. His phrasing is masterful, pushing his breath control to the limit, and he sings so you hear every word. It’s not just in his diction, but in that phrasing. I can’t remember the last time I noticed that the answer to the central question of “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?” is “the ones I care for.”  In Boutte’s personal rendering, the singular becomes plural.

Boutte sang Allen Toussaint’s “Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette),” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and “I Cover the Waterfront.” By time he finished a stunning version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” he would have been justified in saying, “Okay, I’m done.” But he went on — with a bolero he recored with the band Cubanismo, and, yes, “Treme,” and more. The finale was an a cappella rendering of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” “I dreamed I was flying,” Boutte sang. It was no dream. He had been.

New Orleans Notes: Day Two

Creole Wild West with Big Chiefl Walter Cook

Creole Wild West with Howard Miller standing in for Big Chief Walter Cook

When we can, my wife and I like to start our days at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival with Mardi Gras Indians. The Indians seem the best way to reconnect with the festival, with the city, and with its people. The Indians are a neighborhood tradition, dated by some as far back as the Civil War and even earlier. In these tough, proud neighborhoods, there’s no more manly man than a Big Chief, dressed in a suit of brightly colored beads and feathers that he made himself.

One of our favorite chiefs is Howard Miller,  whose “gang” is Creole Wild West. This is a crew that claims to be the oldest Mardi Gras Indian tribe in New Orleans, dating themselves back to 1721. That’s not necessarily why we like them. A lot of the appeal for us has to do with Cook himself. Although he’s been increasingly standing in for the ailing Big Chief, Walter Cook, taking over front-man duties, Howard is uncommonly laid back. Like a lot of chiefs, he doesn’t mask for Jazz Fest. That’s something to be saved for Mardi Gras and St. Joseph’s Day (the latter is traditionally the most important for Mardi Gras Indians). Instead, he leaves dress-up for the high-ranking in his gang —the Spy Boy, the Flag Boy, the Wild Man. Howard himself saunters on stage in white polo shirt and distressed jeans (fashionably worn open at the knee), wearing tinted glasses and a straw fedora from under which peeks a blue-and-white bandana. “Nobody kneels and nobody bow, we’re Creole Wild West and we don’t know how!… INDIANS!” Thumping of drums, rattling tambourine, and the low cry from the gang: “Oooh-ooh!” Big Chief: “Madi cu defei! Indian Red! Indian Red!”photo

There follows a call-and-response chant of floating verses as old as Mardi Gras itself. “We won’t bow down. (We won’t bow down!) On that dirty ground. (That dirty ground!) Oh I love to hear him call, my Indian Red!”

There are chants like “Indian Red” that are part of just about every Mardi Gras Indian performance — “Shoo-fly,” “Hoo-nah-hey,” “Hey Poky Way — some of which have become actual songs and hit singles. (Every elder statesman at Jazz Fest has to sing “Iko Iko,” from Dr. John and Irma Thomas to the Dixie Cups and any of the Neville Brothers.) But for most of the Indian tribe performances at Jazz Fest, these are stripped down chants driven by unadorned percussion — congas, bass drums, cowbell, tambourines, and maybe — as a concession to the stage performance rather than a parade — trap drums with cymbals.

So Big Howard leads his crew with raps about the “gumbo city. . . . I got a big ol’ gang, and look at ’em, every one of ’em is pretty!… I told my mother, I told my little wife, I’m gonna bring me this gang if it costs me my life! ”

There’s a rap about clearing a path for the tribe on Mardi Gras day (“Hell out the way!”) And then one long rap:

“Swam the ocean and I didn’t get wet.

Slow walked through hell and I didn’t even sweat.”

A hundred soldiers had me against a mountain wall,

by the time the sun set, I had killed them all.

Killed 98 and then I escaped,

thought about what they meant to do do,

then I went back and killed the other two.”

Hanging with the Big Chief.

Hanging with the Chief.

[live review] Donal Fox with Maya Beiser at the ICA

Donal Fox and Maya Beiser at the ICA.

Donal Fox and Maya Beiser at the ICA. Photo by Kristophe Diaz

Twenty years ago, the Boston pianist and composer Donal Fox used to spend a bit of time on stage explaining his procedure for fusing his twin passions: jazz and classical music. It was useful and enlightening (“Bach to the Blues,” “Bach and Monk,” Scarlatti and whoever), but it also had an air of pushing a lima bean on a reluctant child. Now, after decades of his own work — in addition to that of people like Uri Caine, Brad Mehldau, and, oh, the entire New England Conservatory Contemporary Improvisation department — Fox maybe feels less need to explain, or apologize. At the ICA Thursday, in a program called “Piazzolla to Bach and Beyond,” he played solo and in a duo with the Israeli cellist Maya Beiser. Fox was as usual a genial host, but he limited his introductions to the titles and composers of the pieces that we were about to hear, no explanation necessary.

For those who, like me, are used to seeing Fox with a band, his opening 20-minute solo section was revelatory. In the Fox manner, he used pieces by Dowland, Brahms, Handel, and Monk as source material for improvisation. He took the first number, Dowland’s “Flow My Tears” fairly straight, but here were hints of what would impress for the rest of the night: his touch, tone, and sensitivity to dynamics, his compositional attention to chord voicings, his swing (even in non-swing material). The Dowland chestnut had the kind of stately polyphonic grace typical of the Renaissance, and the melancholy that is distinctly Dowland, as well as some grand fortissimo drama.

By time he got to Handel’s Passacaglia in G minor, all of Fox’s talents were on display – that rising and falling dynamic contrast, propulsive melodic variations in the right hand driven by rock-solid ostinatos in the left. In fact, making the most of the passacaglia form, Fox had figures in his left and right hand singing to each other. That kind of call-and-response was the hallmark of the evening. Also typical of Fox, “Autumn Leaves” began wandering into the Handel.

Another sea change in the nature of music programming was indicated by Monk’s “Ugly Beauty”: it belonged here, even if there was no obvious cross-reference with the Handel that preceded it. Yes, on the first notes, your ear said, “Jazz chord,” but it was a piece that just “fit”— the ballad tempo following the lickety-split Handel, the formal structural beauty on a par with everything else. And it was the perfect lead-in to an uptempo Bach D-minor Prelude.

Beiser is herself a well-traveled eclectic. She’s not necessarily an improviser, but she’s game, and she took well to Fox’s technique of using a bassline from Bach or Scarlatti as the foundation for spontaneous invention. And they made a good stage duo: Fox in his concert formal wear of black shirt and trousers with white scarf, Beiser with long flowing dark hair, in sequined black mini-dress and knee-high, spike-heeled suede boots. This was music you could hear with your eyes: Beiser looking over her shoulder at Fox, the pianist fixing his eyes on her or the music, as they both presented pieces (or improvisations) that were new to each other. At one coda, Beiser whipped her bow toward the floor with a final downstroke and practically glared at Fox in triumph. Nailed it!

Solos and accompaniment passed back and forth. While Beiser played the long-lined and lyrical “Soledad” by Astor Piazzolla, Fox again was right there with the beautiful chord voicings, informing the tune’s melancholy. Beiser’s tone was rich and forceful throughout, turning a bit coarse only when she had to run through a Bach invention and the “Coda Blues” based on it at top speed with Fox. (Maybe not the not the best piece for classical cello, but good possibilities for rock guitar.) Osvaldo Golijov’s mournful “Mariel, which Beiser had commissioned from the Argentine (and Boston-based) composer, was originally written for cello and a marimba. In Fox’s arrangement, his piano took on the role of the marimba tremolo. Beiser’s long, soaring lines — with slightly “out” subtle voicings from Fox — provided the dramatic high point of the night. A ripping Piazzolla tango finished the formal part of the concert, followed by an encore of Fox’s variations on Ludovico Einaudi’s BBC TV-ad ditty “I Gorni.” Then a Scarlatti finale from the duo.

I once asked another eclectic “jazz” composer, Carla Bley, how she would classify the different music she had produced over the years. She thought for a second and then said, “Classical music. All of it.” And Rahsaan Roland Kirk famously called jazz “black classical music.” Whatever you call it, Fox and Beiser played all of it. Without apology.

[live review] Cimarrón at Johnny D’s

Cimarrón (and friend) at Johnny D's

Cimarrón (and friend) at Johnny D’s

Those of you who read my Globe preview, know that I was excited about the Boston debut of Colombian joropo band Cimarron at Johnny D’s last Saturday night (April 6).  They did not disappoint.

This septet plays the folk-dance music of the Orinoco River plains that extend from Colombia into Venezuela. It is often a very uptempo triple-meter music whose traditional sound is defined by four-stringed bandola and cuatro guitars and folk-harp. The genius of Cimarrón leader (and harpist) Carlos Rojas Hernández  was in adapting the sound for recordings and concert performances with additional rhythm instruments; so, at Johnny D’s, cojon, maracas, bass, and a stripped-down trap kit of just hi-hat and parade drum compensated for the missing swish and stomp of dancers.

Instead of those dancers, this early show presented by World Music was packed with seated diners and standees. But the whoops and hollers made up for a lack of moving bodies, especially when singer Ana Veydó asked if there were any Spanish speakers in the audience. The music alternated fast-paced instrumentals with Veydó’s impassioned vocals. The plains are cattle country, and in many cases these are work songs – about herding and milking – or love songs, or statements, as in Veydó’s first number, “Llanera soy,” simply about regional pride (“I am a plainswoman”).

Aside from Veydó’s singing, the ensemble interplay was riveting throughout the nearly 90-minute set. Themes were often introduced in ferocious homophonic blocks of melody and rhythm before breaking off into solo sections or the counterpoint of plucked cuatro, bandola, and harp. In one number, an additional eight-string bandola (four sets of double-strings) gave the music an extra bit of jangle. There was an extended singalong (with the refrain “pow-pow” mimicking the cry of a regional bird) and one extended instrumental number that climaxed with a showdown between two sets of maracas, articulating super-fast patterns of 16th and 32nd notes. And there were intermittent demonstrations of the foot-stomping joropo dance style. There were no dancers in the audience Saturday night, but, who knows, maybe next time?

Billy Hart Quartet at the Regattabar

Billy Hart at the Regattabar. Photo by Kristopher Diaz.

Billy Hart at the Regattabar. Photo by Kristophe Diaz.

For some jazz bands — though they may work from written material or previously agreed-upon strategies — “composition” is really what takes place in performance. Whatever may have been on paper, the piece is really created in the live, spontaneous interaction of the band. That was certainly true of the Billy Hart Quartet at the Regattabar Wednesday night.

The quartet — the veteran Hart on drums, Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus on piano, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, and bassist Ben Street  — released their debut album, All Our Reasons, on ECM last year. They announced at the Regattabar that they’re getting ready to go into the studio again for ECM this weekend.

Form — the “composition” — is ever-present with this band, but also elusive. That’s part of what makes them so tantalizing. Maybe the most straightforward tune of the night was the fourth, Turner’s “The Lenny Groove.” Iverson introduced it, with a series of gradually accelerating runs spelled by deep, dissonant left-hand chords. And then Turner entered with the theme – a fast, silky chromatic line, played in unison with Iverson. It was indeed the Lenny Tristano sound. Unlike the previous pieces, here was clear verse-chorus song form with legible chord changes. But what impressed as Turner soloed was the unrestrained freedom within the form. Street kept up a constant chatter of counterlines along with Turner. He was suggesting rhythm — and the chords — but he was easily as free, just rolling along. And it was the tension between the two that held the piece in suspense.

For most of the set, things were rarely spelled out so clearly. Iverson’s “Maraschino” began with a short brush intro by Hart, and then a rubato ballad tempo for the band that had no clear harmonic markers and yet it sustained edge-of-your-seat tension. Maybe it was Street’s spare, falling interval of a couple of hard-struck notes: THUNK-thunk . . . THUNK-thunk . . . THUNK-thunk . . .  against Iverson’s wispy phrases. And then Turner’s solo, with his beautiful, supple tone, clear and airy, from the uppermost altissimo to the cellar – short groups of notes, all connected, not in obvious patterns of scales or arpegggios, just pure, spontaneous melody, bel canto, with Iverson running in economical lines behind him. At the end of the tune, Turner and Iverson climbed into the upper register together and then ended way up top, Iverson getting in the last pinging note.

Anyway, it was like that. As beautiful and uncompromising as jazz gets. Introducing the encore, Iverson mocked the band’s refusal to play standards, and so they did: “Some Enchanted Evening.” It really was.