Category Archives: Live review

Ron Carter’s Golden Striker Trio at the Regattabar


Ron Carter played an early role in jazz’s cutting edge, from recordings with Eric Dolphy to his work with the pathbreaking mid-’60s Miles Davis Quintet. Claiming to have worked on more than 2,500 recordings, Carter has helped define the sound of jazz bass and the modern jazz rhythm section. His Golden Striker Trio, which played the Regattabar in Cambridge, MA last night and will be there again tonight, is about jazz classicism. The name of the band itself comes from a tune by the most “classical” of all jazz bands, the Modern Jazz Quartet. Besides the band’s tightly defined sound, the show also reasserted the qualities that remain essential in Carter’s playing.

The band’s deportment was certainly classical — they came out in dark suits and matching red ties (the leader wore a multi-colored pocket handkerchief) and took a group bow before playing. The ovation was extremely warm in the crowded house for the 76-year-old Carter. The opening, uptempo “Cedar Tree” by guitarist Russell Malone, showed off all of Carter’s technique — his long, nimble fingers working through a fast, tricky vamp, a variety of strums and double-stops, and resonant walking figures. But the technique was always in service to the tune and the band, whose imperative is the interplay among Carter, Malone, and pianist Donald Vega. This came through in the counterpoint of simultaneoulsy unfolding, equally weighted melodic lines as well as in the more conventional back-and-forth of jazz performance: the trading of four- and eight-bar phrases, or simple call-and-response patterns.

This is a low-key band — no drummer, after all. But they swung hard, and those transparent textures allowed you to hear every detail, and allowed Malone to bring his solo feature on “Candle Light” (a tribute to Carter’s duo partner over the years, Jim Hall) down to a hush. But there were uptempo features, like the closing Fletcher Henderson number, “Soft Winds,” where the shift to double-time for Vega’s solo brought screams. And then there was Carter, an orchestra to himself, playing multiple lines, quoting a Bach suite (in his solo feature, “You Are My Sunshine”), and always maintaining a supple, singing line. Classic indeed.

Fuse Jazz Concert Review: Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica Quartet at the Regattabar

By Jon GarelickMr. Ho’s Orchestrotica Quartet at the Regattabar in Cambridge, MA.

For some of us, the very idea of Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica seems like a bad hangover from the early ’90 “lounge music” revival. Here was yet another take on the “exotica” tiki lounge music of the ’50s and ’60s — the small-group South Pacific mélange created by the likes of Martin Denny and Cal Tjader. It was intentionally inauthentic world music, before there was such a thing as world music, the kind of stuff created for a tiny-umbrella lounge of the mind. It was perfect for ’90s irony, and simple enough that untrained rock musicians could put it over. It was cheese on top of cheese.

But Mr. Ho’s Brian O’Neill had another idea. What if he took the very inauthenticity of the original music as a motive for putting together things that were never meant to go together originally? Like Bach’s Toccata and Fugue with a Balkan beat? And then find some musicians who could really play Bach and odd-meter Balkan dance music? In other words, use the exotica idea — light and fun and sort of pop — to create real music.

Well, that’s my own interpretation of O’Neill’s intentions. As alter-ego Mr. Ho, O’Neill now has two albums, the vibes quartet record Third River Rangoon and the 23-piece orchestra disc The Unforgettable Sounds of Esquivel, both on his own Tiki Label and part of his “Exoctic Sounds for Modern Living” series. At the Regattabar in Cambridge, MA on Friday night, he brought the quartet, all in matching white, collared lounge shirts with a multi-colored pattern on one side. O’Neill — a well-schooled polymath percussionist on Boston’s world and jazz music scenes — presented the music with humor, calling the original exotica movement “a white man’s idea of exotic music,” and conceding that the Orchestrotica was just another white man’s take — his. In this case, the music would take in various world and classical-music influences that were never part of the original tiki sound. The band’s playing, meanwhile, is deadly serious.

Sometimes the titles were self-explanatory — “Would You like Bongos with that Fugue?” was the previously mentioned Bach/Balkan mash-up. There were a couple of Tjader tunes but in updated arrangements with expanded harmonies. O’Neill, with flutist Geni Skendo, bassist Jason Davis, and percussionist Shane Shanahan negotiated fiendishly tricky 9/8 and 11/8 rhythms. Occasionally there were more familiar Brazilian and flamenco rhythms (and Tjader’s “Colorado Waltz”), and there were familiar tunes, like Manuel de Falla’s “Fire Dance” music.

But as the evening moved on, the music became more and more its own thing, a kind of classical chamber music. Skendo played mostly bass flute, with its dark sonorities, as well as shakuhachi. (Skendo sort of embodies the state of world music today: an Albanian living in Boston who makes a specialty of that end-blown Japanese instrument.) Shanahan moved among a vast array of hand percussion — frame drums, dumbek, bongos. O’Neill stuck mostly to vibes, despite one Brazilian percussion rave-up between him and Shanahan. Jason Davis, meanwhile, stayed with bass, with beautiful tone and time and one very lovely high-lying bowed solo. Tev Stevig sat in for a couple of numbers on oud and tanbur.

The “classical” element emerged in the arrangements – often multi-section pieces rather than “tunes” played through with solos. Think of it as if the BSO Chamber Players could swing. By the end of the set, the band had offered elements of Shostakovich as well as an arrangement of Gershwin’s four piano Preludes. Although there was a lot of tinkering, one of those Preludes was played “straight,” as written. But on the whole, O’Neill was creating something new from his multiple interests. He described himself and Shanahan and Stevig not merely as collectors of instruments, but collectors of sounds. That’s not a bad place for a serious composer to start. A new album is due from the Orchestrotica Quartet in November.

This review ran in the Arts Fuse: Fuse Jazz Concert Review: Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica Quartet at the Regattabar.

Miss Tess at the Regattabar: Happy Return

Miss Tess and the Talkbacks. Photo by Brian Geltner.

Miss Tess and the Talkbacks. Photo by Brian Geltner.

It’s always good to catch up with Miss Tess when she returns to Boston. The Maryland-raised singer-songwriter spent a good chunk of the ’00s in Boston, going to Berklee, getting a band together. When she started leading her band the Bon Ton Parade, she was calling her sound “modern vintage” (the name of one of her half-dozen full-length albums). That was a mix of blues and swing jazz with a touch of country. But she’s revised her sound and the band over time. She jettisoned the horn section she had for a while, and pretty much any pretension to jazz. At the Regattabar Wednesday night, she was fronting her current quartet, the Talkbacks, a lean guitar band. There’s still plenty of swing in the music, but these days it leans decidedly country — with flavors of Texas swing and rockabilly, and some standards that can go either way.

The opener, “Everybody’s Darling,” signaled everything that’s fresh about the band. It was one of Tess’s increasingly authoritative originals, about life on the road (“but no one’s sweetheart” is the followup to the title phrase), fast and sassy, something that could have come out of the Bob Wills book but with an outspoken young woman singing on the front line. There were sweet vocal harmonies (as there were all night) as well as harmonized lead guitar lines between Will Graefe’s big baby-blue Epiphone and Tess’s vintage Weymann electric.  When called for, drummer Matt Meyer and bassist Larry Cook delivered that classic slap-back rockabilly rhythm.

The band offers Tess plenty of flexibility so that it can contain a good variety of music. Alongside the Texas swing and rockabilly, she could sing Willie Nelson’s own road song, “Night Life” (“the night life/ain’t no good life/but it’s my life”), and some Bonnie Raitt and Randy Newman. One of the highlights of the night was the Ink Spots’ “Don’t Want To Set the World on Fire,” sung with just bass and Graefe’s guitar. The lower volume allowed Tess’s vocals to shine — lyrics and music delivered with a mix of confidence and vulnerability.

Tess announced that the band are working on a new album in Brooklyn, due in the fall. Meanwhile, she and the Talkbacks have a busy weekend: tonight at the Press Room in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, tomorrow night at Harlow’s Pub in Peterborough, and Saturday at the big Green River Festival in Greenfield, Mass. Catch them if you can.

Tiger Lillies get tunefully macabre at Oberon

The full review ran in the July 17 Boston Globe.

CAMBRIDGE — We’re all used to post-punk Brechtian cabaret by now (thanks, Amanda Palmer and Dresden Dolls!), but the Tiger Lillies, who played Oberon on Monday night, are another matter. This trio, formed in London in 1989, have been performing their songs and theatrical works over the course of more than 30 albums and in shows at clubs, theaters, and, in one instance, an abandoned prison. They’ve written song cycles based on “Hamlet,” “Woyzeck,” stories by Edward Gorey, and their own macabre tales, replete with pimps, prostitutes, murder, mayhem, and ghosts.

The focus of these events is singer-songwriter Martyn Jacques, who performs, outfitted in bowler derby, his face swathed in grease paint. Singing alternately in a high countertenor or a deep Tom Waits growl, he’s a combination of Mack the Knife and a Pagliacci from hell….

To read more, click here.

Ravi Coltrane’s band goes with the flow

(The full review ran in the Boston Globe on June 23)

The 47-year-old saxophonist Ravi Coltrane (yes, son of jazz legend John) is a wonderful player, but for the first couple of tunes in the first of two sets at Scullers on Thursday night, it wasn’t his horn that held the room so much as his music — the combined effort of his band. Coltrane has been changing up his live show regularly since disbanding his longstanding quintet following the release of last year’s “Spirit Fiction” (Blue Note). At Scullers he brought in guitarist Adam Rogers, bassist Dezron Douglas, and the all-important Ralph Peterson on drums. It was the way these players locked into the tunes and one another that ultimately made for a ferocious juggernaut….

To read more, click here.

Cuban duo makes Boston debut

Friday night marked the long-anticipated Boston debut of Cuban pianist Harold López-Nussa and his brother, drummer Ruy Adrián López-Nussa. I say “long-anticipated” not because these are hoary veterans. The brothers are still in their 20s. Rather, prominent Boston agent Ted Kurland first tried to bring them here two years ago, but visa problems scotched the deal.(Pianist Harold López-Nussa. Photo: Pascal Thiebaut)

Harold is one of those prodigies regularly popped out by the rigorous Cuban conservatories. He has toured with Buena Vista Social Club singer Omara Portuando and was featured as a player and composer on the 2011 US-Cuban fusion release Ninety Miles (with Christian Scott, Stefon Harris, and Davíd Sanchez).

At the Regattabar, it was easy to hear what all the excitement was about. Harold has the chops and sensibility to encompass a wide range of styles and technique to spare. One tune, written by his uncle, Hernan López-Nussa, began with the melody of a Chopin etude before segueing into a classic Havana ballroom danzón. It was all of a piece, fluid and lyrical. It was also one of the more relaxed tunes of the evening, along with an undulating take on Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints.” The rest of the 80-minute set was kinetic, explosive even.

Part of this was due to the bravura percussion by brother Ruy Adrián, who commanded a modified trap set that also included a conga. He also occasionally filled in a harmony or bass figure with a keyboard, hitting the drums with the stick in his left hand, playing chords or rhythm patterns with his right.

Even without Ruy Adrián’s help, though, there probably were few in the audience who missed a bass player. That’s because Harold’s left hand was a rhythm section of its own, pounding out ferocious ostinatos and occasionally playing parallel melodies. The absence of a bass player gave him room to roam, and, with all that drumming, the bottom was amply covered.

The overall emphasis of the night was chordal and rhythmic, with occasional flashes of extended, melodic right-hand lines. I would have liked to have heard more of those. And maybe some of the more subtle, quiet explorations that grew out of the Chopin. (A lilting country-style guajira was also effective.) But there’s no denying the excitement these two can create. At one point, Ruy Adrián took a cajon (the box-like percussion instrument that the player sits on), came from behind his kit, and proceeded to tear the place up. Rhythm isn’t everything, but it’s a lot. Look for Harold’s new CD in the fall.

(This ran on the Arts Fuse on June 23.)

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.)