This page is about presenting music in a format which is relevant to both musicians and casual music listeners. You can expect to see concert reviews, articles, and interviews as well as lessons and ideas for musicians themselves to try out. I plan to focus mostly on the jazz, classical, and experimental music originating from/being inspired by New York and Philadelphia (my current home) based musicians. The RSS Feed for this blog is: http://rjjohnson.tumblr.com/rss Upcoming Releases:

17th December 2012

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My latest article for AllAboutJazz.com - feat. Ben Schachter's Re:Trio Reunion Show and Philly Jazz: Fresh Cut from the Vine @ The Painted Bride →

Tagged: jazzphiladelphiaben schachterpainted bride

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16th October 2012

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My review for the band "Exuberance" from my monthly 'Live from Philadelphia' AAJ column →

Tagged: jazzexuberancephiladelphialive from philadelphia

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1st August 2012

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Rich Halley - Back From Beyond

The Rich Halley Quartet’s newest release comes almost exactly a year after their last album, Requiem For a Pit Viper, a work which captured the free wheeling yet focused approach of this Quartet.  Back From Beyond is not only a more cohesive effort from the band in terms of their personal sound, but also demonstrates the overall musicality of each player within a constantly varying musical atmosphere.

Back From Beyond is, compositionally, a far more diversified album.  Though the obvious influence of free jazz pioneers such as Ornette Coleman and the Sun Ra Arkestra remains present, bits of bebop and funk grooves find their way into the textures of many tunes.  Spuds, an original composition which opens the album, begins as an up-tempo bebop tune, but quickly shifts into a loose free improvisation involving each musician to varying degrees throughout the tune.  At times, Halley’s lines maintain a strong swing feel, and seem to outline an obvious chord structure, showcasing his study of the more conventional saxophonists within the jazz idiom.  Halley is adept at controlling the more extended techniques of the saxophone used for free improvisation, such as over-blowing and firing off late Coltrane-esque flurries of notes.  Both the avant-garde and straight ahead jazz find their way into his lexicon.  Halley’s tone is reminiscent of Joe Henderson, and possesses a natural growl which seems to cut through the whirlwind of sound being generated by the band.  Other moments during this tune feel completely removed from any sort of structure whatsoever, especially during bassist Clyde Reed’s extended solo.  This type of musical freedom does not overextend itself into the realm of abrasive free jazz, but rather remains relevant without becoming redundant.  

The increasingly sympathetic style of the band, even during times of intense buildup, coupled with a more sensitive dynamic approach makes this record much stronger than Requiem For a Pit Viper.  This release lends itself more readily to repeat listens, especially amongst a jazz audience.  This is not to say that the musical quality has been decreased in favor of a more commercial aesthetic.  Rather, the Quartet has simply evolved and crafted their concept into a much stronger offering. 

Rich Halley - Back From Beyond (Pine Eagle Records 2012)

Rich Halley - tenor sax, wood flute, percussion, Michael Vlatkovich - trombone, percussion, squeak toys, Carson Halley - drums, percussion, Clyde Reed - bass

Tagged: rich halleycarson halleymichael vlatkovichclyde reedjazzsaxophoneavant gardefree jazzback from beyond

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22nd June 2012

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JD Allen Trio - The Matador and the Bull

The JD Allen Trio’s 4th album is arguably their best both in terms of compositional strength and overall performance.  The group released their last album, Victory!, almost exactly a year ago, but their development is easily noticeable within minutes of listening to this release.

The Trio is known for blending free improvisations with straight ahead swinging originals in order to weave a uniquely interesting listening experience.  Their records, as they have explained, are meant to be listened to as a complete work rather than track to track.  This attention to detail is not often seen in jazz, but certainly adds a new level of cohesion to the compositions.  Certain tracks, such as “Cathedral”, an improvisation set to a constant drone provided by bassist Gregg August, serve as stepping stone, creating a seamless flow while maintaing an intriguing ambiguity between tracks.

As far as sound of sound, each player seems to have developed both personally and in terms of their overall contribution to the trio.  Allen’s tone is edgier than on past releases, and his lines contain a natural grit that matches his aggressive style when playing up-tempo.  On slower pieces, Allen leaves space between his lines which is filled in by the melodically assertive drumming of Rudy Royston.  Royston stands out on the track “Paseillo”, an original by Allen, and perhaps the most noteworthy performance on the recording.  Bassist Gregg August stands out as the keystone of the band, providing the stability needed for the adventurous improvisations and free interplay present throughout the album.  

The success of this trio can be attributed to their ability to keep listeners interested by mixing the familiar with the avant-garde.  Most of their tunes never make it past 3 or 4 minutes, but everything one needs to hear is contained in that short amount of time.  

JD Allen Trio - The Matador and the Bull (Savant 2012)

JD Allen (saxophone) Rudy Royston (drums), Gregg August (bass)

Tagged: jd allenrudy roystongregg augustmatador and the bulljazznew yorksaxophone

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14th June 2012

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Fly Trio - Year of the Snake

Fly Trio’s third release demonstrates a uniquely equitable interplay amongst the musicians as well as a refined sense of compositional adventurousness, a combination which has developed strongly with each new offering from the group.  Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of Fly is its ability to create interesting compositions which segue to seemingly leaderless improvisations, possibly owing some influence to the loose style developed by the early Bill Evans Trio recordings, but within the context of a modern tenor trio.  Though there are times in which a soloist may be highlighted, Fly seems to find its most creative moments during the more collective moments of this recording.  By doing away with the idea of simply trading solos, or forming the group around one main soloist (in this case, one would expect the tenor player), the band is able to control their music more directly, leading to sudden changes in dynamics and feel in some tunes while maintaining an intriguing ambiguousness in others, a quality which allows the listener to be engaged in the process rather than simply hearing the final commercial product.

Tenor saxophonist Mark Turner seems to favor a slightly warmer tone on this release than he is usually known for, adding a resonance and depth to his sound which compliments his use of the altissimo register during his improvisations.  His long tones seem breathy and are projected with an unwavering clarity.  This is especially evident on the composition “The Western Lands III”, a segment of a five part suite seemingly inspired by  the aesthetic of 20th century classical music and the artistic freedom of 1960’s free jazz.  Even when improvising over a free composition such as this, Turner favors melody and texture over pyrotechnics, and this record certainly features some of his more sparse style of playing.  

Bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard interact flawlessly throughout this recording, but it is their adaptability to various styles which best showcases their musicianship.  Some tunes, such as Ballard’s “Benj” or Grenadier’s “Kingston ” feature a more groove oriented feel with arranged rhythmic hits, an element which the Trio has utilized before, but one which is now more effortless sounding than ever. Grenadier especially sounds more at ease on this recording than in previous relases, regardless of the band.  He still showcases the technical chops and rock solid time he is known for, but his accompaniment seems more limber and his solos more lyrical than in the past.  Ballard has continued to develop the sound which he presented on the Brad Mehldau release “Ode” from earlier this year.  He is more crisp and precise than on previous outings, as highlighted by his swift cymbal work on the title track.  His laid back swing still comes through as well, most notably on Turner’s “Brothersister”, a tune which each member of the band seems to find particularly inspiring.

This is certainly Fly’s best release yet, and one which should be expected to be seen on top 10 lists at the end of the year.

Amongst the compositions found on the album, all of which were composed by  

Fly Trio - Year of the Snake (ECM 2012)

Mark Turner (tenor saxophone), Larry Grenadier (bass), Jeff Ballard (drums)

Tagged: fly trioyear of the snakemark turnerlarry grenadierjeff ballardjazznew yorkecm

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20th May 2012

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My new All About Jazz article - covering the Dan Hanrahan Trio, Danilo Perez Quartet, Matt Davis' Aerial Photograph, and the Matthew Shipp Trio →

Tagged: jazzdanilo perezkenny garrettbrian bladejohn patituccimatthew shipp

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30th March 2012

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My second article for AllAboutJazz.com...reviewing the Terell Stafford Quintet @ The Kimmel Center →

Tagged: terell staffordjazzkimmel centerphiladelphiatrumpetmusic

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26th March 2012

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Brad Mehldau Trio - Ode

Pianist Brad Mehldau and his trio have released a new album which demonstrates the further codification of their sound as both a rhythmically elastic and harmonically adventurous piano trio.  Recorded mostly in 2008, it includes several new compositions which have been showing up in the trio’s live sets.  

Mehldau’s unique style often involves a direct interplay between his hands, sometimes inciting a call and response effect by beginning a phrase in one hand, and finishing it with the other.  Mehldau demonstrates this distinct element of his signature style on the track “Dream Sketch”, an original composition with a drifting rhythmic feel perfect for superimposing rhythmic complexities.  This also gives his lines an intriguingly disjointed aesthetic, somewhat similar to the octave displacement and large intervalic leaps found in the improvisations of tenor saxophonist Mark Turner (plus the two have recorded together extensively…how about that).  

The trio seems to stretch out in terms of improvisation on Mehldau’s newer compositions.  Rather than building toward a climax during a solo, this trio prefers to provide a constantly changing ebb and flow to their music, often making each piece seem like more of a courageous experiment than a clean run down in the studio.  The energy level tends to fluctuate instead of building towards a focal point.  This is especially evident on the Mehldau tune “26”, a waltz which falls into an easy groove and quickly becomes the basis for a meandering yet focused improvisation.  

Mehldau’s trio explores several different textural and rhythmic environments.  ”Wyatt’s Eulogy for George Hanson” seems to be sinspired by the simpler harmonic style of the composer Erik Satie, and is set up against an atmospheric rubato backdrop of mallet work from drummer Jeff Ballard.  Even on an up tempo burner like “Stand the Man”, the trio never loses its aplomb.  The solos never sound hurried or frantic, and the tempos don’t consistently creep up upwards.  The dynamic balance is also near perfect and each instrument is easily heard throughout each piece, especially during bassist Larry Grenadier’s technical improvisations.  This album is certainly an early frontrunner for this year’s common top 10 lists.     

Brad Mehldau Trio - Ode (Nonesuch 2012)

Brad Mehkdau (piano), Larry Grenadier (bass), Jeff Ballard (drums)

Tagged: brad mehldaularry grenadierjeff ballardbrad mehldau trioodenew yorkjazzpianononesuchmusic

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29th February 2012

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Robert Glasper Experiment - Black Radio

Robert Glasper’s latest release provides the most relevant example of his personal voice as both a composer and arranger.  Interestingly, Glasper’s instrumental prowess is more reserved on this record than perhaps any other, with many tracks focusing primarily on vocals rather than instrumental interplay.  Glasper assumes the role of a co-producer and musical director, expanding his palette as an artist to a new plateau.  The album leans heavily on R&B inflected vocals with organic hip-hop instrumental backing, and the results are interesting for both casual listeners and devoted musicians.

One of the most attractive aspects of this record for listeners is the eclectic mix of guests who are presented throughout the album.  Erykah Badu, Mos Def, and Lupe Fiasco are just a few of the guests who contributed to this album.  Glasper’s open minded approach in using these musicians may lead to a new audience for this music, perhaps helping to spread the influence of jazz into other genres.  The average listener will certainly be hearing some unfamiliar sounds, but the individual tracks are very accessible due in large part to the rhythmic contributions of drummer Chris Dave, a master of both jazz and hip-hop styles.  

Dave’s musicality is one of the highlights of this album.  His drumming always provides a solid groove for the band to settle in to, but his use of angular fills and off beat accents shifts the band’s aesthetic away from most contemporary hip hop and R&B.  Dave’s rhythmic complexity is intriguing, but never distracts listeners from following each tune’s natural progression.  In terms of the instrumental aspects of this album, Dave’s drumming may be the element in which the rest of the band builds on.  He provides a variety of approaches to keep the groove from becoming dull, and hip-hop listeners may find themselves wondering what other possibilities will emerge from the combination of hip-hop stylings with the natural complexity of jazz drumming.

This album will probably show up on top 10 lists at the end of the year, so even if you are a jazz purist, be sure to give it a listen.  

Robert Glasper Experiment - Black Radio (Blue Note 2012)

Robert Glasper - piano, Chris Dave - drums, Casey Benjamin - sax, vocoder, producer, Derrick Hodge (bass)

Tagged: robert glasperderrick hodgecasey benjaminchris daveblack radiojazznew yorkblue note

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17th February 2012

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My first article for AllAboutJazz.com - featuring live reviews of shows in Philadelphia during the month of January 2012 →

Tagged: jazzphiladelphia

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20th January 2012

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Chick Corea/Eddie Gomez/Paul Motian - ‘Further Explorations’

Recorded during a two week residency at the Blue Note in New York, ‘Further Explorations’ is a tribute to the late pianist Bill Evans, perhaps the most influential jazz pianist in the history of the music.  This recording is one of the last made of the late drummer Paul Motian, who passed away last year.  Perhaps the most outstanding quality of this recording is that throughout each piece, Corea never attempts to imitate Evans’ instantly identifiable style.  Any fan could identify Corea’s sound within a few seconds of any hearing any track.  Drummer Paul Motian is best known for abstract and highly textural style of playing and composing, but on this record, his unique swing style is heard throughout.  Motian is highly interactive, and often develops ideas along with the soloist.  His solos emphasize melodic development rather than technical complexity.  Nonetheless, he is a solid drummer who provides energy and inspiration for the whole band.  Bassist Eddie Gomez, who played with Bill Evans several years after Paul Motian had left the trio following the death of bassist Scott LaFaro, is heard in his usual aggressive style.  Gomez is a bassist who enjoys pushing a soloist further into their improvisation, and this suits Corea perfectly.  Both Corea and Gomez are high energy players, and Paul Motian’s drumming serves as perhaps the most unique aspect of this dynamic trio.

Chick Corea/Eddie Gomez/Paul Motian - ‘Further Explorations’ (Concord Jazz 2012)

Chick Corea (piano), Eddie Gomez (bass), Paul Motian (drums)

Tagged: chick coreaeddie gomezpaul motianjazzblue notenew yorkfurther explorations

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12th January 2012

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Ben Schachter (Re: Trio) - Omnibus

As I mentioned in a recent post, Ben Schachter is a saxophonist from Philadelphia who moved to Arizona a few years ago.  I plan to review all of his albums on this blog.  Schachter is an unsung giant of the tenor saxophone, and his music speaks for itself.  He deserves the attention of the press, but has yet to receive any major accolades from the mainstream jazz music scene.

Omnibus is Ben’s most recent release, and it showcases his developing interest in odd time signatures and original composition.  Ben performs a suite of three standards composed by legendary tenor saxophonists (Inner Urge by Joe Henderson, Giant Steps by John Coltrane, and Pent Up House by Sonny Rollins) which are all arranged in odd time signatures.  Even within this framework, Ben’s solos contain a natural development.  He uses rhythmic development to build tension, much in the style of Thelonious Monk, before building to more traditional eighth note based lines.  By employing rhythmic tension, Ben prevents his solos from becoming too dense.  This approach also highlights the interplay between Ben and his rhythm section.  Matt Scarano, a young drummer from Philadelphia, seems to play effortlessly in odd time signatures while bassist Leon Boykins steps out of the usual role of the bass more frequently than most.  Bass players are often the first to turn down a solo, but Boykins is able to hold his own as both a melodic soloist and solid accompanist.  Ben’s compositional style has evolved to include harmonies within some of his melodies by utilizing multiple saxophones to create chordal structures.  He also continues to explore free jazz.  Pianist Tom Lawton joins Ben on the track “She Wept”, which drifts between melodic statements with a natural rubato feel.  

Ben Schachter - Omnibus (Benjam 2008)

Ben Schachter (tenor saxophone), Matt Scarano (drums), Leon Boykins (bass), Tom Lawton (piano)

Tagged: ben schachterleon boykinsmatt scaranotom lawtonjazzphiladelphia

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3rd January 2012

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This is a live bootleg of the Miles Davis Quintet from their very short tour of Japan in 1964.  The lineup of the band at this time constituted Miles’ second Great Quintet, but for this tour, Sam Rivers was playing tenor sax instead of Wayne Shorter.  This was the only tour that Rivers did with the band.  One of the shows was released officially as ‘Miles in Tokyo’, but this version of ‘So What’ is taken from a soundboard recording from a different show.  This is very rare, and showcases Sam Rivers ability to play with the greatest band in jazz.

Miles Davis Quintet (w/ Sam Rivers…not Wayne Shorter)  7/12/64 - ‘So What’

Tagged: miles davisjazzsam riversso whatjapan

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1st January 2012

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Gary Smulyan - Smul’s Paradise

With all of the controversy surrounding jazz in 2011, I believe everyone is looking towards a fresh start in 2012 full of good music and hopefully some new bonds being formed between musicians (maybe..?).  We often hear complaints about the lack of ‘soul’ or ‘feeling’ in today’s jazz, but baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan’s newest release proves, amongst other releases, that this simply isn’t the case.  Rather than trying to re-invent the wheel, (not that there’s anything wrong with that…) Smulyan’s group is excavating the possibilities of an expanded organ trio group which of course includes Smulyan’s sax and the guitar expertise of Peter Bernstein.  This is a feel good record, and it has everything from groovy shuffle beats to smoky organ riffs in the style of classic Jimmy Smith recordings.  Mike LeDonne’s playing reminds one of Larry Goldings at times, but it’s clear that LeDonne’s style relates closer to classic jazz recordings while Goldings sometimes ventures into uncharted Impressionistic territory (check out Goldings’ work with Trio Beyond.  His intro on ‘I Fall in Love too Easily sounds like a Debussy composition).  Peter Bernstein is the perfect fit for this group.  His tone is reminiscent of Grant Green, but his playing is more refined harmonically.  Bernstein’s ability to maintain just the right amount of grit in his playing is interesting and may leave some guessing as to just what generation he belongs to.  The vast majority of compositions on this record are original.  Smulyan isn’t an overly adventurous composer, however, it is refreshing to hear some new tunes within a traditional format.  I for one enjoy hearing some standard sounding material on a non-standards record.  It’s recordings like this that demonstrate that anyone who thinks modern jazz is abandoning tradition just isn’t digging deep enough.  This record will be released in early 2012, so look for it online in a couple of weeks.

Gary Smulyan - “Smull’s Paradise (Capri Records Ltd 2012)

Gary Smulyan (Bari Sax), Peter Bernstein (Guitar), Mike LeDonne (Hammond B3), Kenny Washington (Drums)

Tagged: gary smulyansmul's paradisepeter bernsteinmike ledonnekenny washingtonjazznew yorkcapri records

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30th December 2011

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Top 10 Jazz Releases of 2011

This is just a list of albums which intrigued me the most this year.  Music is interpretive, and I do not consider this definitive in any way.  It would seem that instrumentally, 2010 was the year for pianists while 2011 was the year for saxophonists.  2011 will probably be marked more by controversy than music in the jazz community.  From fighting for pensions for jazz musicians to the BAM movement and its supporters accusing Caucasians of trying to steal jazz from African Americans, this year was marked by internal struggle and fierce debate.  Despite all of this, fantastic music made its way to listeners throughout the year.  Notice that while Nicholas Payton may have made more noise in the jazz community than anyone else this year, his new album Bitches didn’t get very far.  Is this because of his harsh rhetoric?  Nope.  The music just isn’t that great.  Besides, most of the artists on everyone’s top 10 lists this year are Black…including mine  Maybe what we should all take away from this is that as musicians, we are best left to develop our art and let the music speak for itself.  The more we create problems for the sake of attention, the more our music suffers.  I for one haven’t heard any BAM support coming from the musicians popping up on everyone’s top 10 lists this year…this does not appear to be a coincidence.

1.  Miguel Zenon - Alma Adentro:  The Puerto Rican Songbook

2.  Craig Taborn - Avenging Angel

3.  JD Allen - Victory!

4.  Ambrose Akinmusire - When The Heart Emerges Glistening

5.  Erik Reed - The Dancing Monk

6.  Gretchen Parlato - The Lost and Found

7.  Tirtha - Tirtha

8.  Bill McHenry - Ghosts of the Sun

9.  Noah Preminger - Before the Rain

10.  *Honorable Mention*  Miles Davis Quintet - Live in Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series Vol. 1

Tagged: jazztop 102011

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