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:

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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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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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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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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28th December 2011

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Craig Taborn - Avenging Angel

The music on Craig Taborn’s latest release is influenced heavily by classical piano etudes while retaining a largely improvisatory feel throughout.  If you are familiar with the work of the 20th century composer Gyorgy Ligeti, than you may instantly see the parallels between his music and Taborn’s improvisations.  Despite the influence of classical music, it would seem that this characteristic is apparent only in stylistic influence.  Taborn’s pieces are mostly improvised, and there is no standard material to be found on this disc.  Many pianists have made strong releases recently, especially in 2010.  The solo piano format has been re-evaluated by artists such as Brad Mehldau, Vijay Iyer, and Fred Hersch, making a solo recording seem almost compulsory for pianists these days.  Taborn’s is arguably one of the best, and is definitely my favorite.  The melodies are often sparse, allowing for the note to sustain and ring into each other much in the style of Paul Bley’s early releases for ECM.   This approach demonstrates the influence of Impressionism on Taborn’s playing.  Other tracks have jagged rhythmic elements and create differing melodies which seem to chase each other across the piano.  The simplicity of some of Keith Jarrett’s solo works seems to have been an influence as well.  This is especially true on the track “Forgetful”, where Taborn stretches the melody to create a natural tension and release.  This album demands multiple listens.

Craig Taborn - “Avenging Angel”  (2011 ECM)  

Craig Taborn - piano, compositions

Tagged: craig tabornnew yorkpianojazzecm

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26th December 2011

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Miguel Zenon - “Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook”

Miguel Zenon’s newest release combines modern interpretations of Puerto Rican folk sons with lush orchestrations conducted by Guillermo Klein.  The selections on this record are probably unfamiliar to most jazz listeners, but they are certainly beautiful songs which are full of emotion and subtle complexity.  The balance between simple melodies and advanced rhythmic ideas creates a unique sound.  Zenon plays each melody with full intensity, almost in the style of a passionate vocalist rather than a saxophonist.  Additionally, Zenon’s solos on the album are nothing less than incendiary.  Despite the large ensemble and depth of each tune, Zenon showcases his playing throughout the recording.  Zenon is clearly the feature of the record.  His own skills are showcased perfectly, and one can gain an appreciation for his individual sound from this release.  

The orchestrating reminds me of Ravel at times.  The instrumentation relies heavily on wind instruments (actually, they are the only instruments added outsid of the standard jazz rhythm section).  Zenon utilizes a wide tonal palette, utilizing oboe, flute, French and English horns, bassoon and clarinet.  The instruments provide lush textures much in the style of an Impressionistic composer.  The musicians are able to adapt to the complex rhythmic aspects of the music, often utilizing poly-rhythms or call and response style phrases with the band.  Overall, the ensemble sounds like a cohesive unit and not like a group of musicians who were called in to do a session.  The band’s interactions are captured throughout the recording.

This album comes highly recommended.  5 stars, certainly one of the best releases of the year.

Miguel Zenon - “Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook”  (2011 Marsalis Music)

Miguel Zenon (alto sax, arrangements)

Tagged: miguel zenonjazzpuerto ricoalma adentronew yorksaxophone

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24th December 2011

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JD Allen Trio - “Victory!”

JD Allen’s third album with his working trio of Gregg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums is probably his most talked about to date.  This album, like its predecessor, demonstrates that Allen prefers to deliver strong, concise performances rather than long explorations…at least on his recordings.  Each tune begins, quickly showcases its potential, and leaves you wanting to listen again in order to figure out why you liked it so much the first time.  The simplicity is probably why most critics and musicians enjoy this album.  There is a wide range of styles, and everything from hard swinging post bop to Paul Motian-esque rubato passages can be found on this album.  The consistent factor is the brevity of the tracks and the trios ability to create a sustained energy very quickly.  The experience of this band is obvious on the recording.  It is easy to hear that this is a working trio, and not a one off recording date.  At times, one may be reminded of the album “Motion”, a date which included Lee Konitz, Elvin Jones, and Sonny Dallas.  However, the overall style is decisively modern.  Allen’s study of the masters who came before him is apparent, but he has chosen to move forward rather than try to re-create the past.  As you may have seen, this album is already popping up on top 10 lists for 2011 all over the internet.

JD Allen Trio - “Victory!” (2011 Sunnyside)  JD Allen (tenor sax), Gregg August (bass), Rudy Royston (drums)

Tagged: jd allengregg augustrudy roystonjazznew yorksaxophone

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11th July 2011

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David Allen Trio @ The Bar Next Door 7-8-11

This past Friday, I was lucky enough to see the Dave Allen Trio at the Bar Next Door, a Greenwich Village jazz club which most fans of the music are familiar with these days.  I mainly decided to check this show out because of the rhythm section, but I was very satisfied with the show overall.  Dave Allen is a guitarist who has the touch of a modern player with the vocabulary of a seasoned bebopper.  He doesn’t sound like other chops-heavy guitarists such as Tal Farlow…he’s more of a modern player who has an obvious education in the roots of jazz improvisation.  In terms of tone, he is able to have a fairly bright sound while maintaining a smooth touch.  His compositions showed a clear interest in a wide variety of musical styles, including 20th century classical.  All of his tunes, despite their varied styles, still remained within the jazz idiom in terms of feel and rhythm.  Bassist Drew Gress has a technical command of his instrument which is simply astonishing.  He was able to play bebop lines like a horn player with complete ease.  His tone is solid, and reminds me of Jimmy Garrison at times.  In terms of tme, Gress can drive the band, but knows when to lay back.  Drummer Eric McPherson impressed me more than anyone.  His ability to use improvised phrases from the band to impose rhythmic modulations displayed his complete empathy for his bandmates.  He listens to every member, and uses their ideas to inspire his own.  McPherson’s sound is crisp and precise, and his control of dynamics left a lot of breathing room for the band to move within.  I’d recommend checking out some of Dave Allen’s recordings, or catching a show if you’re in the New York area.

David Allen Trio - David Allen (guitar), Drew Gress (bass), Eric McPherson (drums)

Tagged: david allendave alleneric mcphersondrew gressbar next doorla lanternanew yorkjazzguitarbassdrums

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11th January 2011

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Update: Winter Jazz Fest 2011 a Success

Anyone who has read a single review from Winter Jazz Fest this year knows that the music this year was consistently well received.  Any number of specific reviews are available online.  For me, however, the most exciting aspect of this year’s Festival was the incredible turnout of fans who braved the cold for a chance to sneak into one of the small venues which hosted this year’s events.  According to most sources, about 4000 tickets were sold this year.  However, many people were turned away and were unable to purchase tickets or make it to the main shows.  It could be likely that a the attendance for Winter Jazz Fest was well over 5000 people.  In an era where jazz continues to struggle, this surge in attendance is encouraging to anyone involved in the jazz world.  This is especially true of Winter Jazz Fest, where many of the acts are newcomers on the scene.  The fact that so many fans were clamoring to see musicians who are not mainstream, even in the jazz world, brings new light to the possibilities of modern jazz reaching a new market.  According to several critics who attended the events (including Nate Chinen and Ben Ratliff of the New York Times), most shows were nearly impossible to get into unless you arrived early and camped out until showtime.  Even those who made it into the clubs faced huge crowds.  Both Friday and Saturday were full of sets that were standing room only.  In fact, the only complaints about this year’s festival was the lack of capacity for the unexpectedly large crowds.   Next year, the promoters will be forced to make a change in order to preserve the integrity of the festival.  Personally, I like the idea of having small clubs remaining involved in the festival.  Adding more venues such as Le Poisson Rouge (which is the main venue of WJF) would help tremendously.  I hope to see the smaller clubs stay involved, but the idea of continuing the festival in clubs that are tight on even the most average of nights makes attendance more of a burden than a joy for those who are coming to listen.  Perhaps the more established clubs will have to consider becoming involved in Winter Jazz Fest.  The large crowds prove that the demand is there, and the more tradition based clubs may have to start taking the modern scene more seriously.

Tagged: Winter Jazz Festnew yorkle poisson rouge

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5th January 2011

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2011 NYC Winter Jazz Fest

Each year, lower Manhattan hosts Winter Jazz Fest, an event which includes over 60 bands playing in several of the most well known music venues in New York.  With so many bands to choose from, many performing at the same time, it may help to have some recommendations.  Several sites, including NPR have set out to do just this.  Here are my personal recommendations.  I must note, however, that you really cannot go wrong with this year’s lineup. I am sure that every show will be worth your time.

My Recommendations:

Robert Glasper Experiment, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Donny McCaslin Trio, Kendrick Scott, Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth, and the Noah Preminger Quartet

Check out www.winterjazzfest.com

Single day tix are $25, but you can go to both days for $35 (which includes all 60-ish shows).  The value in this deal is ridiculous, and again, you can’t go wrong.

Tagged: winter jazz festnew york

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