Auditions: August 2018

Lauren Sevian, Bliss (Posi-Tone)

Is there a weird kind of bias against the baritone saxophone? Although jazz fans of all stripes agree that the bari sax sounds great in the hands of masters such as Hamiet Bluiett and the late Cecil Payne, it still tends to be treated like a supplement to other, more common solo instruments or as a mere change of pace rather than something capable of holding the spotlight for extended periods. But Bliss, in which Lauren Sevian puts the horn at center stage and keeps it there, proves that a gifted player can leave such prejudices in the dust.

Not that Sevian is entirely on her own. Indeed, the accompanists on her latest set are formidable, starting with the rhythm section of bassist Christian McBride and drummer E.J. Strickland and extending to pianist Robert Rodriguez and alto saxophonist Alexa Tarantino, Sevian’s partner in a project dubbed LSAT. But Sevian is responsible for all the compositions other than the Tarantino-penned “Square One,” and while she clears space for everyone to strut or serenade, there’s never a doubt who’s in charge.

Take the opener, “Triple Water.” Over dramatic chording by Rodriguez, Sevian launches into a showcase that blends extended notes with sudden flurries that move up and down the scale in a fashion that’s simultaneously muscular and graceful. The result is a feat that’s as athletic as it is artistic — a description appropriate to several other numbers here, including the mad race of “Lamb and Bunny” and “Minimal Moves,” which brings the album to a thrillingly breathless conclusion.

But Sevian’s equally capable of gentle lyricism (“Evergreen” and the title track), irresistible swing (“Bluesishness,” “Miss Lady”) and quirky grooves (“In the Loop”) that will leave even baritone sax doubters wanting more.

—Michael Roberts


Paul Giallorenzo Trio, Flow (Delmark)

A key, if unheralded, figure in the Chicago improvised-music scene, pianist Paul Giallorenzo specializes in a kind of quietly complex, highly melodic post-bop. Those skills are on full display with his new trio effort. Like many of his Chicago peers, Giallorenzo favors a steady swinging groove, but it’s the harmonic and melodic flights that stimulate interest.

“A-Frolick-Ing” features a Monk-like gait (and title), but the relaxed fluidity with which Giallorenzo navigates the melodic twists and leaps suggests he isn’t out for mere imitation. There’s also a sense of balance in his design. Gaillorenzo’s chiming, unhurried phrases on “Fractures” belie the piece’s disjointed rhythms. Consecutive tracks “Over/Under” and “Flipd Scrip” both ride along bassist Joshua Abrams’ walking bass line. But while the former comes off as straightahead post-bop, the latter, with its more unsettling harmonic structure, plays as an inversion of the prior tune.

Abrams and drummer Mikel Patrick Avery maintain an effortless groove regardless of the curveballs Giallorenzo throws their way. The easy glide of “Rolling” is occasionally disrupted by moments of group chaos, much like coming upon a construction zone on an otherwise smooth road. Abrams in particular is the steadying force, grounding both Giallorenzo’s meandering lines and Avery’s frequent punctuations.

The free-flowing expressionism of “Interstice” allows all three players to explore their own paths — Giallorenzo’s clusters midway through is an unexpected burst — but the total effect doesn’t stray from the album’s overall design of controlled freedom. Elsewhere, the gorgeous ballad “Darkness” showcases Giallorenzo’s delicate touch and facility with undulating harmonies.

It’s all so effortless that it’s almost easy to miss just how well Giallorenzo and company find a way to extend the reach of the piano trio format without breaking the mold completely.

—John Frederick Moore 


Michael Leonhart Orchestra, The Painted Lady Suite (Sunnyside)

Often, compositions said to be inspired by a person, place, event or sentiment seem only superficially related to the alleged inspiration. The Painted Lady Suite, however, is unequivocal in its embrace of its muse. Multi-instrumentalist and composer Michael Leonhart’s portrayal of the Painted Lady Butterfly’s 9,000-mile migration, from Mexico over the Arctic Circle to North Africa, comes to life in this highly visceral, richly detailed and masterfully orchestrated performance that quickly draws the listener into the unfolding drama of one of nature’s most audacious rites.

Leonhart has collaborated with a dizzyingly eclectic array of artists — from Steely Dan and Yoko Ono to Henry Mancini and Bruno Mars — and, on this outing, he brings that wandering spirit to a seven-movement suite and three other tracks, all of which allow ample room for experimentation. Performing on 11 instruments, Leonhart dabbles in a range of stylistic realms, including lavishly orchestrated 1940’s Hollywood film scores; airy, wordless vocal choruses of 1960’s mood music; the erotic pulsations of 1970’s Italian porn movies; the austere soundscapes of Brian Eno; and the classic ensemble writing of Nelson Riddle and other prolific arrangers.

A signature trait that Leonhart employs incessantly is the use of a two-bar motif that serves as a sonic backdrop for solos and countermelodies. It’s brazenly present on “Transformation in the Deserts of Mexico,” the suite’s opening movement. It begins majestically with a lush brass choir before tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin solos over a rhythmically grinding background figure that gives the piece its processional gait. “The Experimental Forest, North Dakota,” a particularly entrancing chamberesque work, features intermittently dissonant voicings, a willowy solo by tenor saxophonist Sam Sadigursky and spare reflections by guitarist Nels Cline.

As daring as it is riveting, The Painted Lady Suite is a truly stunning work by Leonhart and his orchestra.

—Mark Holston


Brad Mehldau Trio, Seymour Reads the Constitution! (Nonesuch)

Brad Mehldau’s trio with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard has aged beautifully. The pianist has worked with Grenadier since the early 1990s and has been recording with Ballard in tow for the last 13 years. Seymour Reads the Constitution! showcases the three musicians’ seemingly effortless ability to listen and respond to each other with a palpable empathy that often serves to clarify and augment particular ideas.

Mehldau’s signature touch is epitomized on “Great Day,” a spirited, bluesy take on Paul McCartney’s late-career gem. His rich voicings support right-hand melodies that are subdued but soulful, confidently inviting the listener’s attention rather than seizing it. The rhythm section sits equally deep in the pocket, Grenadier doubling the melody as Ballard hand-drums a taut, rollicking beat. Along with the McCartney tune, the album includes an intimate, cocktail-shuffle rendition of Brian Wilson’s “Friends” and a handful of standards that showcase the veteran musicians’ ability to craft memorable phrases from a conventional vocabulary.

The three originals on this release — “Spiral,” “Ten Tune” and the title track — are mainly built up from ruminative piano grooves that articulate looping harmonic sequences with lyrical arpeggios. “Spiral” kicks off the record with a tranquil and mesmerizing progression. The trio patiently allows the vibe to set in before building to an explosive, skittering climax. “Ten Tune” casts an equally gratifying chord pattern in a dizzying, odd meter, its understated groove giving way to a solo-piano section that reveals Mehldau’s rigorous attentiveness toward both minutia and large-scale formal development.

Seymour Reads the Constitution! is not particularly challenging or stylistically subversive, but despite their straightforward take on harmony, structure and arrangement, the trio’s character is unmistakable and impeccably tasteful. The group breathes as a unit, but beyond their cohesiveness they excel at highlighting the individual musicality of each member.

—Asher Wolf


Matt Penman, Good Question (Sunnyside)

The band that bassist Matt Penman assembled for Good Question — tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, keyboardist Aaron Parks, drummer Obed Calvaire — arguably qualifies as a supergroup. But on this outing, though each musician performs up to his own considerable potential, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Some tracks are rather anticlimactic, despite their intriguing construction and impeccable execution.

The premise of the album, Penman’s first as a leader in a decade, is that each of the nine original compositions presents a specific set of challenges (the “good questions” referenced in the title) designed to stimulate the musicians to tap into new modes of playing. “Small Famous,” for instance, attempts to pass off a knotty harmonic progression as natural and effortless, quelling the slippery chord pattern with a hip groove and a spare, lyrical melody. On “Meats,” a concise, rock-influenced tune with all but the drums through-composed, Turner states a calm, dignified melody in counterpoint with the bass line while Parks plays simple chords in an uninterrupted rhythm.

To be sure, while certain tracks feel stilted on behalf of their étude-like reserve, other compositional strategies yield pieces that are otherworldly and deeply compelling. “Copeland” sets a quaint folk melody above a sweet sonority torn from a foreign harmonic realm, allowing Turner to explore the surreal landscape with passion and twisted wit. Other tracks are more visceral. “Ride the Paper Tiger” unleashes firebrand guest guitarist Nir Felder on a series of heavy grooves, sending him careening through frantic, convoluted runs that break smoothly to cathartic blues licks. The hard-hitting closing number, “Big Tent, Little Tent” gives the band a similar opportunity to let loose and shred.

While Penman’s compositional schemes may be hit or miss on this release, his intrepid creativity is evident throughout.

—Asher Wolf 


Dave McMurray, Music Is Life  (Blue Note)

A saxophonist of uncommon versatility and imagination, Dave McMurray has played with artists across all points of the musical spectrum, from Bob Dylan to Herbie Hancock. He’s a veteran sideman with an omnivorous appetite for genre and style, and his new album, Music Is Life, is reflective of his wide-ranging cast of mind.

In some respects, the album feels like a summation of McMurray’s career to this point, built from the various musical styles that he has absorbed into his vocabulary, most notably bebop, Motown, indie rock and funk. But in other ways, the album comes across as a statement of ingenuity and reinvention, revealing aspects of the saxophonist’s sound and compositional strategy that even longtime listeners may find surprising.

McMurray recorded the album with a pared-down, chordless ensemble, accompanied only by bass (Ibrahim Jones) and drums (Ron Otis and Jeff Canady). The sparse acoustic environment proves an ideal backdrop for McMurray’s tone, which here feels especially raw and honest, even as it shifts between veneers of heavy grit and high gloss. But it also enables the saxophonist to take more harmonic risks in his arrangements and improvisations, and McMurray’s unbridled intensity lends the proceedings an air of edginess and intrigue.

The program is eclectic, combining modern jazz originals with re-imagined covers of pop tunes. But McMurray’s genre-smashing attitude enables him to connect musical dots with ease. On an arrangement of Jack White’s “Seven Nation Army,” for example, the saxophonist uses the familiar anthem-rock melody as a jumping-off point for scathing linear improvisation and modal abstraction. It’s one of several creative tapestries on this album. “Freedom Ain’t Free” combines modulated soprano saxophone, vocal samples and DJ scratching to evoke the swagger of hip-hop, while “Time #5” combines heavy swing with avant-garde exploration to create a kind of refracted R&B. Part of the joy of this album is hearing how McMurray strips these styles down to their fundamental parts, only to rebuild them according to his own sleek, invigorated designs.

—Brian Zimmerman

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