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Aaron Parks Little Big, Aaron Parks Little Big (Ropeadope)
In 2008, pianist Aaron Parks made a splash with his debut Invisible Cinema. A postmodern blend of jazz improvisation with pop music flourishes and production values, the record announced Parks as a fresh voice on his instrument. His work since then has veered more toward a low-key gracefulness. But with his latest album, featuring a new band of the same name, he returns to the approach from his debut while expanding the palette even further.
The first thing you notice is how the record sounds. Cool, slick and airless, it’s a pop flourish in its own right. Other artists (GoGo Penguin and Kneebody to name a couple) operate in a similar sonic vein. It’s a signal that you’re not treading in mainstream jazz territory. But it also allows Parks to amplify the various atmospheres he conveys.
While there’s certainly a dreamy pop sensibility behind pieces like “Good Morning” and “Doors Open,” it’s a sense of drama that propels most of Parks’ compositions. On “The Trickster,” Greg Tuohey’s screaming guitar lines ride on top of the tune’s dirge-like chords. On “Siren,” Parks slightly alters the melody from Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film),” using it as a jump-off point for a piece of slow-burning intensity.
Elsewhere, a psychedelic trippiness fuels “Professor Strangeweather” (thanks to Parks’ warped synthesizer lines and the tune’s skittering odd meter) and “Aquarium” (with chord progressions on Fender Rhodes that bring to mind Coltrane’s “Naima”). Parks also finds room for more brightly lyrical statements, as on the brief solo piano pieces “Lilac” and “Hearth.” Throughout, electric bassist David Ginyard Jr. and drummer Tommy Crane provide rhythms that reference pop, electronica and hip-hop.
At an hour and 20 minutes, it’s a bit bloated. But overall, Parks manages to pull off the trick of looking back while moving forward. —John Frederick MooreTony Bennett & Diana Krall, Love is Here to Stay (Verve)
Throughout the seven decades of his career, 92-year-old crooner Tony Bennett has been the definition of class, noted almost as much for his elegant suits, silk ties and impeccable grooming as for his rich baritone. On his vocal partnership with Diana Krall on Love Is Here to Stay, however, the intimate mood suggests a casual setting where a cardigan sweater and argyle socks would be more in fashion. The dozen-song tribute to the artistry of George and Ira Gershwin explores a long-celebrated repertoire that the duo knows inside and out, and they navigate every rhythmic twist and turn with unaffected grace on such Gershwin classics as “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” “I Got Rhythm,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You.”
Although both singers have frequently been accompanied by large ensembles, the presence here of just a trio — pianist Bill Charlap, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington — keeps the focus squarely on the vocalists. At times, the unit almost disappears into the background, so delicate is its touch. Charlap and company do make the most of their time in the spotlight on up-tempo fare like “Fascinating Rhythm,” where they break out in zestful fashion.
Each singer is featured on one solo performance, and both tracks are particularly captivating. For Krall, it’s the quintessential lament of love lost, “But Not for Me.” Accompanied only by spare, icy chords from Charlap, the chanteuse employs the dusky tonality of her lower range to craft an overtly sensuous take. Bennett closes out the program with “Who Cares?,” from the 1931 musical Of Thee I Sing. The seldom-performed tune offers a litany of depression-era woes which the ageless singer dispatches with a dash of devil-may-care exuberance.
Overall, Bennett and Krall hit all the right notes on this wonderful session. —Mark HolstonLonnie McFadden, Live at Green Lady Lounge (Jazz Daddy)
Meet Lonnie McFadden, one jazz cat who’s not the least bit concerned about being hipper than thou. This is evident throughout Live at Green Lady Lounge, but it comes into starkest relief on the final track, when he … tap dances. For nearly three minutes. This may seem like an odd choice for an audio recording, but it’s somehow a fitting coda to a nightclub set by a trumpeter, singer, composer — and dancer — who is, above all, an entertainer.
Before blowing his first note, the affable McFadden announces to the crowd, “I am an unapologetic Kansas City jazz guy.” He’s a native, no surprise there, and such an enthusiastic booster he could work a side gig with the tourism bureau. As for the Green Lady Lounge, it’s a landmark that presents “live Kansas City jazz 365 days a year.”
Historically, Kansas City jazz is known as hard-swinging, bluesy and danceable. The town has produced a roll call of legends that includes Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster and Charlie Parker.
To his credit, McFadden’s not interested in reenacting Kansas City jazz from its heyday during the 1920s and ’30s. He’s modernized that sound with elements of R&B, vintage pop and a sniff of post-bop. Backed by a committed piano/bass/drums rhythm section, McFadden is a solid trumpeter with a predictably brassy tone, a penchant for high notes and a facility with both Harmon and plunger mutes. He has an agreeably raspy singing voice, which he puts to use on four of the 11 tunes (although the world didn’t really need another version of “What a Wonderful World”). The quartet is at its best when it digs into the relaxed swing of the opener “Moten Swing,” “In the Basement” and “Swing Like Count Basie.”
Green Lady Lounge is more fun than substantial, but there’s something heartening about the fact that it can even exist in 2018. —Eric SniderAllison Miller and Carmen Staaf, Science Fair (Sunnyside)Science Fair, released on Sunnyside last September, marks the start of what is bound to be a fruitful musical relationship. Drummer Allison Miller and pianist Carmen Staaf first played together in 2015, but their debut record, supported by a chameleonic ensemble, showcases the comfort and mutual inspiration that the two leaders have developed in this short amount of time. Amongst Science Fair’s eight original compositions, the writing split evenly between Miller and Staaf, there is little redundancy regarding either style or emotional character. Still, the pieces are unified by the strength of each musician’s personality, as well as the empathetic and explorative nature of their interactions.
Miller’s “What?!” kicks off the record with an explosive gesture that settles to a hard-driving, odd-metered groove. Saxophonist Dayna Stephens spits a thrillingly off-kilter solo above a spiky, pointillistic vamp. The drummer’s other compositions are more straightforward but no less distinctive. On “Ready Steady,” a Joni Mitchell tribute, she guides her co-leader in a relaxed, optimistic swing tune that occasionally devolves into an entropic frenzy before coming back together to re-assume its spirit of wanderlust. Miller’s pastoral, gospel-inflected “Skyway,” introduced by a mesmerizing piano solo, provides a warm finale to the record.
Staaf’s nocturnal composition “Symmetry” juxtaposes conventional tonality with an otherworldly harmonic vocabulary. Miller conjures a teeming atmosphere with a slew of extended techniques, a poetic counterpart to the more bombastic approach to the kit that she demonstrates on tracks like “Weightless.” Bassist Matt Penman anchors the opening groove with a punchy tone that complements the tight buoyancy shared by the bandleaders. The piece is dense and fiercely cathartic until the entrance of a soulfully harmonized horn line brings about an unexpected tranquility. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire proceeds to deliver a heartrending solo, his signature lyricism enlivened by an intricate manipulation of timbre.
Science Fair is experimental but accessible, unabashedly playful yet deeply emotional throughout. — Asher WolfJure Pukl, Doubtless (Whirlwind)
The title track on Doubtless — the reserved but inviting album from Slovenian saxophonist Jure Pukl — serves as a microcosm of the band’s virtues. Pukl leads a pianoless quartet fronted by his own tenor and that of his wife, the Chilean-born Monk Competition winner Melissa Aldana, and “Doubtless” opens with their interlocking improvisations. It’s a brief game of follow-the-leader that foreshadows the theme, as well as the progressively longer back-and-forth phrases that follow. Soon enough, “Doubtless” introduces us to more of the band’s strengths: the joyous skill with which Pukl and Aldana exchange ideas; the splendid bursts of inadvertent counterpoint when the horns overlap; and the simple but elegantly effective harmonies that Pukl has written to throw several of the themes into bas-relief against the individual solos.
Those two-part harmonies take center stage on the very next track, a rubato rumination titled “Doves,” where they also provide a tonal contrast to Joe Sanders’ measured bass solo. On “The Mind and the Soul,” Sanders and drummer Gregory Hutchinson provide a slow roil for long tones from the saxophones (in the mold of “Lonely Woman” by Ornette Coleman, whose 1960s quartets remain a useful model for pianoless bands). Two tracks later, on the medium-up “Bad Year - Good Year,” the rhythm section fires up a loosely swinging beat that drives the solos. “Elioté,” arguably the most satisfying track here, packs most of the above into a fiery four-and-a-half-minute performance.
Jazz has a venerable history of two-tenor bands, starting with the ad hoc quintets led by Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray in the 1940s and including memorable pairings of Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt, Eddie Davis and Johnny Griffin, and Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. All those groups included piano, though. The stripped-down format on Doubtless fits into the post-freedom trend exemplified by a slew of younger bands. Many such bands have thrived on the yin-yang relationship between the saxophonists, but Pukl’s aesthetic leans on the stylistic similarities he shares with his wife — as if one entity were wielding the two horns — and on a cool constraint that forces the listener to lean in. —Neil Tesser
Feature photo by Mark Seliger.