Iverson/Motian/Grenadier It's Easy To Remember, II: a deeper appreciation

Since first posting on the topic, I've now played (in my halting way) the solo piano ad lib introduction to the live Ethan Iverson/ Paul Motian/ Larry Grenadier performance of It's Easy to Remember in Guillaume Hazebrouck's transcription, and listened to it several more times.  I'm even more taken by this masterful performance, especially the introduction.  The harmonies in the introduction are often quite dissonant but beautifully limpid, probably due to the very open voicings (wide intervals), and choice of intervals.  The dissonances reminiscent of 20th century classical music combined with untypical but compelling voiceleading remind me a bit of Bill Evans, but the choice of intervals and limpid sonority doesn't so much.  The (incomplete) blow-by-blow that follows is mostly for my own reference, so you might skip down to the next paragraph if harmonic analysis doesn't interest you.  It's far from crucial for appreciating the music, but I really want to know how these sounds are made.  The first part is mostly over an E flat pedal (the piece is in E flat), with couple of excursions to Ab. The first chord is fabulous, with successive intervals of a minor ninth, minor 7th, minor 6th (Eb, E, D, Bb).  Then the two inner voices move inward by a half step for another open, somewhat dissonant chord.  It's perhaps not so important to analyze these harmonically, but the first comes off pretty clearly as an Eb major voicing, with no 3rd which no doubt contributes to the spare, clear sound, and with a major 7th, and as for the E natural (b9 you could say), well it just sounds great, and moves up to a natural 9 on the next chord, while the 7th moves down to the minor 7th of Eb, suggesting perhaps a change in quality to dominant or minor, though not this is not so clear as there's still no 3rd present.  Later in the introduction, the same voicing will indeed function as a dominant leading to an Ab major triad at the end of the first system of the transcription.  But first we get a repeat of the first two chords at a faster pace, except with A natural in place of Bb in the top voice (which is basically paraphrasing the melody).  The tenor voice is going up chromatically, cadencing toward a G as part of the double-whole-note Eb major 7th, the first time we get a 3rd with an Eb chord.  The repose is disturbed with a little tweak up to a B natural in the treble, just to add a little more pretty dissonance to the picture. (Nothing wrong with a touch of the "girlfriend chord" once in a while.)  Then we again get those first two chords, Bb in the treble again, moving in quarters, initiating the same four-quarter-note chromatic ascension in the tenor to G, but the bass moving up to Ab on the last two quarters, over which the harmony sounds first like Ab7, then Ab m7, while the top Bb leads down into a bluesy figure.  The next system finishes out with more chromatic movement in the bass, more intricate melody in the top voice accompanied by good inner voice action especially in the tenor, and a final cadence on Eb major again, with the 3rd but in the same open voicing that marked the first appearance of the G before, except that now the D forms a minor 2nd cluster with that seemingly outrageous, but beautiful, E natural, kind of fusing the initial two dissonant Eb voicings but with the added 3rd for an earthier, more harmonically grounded sound, perfectly capping off the introductory chorus.

Besides the open voicings and relatively spare use of 3rds (so that they are all the more effective when they are used), movement by half-steps is a major feature of the voice-leading in this introduction, but it doesn't come across with any feeling of slick hepness or angst-ridden compulsion, perhaps because it's not being used heavily as b9 or #11 over dominant chords, or in related diminished or augmented substitutions for dominants.  Maybe there is a relative absence of tritones in the voicings, though I didn't check carefully.  Anyway, the half-step motion is prominent enough to be considered a major musical ingredient, but doesn't really interfere with what sounds to me like a relatively diatonic, if sometimes beautifuly dissonant, feel.  I guess the chromatic motion is not, for the most part, setting up dissonances that cry out for an obvious resolution, nor effecting such resolution.  It reminds me a bit of Stravinksy in that the dissonance is often created by the interaction of natural melodic motions in the voices, and (along with the melodic motion) the actual intervals in the chord seem almost more important than any compulsive "functional" movement in the harmony even though there is some of the latter on occasion.

The other remarkable thing about Iverson's playing on this piece is the strong influence of Monk, assimilated well into Iverson's own style, in the trio portion of the piece.  Monkian upward arpeggios appear as early as measure 16 (the 3rd measure of the first trio chorus), often combined with scalar material that still sounds quite Monkish (as in measure 16), or leading into more original melodic figures (as in measures 25-26).  A classic downward-dropping Monk left-hand figure is used in measure 30, a very bluesy Monkian chorus-ending figure at 44-46, upward arpeggios in 47-48 lead again to more personal Iversonian material in 49-50, and the list could go on.  Often Iverson seems to be extending or filling in Monkish lines with his own material more reminiscent of more standard bop-influenced lines, but never quite the standard bop clichés.  There's lot's of great action in the inner voices too, sometimes Monkian, sometimes not particularly so.  I think Monk's vocabulary and approach, even while it contributed crucially to the lingua franca of bebop and beyond, has probably been underexploited by pianists who are perhaps rightly afraid that it's hard to make something personal this way, something that doesn't sound like copying Monk's licks, but Iverson makes it work to great effect.  (I guess you could argue that a few other pianists have been strongly influenced by Monk's approach while keeping the harmonic and melodic content of their playing further from Monk than Iverson does here.)

In fact, the display of constructive influence by Monk, and the use of Monkian influences in a clear personal style, makes me wonder if the introduction might be more influenced by Monk than I realized.  I haven't listened to Monk's solo piano for a while, and it is probably time to listen to more.

Speaking of more, here's hoping we get to hear more from this set, or others in the same week at the Vanguard.  All About Jazz's review of what was probably the first set on that same Friday (March 11, 2011) is tantalizing, too.  This is some of the most interesting piano playing I've heard in many years---jazz of the highest order.

Fingering a fragment of Silver

The great jazz pianist and composer Horace Silver died yesterday.  Ethan Iverson has posted, at his blog Do the Math, an excellent transcription of Silver's piano playing in a trio with Percy Heath and Art Blakey, on Silver's composition "Opus de Funk".  I've been working on playing it, and thought I would post the fingerings (see below or click here for pdf) I've worked out for the eight-measure introductory line Horace plays to start the performance, and repeats at the end, and (added on June 24) the first sixteen bars of the main strain. I'll continue to update this as I do more of the piece, but it may be awhile.

Where the fingerings stop in the middle of a continuous line, the implication is to continue with an ascending or descending sequence, or where that doesn't make sense, "do the obvious thing" (usually use whatever finger was most recently used for a given note). I have put some possible alternate fingerings in parentheses, usually above the staff.

As a pianist, I'm self-taught and none too fluent so far, and one main point of posting these fingerings is to get feedback, so if experienced pianists want to give some, that's welcome.  The other point is to provide a little bit of encouragement for people to dive into playing Ethan's transcription of this piece, and otherwise to explore Silver's music.

John Rangel and Michael Anthony play El Mesón tonight

If you like jazz at all and are looking for something to do tonight (Jan. 2, 2014) and in range of Santa Fe New Mexico, don't think twice, go hear John Rangel (piano) and Michael Anthony (guitar) play jazz at El Mesón, from 7-9 PM.  (Call 505 983 6756 for reservations... these guys have a following.)  You can get good to great tapas there, and maybe a nice glass of fino sherry, while listening.  The fried eggplant is not to be missed.

Stream the Chris Potter quartet Live at the Village Vanguard

Haven't finished listening but Chris' Potter's jazz suite Sirens is starting out strong, with a modal vampy thing going, Trane and bop influences and some blues cries in Potter's soloing, but not too derivative.  Now at around 4'40, holy molé it's starting to smoke!

You can stream it at NPR.


If you're in NY, last set tonight in 20 min (I'd guess sold out), last night is tomorrow Feb. 10.

Now at 9 min, Iverson is doing a beautiful chordal thing, now putting a line over it in the treble, kind of McCoy influenced but with a bit more impressionist color and a mellower vibe.  This is the stuff, folks.

Thanks, NPR, for making it it little less painful for a jazz fan not to live in NYC.

Learning "rootless" voicings for jazz piano from Earl MacDonald

[Understanding this post probably requires a basic knowledge of seventh and related chords and extensions and alterations as used in "straight-ahead" (swing, bebop) jazz and mid-twentieth century American popular song harmony.  The highlighted (and recommended) links will tell you what they are, and something of how they function in jazz harmony, though not the full story.]

A basic component of most jazz pianists' toolbox is the so-called "Bill Evans" or "rootless" or sometimes "left-hand" voicings.  Each of the three terms is inaccurate.  These were to some extent used before Evans came on the scene in the late 1950s/early 1960s, but he perhaps used them more extensively than others.  (Wynton Kelly, Red Garland, and Ahmad Jamal are among those also cited as inclined to use them.)  Along with McCoy Tyner, Evans also was a pioneer in using quartal voicings, which would probably be equally good candidates for associating with his name, but are not our topic here.   A few of the "rootless voicings" contain the root of the chord, though most do not.  And although they are commonly used in the left hand while the right plays melody, they may also appear in the right hand.  "Four-note voicings" might be another term one sees used, though I'm not sure if that's as specific.

In some of the classic books on jazz piano playing (like Mark Levine's highly recommended "The Jazz Piano Book"), these may be introduced a bit too early, and some teachers may overemphasize them early on (especially to students who are already fairly aware of the basics of jazz harmony).  Working pianists, who usually play in a rhythm section in which the bass takes care of stating the roots, like to use these voicings in order to stay out of the way of the bass line, and because they allow for more "color" tones, as found for example in standard extensions of 7th chords to include 9ths, 11ths, 13ths.  (Some of these may be called "alterations", a term whose appropriate application I'm not completely clear about and am not going to get into here; it usually refers to a #11, b5 (enharmonically the same as a #11), b6=b13, b9 or #9, but precisely which notes are "altered" and which are just extensions depends on (what is considered to be) the harmonic context.)  For learning jazz theory in a way that gets it into your ear (and fingers, if playing piano and not just hearing jazz harmony is your ultimate goal), I think it's best to practice four-note voicings with roots first.  These can work for elementary solo piano playing, and for getting the sound of a tune including the roots fixed in your mind (play the "rooty" voicings in the LH, and the melody or an improvisation (yours, or a transcribed one) in the RH).  Of course you can use these same possibilities with the Evans voicings, and you will find that many of them are the same as "rooty" four-note voicings for chords a third higher, so practicing the rooty ones first also helps with the Evans ones.  I'll post on rooty voicings at some point, but here I'll discuss learning the more advanced Evans voicings, something I am in the middle of doing.

I'm using pianist Earl MacDonald's excellent post on how to learn these voicings.  I recommend printing out both his post, and his pdf file with music notation and taking them to the piano.  I won't go into detail, but just say a few things that might be a useful supplement.  Two voicings, labeled "A" and "B", are given for each chord type.  Frequently, though not always, the B voicing just involves taking the bottom two notes of the A voicing and making them the top two notes.  For example, the first two chord types he considers (minor 9th, and  [dominant] 13th) work that way.  I tend to think of these kinds of four-note voicings as a pair of intervals (that between the bottom two notes, and that between the top two), separated by the interval between notes 2 and 3 (top of the bottom interval, and bottom of the top interval).  Then I just think of the move to the other voicing as moving the bottom interval up an octave (or the top one down an octave, depending which way I'm moving it).  It can help to keep in mind how the middle interval will change when you do that:  e.g., for the minor 9th voicings, from a minor third for the A voicing (I don't think explicitly about this in this case, because the A voicing here is just a root position major seventh starting on the third of the chord we are voicing, e.g. Cm9 is voiced as EbMaj7)  to a half step, or vice versa.  The cool thing about these voicings is that when you want to move from, say, a B voicing  to a voicing for the same type chord with the root down a fifth (very common root movement, with or without a change in chord type), you just keep the top two notes the same and move the bottom ones down a half step or a whole step.  So again, thinking about the chord as a pair of intervals helps.  Of course ultimately you want to get this into your fingers, and not "think" too explicitly.  For example, to move the minor 9th B voicing to a minor 9th a fifth down, you go to the A voicing of the new chord, by keeping the top two notes the same as in the previous chord, and dropping each of the bottom two by a whole step.  When you start incorporating the voicings into chord progressions, the chord type will often change, but since root movement down by fifths is common and important, you can frequently negotiate these progressions effectively by going from an A voicing for the first chord to a B voicing for the second, or vice versa, keeping track of which notes change and which stay the same.  Often  you will just move the bottom interval, or just move the top interval, which is nice.  And if you've practiced root-included 7th-chord progressions, you might find some of the movements are similar, or the same, just used over a different root.  I haven't done much along these lines yet, but obviously ii V7 I  or the minor homologue, iiø V7 i, are the first ones to work on.

The basic construction principle for most of the voicings can be understood starting from the example of the minor 9th chord.  The chord tones used are 3, 5, 7, and 9 (3 and 7 of course refer a minor third and minor seventh relative to the root, since this is a 9th chord; the 9th here is major).  The A voicing is [3 5 7 9], B voicing is [7 9 3 5] (left to right going low to high in pitch).  When a voicing has a natural 11th (enharmonically, 4th) it appears instead of the 3rd.  (This happens with one chord type, the half-diminished chord with natural 11th.)   When it has a 13th (= 6th) it usually appears instead of the 5th, in the above constructions.  There is an exception to the 5 goes to 6 rule for the A form of the standard major (no 11th) voicing:  the A form is a 6 9 voiced [3 5 6 9] (so one can think of the 6 as having been substituted for the 7th).  A #11th, on the other hand (one chord type: the Maj7#11), is substituted for the 5 (the boppers used to think of the sharp 11 as a flatted fifth; thinking that way there is no substitution going on here; then again I don't think the boppers often added a sharp 11th to major chords).  The Maj7#11 is also an exception to the rootless rule: it is voiced  A: [1 3 11 7] and B: [11 7 1 3].  The other exception to the rootless rule is the B form of the standard (eleventh-less) major chord: it is a Maj7 with root, voiced [7 1 3 5], i.e. the major 7th and then the root-position triad, starting a half-step above the 7th.  This pair of major voicings is the only one that doesn't obey the rule of putting the bottom interval on top while keeping the top interval as the bottom of the new voicing, to go from A to B voicing.  Rather, the bottom goes on top, but the formerly top interval shrinks (if you must think this way) from 6 9 (a fourth) to 7 1 (a half-step) as it becomes the new bottom interval.

One could probably understand a bit more about the choice of particular types of voicings from the voice-leading properties they give rise to in common progressions (primarily major and minor ii V I or i type progressions).  Curious is the omission of a voicing for the dominant 7th #11.  This was a very important chord starting with bebop.  If this reflects Evans' practice and not just MacDonald's predilections, I wonder if it's because Evans usually used a different type of voicing (quartal?) for this chord type?

If MacDonald's exercises seem time-consuming and difficult, let me just say that you can progress fairly quickly, and it's worth it.  Here's a point from MacDonald that I really appreciate his emphasizing; it's crucial to remember, not just about this but about many, many exercises involved in learning to play jazz (and other musics, for that matter, e.g. scale practice):

Learning voicings is similar to learning to ride a bike.  At first it is difficult, frustrating, and at times, painful.  But once it is learned correctly, you never look back, and you can do it instinctually ever after.

A few comments on MacDonald's suggested learning routine. For all of the exercises, I've done them sometimes without sounding the root, but frequently with the root sounded in the bass. I think this is important to get the proper harmonic function of the voicing in your ear. Less crucially, I've done some of them with the right hand as well. Exercise number 8, taking the voicings down the circle of fifths with metronome (he refers to it as the circle of fourths; up a fourth is down a fifth, modulo octaves) is particularly crucial; I think this is where you'll really get the voicings memorized. Besides sometimes doing it with sounded roots, when I don't sound the root, I've been saying its letter name out loud. This also helps in better memorizing the circle of fifths, which anyone playing any music with essentially Western tempered harmony will want to do. Another point is that before working on each chord type, it is good to sound out the full chords, in root position, stack-of-(usually)-thirds configuration, and then compare this sound to the rootless voicing sounded with the root in the bass. You'll really start getting an idea of how extensions and alterations sound by doing this (especially if you sound out the lower seventh chord before adding extensions). You don't have to do this for every root (I haven't been), but it might be worthwhile too.

I have not yet made flash cards and done the "random roots"  exercise.  I've tried going up by fifths, as preliminary step toward getting away from the reliance on "muscle memory" and explicit thinking about the "lower the bottom two notes" trick for moving the root down a fifth while going from an A to B voicing, and I recommend it, as it's a cool sound as well.  I'm ignoring his suggestion about completely mastering one chord type before going on to the next, in that I've worked quite a bit on the 13th chord without complete mastery of the minor 9th, but I think that's OK as long as you don't mix things up to much and really push on each type focusing primarily on one at a time.

Finally, the observation he asks you to try to ignore, that five of the chord types share the same voicing (just with a different root), is quite neat and important, an example of the general phenomenon that putting a different bass note under a given set of pitches in the middle or upper register can make an enormous change in the way they sound. Not only could it be used for reharmonization of a given melody, but I imagine it could be used (and probably is used) in composition, not just jazz but classical composition (many of these 7th, 9th, 13th, 11th, and 6th chords appear in classical music, especially Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Copland) to effect modulations, by changing the root under a given voicing and then treating it as if it has the new harmonic function, resolving it in some standard way. It would be neat to find---or create---examples of this.

Ethan Iverson plays Hall Overton's Polarities #1

Via Ethan Iverson's blog Do the Math, a panel discussion at The Jazz Loft Project, of jazz and classical composer, arranger and pianist Hall Overton. Iverson kicks it off with a superb performance of Overton's classical piece "Polarities #1" (begins around 2'00 in the video).  A performance that should not be missed. Some more of my thoughts follow the video.

The Jazz Loft Project presents "Hall Overton: Out of the Shadows" from Center for Documentary Studies on Vimeo.

This is a wonderful piece of music and a superb performance of it. To my ear there are hints of jazz, especially at the beginning. The first two measures definitely sound like they could be the opening of a jazz ballad with relatively "advanced" harmonies, and the descending figure in the bass in the third measure sounds very Monkish.  [Update: this figure reminded me of a specific phrase in a Monk composition, which I suspected was "Nutty".  Sure enough, it's the first part of the falloff that Monk sometimes adds to the end of one of the first phrases in "Nutty".  Not only that, but the opening of Polarities seems related to the phrase to which Monk adds this falling line.  Though very different harmonically, there's some similarity in melodic profile and rhythm.]  A few other spots have that "advanced jazz ballad" feel.  While Overton was on the faculty at Juillard and apparently also taught at Yale and the New School, most of us jazz fans know Overton primarily as the arranger for the Town Hall big band concert featuring Monk, so a Monk reference is hardly a farfetched supposition.  The piece is roughly atonal or at least in very unstable tonality, but not twelve-tone, and very expressively balances atonal features with what seem to me passages with stronger harmonic implications.  The musical language often seems to me poised between Debussy and Schoenberg.  The sequence of chords around 3'19 to 3'33 in the video remind me of Debussy in his more declamatory frame of mind, while some of the passages preceding and following it remind me of his lyrical side.  I was quite surprised to be strongly reminded, around 3'39-4'00,  especially in the chord alternation at 3'44, 3'50 and 3'56 and melodic line connecting these bits, of Cecil Taylor's fantastic 1973 solo piano performance "Indent".  To my mind, Indent is some of the most important and enjoyable music to come out of the twentieth century, and if you don't know Taylor or have listened to other pieces and not "gotten" him, I'd say Indent or the early-60's band-as-jazz-orchestra side "Into the Hot" (the other side of the Impulse LP is Gil Evans' "Out of the Cool"), are the places to start.  Accessible but building in intensity and complexity.  I recall reading that Taylor intensely studied twentieth-century classical scores early in his career, so I guess it's not impossible that there was some direct influence of Overton's classical work on Taylor's composition or vice versa, especially since Overton was active in jazz circles in New York at just this time (mid to late 50s), but accidental convergence is just as likely.  (Though Indent is from 1973, the "vice versa" possibility is because Taylor might have developed some of these ideas very early even though they may not have been appearing in his performances at the time, which in the late 50s were still often based on jazz standards.)  Iverson recently linked the transcipt of a 1964 panel discussion between Overton, Taylor, and others that grows somewhat contentious, making this perceived momentary connection between their musics even more startling to me.

Iverson also points out that this piece appears, played by Robert Help, on a collection from the 1960s, "New Music for the Piano", available from New World Records, and he suspects this is the only appearance of Overton's classical music on CD.  Based on this performance of Polarities, that is a real shame and I hope it is rectified soon.  Also based on this performance, Iverson would be a fantastic pianist to do it.  He's not just playing the notes here, he has gotten inside the music and it's gotten inside him: each phrase is expressed as if he composed the music himself.  He gets a fantastic, bright and ringing but not harsh tone out of this piano, and can give it nuances to bring out or contrast different lines. The clarity and control are astonishing too.  Really beautiful music-making from both Overton and Iverson.  I hope we can hear more of this combination sometime.

CD Review: "Made Possible" by The Bad Plus

The Bad Plus

Made Possible (eOne records, 2012)

Reid Anderson  bass/synths/electronics
Ethan Iverson piano
David King drums


The Bad Plus' newly released CD, "Made Possible" (see the end of this review or this link for a video preview of it) is hard to categorize, but the important thing is that it's innovative, interesting to listen to, often beautiful and inspired music.  They're typically characterized as a jazz trio, and that's what you'll find in the metadata on an mp3 and where you'll find their stuff filed in CD store bins.  The instrumentation is the classic trio of piano, acoustic bass, and drums.  Not only is this kind of piano trio a standard jazz configuration, but it is usually present as the rhythm section in larger jazz groups.  So that is one reason to think of the music in jazz terms.  Here, a bit of electronics and electronic keyboard is mixed in on occasion.  But the overall musical language is wide-ranging, touching not only on a wide range of jazz styles but also on aspects of classical music and rock, and even stuff that might be considered New Age or generic mellow.  To my ear there are definite echoes of the Windham Hill Records sound, and although I've never been an avid follower of that sound, I emphatically do not mean that as a criticism.

Classical: you may hear something of Glassy minimalism in Anderson's "Seven Minute Mind" or King's "Wolf Out", impressionistic or even Bartokian harmony in Iverson's lovely "Sing for a Silver Dollar", which melds it with some classic jazz gestures, as well as avant-gardisms that almost form a continuum with the further-out reaches of jazz, as in the out-of-tempo interlude beginning around 2'25 in "Silver Dollar", or some of the piano in "Wolf Out": the block chords following 3'28, morphing into medusa-like writhing lines worthy of (but more organic than) a Conlon Nancarrow player piano piece, at 4'14 and again, in a nice touch, to end the piece.

Rock: Dave King's drumming on this CD also draws not only on jazz but on influences that are fairly nonstandard for jazz of either the straight-ahead or avant-garde persuasion, though probably more apparent in jazz fusion.  Quite a few of the beats he sets up have a definite rock flavor, like the one he keeps going under the lyrical theme (this one of the places on the CD where there are shades of Windham Hill, and also, one of the places of great beauty) of Anderson's "Pound for Pound", which kicks off the record.  Something similar, both with the drumbeat and the shades of Windham Hill in the piano is going on in the opening of King's "For my eyes only", which also has hints of some kind of prairie church-choirish Americana thing, a bit of bluesiness, and even Satie.

There is not all that much ride-cymbal ching-cha-ching going on on this CD, and plenty of backbeat and thwacky snare reminiscent of Stax/Volt soul or Led Zeppelin, even if it's sometimes done at a much slower tempo and in support of music in a very different mood.  But King mixes this kind of thing up with episodes of very interactive and inventive dialogue with the piano and bass.  "Silver Dollar" is a good example, in which the opening beat, which returns periodically through the piece, is a slowed-down version of a classic rock beat in which the kickdrum and snare take alternate---if you jammed with a drummer in somebody's garage in high school, you've probably heard a close relative of this beat---and then the second subject features free commentary using all elements of the drumset.  King's playing is an important part of the musical mix throughout, far from simple timekeeping.  Take time to focus on it occasionally during your listening.

The pianism is also surprisingly far from your more conventional jazz outing, which might spin out a lot of long lines, hopefully, but not always, at a high level of inspiration, or pile on a lot of highly colored chords voiced in a variety of ways, again to variable effect. Compared to a typical jazz record of whatever subgenre, a much larger fraction of the music on this CD sounds relatively thoroughly composed, even if not explicitly written out; or if not composed in full detail, relatively carefully planned, with detail filled in spontaneously in performance.  I don't know if that's how it was actually done; the point is that it comes out as carefully and effectively constructed, and relatively low on extended solo effusions.  There is perhaps slightly too much ostinato on this CD for my taste, but I have to admit that it's very effectively used. And in the parts that seem repetitive, just listen to the details of what's going on over the ostinato... they are usually not static, they evolve, and add quite a bit of musical interest.

I've touched on some of the particular bits I've enjoyed, but let me just mention a few other highlights.  After the relatively reiterative and not so jazzy (these are not criticisms!) opening pair of pieces by Anderson, Iverson's "Re-elect that" puts us squarely in contemporary somewhat-avant-garde jazzish territory with limpid jets of piano notes from Iverson over agile brushwork from King.  Then over a more propulsive but still quite flexible beat from Anderson and King, Iverson solos playfully, toying with stock pentatonicisms and turning them on their sides, throwing in a bit of uncategorizable avant-classical stuff, then shading things toward more beboppish or chromatic lines, hints of Bach, a contrapuntal episode, and tying things up gracefully by alternating a couple of closely voiced, high chords.  This may be the only thing on the CD you could really begin to categorize as a classic jazz piano solo, and it's a gem.  There are plenty of other places where Iverson's inspired pianism is in evidence, but in a less traditionally linear manner.  For example, the opening chords of "Silver Dollar" ... kind of dark-sounding voicings, in an unusual but compelling progression (or maybe it's the voice-leading that gives an unusual sound).  Around 0'36, the darkish harmonic elements continue as what would otherwise be more conventional-sounding (in a jazz context) melodic gestures are unfurled, subtly transfigured by the harmony.  Inspired indeed, but not in an in-your-face virtuosic or emotive way.  The record's most extended piano passage starts around 5 minutes into the lengthy "In Stitches" ... a long ruminatively lyrical stretch, slowly building momentum (propelled by incredible, restrained high-hat and rimshot work from King that you may not even notice at first, but which is crucial) which I suspect contains much improvisation from Iverson, then fixating on an ascending line that is almost a bebop cliché, which Iverson worries, transposes, develops, extends, fragments, but in a way that is not like a typical jazz solo but more cyclical, more textural, though still building constantly in complexity and intensity, largely by adding voices and harmonic depth and rhythmic complexity as well as by the old device of modulating or moving gradually upward on the keyboard.  It's your call whether the final buildup of this ends up being too grandstandy or not... I think it's fantastic.  This whole passage is major music-making.  And then listen to the discreet groove the rhythm section sets up to move on from this peak to finish the piece, the quiet as that groove dies down for a lyrical slow piano statement again, and then --- unexpectedly, and totally effectively --- the almost samba beat it sets up under that lyricism as the piano slowly subsides and the bass takes it out, and you're hearing just one example of why this is a great ensemble, much more than just three excellent players.

Despite what I've described as eclecticism, the record doesn't sound like a patchwork; these guys weave the elements they draw on into a language of their own that has its unity; there is plenty of variety within and between the pieces, but it's not scattershot, it's musically compelling.

I strongly recommend this CD; the musical approach is quite fresh, the musical content varied and often fascinating.  The overall mood is relatively reflective and calm, with little or nothing in the way of heavy minor-key emotivism or in-your-face spirituality, but plenty of lyrical beauty, fascinating detail, and sincere but relatively calm feeling, along with some more intense passages.  Despite the eclecticism, the pieces are well-structured, not rambling.  I might have liked to hear a few more episodes of extended improvisation...but I suspect that if you want that too, you might get it at one of their gigs, so check out their schedule (they are in Europe for the next two weeks as of this post, and there will be plenty of opportunity to hear them in the US in December and on into next year).  A very successful bout of music-making and a very enjoyable listen.  Although it's hard to predict what a piece of music will end up meaning to one over the long run, I suspect that I will keep coming back to this CD over the years.

Howard Barnum


Raw listening notes follow, but first, the official video preview of Made Possible; it kicks off with an excerpt from Seven Minute Mind, then a bit of Pound for Pound, and so on.  You can already find many tracks from this on Youtube, but I'm not linking them without checking with the band first.  The official preview might be considered kind of corny, but that doesn't bother me.  Plus I love the neologism/solecism "on a guttural level".


I recommend that you now just buy the CD and listen to the whole thing
to find your own high points, but for those who want a guide to some
other things they might find particularly interesting, I'm pasting in
as an appendix to this review some pretty raw listening notes, written
during a listen-through on a cross-country plane flight and re-edited
on another listen-through at home.

1- Pound for Pound  (Anderson)

drums as often on the record have something of a rock beat

Almost Windham Hill kind of lyrical sound.  Nice.  Fairly repetitive.
Some variation of voicing, decoration etc...
almost unnoticeable synths but they're there (noticed on 3rd or 4th

Record overall has a lot of theme, not that much improv

2- Seven Minute Mind (Anderson) Minimalism, scales and ostinato, excellent,
maybe goes on a bit long.

3- Re-elect That (Iverson) After the two ostinato-ey, mellow pieces,
it's easy to imagine that this one is self-consciously reestablishing
some contemporary avant-ish jazz cred.  (Of course the main point of
everything on the record is musical, not anything to do with
establishing cred; this is just an incidental impression.)  Iverson's
solo is a gem.  It starts by referencing modal/pentatonic cliches,
then turning them inside out.  Then it brings in bop, chromatic
post-bop, developing playfully but logically.  Then we get a nice bass
solo, then a drum solo (brushes).  I.e., the standard jazz routine.
But the overall impression is anything but standard jazz.  And then...
the last section is kind of a electronic/synthy version of some kind
of tweaked view of say 19th century band music amalgamated with an
off-kilter chorale. Given the title one imagines it might be aurally
alluding to some kind of 19th century electioneering event with
music...  Musically I dig what came before this much more, but have to
admit that this coda does work with the rest of the piece, in an
Ivesian kind of way...

I interpret the title of this piece in the light of Iverson's blog
post urging jazz musicians to vote for Obama...

4 Wolf Out...

Ostinato again, over a funkier bass line at first, static for a little
while but then starts modulating... and still later moves to more
chromatic stuff... Iverson with chromatic lines and chromatic
block-chords bits, enjoyable but not as deep or distinctive as some of
the stuff on the previous cut...  Nice theme... interesting chord
movement over the ostinato...  important to listen for detail...  B
section (?) ... descending piano line, kind of ominous in itself and
with each descent capped by somewhat ominous-sounding chords... then
the A theme starts getting mixed in ... continued development with
3'10 nice figure in the piano, q ... written or improv?  3'30 here is
the chromatic line in (clustery?) block chords I mentioned.  quiets (C
section tho related?)  ... & one hears electronics in background.
Nice.  Then gets busier again.  4'17 or so main theme again but with
writhing high register piano lines over it, excellent.  More of an
overall sound than line that can be followed.  "Medusa-like".  Then
more straight ostinato, straight repetition, drums eventually join in
with a major beat.... a short bit of Medusa piano is added to the mix
and that's it.  Nice one.

5-- Sing for a Silver Dollar (Iverson).... spare post-bop (?) jazz
balladry meets Debussy kinda...  nice.  Superb, in fact.  Right from
the top, a very distinctive, I've-heard-this-someplace-before drumbeat
is from, nice relentless trashy (? but w/ a fair bit of sustain)
cymbal beat... Jack de Johnette-ish?  Really a superb track.  Kind of
a couple of jazz ballad gestures, but done almost in classical style.
Segue into an electronic section.  Nice kind of atonal thing in this
section; prepared and straight piano kinds of sounds, and bass,
blending with the electronics.  Not sure about the jackhammer
drum-machine bit, though the bell-like accompaniment to it is fine.
Back to theme w/ "the beat" again.  Nice last note from the bass...

6 For My Eyes Only (King) .... again a kind of autumnal midwestern
kind of sound, very nice, between classical and Windham Hill
again... Yeah!  nice blues touch ... which echoed lower somehow gives
it a tinge of oh I don't know, cowboy soul maybe...  Excellent
composition.  Windham Hill meets Satie?  So far quite arranged.  New
section... piano arpeggios mostly triadic .... with bass tremolo and
windchimes.... nice interlude.  3'40 ... related to main theme but
still a different episode.  Or just in a different key, I think that's
it.  (Yup, the bluesy bits again just as before but transposed
(?)....)  Maybe goes on just a bit long...  4'48 ish nice bass work
under it all! good stuff.

7 I Want to Feel Good pt 2 (King) ... I like this one too.  A bit
singsongybackground, slightly off-kilter melodies.

8 In Stitches (Anderson) ... quite a long piece (14--15' or so?!)
starts a bit slow and avant-garde sparse noodly... quite moody
... nice.... around two minutes starts moving a bit more, still quite
pensive... 2'30 more crystalline... almost classical
figures.... digging the drumming...  6' picking it up on mellow
rippling chords from Iverson, nice...possibly a bit slow to
develop....  but really gets into its groove just over 1/2 way through
(about 7'26) with a beboppy figure that's varied and becomes the basis
for fantastic elaboration by Iverson, steadily increasing in
intensity.  Still quite a bit of repetition with textural development
rather than linear improvisation.  11'18 texture thins out.  Theme
again, at some point.  Then at 13' almost a samba beat, but still the
theme .... then the piano drifs on into silence, as bass and drums
soldier on.  Standout piece.

9 Victoria (Paul Motian) Starts as almost a bit of baroque
voice-leading. Continuing fairly classical in mood.  Nice.  Again not
a lot of improv.

Kapustin Variations Opus 41 played by Yeol Eum Son, and Impromptu Op. 66 No. 2 by himself

During the last (2010-2011) Los Alamos Concert Association season, Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son, a silver medalist in the 2009 Van Cliburn piano competition and 2nd prize winner in the 2011 Tchaikowsky competition, was a last-minute substitute for another competition-winning pianist. I recall enjoying her playing of a substantial chunk of Liszt, and being especially pleased to finally discover a jazz-influenced classical piece that made effective and idiomatic use of the language of bebop, but there was no program and I was having difficulty tracking it down.  I just figured out, with the help of Ethan Iverson's interview of pianist Marc-André Hamelin, in which the jazz-influenced composer Nikolai Kapustin (fansite here) is discussed, what it was: Kapustin's Variations Opus 41. Here's Yeol Eum Son herself playing it on Youtube:

Turns out there's a lot more of his stuff on youtube; here's Kapustin playing his Opus 66, no. 2 impromptu, which I think I like even better:

Free concert in NYC: The Bad Plus play the Rite of Spring

For readers, if any, in New York City today, definitely check out jazz trio The Bad Plus playing their arrangement, "On Sacred Ground", of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.  It's free and outdoors at Lincoln Center at 8:30 PM.  The Brandt Brandauer Frick ensemble, with which I am not familar, opens at 7:30.

If you're wondering to expect, at WBGO's The Checkout you can stream a recording of the whole thing, as well as their radio show on the piece.  TBP pianist Ethan Iverson discusses piano arrangements, transcriptions, and reworkings of the Rite here.

More on upcoming doings by TBP and some of its members here.

I am in New Mexico, so unfortunately won't be able to attend.  I will be going to Rossini's Maometto II at the Santa Fe Opera. Report to follow.


Tete Mbambisa "Black Heroes" CD release concert, University of Cape Town

At the showing of "Mama Goema: the Cape Town Beat in Five Movements", I was alerted by Calum MacNaughton to a concert concert by South African pianist Tete Mbambisa, celebrating the release of his new solo piano CD "Black Heroes", on April 22nd. We missed the first few numbers, as we were driving up from Cape Point after a day spent watching surfers at Muizenberg, watching penguins at the Boulder Beach unit of Table Mountain National Park, and walking to Diaz Beach and the Cape of Good Hope. And finding the school of music at UCT took a little while. What a finish to a fantastic day, though. Tete wrapped up a number with a crack rhythm section consisting of Ivan Bell on drums and Wesley Rustin on bass, and then his wife Vuyiswa Ngcwangu/uMambisa joined the band, in great voice, singing a standard whose name I've let slip, then Key Largo, then an excellent blues with refrain "I need a mellow man", really rocking the place.

It was great to talk to Calum, Gregory, and Vuyiswa at intermission, and Gregory gave me the info about the local jam Monday night jam session at Swingers' in Wetton. After intermission Tete came back on solo piano, playing a beautiful piece made up on the spot and titled "Gregory" for Gregory Franz, who has been photographing and blogging about the Cape jazz scene recently. Tete lamented the fact that since he had just made it up, he might not remember it---so he played it again. (Someone had been doing a video, so the tune is probably recorded.) More excellent solo piano including selections from the new CD, and then the rhythm section, along with saxophonist Sisonke, joined for Emavundleni, from the new CD, dedicated to his ancestors ("not mine", Tete's wife had earlier joked). Then a sanctified-sounding tune, with excellent sax work, segueing toward the end into a fantastic free-bop kind of interlude.

Mbambisa's piano style seems to me to mix mostly straight-ahead bop/hard bop with a bit of a more African sound, maybe influenced a bit by the repetition-with-slowly-evolving changes and additions of Mbira music. He has a very solid, round, ringing touch that can also be delicate when needed---and the sound he got from the Steinway (I think it was a D, the 9 foot concert grand) on stage was superb. He also has a good melodic sense, and tends to avoid cliche, often putting together short bits of melodic line in surprising but logical ways, leaving space, varying and developing rather than always running on.

A very informal concert, with very high-calibre music-making. At one point Tete was calling out the changes, teaching the bass-player one of his tunes on the spot---it sounded great as this went on, and after a chorus everything was locked in.

The last two were a slow, very pretty song, with lovely sax work, and (on the insistent request of, I think, relatives in the audience) Paul Desmond's "Take Five", the sax player sitting out. This was absolutely the most cooking version of that tune I've ever heard---with its ostinato in 5 (or a measure of 3 followed by a measure of 2) laid down in hard-rocking, hard-swinging style with changing harmonic colors, and piano lines and chordal interludes reminiscent of McCoy Tyner or mid-1960s Herbie Hancock (but all Mbambisa's) spun out over it, building a long, rollicking solo. Lines ringing out, then repeated up a half step, then punctuated by some block chords. I had never realized that Take Five was basically a hard-charging 1960s modal rave-up avant la lettre (well, barely), but Tete, playing with power but still relaxed, left no doubt about it. A fantastic closer. I bought the CD, which I will review in more detail soon; it's highly recommended and you can buy it at the link at the top of the post, and listen to excerpts here.

To wrap things up, from Youtube here's Inhlupeko from the out of print 1969 record of the same name by the Soul Jazzmen, Mbambisa on piano with Duku Makasi, saxophone, "Big T" Ntsele, bass, and Mafufu Jama, drums.