Saturday, October 29, 2011

Damani Phillips' jazz + strings concept

Damani Phillips, a saxophonist and assistant professor of music at Grinnell College, my alma mater, has made an album titled The String Theory, with the same instrumentation as the Crescent Double Quartet — jazz combo plus string quartet.

The String Theory features Phillips, mostly on alto, while the strings provide support and layering textures for his formidable improvisations on arrangements of classical and jazz pieces. The CDQ integrates the strings into original compositions, and the string players occasionally improvise. Both ensembles are fueled by the rhythmic drive of jazz.

The piece embedded above is Phillip's arrangement of Bizet's "Habanera" from Carmen. "Pavane," another selection from The String Theory, has an arresting section for strings. Listen to it at the "Listen" section of Phillips' website.

At this blog, I have been fixated on the Crescent Double Quartet. It's intriguing to find another group with the same distinctive format.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Crescent Double Quartet: Radio Mundial

The Crescent Double Quartet’s website describes the band’s debut album, Radio Mundial, as “a trip around the world in 13 tracks" — but that's just the beginning.

This initiative is not only about the album concept but also the group’s unique “double quartet” instrumentation: a jazz rhythm section fronted by saxophonist and group leader Aart van Bergen, plus a string quartet. This exciting hybrid accentuates each strain.

The globetrotting concept may help new listeners focus on the album, tune by tune, and the mock-radio-DJ interludes in various languages are amusing. The concept also reflects the international makeup of the group:

Saxophones: Aart van Bergen (Netherlands)
Piano: Kaan Biyikoglu (Turkey)
Bass: Sandor Kem (Hungary)
Drums: Remco Menting (Netherlands)
1st Violin: Anastasija Zvirbule (Latvia)
2nd Violin: Anne Bakker (Netherlands)
Viola: Yanna Pelser (Netherlands)
Cello: Eduard Ninot (Spain)

Maybe the most important consequence of the mundial concept was to stimulate variety in the writing. Each piece is distinct, and the album takes full advantage of all the resources in the double quartet. As I wrote back in April and also in July, whatever else the CDQ embraces, the music always works as jazz.

“Belly Dance” (video embedded above), a wild story in little chapters, proceeds from shrill Middle Eastern spikes to jumpy syncopation that weirdly suggests three-minute big band recordings such Ellington’s “Harlem Air Shaft” or Jimmie Lunceford’s “Stratosphere” — mainly in structure and feel, of course.

In contrast, behold the gorgeous violin and soprano interplay on "Sahara."

Pianist Kaan Bıyıkoğlu brings a strong rhythmic attitude to “La Mortalidad (Banda)” and elsewhere.

“Daedalus” and “Vaarwel” display the varied sonorities of the strings. It’s hard to give credit to the string players due to the overlapping ranges of the instruments and the fact that there are two violinists. Are album notes available?

“La Révélation de Angoulême,” with van Bergen’s elegant tenor solo and a wash of strings, revels in waltz time. I can hear Charles Lloyd tearing through this music with gale force, and that would be fun, but so is this approach that savors the time and the pleasing harmonies.

“Tikal” was one of the earlier released tunes. I still think the break in the middle, with strings creating a little chaos, is something to develop as part of the regular vocabulary of the group.

“Carte Blanche, Part 2” also contains a bit of collective improvisation. The piano with bowed and plucked strings creates exciting textures, which sadly dissipate after just 100 seconds. More, please!

In any case, there’s a lot going on in “Radio Mundial” — great listening throughout.

Voice of America’s Diaa Bekheet has written two blog posts about van Bergen and the CDQ:

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Red wines for the 99 percent set

Recently I wrote about dirt-cheap white wines for the end of summer. Now I am looking into ultra-cheap red wines for the approaching cool seasons.

While evaluating $3 Oak Leaf red wines from Walmart, I had a weird experience.

First, I opened bottles of three varieties, sampled, and hated all of them. Tasting notes:

Shiraz: No spice, no body. Last year's version had a faintly nutty character that made it borderline drinkable. What happened?

Merlot: More supple, more up-front fruit — but fruit of what?

Cabernet: Like placing one's tongue on both poles of a 1.5 volt battery from a transistor radio when one was 7 years old in 1963.

I was at a loss for a dirt-cheap red wine. The $3 "Two Buck Chuck" Charles Shaw Shiraz from Trader Joe's is a pleasant wine that could easily sell for more. However, I live 200 miles from the nearest Trader Joe's; I assumed that my quest was doomed.

Now for the weird part: 

After sampling half a glass of each Walmart variety, I sealed the bottles with my trusty Vacu Vin pump and stoppers. A week later, I tried the Merlot again, and I actually liked it. I confidently identified the fruit as Merlot. I tried the Cab, and it was smoother — no more electric aspect, and a bit of body. The Shiraz had reclaimed its hint of nuttiness.

I had let these wines "breathe" in the Vacu Vin vacuum, and they responded. How? Why? There are no easy answers, only a mild feeling of delight.

I count myself among the 99 percenters in our society of ever-mounting challenges. As such, I must rely on dirt-cheap wines 99 percent of the time, and, apparently, Walmart has provided once again.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Tom Harrell's "The Time of the Sun"

Tom Harrell is an unusual artist in the world of jazz: A leader of a long-standing quintet who produces new albums frequently and regularly (four in the past five years) in a consistent style and dependably high quality — and the music sounds fresh each time.

"The Time of the Sun," released in late spring, begins with awe-inspiring shimmers produced by the magnetic field surrounding the sun and recorded by scientists at Stanford University. After the other-worldly opening, an ominous drumbeat powers an anthem that suggests — the sun rising and marching slowly, relentlessly across the sky? an ancient army on parade through a conquered city? Harrell delivers a solo with a series of rising, surging runs that maintain the disconcerting vibe while at the same time undercutting it with the thrill of his own trumpet majesty.

All the other tunes are also great — similar to those on previous albums, but original and sparking fresh excitement. "The Open Door" is an intricate ballad. "River Samba" burns will breezy intensity.

Wayne Escoffery has a high-energy solo on "Ridin" and a Wayne-ishly abstracted take on "Estuary." I hope Escoffery keeps playing in Harrell's group as he branches out with his own projects. He's one to watch.