Week in the knees

By JON GARELICK  |  April 28, 2008

Meanwhile, at the Hernández Center, alto-saxophonist Zenón, 31, will be working his latest for Marsalis Music, Awake, probably his most ambitious yet. Zenón has explored post–Greg Osby bop as well as the folkloric music of his native Puerto Rico, and he has a great working band — pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig, and drummer Henry Cole. On Awake he adds a string section, not as a sweetener but as pungent counterpoint to his horn in the opening prelude. The album works like a suite through variations of different themes. When Zenón has Perdomo switch to Fender Rhodes, it’s not simply a ’70s funk signifier — he makes the most of its blurry, sub-aquatic timbre against the strings or his horn. When Zenón burns through an up-tempo number, his clarion tone shines brighter still. Even a transitional “free” passage with extra horns at the album’s midpoint eventually coalesces around a theme. Zenón could probably get by on his chops alone — instead he’s using form as a way to challenge himself and renew his music. That speaks well for the long haul.

Pop audiences always want to know what songs someone played; jazz audiences want to know how they played. But composer Carla Bley always thinks about song form even at her most far-reaching. At Scullers a week ago Wednesday, she played piano as part of her “Music with Legs” trio, which she named for the 1995 ECM album on which they first appeared as a band: Bley with her long-time companion Steve Swallow on five-string electric bass and Andy Sheppard on saxophones. And Swallow introduced the first number — a 25-minute suite — as “a long song.” Called “The National Anthem” (from 2003’s Looking for America), it used phrases from “The Star Spangled Banner” as transition points among its sections. It began with question-and-answer riffs between tenor sax and piano, then moved into shuffle rhythms, funk, free time, the mood cued with subtle key changes, where, say, the word “night” would have been in the lyric. A “political” work, it refused to declaim, instead asking questions, Bley ending it with a single-note line that stopped and hung on the word “home,” unresolved.

From there, Bley chose an older piece — “Things were a little nicer back then — sort of pretty and harmonious.” It was a ballad tune — “Permanent Wave” — rising and falling in velocity through Bley’s elegant chord changes. There was a new up-tempo piece, “Awful Coffee” (“about food — good food”), the beautiful slow tango “Tropical Depression,” the rock-beat “Sidewinders in Paradise” (quoting “Stranger in Paradise”), the Monkish bebop “Doctor” (Swallow: “from Carla’s gnarly youth”), a sinister matinee-movie waltz called, yes, “Valse Sinistre,” the Norwegian folk of “Útviklingssang,” and the eternal cyclical waltz “Ad Infinitum.”

The following night’s “New Music Now” concert at the ICA had been announced as “the music of John Zorn” without John Zorn. But last-minute schedule conflicts prompted a change: instead of the Masada String Trio, we’d be getting one of its players, violinist Mark Feldman, with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, and instead of pianist Uri Caine in the second half, it was Zorn with bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Kenny Wolleson.

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