Velvet Fusions

Velvet Fusions

by Mike Zwerin

copyright © 2002 Mike Zwerin

Paris: Judging from recently released recordings, some of our most talented jazzmen and women are turning the volume down into a sort of velvet fusion with commerciality. (Coincidentally or not, they all have one-word titles.) Not to imply that this world-music tinged melange of intelligence and accessibility can be called smooth or easy listening. It is not always consonant, or even quiet. Careful attention to dynamics and rhythmic and ethnic diversity are key. All of it is in addition. There is no down side; only calm, interesting, relevant conversations with neither condescension nor cliches. Sometimes you just might find, you get what you need.

BRAD MEHLDAU, "Largo" (Warner Brothers): Instrumentation includes "piano Lwith putty treatment in lower two octaves" and "distorto-piano through eslie with whammy pedal" (I did not make that up). Oboes and bassoons and French horns play material by Radiohead ("Paranoid Android"), Antonio Carlos Jobim ("Wave") and the Beatles ("Dear Prudence," "Mother Nature's Son"). There are rock backbeats, fancy studio tricks and electronic effects. The record company hypes the album as "the jazz of the future." Some critics are calling it pretentious. They are wrong. Mehldau's gorgeous new album has such a strong sense of itself and of propriety and purpose that it self-defines and justifies. His elegant keyboard lyricism swings somewhere between Bud Powell and Brahms. The rhythm section is always in just the right slot no matter what the stylistic slant, and there are quite a few. It is not necessary to be able to analyze the sophisticated counter-rhythms to be tickled by them. One of the most tasteful, adventurous and consistent pianists around, Mehldau just gets better and better.

RON MILES, "Heaven" (Sterling Circle): Trumpeter Miles teaches at Metropolitan State College in Denver and has been under the radar for too long. In duo with Bill Frisell, one of the most respected guitarists of the day, he plays originals and songs by Bob Dylan ("A Hard Rains a-Gonna Fall"), Thelonious Monk, Hank Williams ("Your Cheatin' Heart") and Jelly Roll Morton. Calling the album "minimalist" is an understatement. This is a duo without ambition to sound bigger. Splitting notes with a brittle, breathy, innocent sound (reminiscent of Johnny Coles with Gil Evans), Miles is more less than more. He tried to "pick songs that go together to capture a joyous feeling." Miles and Frisell create a fresh textural spectrum. With the guitarist's haunting, detuned harmonies, the collective sound is like the sort of shining a poet once described as coming from "shook foil."

JOSHUA REDMAN, "Elastic" (Warner Brothers): The star saxophonist/composer/clothes-horse Redman is reinventing himself. Converging currents like funk, jazz and world music in an attractive, direct, way, his new center is viable on both esthetic and commercial levels -- a fine and rare marriage. He sounds like -- this is a compliment as well as a prediction of popularity -- an intelligent, soulful, tasteful version of Kenny G. The catchy melodies he writes are pared down, quirky, repetitive, bluesy: smart. Not that any one of them is necessarily a hit; they belong inexorably one after the other. No hurry, no detours, no gratuitous technical displays. He harmonizes and doubles himself electronically and he is not too shy to squeak and honk. Brian Blade provides exactly the percussion this particular moment in time and space requires. Keyboardist Sam Yahel's imaginative and hypnotic chordal patterns, mostly on Hammond B3 organ, are never too busy; they include extended pedal drones. It would be nice to avoid repeating the adjective "minimalist," but it's impossible to do so when describing this music.

NGUYEN LE, "Purple" (Act): Celebrating Jimi Hendrix. Four bars of a Hendrix lick and you immediately want to stop whatever you're doing. To hear him so neatly updated is an ear-opener. "Music has no end," Le says. "Once created, it belongs to those who dream with it." The Franco/Vietnamese Le, with his unique combination of jazz and rock chops and Oriental-oriented world music background, is a choice guitarist for a contemporary take on Hendrix. Bass-guitarists Michel Alibo and Michelle Ndegeocello get closer to Jaco Pastorius than to Noel Redding; and co-producer and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington sounds like Mitch Mitchell after studying with Jack DeJohnette. Le wisely chose female voices (Aida Khann, Corin Curschellas and Carrington) to sing in place of Hendrix, thus stalling temptations to clone. "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky." (The Nguyen Le Quartet will perform at the Cite de Musique in Paris on Saturday, Oct 19th, for the opening of the "Jimi Hendrix Backstage" exhibition.)

LEON PARKER, "Belief" (Columbia): Famously minimalist percussionist Parker features African and Latin influences (steel pan, marimba, berimbau, claves, hand drums) to arrive at a kind of grown-up inter-continental children's music. There are dancing dialogues and soulful duets between Tom Harrell, trumpet, Steve Wilson, saxophone, and Steve Davis on trombone. Joel Dorn's production is notable, as are Ugonna Okegwo's tough and tender bass lines. For Parker, being a musician is "both a responsibility and a privilege."

Mike Zwerin published this piece originally in the International Herald Tribune.

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