Billy Joel once wrote “And the piano it sounds like a carnival….” Nowhere is that more applicable than on James Fernando’s solo piano debut, his self-released The Lonely Sailor, where he deconstructs the possibilities of his instrument to the point of creating a new vocabulary. Up to now, pianists have used, for the most part, their left hand for chord changes and their right hand for melodic invention. However, this ignores much of what this amazing percussive instrument can manufacture with its 88 keys. Fernando had to study works of Polish composer Frédéric Chopin to realize that fact. Then, he went and added electronics by placing contact microphones inside and outside the piano while running the sound through a computer. He tested and experimented with his software by use of a foot pedal. Thus, The Lonely Sailor faces “Troubled Waters” on “The Other Side Of The Storm” while humming an “Ancient Lullaby” left “Untold” during “The Last Sunset Of The Sea.” He finally discovers a place “Where The Grass Is Greener.” Sound-wise, he goes from almost all-acoustic to almost all-electronic, ultimately resulting in a unique and satisfying listen.
Tenor sax man Ken Fowser wrote all 10 tracks on his sublime Right On Time (Posi-Tone Records). He has a good cast to bounce his wildly inventive swing rhythms and harmonies off of as, Steve Davis is widely hailed as one of the main trombone pioneers of his generation. Add trumpeter Joe Magnarelli for an exciting sax/trumpet/trombone frontline, ably supported by organ/drums/guitar (no bass). It’s a free-wheeling sound, entertaining from the get-go, that moves and grooves in stimulating, perpendicular lines of back-and-forth syncopations. There’s even a samba. As produced by Marc Free, the sound is spectacularly clean, nice and trebly to the point where you hear every ping of drummer Willie Jones III’s hi-hat. New Yorker Fowser plays often in Manhattan at Smalls, Smoke, and the Django at the Roxy Hotel. He got his start in Philly before moving to Jersey to study at William Paterson University under Harold Mabern, one of the great bop pianists. Highly Recommended.
A Controlled Melee
Trumpeter Ralph Alessi wrote all nine tracks on his third album on ECM Records. Imaginary Friends has to be looked upon as the highlight of his career after two sterling quartet projects (2013’s Baida and 2016’s Quiver, both highly recommended). Here, he works with a quintet in the studio for the first time in nine years and the results are spectacular. In its yearning emotional jams redolent of thirst and hunger, Alessi’s trumpet plays off of Ravi Coltrane’s tenor and sopranino saxophones, while Andy Milne’s piano, Drew Gress’s double-bass, and Mark Ferber’s drums constantly swirl and do their own acrobatics.
Coltrane is in powerful form here, even more so than on some of his own albums. Son of the legendary tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and pianist Alice Coltrane, he has transcended his “Son of” roots to become a major league sax man. He positively shines here and when he and Alessi play tag over an alternately rampaging and blissful rhythm section, a total melee breaks out, a street fight, a spontaneous combustion of existential proportions that one can only ooh and ahh at. Highlight: the ten-minute rumblings and ramblings of “Melee.”
World Music Extraordinaire
Alfredo Rodriguez and Pedrito Martinez have a Duologue (Mack Avenue Records) on their scintillating, exciting, far-reaching debut as a duo. Although they’re both from Cuba, they didn’t meet until they emigrated to the United States, where Quincy Jones discovered the keyboardist/composer/vocalist Rodriguez. The legendary Jones co-produced the album with the duo, and must have suggested his most famous production, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” which the pair turns inside-out, complete with the kind of percolating and propulsive percussion fireworks that drummer Martinez brings to the mix.
The African brand of bata drumming takes center stage on “Africa,” a direct and concise opener that sounded great coming out of my car speakers while cruising down the highway (it made me drive faster). Then there’s the Cuban classics they cover, the ache of a tender ballad, the action aplenty of the title track, the modern soul of “Flor,” and—my personal highlight—the wizardry of “Super Mario Bros. 3.” It sizzles, it pops, it snaps, and it crackles. The more I hear this, the more I love it.
Daring to be Different!
Strange, exhilarating, ambiguous, adventurous, totally different from anything else out there, and stunningly staggering in its implications of genre manipulation, Harder On The Outside (Hot Cup Records), the ninth album by Austin guitarist-composer-bandleader Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord was recorded in New Jersey. Tough to rehearse when you’re from Texas and your band is from New York City, but alto and soprano saxophonist Justin Wood, tenor saxophonist Bryan Murray, bassist Moppa Elliott, and drummer Dan Monaghan—to celebrate their 15th year together—meander through a program of seven circuitous routes and reprise as a bonus track with the drone of “Basic Bitches,” where Lundbom sounds like John Scofield on steroids. In fact, the very next track, “Prednisone,” goes from drone to dirge. “Booberonic” has Lundbom shedding his Scofield skin, getting down like Sonny Sharrock when the late avant-funk guitarist was in Miles Davis’s band. Lundbom even takes a 1924 banjo swing (“Fussing Blues”) and makes it into a way-out, free-jazz experiment wherein the melody is obscured, and the solos combust simultaneously. This is one daring project!
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Jason & The Scorchers busted free of Nashville with their cow-punk ways to tour and record to the tune of 11 terrific albums in a row. They came back in the new century, but it wasn’t the same anymore. Front man Jason Ringenberg turned into a children’s music hero as Farmer Jason while putting out sporadic solo efforts, none of which raised the hairs on my arms like his incendiary Scorchers used to. Until now, that is.
Stand Tall (Courageous Chicken Music), his first solo album in 15 years, has Ringenberg, 58, kicking out the jams again, and the studio band he’s assembled is absolute perfection. Bassist/Guitarist/Mandolinist Richard Bennett produced Steve Earle’s 1986 Guitar Town masterpiece. Violinist Fats Kaplin is in more than one of Jack White’s bands. Pedal steel guitarist Steve Fishell was in the groundbreaking Emmylou Harris Hot Band. Fiddler Robert Bowlin was in Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys (replacing Monroe himself when he died in 1996).
The songs are super-strong. Maybe because, just like how novelist Jack Kerouac wrote Desolation Angels while hunkered down alone for months in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington state, Ringenberg wrote Stand Tall while sequestered at Sequoia National Park in Northern California, contemplating the 2,000-year old monster trees. Highlights include “God Bless The Ramones,” “John The Baptist Was A Real Humdinger,” “Hobo Bill’s Last Ride,” and “Many Happy Hangovers To You.”