Mike Greenblatt’s Rant ‘N Roll

Not Your Father’s Big Band

Listen Up! (Onyx Productions) is different from what you might expect of a big band. Sure, there’s five trumpets, four trombones, seven saxophones, two drummers, two bassists, keyboards, percussion, and vocals, but the arrangements on composers like Hoagy Carmichael (“Starlark”), Freddie Hubbard (“Down Under”), and Wayne Shorter (“Sweet’n’Sour” and “This Is For Albert”) are more adventurous, abstract, alternative, and quite daring. Welcome to the first studio release by Professor Ralph Peterson’s Gen-Next Bigband, where his Berklee students do the heavy lifting while Peterson conducts, plays drums, plays cornet, and certainly smiles at the results. These kids are monsters-in-the-making. Peterson was once one of the Jazz Messengers of the legendary Art Blakey, and, like Blakey, who fostered two or three generations of stars in their formative years, is paying it forward. This is intense, challenging, sophisticated, and wholly exciting music.

Dominican Roots Music

In the Dominican Republic, there’s a place where the mystical and the musical meet. That sweet spot originally came from Africa swathed in spiritual practices pre-dating colonization. Polite Dominican society frowned upon it to the point where it went underground lest it be repressed. Kijombo (Guitambu Music Productions) comes from that place. Its title is local slang for where practitioners would gather secretly to drink rum, dance, and sing in what amounts to cultural resistance. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Yasser Tejeda knows these customs well. His band, Palotre, utilizes musicians from both the Dominican Republic and New York City to effectively conjure up the spirits. In so doing, he has made the world music album of the year. In its brilliant mélange of jazz, rock, soul, funk, and folk, Tejeda takes from merengue and bachata schools of music and underscores it all with influences from Spain, the U.S., and, especially, the Afro-Caribbean continuum to create a whole new buzz of enticing dance music. In other words, this shit’s the bomb! He wrote or co-wrote 10 tracks, plus recontextualizes the traditional “La Dolorita.” As he says in his liner notes, “everybody is invited to come in and connect to a world beyond our reach.”

The Gal Can Write!

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Helene Cronin has self-released her Old Ghosts & Lost Causes full-length Americana debut and it is, in a word, stunning. Fifteen years of plugging away at her craft has resulted in these 11 profound original story-songs. In her experience, some people, for instance, just have a “Mean Bone” or are “Careless With A Heart.” She’s ultimately optimistic about our fate in “Humankind.” “God Doesn’t” and “Mongrels and Mutts” are wise beyond her years. “Riding The Gray Line” has her noticing her fellow travelers on a bus like Paul Simon did in “America.” “Ghost” is the kicker: a six-minute reflection on a dead husband… from his posthumous point-of-view. It’s the last song on the album and it’s performed alone after her band of steel guitar, mandolin, bass, drums, electric guitar, harmonica, and background vocalists went home. And she’s just as good a singer as she is a storyteller.     

Manna From Heaven

Like a gift from the gods, legendary jazz saxophonist Art Pepper has descended down upon us again from his mountain on high, due in no small part to the perspicacity of his widow Laurie Pepper, who provides illuminating liner notes and rare family photos to accompany the five-CD boxed set Promise Kept: The Complete Artists House Recordings (Omnivore Records). Remastered and expanded with alternate tracks, the albums So In Love, Artworks, New York Album and Stardust—all of which came out originally in 1979—are augmented by a fifth disc of additional takes, many making their CD debut. 

“Art Pepper had had a brilliant career as a jazz soloist and band leader until the mid-fifties when he started using heroin,” she writes. “After that, incarcerations and treatments in prisons and hospitals kept him off the stages and out of the studios. He was only able to record sporadically until he got relatively sober in Synanon in 1972 and married me. Then, in the last 10 years of his life, he composed, recorded, and toured more ambitiously than ever before, focused on securing his place among the true jazz greats where he knew he belonged.” Promise Kept is her loving reminder of the greatness of her husband who died of a stroke in Los Angeles at 52 in 1986 right around the time he was being hailed as the world’s greatest alto sax man.

Throwback Soundtrack

Born in Pakistan, raised in Southern California, and living in New York City for the last 25 years, guitarist/composer Rev Abbasi and his quintet, The Silent Ensemble, have made a remarkable soundtrack to a movie that came out in 1929. A Throw Of Dice (also the name of this, his 13th album) was an Indian-German silent film “with jungle animals and a cast of thousands.” The moral of the story, resonating profoundly today, is that greed ultimately cannot win. The music is of India. Each musician plays multiple instruments. Built on ragas, Rez inserts rock, classical, and jazz. The sound is superb what with sitar, guitar, sax, cello, flute, ghatam (an ancient percussion instrument that looks like a big ceramic bowl), mridangam (double-sided drum), and kanjira  (an elaborate tambourine). The highlight has to be “Wedding Preparation,” where a raging electric guitar seemingly has an argument with a stuttering soprano saxophone. Rez had made a pilgrimage to India under the guidance of master percussionist Ustad Alla Rakha. He soaked it all up and spews it back out on this delightful, totally entertaining, and almost psychedelic pastiche.   

Socialist Night School

Chelsea McBride is a twenty-something saxophonist/conductor/composer/arrangerfrom Toronto whose 2017 debut, The Twilight Fall, bedazzled critics and fans alike. Her self-released sophomore effort, Aftermath, funded by the Toronto Arts Council, could be a soundtrack for a horror movie that doesn’t exist. McBride says it’s purposely “dark and scary.” Her band is called Socialist Night School, and it’s to her everlasting credit that her keen ear can juxtapose her 19 musicians off of each other to maximum effect without it ever sounding cluttered. The splash of color inherent in this proposition requires repeated listening to take it all in. Her melodies insinuate themselves upon your brain and are constantly under attack from not only alternate melodies, but the kind of harmonic sophistication that will leave longtime big band fans ooohing and aaahhing at the diversity of it all.