Monday, March 31, 2014

'With the Wind and the Rain': Small-scale dynamo

With the Wind and the Rain
Joshua Breakstone
Capri Records


For me, small combos are jazz heaven. I love the sweep and complexity of the great swing arrangements, but more limited ensembles give me a chance to really hear each line, to truly gauge and weigh the contributions of each individual member.

This kind of work is the acid test for musicians as well. Bringing so few instruments to bear, flaws are exaggerated . . . and if it doesn’t flow and pulse, there’s no help for it. Fortunately, such is not the case with Joshua Breakstone. It’s been 10 years since his “A Jamais” CD became a welcome part of my listening rotation, and “With the Wind and the Rain” shows both development in Breakstone’s expressive techniques and a surer, more penetrating focus.

However, Breakstone is not accomplishing all this in isolation. He’s supported by his long-time accomplices Lisle Atkinson on bass and Eliot Zigmund on drums. Their rapport seems founded on a common love of strong, clear line. If Breakstone were a visual artist, he would be a draftsman. His notes are placed with exactitude, moving with an old-school “vocal,” almost narrative clarity, through each piece. Zigmund’s clutter-free tattoos gently underline the rhythmic path, and Atkinson gets to romp through several pieces composed by bassists on the album.

Part of the reason for that last factoid is that cellist Mike Richmond is on the ride for 4 of the 9 numbers on the album. The emphasis on strings pushes the album’s foundational trio into a quartet for these tracks, and Richmond’s abandonment of the bow keeps the notes hammering out, the tempos crisp and the musical ideas flying without hindrance.

The overall effect is one of understated intensity. Inside the deceptively small-scale dynamics of “With the Wind and the Rain” are a constellation of fascinating thoughts and feelings that bear repeated listenings.

Friday, March 14, 2014

'The Ordinary Acrobat': Letting the circus run away with you

The Ordinary Acrobat
Duncan Wall
Alfred A. Knopf
New York

The remarkable thing about Duncan Wall’s circus memoir/history “The Ordinary Acrobat” is how deftly it marries the personal and the global, the macro and micro. His quest to understand the history, structure, and process of the art form is married to his personal desire to join the circus, or at least train at the Ecole Nationale des Arts du Cirque, seven miles east of the center of Paris.

The result is an immensely readable, perfectly paced alternation of personal saga and an exposition of the circus’ past, present, and future. The indefatigable Wall plows across Europe and North America, taking in the scene from the rattiest street performer to the steel-and-glass complex that houses Cirque du Soleil, the monolithic “entertainment company” that turned circus into big business again. (Wall even-handedly surveys contemporary developments, looking askance at Cirque du Soleil’s corporate stylings, reporting but not endorsing the opinion of artists who call it a “factory” or a “Walmart of circuses.”)

Wall’s passion invigorates the narrative. No George Plimpton, he is not a hobbyist nor a “participatory journalist.” He is rigorously honest about both his achievements and shortcomings in the ring, and his attention to the physical, mental, and emotional details of what it means to the perform “feats of activity,” as they were once charmingly called, makes the achievements of big-top stars only more impressive. His travels take him into the heart of circus culture, and trigger a multitude of fascinating discussions with the outsize personalities who keep the art alive.

The book is an immensely powerful starting point for understanding the circus. Wall’s pocket history of the form and its primary disciplines (juggling, acrobatics, trapeze, clowning) gives any interested reader a laundry list of names, and descriptions of acts, that will drive the curious to do more research . . . and maybe even inspire the next Grock, Wallenda, or Rastelli.

Given the circus’ ephemeral nature, its off-and-on popularity, and its sometime disreputable past, many sites and stories have been lost forever – at times, Walls’ quest seems bereft even of ghosts. The ultimate, comforting impulse that pushes the writer to devour all this information and relay it to us is one he finds embodied in Pascal Jacob, circus historian, who donates his collection of memorabilia to circus-friendly Montreal. As Wall helps Jacob sort his historical treasures, he realizes: “The world couldn’t be bothered with circus history. This had been proved to me time and again. Pascal’s passion was a response to this destruction of the past. He was on a mission to gather together what had survived and keep it safe.”

Thanks to Duncan Wall, a vibrant portrait of the art and an author’s relationship to it, is safe.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

'Limitless': Jazz trio as delicious treat


Capri Records

“There is still much good music that can be written in C major.” – Arnold Schoenberg

What does jazz have to do to get your attention? Before you throw a bunch of stats at me about how jazz is coming back, don’t. Among the great unwashed, it’s considered a dead-end genre, a played-out seam of reward.

Of course, this means that the impetus for development must derive entirely from the musicians. In this marginalized music, innovation is a function of need. This new CD I’ve been playing over and over is grounded solidly in traditional form, but takes free flight whenever necessary, landing again as adroitly as a seabird on a beach. That “Limitless” is so widely expressive and listenable testifies to the abilities of this jazz trio of coloring both inside and outside the lines, to great effect.

“Limitless,” the second collaboration by drummer Colin Stranahan, pianist Glenn Zaleski, and bassist Rick Rosato, is a solid, elegant, thought-filled journey through three acute sensitivities yoked in sound. Capri’s top-notch studio techniques give every nuance – very necessary for musicians that work as subtly as these do.

The attack is pointillistic, founded on Stranahan’s light touch behind the drum kit. Zaleski’s piano varies block chords and loose meanders of melody. Rick Rosato is not only rock-solid on the bass, but emits bursts of lyricism in pieces such as his composition “Vio” on the recording.

The result is crisp, fractal, chewy, music that rewards frequent listens. From the nimble antics of the opening title track to the booming, solemn chords of “Chorale (for Fred Hersch)” at the close, “Limitless” is its own reward.

LISTEN: The trio performing "Forecast" from the recording at Dazzle jazz club in Denver, Colorado, on Nov. 1, 2013!


NRR Project: Egmont Overture, Modesto High School Band (1930)

NRR Project: Egmont Overture, Op. 84 Modesto High School Band 1930 This is one I don’t have a lot of information on, and only a small ...