I've struggled to put my finger on exactly why it is that some songs sound perfectly good - they have everything going for them from good beat to clever melody to soulful performances - and others take flight. People have been wrestling with this for centuries - you could as easily ask what made Beethoven's or Brahms' symphonies epiphanal while those of some of their contemporaries were...not. This fall, three records emerged as favorites on the iPod - I noticed I kept skipping other songs and sighing with satisfaction when I landed on these. Whatever the reason, each one of the records I'm going to speak about had the magic combination of creative inspiration, people, shared vision, and right-place-right-time je ne sais quoi to escape the pull of gravity.
Hearts Wide Open - Gilad Hekselman
Gilad Hekselman first caught my attention at a concert a friend was curating. I'd heard his name before, and now know that he "came up" as a member of drummer Ari Hoenig's band. What struck me immediately about Gilad's playing and writing was that it was at once deeply rooted and somehow a little beyond charted territory. The combination of Hekselman, bassist Matt Brewer (subbing for regular Joe Martin, who I heard with the band on many subsequent occasions), and drummer Marcus Gilmore worked for the same reason the music itself did - it was a little deeper than what I was used to, but hit familiar marks. The best way to describe it is to fall on a metaphor I use frequently: cooking, and the way some great chefs get really deeply inside flavor, reconstruct familiar things from the source materials, and are so facile in their craft that they can make subtle substitutions at the DNA-level to give a dish an extra dimsnsion without altering its overall affect or losing the essence that made it familiar. It took me 2 months, for instance, to figure out what was going on in Gilad's deconstruction of Coltrane's Countdown, which in my opinion deserves a place in the canon of the great recordings of that piece. Well it turns out the math works - Trane's head cubized into a mobius of displaced rhythm (and one tailor made for an atomizing Marcus Gilmore solo) - but retaining completely the original form.
I waited eagerly for the release of Hearts Wide Open, Gilad's latest, and when it finally "dropped" I ran through the rain to my corner record store - oh wait I mean I flipped open my laptop and downloaded it in my pajamas - and had listened to it four times already by the close of the day. The record features Hekselman's working trio of Gilmore and Martin, augmented on most tracks by tenor-saxophonist Mark Turner, and spans just ten songs, including the brief intro and epilogue. If you want to get an idea of the essence of this band, listen to Brooze, as I did first when I accidentally set my iPod to shuffle. I'm glad I did. Brooze perfectly exemplifies Gilad's concept - it's amazingly simple. It can be, because his is a band that finds meaning in every subtlety. Gilmore has a huge pocket - his hookup with Martin is loose in all the right ways, tumbling forward beat-to-beat like a good blues song - and he finds ways to throw accents on corners of the beat you didn't think possible. It's a treat as well to hear Mark Turner play so soulfully and unaffectedly on this session - it's hard not to be reminded of Coltrane, completely in his element taking Miles' quintet to unheard-of harmonic places as easily as if he were reading the newspaper.
Hekselman plays inspiringly throughout, but maybe the best guitar solo on the record is on Understanding. Hekselman takes time and space to build his solo, starting from simple melodic strains and gradually ratcheting up the intensity until it's in Guitar Hero territory - there's a spine-tingling moment at the beginning of the second chorus that made me keep coming back to this track. On its surface, Understanding, a simple, slow blues-waltz with a backbeat, is pretty simple. The tune is two parts - one part tension, one part release - and while Hekselman plays twice over the entire form, Turner gets only the goodies - the looped "feel good blues" outro. And Turner - what can I say - you see in every note why he's not a once-a-generation talent but probably a once-every-two-generations talent.
The other facet Hekselman extends just a hair beyond normal range is rhythm. That's probably best explored on Hazelnut Eyes and Flower, both relatively simple in conception, but employing some of Gilad's trademark "tweaks." Listen to the bassline on Hazelnut and see how long it takes you to hear that it's in 4. The tune, like others on the record, is episodic, visiting several "moods" within a single chorus. Hekselman likes to write basslines, and he deconstructs and uses motific material with the deliberateness of a classical composer. (It's as easy to hear Steve Reich in Hazelnut Eyes and Flower as it is to hear jazz and popular influences.) On Eyes, listen to how Hekselman treats the bassline like a "clave", using its syncopations as entry-points (the band enters on the upbeat of 1), and spinning the melody both "with" and "against" the "clave" of the bassline. Flower uses thoughtful variations on a bassline in five (one that itself sounds vaguely as if it were culled from reggae), constructing a nuanced four-bar phrase with surprising "resolution points" by leaving out some notes of the pattern - progressively more with each repitition. A perfect example of what would have been a gorgeous, if conventional, song altered just enough to perk-the-ears, Flower's melody cycles every five measures, not every four. Meanwhile, Martin and Gilmore pay strict allegiance to the bassline, which at times begins with a wink on beat 2, at times on the upbeat of 2, catching resolution points together. That gives the whole thing a slightly "phasic" feeling, which again summons memories of John Cage and Messiaen, and yes, Reich. Most importantly, for all their subtleties, neither tune sounds like a composition exercise - it's possible to listen to both with zero awareness of what makes them special, and they're still beautiful, soulful songs delivered with sincerity and spontaneity.
Crosby Street - Jake Saslow
There's a relatively deep canon of research into the psychology of music, and the wonks have isolated certain common elements in the way we humans respond to it, for instance that tensions resolving one way or another cause feelings of catharsis or pathos, that our brains tend to "tune out" to repetition and be stimulated by surprise, that certain ratios of balance are more pleasing than others. A good composer knows these rules instinctively, and knows when a chord or bassline sounds "sweet", when a section is long enough or repeated often enough, when a surprise is welcome versus when it's disruptive, etc, though he/she may not necessarily concern himself with why. Jake Saslow's music is equal parts concept and "hook" - elegant, at times mathematical, in its construction, but clearly conceived with both an ear for the badass and the patience/perfectionism to make every moment killing.
I heard Saslow perform his original music in 2008 in a quartet that included drummer Colin Stranahan and bassist Harish Raghavan and was humming the tunes to myself for the rest of the night. I begged him for a copy of his demo (same personnel except the bass, with Aidan Carroll holding it down on the demo), and it became iPod boilerplate for the next two years. Like Hekselman, Saslow writes songs, not just tunes, and seems to reach for sincerity and humanity in his meandering solos. Saslow finally released his official debut, Crosby Street, this fall. Crosby Street reprises some of his earlier "classics", fleshed out by years of renditions on the road, as well as a few newbies. Like the earlier demo, but to an even greater degree, Crosby Street does all the work for you. Just hit "play" and let it take you.
To get an idea what I mean, listen to the record's opener, Early Riser. A bluesy bassline with a loose backbeat grabs your attention before the guitar and piano enter, then Saslow's harmonies flood in. It's saccharine and instantly gratifying, like ice-cream-for-the-ear, and meter and rhythm, while surprising, feel ordered and logical. It's actually a palindrome - 4 beats, 3, 8, 3, then 4 again. But you don't need to know that to appreciate it. As harmonies evolve, the repeating meters create a pleasing tension - one that's finally resolved at the end of the bridge. It's high-concept anchored in Motown ethos - pleasing to both brain and dancing shoes. Taiga Forest plays with the contrast between 3-bar and 4-bar phrases, and minor and major keys. It begins with a "searching" melody line, caught in an eddy of 9 beats, that resolves both rhythmically and harmonically. On an organizational level, it's a wonder, utilizing just a few simple motifs, inverting them, varying them, and reprising them in different keys and contexts. An ebb and flow characterizes Taiga Forest, like a boat circling a harbor on a cloudy day, venturing out to sea for a time, then returning to the same harbor to find it sunny. Saslow's music takes risks, but the composer's sense of proportion and innate soul is so deeply ingrained that every moment feels good.
A lot of records lose momentum in the transition between composition and performance because the players are ill-suited to the material, or engage it at only surface level. Saslow could have used a great many different configurations to varying effect, but the band he assembled - Fabian Almazan on piano, Joe Martin on bass, Marcus Gilmore on drums, and Mike Moreno on guitar - share a concept in common, approaching the tunes with an eclectic palate and an unapologetic spirit of adventure. Characteristic of Martin's and Gilmore's idiom is that "signposts" within the tunes are conceived as means-to-an-end, to be incorporated into the performance when appropriate, rather than as rigid edicts. Lucky Thirteen, the record's "toe tapper" is a perfect example - Saslow has written a bassline and melody with certain "anchor points", for instance two ascending quarter notes in the repetition of the melody or the funky dotted-quarter figure at the form's end. Gilmore's genius is that he rarely interprets literally what he's given - rather he plays counterpoint to the written material, floating between and beside the beats, emphasizing certain things and playing against others. Martin functions so well as Gilmore's foil because of his comfort level "laying it down" while Gilmore plays against him. At moments the two decide to oblige an ensemble figure, affording it additional weight by virtue of its contrast to the looseness with which they play their beats. Here, as on Gilad's record, the pair seem to feel rhythm in four dimensions, "opening up" the music in a way few rhythm sections could.
Another mark of a good record is when you can tell the leader just told the musicians "do your thing", rather than micromanaging. Moreno and Almazan both deliver deeply personal performances, "stretching" to meet the material. Characteristic of Saslow's playing in other settings, he leaves the music in a different place than he picked it up. On the title track, Saslow's meandering solo gives way to a great release of tension, and Almazan picks things up in the "valley", with a solo that uses every register of the piano and both hands. Almazan may have one of the largest palettes of any young pianist, at various moments (as on his own fantastic record, Personalities, also out this fall) plaintive to the point of minimalism, but it's Almazan the polyphonist that's mostly on display on Crosby Street, and it's a tribute to his and Moreno's sensitivity that they're both able to play so ambiently and still stay out of each other's way. But the ambience is key, giving Street a huge, open sound (it's hard to believe it's only a quartet/quintet) - one I'm told is even better in the record's vinyl edition.
Good Company - Kerong Chok
The first thing that strikes you about Good Company, organist Kerong Chok's debut recording, is that this is an ensemble. More than almost any record I've heard lately, and certainly to an unexpected degree for a first-release, Chok's band sounds like they've been on the road for years. And if you haven't heard of these guys, you will - saxophonist Lucas Pino, drummer Jake Goldbas, and guitarist Michael Valeanu play with a maturity beyond their years and an enthusiasm you can't fake. After hearing snippets of Good Company both in live performances and on Chok's website, I finally pestered him long enough to get a copy, by promising to review it. As some of my twitter followers can attest, I could not shut up about this record for almost a month after I got my hands on it.
As with Hearts Wide Open and Crosby Street, you get a pretty good feeling about where Good Company is going to take you from the first few bars. Why? Verbal description isn't completely adequate to describe how, but Company has a number of things going for it. For one, it's got the DNA of a lot of great jazz records. There's a way records like Larry Young's Unity and Wayne Shorter's Speak No Evil get under your skin, and Good Company has some of the same essence. (If Chok's love of Joe Henderson weren't obvious he gives himself away during his solo on Rill Son, his reinterpretation of Sonny Rollins' Airegin.) And to an even greater degree than even the other records I've spoken about, Good Company is almost weightless in its whimsy. David Fincher once said, of Fight Club, "it was a bunch of unserious guys wrestling with an extremely serious subject matter," and Chok and his gang lend the same impression to Company - like this is just a bunch of guys who like great Blue Note records from the '60s who decided to get together on a Saturday afternoon and somebody brought a recording studio. Of course there are a lot of records made under similar circumstances that aren't this great. But I'd wager what sets this group apart is the sheer depth of their collective experience. They've all been listening to the same stuff - a lot of it, and they've all internalized it to the point where they're equally at ease taking liberties with it. (And as such, I couldn't shake the similarities between this group and The Black Keys, their arguable counterparts in vocal pop-rock.)
Anyway, to the music - Good Company's thoughtfully programmed ten tracks evoke a number of moods through the prism of the organ quartet (quintet when trumpeter Matt Holman joins them). More about the tune-selection and order in just a minute. The opener, like a good overture, sets the mood for the whole session. In this case, it's a good mood - Black Ice hits you firmly with driving organ funk. The hookup between Chok's Left Hand (playing bass;) and Jake Goldbas is infectious - this strong, quarter-note-oriented, old-school groove will be a recurring character throughout the record. (And not to be underappreciated is the fact that this is a band with a unified interpretation of where the beat is, and a great deal of freedom exploring territory within it.) But it may just after the opening bars that Chok's record distinguishes itself from an average jazz record just as truly inspired comfort food from a top flight chef distinguishes itself from its imitators. Chok, it turns out, has a genius for penning a melody, and like Hekselman and Saslow, manages to surprise you subtlely even while taking you where you ultimately want to go. The performers add the final ingredient, deeply "inside" the tune, feeling the contrast between sections, betraying a love of playing together that makes things crackle.
I'll leave a play-by-play of all the tunes to other reviewers. But the lasting impression Good Company leaves is its strength start-to-finish. There's not one lull over its entire length. You get the feeling Chok wasn't stretching for material - rather, a lot of great tunes probably didn't even make it through the recording studio door. If I had to select a "single" from this collection, it would probably be the understated-but-fun second track, Literacy. When you have a band this deep, the writing doesn't need to be complex to coax inspired performances from the performers. But as I said above, the programming deserves a mention, and Good Company is ordered like a good mix tape. My favorite transition is between probably the most "modern jazz" of the record's pieces, Incessant, and the slow-dancing, cathartic Free and Easy. Incessant slaps you upside the head with whizbang surprises - an odd meter, angular and ominous harmonies, and sublime Hubardesque high notes from Holman's horn. Like a pitcher who only shows you his true heat with the last pitch (and this little leaguer saw more than a few of those), Goldbas delivers a blistering closer straight out of stadium rock. You feel like you're at a live show when the band segues with a wink into Free and Easy. "Thanks for indulging us in our jazz thing, now here's one for the ladies," you picture them saying.
It's not like I set out to champion, or even to like, these three records. But they all quickly won me over. Different as they are, what they share in common makes a compelling case for what makes a record great, and more broadly for why jazz today is as good as or better than it's ever been. They're all seductive at surface-level, but all also reward both educated listeners and repeated listenings with their depth and nuance. It's apropos, I suppose, that in the course of a single week I was privy to two meditations on great art from two of my musical heroes -
Dave Holland, on the checkout - "For me, [a] wonderful way to make the music communicate without compromising on the content [is] by cloaking it in certain things which are very direct and strike people in an emotional way, than then within that you build the complexity which intrigues you as a musician, and you hope inspires the musicians you play with."
Vijay Iyer, in an interview I did with him - "[Audiences mostly] respond to the groove and the energy and the emotional content. I try to make it interesting for myself, but that's just so that it can push me as an improviser -- because people can hear that push. But for me as a listener, it needs to have those other things - groove, energy, emotion - or else it's going to bore me."
If you want to hear what Dave and Vijay are talking about, listen to their records. Then listen to Gilad's, Jake's, and Kerong's.